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Major-League Yobbo

Punk-rock legend Captain Sensible reflects on daft names, free beer and making something of himself.

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"Touring is such a blur," Captain Sensible says. That's what every band says—because it's true, and increasingly more so as the miles, shows and years fly by. The guitarist and his band, legendary English punk-rockers The Damned, have four decades of touring under their studded belts. How do you celebrate 40 years of that? By doing it some more.

Sensible—born Raymond Ian Burns—requested a Skype interview. Such are the benefits of 21st-century tech: talking face-to-face across long distances without long-distance charges. On blind phone interviews, you can glean details about the interviewee from sounds: their words, cadence and quality of speech, background noises. Actually getting a glimpse of them in their private residence is incredible access, especially when you're speaking to a legend.

Burns, 62, sits at a desk, looking fairly normal. He lacks his trademark red beret, and rectangular eyeglasses supplant his ostensibly omnipresent shades, but he does wear his red jersey with black horizontal stripes. Like ordinary folk, he frames himself in a vertical sliver, forgetting video is meant to be viewed in landscape. Then again, you don't become a punk legend by kowtowing to convention; you play loud and fast, wear mismatched clothing, defy authority. Recalling a past visit to Salt Lake City, where he was told he couldn't drink on the street, Burns says, "I'm a confirmed yobbo, so I didn't like that rule much."

Yobbo is British slang for words like "ruffian" or "hooligan." Speaking calmly with lotsa glottal stops, Burns explains further. He didn't learn much in school, and didn't fancy doing a normal job for the rest of his life. "I was a toilet cleaner when punk rock saved me from a life of drudgery," he says. "This is a lot better. There's a lot of travelin' involved, but all the beer's free. I like that a lot."

Burns' stage name is ironic for a yobbo. Although he's heard the question innumerable times, and the information is certainly online somewhere, he doesn't mind explaining it. Prefacing the story by expressing gratitude at being able to play guitar in exchange for money and beer, he says he made a point to drain every bottle—so you can imagine the effect. One day, while crossing the French border, Burns was "in a bit of a state"—piss-drunk, hair matted with two eggs someone cracked over his head at breakfast. Members of the band's entourage complained that Burns' behavior would irk customs agents and land them in prison. "Someone said, 'You've got a right bloody Captain Sensible, there,'" he recalls.

Like the eggs, the name stuck. "It's good for a punk rocker to have an outlandish name, innit?" Burns says. "That's my advice to anyone out there who wants to twang a guitar for a living—just give yourself an amazingly daft name. It worked for me."

That gives short shrift to Burns' accomplishments with The Damned, which he co-founded with singer Dave Vanian and drummer Rat Scabies in 1976. The band developed a loyal following from their first album, the Nick Lowe-produced Damned Damned Damned. Originally released on the storied Stiff label in 1977, it was reissued in a deluxe 30th anniversary edition by Castle in 2007. To mark the band's 40th, the record—incidentally, the very first British punk album—has been remastered and reissued on vinyl, CD and digital by BMG as part of their Art of the Album series. The group—of which Burns and Vanian are the only remaining original members—performs it in its entirety on this tour, along with selections spanning much of their 10-album discography.

Most of which, of course, is in the soft-focus of the past. Isn't there no time like the present? The reissue and the tour would say so, since they provide a chance to delight old-school fans and court young ones. Burns' teenage daughter, however, remains unimpressed with her dad, even if he's punk royalty. "She used to say, 'Dad, when you pick me up from school today, don't wear your stage clothes. It's getting me in a lot of trouble. Everyone's laughin' at me.'"

Burns says fame isn't what the last four decades were about, anyway. "The whole thing about punk rock is there's no styles; we're the same as the audience," he muses. "We're often to be seen mingling with the audience in the bar before the show, gratefully accepting drinks. The great thing about punk rock is anyone can do it. Instead of paying to see the Sex Pistols or Green Day or The Damned or The Stranglers—do it yourself. What punk rock basically says is, 'Make somethin' of yourself.'"

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