The Damned were there at the beginning. They’re probably still on your bedroom wall.
With ‘New Rose’ (their ‘deathless anthem of nuclear-strength romantic angst’) and then ‘Damned Damned Damned’ they were the first gang on wax. Progenitors of punk, grand guignol goths and more besides. Behind the stool, Rat Scabies was laying down the tempo for an entire generation.
In 2018 he’s still hitting, still writing and has evolved into an unlikely renaissance man with a slew of bands under his belt, a starring turn in the book ‘Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail’, a line of boutique cigar box guitars and the release of a long-in-gestation solo album ‘P.H.D. – Prison. Hospital. Debt’ out now through Cleopatra Records.
Careening wildly from genre to genre the album encompasses punk rock angles, glam rock stomp, breezy Americana slide and rising psychedelia into a surprisingly coherent and wickedly fun musical jaunt that is one of the true surprises of the year.
Suitably knocked sideways, I called Rat to talk about the new album, aliens, Atlantis and therapeutic afternoons on the porch. Wiser and more wizened, Rat peppers the conversation with a brilliant sly cackle that speaks of a man who has both seen and been many things.
I wanted to start with the new album. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it’s a really entertaining record. Very ambitious!
*Laughs* Ambitious in what way?
Well just the amount of instruments you play and the amount of range you cover musically. There’s a whole bunch of different stuff going on there. How long did it take you to get it together?
I wrote it over a period really. Ever since the 80’s it was just stuff I was working on and writing and I never had an outlet for it. Either the band wasn’t working or it was just something that would be a pet project for me. A lot of times I’d just be sitting upstairs in my studio or whatever, get an idea for a tune and then just elaborate on it and then realise I didn’t really have anywhere to put it, so they all kinda just sat on the shelf. It continued with songs I was writing pretty much up until the last minute, in fact the week the album was due to be cut I was still trying to put songs on it and change it and add new tunes, so really it covers a period of time from the 80’s right up until now.
With you playing so many different instruments on it how did you approach the recording? Did you have a vision for each piece before you began or was it more a case of building up more of a musical collage?
Just layering and doing a collage really, inspiration comes from some funny places sometimes. It went well and it’s nice when you wind up in a place you’re not used to being sometimes. That’s when it’s good fun cos you start out with just a drum fill and then at the end of it you’ve kind of ended up with this whole piece of music that you never really knew you had in you.
The title PHD references PRISON.HOSPITAL DEBT. Those three in tandem are surely the ultimate education right? What’s your best story about each?
*Laughs* Well they’re all kind of just the things that were running around in my head at the time and it was really because of that I was thinking that I really should be doing more with myself. Cos I hadn’t really picked up a guitar and that was really the only place I could escape to. *laughs* Does that make sense? You know when you’ve just got a lot of stuff going on around you that you don’t really like very much and none of it is good news? But there was always one thing I could do which was mess around with music and try and make up a tune and feel good about that. So that’s where that title came from. I also just kinda liked the idea of a PHD, the supposition that you’re talking about your education and your education consists of those three things. *laughs*
The variety on display on the record really isn’t surprising considering that with The Damned you reached a bit wider than some of your contemporaries, was that a conscious effort to prove yourself as more than just another three-chord band or was it just something that was entirely natural?
It was very natural but also conscious. We were always aware of what our worst critics were saying and what was going on with people saying ‘oh they’re just a typical punk band they don’t really do anything else’. So we were aware, but it was just a natural progression and way of moving forward and saying ‘you know what, there actually are quite a lot of subtle moments and pieces of music that we make’. I think that made us play with dynamics a lot more and realise how that could be applied to make things better. We only ever really made the records that we liked, with the ideas we had and the way we felt, there was never really that much preconception about what we were going to do next but we did know what the parameters of doing that were.
Compared to a lot of bands from say the 76 school you guys certainly had a much more pronounced sense of humour…
*Laughs* Yeah well you’ve gotta smile haven’t you? *laughs*
Did you feel any sense of camaraderie with your contemporaries or were determined to do your own thing and forge your own path?
Well of course we knew The Clash, Pistols, Stranglers, Jam and all those guys. We were always on first name terms with them but there was always a kind of whole ethic that would kick into gear where say if The Clash covered all their gear in paint then that was something we wouldn’t be doing and that whole thing of ‘we’re not the same’ although actually we kind of were. We tried to be as individual as possible.
Can you touch upon the prevailing mood at the time of the bands inception? The factors that made the music seem so necessary and vital?
Well I mean it was kinda weird cos people would release an album and there’d maybe be one track on it you liked and the rest of it you didn’t. The next thing would be that you would realise that you couldn’t compete with that kind of Jeff Beck musicianship or that technical thing that Emerson Lake & Palmer and King Crimson had. It didn’t matter how much I practiced in my room or anything, I was never going to be able to compete with those guys. So I think the essential ingredient of punk was people just turning around and saying ‘fuck that. I can’t do that but can do this!’ and if no-one likes it at least I’m doing what I wanna do. That was the attitude I had about it anyway.
One of the highlights on the new record for me is ‘Floydian Slip’ and there’s a connection there as you guys worked with Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason on the Music for Pleasure album right? That was certainly out of left field and you copped a lot of shit for it at the time right?
He was really cool. He didn’t interfere in any way at all. The band was beginning to become a bit fragmented and we didn’t have very much live material and we were quite troublesome so Nick steered us through pretty well. He let us do our own thing, he didn’t make us try and sound like the Floyd or anything. I think our only regret about it really is that everyone wishes we’d made the record a bit more psychedelic but I think there’s so much going on with it anyway it probably wouldn’t have ended up working. I’ve tried imaging it but I have trouble.
The track itself (Floydian Slip) obviously references extra-terrestrial sightings or encounters, have you ever had any experiences of that nature yourself?
Well there’s not really a short version of it. I spend quite a lot of time in Phoenix Arizona and Area 51 isn’t far away and you have those big clear desert skies. Nearly everyone that lives in that town sees stuff that doesn’t really have an explanation. There was one time I sitting in the living room of the place I was staying…..you see the trouble with this stuff is if you tell people what happened it sounds like you’re a fucking nutcase *laughs* But I swear I was with the guitar player of the band I was staying with at the time and this small black sphere the size of a squash ball floated down the stairs at quite high speed, buzzed around the kitchen damaging everything and then back out up the stairs and away again at high speed. It was one of those things that was such an outrageous event that we were both pretty gobsmacked about whether it had even happened. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the two us had seen the same thing you’d put it down to some kind of marijuana induced incident *laughs* So that was one of the strangest things that happened. I never reported it or anything like that but out there’s a lot of stuff buzzing around out there out in the sky that’s a mystery.
I think you actually captured it really well musically on that track. The sense of wide open spaces, night skies and a sense of lift-off.
Yeah the thing was I always admired the Floyd for the way they could create those kind of barren musical landscapes with stuff like ‘Echoes’, ‘One of these Days’ and the stuff that would just create an atmosphere. And because of the nature of the interview samples I’m using in that track, the place they’re referencing is Parsons Green Station which I know pretty well and it’s just so suburban London and unlikely that I think there’s a humour that goes along with it. But but at the same time I’m trying to create an atmosphere that makes sense out of that.
You’ve always had an eye for the mystical and the otherworldly though which kind of ties into your other passion which is the (holy) Grail. That originated with your father right?
Yeah it came from my parents really. My father was a wonderful atheist who devoted his life to research amongst the one percent of things that don’t add up and don’t make sense, how the church as an organisation affects us socially and psychologically, politics etc. So I had this whole broad left field influence when I was growing up and a part of that was things like Atlantis and the Holy Grail and all these legends. Where do they come from? What is it based on and is there any element of truth in any of these stories? And if there is, can you find it? So that’s kind of how I am with the whole thing, I find it quite fascinating and I’ve witnessed enough strange small events that it makes you go ‘well that was weird, I think there’s something going on here that I don’t really have a name for or an understanding of’ but at the same time I’m very rational about it. I don’t ‘believe’ in things like ghosts or fairies but I like to observe it and see if it’s proven to me. Show me something that I can scratch a window with and say well ‘I’ve taken that leap of faith and seen it with my own eyes’.
So just a kind of Fortean curiosity?
Well not curiosity, it kind of goes a bit deeper than that into the way you think and the way you view the world. Take the Grail for example, there’s kind of couple of different trips you can take on it, one of which is that it’s the actual cup of Christ and if you want to live for eternity you can drink from it and be healed and all that kind of stuff. But if you take it from a storytelling basis, which is the one I choose, then it’s that the Grail is the quest. It’s the journey that you have. It’s all about looking, discovering things about yourself and others. It’s about a learning process. And that for me is the Grail. When you get to a point where no matter what kind of situation you find yourself in you realise there’s a reason that you’re there and there’s something you can learn from it and take away with you.
Aside from music, you have some other projects as well right, like your cigar box guitars and amps? Can you tell us a little about that? I can imagine you used them a lot on the slide parts on the record for example?
Oh yeah anything that’s a slide is pretty much those. I think they’re probably on about 4-5 tracks on the album. I started making them really just cos my son came home one day with a cigar box and I happened to have a piece of wood that was the right kind of length for a neck and some old machine heads. I remembered the story of how that was what the delta bluesmen used to do. Or people who didn’t have music shops, pianos or any money to buy a guitar made their own instruments like that. And I just found it incredibly therapeutic cos I could kind of problem-solve and work things out on them, like where the middle is, what’s the best place to have the bridge and that kind of thing. The first one I made was really a kind of non-thinking process and then it became the physical thing itself cos I’d never been good at any of that practical shit at school. I’d barely done woodwork or anything so all of a sudden I was doing something I’d never really done before and that was good. Then I showed the guitar to somebody and they gave me three more boxes and said ‘make me some’! So I made three more and then some more people saw those and said ‘can I have them?’ and it all kinda grew from there. It’s something I like doing on a nice afternoon, I can kind of just sit, have a beer and make a guitar.
I do have to ask you…my favourite show of all time is The Young Ones and obviously you guys were one of the most memorable guests on that show. I actually heard that the shift in tone and image that preceded the Phantasmagoria record was inspired by the horror get-up you wore when performing ‘Nasty’ on the show…
Yeah totally! We realised that what we’d done on that show was what the Damned needed to be doing. Because at that point the Captain (Sensible) was doing ‘Happy Talk’ and doing very well in the wonderful whacky world of the Captain. We had a bit of an issue with record labels where they weren’t that keen on the Captain and Dave (Vanian) being on the same stage because it was two different contrasting images I guess. So when we did that show, I looked at it and said ‘this is too good to ignore really’ *laughs* I used to describe it as ‘it was time to sell Vanian by the pound’ *laughs*
Yeah I still see a lot of people walking around with that hairstyle today…
Yeah the Pepe LePew look.
Has Barry Ryan ever thanked you for any royalties off the back of your cover of Eloise?
*Laughs* nah but he probably should do!
You also do a lot of spoken word engagements where you must be asked a lot about the original punk scene and the 70’s. I was interested to know what you thought about how that period has been kind of mythologised in the press. As someone who lived it first-hand do you see these gigs as an opportunity to set the record straight and demystify it somewhat?
No not really, setting the record straight is an impossible thing and who’s record is it anyway that you’re trying to set? It’s not like I’m up there preaching saying ‘ohh I invented punk rock and I never got the credit’ *laughs* But I can talk to people about what I was going through and what happened to me at the time and how it was seen and viewed. I think part of the mythology of it is the idea that with punk rock the whole world changed overnight and it didn’t. It really wasn’t very popular with other musicians. The old guard musicians didn’t like us very much, the media didn’t like us very much. There was maybe one journalist at each paper that would give us some time and write about us but other than that we didn’t really set the world on fire. It’s only now that it’s built that kind of credibility for itself.
It must actually be nice to be talking in support of a new record again…
Yeah but it’s kinda hard work! There’s lots of talking about ‘why I did it’ and now I have to figure out and go ‘now why did I do that?’ *laughs* So it’s okay but I wasn’t really a thing I expected to do, it’s not something I’ve done as a career move, it’s out there and if people like it then so much the better but I’m not thinking to myself ‘oh great I’m going to be able to by myself a tessa from this”.
Are you thinking of doing any shows in support of the record?
No, not at the moment. The record company are asking me to do it but I’m not sure if I really want to do that. I don’t know. I’m still thinking it over but I’m not 100% it’s what I want to be right now.
You’d certainly have no shortage of people who’d want to play with you. You’ve played with so many people over the years from Lemmy to Donovan. Is there any collaboration you’d like to see that hasn’t happened yet?
Well I’m pretty happy with most of what’s gone on. I’m trying to desperately think of someone I would like to work with but i don’t know. I play the drums, and if I have a bass player and a guitar player that feel inspired then that’s enough. They don’t necessarily have to be famous to be good. But what they do well is pretend to be famous I’ll grant you that! *laughs*
I’ve just been recording a new album with a band called ‘The Mutants’ which is the fourth record we’ve made together. It’s been pretty cool and I’ve really enjoyed doing it. It’s nice to be in the studio and get things done and wind up with something you like listening to once you’ve done it. Now when I’m cooking the dinner I’ll put on one of the records and feel pretty good about it. It’s good to make a record that I like. I’ll be honest with you, it’s all about self-appeasement. This is what I like doing. I like making music and then I love being proud of the music I make. So it’s all pretty self-indulgent really. I do the occasional thing just for the money but then again it’s often as a favour. Generally speaking though I don’t wanna do it if I can’t listen to it afterwards and feel good about it or say when you have friends come around you can put it on and go ‘what do you think of this? It’s my new album! Heyyyyy’ *laughs*
I’ve also been working with a Californian band called ‘Professor and the Madmen’ who have just released an album. It’s quite odd in a way cos I put the drums down and then they got Paul Gray to play the bass so that was odd cos we hadn’t appeared on a record together since the 80’s.
I love the way the new album takes so many turns stylistically, like it’s taking you to strange new places and then the way the last three tracks kind of ease you out of the experience, and have a coherency to them that bookends the whole things…
Yeah it’s like the whole record is like a journey, every track sort of delivers you someplace you weren’t quite expecting to be. So if I’d have written a whole load of bollocks, like some kind of two bob story I could have passed the whole thing off as a concept album, but I wasn’t smart enough to put that one together! *laughs*
Maybe next time.
Maybe next time.
P.H.D. is available now.
– Andi Lennon