The Damned’s Captain Sensible: “You make the best album you can on limited resources and try to push the boundaries a bit.”

Original photo: Matt Condon. Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

Captain Sensible is a co-founding member of UK punk band, The Damned. They were the first British punks to release a single, full-length, tour America and play CBGB. In the ‘80s they evolved beyond their punk roots to become one of the initiators of a new sound that would become known as goth rock.

Along with Damned bandmate bassist Paul Gray, and drummer Martin Parrott, Sensible formed outfit, The Sensible Gray Cells, born of their love of garage psych. The end of 2020 saw the release of new record Get Back Into The World, aptly titled and a positive, pro-active sentiment for getting back into life after most of ours has been somewhat side-lined by the global pandemic, lockdowns and disruption from our normal daily schedules and socialising.

Here’s to a greater year in 2021 for us all! What better way to kick it off than a Gimmie chat with The Captain!

CAPTAIN SENSIBLE: Hello Bianca! It’s Captain ‘ere!

Good morning! Are you a morning person?

CS: No, I’m not! I’m very much an evening person. In fact, that’s probably why I do this bizarre job of twanging a guitar for a living—I come alive in the evening. I’m terrible in the morning, I was always late to work when I had jobs and was always getting in late and getting fined or my wages docked. In the evening I’d go right through to the next day if there’s enough booze [laughs].

Is there anything you do in the morning that helps get your day started?

CS: Oh crikey! I just drink plenty of tea and hope my brain cranks into to gear, I don’t think it’s quite there yet [laughs]. You can probably tell; I’m bumbling a bit and I’ve allegedly been awake for three or four hours already.

From what I know of you, you seem like a pretty positive person.

CS: Yeah, that’s my outlook on life—every day is a holiday. I always look for positives in everything; even what’s going on at the moment, you take each day as it comes. I’m finding it funny the stupidity of it all, laugh rather than cry, that’s my thing.

Have you always had this outlook?

CS: Yeah, pretty much. I remember when I was a kid – my name is Ray, it’s not really Captain [laughs] – my aunty used to say I was their little ray of sunshine. The funny thing is that in The Damned I am the jolly Captain spreading fun and frivolity wherever he goes and Mr Vanian is the Dark Lord, we’re so completely different in every respect. He loves film, I never watch TV and I love audio and sound and playing around with that. I like football, he hates sport. We are absolute opposites, but somehow we don’t tread on each other’s toes and it comes together in the studio and on stage, that’s the dynamic.

That’s really cool to hear that even though you are so different you can get along to make such great art. Often these days people disagree on things with someone else and they can’t be civil to each other so it’s nice to hear that people that are opposites in so many ways can still be in harmony.

CS: Having said that he probably does find me a little bit annoying occasionally [laughs]. Especially going back a few years, I was a bit of a one-man party. I won’t go into it, you can find the stories online of chaos, nakedness and debauchery, blah, blah, blah. Sadly, now I’m too old for that behaviour and I’m more known for making a nice cup of tea.

I look at these new young-fangled bands and I think; where are the stories of mania and chaos and trashing stuff? Where is it? Being in band is a license to behave as bad as possible; they’re not doing it, it’s disgraceful! [laughs].

Who or what inspired you to play guitar in the first place?

CS: I did a few jobs when I left school. I was a typewriter mechanic, which was quite fun because you used to clean the typewriters with methylated spirits and of course you can get quite inebriated just breathing the damp cloth, that was fun.

I did landscape gardening. I’m responsible for a lot of housing estates in London… I can go round if I’m travelling on the train to London and I see all these trees that I planted forty-five years ago; they’re massive now, taller than the high rises on the estate they’re next to, five stories high.

Then I worked for an art centre called the Fairfield Halls. I was only the toilet cleaner, somebody’s got to do it. On Sunday’s they used to let me do the rock shows, they’d give me a little uniform and I had to show people to their seats with a little torch. One day T-Rex and Marc Bolan was on the stage and he had 2,000 screaming girls after him. At the time I couldn’t get a girlfriend and I thought, ‘I want his bloody job!’ Nobody is interested in a toilet cleaner but put a guitar around your neck and suddenly everyone wants to know. I went out the next day and bought a Fender Telecaster.

I sat in my room and practiced for two or three hours a day. I actually took it into work as well. After cleaning the fourteen toilets I had to do each day, I didn’t’ really have much to do for the rest of the day until the audience was let in and they got used. So, I used to take my guitar and sit in the toilets and practice.

Did you enjoy it when you were staring to learn? Was it a challenge?

CS: I would say yeah to anyone wanting to play. There’s a point where the difficulty of contorting your fingers into chord shapes, when it starts to not be an issue, it’s about three or four weeks in; if you can get past that initial period where it’s hurting your fingers, it gets much easier after that. You just have to persevere for a few weeks.

I’m excited to be talking to you about the new Sensible Gray Cells record, Get Back Into The World. I know that both yourself and Paul [Gray], who’s in both The Damned and SGC with you, are both very into garage psych. When you first heard garage psych was there a moment it really clicked for you and you were like, I really love this, this is for me?

CS: Yes, absolutely. When I was a school boy, The Beatles were so big they dominated the whole music scene. I thought they were a bit sugary, until the end when I think they found an edge. I thought all this ‘…Hold My Hand’ stuff and the syrupy melodies were a bit much and then The Troggs came on the scene and The Kinks with ‘You Really Got Me’—it started getting a bit gnarled and grunge-y and riff-y. That pricked my ears up and I really started to listen at that point. Of course, it went into a golden period of garage psych around ’67 – ’68 with the scene from America and bands like The Chocolate Watchband and The Seeds. The Electric Prunes I particularly liked; I was so happy I got to meet them and play with them a couple of times. They’re fantastic people and still on the go. There was a point where I became obsessed with that sound.

In the ‘70s we had glam and heavy rock and punk rock but as much as I dig parts of these scenes, certain bands, the garage psych thing sounds fresher to my ears, it never sounds stale. You have a band in Australia called King Gizzard [and the Lizard Wizard], they do it really well!

Photo: Alison Wonderland.

Totally! We love them. I know for you the origins of punk came from that garage psych scene and bands like The Chocolate Watchband and The Seeds.

CS: Exactly! That’s the thing that unites Mr Vanian and myself, and Paul. We’re all lovers of that scene—that’s where punk came from. It’s very basic, you could call it caveman rock, it’s not sophisticated, highfalutin or pompous like all that prog rock stuff, which was ludicrous with all its ten-minute drum solos.

I used to go to gigs, I used to devour concerts when I was a teenager. Every week I’d go to two or three shows. It was an education. I was learning what to not do as well as what to do. The ten-minute drum solos were definitely on the “no” list [laughs].

You once said that punk is an ongoing discussion about the world we live in and of society and our corrupt political system. I feel like the discussion is still going and I feel like you’re continuing to carry on that conversation in the punk spirit even on your new album.

CS: Yeah, that’s probably why we don’t get played a lot of the radio! Punk is a protest movement; it’s very much needed. What can you say about politicians? To say they’re all corrupt is an obvious statement, they’re all beholden to whoever pays the money that’s donated to their campaign funds; who pays the piper calls the tune really. That’s corruption if you ask me.

I know that you’re a Socialist; how did you get into that?

CS: Yes, I am a lifelong Socialist. I would say that the left-leaning movements don’t bear any relation to socialism that I know, anti-war and ‘ban the bomb’ and supporting unions and terms and conditions for workers against the corporations and all that stuff. Socialism at the moment doesn’t seem to be pushing any of those issues, it’s more concerned with… what? I don’t know. I’m not for any of these… like the Labour Party in Britain, there was this brief moment where I thought [Jeremy] Corbyn was the future but they destroyed him the media, they did a comprehensive job on that poor old git.

Are there any aspects from the early days of punk that have stayed with you?

CS: I’d go back tomorrow, as rough and ready as it was. I was sleeping on people’s floors for two years. I’d go back given the chance now, it was such good fun. I didn’t have any money. Even when we were on Stiff Records, I was on something like nine pounds a week, that wasn’t even enough to pay my train fair; I was always getting chased by ticket collectors. I was quite good at running. You go to the pub and when someone turned their back, you’d steal their beer! [laughs]. It was such good fun! You just had a feeling it was you against the world. I never thought it would become popular to be quite honest. All the big bands at the time were Genesis and Yes and Electric Light Orchestra, they were huge, playing stadiums and we’d get ten or fifteen people in the pub watching us. All of sudden punk rock became popular. I suppose there were other people, not just us, that were getting bored with the stadium rock. So, it was a real surprise when it took off.

What’s the significance of the title of your new record Get Back Into The World to you?

CS: People, especially youngsters, spend a vast amount of time online, much as I like a bit of retro gaming, the idea of sitting in front of a screen for more than thirty or forty minutes drives me nuts! People do that all day, it’s not just going to kill their eyes, they’ll need high strength glasses by the time they’re twenty-five or thirty. It can’t be doing much for our brains. We’re doing everything online, the shopping… It’s just “get back into the world”! Get on your bicycle. Despite the government’s rules right now, go out and socialise.

What do you like to do to get back into the world? I heard you bought a kayak.

CS: I did. I do like to go kayaking and out on my bicycle. I have a bit of an if-y back but if I’m careful I can slosh around for an hour or so. It’s really good fun. I kayak if we’re on the road. I kayaked in Perth near a cricket ground; is it called the WACA?

Yeah, it is.

CS: There’s a place next to that and you can get a kayak there.  I did one in San Diego too, this bloomin’ great big sea lion suddenly appeared next to me as I was sloshing around. It was absolutely massive. It was quite a shocker how massive these things are. It swam next to me for a minute and then disappeared beneath the surface. Good fun kayaking [laughs].

There’s a song called ‘Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn Ya’ on the new album and it talks a bit to the theme of health; what else helps keep you healthy?

CS: Well, ‘Don’t say I didn’t warm you” was the words of one’s parents coming back to haunt us now. My and Paul’s ears are just so damaged. If I go to a pub, just the sound of people jibber jabbering and clinking glasses and cutlery it drives my ears nuts and I can’t concentrate on the conversation so I have to shove napkins in my ears. It’s really sad actually, what forty years of loud music can do to your ears. Would I change anything? Yeah, if I could go back, I might turn the amp down a little bit. It’s just such fun standing there with the amp cranked to the max with your guitar! What can you do? You can deafen yourself with headphones.

You’re a vegetarian, aren’t you?

CS: Yeah, I’ve been a veggie for a fair old while. The idea of eating meat doesn’t appeal.

Didn’t you spend a weekend living, and recording with Crass and that helped inspire that change in diet?

CS: It was a very interesting week that. They put me up in their squat, it was very nice of them and they’d have discussions around the dinner table every day. I was a bit of a football hooligan in a punk group and after a week with them I was a vegetarian and anarcho-socialist—they reprogrammed my mind! [laughs]. I have to thank them for that. I found some sort of sense of the world in that week.

It sounds like it had a big impact on you.

CS: It did! There was a lot of laughing as well. We made a record together, me and the Crass guys called This Is Your Captain Speaking. We were shrieking with laughter when writing the lyrics. I think you can get a message over quite well with sarcasm… this is what I said to them because their music is very angsty and rough. I said, you can do the same message with humour and melody, and that’s what we tried to do. So, it’s basically Crass with melody. I think it worked.

Totally! I know the criteria for what songs you wanted to include on the new album, partly it has to have a strong memorable melody; where’s your love of melody come from?

CS: It’s from the record I bought as a kid. We had Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys and songs like ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘God Only Knows’ which were incredible tunes. I used to like the songs that were really epic like ‘Eloise’ which The Damned funnily enough did a cover of when I wasn’t in the band, I thought that was a terrific idea. I like the idea of three-minute song that’s absolutely epic and goes through a bunch of moods. There’s another one by The Hollies called ‘King Midas In Reverse’ that’s absolutely epic. I’m not saying our material is anything close to that but I just love melody. Secretly I’ve been trying to get as close as possible to writing the perfect pop song as I can with my limited talent. The song I feel that gets closest to that on the new Sensible Gray Cells album is ‘Black Spider Memo Man’, it’s a real tuneful piece. It’s actually about… funnily enough, there’s two songs on the album about the British Royal Family. ‘Black Spider Memo Man’ is about Prince Charles because he writes these Black Spider memos to members of parliament, which he shouldn’t do; the Royal Family should keep out of politics.

The other song is Paul Gray’s tune about Prince Andrew… how can I say this? Hmmm… let’s just call him the nonce! [laughs]. The song is called ‘What’s The Point Of Andrew?’

What are the things that are important to you when you record?

CS: Just making the best record you can even with limited resources. Both Sensible Gray Cells records were recorded in people’s garages in back gardens. The first [A Postcard From Britain] was in a doctor’s garage in Wales and this one was down in a back yard in Reigate in Surrey. You make the best album you can on limited resources and try to push the boundaries a bit, try to do things that you have not done before. I find it really boring to make the same album over and over again. Some bands manage to do that really well but it would drive me to distraction.

There’s a lot of instrumental passages on the new Sensible Gray Cells record that are really quite melancholy and do stuff I’ve never done before. I was listening to a lot of Peter Green’s [Fleetwood Mac] guitar playing, he had such a beautiful tone and economy in his playing. Instead of a flurry of notes and twiddle-y diddley I was trying to pedal back and play something more thoughtful.

I feel like the guitar on this record has a really bright feel to it.

CS: Yeah. I was doing some tunings as well and using some kind of an Arabic Middle Eastern scales rather than your standard rock stuff, just trying to do something interesting.

Do you research that stuff when you’re wanting to incorporate something new?

CS: I do, yeah. It’s difficult to say what bit is the defining aspect of one’s record collection but, for me it’s anything that’s interesting and melodic, there has to be melody in it. I listen to a bit of Bollywood, I like that. I like Eastern music, a bit of Japanese. It’s a good fun. The only music I don’t really dig is country and western because it tends to never do anything that will surprise you, it’s pretty one-dimensional.

How great is the cover of the new record?

CS: When the photographer showed us that picture it just tied everything together, from the lyrics, the album and the crazy time we’re living through in 2020. He took that photograph last year; he was on a holiday in the Mediterranean. He came across this scene with all these tables laid out and it looks like the image of the virus. It was a really great coincidence that it was so perfect. His name is Antony and he lives across the road from the house with the garage we recorded in. We used to go down the pub with him and he showed us the picture and we were so shocked at how brilliant it was. He actually went down with the Coronavirus and they shoved him on a ventilator. He’s been telling us about that ghastly experience. Being on a ventilator wasn’t good for Antony, he only just survived.

Is there creativity in any other parts of your life beyond music?

CS: [Laughs] No, I’m pretty stupid actually. I didn’t do much at school. I’m obsessed with going out on my bicycle and I really like old retro computer games, Pac Man and Donkey Kong stuff and the old Mario games, Ridge Racer… I don’t know why but I just play them over and over. It’s really fun! Now I’m actually finishing some of them, but when I was younger, I’d get bored of them and go from one game to the next. Now I actually try to finish them. I’m on one at the moment on the Gameboy Advance, it’s called Advance GT 3, I got 4/5th’s of the way through it but now it’s starting to get hard [laughs].

Please check out: The Sensible Gray Cells on Facebook; The Captain on Instagram; TSGC on Instagram. Get Back Into The World out now on Damaged Goods.