He hasn’t been a member of THE DAMNED for twenty years. But the impression he made on fans of the legendary British punk band was indelible. With a current documentary hipping legions of younger listeners to the wild and wonderful world of their new favorite group, the time is right for the explosive sticksman to reflect on a life spent making records and breaking rules. Superchunk/Bob Mould drummer JON WURSTER asks all the right questions.
“I never expected to end up in a band like the Damned,” Rat Scabies laughs. “I thought I’d end up an orchestra pit player or on a cruise ship.” Thankfully, Scabies (born Christopher Millar in Surrey, England) was spared the unspeakable polyester fate of tapping along to “You Light Up My Life” on a lido deck when he teamed up with guitarist Brian James, bassist Ray “Captain Sensible” Burns, and vocalist Dave Vanian to form the Damned in 1976.
Though best known for snarling punk anthems like “Neat Neat Neat,” “New Rose,” and “Love Song,” the Damned blossomed into an unpredictable, highly adventurous band in the 1980s, often touching on psychedelia, Motown, goth, and even progressive rock while always retaining its aggressive, sometimes sinister edge. Scabies played a crucial role in the group’s evolution, not just as the rhythmic powerhouse but also as a songwriting partner and coproducer on classic albums like Machine Gun Etiquette, The Black Album, and Strawberries. Though he left the Damned permanently in 1996, Scabies has remained active, and he still has plenty to say about his time behind the kit in one of modern rock’s most influential and important bands.
MD: I came across a great quote of yours that goes, “I would never have been anything but a drummer, no matter what I did.”
Rat: Yeah, there was never going to be anything else that I was going to do or that I wanted to be.
MD: No plan B?
Rat: No. I think you have a much higher chance of getting what you want if you don’t leave yourself other options. You have to burn the bridges. If I ever audition people to play with me, I ask them the same question: “When you told your parents you wanted to be a musician and they said, ‘That’s really nice but you’ll need a proper job to choose,’ what job did you choose?” If they’d chosen a job, then I put the phone down. Because the people who said, “There was no choice—I was only going to do this” are the greatest players.
MD: English jazz drummer/bandleader Eric Delaney was one of your early influences. What was it about him that made such an impression on you?
Rat: He was the style drummer. He was the only drummer who was on TV, and he was a real showman: two bass drums and lights inside the drums. His style was really pop, but the fact that he was saying, Okay, you can lead a whole band with the drums and sound great doing it, that was a jaw-dropping moment for me.
MD: You started drumming very young. You were eight?
Rat: Yeah, that’s when I first fell in love with it and demanded a drumkit for Christmas, which was the classic toy drumkit that lasted a few hours. [laughs] But two or three years later I got a real kit because [the desire] just hadn’t gone away.
MD: What were your early experiences playing with other musicians?
Rat: A friend’s father used to run a theater company. He had this pantomime going on, and he needed musicians. So he gave me a job. It was one of the best things to ever happen to me. I had to play quietly because I was playing with an acoustic piano. I had to learn about control and how to dampen the drumkit with big ol’ bits of felt on the toms without it sounding too horrible. And it was a show every day, with matinees, and I was doing three solos a show. It was just real good for my playing.
But I was really dying to play properly on a loud kit. And then I went down and jammed with Brian James. So I had eight weeks of restraint and learning how to get on with other players, and suddenly there I was with Brian, who of course is “the louder the better.”
MD: So you had a leg up on most of the other punk drummers in terms of actual on-the-job experience.
Rat: Yeah, I think a lot of the punk drummers picked up the sticks the day of their first show and sorted themselves that way, which was really good. But I’d already made my mind up, so I was already playing.
MD: When the Damned was starting, were you aware of drummers like the MC5’s Dennis Thompson, Tommy Ramone, or the Stooges’ Scott Asheton?
Rat: Yes. Dennis Thompson, very much so. Such a cool player, that trick he does with his snare drum rolls where they’re kind of ahead and they snap off and then he sits right back in the pocket.
MD: You have this wonderful “Who wants to come up and knock me off this drum stool?” expression on your face in a lot of the early Damned footage. What do you think accounted for that confidence?
Rat: Oh, I was terrified. But I knew if I let that fear of being on stage take over, I’d never be able to do it. So I would just shut off the fact that the audience was there. But then you get used to that and you go, You know what? They’re all watching, so I think I’ll show off so they’ll notice me properly. Everyone in the Damned thought they were the best one in the Damned, and that we’d be able to have a massive career on our own without the other three. So you wanted to stand out the most.
MD: The Damned has always been tagged as a punk band, but you touched on so many different genres. How important was not being pigeonholed into one specific sound or style?
Rat: The important thing about being a musician to me was that you didn’t stay doing the same thing; otherwise it’s like doing a job in a factory. So we weren’t afraid to experiment with our own music.
MD: The experimenting really kicked in when Brian James left in 1978 and Captain Sensible switched from bass to guitar.
Rat: Yeah. We didn’t have any writing background between us, because Brian had written the first record. Apart from a song each on the second album, we’d never done it before. So we’d go and troll through record stores, picking up old obscure albums because you liked the way the band looked or the name, and then you listened to it and it opened up new ways you could go.
There’s nothing better than switching instruments to bring something new out. The intro to “Smash It Up” was me sitting there with the guitar and seeing what I could do.
MD: I found that once I learned how to play the guitar and strummed along with records, it really made me a better drummer. It made me understand what helps or hinders the momentum of a song.
Rat: Yeah, and having an empathy with where it should be slightly slower or have a pause, or when it needs a lift to get more exciting. And if you don’t have an empathy with the rest of the band, you can’t do that. The hardest lesson learned is to listen to the rest of the band rather than yourself.
MD: This might sound odd, but I’ve always thought of your style as an unlikely cross between Keith Moon and Hal Blaine.
Rat: [laughs] Hal Blaine I’m not so sure about. But the Moon thing: I think it’s the “mad drummer in the back trying to draw attention to himself.” Do you know what I mean?
MD: Yeah, but I think you had the flashiness and that empathy that kept you from getting in the way of the song.
Rat: Well, there’s a real easy rule for that: When there’s singing, don’t drum. [laughs]
MD: There’s a noticeable evolution in your playing from 1979’s Machine Gun Etiquette to 1982’s Strawberries.
Rat: Well, one of the things was the arrival of the drum machine. That changed the game a lot. Captain would be up all night in the studio writing with a drum machine. I’d come down in the morning and there’d be a guitar track with a drum machine, and it would need drums. So I had to learn that discipline pretty quickly. It changes the way you approach things. Instead of going for that big bluff roll where you go “brrrrrllllldddddd” and end hopefully in the right place, you can’t really get away with it, because you’ve got the metronome ticking.
MD: That said, you are the master of those super-fast, around-the-kit, multi-tom rolls. Was that something that came naturally, or did you have to work at it?
Rat: That came from playing on my own a lot and getting off on the sound of the toms. They sound great. [laughs] Why don’t people use them more?
MD: You were one of the few drummers from the ’76/’77 punk era who used a larger kit. Did you ever get any negative comments for that?
Rat: No. I actually used to always rate a band by how many tom-toms the drummer had. [laughs] The first album was done on a five-piece kit, and I pretty much stuck with that setup, but I got an extra bass drum for a while because I liked how it looked. But I never really got on with it. And I realized that if you could do fancy stuff with your right foot but you had two bass drums, nobody would realize you could do it with one foot.
MD: From Damned Damned Damned to your final album with the band, 1996’s Not of This Earth, your drums—specifically the snare—have an exciting “snap” to them. Obviously a lot of that is down to you as a player, but did you have specific methods for tuning your drums?
Rat: Well, first of all, I only do rimshots, so that has a lot to do with it. There’s got to be a certain amount of response to the heads; I like the sticks to bounce back. A lot of studio playing is about detuning, and one of the great things about [Music for Pleasure producer and Pink Floyd drummer] Nick Mason and [Damned Damned Damned producer] Nick Lowe was that they let me have my own way with how the drums sounded.
MD: Damned songs have so many peaks and valleys. There are some songs, specifically the seventeen-minute opus “Curtin Call,” from 1980’s The Black Album, where you lay out completely for long stretches.
Rat: I think silence is quite a powerful thing, and I think to nail those stops and gaps is a very natural thing to do as well. It keeps you interested.
MD: In the studio, would you do a lot of takes of a song, or were you pretty quick with your drum tracks?
Rat: It depends on what stage we were in. The first album was done in a couple days. The second one [1977’s Music for Pleasure], was a little longer but not that much. When we got to [1985’s] Phantasmagoria and working with [producer] Jon Kelly, it became a different ballgame. Like I said, the drum machine had arrived and everybody’s perception of what you did was different. So with Jon we did a lot of takes. And I’d be sitting there going, “Come on, we’ve done three takes—how many more of this?” But he was real good. The best producers always understand the feel you have with the track. It’s not just about being in time, it’s about how well you lock in all the way through.
MD: Was it at all nerve-racking working with the drummer of one of the biggest bands in the world when you were making Music for Pleasure?
Rat: No, I never felt intimidated by him as a player. What Nick Mason did [in Pink Floyd] was always good and tasteful in the right places. He was always really cool, and I think he understood where I was coming from and what I was doing.
MD: Speaking of English rock royalty, Led Zeppelin once came to see the Damned at the Roxy in London. What do you remember about that night?
Rat: It was a bit odd, because on the one hand we were these snotty kids going, “F**kin’ old hippies coming down trying to crash in on our scene.” And on the other hand you’re thinking, That’s Led Zeppelin, one of the biggest bands in the world, and they’ve come down to see US.
MD: Fast-forward several years, and you find yourself in a rehearsal room playing with Jimmy Page. That must’ve been surreal.
Rat: Yeah. It must’ve been around ’84. He was a big Damned fan, and I got a phone call asking if I wanted to come down and jam. So I went down there and it was a really cool thing to do. I think he just felt like playing again.
MD: A few years ago you and Brian James teamed up to perform Damned Damned Damned in its entirety. What was it like playing those songs again after so many years?
Rat: To play them with that same kind of energy after all that time, I found demanding. I’m sixty-one this year; I ain’t eighteen anymore. People come to see you play and they’ve been listening to those records for forty years and they know exactly how it should be done. And if it’s not quite as fast as it should be or if you fluff going into the middle section, I think it does matter to the audience.
MD: You’ve experienced something very few people get to do: watch a condensed, warts-and-all depiction of your life on the silver screen. How strange was it seeing Wes Orshoski’s Damned documentary, Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, for the first time?
Rat: It’s Wes’s movie, his viewpoint. It’s someone else’s perception of what you did. Which of course you’re not going to agree with completely. But I think the film put a pleasant full stop on the whole thing. It’s something for my grandchildren to look at and go, “Yup, there he is.”
MD: What’s going on now? What are you working on?
Rat: I’ve just finished a run in the theater with an actress named Jane Horrocks. That was twelve weeks of theatrical work, which was really good fun because I didn’t have to break a kit down every night and travel 200 miles every day. I really enjoyed not being on the road, and playing the same venue every night. And I’ve been recording with a band called the Mutants. We’ve done three and a half albums now. We have a new album that we kind of coproduced with the Dandy Warhols. And we may be going back to America to do some shows on the West Coast. We did the last album in Joshua Tree with [Eagles of Death Metal guitarist] Dave Catching and some of those desert people. [laughs]
MD: How did you hook up with them?
Rat: Well, I really like the Eagles of Death Metal. When I first heard them I sent Dave an email saying, “I really like your band. Let me join it.” So he invited me down to Joshua Tree to hang out at the studio for a while, and I did. We became pretty good friends and I’d go down and see them [in the U.K.]. They’d play “New Rose” and I’d hang out and drink the rider. [laughs]
MD: You’ve been involved in so many firsts: first U.K. punk band to release a single, put out an album, tour the U.S., etc. What are you personally most proud of?
Rat: [long pause] It’s funny, I always try to remind people that we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. None of us knew it would turn into something bigger at the time. And I think people who are influenced by us should bear that in mind, that there aren’t any rules. It’s not about being just like someone else; it’s about doing your own thing.
But what I’m proudest of? It’s a bit weird—I’d be at a party and someone would ask, “What do you do for a living?” and I’d say, “I’m a drummer.” And they’d always look at you in disbelief. I think being able to say “I’m a drummer” at all those parties is pretty satisfying. [laughs]