I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Blind Beatnik or Netherlandish Rabbit Fancier?: Going Solo with Captain Sensible

by Anthony Galli
Feb. 12, 2014

On October 22, 1976, punk rock troublemakers The Damned released what is widely reported, in some small circles, to be Britain’s first punk rock single, “ New Rose.” It was produced by famed “Jesus of Cool” Nick Lowe and recorded for punk rock upstart Stiff Records. “New Rose” was everything a punk rock single should be; young, loud, and snotty. Its catalogue number was BUY 6 (indicating that it was the sixth release from Stiff Records), and its B-side was an unlikely, supercharged cover of that fine old Beatles’ classic, “ Help!”

The Damned’s full length album, Damned Damned Damned, Stiff Records catalogue number SEEZ 1, was released on February 18, 1977, making it the first punk rock album released in Britain. Later in the year, other notable records were recorded or released by Stiff, from artists as far afield as Elvis Costello, Motörhead, and Ian Dury, with music from DEVO, Lene Lovich, Madness, The Go-Go’s, and many more, to follow.

November 1976 saw the release of Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the UK” single, with their album Never Mind the Bollocks not seeing release until almost a year later, in October 1977. By this time, punk rock, which seemed to be just beginning in the American press, was actually, unknowingly, lurching toward its eventual bloody demise. The Sex Pistols’ December 1976 “ Anarchy Tour,” which included The Damned, The Clash, and America’s own Johnny Thunder and the Heartbreakers, became a largely aborted affair, with all but three of its 25 dates cancelled. In 1978, the Pistols performed, again, a largely aborted tour of America, unceremoniously imploding in San Francisco in January. In October 1978, Sex Pistols “bassist” Sid Vicious was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend in New York City, and in February 1979, Sid was dead from a heroin overdose. Thus, the flaming comet of punk rock burned out before it faded away.

By this time, The Damned had released their second album, produced by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason (to a resounding WTF), had broken up, reformed, and released another album, but essentially the punk rock game was up. What, in this instance, does a former punk rock young man do if he can’t sing for a rock and roll band? If you are The Damned’s guitarist, bassist, songwriter, and red beret wearing agent provocateur Captain Sensible, you go solo and become The Beloved Entertainer.

And that’s okay! There’s nothing wrong with that!

Let's take some parallel cases. By 1984, former punk rock icon Elvis Costello had become a Sade-influenced blue-eyed soul impresario, as evidenced by his albums Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, each complete with a horn section, female background singers, and even duets with the likes of Daryl Hall. 1986 found Elvis reverting back to his birth name, Declan McManus, hiring most of the late Elvis Presley’s former TCB Band, and releasing a set of country laments and rockabilly ravers called King of America. The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten changed his name back to the original John Lydon, and created Public Image Ltd., an industrial-disco-ska art project that was designed to frighten the children while making them dance. More recently, Mr. Lydon could be glimpsed in television commercials extolling the virtues of British butter and as a contestant on the British reality show, I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

Whatever pays the bills, one must suppose.

Likewise, Captain Sensible never let his punk rock credibility get the best of him and resign him to a dusty shelf of nostalgic pop culture. He emerged as a solo artist in 1982 with a version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Happy Talk,” a harmless romantic ditty from the 1949 Broadway musical South Pacific. The single, against all odds (all of them!), and much to the record company’s surprise, reached #1 on the charts. The Captain’s family friendly and seemingly inconsequential recorded output did not seem an affront to his longtime punk rock supporters, and, in fact, seemed to widen his audience considerably. Other singles by the Captain charted equally well, and further followed his lighthearted, escapist musical tendencies. The good Captain even released a charming holiday single, “One Christmas Catalogue,” in 1984, proving once and for all that aging punk rockers can have holiday spirit and a sense of humor, too, dammit!

When not busy touring or recording with a recurrently reforming Damned, or under his own auspices, Captain Sensible has found time to indulge his passion for rail travel and the British countryside with videos for The Guardian newspaper. Sensible, however, is more than a celebrity pitchman for British rail service; his is a particularly environmental commitment to public transportation, demonstrated when he told the BBC News in 2007, “It’s the past and the future, especially with all the problems of global warming,” continuing, “I've got a bit of a downer on cars.”

Captain Sensible’s political commitments have always had a place in his work, yet none were made as overt as his affiliation with England’s Blah! Party in 2007. A political protest party designed to wrest power from institutional politicians and return political authority to voters, the Blah! Party was especially notable for being England’s first political party to garner corporate funding. British firm Seabrook Potato Crisps heartily endorsed Sensible and his political ambitions, with company chairman Ken Brook-Chrispin enthusing about Sensible, “He's a lovely chap and he talks a heck of a lot of sense.”

And who can forget Sensible’s lovable turn on 1983’s Through the Keyhole, a British quiz show where an overly officious host, Lloyd Grossman, rummages through a stranger’s house, unaware of the owner’s identity, and attempts to psychoanalyze the occupant? Sensible could not have been more welcoming.

And, that is the secret of Captain Sensible’s success and longevity. Despite his anti-smoking crusades, alternative political affiliations, and punk rock past, he appears to be somebody that everybody can get along with. He has made a career out of being himself, and his audience sees in him the sort of honesty and forthrightness that they would expect from their closest friends.

Of course, creating Britain’s first punk rock single doesn’t hurt.

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.