Thursday, January 1, 2009

Captain Sensible By Name, Not By Nature

The early 80s witnessed a surge in wacky, zany, goofy, nonsensical songs on the charts (at least in Australia and the U.K.). It’s customary to refer to these hits as ‘novelty’ songs, but to my mind, in some cases the term doesn’t give due respect to the genuine musical craft behind these songs. Of course in other instances ‘novelty’ doesn’t go far enough to reflect the frivolous, throwaway nature of the music - IE. trash might be more apt. But I refuse to write about trash here at Retro Universe - I may be inclined to write a lot of trash, but I refuse to write about it. So, if I choose a ‘novelty’ song to write about, it needs to meet a few pre-conditions. Firstly, I have to like the song - strictly subjective I know. Secondly, the song has to contain some fundamental musical quality - largely subjective too. Thirdly, the artist behind the song needs to have an interesting story - at least mildly interesting (I can only embellish so much). Any song that contains industrial machinery sound effects, and is by a guy calling himself Captain Sensible, gets my seal of approval.

Captain Sensible wasn’t born a Captain, and quite possibly didn’t display very many sensible traits. But his birth name Ray Burns, doesn’t sound very cutting edge, angry young punk-like - come to think of it, neither does Captain Sensible. But that didn’t stop the Captain from being a key member of seminal British punk rock outfit The Damned. Previously the Captain had played in a couple of low key groups, the Johnny Moped Band, and a covers act called Oasis (not of the Gallagher Brothers variety). By way of a series of comings and goings, the Captain was proffered an invite to join guitarist Brian James and drummer Rat Scabies (now there’s a punk name!), in a punk rock collective, that for a brief while, went by the name Masters of the Backside. The name was perhaps a little too cheeky, so they became The Damned. A young American singer by the name of Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders) fronted them briefly, but a former gravedigger by the name of Dave Vanian was eventually recruited as their vocalist. The Captain filled a variety of roles during his tenure with The Damned, from guitar to bass to keyboards, and soon became known for his trademark red beret, and prodding front row spectators with his bass (the other members of The Damned all had their own idiosyncrasies).

After two albums (the first applauded, the second lambasted), The Damned more or less fell apart during 1978, with various members getting distracted by side projects. During this period Captain Sensible formed a short lived band called King (no connection with the band from a few posts back), but by early ‘79 the Captain, Scabies, and Vanian had reformed as a band, with new vocalist Algy Ward (later replaced by Paul Grey) - though as departed vocalist Brian James owned the rights to the name ‘The Damned’ - they took on equally sunny moniker of ‘The Doomed’, though James eventually relented to allow them The Damned designation once again. The next few years represented a successful period for The Damned in commercial terms (through a more pop-savvy edge), though the line-up continued to be fluid.

Following a low flying debut single in 1981 titled ‘This Is Your Captain Speaking’, in 1982 Captain Sensible signed a solo recording deal with A&M, whilst still active with The Damned, and openly declaring his ongoing loyalty to the band. The Damned had been moving in an increasingly mainstream pop-rock direction, as illustrated on the Captain’s final outing with the band later in ‘82 on the album ‘Strawberries’. But nothing could have prepared hard core fans of The Damned, for the Captain’s first solo single ‘Happy Talk’. From opening for the Sex Pistols, to recording a quaint, chirpy little show tune that had featured originally in the 1958 film musical ‘South Pacific’, and was penned by the legendary American song writing team of Rodgers & Hammerstein - that‘s quite the quantum leap. ‘Happy Talk’ made its cheery debut on the British charts in June ‘82, and after a solid entry at #33, made a giant jump to #1 in its second week on the charts (a rare feat in those days). Backing vocals for ‘Happy Talk’ were credited to a trio of female singers called the Dolly Mixtures, and possibly the parrot perched on the Captain’s shoulder in the promo clip. ‘Happy Talk’ wasn’t greeted with the same fervour in Australia, but still achieved a creditable #35 nationally. I can recall Molly Meldrum playing a snippet of the song in one of his ‘Humdrum’ segments on ‘Countdown’, with an expression of bewilderment. Captain Sensible wasn’t the first wacky/zany ‘Captain’ to chart in Australia, as there was a local band in the early 70s called Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, he scored with a few minor hits.

The follow up single to set sail from the Captain, was the quirky, funky little pop number ‘Wot’, or what, if you want to be grammatically correct. This was the song that caught my attention, by way, not just of the song, but the comically entertaining promotional video. Both song and video kick off with the sound of an industrial pile driver. The racket awakens our good Captain from his comfortable slumber. He’s staying in a hotel, and so the remainder of the clip follows him wandering around the hotel, looking for a solution to the incessant noise. The Dolly Mixtures make a return, and the Hotel manager bares a striking resemblance to one Basil Fawlty. An Adam Ant look-a-like makes a cameo appearance in the hotel foyer, before a rather agitated Captain unceremoniously pushes him aside. The funky base line and charmingly quirky lyrics, delivered in a rap parody fashion, combine to make ‘Wot’ a great song in my book. It didn’t set the charts on fire (UK#26/OZ#30), but did hit #24 on the U.S. Club Play singles chart, and has subsequently become a bit of a cult classic of the 80s era. Both singles were lifted from Captain Sensible’s debut album ‘Women And Captain First’ (you’ve got to love that title), which peaked at #64 on the British charts.

Captain Sensible recorded his second album ‘Power Of Love’ in late ‘83. The album’s first single was the politically overt ‘Glad It’s All Over’, an anti-war song, or more specifically an anti-Falklands’ War song. It was actually released as a double-A side with ‘Damned On 45’, a medley of fourteen Damned songs and ‘Happy Talk’. The single probably owed its success more to ‘Damned On 45’, achieving #6 on the British charts in the first half of ‘84. The follow up singles during 1984 were more low key performers, ‘There Are More Snakes Than Ladders’ (UK#57), and ‘The Hokey Cokey’ (UK#71), the latter was a charity record in aid of the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. 1984 also saw the first U.S. release for Captain Sensible, with the album ‘A Day In The Life Of Captain Sensible’, which was a compilation of selected tracks from his first two British albums. The anti-Christmas novelty song ‘One Christmas Catalogue’ didn’t manage to upset too many people’s festivities in late ‘84.

By 1984 the good Captain made the decision to part company from The Damned, and focus fully on his solo career. The musical directions for both artists were increasingly divergent, and press speculation had been rampant for some time over whether or not there would be a split. Captain Sensible was also becoming increasingly outspoken about issues of political and social conscience (not really something The Damned did much of). He gained a reputation for his strong anti-war beliefs (as illustrated by ‘Glad It’s All Over’), and his devotion to vegetarianism. He later released the single ‘Wot, No Meat’, which got some media attention in the U.K.

Following Captain Sensible disembarking from the ship of The Damned, Grey, Vanian and Scabies carried on with new bassist Bryn Merrick, and later scored a major hit with a cover of the Barry Ryan classic ‘Eloise’ in 1986 (UK#3), before calling a halt to proceedings after a 1989 farewell tour. That same year Captain Sensible released the album ‘Revolution Now’, via the Deltic label. The good Captain sailed a bit off course with this one, and attempted to mash dance rock, and new wave psychedelia, with a side order of Northern soul, but it’s all a bit disjointed and overly ambitious. He continued to record throughout the 90s, the highlight proving to be the critically acclaimed live set ‘Live At The Milky Way’ (1994), which captured Sensible and his band, Paul Gray (bass), Malcolm Dixon (keyboards), and Garrie Dreadful (drums), at their wild and wacky best; the lowlight being the dysfunctional double album ‘Meathead’ (1995). 1998’s ‘The Universe Of Geoffrey Brown’ was an attempt at a concept album, and reportedly achieved a more palatable balance between ambition and realisation.

In 1996 Captain Sensible reboarded the now refloated Damned. He has continued to play and record with them over the last twelve years, with their most recent collaboration being the November 2008 album ‘So What’s Paranoid?’. He must have wondered at times which band he was on stage with, as he’s also toured with another side project called the Punk Floyd, and is a member of the occasional supergroup Dead Men Walking, also featuring Mike Peters (The Alarm), Kirk Brandon (Spear Of Destiny), and Slim Jim Phantom (Stray Cats - see future post).

In addition to his recording career as a solo artist, and with The Damned, Captain Sensible became quite the all-round celebrity over the years. He’s appeared as a spokesman for the breakfast cereal Weetabix, and made countless appearances, in character, on variety and children’s TV shows. Ray Burns has also taken on another alter-ego on occasion called Percy Pavilion, who has released several novelty song’s relating to the sport of cricket. In 2006 Captain Sensible ordered the formation of a new political party called the Blah! Party - no doubt there’s a mix of the serious and the nonsensical in the initiative, as there is with most everything Captain Sensible does.

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