Captain Sensible

By: Patrick Cates
April 24, 2010

Captain Sensible having cream licked off his head by Rat Scabies

When punk came along in the second half of the ’70s, it puked on Peter Gabriel’s flower costume, booted over Rick Wakeman’s towering staircase of keyboards and set fire to Robert Fripp’s rustic waistcoat. “Piss off, prog!” spat this aggro crowd of upstarts. The Damned were part of the revolution, certainly. But it was the loopy firebrand with the beret and the sunglasses, CAPTAIN SENSIBLE (Raymond Burns, born 1954), who lifted them above the ruckus. The Captain took the prog that punk hated so, wrapped it up in punk and waited in the wings, chuckling, to see if anybody would notice. Only parts one and two of the song “Smash It Up” made it into the final cut of The Damned’s 1979 masterpiece, Machine Gun Etiquette, but if you listen to all four parts in succession, you will be treated to a wonderful micro-epic of progressive punk. Add to that the noodly version of MC5’s “Looking At You,” the trippy samples that start and finish several of the other songs, and the Emersonian organ that ebbs and flows throughout the album, and you can see why this politically charged nutter later went on to form a band called Punk Floyd. Never mind what many people remember him for — the joke-that-became-hit-single “Happy Talk” — Captain Sensible, rebelling against everyone, even the rebels, should be hallowed for defining his own oxymoronic genre of music.

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PUNK, POST-PUNK & ALTERNATIVE on HILOBROW: Joey Ramone | Dez Cadena | Jello Biafra | HR | Mike Watt | Vivienne Westwood | Iggy Pop | D. Boon | John Lydon | Henry Rollins | Palmolive | Plastic Bertrand | Kira Roessler | Lisa Carver | Frank Black | Ari Up | Gary Panter | Mike Watt | Ian Curtis | Paul Simonon | Darby Crash | Penelope Houston | Exene Cervenka | Sid Vicious | Andrew Eldritch | Kate Pierson | Richard Hell | Paul Westerberg | Lux Interior | Ian Dury | Stiv Bators | Tom Verlaine | Colin Newman | Johnny Thunders | Poison Ivy | Green Gartside | Lydia Lunch | Mark E. Smith | David Byrne | Debbie Harry | Captain Sensible | Mark Mothersbaugh | Kim Gordon | ALSO: The Original Generation X (1954–63) and the birth of DIY | The Original Stooge | Origin of the Pogo | Shocking Blocking: Rock’n’Roll High School | Punk fanzines from the 1970s | Post-Punk and New Wave on HiLobrow

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: George Oppen.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Blank (1944–53) Generation and the Original Generation X (1954–63).

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Cuspers, HiLo Heroes, Music, Punk

What do you think?

  1. The well-worn truism that “Punk killed Prog” needs a second look. I remember those days quite well and assert that U.S. and U.K. Punk were distinct. Most of my friends here in the good ol’ USA in the later 70s had never heard of King Crimson nor did they care about Gabriel’s flowers and fox heads. They were on a steady diet of simple hard rock: Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, etc. while radio was pounding out bland corporate rock such as Foreigner, Boston, and Styx. At the top of the commercial heap in 1977-78 (remembering that the Sex Pistols did not even hit these Western shores until early ’78) were Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac and Disco and it was this Corporate Rock/Pop blandness on which the Punks were puking from sea to shining sea. For the most part, Prog had fallen into relative obscurity by that point. (It also ought to be said that American punk was largely a local scene with only a few bands breaking nationally.) The reality is that Fripp and Gabriel were pro-Punk and quickly distanced themselves from “Art Rock” (the common label at the time for what we now call “Prog”). They were, relatively speaking, embraced by Punksters/New Wavers like your Capt. Sensible, Debbie Harry, Talking Heads, etc. And, BTW, I listened to both Punk and Prog at the time. I did not see them as mutually exclusive since both styles were a tonic against the boring, bland musical landscape offered by (increasingly corporatized) F.M. radio.

  2. To add the UK perspective to Mr. Vermette’s excellent post:

    If we take early 1976 as the starting point of UK punk (the Ramones had released their first single in 11/75), let’s look at the status of the Big 6 prog bands as of early 1976:

    King Crimson had “ceased to exist”
    Emerson, Lake & Palmer had disappeared, not to be heard from again until 4/77
    Yes had peaked with “Relayer” in 11/74, Wakeman was about to rejoin; the rot had set in
    Genesis was well on its way to bland 80’s pop superstardom with Phil Collins as leader
    Gentle Giant released their last great album “Free Hand” in 1975
    Van Der Graaf Generator were still going strong with a leaner, stripped down sound

    Jethro Tull was only prog for two albums (“Thick as a Brick” and “A Passion Play”), which were released in 1972 and 1973. Pink Floyd was never prog, too simplistic and they weren’t good enough players.

    So, by 1976, the prog movement had already played itself out, just like other anti-prog movements like glam and pub rock.

  3. The Damned and Captain Sensible in particular loved King Crimson. They invited Robert Fripp to play live, and record. From Fripp’s Diary:

    “Sensible was also a superb guitarist, his skill & capacity mostly overlooked; great fun & company. Perhaps not known to this poster, Sensible was also a King Crimson fan & invited me to play with The Damned at Hammersmith Odeon (1982) & then to make a single with them. All of this, a wonderful experience and thoroughly enjoyable for me.”

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