The Damned: how we made New Rose

‘It was just chaos every night’ … Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies, Dave Vanian and Brian James outside a church.
‘It was just chaos every night’ … Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies, Dave Vanian and Brian James outside a church. Photograph: Ian Dickson/Rex/Shutterstock

Brian James, guitarist, songwriter

In 1976, Britain was a cultural wasteland with stuff like Genesis and the dregs of glam rock. Mick Jones and Tony James – who’d later play in the Clash and Generation X respectively – were starting a band called the London SS. We were all in a dingy basement auditioning a drummer called Chris Millar, who had scabies at the time, when a rat ran across the floor. So Chris became Rat Scabies.

Mick and Tony liked Rat’s drumming, but said he didn’t look right because he had a shabby overcoat and messy hair. So Rat and I went off to form a band with another guy, Ray Burns, who Rat knew through cleaning toilets at Fairfield Halls in Croydon.

Ray had long hair and was into John McLaughlin, a jazz fusion guitarist, so I played him the Stooges and the Ramones – and he became our infamous madcap guitarist Captain Sensible. Rat suggested a singer called Dave Vanian, who was into vampire stuff. We got our name from two 1960s films: Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, about the Nazis, and the horror movie The Village of the Damned. It was perfect for us.

It was chaos every night. It seemed like half the country wanted to beat us up

Captain wore a nurse’s uniform on stage and, at the third gig, poured a pint of beer over his head. After that, it was just chaos every night. Audiences hated us. Motorcycle gangs chased us. It seemed like half the country wanted to beat the shit out of us.

I had a bunch of riffs I’d written when I was in a band called Bastard. When I played New Rose to Rat, his drumming set it on fire. We signed to Stiff to do a single, and Nick Lowe produced us in a tiny eight-track studio. We spent more time in the pub round the corner than we spent recording, but Nick captured how wild we sounded.

We thought we were a fast rock’n’roll band, but the journalist Caroline Coon coined the term “punk rock” so suddenly New Rose was “the first British punk single”. Everything happened very quickly after that. Contrary to belief, New Rose isn’t a love song. The words were just imagery to go with the riffs: “I got a new rose, I got it good / Guess I knew that I always would / I can’t stop to mess around / I got a brand new rose in town.”

However, some lines did express my excitement about the early punk scene: “I got a feeling inside of me / It’s kinda strange like a stormy sea.” It was everything I’d ever dreamed of. And there I was in London with everyone going crazy for it.

Dave Vanian, singer

The band were auditioning for a singer, and I went early to check out the the guy before me, but he never turned up. Turned out it was Sid Vicious. Could he have become the singer in the Damned, rather than the bass-player in the Sex Pistols? We’ll never know.

Brian shouted the lyrics in my ear while he played guitar, and I did the best I could. He’d seen me in the audience at some shows and told me: “You look like a singer.” Before it became all torn clothes and spiky hair, punk was about individuality. I wore winkle-pickers and was going for that 1920s Rudolph Valentino look. I’d seen a few Hammer horror films, too, and decided I wanted to live in Baron von Frankenstein’s castle.

Some weird folk sounds came out of the speakers – to save money it turned out we were recording over someone else's tape

So I left my gravedigger job to join the Damned and everything started moving very fast. We’d rehearse, get in the van, tear up the country doing gigs, then get back in the studio. Sometimes the tape would stop and we’d hear some weird folk thing coming out of the speakers – to save money, it turned out, we were recording over someone else’s tape.

New Rose was a raw, visceral, classic three-minute pop song. My famous spoken intro – “Is she really going out with him?” – is from the Shangri-La’s Leader of the Pack, which I adored. I’d just been clowning around, but everyone liked it so we kept it. We recorded a whole album – Damned Damned Damned – in two days flat. In those days, there was never much food around. We were fuelled by amphetamine sulphate and cider.

  • Evil Spirits, the new album, is out on 13 April. The Stiff Singles box set is out now. Brian James’s eponymous debut is out now.