When the hard driving rock you know and love appears increasingly under threat from the strange rhythms of rap and hip hop, what’s a white punk to do? Sure, you could stick to your guns and churn out another safety pin-friendly punk classic, but why not live a little and see what all the fuss is about? By the early 1980s, it’s not like punk was the freshest sound on the block (it may not have been dead, but it sure smelled that way). After all, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right?
For Captain Sensible (née Raymond Burns), founding member of British punk stalwarts the Damned, rap represented yet another opportunity to “take the piss” and “have a laugh,” as his compatriots would say. In 1982 Sensible was flush with success after managing to score a surprise UK number one with his playful cover of “Happy Talk” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. As an added ego boost, Sensible’s debut solo album Women and Captains First boasted several impressive tunes and a degree of songwriting maturity that set him apart from many of his one-dimensional punk peers. Yet perhaps the good Captain was flying a little too close to the sun when he opted to follow “Happy Talk” with “Wot”, his unique spin on the burgeoning rap subculture. If after hearing “Wot” you still insist on placing faith in Sensible’s flying abilities, I should warn you that in his case, much like Colonel Sanders, any rank is purely honorary. Stop saluting him!
During a period where the finest rap and hip hop tackled major issues like racism and social inequality, Sensible’s offering to the genre, “Wot”, instead dealt with the frustration of being rudely awoken by a construction worker while staying at a nice hotel. It’s actually pretty funny, although admittedly devoid of any insightful social commentary, unless you consider hating on Adam Ant a worthwhile crusade. There the Captain was, trying to rest, possibly after another raucous Damned gig, when the incessant noise of construction abruptly kicked in and drove him “berserk.” We all have our triggers. After calling reception “to no avail,” Sensible decided his only remaining recourse was to rap about his troubles, if you can call them that. Never one to lose sight of his blue-collar roots, Sensible does throw the “pile driver man” a bone, conceding he’s aware “that the guy must do his work,” as tortuous as it may seem to a decent man’s rest. Good bloke.
Despite its throwaway status, “Wot” was another massive hit for the Captain, particularly in Continental Europe, where it transformed Sensible into a star almost overnight. What do a bunch of pale Europeans know about rap anyway? With that beret of his, they probably thought he was a Black Panther or something. Success in the UK was a more modest affair, although two years later the Captain would again land in the top 10 on his native soil with the anti-Falklands War anthem “Glad it’s All Over”, following which his solo career fell into a bit of a nosedive (fine, no more flying metaphors), prompting him to eventually regroup with the Damned on a full-time basis. Were punks even remotely surprised at the prodigal Captain’s return? Hell no! Punks love money as much as the next guy. What are you, an anarchist? If you can’t beat ‘em, rejoin ‘em. He said Captain, I said turn that shit up, we’re slam dancing!
The Damned play Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom on April 15; Toronto's Phoenix Theatre on April 30th; and Montreal's Club Soda on May 2nd.