One of the big surprises of the recent Syd Barrett tribute concert was the stunning interpretation of Astronomy Domine by ex-Damned singer and guitarist, Captain Sensible. We chatted with the Captain about the show and got some great insights into the event, and also asked him about Nick Mason's production of The Damned's 1977 album (which they wanted Syd to produce)...
How did you get involved with the show?
It's a mystery to me but I think that the people who ran the show asked Chrissie who, out of the people that she knew in show business, was a Syd Barrett fan and aficionado. She obviously suggested Robyn Hitchcock, of whom there is no greater Syd Barrett fan in the world, I don't think, and myself, because when Chrissie and myself were in a band together - the Johnny Moped Band - we would often after a few drinks end up singing stuff like Bike and See Emily Play, so she knew I was a big fan.
What got you interested in Syd and/or Pink Floyd?
Well I was definitely interested in the Syd-period Pink Floyd more than the subsequent band, which for me was a different entity entirely. I think there's a charm to the Syd Barrett period Pink Floyd that I don't think any other band has got. At the time, nobody sang with an English accent in Britain, everyone was pretending to be American: The Move, The Kinks, The Who... much as I love their stuff, they were singing with pseudo-American accents.
But Syd Barrett changed all that. And he didn't write songs about Route 66 or any of that old nonsense, he sang peculiar songs about Cambridge and Britain. That's what turned me on to them.
I remember Tony Blackburn playing See Emily Play on the breakfast show on Radio 1, which had just started. I was on my way to school - I remember it distinctly - I was late for school, it was 9:10am, I was going to get detention anyway but I just couldn't be arsed, because I was listening to my transistor radio.
Tony Blackburn played See Emily Play, and I just sat down on somebody's front wall, and for those three minutes I was just transfixed and taken into a different dimension. I was never the same again. At that point I fell in love with music.
I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life - I wanted to do stuff like Syd was doing.
What influenced your choice of track (Astronomy Domine) and were there other songs that you'd have liked to have played on the night?
Everyone was bartering for the gig, we all tried to get our first-choice song - mine was Astronomy Domine, but my second choice, funnily enough, was Lucifer Sam, which I absolutely love but I was told that couldn't do that one as someone else was doing it. And in actual fact, on the night, nobody did. Because, whatever the backstage politics were, somebody who was going to do it pulled out or
ended up not doing it, so I would have done Astronomy Domine and Lucifer Sam, that was my choice.
But I wanted to do Astronomy because I remember at the time, when I first heard it, it had a big effect on me because the instruments in the whole middle section - the guitar, and the organ - well, all the instruments were played unlike I'd ever heard them played before. Almost like an... extra-terrestrial kind of way, if you like, very psychedelic. The guitar sounded like it was being played on another planet! I couldn't work out at the time what on earth the chords were that they were playing. Syd was playing with a bottle or a lighter, or a slide of some sort. He wasn't playing a G and a C and a D chord, he was making these fantastic noises with a slide and an echo pedal. I wanted to have a go at that, basically!
Was it the first time that you'd covered a Syd/Floyd track?
Well, the Damned used to cover Arnold Layne. Unlikely for a punk band I know, but the whole band knew that material, and we used to do it live for an encore or something. There are bootlegs of it about, floating around.
The one I covered on record, was Rick Wright's affectionate tribute to Syd - his rehashing of Syd's style, called It Would Be So Nice. It's a lovely, lovely pop song and it sounds really as though Syd had written it, but of course it wasn't Syd's. A beautiful song, I love it:
[Sings] Everybody wakes and in the morning
Hot tea, can't stop yawning
Pass the butter please...
What did you think of the event?
It was amazing for me to have been invited, and amazing also to hear all those wonderful songs being interpreted in such different ways by the respective artists. But it was also fantastic backstage to meet everyone, and everyone was there for the right reasons, and everyone had left their ego's at home, including Roger Waters and the rest of the guys in Pink Floyd. Everyone was just really nice, I know it's an old cliché but everyone was genuinely friendly backstage.
I couldn't believe how nice a bloke Kevin Ayers was. I had a bit of a headache, I'd been out on the sauce the night before, and he said: "Captain, let me sort you out. I've got some potions and things..." I thought, "Kevin Ayers is offering me drugs! This could be a
dubious experience!" but it was mainly legal stuff he had in his bag. These days he's cleaned his act up, God bless him!
In May 2006, Nick said the following about his production of The Damned's 1977 album 'Music For Pleasure': "That was a funny misunderstanding. As a matter of fact, they wanted Syd Barrett, who at that stage, hadn't been with us for a long time. But our publisher simply said: 'Syd won’t happen, but Nick might be interested.' That’s how we got together, and I had great fun. Recording four tracks with this band was faster than setting up the drum kit for Pink Floyd. I always said: 'Do you want to work on that track a bit?' and they always answered: 'No thanks, that’ll do!' This uncomplicated approach most probably affected me as well. I believe that you can see this influence on our 'Animals' album: the production was less pompous." What are your memories of those sessions?
[Laughing at Nick's comments] Well, unfortunately The Damned was imploding at the time. Nobody wanted to work with Brian any more, because he was believing his own publicity that he was the brains of the band and that the rest of us were like cannon fodder. So, nobody else's material was getting considered, pretty much. I wouldn't have minded if Brian was writing material of the calibre of Damned, Damned, Damned, but that wasn't what was happening. I think he had knocked the material together in a couple of weeks before the recordings. I don't want to slag Brian off, because I love the bloke, I think he's brilliant, and without him I'd probably still be cleaning toilets now.
But we were a band that was on auto-destruct at the time and there wasn't a lot of communication. So, poor old Nick Mason came in to a scenario that wasn't ideal for him, I wouldn't imagine, and I think he the best job he could really. Of course, we did want Syd Barrett, and the reason that we thought there might be some chance that Syd might turn up, was because Pink Floyd and The Damned - I know it sounds unlikely - but we shared a publisher, Peter Barnes, the bloke that Nick was alluding to earlier.
Peter thought there might be a chance of Syd turning up, and twiddling the knobs, and making us sound... I thought it would have been a wonderful thing, a psychedelic punk album. That was my dream. It didn't unfortunately happen on Music For Pleasure but we... When Brian had left the band, we were working on our third album, which is called Machine Gun Etiquette, we did the Syd production that we thought should have been done on the previous album ourselves. And I think Machine Gun Etiquette is pretty much the way we would have liked Syd to have done the one before.
Nick Mason, nice enough bloke, we had a jam with him. It was quite funny to have a jam with Pink Floyd's drummer. He plays in a certain style, and we play about five or six times faster! I think we managed to do a Chuck Berry song, which was quite interesting! He's a nice enough bloke, but he does like his Ferrari's though. I mean, we were going to the studio every day on the top deck of a number 38 bus, and he was getting there on some swanky, expensive transport of his...
Your performance at the Syd tribute won a lot of plaudits from Floyd fans who were there. Would you consider doing more covers of their songs in the future?
[Laughs] Probably not, no. Much as I love the Syd stuff, if you say these days you're a Floyd fan people think "Christ, he used to be a punk rocker, what's happened to him?!" As I said before, it's two different bands.
Gilmour, as well, he slapped me on the back and said "Well done, Cap'" as I came off after doing Astronomy Domine, which was good enough for me, because I love his interpretation of the song as well. Bear in mind it's not his song, and he wasn't there when they recorded it. His version of the song on Ummagumma is amazing. They doubled the length of it, they doubled the verse and the front end of it, and that for me is the definitive version.
Rick Wright as well, absolute genius. For me it was Syd and Rick Wright that were the creative [heart]... those organ solos were fantastic, all that dreamy space twiddling that he did on the Hammond organ. Just amazing, and no-one else has done it better since.
So, doing any more Floyd covers, probably not. I've done Astronomy Domine and that's the one I wanted to do. [Laughs] That's the big one for me! They did a version of Careful With That Axe and Green Is The Colour, a medley on Sounds of the Seventies, that I love. A tape of that floats around, and I've got a copy of that at home... I love that as well, but I don't think you can beat the version that they did with Gilmour.