David Vanian (seen here in the centre), singer and songwriter with The Damned chats with Kevin Cooper about his thoughts on the punk scene, wanting to work with The Last Shadow Puppets, The Damned’s new album to be released next year and their 40th Anniversary Tour of the UK
David Vanian is a rock musician and lead singer of the punk rock band The Damned. Formed in 1976 in London, The Damned were the first British punk band to release a single, an album, have a hit the UK charts, and tour the United States. With a fluid line-up since their formation, Vanian has been the only ever-present member, although Captain Sensible has been in and out of the band over the years and is currently a member.
Outside of The Damned he has led the rockabilly band David Vanian And The Phantom Chords, hosted David Vanian’s Dark Screen on the UK-based television channel Rockworld TV and composed the soundtrack for the 2009 film, The Perfect Sleep.
Essentially a very private man, he took some time out ahead of their forthcoming tour to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
David, good morning how are you?
I’m very well Kevin thanks for asking.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to me today.
That’s alright, it’s my pleasure.
And how is life treating you?
Fairly well (laughter). It’s nice that there has recently been a resurgence of interest into our music.
I have to say that we have met before backstage at Butlins a couple of years ago now.
Have we really, well I have to say that Butlins is close to my heart.
Yes, we had a brief chat backstage and then I went out front to shoot the gig. The Captain threw a few shapes for me (laughter).
(Laughter) well he’s the ones for the shapes alright. There was a time some years ago now when The Captain had a couple of mirrors on the stage so that he could watch himself (hysterical laughter). I firmly believe that The Captain would have preferred us to have been around in the Marc Bolan era (laughter).
Can you believe that this year marks the fortieth anniversary of New Rose?
It’s one of those things where you don’t really think about it yourself and everybody else keeps telling me about it (laughter). So I tend to smile politely and say okay, but to be honest I am personally looking forward most of all to making a new album next year more than anything else. That is the exciting thing for me but I can understand just how important it is, so no, I would never have believed that forty years on I would even be in the same band. It puts it all into perspective when kids would say “I don’t like them they are over twenty, they are too old now” (laughter). But having said that there was always a cool kind of category of bands that the kids liked no matter how old they were and hopefully we are in there somewhere amongst some of the greats like John Lee Hooker (laughter).
New Rose was the first British punk single and that is something that no one can ever take away from you. That must feel a little bit special?
Thank goodness for that (laughter). A happy accident but there you go. Brian James wrote a brilliant first album and New Rose was the perfect single. It was a good song in the fact that it was recorded with its sheer essence of rawness. There was no gilding the lily there; you heard what you heard and what you would have got live. It was very much a performance rather than a highly produced single which I think was unusual at that time. At that time we had gotten into lush productions which made people forget about having a raw song in the charts.
I recently interviewed Glen Matlock and he said that without The Damned there would have been no Sex Pistols.
That’s a nice thing for him to say because I must admit that Glen was always my preferred member of the band. He is a really nice guy but most importantly he is also a musician. He was the only real musician in the band at that time; not wanting to put them down after the event, but he knew his stuff. Glen has done things after the Pistols and he was the one who kept ploughing through. And what you have to remember is that now days his sons have got an amazing band.
You are critical of what the punk scene became aren’t you?
Yes that’s right, I am very critical of just what the scene became. I think that what the trouble was with all of the punk scene was that there was a lot more going on rather than just the way that it turned out press wise. I think that the truth of it is that people like Glen, The Ruts and I, we were really just musicians; we were bands. We all found ourselves caught up in this monster that became punk. In my opinion punk became one dimensional which is a pity because as much as it was liberating it also shackled us with a tunnel. That was a shame because I feel that it wasn’t about anything other than the music originally and the attitude came with that because we were so excited and so driven by it.
Do you think that punk achieved what it set out to achieve?
I suppose that in a way it did that immediately. I guess that it is similar in a way to when a lot of the harder edged rockabilly artists came out. But after a short period of time it all turned into American Graffiti or something. It was all smoothed out with nostalgia and all rather nice (laughter). I think that happens to any musical movement even way back in the 60s even. You had great bands which get washed under the next wave which is the commercial side of it. Everybody suddenly sees it as less of a threat because Elvis (Presley) wiggled his finger on the TV (laughter). It then becomes something to copy and emulate and it all gets watered down.
Within that there are always the great bands that are still there, for example, Link Wray was performing some amazing stuff. A few years ago now we played a gig with The Electric Prunes and they hadn’t been together since the 60s but they had been playing together in their homemade studio. And when they played with us they were as good as they were back in 1968. It was just as if no time had gone by and in a weird way I suppose that for them it hadn’t; it’s just that the world changes. So in answer to your question it all depends upon who you speak to. Someone who is a radical feminist will say no it didn’t or yes it did and that’s why things are as they are today.
Generally, if anything it opened some doors and the world changed. Whether or not that would have happened with or without punk rock I honestly don’t know because every time that society changes there is a musical trend that goes with it which usually depends upon the type of recreational drugs involved, the alcohol or just life in general. It will always be that way so I think that it was part of something and I think that it was the reason, if you know what I mean. But I think that it opened up a lot of people’s eyes to being able to do things themselves. I think that in the world you have got a lot of people who found themselves thinking that it was impossible to be able to do anything on your own.
They all seemed to think that they need to get involved with a big business in order to be able to do something on their own. Now everyone runs their own business from their bedroom or they make a band up because they can. That was the important thing; it was a case of if you believed in something then you could try it and obviously that side of it was the catalyst. I didn’t have any political agenda but I do feel that there are a lot of people who got into punk at a later stage who saw it as a political platform for whatever reason. The Damned were not and are not a political band. Having said that though just by the very nature of what we did we became political because that is the nature of life (laughter).
I never wanted to stand there and spout politics. I just wanted to make great music and I think that we have achieved a little bit of that which is great. At the end of the day punk is very much a name that is put to you rather than you put yourself to the name. Everybody has a different version of what it is like for them.
The Americans claim that punk evolved over there in the USA. How did the audiences take to you, a British punk band on your first tour of the USA?
Well, I think what you have is a very different take on it. I would agree that punk evolved in America but I believe that it started way back in the 60s with the garage bands. To me they are the real punk rock bands. Then what you got was a lot of interesting bands like Richard Hell, Patti Smith and obviously The Ramones who came up through the ranks and punk was coined because New York and punk go hand in hand. When we went there we didn’t play anywhere in the mid-west we simply played the West and East Coasts. The East Coast including New York is a lot more reserved and a lot cooler, it’s a bit like playing in London I suppose where the audiences have that attitude of ‘go on, impress us’ and they are very cool and laid back.
I have to say that we went down a storm and I guess that we were in the same kind of attitude as if you had seen the early Stooges on stage. It was all very raw and visceral. The audiences immediately took to it; knew where it was coming from and liked it. And then when we went to the West Coast we were even bigger, and we are supposedly responsible for loads of bands starting up the next day. In the same way as when The Ramones played London there were loads of bands which came out of that. Suddenly the switch goes off in your head that says ‘I can do this, I can see myself doing that’. I couldn’t see myself doing twenty minute Eric Clapton guitar solos but I could see myself doing this and I can write about what happened in school today (laughter).
We went down a storm on the West Coast and received some great press. So many people have come up to me over the years telling me that they were in the audience at certain gigs. There were lots of people at the New York show and a few years ago now while he was still alive I was chatting with Lux Interior and he told me that he was at the show at CBGB and he had climbed up one of the poles that held the roof up in order to get a better view, and he thought that we were great (laughter). I have a soft spot in my heart for The Cramps because they were a band that single mindedly ploughed a field of rock and roll on their own.
You mention CBGB but the Americans simply don’t seem to appreciate just what they have got. Is it not a clothes shop now?
Yes that’s right. In the past few years New York has been so over gentrified that all of the good stuff has now gone. There was talk for a long time of the whole of CBGB being lifted out piece by piece and being reassembled in Las Vegas as an attraction, would you believe (laughter). However, the deal fell through unfortunately so it never happened. It’s even worse on the West Coast because it’s a younger place and they don’t seem to realise the value of their history. America tends to do things like that which is a real shame but so do we. The Marquee has gone and what a mess Tin Pan Alley is now.
With all of the clubs either closing or being knocked down where do kids now play to get their grounding. What happened to travelling up and down the motorways in an old Transit van?
That is the one thing that I miss, especially in the early days. Because the only people that you saw on the road back then late at night were truck drivers and other bands. You were always running into bands because back then there were only a few motorway services; only a few cafes that you could stop at that would be open at night where you could get anything. So you were forever always bumping into bands and it really was great fun. You would have a chat and then go off on your way and it would be really cool. I can’t remember the last time that I saw a band on the road. Nowadays they travel in a big tour bus where all of their catering is done for them.
You simply don’t see them anymore. So where do you learn your trade, well I guess that it’s through the internet and stuff isn’t it. You do the usual thing like playing the music, shoot your own film in your bedroom, get yourself on YouTube and become a star without the help of anybody I suppose.
An overnight sensation without having sold a single song.
The irony is that there are so many bands who do have record deals that don’t ever sell that many records anyway. It really is quite bizarre. We are lucky in the fact that we can still get a big audience whenever we play live. Some bands even in the charts don’t manage to get that.
I have to ask you what did you think to the Guns N’ Roses cover of New Rose?
Well, if you want my honest opinion then it’s not really my cup of tea because they knocked all of the life out of it by making it sound as though it has been played to a click track (laughter). I think that all of the spontaneity has gone out of it, but they obviously loved the song and they did it and that’s great but it’s a case of saying okay, then moving on sort of thing (laughter). They are a good band with a great guitarist, so what can you say. If they had taken the song and completely redone it in a totally different way then perhaps that would have been more interesting.
You briefly mentioned the fact that you are excited about making a new album. Is there anything that you can tell me about it?
Oh no, it’s all hush hush (laughter). These days music is so bizarre which is what makes music this kind of moot point. So I think that this album is not going to be a short album full of hits; what we hope is that it will be full of really good new songs. However, there might be some music on there that might just surprise some people. So hopefully it will be a no holds barred kind of thing (laughter). Some of it I don’t really know where it is going to go yet but I know that it is going to be an exciting trip for all parties concerned (laughter). I will probably be able to tell you more when we have got a few tracks down (laughter).
Do you have a title for the album as yet?
No, not yet. With us the title tends to come along after we are five songs into the album. Sometimes titles just tend to come out of something that happens at the time or from a track of a song. We have never said “oh this is the blah blah blah album, let’s write music for it” (laughter). What we have found is that most albums will go through three or four different titles before we hit on the one we like. Sometimes it won’t even be our comment it will be something that someone else has said.
Will you be playing any of the new material on the forthcoming tour?
Not on this tour, no. We won’t be playing anything before Christmas that is newly written. We will start trying them out early next year.
Will you tour the new album?
Yes, I’m pretty sure that we will. We have got quite a lot planned for next year and we will be adding things as we go along.
How are you finding the experience of working with PledgeMusic?
I think that it has been really good for us. These days’ being in a band is very hard to maintain; it is a paying job. People forget and they naturally think that just because you are in a band you must be making loads of money. That was probably true back in the 80s but for anyone starting up in music it is really tough. There is more music around than there has ever been but there is far less money for the artists. The main reason for that is because lots of people simply download what they want for free. It is so bad that as soon as you put a track out you have instantly lost most of your earnings (laughter).
Therefore, you have to approach it in different ways and there are only three or perhaps four record companies left now in the entire world really. PledgeMusic gives you a lot more control and in the end it makes you able to finance the things that all of the record companies do anyway.
It’s also good for the fans as they feel part of it.
That’s right. They want something, we want to give them something but in order for us to do that we have to be able to financially afford it and so this works well for everybody. I personally feel that it is a great system. A lot of people claim that it is not a nice way to do business but I think that it is probably a better way for us to do business. We should run the government like that shouldn’t we (laughter).
We have briefly mentioned the tour. Does touring still excite you?
Playing still excites me and I really do still enjoy being out onstage, but it is all of the other peripheral stuff which makes the novelty wears off after a few years on the road touring. Sitting in an airport for hours on end just isn’t fun anymore. I still enjoy it, but it all depends on where I am going (laughter). I am one of those people who before I go don’t think that I am going to enjoy it or I don’t go. However, once I am on the road and actually doing the thing I really do start to enjoy it. Touring is one of those things where short term memory loss would come in quite useful so that you can enjoy it (laughter).
I will be coming along to photographing your gig here in Nottingham at Rock City. What can I expect?
Good old Rock City (laughter). I never know what to expect except hopefully it will be a decent show. I can’t really say much more than that. It will be a good mix of stuff which is played really well so what more could you want (hysterical laughter). There won’t be any juggling or magic acts unfortunately or burlesque shows but who knows maybe next time.
Perhaps a decent light show. Everyone I ask who has played Rock City always comment on the fact that the ceiling is far too low to get a decent lighting rig on the stage.
I suppose if you approach the lights in a different way then it may be possible but I do know what they mean. It’s the traditional overhead rock and roll lighting that they can’t accommodate. I will bear that in mind actually and ask a few questions about that.
I have to ask you what was your first experience of Top Of the Pops like?
To be honest I found it to be exactly what I had imagined it to be like. For us young guys to be finally on a programme that we had watched all of our lives, seeing all of the dolly birds dancing, the bands that you like getting big, well it really was exciting. It was great to finally be doing a TV show that you had aspirations to do for many years because that is what you do when you move up as a band. The nice thing was that the show had almost a party atmosphere. You had all of these bands who were totally different from each other thrown into the same situation so whatever you were doing, eating, drinking or walking down the corridors you were bumping into the stars all of the time.
It was just good fun and if you were fortunate enough to do it a few times you tended to run into the same people all the time because you were all having your chart success at the same time (laughter).
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
I know that this will sound corny but I will have to say performing at the Royal Albert Hall in London. That gig was probably the most perfect gig that we have ever played for so many reasons. It was a culmination of all these years and it wasn’t just the band it was the whole experience. The audience were so full of expectation almost like this is the underdog who has made it to this point. They were wanting it to succeed and wanting it to be what it was. You could feel the electricity in the air. I didn’t expect it to be such an emotional thing for the audience but it certainly was. Luckily, everything that we did seemed to go perfectly well for us for a change (laughter).
For a change there wasn’t any problems with the equipment or lighting, it all went really well. We worked hard before that getting to that point but you just never know, sometimes the best rehearsed shows are the worst and the ones where you just walk out onto the stage are the best. So I would have to say that was a highlight of my career but I have to say that the highest point for me didn’t involve me at all. My twelve year old daughter went out onto the stage and played Curtain Call on the violin. She took it in her stride and played it like a true professional (laughter). If I am honest that was a little humbling for me.
Are there any ambitions left for you to achieve?
Well I have always wanted to fly an autogyro from the 1930s but unfortunately they do not make them anymore. I love Zeppelins too, believe it or not (laughter). I feel that I am now too old to ride a speedway bike for a year simply because of the physical stress on your body. It takes a hell of a lot of strength to get the bike around those corners. It’s funny that speedway has gone down the pan a lot and there doesn’t seem to be the interest like there was a few years ago now. Before the war, speedway was bigger than football here in the UK.
It was a massive sport and I still enjoy it but the problem is that there are not many speedway tracks left anymore. I always try to get over to the Isle of Wight for my holidays and there is a speedway track there and it just felt like you were going back in time. Aspirations would be world peace or a piece of the world (laughter).
Who has inspired you musically?
I have always liked the singers form the 60s such as Scott Walker, and he has most definitely been an influence, not just for his singing but more so for what he has done. Not his commercial hits as such but the albums that he made of Jacques Brel material, those cutting edge songs that he recorded. Obviously, there would have to be a bit of Jim Morrison in there because he is another baritone I suppose. I loved some of Paul and Barry Ryan’s stuff and that is why I recorded Eloise. Even people like Tom Jones, those big sounding singers who you don’t get so much these days. As a singer those are the type of things that I would probably cite.
It’s difficult for me to say because probably The Captain has a record collection with lots of guitars on which he listens to. I tend to listen to mainly soundtrack music and albums without singers on. Music is the thing for me more than singers.
Does any of the new crop of singers excite you or don’t you listen to the new stuff?
Well, I have to say that I do and I don’t. Sometimes I get completely bogged down and I don’t listen to anything. For example, a few weeks ago now I would only listen to stuff from the 1930s (laughter). But there are some great bands around but unfortunately whenever I find out about great bands they have usually already disbanded (laughter). I do know that Jack White has some interesting artists signed to his label but at the minute I am listening to The Wands, a psychedelic garage band from Los Angeles who are now based in Copenhagen and who are fantastic. I tend to go for things like The Last Shadow Puppets who harken back to that whole Walker Brothers double act and I would love to do something with those boys. I think that they are great.
It’s great seeing the guy’s evolution from the Liverpudlian John Lennon type to the quasi greaser with the leather jacket. We’ve all been there lad (laughter). Joking aside, I do like that band, I think that they are interesting simply because they do things differently which is good. I much prefer that to the Artic Monkeys stuff that they put out. I think that it is probably more difficult to find current music in a weird way simply because it is so fractured. You don’t accidently hear something unless you are led whilst looking for something on YouTube, for example. I often find young bands that are doing stuff whilst I am looking for obscure 60s stuff when it will link to something and I will follow that through.
What was the first record that you bought?
I’m not sure what the first record was that I bought but I can remember the first few months when we were on tour we played up in Edinburgh and I was really happy to be able to get hold of a Oh Yeah single by The Shadows Of Night because they weren’t very popular in this country at that time. I doubt if anyone else will remember them (laughter). They were a cracking band though. The song is where David Bowie got Jean Jeanie from. It is almost exactly the same (laughter).
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
Funnily enough I didn’t see that many concerts. I kind of wandered into music almost by accident. Eventually I went along to see bands like The New York Dolls but sadly I never did get to see David Bowie. I saw the Doctors Of Madness who were by then a long forgotten band who were pre punk. I actually saw them before I was actually properly in a band and then ironically some years later we got to do a tour with them. Richard Strange was a lovely chap, who I haven’t seen for years but they were an interesting band. They were just at the wrong time really. That whole kind of Bowie era was ending and they were just a little bit late in their timing. They were a great band and slightly unusual.
I loved that early era of Roxy Music with Eno. I think that stuff had an effect upon punk that has been forgotten and is never talked about. Some of the tracks on the first and second Roxy albums to me are quite punk rock in their attitude. It’s different and it really goes for it. I think that without those types of bands things would have been totally different.
What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?
To be honest with you I don’t cry very easily (laughter). I might get emotional, but I can’t think of anything that would reduce me to tears.
I know that you are a very private man but have you never been tempted to get everything down in writing and release your autobiography?
People ask me about this quite a lot these days but at this moment I don’t know. It’s not something that I am overly excited about attempting if I did, but I suppose if the mood was right I just might think about it. That is if I could remember everything (laughter).
And just to cover all bases is there anything happening these days with your side project Dave Vanian and The Phantom Chords?
To be honest with you it is funny that you should mention that (laughter). We have recently discovered some old tapes of The Phantom Chords and there are some other tracks on there that I had forgotten about. I intend to release a vinyl box set next year of everything. There will be a full history of the band and why it stopped. People have been very cool over the years asking me when I would be doing it again and to be perfectly honest I have done very little with the project even though I loved it, simply because The Damned has taken over every time. However, I think that it is important to get all of this out and it will be great fun. So the fans can look forward to that with a bit of luck.
So am I to take it that you won’t be releasing the collection on cassette tape?
I have no idea why the kids are doing cassette tapes once again (laughter). I can understand vinyl, and any other media but cassette tapes always used to run at different speeds which made them stretch. They always used to get caught up in the machine. They were great when they first came out because they were this little thing that you could take anywhere, but after a while, my god they were a pain (laughter). I have got boxes of the bloody things. When we did Eloise on TV cassette tapes caused us a huge problem. The orchestrated part was learnt separately for the live TV show that we were doing. We were playing Rock Around The Dock and we went in to do one live rehearsal before we did the take in the afternoon.
We played the first chord and the orchestra played the first chord and it was all totally wrong, it was just a cacophony of noise. What had happened is that when they had listened to the tape of the song so that they could make the arrangements for the orchestra it was running at the wrong speed so all of the keys and everything was totally wrong. So we had to take a break and he had to re-score it all for the musicians in time for us to go and Rock Around The Dock (laughter). I just might add that we are talking here about the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Some of the brass section was a little pissed at the time literally and when we came to hear it, all that I could hear was this badly out of tune brass section (laughter).
So although they were great at the time I have no idea why anyone would want to use them now. When the first Walkman came out it was so liberating being out on tour and to be able to listen to your favourite music. It became a whole different world on tour. Even the most expensive cassettes you never knew what was going to happen with them. They would lose their magnetism or you would leave them in the car and they would melt (laughter). I think that is really weird. If they are going to do that they should put the albums on wax cylinders (laughter).
On that note David let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me. It’s been a pleasure and I will see you at Rock City.