The Damned Founder Rat Scabies

by Corey O'Flanagan

Before the Sex Pistols, there was The Damned, but as Rat Scabies (Chris Millar) points out, the pioneers get the arrows, the settlers get the gold.

Scabies formed The Damned in 1976 with guitarist Brian James, bass player Captain Sensible, and lead singer Dave Vanian. Their first album, released in 1977, is the punk landmark Damned Damned Damned, which as Scabies explains, took them from opening act to headliners very quickly. That year, they became the first British punk band to tour America.

In this episode, Scabies, who was with the band until 1995, recalls the London scene in the dawn of punk, when fisticuffs (sometimes encouraged by Scabies, who would leave his kit to trade blows with audience members) were a byproduct of the energy and excitement.

The Damned never tore up the charts, but they left quite a legacy with their look, sound, and performance style. They're still extant, led by Vanian and Sensible, while Scabies has moved on to a number of other projects, including the bands Professor And The Madman, and The Sinclairs.


Professor And The Madman

I don't do that much live work, but I have recently done a show with Professor And The Madman at the 100 Club in London. It was good fun to do. They were recording it and filming it, so it keeps you on your toes and sharpens up the way you think.

Drummer's Perspective

I do work a lot with vocals, but if they're singing, then I don't think I should be doing a lot of drums - you've got to make space for what's going on. That was one of the good things about working with Dave Vanian. He had a great sense of dynamics as a singer. He always knew when the band was being noisy and he would make sure there was room to do the right thing.

I was watching a documentary with Roger Daltrey where he was talking about Keith Moon. He was playing back the tapes of just the vocals and the drums, and he said Moon never worked with the guitar and the bass and that he only worked with vocals, and when you hear just the two together, you hear that actually he is. All of the big moments are around the vocals. I think that's a good general rule: The singer is the frontman, he is the one that the majority of the audience are there to see. You have to be aware that a lot of people are there because of him. You are just the drummer bloke in the back.

I didn't mind the spotlight and doing the odd solo. This was mostly forced on me because the band needed to drink more beer. They would disappear off stage to grab a drink while I'm doing my solo.

Surf Influence

Surfing was a mythical invention in England, so my main introduction into surf music was anything that made it onto the big charts, such as The Beach Boys. I was also always a big Sandy Nelson fan.

It's interesting because that twangy guitar thing that comes in this style of music has become its own identity. People hear that and they know it's surf music.


Different Styles

Drumming with just a guitar is a lot easier because there's only one person to communicate with. The real value in this is that the other person is able to read me and understand where I'm going to go next. If you start to have a whole band trying to do this, you usually have a double up over the instruments.

In terms of my own approach to it, I hear a riff and then think of what will play nicely with that. Then I go back and listen to it and realize that it was the completely wrong thing to do.

I don't usually change too much of what I do technically, I just play around with the volumes and the speeds.


Where It All Began

I got my first drum kit when I was 8 years old. It was a love affair with that sound. It was a ridiculous thing for an 8-year-old to decide, but once I heard the drums I knew. I have always known that I wanted to be a drummer, although I always thought I would be playing in an orchestra or a pit or something. I was never going to be an accountant or anything like that, so I just kept chasing auditions.

I gradually got closer and closer to London as that was just where the music was. After getting kicked out of a couple of bands, I met Brian James. There was something about that meeting that made me think, this is what I've been waiting for. He only liked loud and fast, just like me. Because of the way Brian plays guitar and wrote his songs, it was easy for me to lock into that and do what was necessary. We both used to push each other a lot while we were playing. That element was something that helped make it work.


The Damned, L-R: David Vanian, Rat Scabies, Brian James, Captain Sensible. Photo courtesy of the band.The Damned, L-R: David Vanian, Rat Scabies, Brian James, Captain Sensible. Photo courtesy of the band.

London Punk Scene

Most of the punk scene was really only able to thrive in areas where it was cheap and in places that not many people would go - it was poor neighborhoods. London is very small, so it doesn't take very long to get from the wrong end of Portobello to the rich end of Portobello. You always had this thing where you could drink where the money was, but you couldn't afford to live there.

Camden was one of those places. It was pretty run down. There was a club called Dingwalls, which was one of the late-night drinking places. There used to be a lot of great bands playing there, which kept the place busy.

Generally speaking, there were pubs in these areas that people didn't want to go to. We'd have a gig, 150 people would turn up, get drunk, and there'd be a fight. But the pub-rock thing was thriving at that point. There were places like the Hope & Anchor where you could see a band, and a lot of pub landlords were quite aware when we arrived that this would be the next thing that would draw in the customers. The only people that didn't think it was going to be much were the bands themselves. You always wanted to make it as a band and play for a living, but the thought of it actually happening, well that was a different dream.

I just found some old posters. In one, the headline band was the Flamin' Groovies, second on the bill was The Pirates, then it was The Damned opening. Then, three months later, The Damned were headlining with Motörhead second on the bill and The Adverts opening. So literally in three months we went from being the opening act to the headline act, and the bands that had been the headline acts were now being replaced by the likes of Motörhead, who at the time seemed almost like a joke metal band - nobody really took them seriously. They were a great band, but they only had a small pocket of followers. They were loud.


Success

I was kind of an arrogant little shit - our success was wasted on me. It never felt like we really got to the top of the pile. We got a fair way up, but we weren't right at the top. But the pioneers get the arrows, the settlers get the gold.


Conspiracy Theories

I was born into liking conspiracy theories. My parents were very alternative thinkers, so I have a lot to thank them for. I grew up hearing all of these conversations about the Holy Grail, King Arthur, Atlantis, etcetera. These were constant conversations in my household. Back then this kind of stuff was always spookier and taken a bit more seriously. Once I had started looking into it, it really creeped me out.

I would say I for the most part am a nonbeliever. I don't think I've quite taken the leap of faith, although I do think that coincidences happen, and it might be a psychosomatic thing. I have to ask, "After the one thousandth coincidence happened, is it still just psychosomatic?"

There's a documentary called Mirage Men, which is about government agents talking about why they carried the myth of UFOs. I highly recommend it. I think it only takes one UFO sighting to be real and the whole game changes. The question remains, is there a real one?


The Sinclairs

I very much like the creative aspect of making music videos. Our videos for The Sinclairs are all imagination as we don't have any budget. We do however, have good friends who have great spots for us to film. We filmed "Halfway Round Your Dreams" in my mother's barn, which really is filled up with thousands of old books and junk.

So when we wanted to do the video, we decided to do it there. We used builders' lights and shot it on phones, and a friend of ours has an old film camera. Videos are all about a live performance of the band, coming in with things of the interest of the viewer. In our case, things that are interesting to the viewer are always things that are unnerving or tend to have a sense of question about them. Billy [Shinbone] loves doing the editing and putting the thing together. He is the real force behind the videos.

We have just done a Halloween single called "Halloween Wings," which will be released on October 31st and we should have the video all ready. We didn't have the budget for a smoke machine, but we made use of all the shadows. It looks really good, I'm very pleased with it.


Staying Creative

The more creativity you can put into anything you do is great for you. Whether that be how you arrange your bookcase or your garden, imagination is key. Your brain is everything, and everything we do in life is headspace. It's how we see and how we feel. If you feel rundown and burnt out, it's not because you are, it's your mind telling you whether you have the energy or not.

November 4, 2020
For more on The Damned, check out our interview with David Vanian

Subscribe to the Songfacts podcast, part of the Pantheon Network

Keep up with all of Rat's projects here here ratscabies.com

Photo (1): Jason Bridges

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