The Damned’s dynamic duo, Captain Sensible and Paul Gray, played together in the studio for the first time in 22 years while recording the band’s new album. Gray has been in and out of the band—mostly out—since 1984.
Photo by Tony Woolliscroft
What’s your dual playing relationship like?
Gray: I wish I could analyze it, but it’s one of those musical relationships that’s just worked from the get-go! You don’t often get that, and I struggle to think of any other guitarist that I’ve worked with that I’ve had that relationship with. Captain is the primo guitarist in my book.We both share a love of pop songs. While it might seem unusual that I like Mountain and Deep Purple, considering the music I’m known for playing, Captain is into the really obscure progressive rock stuff and has that in his playing. We both also share a love of melody and those three chords at the start of “Louie Louie” and all of the American garage-rock from the ’60s. We have a tendency towards being first-takers together. It’s a clairvoyant chemistry that can’t be really pinned down.
Being back in New York brought that whole Damned relationship back to all of us, honestly. We had no rehearsals for the recording sessions, as we all live in different places now, and I had only heard the songs three days before, so we were in the deep end. We had confidence in each other that it would work, and we hadn’t played together [in the studio] for nearly 22 years! I’m a dreadful singer, but I’ve got all of these melodies in my head and I kind of approach the bass as a tool for countermelody, and I weave between what the Captain’s playing and what Dave’s singing. Captain’s songs are God’s gift because they’re so melodic. He doesn’t use conventional tunings a lot of the time, and a lot of the strings sort of ring on in an open tuning, and it gives the bass so much more room to trade off and prompts more ideas in my playing.
Sensible: Unlike some punk bassists who could only play by numbers, with the potential song disintegration if they lost their way, Paul can really busk it up! It allows you to throw things into the set on the fly—just call out a key and he’ll have a go at it. It’s an attitude I share, and who cares if there’s a few “jazz notes” in there. Perfection is overrated! Rock ’n’ roll needs its rough edges. And that goes for the records, too!
What gear was important to making the new album?
Sensible: There’s something about the Gibson SG ’60s Tribute. It suits the Damned material better and cleans up nicer with the volume knob than a straight SG Standard, for some reason. It’s cheaper, too, and once you’ve smoothed the frets and boshed on a scratchplate, you’ve got yourself a cracking guitar for what it costs. The finish, too, being less thick, shows off the battle scars nicely. Why hide them, anyway? Who wants to go onstage with an unblemished guitar slung ’round their neck? Not I; that’s for sure.
Other guitars at the studio were a Strat—I never got on with them as the volume knob is too close to bridge; a Rickenbacker 12-string, which I found to be lovely; and the studio acoustic, which had an almost unplayably high action.
Apart from the TC Nova System, for its analog distortions, and a Dunlop wah, the only other pedal used was the H9 Harmonizer. And seeing as Eventide HQ was just across the Hudson, Tony V. invited Tony Agnello to the studio, where, despite working against the clock, everything stopped while we played around with some guitar effects ... or “talent boosters” according to Pinch. [Editor’s note: That’s Andrew Pinching, the Damned’s drummer.] In 1975, Eventide’s Tony designed the first harmonizer, so it was nice to meet the bloke whose gear I’d used so extensively over the years.
What gear are you using live?
Sensible: We have built up a collection of Marshall EL84 20/20 20-watt stereo power amps, which might even have warmed up Mrs. Thatcher’s cold heart if someone had thought of it! It makes pedals sound great, so my live setup, which was formerly my travel rig, but sounded so good it became the main one, is a Dunlop wah into the TC Nova System through a Marshall EL84 20/20 and a Marshall 4x12.
The Nova is great, combining analog distortions with digital delays and reverbs—and despite being a bit long in the tooth these days, there’s not a lot of similar alternatives. Actually, none that I can think of. We’ve a few of these units and they all seem to have an unfortunate tendency—once or twice a tour, perhaps—to freeze mid-song. Which isn’t the end of the world, of course, but there seems to be no fix, according to chatter on gear forums anyway. Luckily, it didn’t choke at the Albert Hall during our 40th anniversary show.
I’ve always used .009–.042 gauge strings: Rotosounds if we can get hold of them. Although fairly light, I find the reduced-thickness picks we’ve moved over to hardly break any strings these days, which is good, because I hate changing guitars mid-gig.
There’s a massive range of guitar ideas in the Damned’s discography, from straight-ahead punk stuff to psych-rock. Has there ever been something that was just too far out for the Damned?
Sensible: I didn’t think there was any chance my colleagues would go for a 14-minute krautrock wig-out (“Dark Asteroid”) last time out, but I was wrong. If they’ll go for that, then there’s not much that’s off limits Damned-wise … apart from opera, that is. I like a bit of everything, drawing your attention—hopefully not unwisely—to the fact that I had the first rap hit by a white artist with 1981’s “Wot!” Please don’t forget the exclamation mark by the way. It’s in the title.
It’s a drag to repeat yourself, and that’s why no two Damned albums sound alike. Not being able to predict what kind of music we’d deliver must’ve pissed off the record labels, because things never lasted long before us being shown the door. It could’ve also been our disgraceful behavior, but who really knows?
The lead guitar breaks on “Evil Spirits” sound very in-the-moment, but also precisely mapped.
Sensible: They are pretty much first takes. Actually, I did go on and try to compose something better, but we liked the skin-of-your-teeth excitement of the originals best. The only tweaking was in the mix with a bit of reamping. I try to avoid soloing for its own sake and you have to judge when it’s run its course and its best to get out for something else to take over, or risk boring the listener for one’s own ego gratification. I don’t know much about scales, but I like the choice of notes in some Indian music and some of that creeps in occasionally with the McPhee, Berry, Hendrix knock-offs. Of course, when younger I may have felt slightly different. I recall after releasing a self indulgent double album featuring quite a lot of trippy guitar noodling, one critic asked, “Who does he think he is? Frank Zappa?” Not quite, but I'll take that as a compliment whether intended or not!
The Damned play their unofficial anthem, “Smash It Up,” from 1979’s Machine Gun Etiquette, at BBC Radio 6’s annual Christmas Punk Party. Captain Sensible and Paul Gray, quite sensibly, stick to their perferrred Gibson SG and Rickenbacker 4001 combination.