An interview with Brian James, the original guitarist with The Damned, from R2 – October 2015
The word raconteur could have been coined to describe Brian James; one of the easiest interviewees I’ve ever had. Drop a name into the conversation and he’s off: fascinating insights into the 1976 punk scene; playing with Iggy Pop; his latest projects. Somehow the barrage of noise associated with those early albums by The Damned, his work with Stiv Bators (with whom he was recently delighted to discover he shares a birthday) in The Lords Of The New Church, and exemplified on latest album The Guitar That Dripped Blood doesn’t fit with this bluff and friendly chap.
“It’s not something I have a choice about,” he counters when I ask about forty years of writing and recording. “I constantly pick up the guitar and play. I’ve always got music going through my head. I’m always writing things.” He certainly hasn’t taken an easy path. After leaving The Damned following writing most of the material on their first two albums, he formed the short-lived Tanz Der Youth which he says now was a mistaken concept, “Those gaps in rock and roll which makes the music special were all filled with synthesiser. It didn’t really work.” Then a spell playing with Iggy Pop, of which he says, “We were Iggy’s band. We did what he said. He recruited us all because he liked how we played. But the first few times we were a bit restrained. When we grew in confidence that Jim liked what we did it was wild.”
A long spell followed with Stiv Bators, from The Dead Boys, and former members of Sham 69 and the Barracudas in The Lords Of The New Church who took the basic wall of guitar sound purveyed by James and filtered it through a range of musical styles. After ‘The Lords’ James worked with another early influence, Wayne Kramer from the MC5s. More recently he rerecorded some of The Damned’s early material, readdressing Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s “ropey production”, and playing with The Damned’s drummer Rat Scabies. Along the way he has also recorded Chateau Brian showcasing his “take on acoustic blues and taste for red wine I gained living in France”.
The Guitar That Dripped Blood is, he says, “like coming full circle. Back to those influences like Detroit garage rock. Early Stones. The first Stooges album I heard was Fun House. I loved Iggy’s voice, but wasn’t overly taken with Ron Asheton’s playing, all that wah-wah. I really liked Scott Asheton’s drumming though. Such power. Then I heard Raw Power and what James Williamson was doing, wrapping the guitar around Iggy’s voice. That was amazing.” The influence of Raw Power and early punk is the bedrock of this latest James’ album.
Malcom Mortimer, who drums on the album, is a childhood friend and James credits Malcom’s parents as having a big influence on his musical development. “I used to hear these jazz records round at his house. And his dad would say you liked John Coltrane last time you were round here. Now try this one. And he’d play me some Thelonius Monk. It all fitted in with the blues musicians I was researching myself.” He is also returning to the crooners his parents listened to “when you listen to Frank Sinatra sometimes his voice sounds almost like a sax.”
Currently James is writing an autobiography of his formative punk years. “A few years back my wife did a university course and there were people there writing theses on punk. I thought what reference have they got to use, maybe Jon Savage’s book about Malcom Mclaren. But there was so much that is undocumented. The whole scene. If you wanted clothes you didn’t buy them in [Mclaren’s] Sex because you couldn’t afford it so you made your own. A real DIY ethic which translated to the music.”