Captain Sensible aka Raymond Ian Burns. A unique musical figure that succeeded to associate his name with the Punk explosion in Britain in the late ‘70s. One of The Damned’s founding members (where he started initially as a bass player) and afterwards a solo pop singer, Captain displayed from the very beginning all the prerequisites that render him a punk rock icon in people’s minds. Brilliant, sarcastic, unconventional and with a great deal of humour but most importantly, with loads of memories from an era that is long gone. Artcore magazine met Captain, while taking advantage of the wonderful weather, in order to discuss with him his experiences and memories from the turbulent decades of 1970s and 1980s and also his thoughts on future plans as a musician.
Hello Captain! Give us a brief background story of the Damned. How did you guys decide to do this?
Oh well... I was a toilet cleaner and I thought to myself that Britain is actually a class-structured society and is not much chance of me ever making anything of myself because I didn’t get much of an education. I was lazy, I didn’t fancy working as a toilet cleaner for the rest of my life. I particularly hate getting up early in the morning. So, I thought “Ah, fuckin’ ‘ell… Look at those guys on stage, playing guitars and stuff, you know. Women chasing them off the road after that. That’s the job for me!” Then, I bought a guitar to practice a bit and go in a band. That was my motivation really.
Are we talking about mid-70s?
Yeah, yeah, mid-70s.
What about the other members of the band? What is their story?
Just some working class guys. I don’t really know much.
Were they from London?
From kind of suburban towns; Crawley, Croydon, Redhill. Dave was from Hemel Hampstead. Nobody was from the centre of London. All kind of boring places, where people live but work in central London.
How would you describe the socio-political frame of that time in the UK? Was it a rather conservative society? Were there any opportunities for the youth to express themselves in any way they wanted?
We had just come out of the 60s, which was amazing! So many things happened in the 60s! Because whatever people think of the 70s, the50s were a lot worse and in the 60s there were feminist and civil rights movements, anti-war protests, you know. There were so many things happening in the 60s, not just the music and the fashion. It was some sort of a revolution of ideas… The hippie thing “peace, no war”. I mean, I was in school when all that happened, but I never got that out of my system. I mean, seriously, my whole thing is pacifism, you know. I can’t abide war and I actually hate spending a single penny on it and I believe this is the most disgusting thing in society… And now we have to put up with all those continuous wars! And nobody really says anything about this “war on terror”.
Oh yeah, the “war on terror”.
Which is a complete nonsense!
True, but I guess that is another discussion. So, the band was a way for you to express yourself or, let’s say, a radicality within you?
Well, the band was basically my way of fighting a very bleak future of myself. It was entirely personal. I mean, I was also really pissed off with the rubbish we’ve been taught at school. But until I met the Crass people I was just a rebel without a cause. I couldn’t understand why I was angry and those guys helped me figure it out.
How did your family environment react to your decision to get yourself involved with a punk band?
Well, initially they thought that it would be a waste of time, because they couldn’t think that we would be successful. They believed that we were just having fun, making the music we wanted to listen to, cause no one was making a music like that. Everything was really boring back in ’75, ’76. I mean glam rock was pretty great and when it disappeared the only music we were left with was prog rock and country… and that was terrible (at this point he mentions some bands like Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes).
In 1976 you released your fist single “New Rose”. What preceded this release? Did you guys have a sufficient amount of gigs first or did you simply decide to make it official through a full-length album?
We had some gigs, mostly in pubs in London where we had to lie to the manager when he asked us “What sort of band is that you have”. We were looking at the posters on the walls and most of the bands that performed were reggae, blues and prog rock bands. So we just said “Yeah, that sort of band”. But, we were a punk band, so as soon as we started playing they found out what sort of music we were playing and quite often they simply pulled the plug out (laughs)! But there was a whole bunch of people in London (who would attend this kind of gig). I know there were in Manchester as well and Paris and Melbourne in Australia like The Saints; they were playing back in ’75. So, you know, the Pistols would go see the Clash play and they would go to see the Damned play, the Stranglers and whoever. It was quite often that there were other bands among the audience. So, a small scene emerged and a small label approached us at some point and asked us to take our single out. So, they bought us something to eat, which was good because we were starving and during that meal we were signed… and that’s how we got our first single out. I mean, the Pistols waited for a big money deal, but we did it the punk way.
So, whether you knew each other or not you were basically parts of a big family, right?
Oh, we all knew each other. We were rivals! We all wanted to dress better than each other, sound better than each other.
You just wanted to be better than each other?
Yes, yes, everybody basically wanted to be better than the other.
Speaking of which, I think it is a common secret that punk has long lost this “menacing nature” that was initially accounted to it. Which are the reasons according to your opinion that led to this “defeat”?
Well, we got older I suppose (laughs).
But, what happened to this energy that bands like yours or the Pistols, the Slits, the Ruts used to display? Why happened to the cause? Because I don’t really see many authentic punk bands nowadays. I am not saying that this is necessarily bad, don’t get me wrong on that.
Well, I think we were never a movement, we never agreed on anything. We never had any discussions on that, so I can’t really tell you what punk is. It’s just a thousand different people’s ideas. Everyone was thinking something else, so I can’t speak for anybody else. Musically, when we started all groups had different sound from each other. The Pistols sounded nothing like the Buzzcocks and Buzzcocks sounded nothing like the Stranglers and they sounded nothing like the Damned and nobody sounded like the Clash, or wanted to. But some new bands appeared in ’78 –’79 and then punk became a generic sound. They looked like punks and they sounded punk. It was all leather jackets with studs on and mohican haircut and big boots halfway up the leg. If you look at pictures of the Pistols or the Clash in 1976 nobody was dressed like that. It became something else and the sound became something else. I think it somehow started coming down and it became a bit slow and such ‘shouty’ and it didn’t do anything for me. Then, after that the Americans held on to it and it became kind of pop punk. I mean they didn’t really mean it, they just wanted to be rock stars. I mean if the fashion was wearing bright orange trousers or furs and long hair down to their arses, that’s how they would like as long as they were rock stars. You know, the guys in Green Day and others would be wearing these kind of clothes. Apart from one or two bands like the Dead Kennedys or the Black Flag, they were mostly pop punk bands.
You did not listen to other American punk bands?
I pretty much gave up listening to American punk music. I stopped listening after the 80s. I only listen to the music I grew up with. You know bands and records that we were listening between the ages of 10 to 20. That’s the music that stays with us for the rest of our lives.
You also mentioned that you’ve met people from the Bad Brains.
Yeah! We wanted them so much to come to Britain and we thought that the British public would absolutely love them! You know, they’re on fire with this kind of fuzz-drenged, speed punk kind of thing. And then that dub-reggae thing was just what Britain was into in that time. They would have loved the Bad Brains. That’s when I went down to Gatwick airport where they arrived to meet them and I was looking at my watch, wondering “where are they” because the plane had landed two hours ago. And then somebody came through and said that they hadn’t gone through the work permits, so they had to send them back (!!!) I tried to argue with him but, eventually they sent them back. That was really disappointing cause they would be huge in Britain!
But you did spend some time with them during your US tours?
Yeah, we did gigs with them! It was brilliant! We were just sitting in the front watching them. And HR doing his backflips!
Many argue that your first American tour acted as an incentive for many American bands. What would you think of that?
(laughs) I don’t know. I can’t speak for them. We just had some decent gigs out there. And we were quite frankly and badly behaved back in those days. We were trouble makers, always drunk and playing fast, driving the kids pretty mad. Maybe they liked that.
So which were your major influences, like when you were adolescents?
Jimi Hendrix? That was a good answer!
Yeah, Jimi Hendrix was number one for me and… Well, it’s difficult to see past Jimi Hendrix.
So, were you a fan of this psychedelic rock scene? Because Britain had a rather significant one.
It was amazing! I was a schoolboy, and I couldn’t go to these clubs or those “freakout” nights. I didn’t even see Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival because I was too young; the regret of my life. But I witnessed it through the music, you know, and the clips we saw on TV. And I started going to the festivals since 1971. I mean we can hear it. The difference in the music before 1967 and after 1967 is dramatic. Everything went a bit weird in ’67. Even kind of square bands, like the Hollies who they made an amazing psychedelic pop album. And the Bee Gees made an amazing album in 1967 as well called “Bee Gees First”. It’s a beautiful record, I play it all the time still.
Why did you mention 1967 as the turning point?
Because that’s when music changed. Before ’67 there was no psychedelia really. I mean the Beatles’ song “Tomorrow Never Knows” was the first psychedelic song I heard. And then in 1967 everybody made psychedelic albums. Everybody! It was “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (Pink Floyd), Jimi Hendrix’s “Experience”, a fantastic album, “Sgt Peppers” (The Beatles), “Pet Sounds” (The Beach Boys), Bee Gees’ “First”. They were spending time in the studio, experimenting with their sounds. I mean, I know myself how fun it is to spend time in the studio. It’s always fun to look at the sound engineer going “Oh dear…” (laughs) because they know that you are going to ask them to do something that is against the rules of studio techniques. But that’s something we always have done with the Damned, trying to make something really special soundwise.
Not like the simplicity of, let’s say, the Ramones’ songs; “here are three chords, now form a band”...
Yeah, yeah. I like that, but my idea was more about punk with a sense of psychedelia. That’s what I always tried to achieve.
Britain has also a strong legacy in psychedelic rock, with amazing bands and beautiful records like The Open Mind or July. I was always wondering what was in their minds during the composition of those gems. Would you agree on that?
Yeah, we’re talking about the 60s. Once again, when you reach a certain age you look into music through decades, you know. And by the end of the 60s all this magic was happening. The 70s went through so many fashion changes so quickly. From the British blues of late 1960s to the heavy rock of Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath in early to mid 70s to glam rock and then prog rock and that horrible country rock. And of course at the same time discos started getting more and more popular. Then punk rock came along and new romantic. I mean, all these things happened in a timeframe of 10 years, 10 incredible years. Something which I believe doesn’t happen now.
Maybe we lack originality these days. I mean, I am always intrigued to explore the roots of the music genres I like, try to understand them and see how they reflect on the bands and styles among contemporary music. For instance, if it wasn’t for punk there would be no shoegaze or post-punk music, right?
Yeah, and if Chuck Berry hadn’t come along with “Johnny Be Good” or “Maybelline” and all that stuff nothing would be the same. I mean, the guitar playing would be so different because he was the first soloist for me, the first rock soloist. I mean the guy who was playing with Elvis (Scotty Moore) was kind of jazz skiffle. And Chuck Berry was quite direct, he was playing two notes. And I can still here this influence (of Chuck Berry) almost everywhere today. He might be an arsehole but music would have been way different without him (laughs).
Absolutely. To my understanding everything started from the blues. And back then, there was a cause behind the blues.
Yeah… God, I love the blues! And this is why I dislike Elvis so much. You know, he was a pretty boy, he was white and everybody liked him. If he was a rough old black guy would he be so popular? Of course, he fuckin wouldn’t! And a lot of guys who invented blues, rock n roll or whatever, they never got the attention they deserved. Little Richard for example; what a revolutionary he was! A gay black guy playing rock n roll (laughs). He must have been white conservative America’s worst nightmare.
Or even Jerry Lee Lewis. Despite the fact that he was white he was a crazy piano player.
Yeah, I used to listen to him a lot back in the 60s when I was a wannabe biker. And the bike gang I used to hang around with used to play Jerry Lee all the time.
A bike gang? Where was that?
Were you fascinated by bike gang culture?
Oh yeah! All I wanted to be was a biker. I was fifteen or something and I didn’t really know anything about it. I liked this whole “gang rebel” mentality, us against the world and we don’t fuckin’ care. A little bit like punk rock later on.
What’s your opinion about the claims regarding Goth influence in punk that many have attributed to the Damned? Did this happen before Siouxsie and the Banshees came about?
I wasn’t in the band at that time. I left Damned around ’84 – ’85 and then they went on and made that Goth period and they had quite a lot of success probably because I wasn’t there (laughs). I don’t really know as I was not in the Damned then.
Maybe because of your lead singer’s appearance (Dave Vanian) many people associated you with the goth/punk scene.
I mean, the Damned along with two or three other bands started this movement. As I said, I wasn’t part of the band by that time so I don’t know much about it, but the Damned were 100% goth in the mid-80s.
And what did you do after leaving the Damned?
I did some solo career. I made two synth-like albums, with some really nice songs. You know, before 1980, if you wanted to make a record you had to grovel and beg a record label to put you in a recording studio and pay the high costs. You know, up to a thousand pounds a day for some hours in the studio. Some smaller studios could charge you £500 but even then, 500 quid in the 70s was a big, big amount of money. Especially if you consider that I was earning 10 pounds a week as a toilet cleaner, 500 pounds was completely outrageous. So you had to have a record label, you couldn’t make a record without one. In 1980, technology came in. Cheap synthesizers, drum machines and portastudios, cassette portastudios. And you could make a record in your bedroom with 500 pounds. Fuck the record labels! It was a music revolution and you only needed a good idea. You didn’t need the money anymore in order to make a great record. So, I got involved in the synth thing and I bought a synthesizer and I wrote a few songs and it amazed me! And I found myself immediately signed up because of my synth pop songs. And the next thing I know is that I’m in Top of the Pops. But, it happened just like that (rapidly)! I found myself between the Damned and a synth career. And I did both for 2 years. It was really hard work. And I was burning myself out so, I had to choose one of them and I chose the one that was making a lot of money.
Which was your solo career as Captain Sensible?
Yeah, yeah… making lots of money. The Damned didn’t make any money. They were always smashing things. All we had was bills (laughs).
So, is there a concept behind Captain Sensible’s solo career? Did you want to explore something different through that?
No, no I just wanted to make the perfect pop song.
Haha, that’s interesting. Have you succeeded?
No (laughs). You know, you have those legends, like Lennon, Brian Wilson and McCartney. I mean, you can’t compete with these people but I’m still trying. And when I find a collection of chords and melodies it’s always a thrill to me. You know, I think “wow, that’s a lovely song”! I like gentle guitars, some 60s melodies because I love the 60s, beautiful melodies. I just finished one last week. I came up with the title as I was walking towards a store to get some food. And as I was waiting for the food to be prepared I worked out most of the song! So, I went back and wrote it down and I sang it that afternoon. And I’m so happy with the song. The music is great but I mean, the lyrics are good as well. I felt like this was something I wanted to write for 20 years or so. It is about the mystery of why dolphins and whales throw themselves onto the beach or swim up city rivers. What are they hiding? What are they doing? Are they killing themselves? What is happening in the ocean that they don’t like?
Do you have any answers on that? I mean, I have a couple of thoughts on that.
Yeah! I mean if you do some research on why they’re doing this the answer is sonar, military sonar or sonar used to find oil. You know, sonar used to map the seabed but mainly military sonar because always, constantly they’re playing war games with submarines, trying to locate the enemies’ ones. Russians chasing Americans and vice versa. It’s absolutely lunatic and the sonar is so loud that destroys the eardrums of the whales and the dolphins. They throw themselves to the beach to escape this terrible fuckin noise because they’ve been driven mad! So I called this song “The Sonar Deceit” because everybody wonders why they’re killing themselves. But we know! We know!
How was the Asian Tour you just had?
Oh, I loved it! I like travelling and meeting new people, eating different kind of food and having a look at the town wherever you are, travel by public transport, and keeping away from the tourists. You know, I love experiencing a new environment as a local would. And you also learn a lot about where you live by watching other people and how they live.
How was the crowd there? How did they respond during your concerts?
Yeah, pretty well! Pretty different! Not an old crowd, like it is in Britain. Because in Britain, young people never get to hear punk music so they don’t like punk music. They just like what they hear on the radio or on TV. There’s one TV programme that plays music and that is Jools Holland Late Night TV programme and he never ever had punk rocks in his show. Young people in Britain don’t listen to punk music and if they do, it’s not because they heard it on the radio, but because they find it for themselves. But, in other countries it’s different. I mean, in Japan the audience was young, it was amazing! In Australia as well, there was a young audience. But not in Britain, because punk rock is not encouraged. It’s a dirty secret.
Punk is a city product, right? I mean most groups were singing about urban life and the struggles within it. Would you agree?
Oh, well yeah. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t live in the city and was involved with punk rock. All of the bands I know were from big cities.
So, can you recall any strong political or radical moments in the time period between ‘70s and ‘80s that you either participated or witnessed?
Well, the poll tax movement for sure. And the whole skinhead thing, if that’s what you mean. There was this movement called “Rock Against Racism”. Oh, and Eric Clapton was also talking nonsense at that time, which we thought was pretty poor coming from him. I mean, he stole the black men’s music and made millions out of it. So, he was allegedly exposed as a racist. However, you’ll have to look it up because I don’t really remember any details.
Well, Cream was a great band anyhow!
Yes, but he didn’t do anything good after Cream. He was just standing on stage, playing his guitar solos. There were quite a lot of good guitar players at that time in Britain anyone of which could have done the same job. The geniuses of the Cream were Jack Bruce with the amazing voice and the virtuoso bass technique and Ginger Baker, that incredibly inventive drummer! Eric Clapton was playing guitar solos that anyone could do. Well, at least out of 10 to 15 great guitarists like Jeff Beck, Tonny Iommi (Black Sabbath), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) or Pete Townsend (The Who). So the weakest part of the Cream was Eric Clapton. The other two guys were geniuses! So… fuck him! (laughs)
So, what’s your opinion about present day punk rock?
I don’t have a clue! (laughs)
I mean I have been to several punk gigs here, where old UK punk bands were performing like The Vibrators or Alternative TV and Stiff Little Fingers and I noticed that the average age among the crowd is over 40s. Why’s that happening?
If it was an American punk group it would be absolutely full because they have music videos shown on cable channels and stuff. You know, there are two different kind of punks; the one before the Americans got hold of it and the one after. I mean, those American punk groups are massively popular! But you know, the Vibrators probably got around 100 people and Green Day probably 100.000.
However, I’m pleased to see people from that era still attending old-school punk shows. People who were probably part of the scene back there and they are still enthusiasts, like the guy from UK Subs.
You know, British music back then was some sort of revolution. It was a sensation and the whole world was watching. And punk rock was part of that and it started everywhere! But, is Britain proud of that? No! It is not encouraged, it is not played on the radio, and they hardly ever talk about it. You know, the punk roots like Mick Jones (The Clash) and the rest, they should be on the TV all the time. Are they? No. It’s like a soviet establishment, an unwritten rule that dictates “don’t encourage anything like that!” We don’t want any other street revolts, like punks. If people thought that it would be successful they would all be doing it still. So, punk rock? Nah, don’t talk about it. It’s never on TV or maybe one or two programmes.
Do you think that Johnny Rotten’s “fuck off” on a live broadcasting contributed to that?
No, it had nothing to do with that. I think the fact that working class people got together and created something out of nothing made the establishment not to encourage these sorts of actions. I mean, punk rock should be celebrated in this country. Great bands from London or Manchester and they were never heard on the radio. There’s no punk on the radio ever, is there? I mean in Germany radios do play a lot of punk rock. There are those two mega punk bands, Die Ärzte (Berlin) and Die Toten Hosen (Dusseldorf) which they’re actually huge. They are played on the radio all the time. You know, the media are controlled by someone in the government and radios are asked not to play any kind of music that actually says something. They believe that music shouldn’t be political. They even stopped playing John Lennon’s anti-war songs on the radio! To have a radio station in Britain you need to obey a lot of rules. You know, your hour news bulletins must say the right thing like “we need to fight terrorism and send our troops to the Middle East” and “more privatization is coming and that will bring more money to the British people” … You know, wonderful news! You can’t have any political punk messages on the radio; it’s not allowed!
Maybe only through pirate stations...
There is no pirate station anymore. I remember them well, I used to listen to them you know, using a small radio, hidden under my pillow. And now we have the internet, which allows alternative ideas to spread.
Any interesting music that you’ve been hearing to lately?
Nah, I don’t really listen to music after 80s. I have my records, listening to them and I’m quite happy with that. I’m not looking for any new music. I got all the records I ever needed and I love them dearly. I enjoy looking for beautiful first editions in the record stores. I got around 70 albums and that’s all I need.
Could you make a top 5 of those?
You know, I did this for a website called the Quietus. I did my top 10 there.
Are the Damned still active in terms of recording?
We’re going to make an album this year.
Brilliant! Looking forward to that! Thank you very much for your time Captain and sharing all these memories and thoughts of yours. Any last comments?
I’m just happy to be here, enjoying my every moment of being alive and healthy. You know, I hear people moaning that the weather is terrible or that they don’t have any money or “Ah, I got this terrible gig tonight” and stuff like that. We should be happy to be alive and take advantage of every single moment! We will not be here for long! Life just flies by!
The interview occurred for the 40th anniversary of The Damned’s debut album ‘Damned, Damned, Damned’ (1977)
Interviewer: Alexandros Daniilidis