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Drummer and founder member of punk legends The Damned Rat Scabies chats to Andrew Twambley about his first shows with the group in 25 years and his new album with Chris Constantinou, ‘One Thousand Motels’.
Mention Rat Scabies in conversation and it immediately raises the image of the shirtless manic young drummer in The Damned knocking out the hypnotic intro to ‘New Rose’ before kicking over his kit and contributing to the ensuing chaos. But that was forty-four years ago and we have all grown up (a little) since then. Rat left The Damned in 1996 but his workload has never let up and he is currently involved in a number of exciting new projects. We talked to him about his new album ‘A Thousand Motels’ recorded with Chris Constantinou from Adam and the Ants, his recollections of being The Grandfather of Punk, the day Led Zeppelin came to see him, next summer’s dates with the original Damned line-up. And, of course, his search for The Holy Grail in Southern France.
PB: Chris, it's Andrew from Pennyblackmusic.
RS: Hello Andrew, how are you?
PB: Now, do I call you Ratty, Chris or Mr Scabies?
RS: Whatever you’re comfortable with really.
PB: Ratty is good for me. Onto the main event. I have just been listening to your new album, ‘One Thousand Motels’ with Chris Constantinou. How long have you known Chris?
RS: We’ve probably been working together now since the start of 2015.
PB: You must have known him longer than that with him being in the business for so long?
RS: No, I didn’t actually, I never came across him until then and he just called me up one day as they were doing the first Mutants record. He asked me if I would be up for doing it. I went along, we did the thing and we have just sort of kept on going with various projects ever since.
PB: That’s good. So you get on well then, yeah?
RS: Yeah, yeah. We do he’s a lot of fun to work with and hang out with so it’s always entertaining.
PB: Does he like a beer?
RS: (Laughs) Yeah, well ‘a’ beer being slightly inaccurate, but yeah.
PB: (Laughs) I was being polite and not being too forward since we’ve only just met! Where does the title ‘A Thousand Motels’ come from?
RS: It’s really mostly because we spent a lot of our working lives in kind of cheesy motels. Most people think the musicians’ lifestyle is pretty glamorous really but in between the big cities you are kind of in transit, so you tend not to be in posh places. It’s also a good thing that neither of us really want to tour that much now, so that we can avoid those places.
PB: Having listened to the album it’s got kind of a whisper of being the son of ‘The Mutants’. That’s no coincidence I presume. is it?
RS: Well, it’s certainly not a deliberate thing. Really, if there is resemblance to The Mutants it is mostly due to Chris’ input on the song writing. I think he is pretty good to work with as he writes great tunes and has great ideas. Having said that, he always welcomes other players’ ideas which makes it interesting.
PB: How much did producer Nick De Carlo influence eventual sound and the taste of the music itself?
RS: The actual overall sound he did quite a lot to it tonally with the drums and things whereas I tend to mix my drums to a sort of racket and loud. I don’t tidy everything up. Nick is very precise about everything being clean and quite critiqued. It was quite interesting working with somebody that thought in a different way about how I can sound.
PB: It does sound really crisp.
RS: Yeah it does. It’s got a lot of definition.
PB: It has, it has. Since I was trying to set up this interview a few weeks ago, there has been some more big Ratty news out. After twenty-five years or so, you’re back with the Damned. I see there are four dates planned for next summer. What happened there? Where did that all come from?
RS: Really it’s all Dave Vanian’s fault. He sort of instigated it and pushed us all back into the same room at once I suppose. None of us are getting any younger and it seems like we were all up for it and capable of playing and still enjoying playing. It seemed a waste if we didn’t do it.
PB: Is it exciting for you to think of getting back together with the band again after all this time?
RS: I am not going to get over myself. It's only four or five shows. It would be nice to get back out there and play those songs because not a lot of people knew them at the time. So it will be nice to kind of show them off.
PB: Dare I ask, have there been any sort of whispers about if it all goes well, doing more than four dates?
RS: No. None of us are really thinking that far ahead yet.
PB: But you never know, eh?
RS: You never know, but be careful what you wish for (Laughs).
PB: You must be due another solo album now or in the near future. It has been two years since ‘Prison Hospital Debt’. Any thoughts on that?
RS: No, I’m not really working on a solo record, as such, at the moment, I’m kind of quite busy with all the other things that I am involved with. I’ve got Professor and the Madman, The Sinclairs, Nosferatu and there are another two ‘One Thousand Motels’ in the pipeline.
PB: That’s going to keep you busy then?
RS: Yeah, I’ve got quite a lot going on. It’s a bit like a builder who starts fixing his house up and never ever does it because he a builder, isn’t he? He just kind of doesn’t see the point.
PB: Any chance of revisiting your pantomime outing, ‘Puss in Boots’ again?
RS: (Laughs) Yeah, at the drop of a hat! I like working in the theatre. It’s a different environment. You don’t have to do the drums everyday.
PB: When people start talking about The Pistols, The Damned and The Clash they are talking about the beginning of the punk era but if I can take you back a little bit further, you were in London SS. What was London SS? Was it a band or just a legend? Did they actually exist?
RS: Yeah, they did exist. It wasn’t a band as such that ever managed to get a full line up permanently. The core of it was Mick Jones, Tony James and Brian James and three of them all had a lot going on and stuff and they were looking for people that they wanted to work with. So we had the same kind of ideas as them. A lot of people came and went and hung out with them and played and did things and I guess I wasn’t the first choice, but I was the last.
PB: Did they actually have any gigs or tours?
RS: No, no, no, there was nothing like that. It was all some kind of a pipe dream. The idea was just to get a band together and then start. There weren’t any sort of punk type surroundings in those days.
PB: It was just a breeding ground for future legends. was it?
RS: Well, yeah, I think it was. In some ways it was catalyst, and it was a great philosophy. I remember Paul Simonon and being with him up the pub and everybody wanted him to join the band just because he looked so good and was a really great guy. He was really cool but he didn’t play an instrument and he didn’t want to sing. He just attracted people to him.
PB: He had great hair though, didn’t he?
RS: Yeah. But you can always teach somebody to play guitar but you can’t teach them to be a cool and alright person.
PB: No, that’s true. I know you’ve probably been asked a million times before but ‘New Rose’, which was my first punk single, was the first mainstream punk single out there in the old days. The one that broke the mould. How does it feel to you to have been involved in such a world changing piece of culture?
RS: (Laughs) I tend not to ever think about it like that.
PB: You don’t?
RS: It was a snapshot in time really. That was what was happening that day and none of us expected it to be what it was. I suppose because I didn’t ever expect it to be this big I sort of put it on the back burner. It’s funny, because we were kind of doing what we enjoyed when we thought it should be done. It was without any kind of feeling that it would ever go any further than those four walls really.
PB: A lot of people followed behind you.
RS: Yeah, you’re right, but we certainly never saw ourselves as any kind of leaders in any shape or form.
PB: I heard one story that one time you were playing The Roxy in the early days and Led Zeppelin came in to see you. Did they? And how did you feel about that on the basis they were dinosaur rockers at the time?
RS: Yeah, they were and you weren’t really allowed to like Led Zeppelin.
PB: No, unless secretly maybe?
RS: Remembering rightly they were so much bigger than the rest of the audience! There were lots of big people in their crew. The thing was actually you’d have to kind of sort of go, “Wow, that’s the biggest band in the world who just walked into our gig in this little shitty club in Denmark Street.” That was just a part of us that made us think “Well we must be doing something really right” or they are just very cool people because they are actually coming down to see what’s going on themselves. A lot of other musicians from their generation, the Led Zeppelin generation, weren’t at all punk friendly.
PB: To take this story one step further, I did hear, that John Bonham got pissed and tried to kick you off the drums and play himself. Is that right?
RS: Well, he didn’t try and kick me off the drums,. We were already finished but he did get up onstage and play and the audience didn’t really want him to very much. My drums were in the back of the car already so there wasn’t a drum kit up there.
PB: At the time when you were touring around did you get on with the other bands or was there any kind of jealousy involved? I’ve seen loads of pictures of you all on a big bus and all looking happy in each other’s presence. How was it in those days?
RS: Yeah, yeah, we did really. The bands never really had any issues with each other and quite often we found ourselves socialising with The Clash. They would be in the studio next door or we would meet them somewhere and we then go for a game of pool. If you saw them in the pub we were always alright. They would send us a pint. There was never really animosity. It was only when it became about money and other people got involved that it sort of turned into a career thing that it sort of moved away from that.
PB: You’re a busy guy, Ratty. What have you been doing since March when we all went into lockdown and no one could play music properly?
RS: I’ve been quite lucky because a lot of what I do is in the studio so that’s just me and the engineer. It’s work so not really breaking any rules. I’ve been able to carry on, like I say doing The Professor and the Madman, 69 Cats etc. So I’ve been able to work from home. I’m keeping myself busy doing things like that. I’ve been very fortunate that I’m not depending upon others. But Covid is absolutely killing everybody out there.
PB: I don’t know what is going to happen when we all do come back because a lot of the support guys, the road people and the security, they’ll be doing something else. You might have to retrain them and I don’t know where you are going to find them.
RS: That’s just one of many any problems. I think one of the biggest issues with the lockdown that’s probably going to be the hardest is just the condition of a lot of those buildings. Most of these venues are pretty old places and they need to be taken care of. We already had the economy crashing down and people have been under investing. I think that’s going to be as much a danger as anything else. Just how much it is going to cost to put your venue back into shape before we can put a show on.
PB: Let’s hope it is soon anyway. One of the best music videos I have seen in recent years is ‘Don’t You Wish You Were Dead’ starring yourself. What contribution did you make to that bearing in mind you had left The Damned for a while, hadn’t you. by that time?
RS: Well, the thing you have to remember it wasn’t my film it was Wez Wazowski’s and he decided to shoot it and put it together. It was the best story that he saw, not necessarily the one that I agreed with or I thought gave the insight into the band that maybe I hoped it would have done.
PB: Were you happy with the result?
RS: It was alright. I don’t recommend it to anybody.
PB: Well, I do!
RS: Well, good for you!
PB: Tell me about ‘Tea and Stories’ where you interview people in the pub. Fantastic idea that. I wish we could have done that today rather than this remote stuff. Where did that concept come from?
RS: I just have really love listening to spoken word radio and podcasts and things like that. It doesn’t take long when you realise the ones that are the best to listen to, the ones with the best stories. The ones that actually do tell you something and keep you wondering about what is going to happen next. Really it was just to go round and get people telling great stories in a much more relaxed atmosphere. People like to talk after a couple of beers.
PB: Yeah, yeah, I saw that. I’ve seen a couple of them. They go on for over an hour. How many beers did you get through in that time?
RS: Too many.
PB: Talking about things that are bonkers, I’ve just finished reading ‘Rat Scabies and The Holy Grail’ by music journalist Christopher Dawes which was an amazingly interesting book. It’s not something that you can ever attribute to “Rat Scabies’ drummer from The Damned who smashes drums up all the time” What started that interest off?
RS: I was born into it really. My parents were very fond of conspiracies theories and legends. I grew up really questioning adults that would talk about legends and folklore and politics as well and out of that came the story of a crazy priest running a church and a chateau and that story really stuck with me. I always really liked it and enjoyed it and then just as fate would have it, I got quite bored with being the mad drummer bloke in the band and I thought, that I really wanted to do a book… It certainly wasn’t supposed to be that one though. Chris Dawes had moved in over the road opposite me and we were just talking about the chateau and everything. The funny thing is that actually pretty much everything you read in that that book is absolutely true.
PB: As mentioned in the book, were there any llamas?
RS: Not when we were there!
PB: OK, let me take you back a little bit. This is in my diary: Saturday 28th May 1977, a memorable day in my life because I saw The Damned and The Adverts, at Eric’s in Liverpool.
PB: It was forty-odd years ago so memories are a little bit vague and I’d spent the afternoon in The Grapes next door. What I do remember is when you guys came on you had a massive drum kit that was bigger than the whole room and you launched into a cover of ‘Help!’ and the Scousers went crazy. Do you have any memories of the gigs in Eric's?
RS: Yeah, in those days quite often we would do two shows.
PB: Yeah, they did matinees at Eric’s. I was at the evening one as I was a big boy then.
PB: Still am.
RS: Yeah, it’s interesting because I was talking to a mate about that, he was at the matinee show because they were all too young to go to the evening one. But it was always a laugh.
PB: It stank a lot though, if I remember rightly (Being based in a cellar Eric’s was notorious for having trouble with the drains – Punk Rock History Ed)
RS: (Laughs) Yeah, it has that weird stage that was just really long and narrow on one side of it. I don’t remember how big the drum kit was.
PB: That’s my memory. I could just see your head over the top of the massive kit. That was 40 years ago and after eight pints in the pub next door, so maybe but that my memory fades a bit. Those were the days eh?
RS: Yeah, weren’t they just.
PB: Thanks, Ratty, that was great, good luck with everything. Let’s hope to see some gigs in the near future and I’ve got June and July in my diary already. So I’ll see you then.
RS: Alright, I shall see you then. Great talking to you.
PB: Thank you.
Photos by Jason Bridges
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