Over forty years since the release of their debut studio album, the punk band are heading out on tour. Lead singer David Vanian remembers how it felt to put out the first punk single
By Richard Smirke
Last year you celebrated your 40th anniversary as a band. How did that feel?
Shock horror. How can it be 40 years and how have I been in the same band for so long? Am I turning into Mick Jagger?
Your debut single New Rose is considered the first punk single. Did you realise the significance of that at the time?
It wasn’t a conscious thing. It was just the fact that we’d recorded the album and we could do it. It was time to put the record out and we were just, I guess, lucky enough and maybe our manager at the time was forthright enough to say if we do this we’ll be the first one. It wasn’t a big deal as far as I know. The big deal was actually putting the single out and the fact that you had a record in the shops.
Did you ever think you’d still be going 40 years later?
Not in the same set-up. I was very excited to be in the band. When you’re first in a band that young you don’t think that much beyond what’s happening the next week and you are very aware that it could all be over tomorrow. But if everything goes right and things kept escalating you realise you’re going somewhere and it’s exciting because you’ve gone from being a band in a horrible dingy rehearsal place in the tunnels in Wapping train tunnel to going onstage. Suddenly you’ve got a single and you’re doing a TV show and you’re thinking, wow, this is just like the bands you grew up with. You forget that you should get paid at the same time and you just do it.
How do you remember the punk era?
The 1960s had gone and you’d got the glam rock era and there was lots of craziness happening in advertising, photography, films – everything was pushing at its boundaries a little bit – books, writers. London was a melting pot for people coming together and just looking actively for some outlet for that – this frenetic energy which you could feel in the air. It was everywhere, in tiny, tiny, little pockets. Musicians tended at that time especially to frequent certain areas and certain places because it was too dangerous to walk the streets if you looked like that back then. So people came together and eventually they split off and became bands and writers or politically minded. It was an interesting time. The press got hold of it and as usual they exploit the more negative side in a similar way that they had done with the mods and rockers in the mid to late-1960s where they had seen these skirmishes and made them seem like it was World War Two all over again. That same press was happening with punk because it was something that happened so quickly. Punk was underground for a long time, but when it did surface it was a bit of a shock for everybody.
“Punk didn’t have a clear-cut ideology – it was just a bunch of bands that wanted to play music on their terms.”
What’s your opinion on the nostalgia industry that’s built up around punk? Doesn’t it go against everything punk stood for?
I dispute that. Punk was not about anything – it was about just broadening your horizons and opening yourself to new ideas and having the strength and conviction to do things that you thought you couldn’t do. Punk has opened the doors to people over the years thinking that way – it wasn’t the only thing that did it but it was a catalyst. There wasn’t a clear-cut ideology. It was just a bunch of bands that wanted to play music but they did it on their terms. The punk era was the time when you realised it was possible that you could do not just music but anything if you had a conviction. Or you could try it at least and hopefully have some success. Up until that point it was very much a case of you’ve got to play by the rules. You’ve got to have this qualification.
What does punk represent now?
It’s changed. It went through periods where it started as something and then immediately the press got hold of it was twisted into something more and everyone was using it for their own ends. For all these people that say well punk shouldn’t be in a museum. It shouldn’t be mythologised or this or that and other. For them, their punk is a totally different animal to someone else who has a totally different view on it, so I’ve got a feeling that it’s sometimes a word that covers a multitude of sins.
Were The Damned different from other punk groups?
At the beginning all the bands were very different from each other. The one thing that brought them together was the youthfulness of all the bands and the ideas that we could forge something ourselves. The music was very different and what happened was the second wave of punk a year or so later became bogged down in rules – you should do it this way, you shouldn’t do that, or you should be political. That was never the point. The point was to break down those kinds of barriers and to make it a much freer thing. That to me was going back to the way it was where the older musicians were saying: “Who the hell are this lot coming up?”
Was there camaraderie between the first wave of punk bands?
There was a certain amount. It’s hard for me to say for sure because The Damned were always outsiders and always have been. We were always the unknown. We didn’t play by other people’s rules and we said what we believed and we did it our own way. Whether that’s foolhardy sometimes, it was true to ourselves. What’s kept us going all these years is that the audience knows that whatever we do is not driven by things other than our own stupidity. It’s us that make’s those decisions.
Your new album Evil Spirits is out in April. Is it important to keep recording?
When you reach a certain age obviously there’s eras of your music that people like the best and there is a responsibility to play those songs because that’s what people want to hear – and I do genuinely love the songs. But as a musician you always want to go forward and experiment and move onto new things. That’s one thing where The Damned have been lucky in a way. People have come to expect the unexpected from us. Each album will be slightly different. They won’t expect the same record they bought 10 years ago.
We could just down tools I suppose and just go around the world playing the old songs forever as a nostalgia act but there’s no challenge in that. I like the idea that you can make music that some people will absolutely hate because that’s more of a challenge – to walk on stage and not know if they are going to like it or not. If you’re an older band you can get blasé about “they love it anyway so we can do what we want’. That’s hard for a lot of musicians to do because they live off the applause and adulation. Let’s face it a lot of people get in bands because they want to be a famous rock star, whereas that side of things doesn’t really bother me. Being in band wasn’t a burning desire or something that I imagined I would be doing. It was something through a series of events that I came to be doing. I’ve always felt that the best way to learn a job is just to get in and do it.
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