Photo by Ian Dickson. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
From Lemmy filmmaker Wes Orshoski comes the story of the long-ignored pioneers of punk: The Damned, the first UK punks on wax and the first to cross the Atlantic. The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, includes appearances from Chrissie Hynde, Mick Jones (The Clash), Lemmy and members of Pink Floyd, Black Flag, GNR, the Sex Pistols, Blondie, Buzzcocks, and more. Shot around the globe over three years, the film charts the bands complex history and infighting, as it celebrated its 35th anniversary and found its estranged former members striking out on their own anniversary tour, while still others battle cancer.
I caught up with Orshoski a week before he arrives at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork city, to introduce the screening of the film and take part in a Q & A session as part of the Punk on Film season, a celebration of the legacy of the seminal punk movement that epitomises late 70’s Britain.
Firstly, what prompted you to make a film about The Damned?
Wes: Well I was never a hardcore The Damned fan growing up or anything. In fact I might have experienced it for the first time in the late 80’s on MTV when they had that Alone Again Or video out. I met Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian when I was working on the Lemmy film and then they phoned me in the summer of 2011 and asked me if I’d be interested in filming them on their 35th anniversary tour. Lemmy is such a one of a kind, larger than life person. Rock and Rollers aren’t like that anymore. They drink a respectable amount, and they’re not very controversial ever. So whoever I chose next had to have been around a long time, and been a part of something that changed music. The Damned fit that description. If I knew then what I know now about how difficult it would be to make the film, I don’t know if I would have gone ahead with it. It was a film that didn’t want to be made, and I kind of forced it into the world.
Do you mean that in a logistical sense? As in financially it was difficult to make?
Wes: All of the above. I funded the film myself, which was a huge financial burden and it continues to be. As well as that the lack of participation from the singer, Dave Vanian and the fact that there were warring factions with Sensible fighting with Scabies made it very uncomfortable. I also got mugged and had my camera smashed in South London. So these things kept happening, like a flashing neon sign saying ‘do not proceed!’. They talk about ‘the curse of The Damned’ in the film. Well I lived that and I’m still in fear of it!
There’s a scene in the movie where Scabies gets quite angry and agitated and is telling you that he doesn’t give a shit about the documentary. Because of the huge rift between the bands members, I would imagine that you had very different and perhaps conflicting relationships with each of them. Did you feel like you were in an awkward position at times as a result?
Wes: Always! I remember one time I’m sitting backstage at a table with Sensible in Cornwall, just him and I talking, and I had just shot a scene that shows up in the film where the band were playing the song Love Song. I was telling him that I was going to be leaving in a couple of days to go and interview Rat and Brian in France, and he’s so normal and so cool with it right to my face. Then after I had gone and interviewed them , he got weird over e-mail. The thing about Captain is that he’s an extremely insecure person, but he has no reason to be. He talks about it in the film, about how he’s always on stage seeking that acceptance, and how the audience don’t encourage him because of his big ego. There’s weirdness between other members too, for example Paul Gray hates Rat. Its a weird situation because as the filmmaker, I have to represent the audience and more so I have to represent myself and what I want to do with this film. I have to think about what the audience want to see from this film, and they want to see Rat and Brian. They have to be in the film. It continues to be tricky to be honest with you.
There is that particularly emotional subplot throughout the film between Captain and Rat Scabies, which was a dispute over unpaid royalties. At the London premiere, Scabies spoke of how he hoped that the film would bring “closure”. Was there any form of conscious effort on your part to attempt to bring the dispute to an end and repair the friendship?
Wes: Oh yeah for sure. At the London premiere, I told people that I actually tried to get the band to reunite. They had already talked about it in 2007, doing a proper reunion tour and we actually discussed that in front of an audience in London, unfortunately it never happened. I think it had to do with the fact that the people who were putting it together wanted the current line-up to not play any gigs in order to build up the excitement for a while. For whatever reason it never happened, and Sensible will definitely tell you a different story. The film ends with Captain’s 60th birthday gig at The Forum in London, and the idea was that in the encore, unbeknownst to Captain, Rat would appear on the drum stool and Brian would come out with him. Maybe Captain wouldn’t even know about it, because Dave would just roll with it because thats the kind of guy he is. He would enjoy the carnival element of it all. Even Pinch, the current drummer in the band, who has the most to lose by Rat coming on, said “why dont I hand over my sticks to Rat”. So of course I was like lets do it. As the weeks went on, Pinch got cold feet and said I’ve got to talk to Sensible about this, and then as soon as he talked to Sensible about it, it died. I was still holding out hope in the days before the gig. Finally, in my last minute with Captain before the gig, I put it all out there, and he looked at me like he wanted to fucking kill me. He was blank. He didn’t say a word. There was no chance. So the gatekeeper for any kind of reunion to happen is Captain.
What a shame from your point of view. What an encore that would have been!
Wes: I know what a shame, right? If you think about how it could have been done right, Pinch controls the set list so he could have told everyone lets hold off and do New Rose last. So there you go, you could have had the original line-up reunited for the last song. And with the way The Forum is set up it’s beautiful because theres a gate right behind the building and they could have driven up right there and Brian could have just plugged his guitar in to an amp. Logistically it was perfect they could have walked right out of the darkness and on to the stage. I know a lot of people are expecting them to do some career-spanning tribute to themselves next May. They’re doing a 40th anniversary gig at The Royal Albert Hall, which has already sold a shit load of seats a year out from the event. Its going to be a 3 hour show so I think everybody is expecting to see every member of the band past and present, but if I was a betting man right now, i’d bet against it.
Perhaps following the documentary there might have been a change of heart?
Wes: That’s the thing. Sensible was wounded after the world premiere at SXSW in Austin, Texas. The way he reacted, you wouldn’t believe what was happening in the theatre. At one point, he yelled “rubbish” at the screen and left the theatre, then came back in and started making noises. People were telling him to be quiet. It was so bizarre. Then he starts going up and down the aisles and ruffling these wrappers. You know how it is in a theatre, if anybody starts making any noise its loud. So he starts playing with these candy wrappers and then he takes this tin of English candies and starts going up and down telling people, “oh these are the boring bits, I’ll give you your money back if you want”. He was just reacting so negatively to what the other band members had to say, that he couldn’t handle it. He turned the world premiere in a sort of performance by him. After that, I think he was a little bit wounded and unsure how to take the film. Now, a lot of people really like the film, especially in the UK, and I would like to think that the more he reads the reviews he’ll begin to embrace it more. I don’t think they expected me to really reveal the rift between Captain and Rat. My heart goes out to him a little bit, because I cant imagine what it would be like to have a film made about me, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see it.
I’ve read quotes from you following the Lemmy film, in which you talked about the lifelong friends you had made through spending time on the road with Motorhead, both the band and the crew. Do you feel like you can say the same this time around about The Damned?
Wes: Definitely man! I mean especially some of the guys in the current line-up and Rat and Brian aswell. They’re lovely guys that I hope to know until the day I die. Pinch is a really good friend. He’s the guy who came to me and asked me to do some filming in the first place. He’s my original connection to the band and I love that guy. Sensible and Vanian are not like everyday people. You don’t necessarily go and have a pint with those guys. I remember when we were making the Lemmy film and we’d go somewhere with Lemmy and he’d go over to a trivia machine and just not talk to us all night. So we were never actually going out anywhere together, he was doing his thing and we were doing our thing. I interviewed Eddie Clarke, the guitarist from the quintessential line-up of Motorhead, and he told me how in the mid-70’s, they’d go to a bar and Lemmy would go play a poker machine and the rest of the band would go drinking by themselves. So I couldn’t be offended then when I realised he treated the guys in Motorhead the same. Vanian and Sensible are like that, Vanian is like the nicest guy in the world but he’s not going to go sit at the bar with you and have a long chat. Sensible will do that. He might come across as an every day guy but theres somewhat of a disconnect there because he’s a celebrity and he has a big ego. The funny thing about Captain is that I went out with him the night before the world premiere and I had the best time I’ve had with him ever. We hung out for hours, just drinking and talking. It was the best conversation we ever had and it wasn’t filmed. Part of me wanted to record it on my iPhone. He’s not quite as civilian as the rest of us.
Lastly, I know you’ve been to Ireland once before, when you interviewed Sinead O’ Connor in Dublin. Are you looking forward to coming back this time around to see Cork and other parts of the country?
Wes: Yeah I’ve only been once man. Funny enough I got the idea for the Lemmy film in Dublin. I was there working on a film that we did before Lemmy on Burning Spear, the reggae singer, and we were in Dublin for a few days. I know Sinead a little bit and I adore her. I’ve been listening to the new record and theres some great tunes on it. I interviewed Sinead early in the morning, we got there on a Thursday and like I said only had two days in Dublin. So I haven’t seen any of the real beauty of Ireland. All I’ve seen is balls out, drunken madness in Dublin on a Saturday night! My wife and I are renting a car and doing the entire outer rim of Ireland, and I cant wait. I’m staying in Belfast on Thursday and from there we’re just driving along the coast to Cork on Tuesday. I think a lot of Americans really dream of doing that. For me its a bucket list type thing to see the coast of Ireland. I saw drone footage recently of the Irish landscape and I said to myself I need to do this soon rather than later. People always say one day I might get to it, but I’m 41 so one day is now!
The Damned: Dont You Wish That We Were Dead will be screening on Tuesday 21st of July at 8.15pm at the Triskel Arts Centre, Cork.
Photo Credit: www.bobsposters.com