The Godfathers of Pop – Captain Sensible interview
As a founder member of The Damned, Raymond Burns – better known as Captain Sensible – was at the cutting edge of punk. In 1982, however, he found a whole new audience, from kids to grannies, with his sparkling recording of Happy Talk, from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific.
Other pop hits followed, including the catchy Wot. He even sang The Snooker Song – the theme to TV game show Big Break. He’s also been a member of Dead Men Walking, a supergroup including Slim Jim Phantom from Stray Cats. We caught up with the captain to find out more…
We hear you broke a rib on the Damned’s 40th anniversary tour, this year. What happened?
We’d recently played St Louis, where I was much impressed by an 8ft statue of Chuck Berry. I began incorporating his duck walk into our encore but unfortunately took it a bit far in Toronto… right over the edge of the stage! I was whisked off to hospital where they told me I was lucky it was only a broken rib. My guitar, meanwhile, hadn’t even gone out of tune. Gotta love a Gibson!
How old were you when you first became interested in a musical career?
Much as punk rockers were supposed to hate Pink Floyd, I liked ’em. Well, the early Syd Barrett line-up anyway. I can recall walking to school one day with a transistor radio glued to my ear, when the DJ – probably Tony Blackburn – played See Emily Play. It instantly grabbed me. I had no idea pop music could be so beautiful and dreamy. From that moment, the only job I was interested in was twanging a guitar for a living.
How did you get the name Captain Sensible?
A lot of the punk generation had stage names, because you couldn’t sign on if dole office staff thought you were working. So, you kept your real name out of the music papers if at all possible. Hence Johnny Rotten and Rat Scabies. My name was imposed on me due to some reckless behaviour. Everyone knows Sensible is ironic – don’t they? And the famous red beret…? You may regret asking that question! I adopted it as a direct result of that most unfortunate side of punk: the tendency to spit at bands. If the stuff got in your hair, the hot stage lights would bake it into solid lumps which took ages to shampoo out. I decided a hat was the answer, with some shades to protect my eyes. A few years later, after spitting had died down, I went onstage without the beret and was greeted with catcalls until I went back to the dressing room and returned wearing the thing, to great cheers. By accident, I’d created an image.
How did a punk come to record Happy Talk?
I got a solo deal with A&M on the strength of a few tunes The Damned had rejected for being too melodic. Needing one song to complete an album, producer Tony Mansfield told me to rummage through my records to find something worthy of a cover version. I thought about Waterloo Sunset or See Emily Play but being impossible to improve on the originals we ended up choosing Happy Talk from my parents’ record collection instead. What a surprise when the single rocketed straight to No.1! I immediately found myself with two jobs to do: The Damned and the solo thing. I managed it for two or three years, but the intensity of the schedules became simply too much to cope with and I was shattered, the result being that I almost welcomed getting the heave-ho from the band – who immediately went off and had a huge hit with another well-chosen cover, Eloise.
Did Happy Talk bring you a different sort of audience?
Although I’d not changed, the novelty single had gained me some kind of Cuddly Captain image. Newspapers sent photographers round to get pictures of me and my pet rabbits. But we heard stories of upset parents who’d brought their kids along to see The Damned thinking that because that jolly Happy Talk guy was in the band it might be a poptastic experience. A mum had a letter published in a local paper headed ‘Damned Disgrace’, complaining about the unruly behaviour they’d witnessed. Well, we were a punk band!
What’s in the pipeline for The Damned and your solo career?
Punk was only supposed to last a year or so but The Damned have just finished an extensive 40th anniversary world tour. How mad is that? There’s a new Damned album to make, the first in 10 years. Any of my tunes that are rejected may well form the backbone of a new Sensible record – which was how my solo career got started in the first place.