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Even via email, Captain Sensible, original member and longtime guitarist for U.K. legends the Damned, exudes a sharply observed humor—less punk rock and more classically English. Reminded of his band's appearance on the cult TV series The Young Ones in 1984, he refers to the distinctly un-punk, hippie character the show featured, saying, "I think I am actually turning into Neil anyway. I do eat a lot of lentils, it has to be said."
The Captain, along with the entertainingly melodramatic singer Dave Vanian, is playing a couldn't-be-more-perfectly timed Halloween show at the House of Blues. As the only two current performers from the lineup that first made a splash with "New Rose" in 1976 (just beating the Sex Pistols to the punch when it came to U.K. punk rock on vinyl), their partnership has come to define the band from the mid-'90s onward. They're working at a slower, more comfortable pace when it comes to new music, a result the Captain says might not have seemed likely at the start.
"To look at the pair of us, you'd think there wasn't a lot we had in common. But we both dig '60s garage, Sky Saxon, the Prunes, John Barry soundtracks, Olivier Messiaen and classic British films—especially if Terry-Thomas is involved," he says.
It's also how the duo have survived the years together: "The great thing about leaving it a few years between albums is that it feels like you're making your first one again. Everything is fresh and the possibilities are limitless. We were never keen on repeating ourselves that much anyway," he says. Moving past the debauched lifestyle ("with some of our marbles still intact"), Captain Sensible says he now wonders how the records sound so good, "considering the 24-hour party lifestyle and all that."
One of those early landmarks is the focus of the Halloween show, as well as the overall tour; 1980's The Black Album will be given the now familiar "play-every-track-straight-through" treatment. The snarky title references a certain Beatles album, but as the band's fourth full-length, it's one of the Damned's best. It was a varied collection that may have had punk roots but ended up being a kaleidoscopic mix of everything from psych-pop whimsy to keyboard-heavy moodiness and everything in between. As Sensible sees it, the timing and experience were just right.
"By The Black Album we had four keen writers [also referring to original drummer Rat Scabies and then-new bassist Paul Grey] and material was abundant. In fact, the problem was choosing what material to bin. So we left that decision to the record label and just kept churning out demo after demo in this rough little studio next to Crystal Palace Football Club."
As the band started experimenting and branching out musically, Captain Sensible says Vanian really went "off on a tangent." "[His] songs were increasingly dark with some strange lyrical twists. It's pretty much his songs that make this record so great, and also helped kick-start the Goth scene."
That latter may seem like a bold claim. But there's little question that Vanian's lyrical obsessions, smoothly passionate croon and striking appearance not only helped the band stand out, but also brought in a love of everything from classic horror literature (see the song "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde") to trash culture movies, manic scenarios and more ("Twisted Nerve" is a standout here, while the Captain's own favorite is the Dr. Phibes-inspired sonic freakery of "13th Floor Vendetta"). That monster mash-up helps define just why the Damned remain as loved by the fishnet-and-teased-hair crowd as by the punk crew that spawned them.
The Captain's thoughts cover a wide swath of ground, touching on everything from his longtime vegetarianism and interest in alternative energy to his appreciation of where younger fans might be coming from. "They might wonder what the melancholy Hammond organ segments are all about at first, but hopefully understand why we refuse to limit our sonic palette just [because] the punk fashion police don't like it." Then there's the fact that, after all, they're essentially playing a Halloween show at Disneyland—two things among the many that amuse the good-spirited Sensible.
"They take Halloween very seriously in the U.S., so it's kinda nice looking out at an audience who have really made an effort. Fake blood, severed limbs, gouged eyeballs, it's all good clean fun. As for the Disney thing, they have a fairly rigorous security setup there so it's advisable not to get caught drinking booze outside the bar areas. Some Damned fans learned that one the hard way last time."
This article appeared in print as "Damned If You Don't: Goth originators talk about their punk origins and being a Disneyland Halloween staple."