Had punk not happened, explains Chris Millar, his life would have turned out very differently. For one, he wouldn’t have taken on the nickname Rat Scabies. “I hated the name at first,” he says. “But I didn’t think anybody would like the music, so assuming an alias meant I could stay on the dole. Then, when the bubble burst after three months, I could go back to being Chris Millar and get a proper job as a drummer on a cruise ship.”
Scabies was a veteran of a band called Tart, or the Tarts. Brian James, meanwhile, struggled to get gigs with his band, Bastard, and decamped to Brussels. There, inspired by Lou Reed’s 1974 Rock ’n’ Roll Animal tour, he cut off his hair. This symbolic act had far-reaching consequences.
“I don’t think Brian gets enough credit for what an instrumental figure he was in punk,” says Scabies. “He was into avant-garde jazz, so was coming from this free-form mentality, but also got the whole thing about three-minute pop songs. He was the first one with short hair and nobody played like him. His philosophy on music was that it should be free and it should have energy.”
James met Scabies at an audition for proto-punks London SS. While the other members weren’t impressed by Scabies – possibly because he actually had scabies at the time – James saw a kindred spirit. “He brought out that old jazz-inspired stuff in me,” says James. “That Miles Davis-Elvin Jones thing. He was a bit more off the-wall, but he wasn’t a Charlie Watts or a slogger from the heavy metal circuit.”
When Scabies returned to his day job moving pianos at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, he enthused about James to a colleague, one of the toilet attendants. “He’d answered this ad in Melody Maker and came back with his hair chopped off,” recalls Ray Burns. “He told me he’d met this bloke who was a visionary, talking about this new music he wants to make and they needed a bass player. So I joined.”
How best to round out the lineup? Scabies next met Dave Vanian, who was working as a gravedigger and hustling for work as a commercial artist. Vanian dressed like Dracula (“I was the only kid at school in winklepickers”) and, while shopping in Sex, attracted the attention of Malcolm McLaren. “He liked the way I looked,” says Vanian. “I ended up in the studio with this group of people, like Rat, who Malcolm thought were interesting.”
The audition with McLaren went nowhere, but Vanian was an unforgettable presence. When Scabies ran into him again at a Pistols gig, he invited Vanian to audition for the new band. He also invited a tall, thin guy who was hanging out with the Pistols. Sid Vicious didn’t turn up, but Vanian did. He got the gig.
They had a band but, due to the haphazard recruitment process, one with disparate tastes, from Vanian’s interest in soundtracks to Sensible’s fondness for Krautrock. For now, however, they united around James, their principal songwriter, who in turn drew inspiration from bands like the MC5 and the Stooges. The Damned made their live debut at the 100 Club in July supporting the Pistols. Events moved swiftly. In October, while other punk bands waited for a major deal, The Damned released “New Rose” on Stiff. “The relationship with Jake was the turning point,” says Scabies. “Jake was clued up, he knew who the Stooges and MC5 were and just wanted to get on with it. We had a song and studio, so we went and recorded it.”
Backed by a Ramones-style cover of “Help!”, “New Rose” celebrated the ascendant era, but by then punk was already starting to fracture. For Scabies, the defining spirit of punk was aesthetic rather than musical, theoretical or political – it was about clothes and attitude. “We all looked different from what went before, but there wasn’t a philosophy beyond being free to do whatever you want,” he says. “We had no rules.” This refusal to toe the line drawn by McLaren and Bernie Rhodes was not without problems. In December, 1976, The Damned were thrown off the Anarchy tour. “Malcolm was inventing reasons to get dates cancelled as it was better publicity and the Pistols were pretty shambolic,” says Roger Armstrong, whose Chiswick label signed The Damned a few years later. “The Damned just wanted to play. They then broke the embargo against Malcolm’s will and were ostracised.”
The speed at which The Damned moved through 1977 can be measured by the gigs they played – more than 130 – and the albums they released – two. In February they released their debut LP, Damned Damned Damned. It was written almost entirely by James, though the bandmembers were all serious musicians. Scabies, says Sensible, was a “phenomenal” drummer. Scabies returns the compliment. “Brian was in charge, but Captain would vary the bass to make it interesting,” he says. “Captain was a guitarist really and, as Brian and I were brought up on that guitar-drummer combination, it gave the Captain a lot of space. With the bass, the first thing was, he didn’t want to play it and the second thing was, he wanted to be noticed for playing it. I loved his bass playing.”
Sensible, meanwhile, offered a colourful alternative to the dark vampirism of Vanian. He wore a tutu, nurse’s outfit or red beret and would goad the crowd, acting up to such an extent a second guitarist, Lu Edmonds, had to be recruited to fill the sound. “We used to take it as a compliment when old farts scuttled towards the exit holding their ears,” says Sensible. “Dave had demonic presence, I was the chaos factor. Compared to what was around, we were pretty extreme.”
“We were wild, but we were still able to do our job,” reflects Vanian. “Although some of our gigs must have been atrocious. We had no rider, so we were like students – we’d get something and drink it as quickly as possible. It was particularly bad in the south-west when we went past the place they made Sheppy’s Cider. We’d run in and get gallon cans of rotgut, promising that these were for when we got home, but inevitably somebody would open theirs in the dressing room. By the time the gig began we could barely crawl. I feel I should apologise to anyone who saw us play there.”
The Damned toured America in 1977, inspiring a slew of imitators like The Dickies. But The Damned didn’t regard punk as Year Zero. They saw themselves as a continuation of the underground tradition of bands like the Pink Fairies, and reached out to the old guard. In 1977, they went on the road with Marc Bolan. “While other old rockers like Collins and Richards loathed punk, Marc dug it,” says Sensible. “He had time to chat. He sped up his performances correspondingly. His fans and ours really dug each band’s show, so the tour turned out a winner. I remember both bands jamming ‘Get It On’ in Portsmouth.”
Syd Barrett was another hero, and The Damned asked him to produce their second album, but instead settled for Nick Mason. The second LP, December’s Music For Pleasure, included contributions from jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill. But by now the band had ran out of steam. In November, a frazzled Scabies jumped ship mid-tour and James soon followed, disillusioned with the scene he’d help create. “It was all getting a bit samey,” he says. “The whole point of punk was to do your own thing, but when we came back from the States I went to a Clash gig and everybody looked the same. It was like the Bay City Rollers. There was a second wave of bands trying to sound like the first wave. They didn’t get it.” In February 1978, The Damned split up.