PUNK VET VANIAN REFLECTS ...on The Damned, Bolan, Bowie, The Pistols & more
Dave Vanian hasn't done many interviews in the past, apparently, even absenting himself from them for the official book on The Damned by the late great Carol Clerk.
But he's talking a lot these days - far more than the 350 word piece I wrote for the Daily Mirror on Friday April 13th 2018 could hold.
So with out further Sade Adu...a transcript of our chat.
Good guy, yer Dave - his thoughtfulness and candour made this old hack's job easy too!
GM: Oh, hi. It’s the Daily Mirror to do an interview.
DV: Hello there, how are you?
GM: Yeah, not too bad, yeah. How are you doing?
DV: Yeah. Still swinging.
GM: Good stuff. And so yeah. Big time for The Damned, I suppose. Has it been a big time for The Damned for quite a long time now?
DV: [laughs] Forty years!
GM: Has it felt like an upswing for forty years? Has there been peaks and troughs?
DV: Yeah, always. Some of the troughs I didn’t know if we were going to get up out of, but we have managed to. Yeah. Maybe this is our last big hurrah but I wanted to make it a good one, you know.
GM: And thinking back to where you were when you started off in 1976, what were your expectations? I mean, I suppose it was a few years before then. Were all those people in London that you were all a part of, were you all gunning for the sort of success that Bowie and Bolan had, or…?
DV: I don’t know if it was as far-reaching as that at the time. I think…I don’t know what it was like for other people. I can’t say because I think there were people who went into being in a band who, that’s what they really wanted to do, that was their main goal in life. Whereas I kind of came across it by accident in a weird way of I was failing to get a job as an artist as a commercial medium, a commercial artist. And I just got in a conversation with people who said “can you sing?” You know, and ended up somehow rehearsing with a band that I’d never met before. And then from that came an introduction to Brian James and working with The Damned. So I didn’t have a burning desire to be a pop star at that time. But obviously I loved music, and I always had done.
GM: And I mean, The Damned obviously would be the survivor of the tripartite of original punk London bands. The Clash and the Sex Pistols being the other ones. Did it feel very exciting to be part of an alternative movement? Did it feel like that as it was happening, or was it just having a laugh?
DV: I mean, I think it…the thing is, very, very young and haven’t been anywhere at all. So you’re in a band, you’re travelling around the country, you go on an aeroplane for the first time, you go to a foreign country, you’ve never been there. You’re doing all these things as firsts. And you’re in a band and everything is escalating and it’s going incredibly fast. I mean, yeah, the first album was recorded in three days. You didn’t have time to stop and think about your situation. You were just “right, you’re going here now and you’re doing this.” And everything was like, your heard was spinning with it but you were running with it like you were in the middle of a tornado. It was fantastic and exciting.
And you know, at first it didn’t even have a name, it wasn’t punk rock. It was just a band, and you were just heading out there. And it was very exciting. It was a fantastic was to…you know, anybody who’s sixteen or seventeen years old and gets caught up in something like that would agree it’s an incredible thing, you know. And especially then, it was a whole different world. And it wasn’t that different from the ‘50s, you know, and the ‘60s in terms of there was still a sort of great divide between teenagers and adults. And now, there isn’t that divide. It seems we all have homogenised, we all talk to each other. It’s all kind of different.
And it was very much the establishment, and there was working class man. And there was a lot of more old customs that had been passed down for centuries that hadn’t changed, so the situation was very different for us. And so to do what we were doing was incredibly exciting and rewarding and it just was great to do. And obviously we were enjoying it, we were young guys and we were having a laugh at the same time as well. But we were always very serious about the music side of it.
GM: And what did you take from your field, career, in commercial art to music when you started to do music?
DV: Well, I just think probably because my tastes are more eclectic, and I lean towards the more theatrical, the more melodramatic. Even now, my record CD collection and stuff, it’s predominantly soundtrack music and film music and festival music. As opposed to a lot of singers, which you’d think it would be a lot of singers for me. I’ve got a lot of girl vocalists, funnily enough. I guess I looked at things differently. I mean, I was lucky enough in a weird way, I kind of got my job anyway, because as time went by I ended up designing record sleeves and logos and all the stuff that I would have been doing anyway. So I was able to bring that to the fore. But to be honest, I was always who I was before I was in the band, and I was picked because I was odd looking or whatever to them at the time. Luckily, I could actually…I learnt to sing, basically, very quickly. [laughs]
GM: Yeah, the band has been through a lot of changes. You have been pretty much the presiding person that’s never left apart from the two Gary Holton gigs. So is there something in your character that has made you a very resolute kind of stoical individual? Is that from your mother and father?
DV: I don’t know. I think some of it’s from my father’s side. He had that kind of personality. And also, you know, it’s always been a kind of…you stick with something until it works, you know. And when there’s still life in something and it’s really good, you don’t want to abandon it, even though things are hard, and you might have management, record company and personal issues. Like all bands do. Because you’re living life as well as being in a band. And you know, you have to balance them all out to what’s important. And I just think that the band have always had something very special to put across. And it’s not always been recognised, you know. Especially musically.
I think there was time when the band were overlooked because of our stupid behaviour probably, and our craziness. It kind of got in the way of people realising “well hold on a minute, this is actually pretty good music. That’s a good guitar part. And that’s a good drum part.” And I saw other people who kind of towed the line a bit more, and who maybe practiced, you know, preached politics and saying they were changing the world, but in actual fact they were just becoming part of the established system and doing it the way that it’s always been done. I think were we were always on the outside. And it worked against us and it worked for us.
But I wouldn’t have changed the fact that we individually and together we have remained who we are. We’ve always been very honest. In the very first days of punk, you know, people were saying ridiculous things like “ah, I’m not doing it for the money” and all this sort of stuff. But, well, how do you expect to live, then? It’s great, it’s a career, you’re going to make music. But you’ve also got to pay the rent. So we were more realists than that. But it was a dirty word to say you wanted to get paid for a job. [chuckles]
GM: What are your memories of The Clash as a unit of new musical thing happening on stage? What are your memories of seeing The Clash?
DV: I think The Clash were great live band. I mean, they were a good band, there’s no doubt about that. I mean, they were kind of a…I think they were manipulated a bit press-wise by their management. I think there was a lot of political stuff which I felt wasn’t really them, it was the manager’s side of things. But that was the same with all of those bands back then. You certainly…the Pistols were almost the first anarchistic boy band ever made by McLaren, you know. If it hadn’t been for the kind of enigmatic character of Rotten in the front, you wouldn’t have had a band that would have been remembered at all.
GM: Yeah. Yeah. He must have been a bit of a difficult person to be around for any length of time.
GM: I was not surprised when I interviewed them in 1996 when they got back together. Not that it was sad they’d only been together eighteen months or whatever, I just thought it was a miracle that they had, if they were in that proximity for any length of time.
GM: I mean, great folk and fantastic for world of culture rock and roll. [laughs]
DV: Yeah. You don’t actually want to live with that, do you? No, I know. [laughs] That’s the thing. And I think our band, we have, no matter who we are, we have an innate all of us, no matter who we are, a sense of humour, so we’re able to get over things. We’re perhaps a bit hard skinned. And that’s been a strength of us, because if you didn’t have a sense of humour, we would have gone long ago. And I think also we enjoy each others’ company, which is ridiculous after all these years, you know.
GM: So how did you meet your wife?
DV: Well, I actually met her before I even knew I’d met her. I ran into her in a corridor in ’76. But I was wearing a mask at the time.
GM: Bloody hell.
DV: She went running off. But I actually met her through a mutual friend. I’d seen photos of her. And she was in the band The Bags, and then of course she went into The Gun Club. I just really wanted to meet her. And then when we met it was just instant really, and we kind of worked out how we could be together. So…
GM: Considering the business you’re in as they say, it’s a very sort of long-standing relationship. What’s the secret of your survival? How has your relationship survive for so long where others have perished?
DV: Well, I think one of the reasons is because we were both musicians, so she understands exactly what’s called of you when you do something, and the fact you’re going away and you’re doing things that are going to take time. She understand all that. And I think we are very…we like each other, we like what we do, and we’re very similar in our tastes. And we’re both quite weirdly down to earth. I’m a bit more off the wall than she is probably, but she is very grounded which is good for me in actual fact. I mean she’s been very helpful, helped me stay where I am to be honest. Because I think I needed someone who would ground me occasionally, because there have been times I thought I should call it a day, you know.
GM: And what would you do if you did call it a day?
DV: Well, I don’t know. There was a time…
DV: There was a time when I actually considered living on Bodmin Moor with a large wolf dog, and sculpting. [laughs]
GM: Okay. Right.
DV: I had the dog on order from a lady called Sadie up in Scotland who bred these beautiful dogs that were half wolf and half Alsatian, basically. They were more manageable. And I had a house in mind, and I thought yeah, I have a Heathcliff-ian type fantasy. And maybe writing music too, but just getting away from it all and just creating something, and kind of living and reading. More simple life in a weird way. But thankfully I didn’t actually do that.
GM: Do you know that old Basil Rathbone, Sherlock Holmes, Hound Of The Baskervilles, Bodmin Moor? I always think of it. It’s a studio recreation. I always think of the moors with the mist on it.
DV: Oh yeah, yeah.
GM: I always think of that. [laughs]
DV: And the hound baying. And the Grimpen mire that you mustn’t fall in that ponies used to get drowned in. Which is funny, because that motif came back in The Lady In Black. If you’ve ever read the book, he keeps hearing these cries in the night, and they’re actually the ghostly sounds of the ponies that have gone into the mire and never gotten out. If you ever heard a horse in trouble, it’s a really frightening sound.
GM: Yeah, yeah.
DV: Like screams from horses. It’s very chilling. Because that…my whole life has been one of wanting to live in some gothic mansion, you know, etc, etc. And I never really got that far, unfortunately. But hopefully I might get there before I die.
GM: With the whole naming of that sub-genre that followed in your wake, you know, do you ever feel like the godfather of what they call gothic rock?
DV: I don’t, no. I think titles are what other people put on you, and all I know is that I was doing those things and still have the same interests, you know, gothic architecture and books and everything. So the style and everything has never changed with me. But you know, it wasn’t a fad. And I think some ways at first, I felt almost as if it was your private life being opened up and suddenly it’s not such a personal thing any more. It’s everywhere, you know?
There used to be a time where if you saw a ring with a skull on it, it was something very special that you wouldn’t find anywhere. Now it’s in every high street shop. So it feels a little bit like that. But basically that doesn’t…I’m still basically that same person. It wasn’t an affectation, it’s just something that is me. Maybe I was born in slightly the wrong time or something, but my leanings are towards that. You know, I could quite happily live in Baskerville Hall, as you say.
GM: Yeah, yeah. And do you have, when you look back at the forty years of The Damned, do you have a significant moments that stand out, very vivid images that you can remember? I don’t know, of something at a gig, or at a particular high point or a moment? Are there specific moments?
DV: There’s several. I mean, you know, over the time there’s been so many because obviously our career’s gone on so long. The first gigs in New York City were in CBGBs, and they were two shows a night for three nights in a row, Dead Boys supporting us. And every show was packed. We’d never done two shows a night. So you’d go on at maybe eleven, maybe half eleven, and then suddenly you’d have to have a five minute break and do it all over again. A bit like The Beatles or something back in the day, you know. And it was great fun. I mean, the first day that we did it I think we blew it because you put so much into it, you didn’t know where the rest was going to come from.
But the room was packed with people from bands, and it was the New York kind of, all the people that were creating music before punk even started and wanted to get in and see what the hell this was from England. And just that very first tour, and getting to the west coast as well. It was because America hadn’t changed so much then from what we saw in old movies and things. Hollywood seems a ghost of what it was, but still amazing. And that kind of thing was incredible. And then right up to things like…we did a gig, we had some trouble at this gig, actually. We were supposed to play a festival in France and we were heading towards the ferry.
And believe it or not, we were in two cars. And the first car, my car, had myself, Patricia, and Monty the keyboard player. So everyone else was in the first car. The first car was just about to get on the ferry, and there was a petrol station and it exploded. And the petrol from the pumps went across the road and melt the road. So we were stuck, and we couldn’t get to the ferry. And we were talking to them on the phone. We said “what shall we do? Shall we just go and do the gig somehow and get paid and come back? And we’ll go to the festival gig a day earlier which was in England, we were going there, and we’ll see you there.” There was nothing else we could do. We were playing in a few hours. And the festival we played was a ‘60s kind of psychedelic festival in the south of England. And it had on it, it was the first appearance of Love, when he came back and he had, I can’t remember his backing band now.
GM: Shack, was it? The guys from Liverpool maybe?
DV: No. was it Babyshambles or someone like that? I can’t remember. But that was amazing. And then also you kind of think “we’ve done a cover of them. Oh, they’re going to hate us” and stuff as well. And they didn’t. And he was absolutely amazing. And his voice, if anything, the whole gig sounded better than ever. I thought “what a great band.”
GM: Did you meet him and hang out with him?
DV: Yeah. So that was a big high point, you know. And then there’s obviously later on, much later, a year or so ago now, there was the fortieth anniversary where we played the Royal Albert Hall. Because that was special because of the atmosphere. I mean obviously we were playing in a very theatrical venue that banned us for years when we were younger. And it’s a big venue. It looks beautiful inside. And I’d been there many times. I’d seen many, many things. I saw John Barry and his orchestra conducting there. And we’re doing this really long stuff.
But it was the electricity in the air that you could feel, it was all these people had come to see us who were real fans. And they really were willing every song to be good, and us to have no problems whatsoever with gear of whatever, or things going wrong. Just to be a great show. And it was a long show obviously with an intermission and stuff. We did the full version of Curtain Call which was never, ever done. We’d played the truncated version to my daughter, who was twelve at the time, came on and did the solo in the middle on the violin.
DV: And it was just, you know, it was this really humbling thing, because she walks out onto this packed Royal Albert Hall, single spotlight on her, and doesn’t bat an eyelid. No nerves whatsoever. Picks up the violin and plays it flawlessly. I was so proud. And that was a real highlight for me. Because, you know, I was by either design or accident, I really didn’t want to have children earlier because obviously when you’re in a band you’re travelling and I didn’t want to miss them growing up. And I was able to have the luxury of seeing her grow up and be with her when she was very young. It was quite incredible. And there’s lots of stuff like that.
And even in a weird way, just a small thing that I’ll never forget, when we made this album, I had my birthday. I didn’t tell anybody about it. And we went to do a short interview which we hadn’t done but that day we did, I don’t know why. At a café just down the road. And Tony came down and I thought he was going to have a go at us because we were only gone about thirty minutes. “You’ve got to go come back to the studio.” So we went back to the studio, and he’d gotten a cake there. And he sang Happy Birthday to me with the rest of the studio. And that was really, you know, I thought “this is a bit surreal, I’ve got Tony Visconti singing Happy Birthday to me.”
GM: Yeah. Brilliant. Brilliant. And when you were touring with Marc Bolan, was he past his best, was he in a bad way?
DV: No, Toni wasn’t around when we did that. No, Tony was elsewhere, and Marc was doing his big comeback because his career was taking a bit of a downslide I think. He was lovely, because he was one of the people from the previous generation’s music. You could see there was something happening and something decent in what was going on. And didn’t, you know, just say “it’s a load of rubbish.” He really got it. And the combination of us both on the road together was really good, because he got people interested in him that never would have been interested before. And we also got some of his audience who would possibly not heard of us, well, wouldn’t have heard of us. And he was great. I’d heard he was egotistical and a big star and everything, but he wasn’t like that with us. When we worked with him, we was very, very nice.
GM: And did you meet Bowie, then?
DV: No. I only Bowie once, unfortunately. We did a festival in Europe and Bowie was on one stage, Iggy Pop was playing with the original Stooges line up. No, it wasn’t a Stooges line up. No, that was after, sorry. Iggy was playing. And Bowie was on stage watching a sound check and I just got to basically say hello across the stage and that was it. I never got to meet him. We were always in different kind of circles, you know.
GM: But he was a big thing for you?
DV: Well, I think all those people, you know, people like Bowie and Roxy Music, the first albums essentially for me. I mean, Bowie was someone, I don’t think anybody who’s a musician can’t have some, you know, I mean the guy was brilliant. Sometimes I didn’t like his stuff and sometimes I did, you know. I wasn’t like a die-hard fan. But I bet creatively he was a…
GM: But Black Star kind of drew you to Tony Visconti? Were you a big fan of that record and stuff?
DV: Well yeah it was weird because Black Star came out and as soon as the track came out, I was listening to it. It’s a long track, it’s about nine and a half minutes long for one thing. And it reminded me of the way we put things together like Curtain Call and various other songs where there’s different rhythms, it changes, there’s different moods. And I really liked the sound of it. And I really thought it was one of Bowie’s best albums for years, because he’d really done something. I didn’t know he was dying at that point in time. And I thought “well, it’s great that someone who’s been in the business this long can suddenly come out with a piece of music that’s really credible and really interesting.”
And that prompted me to, I thought “well, who produced this album?” It’s Visconti again, because he hadn’t worked with him for a while. He’d done remixes and things. And I just thought he would be the perfect man for the job. So you know, it took some convincing for the various people but eventually, we got in touch with him and he said yes straight away. He didn’t even hear anything. And then yeah, it was a great experience. I mean, he’s a very quiet man and very easy to work with. But you know, he knows his onions, that’s for sure.
GM: And were you looking for a specific things from him?
DV: Well, I think it was more of a case of I wanted to work and make the album and make it in a way…you know, we record in quite an old-fashioned way. We record together in a room, we have lots of valve equipment, and vintage equipment. But we didn’t want to make an old-fashioned sounding album. We wanted to make a combination of using all that and making a modern sounding album at the same time. But also I wanted someone who I could talk to. And when you said, you know, you referenced a guitar sound or a drum sound from another record form the ‘60s or something, they would know what you’re talking about, and know the kind of things and be able to know how to make that happen. Which he did. So it was a great collaboration.
I wish we’d had a little bit more time, because we only had nine days to make the album in. It was quite a frenetic time scale. Because the songs were quite ambitious. As you can hear, there’s quite a lot of melodies and vocals that had to go on. And I was literally singing every day at that time. But you know, a little bit more time and perhaps another or a longer experimental track would have been fun. But we got a great album out of it and we all enjoyed it. We didn’t have much time for swapping stories of famous people though.
GM: [laughs] And so you’ve had a long period in the rock ‘n’ roll industry. Have you ever had a drink, drug hell period? Is that part of your story?
DV: No, it’s a weird thing, I’m one of these people who’s very lucky I guess, you know. It’s like a case of, even in the early days I would go on the road and drink heavily. Come off the road and probably not drink at all. So every day I’d be drinking whiskey and vodka for breakfast and God knows what else, and then I would come off and just not touch it. I was never drawn to the kind of destructive drugs. Because I just remember vividly back before I was even in a band, just before, and seeing people, “oh, we’re going to try some heroin today. You want to try some? It’s great.” And I saw some guy come out and throw up all over himself, and then collapse in a heap. I thought “yeah, I really want to do that.”
GM: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.
DV: So, you know. And I didn’t smoke as well. I used to smoke the odd thing, I used to smoke Russian cigarettes and I used to smoke a pipe. But not on a regular basis. And cigars and things. But I wasn’t a chain smoker or whatever. I think Scabies just never had a No 6 out of his fingers, you know. He was always lighting one up. I’ve probably smoked thousands of cigarettes through osmosis travelling around. [laughs]
GM: Yeah, of course. So any ambitions left in the band? Any ambitions personally you want to do?
DV: There’s always ambitions personally, you know. There’s some things I know I can never do now because I’m too old. I’d love to have had a few years as a Speedway rider. But I didn’t do it when I was young. Although I’m thinking about trying to go out to the sands in New Jersey and race the old 45. It’s a race on the sand, it’s not very fast so I’m probably up to that. Yeah, and there’s things, I’d like to go back to art at some point and do some proper work. And that, which, I’m always saying, I buy mini books and put them away, thinking when I stop doing all the other stuff I can sit and read all these wonderful books. But whether or not I’ve got too many now to do anything in the time I have left, but it gives me great comfort. And I’d like to do more soundtrack work, which I love doing. And I dabbled in it a few times and it’s the hardest thing for me to do, but I absolutely love it.
GM: And what about acting? Is that something that…?
DV: It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but no-one’s ever really…you know, I’ve never really actively tried because I’m always busy elsewhere, and I’ve never been asked, or if I have it’s never been something that great. I mean, I’d love to do a character part, something like in an Agatha Christie or something. I’d love to do a period, or a period piece. I think I could get my head around, I don’t know, the psychopathic gay vicar or something, I don’t know.
GM: Right, right, cool! Okay. Well look, that’s a lovely chat Dave, lovely to speak to you. And yeah, so what can people expect this year coming along to see The Damned who have never seen them before? What are they in for?
DV: Well I think if you’ve never seen us before, the first thing that’ll be different is, you know, most people think a band of, you know, advancing years will be kind of boring and slow-paced. And I think people are always quite surprised how much energy we put in every show, it’s just the way it goes. And until I can’t do that, I won’t hang my hat up. If I go up there and I look stupid, then I’m not going to do it any more. [laughs] But generally there’s a lot of energy and excitement and there’s great songs. We have a really good sound. You know, it just gets better. It surprises me, it gets better and better. You know, sometimes you think “well, how do we even do this? I don’t know.”
GM: [laughs] Good on you! The power of rock ‘n’ roll! Yeah! Good on you. Fantastic, yeah. Lovely chat and have a great day and all the best with it, Dave.
DV: All right. Thanks. Bye now.