TR+ Extended Interview – Welcome Back: Brian James

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Brian James had stints in the pre-punk Bastard and legendarily short-lived London SS. The incendiary axeman grew up watching Hendrix and Pete Townshend reinventing the electric guitar at shows in local Crawley.

He later became the guitarist and songwriter for punk progenitors The Damned’s first two albums before forming proto-goth supergroup The Lords Of The New Church. His new album, The Guitar That Dripped Blood, takes no prisoners, even as he avoids coffin-dodgers in suburban Brighton…

Has the Damned documentary (Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead) made a reunion more likely?

I doubt it. Dave [Vanian] hasn’t seen it apparently, but Captain [Sensible] caused a bit of a ruckus at the premiere at South By South West. He’s got this problem with Rat [Scabies], so he basically upstaged the showing of it. Some people just can’t get over things, which I think is very sad. If something happened to Rat then Captain would spend the rest of his life wishing he’d made it up with him. You can’t carry grudges. It’s a waste of energy.

Your new album was recorded in an old men’s toilet, wasn’t it?

Yes, Studio 284. It’s built into a cliff in Brighton. It was considered a risk so it’s just been closed down, which is a tragedy because it’s one of the great punk rock studios; the best live room I’ve ever recorded in. A dream room for a noisy guitar player like me.

The album opens with Hindsight, about going to the doctor’s…

Yes, well, you have to go from time to time as you get older. You get these things popping up, and you become aware of parts of your body you didn’t think even existed.

How old are you? Your Wikipedia page says you were born in 1950, but on iTunes it says 1961…

’61? I’ll go with that one.

On new track Becoming A Nuisance are you playing the grumpy old man?

Where I live it’s verging on suburbia. There’s always some bugger banging on something, a lot of retired people with a hammer in their hand looking for something to do because they’re bored sick. And it gets a bit annoying at times. It might be me becoming a bit of a grouchy old geezer, yes. But things piss you off and get under your skin. Enough! You don’t need to mow your poxy lawn again!

Do the locals expect you to be The Punk Rock Druggy?

Yeah. But anybody that knows me would know that those days are long gone. I like to go out and have a drink – I’m a wino these days. I lived in France for a while and wine became much more important than getting stoned and running around. I don’t drink spirits no more; occasionally I might have a nice glass of cognac.

Amphetamine sulphate was the punks’ tipple of choice. Have you tried everything?

Not heroin. Not even tempted. I’ve seen too many talented people get fucked up on that. Just about everything else I’ve tried. Sulphate was very popular with the original punk scene, as was vodka. I had my fun then. It was a big rush.

You were in a band called Bastard, circa 1973-4, weren’t you?

Yes, we were kind of prototype punk. We were influenced by what was going on in Detroit: The Stooges, The MC5, even Alice Cooper, the Killer album in particular. We tried to play live in England, but they’d ask, “What’s the name of your group?” “Bastard.” “No, thank you.” We had to go to Brussels to get gigs.

Brian with The Damned in Copenhagen, 1977

Brian with The Damned in Copenhagen, 1977
(Image: © Jorgen Angel)

Were you punk before punk?

I had long hair, then I decided to cut it off after I saw Lou Reed with the iron cross shaved into his head. I thought that looked really fucking cool.

Talking of which, in 1975 you formed London SS, who had everyone in their ranks: Mick Jones, Tony James, Paul Simonon, Chrissie Hynde…

A lot of people auditioned, and through that a scene started. Mick had seen Paul at art college and thought he looked good – Mick and Tony cared about the look whereas I only cared what they played like. Tony would say, “He doesn’t look very rock’n’roll.” And I’d be like, “What the fuck does rock’n’roll look like?”

Is it true that Sid Vicious was up for Dave Vanian’s role as Damned frontman?

Yeah, I used to see Sid on the 31 bus from Swiss Cottage and we were on nodding terms. So I invited him and Dave down to a church in Lisson Grove [West London] to see if they could sing. Dave showed up and Sid didn’t.

Which is better: Damned Damned Damned, The Clash or Never Mind The Bollocks?

Well, I’m a little prejudiced seeing as I wrote Damned Damned Damned. Of the three, Damned Damned Damnedsounds as though it could have been recorded yesterday. There’s no slogans – nothing dating it. It’s just a rock’n’roll album.

Did New Rose, the first ever punk single, give you a good payday?

Guns N’ Roses recorded it when they were the biggest band on the planet, and it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. Everyone was dying around me: Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators my old singer from the Lords and Dead Boys, some friends around Portobello Road, and then my parents both died within 24 hours of each other. That cover enabled me and my family – my wife and son Charlie – to move to France.

Is it true Jimmy Page loved The Damned?

When we played in London, Jimmy, John Bonham and Robert Plant came down to see us a couple of times. Jimmy apparently drove the road crew crazy because he’d play our first album relentlessly. I’d bump into him a lot. I’d say, “One day we’re going to have to get together and play,” and he’d say, “Have your people speak to my people.” And I’d say, “I ain’t got no people!”

You didn’t share the punks’ Year Zero mentality?

Not at all. You’ve got to respect playing. I wasn’t one of those people shouting, “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones in 1977” [as per The Clash’s song 1977]. I thought that was bullshit.

Did Rod Stewart really get crossed off your guest-list?

Yeah, at the Starwood club in LA. He was full of all this, “I’ll be up in the VIP lounge.” “No, you’re not, mate, you’re not coming in.”

You wanted Syd Barrett to produce The Damned’s second album but got Nick Mason, didn’t you?

I was a big fan of Syd’s but he was in no condition to do it. It turned out Nick Mason wanted to do some production. It was an interesting experience. He loved his jazz, did Nick, and Ferraris.

You were also a big Sinatra fan, right?

Yeah, from my parents. The power of his voice when he sang with Count Basie’s big band. It was like, what do you mean, punk rock? Listen to the noise these guys are making!

In 1979, you worked with another hero, Iggy Pop. Fun?

It was an education. He was my favourite singer. I couldn’t believe it when the call came. I knew Glen [Matlock] was playing with him; I thought, ‘You lucky motherfucker!’

How fast are you at playing these days?

I’m the fastest guitar in the west! My guitar drips blood!

Why the horror film imagery on the sleeve?

I’m a horror film fan and there’s an old one called The House That Dripped Blood. The artwork was done by horror movie poster artist Graham Humphreys. I knew if I gave him the title he’d come up with something very interesting, and he did.

What has been your most horrifying moment?

The scariest thing was in Italy, with The Lords Of The New Church, when various gang leaders wanted to kill us. Basically, one of our roadies threw this guy, a prominent gang member, offstage. Things got very, very weird. We were saved at the last minute by a guy from Sicily holding a Beretta. I can’t say his name because he’s connected to the Mafia.