Captain Sensible In Interview
Captain Sensible founded and continues to be guitarist and writer for The Damned, one of the three major pioneering mid-70s UK punk bands. Dressing in a nurse’s uniform for stage seemed to progress naturally to having a #1 hit with Happy Talk (yes, we do mean the song from South Pacific).
However, he’s done much more than that.
One of the good Captain’s classic songs is covered on Sprawl, Toys Take Over. It’s a potentially alarming nursery scene where the action man is up to no good at all. You can hear the background to the song in this interview.
Captain Sensible was interviewed Thursday evening, February 15, 2001, by Mike Thorne in a cheerful Brighton pub.
We’re sitting in a comfortable, local pub in Brighton. Why did you choose to live in Brighton?
The truth is, I had to get out of London. All my cronies were involved with illicit activities– drugs, lunacy and stuff like that. It was a 24-hour lifestyle where you just don’t sleep until you’re completely fucked in many ways. I disappeared, got away from all my contacts and ended up in Brighton. Brighton’s basically a London-by-the-Sea. It’s London without the grief and quite the Bohemian place full of weirdoes. It’s a little bit like San Francisco in America. All the weirdoes end up there or New York. I suppose you could say Brighton is to San Francisco as London is to New York.
To do music, you always need a little craziness to be effective. You balance the craziness with the creativity without losing the ability to do it.
It’s a funny thing. Over the years, I’ve sat in enough bars with enough musicians to work out that most of them are crazy. They have personality problems which some people think might affect them before or after. However, to do this job in the first place, you must be slightly demented and have this craving for love and people clapping in the audience. Even as highly successful and confident they were, they were as flaky as hell.
You need to take a few risks to say anything. Sometimes the risks are indulgent; sometimes they’re going on somewhere special. (Is that a bit earnest?)
I don’t see many people doing that in show biz these days. It was risky being in a punk group back in those days. A walk down a road– as you know yourself– you’d be picked on. It’s like putting yourself on the front line.
The punk time was a time of “do-it-yourself”– throwing away the received wisdom, which had accumulated for a long time. That gave you a start, didn’t it?
Yeah. It threw away a lot of stuff– mainly attitude things. A lot of music was chucked, but mainly the attitudes. The whole rock star thing was so abhorrent. The limousines, cocaine, treating women like shit and stuff like that– it was disgusting.
I hope punk did something. Within a few years, I was actually selling some records in France. I had a single called Wot! which was a pisstaker rap that actually went to number 1 in France for seven weeks. They couldn’t believe it. Some of the things you do, especially ones that you work hard on, end up in the dungeons or at number 142 in the charts, whereas this song that I did in five minutes, this pisstaker rap, went to number 1 in France and other places around the world. I’d been performing Wot! two or three years running. It was then that I actually saw the worst excesses of show biz. I saw the way they spend the money. I tell you, it’s not the artists’ money; it’s the people’s money– the people who buy the records. It was great to see the smiles wiped off these assholes’ faces when punk came and a few of them lost their jobs because they couldn’t understand– they didn’t want to understand it. Small labels were running things for awhile.
Your comments sound somewhat negative, though. What were the positive things about the punk era?
The glorious noise and spectacle. I also enjoyed the fact that you could walk down the road wearing stuff that you got from a charity shop and be in the height of fashion. Nobody was interested in designer labels and stuff like that. From a fashion point of view, the more shit you looked and the cheaper you were dressed, the better you were. It was also great because just before the mid-seventies it seemed as though you had to have a degree in music from the Royal College of Music. It was complete nonsense. I think punk got rid of that, as well.
Do you think punk was more about the message than the guitar twiddling and window dressing? Everybody seemed to have something to say.
Yeah. There were many different messages going on. It’s always nice to hear a band that has something to say. I may be old fashioned, but I like to hear a lyric that is actually trying to put a point over. There was a lot of that in punk. I thought it was brilliant.
There’s much politics under the surface in your music. How do you think politics and pop music work together?
Captain Sensible and the Damned aren’t the most political of bands. In my solo stuff, I think there are more political views than with the Damned. It’s important to me to be involved in the process of getting your point out. I actually met Tony Benn (former socialist British peer who renounced his title in order to stand for election to the House of Commons in Parliament) and, god bless him, Arthur Scargill (miners’ leader during the 80’s UK strike). I did a thing in Hyde Park and actually had the opportunity to talk to my jolly old socialist heroes.
There are enough rednecks and right-wingers in rock music putting their point over. I couldn’t believe it. In the eighties, I used to be a bit of a slut and well known for it. I’ll be at anyone’s record launch or party. Just send me an invite, and I’ll be there. I eventually sat at Iron Maiden’s album launch. I knew nothing about them and had no interest in that sort of music, at all. I couldn’t believe talking to the band and talking to the journalists that were there. The whole thing was like a celebration of Thatcherism. They all idolized her. It was then I realized rock music or metal music equals a kind of reactionary stance– it has the appearance of rebellion, but it’s actually saying nothing whatsoever.
It’s the whole rock thing– leather jackets, studded jackets, chains, wild, freaky hairstyles, loud, rebellious sounding music with guitarists standing there with their legs astride. They’re actually saying fucking nothing whatsoever about anything. They’re just, ‘Yeah, let’s turn it up and be really mean.’ When these people go home, they are of extreme right-wing persuasion. I couldn’t believe it. Horrible and reactionary crap was partly what punk was aiming to replace, as well. Punk was like a shining light for about two or three years, brilliant in the way it started changing this whole lot of commercial nonsense.
How does that translate into punk today or what’s called punk today? (You can be an old codger if you want to.)
I don’t really know much about it. My son, Fred, has been turning me on to these bands like Korn. I listen to this stuff and they’re shouting and going on about something but I don’t know what they are going on about. I get the impression that most kids know people like Marilyn Manson. Marilyn Manson goes on stage; he’s got the look of rebellion. He sings rebellious songs, but can you imagine him saying, ‘I do not want to talk to any of those people in suits. I will not talk to that accountant. I am not interested in the money. No, all I’m doing is creating outrage here. I don’t want to know about that corporate business side of life. I do not want my royalties.’ No, I would imagine he’d probably ask how often he has meetings with accountants, and he talks their language. He knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s very cleverly calculated– outrage for commercial success reasons.
What do you think?
Some of the new bands may be great; but Marilyn Manson– wanker.
With the emphasis on the charts, it is difficult to distinguish between the message and the style. People buy the style rather than the message. What’s the chance of saying something that is controversial? Is it less possible or more possible than a generation ago?
I think there are more possibilities in America because there’s a more diverse radio market along with Internet radio. They still do this stupid thing in Britain where they say, ‘Oh, no, the reason you’ve only got one local radio station in Brighton is because the hospital and police emergency services need those frequencies to be kept open for them.’ In addition, people swallow that bullshit. In America, you can get some college kid who runs the school radio station, or something like that, and it can be absolutely brilliant. They won’t let you do that in this country because people fall for the bullshit story.
How do you think that the Internet affects the way people can say new things?
The jury’s out on that one. The whole issue about censorship and music on the Internet is that nobody knows for sure what it will be doing in three or four year’s time. I personally think it is brilliant, and if people want to bootleg, go right ahead. The more the better. I think it has been proven on the Internet that swapping MP3s and stuff actually boosts interest in bands and record sales are bigger than they’ve ever been. When the major record labels are wincing and bleating about piracy, the facts don’t bear that out, because they are selling more records than they ever did. As far as anarchy and freedom is concerned, they may try to stifle it, but you can’t– you just can’t do it with the Internet. That’s the great thing about it.
Would you join in the pro-Napster chorus?
Yeah. I think the demise of Napster is a disaster– certainly a disaster for the bands. Then again, you look at the people who were against it; they’re a bunch of conservative right-wing tossers. For example, that stupid heavy metal band Metallica.
Scum, total nonsense. They are the right dressed as the left.
What does right and left mean in this context? Does it mean people who have a clear income path versus those who don’t? On the other hand, is there a more fundamental social issue?
I’m an old-fashioned socialist. What it means to me is sharing and caring and nonsense like that– not being greedy and stabbing other people in the back, you know, to get your way. If someone is a millionaire, and someone else isn’t, that’s not right, is it? Many people have shit on other people to get where they are. I don’t think that’s right. Personally, I had a few good years in the eighties, and I had a few bad ones, as well. I know that in Britain many people suffered really bad under Margaret Thatcher and those ideas.
It sounds like a sixties litany. The fact that you should be pursuing what you do and saying what you do and doing it on the outside. You draw a lot from the sixties.
Yeah, a hell of a lot, if the truth is known. I look at the sixties, but I just missed them. I lived for it but I was too young to actually have lived it, if you know what I mean. I didn’t go to clubs, didn’t get involved in stuff like that. I was a teenager in the seventies, and by that time punk happened. I always thought punk was kind of a continuation of what happened in the sixties where you demonstrate and shout about things. By the time you got to the eighties, everyone was saying all the woes and disasters in the world have been caused by the sixties. The sixties are to be blamed for this and that and blah, blah, blah.
What were Thatcher and Reagan talking about, there? You’ve got feminism and civil rights, all sorts of marvels– opening things up for gay people, because before that they were in the closet. It was a great time. Moreover, when they talk about going back to basics, they’re talking about going back to something quite nasty. I look to the sixties as being, obviously, some progressive era. Everyone did some stupid things, but you can’t knock them for trying. Until Gary Bushell [sometime fashionable English music journalist] tried to turn it into some Fascist nonsense. It was about 1979 and he destroyed the whole thing. He’s a bloody idiot now, writing for The Sun [UK tabloid newspaper]. American listeners won’t understand what we are talking about.
It was in the mid-seventies when you came of age, so to speak. Then, it was a put-down to say that somebody was ‘very heavy metal’, although the sound of punk chainsaw guitar and the sound of heavy metal are very close. Similarly, it was a put-down to say somebody was a hippie, but you’re saying there were more connections than were acknowledged at the time.
You can’t look at some of these sixties people, Jimi Hendrix and Syd Barrett, and say that’s nonsense. There’s good and bad in all generations, good, and bad in all countries. I look at what the Israeli government’s doing and I think oh, fuck, what’s going on there. It’s brilliant Israeli people. Brilliant people in America. Just because the CIA’s marching around the world spreading poison and unhappiness doesn’t mean all Americans are unpleasant people. It’s just they don’t really know what their government is up to, doing in their name and with their taxes.
Often with the Punks in the seventies, you were labelled a hippie or you were labelled a heavy metal. Do you think that sometimes the baby was thrown out with the bath water? When you throw everything out, you throw some good stuff out at the same time.
There was some of that. Some bands were partly to blame, really. You had bands writing songs like the Rolling Stones in 1977. Mick Jones [of the Clash] was caught while walking down Portobello Road buying old Rolling Stones remakes. If he didn’t want Elvis, Beatles and Rolling Stones, he was going the wrong way about it. Maybe he was buying the records to throw in the dust bin [trash]. I had some wonderful old records because I didn’t throw mine away. I know people who did, and that’s sad to say. Some people are one-music people. They say, ‘I only like metal, or I only like reggae, and I won’t listen to anything else I don’t like.’ In all forms of music, 90% of it is nonsense and rubbish, but you have to find the good stuff.
A couple of years ago I did a thing where I had a look at classical music, and I delved around and listened to various radio stations, and I found stuff that I liked, and I discarded the rest of it. Then you move on to something else, and you do the same. That’s what you do as you get older– you look into things, don’t you? You discover food from a certain country. I must learn something about that food, or I must learn something about this or something about that, and you look into it, and then you move onto something else. Nevertheless, to say that everything is shit because it’s not punk was stupid (although it was true).
How do you find new things now? The world is getting increasingly open, courtesy of the Internet. In the old days, you would say you liked punk music and that was enough to focus you. How do you find the focus now? How do you filter all the stuff that is available? How does somebody in the street decide what he or she would like to pursue?
Because we’re now twenty years on from punk and we’ve been through Frank Sinatra, the Bobby Soxers and all that stuff. That was when young people started to become free. How many youth cultures have there been since then? There was the fifties rock ‘n roll thing, the punk thing. Rave, dance and house, and this and that. Now people can choose. I mean you see people walking down the road wearing the attire, the garb, the image, and the fashion of a certain period. You can pick as you see fit. Sometimes you see people walking down the road wearing ludicrous parkas– comical Brighton sea front, circa 1968. Mike Thorne, je t’accuse.
Did you wear it especially for the occasion– coming down to Brighton?
Yes. [In honor of visiting the epicenter of the mods versus rockers riots in the sixties. The fur-trimmed parka was a mod symbol.]
Lovely. It turned a few heads in the pub, here.
Funny enough it happens. I don’t know if you’ve seen what they do in Japan. They love their pop fashion and lifestyles and have stores dedicated to particular styles. In Tokyo, they close off a park where all these bands can play in the open air with a generator. It’s fantastic. You walk along and get this cacophony of noise. One minute you hear a rockabilly band, then it’ll be this ludicrous long haired metal nonsense. I’m not in tune with what’s happening currently, because I’m a foreign old fox. I don’t feel obliged to follow trends anymore. I’m above that. It’s only for the people of a certain age who are current and locked into that kind of current vibe, whatever that may be. All that newfangled nonsense. I don’t know what they’re all about. Can you turn that down? Oh, dear! Look at the clothes!
Going back to Tokyo and the park– do you think that because of their distance they are more able to sense a message more independently of style than we can?
Maybe. I don’t think they listen to what is being said, at all. I think they are in love with the style. Japan is very stylish, isn’t it? The whole thing. Anything they do is gloriously done. Very visual. I hope it’s not an insult to say this, but they do rehash western kind of fashion very well, and it looks gorgeous, I think. You see people walking down the road with a Mohegan punk, and it looks so good. You say, Wow. I’m glad I’m part of that.
What happens when Napster runs out and people like you and I have to earn a living by people paying for our efforts. What do you think is going to happen?
I think everyone has agreed that the sooner the big record labels disappear and fuck off, the better it will be for everyone because big labels stifle creativity. They don’t pay the artist a decent recompense for what they do– not the small artists, anyway. Generally, if some trend happens, they all have to have one of those artists. When the next trend happens, they all jump on that bandwagon, as well. They don’t encourage a long-term career. It is now very short-term, which is why all the long-term artists were people from the seventies and sixties, really– your Elton Johns, etc.
Maybe all property is theft and just owning the song or the rights to publishing is evil. Art should be in the public domain for a stock period, and that’s it. Artists and musicians shouldn’t get stinking rich and have their limousines and coke habits. Maybe that’s what the Internet will facilitate. It’s a difficult one, because I don’t want to go back to cleaning toilets, having worked for the council for about a year and a half in Croydon [undistinguished town 15 miles south of London] doing that particular job. It’s not anything I really want to do. It’s a shit job to be honest, and it smelled. You are paid for doing gigs. That’s where it’s at.
Is all property theft? You might write a song or you might build an outside toilet. Is owning the outside toilet in your house theft anymore than owning the song, if you make it yourself?
Yeah. There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of property if you agree that someone not having property is cool, as well.
What’s the difference between building an outside toilet and writing a song, and I speak as a former toilet cleaner, also. My credibility is great.
Where was that exactly, Mike?
In Sheffield. It was in 1966.
No, of course, it’s different. The record label we were on stiffed. They used to have this motto– play it today and throw it away. They used to get music’s toilet rolls. It’s all rubbish. You just use it and then discard it. They decided they wanted to make records out oflicorice, so you play them two or three times, the needle destroys the whole thing and so you just eat it. That was their philosophy as to whether music was a worthwhile phenomenon. I don’t have any great regard for what I’ve done. I’m proud of some of it, but, when I look back to the records by Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd, the Kinks and all the great classics, I can’t call it discardable and disposable. For me, I think it’s so beautiful; like a masterpiece, as good as any piece of art that hangs in the Louvre or the Guggenheim. I think Ray Davies should be paid some sort of comp. It will become clear in about five years time what the Internet means for music. I just hope the same sods who run it in such a shit fashion at the moment don’t stay in control. They are stifling lots of creativity. Where is the wacky avant-garde stuff nowadays? There were stacks of it in the early seventies. Prog-rock was everywhere and it was glorious and those sorts of things were encouraged. Now everything is uniform.
What system can replace it? Any speculations?
I would like the music to be a free commodity– just an idea that people can download if they wanted to. I think it’s great. Then the best stuff will include all the best ideas and not the stuff of the moment, which is what they want us to hear. If music is left to the consumer to dictate what is great, then things might be different.
The consumer has dictated that The Spice Girls are great.
No. I don’t think so. I think if they played non-stop Captain Beefheart on Radio One, I think there would be the biggest Captain Beefheart revival you ever saw in your life. People would suddenly discover this incredible, wonderful, lost archive of genius music that is so disgracefully overlooked. If they played that on Radio One or in an American radio station, people would absolutely love it. I really believe that. However, now, we are being given the Spice Girls, or whoever it is, and of course people buy what they hear. Radio One says you buy it, we play it. It’s the other way round– they play it– you buy it! How do you know about music unless you’ve heard it on the radio or whatever? The whole thing is a complete fraud. The whole system is totally fraudulent.
How can we break out of it, or is it terminal?
I don’t know. I’m just a stupid guitar player. I’ve no idea.
That’s why I asked you.
Yeah. I don’t know. I can just about chew my guitar. That’s about it for me, really.
You’ve been self-effacing since the mid-seventies. You’ve written at least one classic song, Toys Take Over, [to the Sprawl version of Toys Take Over] and there are others. How do you deal with writing a classic song? You spoke out about the Hendrixes and the food, but surely, a classic song has to exist in the present, also.
Yeah, nice one, Mike. Thank you very much. I think you’re the first person who ever said that to me because most people, in this country anyway, know me for Happy Talk [the Captain’s cover of the song from South Pacific which went to number one in the UK singles charts]. They think I’ve covered a song that never should never have been covered and done anything else ever apart from that.
We’re going to get to Happy Talk in a minute. But we are now talking about the burden of writing a classic song.
It did come together quite nicely– the sense behind the song. I did have a problem when I was younger– being a boy and being expected to play with boy toys, and then when you get older, you’re expected to like fast cars and want to join the army. Things like football and the whole expectation of what it is to be a boy, and it must be the same to be a girl. That’s where the song came from– blue for boys and pink for girls– what is that all about? People are individuals. Nice one, Mike, the checks in the post.
To me or to you? So, how do you make your own personal way through this morass?
Well, there is life.
What are the next projects? How do you find the path to what to do next?
Some people know what they are doing, and some people just blunder through in a haphazard and chaotic fashion. Unfortunately, I fall into the latter category. I don’t know what I am doing tomorrow let alone next week. Actually, I do know what I am doing next week. I’ll be in a rehearsal studio and the week after I’ll be recording an album with the band [the Damned]. We’ve actually been given one last chance. In the recording game, you don’t get many cracks. The record labels see that our audience is big, and maybe there are records to be sold there. I’ve been spending the last six months writing tunes. I write much more material than I can ever use, and I throw away so much stuff. Some bands write twelve songs and they record them all. If I write sixty songs, I’ll record five of them, and throw the rest away. That’s possibly why so many of the songs I do are classics– he says– joke– joke!
What do you think the landscape looks to somebody who is now the age you were when you were in The Damned? What’s the difference for somebody trying to say something now?
Probably no difference whatsoever. None at all. It’s like what we were speaking about earlier. He’d have a pair of headphones slung around his neck and would be doing a bit of scratching– A Fatboy Slim-type DJ. He wouldn’t be writing classical music, obviously. If John Lennon were seventeen now, he wouldn’t be twanging away on a Rickenbacker. He’d be doing what people are doing today, which I don’t know much about. I find the whole thing bizarre. I was walking down the road the other day (after I’d had a couple of pints– so fuck it), and I had a vision of young lads looking in the music shop window at the Gibson guitars. They would be ogling these things like they could never afford–£500, whatever they were. Nowadays these lads stand outside DJ records shops peering in the window at the latest turntables. I remember when it used to be great to walk down the road with your guitar, and everybody would ask you to play a tune. Today, they walk down the road with a box of records under their arm. I just think it’s hilarious. God bless them. Top DJs get paid thousands of pounds for playing someone’s records. I mean, I can do that. I can play records. Give me fifteen grand, and I’ll play a few records for you.
Do you think they can play guitar?
Probably not, and this is the reason why many records nowadays are made by one-hit wonders. It’s very hit or miss. Anyone can make a record or a hit single in their bedroom. Now that is fantastic. It is now in the hands of anyone and the creativity is free to run its course. If you get an infinite amount of bedrooms and an infinite amount of workstations and an infinite amount of DJs sampling other peoples’ records, you won’t get fantastic music. You will get great pop music. This music is being made and these people are having hits. 99 per cent of what they do is dog shit but, every now and again, one of these people in Plymouth, Sheffield or Croydon can produce a work of absolute genius. But a worthy single? They try it again and blah, blah, blah. Maybe it’s a great thing. I don’t know.