Now playing in Professor and the Madman, the Damned drummer has come a long way since “Problem Child.”
By Ira Robbins
Punk rock was willfully opposed to instrumental achievement, but the bands that mattered all had first-rate drummers. Tommy Ramone, Clem Burke, DJ Bonebrake, Paul Cook, Topper Headon and Rat Scabies were among the underappreciated heroes of that era. Precise, powerful, individual and custom-built for the bands they were in, they united and propelled the records they played on. And they gave their bands a sturdy platform on which to perform live. If they weren’t on a level with stadium superstars like Carl Palmer, Charlie Watts or Keith Moon, they didn’t need to be. Punks they were, but skills made them — and their bands — special.
“The Damned was really about me and [guitarist Brian James’] relationship as players. Brian had this incredible energy, he used to give me a real kick up the arse. I couldn’t drag or be lazy with what he was doing. It was always a challenge. He’d play something with a certain attitude, and I’d have to come back at him. It’s a lucky thing that I [played] fast and flashy; that was what Brian wanted as well.”
Reached by phone at home in west London, Rat Scabies — born Christopher Millar in 1955 — sounds the very picture of a wry, charming and perceptive grandfather. (One of his sons is a grime writer/producer with at least one gold record to his credit.) He’s stuck inside like the rest of us, but that seems to suit him down to the ground. And it hasn’t prevented him from making music.
“I’m very lucky because I’m not dependent on touring to make a living, so I’m still functioning reasonably well working from home. I got quite fed up with being on the road, dealing with the miles and distances and everything. I’ve managed to have a lot of recording projects on the go; [people] ask me to play along or do remixes. I record a lot. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to stay busy and have some kind of income.”
Although he parted ways with the band in the ’90s, Rat will always be best known for his role in the Damned. In fact, despite the differences clearly exposed in the 2015 documentary Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, the original lineup just announced that it will regroup for a handful of London shows next July. But that shocking development aside, he’s avoided the trap of many old-timers who have continued to trade on their teenage achievements well past middle age. He’s toured and recorded with loads of other people, including Robert Fripp, Lemmy, Donovan, Joe Strummer, Jimmy Page, Eagles of Death Metal, the Mutants and the Members. He has a solo record to his credit as well as one with a guitarist friend as the Sinclairs. Most significantly, he is one-fourth of an international and intelligent melodic pop (!) rock band called Professor and the Madman (not to be confused with New York’s Gilligan’s Island-honoring Professor and Maryann or the 2019 film starring Sean Penn and Mel Gibson titled The Professor and the Madman.)
To my mild surprise, the titular Madman isn’t Scabies, who was drafted into the band after it began in Los Angeles as the partnership of two scene stalwarts with musical rap sheets as long as your arm. One of three punk-star brothers, Alfie Agnew served in the Adolescents and D.I.. Matching the academic achievement of Bad Religion singer Greg Graffin, he earned a PhD in mathematics and is the current mathematics chair at Cal-State Fullerton. Which leaves Sean Elliott, a veteran of D.I., Mind Over Four and Crash Kills Four, to be the Madman. (Rat: “I think Sean was pretty wild in his youth; I think he was that guy in a fight outside the bar too drunk to realize what he was doing. He’s come through the other side of that and he uses that to his great advantage, it reflects really well in his songwriting.”) Both sing, play guitar and keyboards and write songs. The band’s bassist is Paul Gray of Eddie and the Hot Rods, who also played in the Damned with Rat for a time.
Despite the distances (and, more recently, the pandemic) PATM has made four increasingly ambitious studio albums, all recorded remotely. The soon-to-be-released Séance is an absolute delight, the most accomplished and engaging of the bunch.
Rat deems it “a very interesting relationship on many levels. They’re both sober and I’m a drunk. When we meet up, the thing that binds it is we all enjoy Mexican food and I just sit there guzzling margaritas while they listen to me slur. Our biggest friendship is through the music that we play and the records that we make. It lets them forgive me for being a slurring mess on the other side of the table. I don’t think it would matter how rude I was to either of them, they still let me play drums on their record.”
The recording process, he admits, “is kind of weird. I call it ‘the loneliness of the long-distance drummer.’ I can’t play real drums in my house; I don’t have a studio. I can only play an electric kit. So I wait until Sean and Alfie finish writing all the songs, and they send them over to me — just the guitars and the keyboards. I recorded my parts for Séance in two days in a studio in Glastonbury. They hadn’t finished writing the lyrics, so I was quite surprised when I was told it was a concept album, because I had no idea. I hadn’t heard any of the words, I’d only heard Sean or Alfie going ‘la la la’ over the songs. When I finally got to hear the finished record, I thought, wow, I was part of something… punk conceptualization, who would have thought?”
Although Sean and Alfie have done Professor and the Madman shows in L.A. with Alfie’s brother Frank and a local rhythm section, the official lineup has played only one public concert: August 2018 in London, documented on the 2019 release Live at the 100 Club. Rat says, “I really don’t know why they wanted to do it. The thing of filming it and doing it in front of a live audience and recording it was probably a lot of the appeal. Sean and Alfie just decided they wanted to do one show. I said to Sean, ‘You’re coming over here, we might as well do ten and make it worth doing’ and he said, ‘Nope, we’re just doing one. That’s all they’re getting.’”
Asked about the prospect of future touring, Rat is enthusiastic but realistic. “It would be a lot of fun, but the main obstacle is COVID. The second thing is, for me to get to America to play shows, it costs so much. When Donald Trump says he doesn’t want immigrants, he means me as well. You have to have lawyers, and you have to go through tons of paperwork. If I want to work in America, it’s gonna cost me between £1,000 and £1,500.”
The Damned were the first punks in Britain to release an album; Nick Lowe produced Damned Damned Damned for release by Stiff in February ’77. That spring, they became the scene’s first emissaries to gig in America.
“In England, we were very poor. We were on the dole. Punk as an ethic — worthless individuals who didn’t really have anything going for them – was reality to us. No one had really heard New York punk. What we had was Punk magazine. There was one record store in London that used to carry Punk. We would go in there and look at pictures of Blondie and the Ramones and we had to guess what they sounded like, because none of them had a record out.
“When we got to New York, the first night we went to Max’s to see what that was like, because we’d heard about it being famous. But really it was just full of people with permed hair and leather trousers. I was [also] disappointed when we first went to CBGBs and there were tables and people were eating pizza. The sawdust and the dogshit on the floor didn’t really help. It seemed very insincere, like something Andy Warhol had devised as an experiment.
The Damned made their Bowery debut on April 7th. I was there, but Binky Philips has a much more detailed recollection of the show than I do. It’s all here, but in small part, “Drummer Rat Scabies’ bright rust red jacket had one sleeve attached by safety pins and was covered with badges and small tears; his shirt was in tatters and his hair was a lunatic rat’s nest version of Jeff Beck’s Mod cut… After strutting around the stage and mocking the crowd, without warning, they launched/catapulted/tore into ‘I Feel Alright’ by the Stooges.”
Rat’s view of the New York scene improved with time. “Later on, when we got to know the bands like Blondie and the Ramones – and you couldn’t get two more genuine bunches of people anywhere – we realized there was something going on. I don’t know if it was just Hilly Kristal or Legs McNeil or Roberta Bayley or whoever, but they had kind of figured that things were going to change, and they weren’t really sure how, but they were kind of helping it on its way. It didn’t seem as genuine at the time.”
From New York, it was on to LA, where “Tom Verlaine fucked us over. We were supposed to open for Television, two nights or something, which would have earned us just enough money to cover the airfare from New York to LA, and the difference from LA back to London. And as soon as we arrived, he said he wasn’t going to play with any punk band, and that was it. We didn’t have anything to do, so we ended up – band, crew, managers – sleeping on someone’s floor. We managed to fit in a gig somewhere and made just enough money to get back.”
Before the Damned there was Dr. Feelgood and Eddie and Hot Rods, who had the same energy but not the same attitude, or the will to outrage, of the bands that followed. “Brian [James] would always tell you that the Damned were a rock and roll band. That was kind of how I viewed it, but we were the scruffier version. The Rods were always really tight. They knew exactly where they were and what they were doing. Whereas the Damned were much sloppier about the way we did things. Brian and I wouldn’t mind going off and jamming a while or bluffing our way through something if someone made a mistake. I don’t know who we could liken ourselves to. I suppose we were more like the Pink Fairies.”
Séance (out November 13 on the band’s own FullerTone Records) is something else altogether. A meditation of sorts on life after death, it has detailed production, strong melodies, smart arrangements and restraint, a far cry from the frantic punk of their youth — more XTC than GBH, if you will.
“Old age is something you’re stuck with,” says Rat, who seems to have come to terms with the passage of time better than a lot of other unyoung rockers. “You can either carry on dressing and acting as if you’re eighteen and try to prove that you’ve still got whatever it was you had, or you can say, ‘This is what I am today, this is what I am now’ and accept that gracefully. I don’t have the same sense of outrage that I had. The things that made me laugh 25 years ago don’t make me laugh anymore.”
Any regrets? “When we went in to do Music for Pleasure, the band should have stopped. We made Damned Damned Damned, and it was a great record, but we were pushed into making the second album too soon. That was the biggest mistake I made, not putting my foot down and saying we’re better off stopping for six months here and regrouping, getting ourselves back together again.”
The snotty young trailblazers paradoxically got an older arena rock figure in to produce their follow-up. “I think Nick Mason [of Pink Floyd] was very smart, because if he’d been overly involved with what was going on he would have been accused of ruining the record. So what he did was pretty similar to what Nick Lowe did, he let us get on with it and then chose the takes. The old saying of ‘you have a lifetime for the first album and months for the second,’ that was really where we were. Brian had written the first album, and when it came to the second one, suddenly there we were and he was saying, ‘What have you guys got? What can you come up with?’ Captain [Sensible] and I had never written a tune before. I remember sitting with Captain and looking at a guitar and saying, “It’s on there somewhere.”
Truer words were never spoken.