David Vanian of The Damned

by Greg Prato

The Damned frontman breaks down some of their classic cuts and explains how they got a "burst of pure energy and excitement" on their first album.

The Damned: Paul Gray (bass), Pinch (drums), Captain Sensible (guitar), Monty Oxymoron (keyboards), David Vanian (vocals)

Very few first-wave punk bands are still in business, but The Damned are still alive and well, with two original members still in their ranks: David Vanian and Captain Sensible. Perhaps one of the main reasons they have been able to remain together for so long is that over the years, they refused to be a one-dimensional band - incorporating elements of psychedelia, strings, and even synthesizers into their sound.

And 2019 in particular proved to be a productive year for The Damned, who performed at Madison Square Garden for the first time in their career. They also issued one of their better and more thorough compilations, Black Is the Night: The Definitive Anthology. Vanian - a gent often credited as single-handedly trailblazing the "goth look" - spoke with Songfacts about the new comp, the group's career, and the stories behind several Damned classics.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Did the band have a say in the tracklist selection for Black Is the Night: The Definitive Anthology?

David Vanian: I took a bit of a back seat on it. We put it together as a collection of songs rather than just chronologically because we all thought it was a better idea to do it that way. Otherwise, it was basically looking and saying, "OK, it's that one, that one, that one." Really, they picked all the ones I would have picked myself. I'm never one to look backwards so much, but rather, forwards. Although, if it had been wrong at the end, I would have of course changed it. But it felt like they'd done a sterling job.

Songfacts: Which of these songs was the best to play live?

Vanian: Well, it all depends, because there are so many sounds going on with this stuff. Obviously, there are songs from the first album that we play all the time, but there are other tracks we don't play much but we try to circulate in our set so it's interesting as much for us as the people who come to see us. It all depends on how unrehearsed we are, because we have a habit of not rehearsing very much.

The original lineup: Vanian, Rat Scabies (drums), Brian James (guitar), Captain Sensible (bass)

Songfacts: What about your favorite songs to sing?

Vanian: Again, that changes, as well. You have to remember that when I first came to the band, I didn't really know how I sounded. It's almost like some of the early songs are out of my range.

There are not particular favorites - they come and go, depending on time and everything. It's very difficult. I've always found it difficult to click. So, there's nothing I don't like doing. And certain songs are more difficult to sing - something like "Anti-Pope" is much harder to sing than "Dr. Jekyll" or something like that. I think I really found my voice in the '80s, where I actually fit.

Songfacts: Have any of these songs taken on new meaning for you?

Vanian: No, I don't think so. The songs have great memories from when they were created, or certain places we were at the time when the first chords of that song first came out.

Songfacts: Let's discuss certain songs, starting with "Neat Neat Neat."

Vanian: "Neat Neat Neat," you've got to remember, that first album [1977's Damned Damned Damned] was recorded in three days - completely. So, it was a complete blur of energy and excitement. It was at a very small studio [Pathway Studios, in London, England], probably less than 10-feet square. So the drums could only go on one side of the room, and you literally couldn't stand up on the far side of the room. And next to the desk wasn't big enough for three people to sit.

Plus, the album itself is recorded on someone else's tape. It was a second-hand tape - it was wiped out after us, and I believe Elvis Costello used it. So, it was done on the cheap, very, very quickly. We were in the middle of playing live shows and touring.

It was an amazing experience because the idea was to capture the essence of the band - the live essence of the band. And if we had a big fancy producer [Nick Lowe produced the album], a big studio, and spent time, I don't think we would have gotten that. Instead, you got this perfect encapsulation of seeing that band live, and it was an explosion of sound that was very rudimentary in production. In fact, no production - just the volume was set. I remember singing in the hallway because there was too much of the music coming into my microphone. I had to sing out there with the door shut, and it was still very loud because everything was full volume. There was barely enough room for the band when we recorded it, but it was a fantastic experience.

It was also only a week of life in 1976, which is quite strange. Like everything at that point, it was a burst of pure energy and excitement. I think of all the albums, that first album - with "Neat Neat Neat" and "New Rose" - perfectly encapsulates what you would see when you came to see the band. Perhaps it's clearer, and you can hear it better.

The Damned, c. 1980

Songfacts: "Love Song."

Vanian: "Love Song" was a little bit later on. That was at a time that the band was split up, but realizing that we were songwriters individually. So, we plowed on, and our sound changed somewhat, with Captain going from bass to guitar. The band, which should have died I suppose, at that point in time, blossomed into a completely different band, but with the same kinetic energy and driving drums. That hadn't changed. But we were experimenting more.

Brian's first album [James only appeared on two albums with the band, Damned Damned Damned and Music For Pleasure] had been really an explosion of something left over from the Stooges or the MC5 kind of sound. I think we went more into the garage band/psychedelia-type sound, which were more our influences. When we recorded that album, in the studio next to us were The Clash, recording their album, funny enough. I think Joe [Strummer] and Mick [Jones] were on some backing vocals or something... hand claps!

Songfacts: "Eloise."

Vanian: "Eloise" was a completely different story. Again, that song I wanted to record for years, but we didn't get it down. Then, finally, about three years after, we decided to do it in that period of the '80s when the band was probably at its most commercially popular. Suddenly, we'd gone on from our original roots to psychedelia and then we were putting in more instrumentation and a bigger sound. And I was realizing that my voice was more in keeping with the kind of torch singers of the '60s.

I was a big fan of that song when it first came out in the '60s [It was first recorded by Barry Ryan in 1968]. It seems at first that it's a standard, sugary-sweet ballad, but when you actually listen to the words, you realize it's not. I like that about it.

It has good memories for me, but it was a hard time because it was at a point when MCA - our record label - was having trouble, and they were getting co-opted. In the end, we ended up not having anybody at the label who actually signed the band, and we were completely forgotten, almost. They were going on promoting other things, and we were kind of left by the wayside. So, once again, The Damned were put out to pasture. But of course, that didn't stop us from continuing.

Songfacts: "Grimly Fiendish."

The Grimly Feendish cartoon. Thanks to Irmantas Povilaika at <a href="http://kazoop.blogspot.com/" target="_blank">Kazoop</a>The Grimly Feendish cartoon. Thanks to Irmantas Povilaika at Kazoop
Vanian: "Grimly Fiendish" is literally a comic story. Roman [Jugg] wrote most of it - the guitar player at the time. When we were kids, there was a newspaper that used to come called TV Comic, and it had British cartoons. There was a version, which was obviously completely ripped off from The Addams Family, that had a character called Grimly Feendish, who looked like Uncle Fester, complete with the bald head, but he had fangs and bats would fly out of his mouth. So Roman and I had been talking about this stuff for a while, and we wrote a song about it. [Pedantic note: Grimly Feendish never appeared in TV Comic. He was in Wham!, later Smash! and later Shiver And Shake.]

I think it's the first proper video we did, but I had an accident - a bit of a "Michael Jackson moment." It was freezing cold - the middle of a bleak winter - and I came down the staircase for one shot with this flaming torch, and I was singing. What I didn't realize was the flaming torch actually caught my hair on fire, and everybody suddenly jumped on me and was hitting around my head. I didn't know what was going on, but it was because I'd caught fire for a second. So, that's the memory I have of "Grimly Fiendish."

Songfacts: The Damned worked with a variety of renowned producers over the years - Nick Lowe, Nick Mason, and Shel Talmy.

Vanian: Well, Shel was great. We worked on a few things with Shel. He was probably one of our favorite producers. When I think about it, at the time, we should have had him do the second album [1977's Music for Pleasure]. But I remember there was some kind of argument with the record company wanting us to go into Essex Studios, where we recorded it, and Shel hadn't worked in that studio before, so he couldn't do it. Originally we thought we were going to get Syd Barrett, but we ended up with the drummer from Pink Floyd, Nick Mason, which worked out a little differently. But Shel was great.

We worked with some interesting people. One of the most interesting wasn't a producer - when we worked with him, he was an engineer - which was Hugh Jones. He wrote "13th Floor Vendetta" and sang on it. We worked on that whole album [1980's The Black Album] with him co-producing with us, and he went on to become a producer afterwards. So, that was really cool. When we went to record the album, we didn't think we had a producer, we thought we had an engineer, and this guy started telling Captain what he thought he should do with a song. It just didn't work - it didn't sound right. We asked the engineer, "Surely, we're waiting for the producer." He said, "No. I'm the producer." We actually had to sack him. Hugh was there, and he worked with us. And Hugh gave us, I think for the first time, the confidence to produce with somebody else. At that point in time, there weren't many bands that did that. It was still very much in that '50s and '60s mindset, where "the band makes music but the producer does all the work."

I remember it was a big hoo-ha from the record company, and they said on the telephone - because we were in the far reaches of Wales in the studio - "If The Damned produces, it will be the kiss of death." But when they did come down to hear, we had already produced about four tracks, and they agreed we were doing fine. A lot of that was down to Hugh Jones. He didn't have the mindset of, "You don't know what you're doing." He was like, "You have songwriting ability, so let's just go for it." We never looked back from there.

Songfacts: How was it recently playing Madison Square Garden for the first time in the band's career [on a bill with Rancid and headliners the Misfits]?

Vanian: It was interesting. It's funny, because my drummer - who unfortunately now left the band, after 20 years - Pinch, it was a dream of his to play Madison Square Garden. But I felt a bit like how I feel about a small club gig - a rather intimate atmosphere, even though there were a lot of people there. But it was quite something. It was an amazing gig.

November 12, 2019

For more Damned, visit officialdamned.com.

Further reading:
John Lydon of Sex Pistols
Glen Matlock of Sex Pistols
JJ Burnel of The Stranglers
Peter Hook of New Order
Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke
Marky Ramone
James Williamson of The Stooges

Photo (1) by Steve Gullick; others courtesy of The Damned

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