Because Michael Nesmith was formerly a member of what were considered to be a kiddies pop group, The Monkees, his subsequent music never really gained the respect it so richly deserved. It seemed he was forever haunted by that green woolly hat, and inevitably in the face of such neglect he gave up music altogether. God help us if the same fate ever befell Captain Sensible - for his music has somehow never won the recognition it deserved, simply because his potential audience still perceive him to be a Weetabix-guzzling creator of novelty hits for 12 year-olds everywhere. Unlike Nesmith however, Sensible's cherished red beret and Soft Machine shades were a natural part of the man and not some corporate gimmick; and luckily, the good Captain is not even close to giving up music. On the contrary, with the formation of his own Deltic label early last year and the release of a superb double album entitled 'Rovolution Now', Captain Sensible seems determined to shake off the restraints of his former label, A&M, and to forge ahead with his very own brand of musical mayhem.
And if the time is right for Captain Sensible to throw off the mantle of those Damned Weetabix adverts, then the time is right too for the ever-vigilant Terrascope to peer at the man's career more closely. Besides, 'Machine Gun Etiquette' must rank as one of the finest psychedelic LP's ever released, and if there's one thing we're good at here at the Terrascope it's KNOWING WHAT WE LIKE.
Mick Dillingham, an avid follower of the Captain's career and a fellow vegetarian and humanitarian to boot, was sent off with instructions to ply the fellow with beer and dispell some of the preconceptions that surround him. Here's the results:
PTOLEMAIC TERRASCOPE (PT): Take us back to the beginning. How did you come to discover the magic of the muse?
CAPTAIN SENSIBLE (CS): I remember that I first got into music in a big, profound, huge sort of way on the long trudge past Crystal Palace football ground on the way to school. I had a habit of having my transistor radio glued to my ear the whole time, and one day Tony Blackburn played the new single by the Pink Floyd, 'See Emily Play'. I was so taken aback that I had to sit down on a wall - I was totally transfixed, I fell in love with the song and the whole musical thing from there. I started buying records and continued until about 1972 when I think some seriously shit records started to be made. 1970 was a good year for music, as were '69, '68 and particularly '67 - everybody was making psychedelic music in '67, even bands like the Hollies and the Stones. God, I love 'Satanic Majesties'! Definitely the best thing the Stones ever did. My favourite album though was Soft Machine III - amazing, uplifting stuff. Nobody has ever done as good an album as that. I remember me and some mates went to see Soft Machine at the Greyhound in Croydon. We were totally besotted with Mike Ratledge's image, so we all arrived in these long black wigs with the fringe at the front and those small round Mike Ratledge shades and false black moustaches. Not the type of thing to do at a Softs concert when you consider how serious and studious their audiences traditionally were. After the gig, the four of us were sitting in our Morris Traveller outside waiting for Ratledge to appear. When he drove off we followed him, and at every traffic light he stopped at we'd pull up alongside. So he'd look over to our car to see four Mike Ratledge's staring back at him... by about the 6th traffic light his nerve failed him and in a total panic he slammed his foot down and raced away with us in hot pursuit, determined to follow him home. Except that a Morris Traveller is only capable of luke-warm pursuit at the best of times, so he soon lost us.
By about 1971 I started making music for myself, since virtually nobody else was doing it for me. I bought a guitar and amplifier and formed this really strange band called 'Genetic Breakdown'. We were totally into Soft Machine, Brain Auger and The Trinity - droney sort of songs that went on and on but created a sort of spacey and psychedelic groove. Our singer, Johnny Moped, was well into Arthur Brown, so he'd be carried on stage in a dustbin and he'd sing the first few songs in there. All this would be happening at youth clubs and local talent contests. Moped would emerge from the bin painted entirely with green food dye. We never rehearsed anything, it was totally ad-lib and improvised. The audiences hated us though - we were always being thrown off stage and never made any money, for obvious reasons. I would play one-off gigs with other bands for £5 and all the beer I could drink, and eventually I was depping for about six different bands - one of which was The Damned. In the end they wanted more commitment from me and I had to choose between them and the five other bands. The Damned won. We never thought it would last more than five minutes though. When we started getting a bit of press we all changed our names because we were still signing on and didn't want some bastard from the DHSS coming across our real names.
PT: And so Ray Burns of Croydon became Captain Sensible of The Damned and the rest, as they say, is pretty well documented history. I don't want to dwell on the Damned in great detail here, but there are some apects which have always intrigued me. For example, what was Nick Mason like as a producer on the Damned's second album, 'Music For Pleasure'?
CS: Oh, he was a real mistake. We wanted the sort of production that's on the first Floyd album, especially Rick Wright's keyboard sound, and Nick Mason was available so we thought - perfect! But he was only interested in his motorbikes. The whole time he'd be out the front tinkering with the bloody thing and occasionally he'd pop in and twiddle a knob or something half-heartedly. It was a real shame since he was a big hero of mine. Another hero I got to work with was Robert Fripp. We met him on some TV show in France and really got on well, and he said the next time The Damned played a big London gig he'd come along and play. We'd all forgotten he'd promised this until he turned up at the Hammersmith Odeon with his guitar. I remember finding him quietly tuning his guitar up in the dressing room while Rat Scabies charged around with his willy hanging out and Dave Vanium drunkenly threw up all over the place. An astonishing contrast.
PT: It's fair to say that The Damned became more and more 'psychedelic' as time went on, especially on the 'Black Album' and 'Strawberries'. Was that a conscious decision within the band?
CS: We were well into it all, yeah. We used to play each other our favourite records. I had this big thing at the time about The Left Banke so that's where the harpsichord and cellos started coming from. Rat was well into Gong and Vanium was into Dean Martin. really strange, all these influences bunged together. There was a lot of acid going round as well, as I suppose you can tell if you listen to those albums. We'd stay up all night recording and have loads of really stupid ideas, like getting every microphone in the studio set up in a nearby field so we could record the dawn chorus of birds. Imagine - The Damned, a punk group doing that sort of thing? It was very creative - it really is THE way to make records, to have a crazy idea and just follow it through and if it doesn't work, then bugger it. I was becoming more and more interested and involved in studio techniques at the time.
PT: Captain Sensible's love-hate relationship with the band is well known: he's left them on three separate occasions, the last time in the early 1980's. And yet the end of 1988 saw him playing a whole slew of gigs with them in the "guest star" role. How did the Captain's solo career come about?
CS: Dave Vanium was notorious for not turning up at the studios, so rather than waste all that studio time we just said "fuck it" and I'd do the vocals. I never thought about being a vocalist up until then, but once I'd started doing it I really liked it. And I loved writing songs, but I had too many songs for The Damned to use so I really needed to branch out. I recorded some basic demo's and was looking around for someone to work with. I really liked the production by this bloke Tony Mansfield from a band called New Musik - I liked their albums, although the third one is terrible the first two are terrific, full of depth and atmosphere. So I went down to see New Musik play at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon and having worked there years ago cleaning toilets and the like I knew the back entrance to the dressing rooms, so I burst in on them and went up to Mansfield and said "Hello, I'm Captain Sensible and I'd like you to produce some tracks for me", so he took away my demo tape and the next day 'phoned me up and said "let's do it". We recorded some proper demos together and I hawked them around and amazingly we got a deal with A&M, totally unbelievable. So we set about recording the album. The first problem we came up against was a lack of material. I wrote a couple of tracks in the studio, one of which was 'Wot' and Mansfield sent me home to look through my record collection for a track we could cover. I just couldn't do it. I thought, you don't touch your favourite song - if something's been done so brilliantly, you don't mess with it. You can't re-do 'Something In The Air' or 'Love Makes Sweet Music' just on a whim! So I looked through me Mum and Dad's records and came up with 'Happy Talk'. Mansfield tried to dissuade me from doing it, but I stuck to my guns. As soon as A&M heard it they stuck it out as a single. I was totally shocked when it went to No. 1.
PT: The follow up, 'Wot', also charted highly - it must have worked against you in terms of getting taken seriously though?
CS: It did and it still does. The press won't touch me because they think I'm Mr. Happytalk, while the radio people aren't interested because they only want to hear me do another Happy Talk. It's had its good side I suppose - people still come up and buy me drinks in the pub. The two years after Happy Talk were a nightmare, appearing on one TV show after another "promoting the product". My life seemed to cease to be my own. I had no interest in playing the game and being a pop star, yet there I was appearing with Wogan or on "Cheggers Plays Pop" answering the same insanely inane two questions again and again, "where did I get the name" and "why did I waer a red beret"? I was under a huge amount of pressure at that time; my favourite recourse was to get as blitzed as possible whenever possible. I was on 'Saturday Superstore' out of me box on something or another, and Mike Read says to me "you're really on form today, Captain. How about a quick song?" so I jumped up on the desk, tripped and fell off onto my head. I was carried off unconscious on a stretcher - live on national TV.
PT: How did the link up with Robyn Hitchcock, who appears as lyricist and occasional backing singer on the first two albums, come about?
CS: Somebody did me a tape of a Chocolate Watch Band album and filled it up with a couple of Soft Boys tracks. I immediately thought they were brilliant, and they were British!! How wonderful, where had they been hiding? I really got into them heavily. I went to see them down at the ICA and I met Robyn in the bar beforehand, told him I'd learned a couple of their songs so he invited me to get up and sing with them. So, I jumped up on stage with them and started singing 'Sandra's Having Her Brain Out'. Unfortunately nobody had mentioned to the bouncers that I'd been invited up, so they grabbed me. It was snowing outside and they slung me out, slamming the doors after me. As I lay there in the snow the door opened again and I thought "Ah, Robyn's come to save me!" Instead, my red beret came sailing out and landed in the snow next to me and the doors slammed shut again leaving me no choice but to go home.
Anyway, Robyn and I became mates and when I needed lyrics I thought "nobody's better than Robyn" - although even today he won't tell me what the lyrics are about. I remember recording 'Brenda' on the first album and while I was singing "two little eyes, staring up and down" and all that stuff Robyn would be sitting behind the mixing desk just shrieking with laughter. "What's funny about these words?" I'd ask. "I just can't believe you're singing them, Captain!" he'd say. But he would never give a straight answer, he just used to fib to me all the time.
I had far less control over the second album because Mansfield was becoming a bit of a megalomaniac. He tended to swamp the record with his sequencers. He totally relegated my guitar, the computers took his brain over until he worked his way up his own arse. We did a third album, I sunk every penny from "Happy Talk" into it and in the end I junked the lot. It just wasn't my album any more - it was well produced, but shit, without a spark of inspiration. Mansfield was such a dictatorial figure by this time that he would suggest that Robyn's lyrics were substandard and tell him to go away and do them again and tell me to change a tune or something, so we'd rehash the tracks and he'd still turn them down. In the end Robyn had had enough and left, the money was all used up and I was totally demoralised by the whiole thing. Eventually I plucked up the courage to sack Mansfield, which was quite a big thing because I had all the hits with him. But, I'd finally had enough and told him to fuck off.
PT: A&M were reluctant to finance another album, but since they considered you primarly as a singles artist they seemed quite happy to continue releasing 12" singles - is it fair to say you took full advantage of this situation?
CS: The 'A' sides were nice pop songs and everything, but I was really enjoying doing the 'B' sides far more - doing this totally self-indulgent stuff on my own at home. You can put up to 20 minutes of music on a 12", and I always tried to do that. I definitely feel I was coming into my own on those B-sides. On my last 12" for A&M I did 'The Coward Of Treason Cove' on the B-side. I think it's the best thing I've done up to now and the remix is the best thing on the new album. But for once, people at A&M who I thought understood what I was doing started to interfere, telling me I couldn't have my son's voice on it and all that shit. And it was only a fucking 'B' side! The situation became intolerable and I left the label soon after and set up my own label, Deltic, with the idea of doing an album just like all my B-sides. I wanted to experiment, use my brain to make music. And that's what I've done with this album. I had enough material to do a triple album, but everybody thought that wasn't a good idea for some reason. In the end we hunted around and found a company in Wales who could squeeze 75 minutes on to one CD, so we adjusted the album accordingly and put it out as a slightly short double at a cheaper price. I'm very proud of it all round, I don't think we're going to sell vast quantities of it but so long as it makes enough money so I can continue in this direction, making the music I want to make, then it's just fine by me. The only thing that worries me is that it's going to be a tough one to follow. I'm thinking of doing the next album with a proper live band, taking it out on the road and elaborating on the songs a bit more. Start off with a neat little pop song that steams along at a fair old pace, and then let all hell break loose. Use the song as a vehicle for all the mayhem that comes out, to expand the thing as far as you possibly can and when you finally run out of ideas close the song up. At the moment I'm looking for the right keyboard player, who can handle all the wild freaky stuff. I'd love to work with Mike Ratledge, but once he reads about the time the four of us followed him dressed as him then I don't suppose he'd come within a hundred miles!
So there you have it, the past and future voyages of HMS Sensible. The Captain is entering an exciting and productive time musically, and Deltic, the label that's already released the superb Brotherhood Of Lizards album late last October, is on the lookout for anything that is innovative and exciting on the British music scene. Musically Captain Sensible goes from strength to strength, and I for one will be waiting with bated ears.
Ray Burns was interviewed for the Terrascope by Mick Dillingham. God Bless all who sail in them. (c) Terrascope Online 1990
This Is Your Captain Speaking EP - The Russians Are Coming / The Man Who's Gotten Everything/ Our Soles To You
(1981 - Crass 321984/5)
Croydon/Jimi Hendrix's Strat
(1982 - A&M Cap 3)
I'm A Spider/Woman Sago
(1983 - A&M Cap 5)
Wot! No Meat?/A Meat Sandwich
(1985 - Animus touch3)
Happytalk/It/I Can't Stand It
(1982 A&M Capp 1)
(1982 A&M Capp 2)
Stop The World/Back To School
(1982 A&M Capp 4)
Glad It's All Over/Happytalk/ Damned on 45
(1984 A&M Capx6
There Are More Snakes Than Ladders (2 mixes) / The Four Mary's GoGo Dance All Night At The Groovy Cellar
(1984 A&M Capx7)
One Christmas Catalogue/Relax/
Pocketful Of Dosh/Wendy Where's My Snaps?
Come On Down/Beggars Can Be Choosers/Like Margarine/The Ballard
(1985 A&M Amy 290)
Revolution Now/The Coward Of Treason Cove
(1987 A&M Amy 395)
The Toys Take Over/A Sporting Life/VOA
(1988 Deltic Delt 1T)
Women & Captains First
(1982 A&M AMLH 68548)
The Power Of Love
(1983 A&M AQMLX 68561)
(2xLP or 1CD)
(1989 Deltic 4)
The above have been selected on musical worth alone. As far as Damned albums go, search out 'Machine Gun Etiquette', 'The Black Album', 'Strawberries' and 'Damned but Not Forgotten'. You can sort the rest of it out for yourselves.