The Damned grew out of the turbulence that was the London punk rock scene and soon became the first British punk band to release a single – five weeks ahead of the Sex Pistols, on October 22, 1976. Since then, singer David Vanian has led the band through innumerable line-up re-shuffles highlighted by a fluid relationship with multi-instrumentalist Captain Sensible and a musical shift into the Goth realm. As part of their 40th anniversary celebrations, The Damned return to Australia in March and we caught up with Vanian for a rambling chat about politics, technology and the late great Lemmy Kilmister.
Congratulations, David, on forty years of The Damned.
Well thank you very much.
Does it feel a little strange that forty years on from when The Damned first started we seem to be in a very similar political environment to what was happening then – we have an unpopular President in the White House and a very Thatcher-like PM at No. 10 over there. Do you believe it has somehow come full circle?
I think it’s kind of inevitable. I think there’s been an awful lot of complacency going on and people are uneasy. They want change, they want things done. Normal working guys want to get a good deal and I think they get to a point where – and it takes a long time, so that people forget – that they get to a point where they just think, I can’t take this anymore. It’s similar, but it’s not similar. I look at when we first started, it seemed like a very austere time because we had three-day weeks, no jobs, power cuts all the time… the electricity would go off a lot. We didn’t have as much disposable income in our pockets, and we certainly didn’t expect to own a lot of things. People these days sort of expect to own a big screen TV, a car, phones… it’s not an aspiration they’ve worked for, it’s something that they think there’s a right to own immediately. When I was a kid you had to walk down the road to make a phone call and if you wanted something you had to work for it, and you got it, and it was great. But now, I don’t know – it’s different. Some people have never had it so good, but don’t realise it and the same problems are still there: I’m still seeing starving kids in Africa on the TV, just like I did when I was a kid. The politics is still the same. It moves around a little bit. But I don’t mix music and politics at all!
Politics definitely informed that entire generation of music that The Damned came from. It just seems to go hand-in-hand with that type of political environment.
I’ll tell you how it happened. Anytime there’s an austere time and these things happen, a good amount of creativity comes out of it, doesn’t it? Amazing work comes out of those sorts of situations because it drives people forward to express themselves more, I guess, in any way they can. Music and art is always at the forefront of that. Before Nazi Germany in the 30s you had all that amazing cabaret stuff going on in Berlin. It’ll be interesting to see if we get some great new music coming out of these times, despite the fact we’re all worried about what’s going to happen. The thing about it all is, though, whether you like it or not, it has got people talking about politics again. Which is a good thing, because for a long time people didn’t even pay attention and just let things get along and if you don’t take any interest and at least try and do anything to add your bit, how can you complain that it’s not going the way you want it?
People do seem to love to complain, don’t they, and now with the technology available there seem to be even more avenues for them to use to complain on.
That’s the weird thing… I don’t really understand the whole social media, the fact that you don’t want any privacy anymore: when you go to the toilet, what you’re eating for breakfast. It seems weird to me. It’s gone the opposite way round. Everyone wants to have their life as if they’re a rock star or a movie star and when you’re intruded upon by the press, they actually want that! But when you’re in that situation, it’s actually the last thing you want. You’re in a profession that any enjoy, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to invite the press around for your every move. But now it’s seems that is what people want. I guess it’s because they want to feel more important or something, I don’t know! It’s on the net whether you want it or not. It’s like what Andy Warhol said about how everybody wants to be famous. It’s true. It’s the lack of privacy I don’t understand, because I guess I’m old school and you have a private life and just do things within your own circle. I guess that’s what autobiographies used to be for, but you would do those when you’re older and from a music point of view, it’s odd because everything’s just given away now.
If you’re in a band or you’re a musician no one seems to get paid from it anymore. It’s all free. It’s hard. It’s a very hard time to be a musician, right now.
Again, it’s almost like full circle in that regard too because a lot of the bands that were coming through in England in the late 70s were paying for their own records to be made. I remember talking to Pete Shelley about when the Buzzcocks did their first one – now it seems that situation has come back because there’s no money in it for anyone anymore.
If you did it right and managed to sell those records you would get a good percentage back on what it cost, whereas now you create a piece of music and it’s suddenly available for free and you never make a penny. Back then, record companies were making the rules up about how it was, now there’s kind of no rules, but there’s no structure. It just goes out there. I was listening to the radio and there was an ad on about going to this site and getting all these songs, royalty free! All those poor musicians aren’t getting a penny. We don’t expect to be all millionaires, but it is a job after all. You’d wouldn’t expect a plumber to do it all for free.
How does that affect The Damned?
It affects us quite a lot actually. Obviously we can go on tour, go on the road and make money from the tours, but actually making money from the music is another thing. When we used to make records, even back in the 80s, you had to sell about 30,000 records to get in the charts and you had to keep that momentum going. Now you sell 5000 records in total to have a #1, but then which chart?, because there’s so many of them! I appreciate the fact that you can make music, you can buy quite cheap gear, or buy a computer and make your own music, which is incredible that someone can do that without the benefit of thousands of pounds of technology – ten thousands of pounds of technology – and going somewhere to do it. They can do it on a second hand computer with Garage Band or something on it and plug a guitar into it and make music and it sounds good. But on the other hand, you can’t get any money for it. I love the ease of it all, but the problem with it also is that there seems to be less and less really good music coming out of it. It’s opened the doors to a lot of similar sounding music, one big homogenised sound. But I think that’s changing. There’s some really good music around in certain places.
More music, less diversity, more people making it?
I love the technology to look up old stuff that I don’t have and I can go, “I wonder if that band from the 60s has got something on YouTube” and you go check it out and there it is! You don’t expect that. It’s kind of a deep library, which is fantastic. But I wonder, if you’re a great musician and you’ve got a lot of ideas, do you put that across to people online and hope that people come to you? Because if they don’t, it just sits there for a hundred years. I can remember when major record labels would throw tapes straight in the bin without even listening to them. I actually saw one A&R guy got a cassette, put it up to his ear and said, “There, I’ve listened to it!” and threw it straight in the bin. Someone has slaved and sweated over their demos – it could have been the next Beatles album or something, but he didn’t even bother. So you’re always at the mercy of somebody else. The computer and the Internet has freed the whole thing up as far as it can. How else can anyone hear your music unless you’re playing a gig? If you’re playing a gig, only the people in that room can hear it, but if it’s on the computer, someone over in Tokyo can hear it and like it.
Moving on to brighter things – The Damned is heading back to Australia very soon. How do you feel about getting back here once again?
I’m looking forward to it. We’ve always had fond memories of every trip we’ve made. I remember one time we were over in Australia we had one chap who followed us around. He said his ancestors were cannibals. I think he was an Aboriginal prince, and they wouldn’t let him in a lot of the hotels, which is quite sad because he was a lovely chap. We had some great gigs and back in the 80s we played with The Johnnys, which was a fantastic band. I suppose Australia has changed a bit over the years. How is it? How is it there now? Still the same as it was ten years ago? New York has changed completely since the first time we went there, and LA as well. Lots of towns here, too. A lot of places get gentrified and there’s a bit of a different vibe. I guess Australia is a bit slower like that.
There’s a lot of gentrification going on here right now. The State government has been shutting down a lot of the nightlife in Sydney for various reasons and a lot of the old venues are gone both here and in Melbourne.
That’s a real shame. The live venues have really showed down over the last ten years everywhere. Even in London, they were complaining recently that there aren’t enough theatres for shows anymore – not plays, but shows. So many have closed down and become other things. Even the historical ones like the Marquee that The Who and the Stones and every band from the 60s played at – gone forever. It’s weird because that one in particular, never a great place, probably had the shittiest carpets you’ve ever sit on, but it always had a fantastic atmosphere. I think we played there with Lemmy playing bass with us. After Brian (James) said the Damned are splitting up, we continued. We had the Captain on guitar and stuff but we didn’t have a bass player, so we asked Lemmy and he said, “Sure, I’ll do it”. That was great because we always thought we were a similar kinds of bands in a way. Not musically, but in our approach and everything. And of course, everybody knew Lemmy. He was a great character. He was totally honest, and what he is was what he is. He didn’t play any silly games like a lot of people do and he had no ego. He totally knew who he was and what he was. He was a great character, and really nice to work with. He wasn’t obnoxious at all, and a great bass player. He just did his job. It’s sad that he’s gone, but I feel lucky that we did one of the last tours with him. He loved his one-armed bandits. He was a bit of fixture – you could walk into a place in London and there he’d be playing his one-arm bandits, and sometimes he’d be there all night long. He loved those things.
It is a real shame to lose people like him. There really isn’t going to be anyone quite like him to come along.
You kind of hope that a new wave of eccentrics will come up and some more interesting people, but that doesn’t seem to be the thing these days. There’s one or two, but I suppose the whole system that made these people who they are doesn’t exist anymore. But I’m happy that I knew Lemmy. We did a gig with Motorhead a few years ago and I was talking about it with my daughter who was quite young at the time and at one point she piped up and said, “What exactly is a Lemmy?” So I took her to meet him. We had to go through twenty levels of security that he had, because he didn’t like to be bothered at that point, and he was in this stately chair with three one-armed bandits in his dressing room. We had a chat, and she got to meet him! Which was nice.