Friday 6 December 2019

Return to the valley of The Damned

It's been a good month for reformed first-generation punk bands. Last weekend The Buzzcocks tore through a fast and furious set in The Academy -- a few weeks before that Mick Jones dusted off ye olde Clash classics in the same venue for the first time in years -- and now The Damned, one of punk's founding fathers, are due to play there on Friday.

Their single 'New Rose' is widely credited as being punk rock's first 7-inch single when it was released in October 1976, and Captain Sensible was seen as one the genre's most colourful personalities in a scene not short on those. With his trademark red beret and shades, he was seen by some as the joker in the pack.

Now, nearly 36 years on from punk's first flowering, how does the Captain (real name: Raymond Burns, but known as just 'Cap' to his friends) feel about the current nostalgia for a scene that itself seemed to rail against such sentiment?

"I never dreamed when we were putting the band together in 1975 that we would still be here all these years later," says Mr Sensible, now 58.

"I honestly thought it would only last a matter of months. The scene at that point was largely made up of musical virtuosos like Emerson, Lake Palmer, Eric Clapton and Yes -- whereas we were just four oiks playing two-minute songs before heading off to the bar for an argument.

"But what we all believed in was the passion of punk rock. There was no career graph bullshit; none of this phoney 'We love you!' banter with the audience. It was all about a shedding of energy and creativity.

"We all have creativity in us. If, as a young person leaving school, you said to a career adviser at the time, 'I want to be a professional musician', his answer would be: 'Who's going to empty the dustbins?' That was the attitude. The irony is that I did actually work as a toilet cleaner when I was younger!"

So how did Raymond Burns suddenly become Captain Sensible?

"I hated the name! I meant for it to be ironic. I have a low embarrassment threshold. We were getting up to all sorts of semi-debauchery and someone in another band said about me: 'Oh, he's a real Captain Sensible'. And so I decided to call myself that for a laugh."

And the hat?

"Well, when we were on stage, there was a lot of spit flying around. By the end of the night I would have lumps of snot in my hair, and it would all have formed under the heat of the stage lights into a sort of lumpen knot. It was a real effort having to wash my hair and clean it all out. So that's why I started wearing a beret and sunglasses -- as protection.

'After two or three years, I wanted to stop wearing the hat so I took it off one night -- but then people in the audience would be shouting up 'Oi, where's your hat?' Then when I put the beret back on, they all cheered! So I was sort of stuck with it."

Is it the same hat or does he have a regular supply?

"I get them cheap in a tourist shop in Notre Dame in Paris," he laughs.

My first memory of seeing the Captain was when he appeared on Top Of The Pops in the early 1980s singing 'Happy Talk'. It was a long, long way from 'Anarchy in the UK'. How did that bizarre cover come about?

"When I signed to A&M and was looking for songs for my solo album, the producer said I should do a cover," he remembers.

"I came up with a list of songs. I suggested doing Pink Floyd's 'See Emily Play' and The Kinks's 'Waterloo Sunset'. But the producer reckoned that it would be almost impossible to improve on the originals given that they had been done so well in the first place.

"He suggested I go through my mum and dad's record collection. So I did. I came across the soundtrack to South Pacific, which was by Rodgers and Hammerstein. I had a deep connection to 'Happy Talk' as it was a song that my parents used to play in the cot when I was a baby to shut me up!"

The Damned play The Academy, Dublin, on Friday.

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