After another dismal British Summer, the hearts of the Damned’s legions of loyal fans were gladdened in September by the news that not only was the band’s finest ever bass player, Mr Paul Gray, re-joining the band for the imminent *‘Evil Spirits’ tour, but that they were also set to record an album of new songs in New York, with legendary producer Tony Visconti. Being the exemplary chap that he is, Paul agreed to answer not only a few questions on his long and illustrious career, but to also bring Louder Than War readers up-to-speed with all things Damned-related.
You are working with legendary producer Tony Visconti on the new album, and famously Visconti has also produced Bowie, Roxy Music and a favourite band of yours, T-Rex. Which other bands were you listening to as you were learning to play bass in Essex?
A bit of everything really- I was like a musical sponge. I loved those Love Affair records with their OTT galloping bass lines and rousing brass lines, absolutely chock-full of melodies. And the Monkees of course, like most teenagers, was that really how groups lived? Seemed like a whole lot more fun than working to me! Oh, and Hawkwind too right from the first album up until Lemmy left. All the glam stuff also and Alice Cooper stuff.
You have an instantly recognisable bass-style – it’s muscular and driving, but at its core it’s always very melodic. How did your technique develop and which other bass players to do you rate highly?
Well – I never consciously developed any technique as such. To me it’s always been about the spirit and playing from the heart. As soon as I got home from school I’d be up to my bedroom playing along to my records and absorbed so much stuff. I suppose my style was a result of a mash-up of the bassists I grooved to most, such as: Lemmy, John Entwistle, Felix Pappalardi from Mountain and Deep Purple’s Roger Glover. I still rate those guys the most even 45 years later. Playing with a band like the Hot Rods was god’s gift. I had to drive it all along at a cracking pace, but also had room to chuck in a load of melodies as the guitar was so frenetic, but basic. I had carte blanche to do what I wanted really, and have kept up the same approach ever since! If it ain’t broke…
How did Eddie & the Hot Rods fit into the nascent punk scene considering that you came out from the Canvey Island/ Essex pub rock scene?
Frankly we never took much notice of pigeonholes, it was all rock ‘n roll to us! Basically, it was the same chords, but with a different approach. There were a few journos at that time that were out to make a name for themselves by being the first to “discover” punk, so they did all that pigeonholing. So some called us punk, some called us R&B, some labelled us pop rock, some called us pub rock. Unfortunately, ‘pub rock’ became something of a disparaging term…we really didn’t take any notice and did exactly what we wanted to do. We were a very honest band. There was certainly no grand plan for world domination, unlike some of the better-known punk bands and their managers!
Motörhead’s Lemmy famously cited the Damned as being the only ‘real’ UK punk band, and you’ve been quite disparaging about the other ‘name’ punk bands that were around at that time. What is it that the Damned have that none of the other bands had/have?
I’d say it goes back to that raw and brutal honesty – and that’s what I loved about the Damned from the moment I saw them live, and then from when I hung out with them. They were the same onstage as they were off – no airs and graces, no grand plans, what you saw was what you got, and sod the consequences! They hadn’t a care in the world and they were inspirational to be around. There was a feeling that anything could happen at any given moment. They had no behind-the-scenes Svengali-like manager planning their every move. Lemmy got it right.
Your first joined the Damned in 1980 and there then followed an unbroken run of incredible releases. There was the eclectic double album: ‘Black Album’ (1980 and then ‘Strawberries’ (1982); the Damned were on fire at this point! What was it like to be at the centre of this wellspring of creativity, and how did the songs evolve?
We all had 4-track recorders and wrote prolifically so there was an abundance of ideas that were thrown into the pot. The ones that worked best ended up on the albums, although some like ‘Curtain Call’ which was a ‘rough sketch’ initially, we just knew instinctively would work and that it could be developed into something special. We worked around the clock on those albums and nearly gave the engineer a nervous breakdown! The sessions could be pretty intense at times, but always immense fun. We produced ourselves, so there was no external producer or record company interference – we were simply left to get on with it. Any idea, sound or instrument was fair game. The musical spark and dynamics within the band were perfect- it was really a pretty special time.
Whilst we’re on the subject of the now classic ‘Strawberries’ album, would you care to comment on the, err, similarity between your bass line on the brilliant ‘Life Goes On’ and Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’? It’s even in the same key!
Yeah, tell me about it! Someone’s done a YouTube compilation of ‘Life Goes On’, Killing Joke’s ‘Eighties’ and the Nirvana’s one…I play it to music students in my MU visits and always ask what they think as they’ve probably only ever heard the Nirvana one, if that. It’s always unanimous. We did ask our publisher at the time to look into it, but rather surprisingly it went no further.
After such a brilliant burst of creativity and playing a lot of now legendary live shows, in 1983 you decided to leave the Damned. Why did you decide to move on?
Let’s just say the band dynamics changed, and not for the better. So, time for a change for yours truly too.
You have one of the more impressive and diverse CV’s in music! You’ve wielded your totemic Rickenbacker bass for: UFO, Johnny Thunders and even Andrew Ridgley of Wham! During your career you must have witnessed (and presumably taken part in) a lot of rock & roll excess! Have you considered writing a memoir recounting these tales of Bacchanalian excess?
Well thank you! As for a book? Yes, I have. I’ve made attempts to start it several times with different opening chapters, but it quickly gets so over the top I think I couldn’t possibly publish it! What would my son say! (*laughs*) Perhaps one day – if someone would like to offer me a handsome advance I might throw caution to the wind, but then again does the world really need yet another book detailing excessive, err, excesses? It’d probably upset quite a few people too! Without those stories life in a band can get pretty dull & repetitive actually. All that hanging around…it can lead to mischief, you know. I’ve not discounted doing one though…
In 2013 you released a very well received album in the guise of the Sensible Gray Cells, called **‘Postcards From Britain’, which was co-written with Captain Sensible. How did this album evolve?
Captain and I have always kept in touch, on and off. I invited him down to my gaff outside Cardiff for a few days, we went to the pub as you do, and it went from there. Beer is a great catalyst, you know. We both had a bunch of ideas, the Damned obviously weren’t going into the studio anytime soon, so we threw some ideas around & that’s how it happened.
It’s a cracking album full of vignettes examining some the clichés, contradictions and some not-so-endearing facets of ‘Little Britain’; yet It’s never patronising or judgmental. A difficult task I would think?
It’s a concept album really. It was useful to have a motif that followed through the lyrics. I’ve never written so many songs in one stint, but to be honest I found it pretty easy. There’s so much to say about ‘Little Britain’, for better or for worse, and it felt like it was the right time to do it. I really like it – there are no pretensions and we had no market as such in mind, so it evolved very organically. And it was great to bounce off Captain’s guitar again. I’d forgotten how much I’d missed that.
Did you deliberately adopt a DIY/stripped-down approach with this album?
Yes, ‘cos we were paying for it! There was no budget, so we did the backing tracks in a friend’s garage, usually in a day, and then tracked the rest on our Mac Books in my kitchen. Captain added bits and pieces at his place, and then we gave it to an engineer friend of mine to mix. The vocals and acoustics were recorded on a 70 quid USB mic placed in a cardboard box with egg cartons. The bouzoukis and some of my guitar parts were taken from my 4-track Portastudio demos as they had a certain gnarled, ‘rough & ready’ charm to them. Hi-tech it most certainly wasn’t!
What are your thoughts on, music’s ‘new technology’? Bands don’t have to spend a fortune on recording in studios anymore and can distribute it via the ‘net? A very ‘punk’ aesthetic?
It’s fantastic – and of course a very DIY way of doing it, keeping control and getting your stuff out there. Problem is, everyone can do it, which makes it much harder to find the good stuff. Recording basic stuff on a MacBook is a cinch. The Captain tried to show me the finer intricacies of Logic, but I don’t need to know that much! The screens make my eyes hurt sometimes.
The ‘GarageBand’ software suits me just fine. I think Mr Vanian uses it too. I’ve just completed a great album using it with an American band called Professor and The Madman, with Rat on drums. Their songs are magnificent and it’s a stonker of an album – you really have to hear it! They emailed me the audio files, I recorded my bass via GarageBand using an overdriven Vox AC 30 simulator, put loads of compression on it, and then emailed the tracks back to them. The bass sound is magnificent! Couldn’t have done that 10 years ago!
Was there any tentative discussion with the Captain about you possibly re-joining the Damned at some point in the future, whilst you were making ‘Postcards’?
Not as such. We were just grooving and bouncing ideas off each other and enjoying playing together again. We just went going to the pub, shared stories, got a bit pissed and ended up roaring with laughter at some of the lyrics we came up with. Great fun. Our respective playing styles have always been very complementary to each other. In hindsight there was always that underlying feeling that, maybe one day, y’know? But, no, nothing was ever actually said at that point.
Could we finish with a few questions on your present activities with the Damned? How is the recording of the new album progressing?
Had you accumulated a batch of songs before you re-joined, or are they being co-written with the full band? Any exclusive insights for Louder Than War readers in terms of song titles or musical styles?
The majority of the songs had pretty much been completed before they approached me to do the album. In grand Damned tradition however, several came whizzing at me mere days before we were due to leave for New York! Apart from jumping up with them in Cardiff for the odd song or two over the years, I’d not played with Pinch (the drummer) before. It was quite extraordinary: we had no rehearsals, so it was pretty much ‘in at the deep end’-type stuff, but as soon as we started playing it just sounded absolutely right! The magic was there from the start and we were flying. I’d say the sound is classic Damned, from the ‘Black Album’ to ‘Phantasmagoria’ There’s a definite psychedelic element running through it, and some pretty mad bass stuff. The songs are really varied, ranging from the dark and moodily filmic, full-on psychedelic wig-outs, and some classic catchy pop stuff. As a complete album it works a treat – it’s really full of surprises!
You will turn sixty next year. How does it feel to be still on the ‘rock and roller coaster’ after all these years, and bearing in mind also that you have had some health issues over recent years?
Yeah, thanks for reminding me! A mate was round last night, and I played him the new Damned album and the Professor & the Madmen one too. He was knocked-out at the energy in them. He said: “Four years ago, you were at deaths door, now look at you!” I’m under no illusions, I’m one seriously lucky fucker, life is strange indeed. Ya never quite know what might be around the corner, and I’m hugely thankful to have been given these new opportunities by two of the best bands on the planet. It remains to be seen how well I’ll cope with all the noise as my hearing is shot to pieces, and I am a bit concerned that I’ll do further damage, but I have an arsenal of protection to hand that will hopefully work. And once you’ve had cancer things take on a bit of a different perspective. You realise that you have got to grab these opportunities while you can, and I intend to make the most of it!
Thank- you very much Mr Paul Gray: a fantastic bass player, musician, author-in-waiting and a total gentleman! The very best of luck with both the new Damned album and for the 2018 ‘Evil Spirits’ tour!
*The Damned’s 2018 ‘Evil Spirits’ dates/ tickets:
Order the new Damned album here:
Paul Gray/ the Damned Social Media:
Paul Gray Twitter: @paulgraybass
The Damned: www.officialdamned.com
**The Sensible Gray Cells