I had the very good fortune to first meet Captain Sensible 25 or so years ago, when I helped release The Damned’s seminal Machine Gun Etiquette for its first American release. It’s been one of the most rewarding encounters I’ve experienced in all of my years in music. A very kind, warm, unfailingly honest and good soul, Captain Sensible has been, and continues to be, an influence in my own musical quests. A “musician’s musician”, Sensible is a guitarist par excellence, keyboardist, writer – someone who has the skill to do it all with melody and energy. He also speaks with a lot of heart and care and it doesn’t matter if he’s from the old guard of punks; he’s still got passion and fire.
And now, some 39 years after The Damned’s debut, he introduces us to a “new” (for these shores) band, Dead Men Walking. Along for the voyage on their maiden studio release, Easy Piracy, are Mike Peters (The Alarm), Chris Cheney (The Living End) and Slim Jim Phantom (The Stray Cats). Showing that older rock & rollers don’t need to slow down, Easy Piracy clearly demonstrates that they just get more melodic and rollicking.
I had the opportunity to speak with the Captain recently after many years; it was wonderful to reconnect and pick up. He was incredibly generous with his time and I thank him for being patient, to Carise Yatter for getting the wheels rolling and most of all to Popdose’s own Brother Matt Wardlaw for suggesting it…:
Since this is something of a “new” group – at least for the United States with this being your first release over here, if you don’t mind, can you take us through the genesis of how the band developed – with everyone involved and having such busy schedules, it does seem like a very happy collaboration of old friends getting together and making some great music. If you would, just give us a background…
I knew Mike from the ‘80’s; a fine decade, if you ask me (laughs); I knew him from The Alarm, obviously and had done a bit of TV with him and stuff like that – and I seem to remember propping up the bar a few times with him back in the day… So when I bumped into him a few years ago, we hadn’t seen each other for a while and he asked me if I fancied playing bass for a few gigs with a band that had a rolling line-up, I jumped at it. I thought, “well, yeah, I’ll have some of that” and Slim Jim was playing drums at the time.
We all get together in the dressing room and we can’t believe how – free – the whole thing is. Nobody’s elbowing anyone out of the way to claim more than their fair share of the limelight; it’s very all for one and one for all. And we actually turned that kind of camaraderie into this jolly, nautical, pirate kind of theme – you should see the emails; it’s “ahoy, me hearties!” (both laugh) “We’ll take this out on the seven seas – smooth sailing ahead!” The emails are full of that kind of stuff and we’ve created a fun little scene here. It’s just really nice to work with these people.
The vibe that I got in listening to the album is that it’s very… breezy. A bunch of friends enjoying what they’re doing and it comes across; the positiveness translates to the music. It’s what makes the album a pleasure to listen to from start to finish; it’s such a good time being had by all. Would that be a fair assumption?
Yeah! It was quite easy to write, certainly; everyone in the band writes and if you can, do it! Slim Jim is quite a lyricist… In the studio, it all went really smoothly and it reminded me of the days when I was in the Johnny Moped group, rehearsing in a garage – it was that kind of thing. There was just no pressure.
It sounds like the album came together fairly easily.
A lot of it was done in down time at studios with a knocked-down price. In Liverpool, funnily enough, we did some of it down the street where The Beatles used to drink and there was a Beatles-kind of thing hovering over our shoulders when we did it because we’re all fans of that kind of stuff.
As far as where the general vibe is coming from, we’re all fans of rock and roll; I mean the Eddie Cochran, Little Richard rock and roll; we all like glam rock as well – there’s a lot of hand claps on the album. In fact we tried to put them on every track! I mean Gary Glitter, Mud, Sweet – they all had hand claps on them and that was our template, really.
(both laughing) So it’s kind of glam-punk-rock and roll, if you like. I think that sums it up nicely! But done with a kind of acoustic vibe. And there’s nothing “loud” about the album; nowadays, it’s nice to be able to hear the lyrics. In the old days, I just used to want to shove my head in the bass rig and rattle my brain a bit, but now I want to hear the lyrics and walk away from the gig without my ears ringing. So I think it’s kind of like that but it sounds fresher for it.
That’s one of the things I immediately noticed about the album is the production. Was it a group production? I haven’t seen or read anywhere whether you had a producer working on it or again, like the music itself, was it a collaborative effort?
Yeah, there’s no producer; some of the engineers were really good. The geezer in Liverpool – I’m sorry, I can’t remember the chap’s name – and in Los Angeles was really good – but no, we just did it ourselves. (laughs) Between us, we’ve got hundreds of years in recording studios! So we should know how to do it by now.
It sounds wonderful. What I love about it – what you brought up about the acoustic guitars, which sound so crisp and buoyant. There is nothing better than when you hear a record that has a quality production; where you can not only feel the acoustic guitars but you hear them in that chiming manner that I personally prefer. You’ve got the songs; the songs themselves sound great, the structure and influences I picked up on but to hear the acoustic guitars, sometimes in that warm, strummed manner or sometimes a little more treble-y… It seemed to go from strength to strength with what each track required. It wasn’t about the performance per se but what the song needs. And that kind of approach hit the mark with every song.
I completely agree and for me it’s always been about what the song needs. You know yourself – that when you’re in the studio and you go in there and you’ve written a song, the songwriter wants the song to sound good. He doesn’t want any individual member of the band to sound good; it’s all about the song. Unfortunately, a lot of musicians will say when it comes to the mixing stage, “I think we should turn certain instruments up; I can’t hear those certain instruments”, “it’s not loud enough”, “we should put reverb on that certain instrument”… (laughs) You know what I mean.
In the studio, every member of the band always makes a pitch for their instrument to go up in the mix – the fucking song is the important thing. And it should always be that way; that’s the producer’s job – to mix the thing and do the best that you can do for the song.
The thing about Dead Men Walking is – and it’s not surprising, as we’re all songwriters – is that’s what we thinking of. At no time did I hear any member of the band say during any of the sessions “can my instrument go up?” I actually turned myself down a couple of times just for the song’s sake.
The other thing about recording, which is something so many young bands could take heed of this advice, because we all have in our computers and laptops… There is a lot of powerful software which will maximize and autocorrect and compress and enhance the audio to such a degree that it ends up making everything, for me, sound unlistenable. You have to be really careful with that stuff and not overdo it. We were very mindful of that during these sessions – to layoff these powerful plugins and software. We did record it digitally; we didn’t use tapes but we tried to do it as though we were using 2” tape. And we were using as much analog as we possibly could; analog pedals and gear like that and not pumping everything up to the max as most records these days. And young bands should really take more care in not succumbing to the temptation of “oh, it’s louder than everyone else’s records – it’ll jump through the speakers and blast everyone” and that sort of stuff.
In the ‘70’s and ‘60’s – the “Golden Age”, if you like, records sounded beautiful; you can’t listen to Abraxas by Santana or Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys or Happy Trails by Quicksilver Messenger Service and not be absolutely thrilled by the beauty of the audio capturing process as compared to the way everything’s layered and maximized… I rest my case! (laughs)
I couldn’t agree with you more.
When I hear a new album by a new band that is good, then I’m absolutely thrilled. I love this album by a band called The Pains Of Being Pure Of Heart. Do you know them? I think they’re from New Jersey; it’s magnificent. It’s a kind of a grungy-shoegazer pop album with the emphasis on “pop”; their songs are just brilliant. Such a great record; full of grunge-y feedback – it’s always amazing when you hear something like that; kind of like when I first heard the first Ramones album. Because you wonder if they’re putting it on or whether it’s a “considered” low-fi kind of thing; whether they are kind of inept or really trying to conceal their genius. The Pains Of Being Pure Of Heart’s album reminds me so much of that; the whole album is perfect from start to finish. To hear a new album that’s good is really exciting, isn’t it?
If you don’t mind, let’s talk about some of the album tracks that really stand out because these are the particular songs that are still living with me after having listened to the album several times. Like “The Weather Song”, which to me, is vintage Captain Sensible-style. (Captain laughs)
Sorry, I was just cackling… how did you know that was one of mine? (laughing)
Well, you’re singing! (both laugh) It’s that ever-well-loved and instantly recognizable voice! It’s the man himself!
I just thought to myself, “well, the song has written itself”. Because of a collection through a number of years in Britain, there hadn’t been a decent summer. And I thought “do you think this might have something to do with climate change?” I got angry and I rattled that song off in about 15 minutes. Because I was on a rant, like I still do on stage sometimes, I was angry, cursing and swearing and I left those lyrics I’d written on the spur of the moment in the song. Because there’s no other way of putting it, really; we’ve fucked up the weather – this is today’s weather and you have to now expect the unexpected. And that’s the way it’s going to be for all time, I suppose, for the future of the planet. There’s no such thing as “normal” anymore. But it’s kind of novel pop song.
And the beauty of it is that it IS a pop song – or has the framework of a pop song – but there’s a great deal of emotion in it. Yes, it’s a rant but those lyrics are very, very poignant and very powerful. It should be taken very seriously because it’s saying in a straightforward manner what needs to be said. So I think you hit the mark on every note.
Yeah. I didn’t mention it in the song but there are countries that are going to disappear under the water; it’s unthinkable what’s going to happen as sea levels rise. It’s tragic for the densely populated areas for what you would call the Third World; the people have nowhere to go. So I was pretty angry when I wrote that. I’d been reading in the newspapers these overpaid buffoons – these columnists – the great thing about being a songwriter; you can get on your soapbox and say what you think.
At the same time, it’s vitally important because you’ve got people out there who are going to listen and if they’re understanding or taking a song personally and taking it to heart, then maybe the message in the song will help propel them to do something; to act upon it.
You’re going to hopefully get more sense made from the atrocity of a situation; you’re going to get more sense from punk rock musicians than you are from your elected leaders, whose only interest in life really is to keep on their own gravy train.
Another one that stood out for me and has been living with me is “Song For Eddie”, which is absolutely brilliant. I knew it was a tribute to Eddie Cochran, but style aside, I love how the lyrics were strung together, using a lot of Eddie’s songtitles and words from his songs, not in a clichéd or hackneyed manner. That sounds like it must have been one of the most fun tracks to cut. I could almost picture you guys doing it in the studio.
Yeah! And you know the theme with that one was with the punks and the Mods and the Teds, you know – all the rest of us come together. Music is the great – I don’t know ; it brings us all together, hopefully. Whether it’s punk, rap or big band jazz – whatever – it doesn’t matter. The people I don’t trust in life are the ones that don’t go to gigs (laughs). It’s like one of those who’ve gone to see an Andrew Lloyd Webber theatrical… they’ve only seen live music as they pig out in front of their TV’s watching “X Factor” and they think they’re seeing music. Those are the people who need to get out more and get the blinkers off their eyes; these are the people we’re talking about.
Live music is everything for me. It’s been my whole life – and I’ve never been to see a band – from Brian Wilson to anyone, including young bands I watch in local pubs, where I live in Brighton – I can learn something from every performance I watch. Even if it’s not how to do things.
When I saw James Brown – he was so great; he was so brilliant. I was gob-smacked throughout the whole gig at how so incredible the guy was. And he did this thing (laughing) where he thought his microphone wasn’t working, so he shoved it down the horn of the baritone sax. So when the guy went to do his solo, it nearly blew up the PA. It was a great moment in rock and roll, but I’ll tell you what – the fucking soundman freaked totally out (both laugh) because he nearly lost his fingers, let alone the gig.
I just love live music because you have to expect the unexpected. Choreography and repartee and coming up with steps… it’s just wrong.
To me, “Song For Eddie” could be a kind of roadmap for the younger generation who would hear the song and hopefully “get it” and want to learn from it. You hear it, you think about it; you want to investigate it – who is this Eddie – and then find out that he was this incredible rock and roll musician from another era, making you want to pick up a guitar, write songs and carry on in the tradition – thus doing it the way it was meant to be done.
Yeah, once again, I agree with you. There was Eddie Cochran, there was Chuck Berry… Without Eddie Cochran, there’d be no me, that’s for sure.
And I love to hear a pop song with a message. That’s the holy grail for me; to know it actually means something. To be able to write a song that people will listen to is a privilege; why waste a meaningless lyric on a song when you can talk to people? So that’s what I try to do.
Because I view songwriting the way you do, what you’re saying is you’re doing what you feel you’re meant to do by writing a song that has meaning and validity and hopefully the person who hears it will get the meaning behind it and take it to heart or mind or both and let it inspire them. And let them feel from it. And let them think from it, instead of it being just fluff.