The band explain how they made their two-part powerpop hit
WARD: Captain had to learn to write. Brian James was gone. They were desperate. Scabies come up with a couple of things, some good stuff, but they had to write and Captain would be in his room for hours playing along to Abba, learning every song.
SENSIBLE: We’d all – Rat, Vanian, myself – been burned by the experience of the first album. It was all written by Brian [James] so the rest of us got zero publishing royalties. Me and Rat had to bunk the train coming up to town as we had no dosh. Playing the Nashville once, we missed the soundcheck and Brian told us to get a cab next time. We were dumbfounded, we could only dream of such extravagance.
SCABIES: This is when Captain found his ear. He’d never really written before but he was a great one for running with the ball. He had a great sense of melody.
SENSIBLE: Someone remarked to me once that the more interesting punk bands were the ones who didn’t necessarily listen to much punk music. We certainly didn’t. Much as I loved the punk attitude, I never understood the two-minute restriction in song length. The tune wasn’t finished until all avenues had been explored.
ARMSTRONG: Captain brought me the demo and we did a bit of rearranging. My feeling from day one was that it was a good pop song – something The Damned always had.They could do the ‘Grrr’ punk thing but they had great melodic sensibility.
WARD: On the demo, Captain played drums, guitar, everything. Scabies wasn’t too happy and Dave’s never happy about anything. We went on tour in America in June 1979 and Captain kept playing it on the tour bus. I couldn’t fathom out what I would play, it didn’t feel like The Damned.
SENSIBLE: I thought that “Smash It Up” was a cracker.
SCABIES: It has real pop sensibility but is subversive enough to not be mainstream.
SENSIBLE: The Groundhogs were full of angst-ridden songs about feeling out of step with society and that’s how I felt. The chords Tony McPhee was using were nowhere to be found in my Bert Weedon Play In A Day book and I had to work hard to learn the inversions and drone string chords he was employing. “Smash It Up” is in G and lets the open G string drone on unfettered by any finger work until the chorus kicks in. Then there’s the timing. I am not au fait with technical matters but I was a bit of a Soft Machine fan and this song’s verse has got a strange count before the chord change to C then back again. You need to ask a music theorist what we were doing ’cos I’ve not got a clue. Many musicians who’ve jammed the song with us over the years have been completely thrown by the oddball timing and things have ended in chaos.
ARMSTRONG: It was worked hard, that record. We cut it at Sound Suite and then took it to Wessex for overdubs. We were in Studio Two and The Clash were in Studio One doing London Calling. We’d sneak into their studio and use their equipment.
SENSIBLE: We got on well, doing backing vocals and handclaps on each other’s albums. The Clash pottered away in a fog of dope smoke, taking ages to actually get anything down on tape, whereas The Damned were speed aficionados. Vanian had also discovered that a couple of gulps of helium made you sound like Mickey Mouse, so of course we ordered a cylinder, which was put to use one evening filling up a condom with Mick Jones’ caricature drawn on it which floated up to the high ceiling in their studio after they’d gone home. Mick wasn’t that amused next morning and they were chucking stuff at it for a good while before it came down and work could commence for the day.
ARMSTRONG: When it comes out of the middle-eight about the “blow wave hairstyles” the record dies for a second and with pop you cannot let it wane for a moment. We needed something in there. I suggested to Captain we put two big piano chords under the first notes of Dave’s vocals, two really positive chords. Captain played it on The Clash’s grand piano and it really held the piece up. The problem then was that there was no other piano on the record, so Captain hammered out a few chords rhythmically at the end of the middle eight which prepares you for the two big chords.
SENSIBLE: Organs put through fuzz boxes, playing the piano strings with drumsticks… It’s a fair cop.
WARD: When we got to the studio I thought, ‘I can’t play this shit.’ I didn’t like the song. I’d played it God knows how many times live, but in the studio my heart wasn’t it.
ARMSTRONG: We had problems with sound on Algy’s bass and Captain put the bass part on.