UK punk’s Captain Sensible has grown even more err … sensible with age.
At 69, The Damned’s guitarist does his damnedest to ensure that he is fully energized for every show. That means a vegetarian diet, less drinking, and prioritizing his band over solo work and side projects.
“When you get a bit older, these tours are fairly grueling,” says Sensible, best known outside his group for solo hits “Wot” and “Happy Talk.” “I come back off a tour and have to do nothing for a few days and just recuperate. So The Damned is enough.”
Soon after forming in London in 1976, The Damned beat Sex Pistols and The Clash to the punch when it came to releasing the first British punk single (“New Rose”) and album (Damned Damned Damned) and touring the US.
The group achieved a first when their last two albums, 2018’s Evil Spirits and 2023’s Darkadelic (which combines punk rock ferocity, mind-bending psychedelia, and dark drama) became their first to crack the UK’s Top 10.
As they nimbly shifted from punk (“Neat Neat Neat”) to hardcore (“Love Song”) to psychedelia (“I Just Can’t Be Happy Today”) to goth rock (“Eloise”), the highly theatrical outfit innovated the look and sound of these genres with results that will surely last for decades to come.
And after almost 50 years of writing, recording, and performing, Sensible shows no signs of wear and tear. In fact, it’s music-making that keeps the beret-bearing axeman blooming.
“I really enjoy playing the guitar,” he says. “With these old valve amps, it’s such a joy. You crank them up and there’s nothing like it. So it’s something to look forward to when you turn up for a gig and turn the amp on and think, “Bloody hell, that sounds so good.”
I spoke to Sensible in advance of The Damned’s upcoming SF show (Sat/20 at The Regency), about going back to the group’s roots for Darkadelic, learning temperance from [gasp] Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, and being the “old bastard in the corner” when it comes to modern music.
48HILLS What can you tell me about the recording of Darkadelic?
CAPTAIN SENSIBLE We decided to revisit the garage-psych thing we were doing on 1982’s Strawberries. We also had a new drummer, Will Taylor, and for each song, we tried to arrange the drums like the Beatles, funnily enough. We were listening to Ringo’s beautifully arranged drums—and that’s what we did for Darkadelic.
Then, the five of us were basically playing away in the studio, doing each song 40 times until the producer said, “You’ve got it. Move on to the next one.” It’s how we recorded Damned Damned Damned in 1976—just a bunch of noisy bastards in a studio, playing songs until we nailed it.
48HILLS Is the album’s title meant to sum up its sound?
CAPTAIN SENSIBLE Yeah, it is. We were listening back to the mixes at the end of the recording sessions and that word just popped into Dave’s head.
Some of the lyrics are quite dark and there’s a lot of fairly out-there instrumentation and we’re jamming a bit. It’s fun to have a jam in the studio; all my favorite bands used to. Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin used to jam it up. So if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.
48HILLS Do the recent chart successes of Evil Spirits and Darkadelic give you hope of achieving your first No. 1 album?
CAPTAIN SENSIBLE There’s no plan for world domination. We’re just a bunch of people in a band. And the rivalry is between the songwriters in the group, Dave Vanian, Paul Gray, Monty Oxymoron, and myself. We’re just competing with each other, really, and I don’t ever think about other groups or how high or low we are on the ladder of success. It’s just a privilege to be doing it.
48HILLS With so many decades of music to choose from when you guys hit the road, are there songs that you’re more excited to play than others?
CAPTAIN SENSIBLE We decided to rejuvenate the set list after we played all the classic punk material with the original lineup last year. So this time out, we decided to play most of the new album even before it was released. So it was kind of brave, but we’ve so enjoyed doing it. It’s just given the set list a real kick up the arse.
48HILLS With the tour kicking off in San Francisco on May 20, I’m curious if any of your previous SF gigs are burned into your mind.
CAPTAIN SENSIBLE I can remember quite rowdy shows in the early ‘80s. There was one which was particularly rowdy, where I got a chair whacked on the back of my head, and I had to go to the hospital after.
When punk rock took off in the States in the ‘80s, you were three years behind, but you went for it with a vengeance. So it’s nice that people say we were an influence on West Coast punk bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, etc.
48HILLS When you formed The Damned in 1976, could you ever imagine that punk would remain relevant for as long as it has?
CAPTAIN SENSIBLE No, because when we started, punk rock was just people playing music in pubs—and not necessarily going down tremendously well with the audience. We had the curtains pulled on us a couple of times by the management of these venues who didn’t like us. The big bands at the time were stadium acts like YES, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I didn’t think that punk would ever be popular. But I’m glad I was wrong because here we are today.
48HILLS The Damned members have worked with so many artists including Chrissie Hynde, The Clash, Sex Pistols, T.Rex, Nick Mason, Culture Club’s Jon Moss, Lemmy, Hans Zimmer, Rob Zombie, etc. Who was your favorite collaborator?
CAPTAIN SENSIBLE Lemmy, because we did a single with Motörhead. We called it “Motördamn” and recorded two songs. If it wasn’t for Lemmy, then The Damned probably wouldn’t be here today because when we split up in 1978, we were considered washed-up.
After six months of trying to put a new band together, I was broke. So we decided to do a one-off show in London with me, Dave, and Rat Scabies. We needed a bass player, so we asked Lemmy and he stepped in, and did a couple of shows with us. So he helped get us back together again. I always thank him for that.
I also thank him because he sat me down one day and said, “Captain, you’re drinking too much.” And I said, “You’re Lemmy. You can’t tell me that, right? You drink all day.” He said, “Yeah, I drink all day. But the problem isn’t that you’re drinking, Captain. It’s not what you drink. It’s not how much you drink. It’s how fast you drink it. I drink all day, but I drink slowly. You’re drinking the same amount as I’m drinking, but you’re doing it in half an hour. That’s why you end up in a gutter every night.” So he taught me a lesson there. Thank you very much, Lemmy.
48HILLS Do you drink less today?
CAPTAIN SENSIBLE Well, yeah. I just dramatically changed my lifestyle. And now I still drink, but not much. I’m not on auto-destruct anymore. I certainly was in the ‘80s—an absolute liability. If I walked into the room, I could see people avert their eyes so as not to catch my attention.
48HILLS Speaking of lifestyle, I interviewed Moby when he released his Punk Rock Vegan Movie in which you appear to espouse a meat-free diet. Talk to me about the meaning of vegetarianism in your life.
CAPTAIN SENSIBLE I made a single with an anarcho-punk group called Crass. We had discussions while we were writing these songs together and they straightened me out. I liked animal rights stuff, but [I was] eating meat and wearing a leather jacket and leather shoes.
Factory farming is cruel and they showed me some pictures and stuff. And yeah, I ended up becoming a committed vegetarian because pigs, cows, and chickens don’t have a good life before they end up on the table.
48HILLS There are those associated with classic punk or hardcore who’ve become more conservative in their dotage. How do you maintain that same liberalism that you felt all those years ago?
CAPTAIN SENSIBLE I’ll never forget going to an album launch with Iron Maiden and having a heated conversation with them about Mrs. Thatcher, who wasn’t my favorite; they were all fans of hers. So I did notice that a lot of these heavy-rock bands were of a right-wing persuasion. It was a surprise to me because, from the way that they dressed, you’d think there would be some rebellion. It’s just fashion for them. But I’ve been a lifelong lefty.
48HILLS The Damned had such an undeniable influence on punk, hardcore, and goth rock. So I’m curious about whether you enjoyed the evolution of these genres over the years.
CAPTAIN SENSIBLE Well, I’m sure there are some great young bands out there, but I’m the old bastard in the corner of the pub who says, ”I don’t like modern music,” and everyone ignores you because you’re always moaning about new artists and the horrible sound they get in the studio with Auto-Tune and the compression and the sonic maximization of these plugins.
So I’m not the one to ask about modern music. I stick to the old albums that I bought when I was a teenager. I still love Stray, The Groundhogs, Soft Machine, Led Zeppelin, Sweet, Slade—and T.Rex, of course.
THE DAMNED Sat/20, 8 pm, The Regency Ballroom, SF. $35-55. Tickets and more info here.