DOCTOR BEAT – Punk Icon Rat Scabies on The Damned, Drumming And His ‘Indulgent’ Debut Solo Album ‘PHD’

More than 40 years after The Damned lit the blue touch paper for the punk rock revolution, original drummer Rat Scabies is busier than ever.

Since quitting his old band amid some rancour in the late ’90s, he’s played in numerous outfits and developed interesting sidelines in cigar box guitar-making and the little matter of hunting for the holy grail.

After starting his professional career as an orchestra pit player, Rat recently returned to his theatrical roots, backing Jane Horrocks in If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me at the Young Vic.

He’s a member of London-based rhythm and punk trio The Mutants, with Chris Constantinou and Paul Frazer, and in February released Disintegrate Me with Professor and the Madman.

The PATM album sees Rat re-uniting on record with bassist Paul Gray (The Damned, UFOEddie and The Hot Rods) for the first time in more than 25 years.

But the reason EP’s Matt Catchpole is chatting to the erstwhile Chris Millar on this scorching Spring afternoon, is Prison, Hospital, Debt – PHD for short – the drummer/writer/producer’s first ever solo album.

Featuring vocals and lyrics from Flipron‘s Jesse Budd and bass from Nick Oblivion, it’s an extraordinarily eclectic album, raging from raw punk and blues to jazz and psychedelia.

In a widely ranging interview, Rat talks about the making of PHD, the birth of punk, touring with T-Rex and why he doesn’t miss being in The Damned.

So the obvious question – why a solo album after 40 years in the business?

I haven’t really got a full time band, these days. The money was never enough and it was kind of tough to keep it going, so I haven’t really got a vehicle. So I thought, well, I’ve got these songs here and something should happen to them, really. Matt Green at Cleopatra had suggested I do a record, so, I just kind of went: ‘Yeah let’s put this out!’ It feels quite indulgent actually having your own record. (chuckles)

You have Jesse Budd singing on the album. Were you not tempted to put your own vocals on the record?

Kind of, but I’m not really a singer. It’s one of the things you learn along the way that if you’ve got somebody like Jesse who can sing – and he wrote the lyrics as well – there’s nobody better to do it. My other option was to get a load of famous mates to be on the record to help punt it. But I sort of said: ‘Well fuck that!’ I always believe in my friends’ talent and it would be nice to have them heard.

Is it all new material or stuff you’d worked on over many years?

Some of it is recent, as recent until right up until we cut the album. The track Benni’s Song literally only got finished in the same week that the album came out. Some of the other stuff is a couple of years old and then there’s a couple of things that go back to the late ‘80s-‘90s – when the band wasn’t particularly functioning well, or wasn’t doing anything – there’s a couple of things from that time I felt should’ve seen the light of day and now they have.

Any songs you’re particularly proud of?

It’s such a difficult question to answer really, because they are all so personal. They are all very evocative of the mood I was in when I wrote the song, so it’s kind of tough to say which is my favourite. One of the ones I always smile at when it comes on is Floydian Slip – I like the performances on it as well. But I don’t think I can honestly pick a favourite.

Did the songs bring back memories for you?

Yeah! and the period that you were doing things. I’ve always been kinda keen on studio technology and how the process works and so with some of the tunes it’s nostalgic almost. You think: ‘Yeah that was the Emulator II – I remember when we had that’. When you write a piece of music it’s kind of a part of you, it’s not a day job.

Monument Man – Picture by by Rob Wade

Why the cover of Louis Prima’s Sing Sing Sing – is that a track you really like?

Growing up I was hearing a lot of jazz, when I was young there wasn’t really much else going on musically. There’s always a drum solo on pretty much every jazz song that’s ever played, so I kind of always really dug that element of it. And of course on that particular track the drums lead the way and it’s got such a brilliant arrangement, melody lines and production. It was really nice to do a stripped down version of it – I was originally going to do it as a big band, you know, layer the brass parts and all that kind of stuff. But as soon as we put it down with the piano there was a charm and I thought this probably shows the song off in a much better light without me adding loads of extra bits to it. I just thought it would have devalued the song if I’d done any more to it than that. It’s all about the two performances.

Listening to Chew On You it sounds like you’ve made good use of some of your cigar box guitars?

Oh yeah! On that one actually is the very first one I ever made. So that’s very sentimental as well. They were a thing I started making because my son gave me a box, I had a piece of wood that was about the same size and a guitar neck and some spare tuning keys. And I just remember this story about how the old Blues guys built them when they couldn’t go to a store and buy a guitar. It’s really interesting musically when you have to start thinking that there’s nothing to tune to, there wasn’t a piano in the room. It was all done by ear and it’s about tuning because it sounds right, as opposed to what you’ve been taught. So there’s a much more cerebral thing going on when you play a slide guitar made from a cigar box – the rule book has been thrown away.

How long does it take you to make one?

It depends on how tough the box is, but usually a day, day and a half. I’ve made 84 I think now, so I’ve got quite used to the process. It’s a bit of a recycling thing, a therapeutic thing – it’s nice to do. And it’s kinda cool ‘cos people send me videos of them playing the guitars. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure and something positive comes out of it. It’s a good feeling.

You seem to have very eclectic musical taste, are you always searching for different styles of music?

Good music is good music – it doesn’t matter what genre or label it has. Somebody like the Beach Boys, for example. A lot of the Beach Boys I can’t stand, but some of their tracks are absolutely outstanding. I’m not a fan but they do have something good in there and I enjoy that. With any kind of music there’s good and bad and they’re the only two kinds there are really.

What inspires you? What’s your writing process?

I mess around really. I find tone and sound is a great inspiration and I’ll just be playing the guitar through an amp or a keyboard or something and going: ‘Ah! That sounds quite good! What have I done? Can I repeat it? What can happen next?’ I can’t sit down and just write, I have to make it up as I go along. I’m always looking for a moment of inspiration that leads on to something.

Picture by Tim Hart

Starting out, what was it about the drums that appealed to you?

Just that sound – the tom toms. It’s the first thing I remember hearing and thinking that’s what I’m gonna be – that’s what I’m gonna do.

Any particular drummers that inspired you?

It was Eric Delaney, who was on Sunday Night At The London Palladium and he was a showman drummer. He had two bass drums with lights inside them and he played timpani and dashed around behind the kit.

Any drummers you admire among today’s musicians?

Not really – there’s a few people who are really good, but the bar’s been raised so high these days. Joey (Castillo) who’s been in Eagles of Death Metal/Queens of the Stone Age, I like his playing, he’s pretty good. He was the last guy I saw that I thought there’s some imagination going on in there.

Do you still consider yourself a student of the drums, are you still learning?

Oh totally! I’ll never know enough.

You’ve set fire to a few drum kits over the years – any times when it didn’t quite go to plan?

Yeah! I’ve had my share of second degree burns and trips to outpatients (laughs). The kits very rarely got burnt. You see, without giving too much away, it’s the cymbals that get set on fire rather than the drums and as they’re made of metal they tend not to burn or get damaged as much, but it’s a very sensational effect. It was usually other people panicking that created a situation, people throwing beer on them to try and put it out.

There’s a clip of you on a Michael Aspel discussion show ‘What’s Wrong With The Seventies’, when people are looking a bit freaked out after you set the drums alight during Smash It Up

That was a time when there was real issue! Everybody knew I was going to do it. They gave me a larger bottle of lighter fuel with a bigger nozzle than normal, because it was for TV and everybody thought that would be okay. Before the show they had given me a fire safety word to shout out like ‘wheelbarrow’ or something, if things went wrong. But nobody realised how out of control it would get and then I couldn’t remember the safety word the fireman had given me! So they were all standing by and everything’s really cool until you realise that the set behind you is beginning to melt and the flames are actually – well you’ve seen it! And things are starting to get a bit out of control. But luckily (chuckles) things didn’t get any worse than that.

The Damned - Smash it Up (Rare Footage)

You left The Damned around the recording of the Not of this Earth album – can you explain a bit about what happened there?

We did the record and my own take on it was that Dave {Vanian} really wanted to concentrate on the Phantom Chords more than The Damned. It all came down to publishing credits in the end. Alan Lee Shaw and I had written the album and Dave had written very little and he’d asked for publishing credits and Alan said no. It never got resolved and they both got the hump and it was all kind of ugly and messy really. It’s just the politics of when people think there’s going to be money involved. People get upset because other people don’t turn up for rehearsals, recordings or anything else to support the record. It’s a long story.

You’re playing again with Damned bassist Paul Gray in Professor and The Madman was that a good experience?

Well we haven’t been in the same room together. It was a funny one really. I’ve put the drums on most of the Professor and the Madman records. And because that was their favourite line-up of The Damned. They asked if I minded if Paul put some bass on. He did and I think it sounds good. You can’t deny really, that was a pretty good rhythm section. I think we’re going to be doing a show on August 10th, which will the first time Paul and I have been on stage together since the 1980s.

Space Walrus - PATM

Is it true most punk musicians went by aliases so they could keep signing on the dole?

Yeah ‘cos we knew we’d be in the papers and things and it was a good way to avoid having your money stopped ‘cos without the dole system there wouldn’t have been a music business. It really was such a vital thing. And the other thing of course was, I really wasn’t sure that punk rock could last for more than a couple of months. I thought if I’m Chris Millar and I’m associated with this lot, then I’m not going to get a straight job playing in an orchestra again, being a pit player or any of those other things. I just thought it [having a stage name] would be quite a good get out of jail card.

Are you amazed how the name has stuck over the years?

It’s a lucky ball and chain really. It’s a name nobody ever forgets, but it’s a name that creates a kind of persona of its own. You know, I’m not pleading schizophrenia, as in it’s an excuse for bad behaviour, I’m just saying it’s a preconception that goes with Rat Scabies and at times even I’m aware of that and live up to it.

Iggy Pop has spoken about being a punk legend and getting the icon discount, do you get any benefits like that?

(Laughs) None at all! Well you know, I probably do, but I’m such an ungrateful bastard, I doubt if I even realise.

Your grail-hunting adventures have been chronicled in Christopher Dawes’ book – how did you get interested in that?

It’s all my parents’ fault really. My father was interested in Atlantis, UFOs, corruption, conspiracies etc etc. It was all fair game for him and a lot of the discussion around the dinner table centred around that. It’s not that I’m a believer, but there are quite a lot of things that are unexplained. I always give the example of UFOs, out of all the thousands of claimed sightings, it would only take one of them to be real and that changes everything. I’ve seen a couple of things that can be tough to explain, so you have to keep an open mind, but at the same time I’m incredibly sceptical about it all. I’ve upset a few mediums by pointing out we’re standing by a door and that’s why there’s a cold spot.

Do you enjoy solving puzzles and codes? Is that an element of your fascination?

There’s that to it, but I usually end up scratching my head and being completely wrong with whatever answer I come up with. What I have discovered with the whole grail thing is that I don’t believe it’s about a physical object. There’s at least four cups that match the description and age it’s supposed to be, but I don’t think it’s about that. I think it’s more about the discovery that you make when you start looking for the grail, whatever that grail may be. Without going on that topic, I would never have visited The Louvre and I’d never have started looking at art and I’d never have known anything about The Templars or the history, or what was going on with the Crusades, or the people involved. It’s about the voyage of discovery. The journey is more fun than the arrival.

Cake That! – Outtake from Damned Damned Damned cover shoot

So it’s similar to music in a way?

Yeah, it’s about creating and doing something new. One of the reasons I don’t miss being in The Damned is that the fans want to see the band play New Rose and Love Song and Neat Neat Neat, but that was all a long time ago and I’m probably not the same person and probably wouldn’t do it as well as I did back then. You become a musician to advance and create and to just have to keep on playing the same songs, because that’s what pays the rent is kind of a shame. You have to keep on writing and creating.

The Damned were pretty quick to dispense with the classic three chord punk thrash anyway weren’t they?

Well we had a lot of lucky accidents, one of them being that with the second album Brian {James} hadn’t managed to come up with enough songs and suddenly we were faced with the thing of writing and Captain {Sensible} and I sitting there and going: ‘How does this work?’ I remember looking at a guitar and the frets on it and saying to him: ‘Well it’s on there somewhere all you have to do is move your fingers in the right order and then they’re yours.’ We had that naïve attitude that if it sounds like a song then it probably is one. On that album our main songwriter had stopped writing and it opened the door for us to go on and move on to other things, which then in turn led to that whole thing of we didn’t want any rules, we didn’t want to be tied down to any one genre – that was as boring for us as it would have been for the audience.

You toured with Marc Bolan’s T-Rex in the early days – what was he like to be around?

Marc was totally cool – he was brilliant! We’d just been fired off the Anarchy tour, which was sitting in the back of a shitty van and it was kind of miserable and well, the Pistols were ok, but the management issues were pretty nasty and unpleasant. So when we went out with Marc it was totally different. He let us travel with him on the bus. We were really well looked after by him, much more than he needed to. It was good for us to get our songs over to his audience and I think it was good for him. I think he realised that a lot of punk bands had been Marc Bolan fans. He was a proper gent.

How did Motorhead’s Lemmy come to have a short stint in the band?

The Doomed! Yeah, we used to know him from about ’75 hanging around in Notting Hill Gate. The thing that made Lemmy cooler than the other hippies was that he was an outspoken MC5 fan and the association with The Pink Fairies and that kind of political, alternative thinking kind of crowd. Over the years we got matey with him and he ended up playing bass for us on a couple of bits and pieces.

Did Punk feel like a movement at the time, or was it just kids having fun?

You were sort of aware of being part of collection of misfits. We knew that there weren’t that many people like us around. A lot of the people that were around actually didn’t go on to join bands, or be musical, they were just around and likeminded. When it became front page news and everybody knew what a punk was, it became much more of a stereotype with the hair and the leather jacket – that sort of missed the point a bit. It was very creative. You look at the people in those old pictures and the way we recycled bin liners and old shoes and shirts. It was a bit like an alternative Blue Peter experiment – stuff that you’d found in the local Oxfam shop. As soon as that stopped and it wasn’t the point any more, everyone started looking the same and you ended up trying to get rid of one kind of society and creating one that’s even smaller and harder to be a part of.

Nice church boys – Rat (2nd left) with Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian and Brian James

Do you think punk’s kind of Year Zero approach could ever happen again?

Well I hope so. I think it will. Sociologically will we ever be in the same place that creates those kind of conditions that are perfect for punks to turn up? Punk was all about the fact that it was a generation that had nothing. Stating that very loudly and saying: ‘Well as we have nothing, we’ll show you what we can do!’.

You speak to a lot of young musicians – what’s the best piece of advice you give them?

Don’t listen to me!

Lastly, any plans for live shows to promote the album?

Not at the moment. We are talking about it, but I’m really undecided if I wanna take it out on the road. There’s a lot going on {on the album} and could we do it justice live? I’d like people to leave a gig thinking: ‘Wow! that was good, I wasn’t expecting that!’ – rather than just trying to knock a tune out.

  • Prison, Hospital, Debt is out now on Cleopatra Records via bandcamp.
  • Professor and The Madman play a one-off show at London’s 100 Club on 10 August. Tickets on sale here.
  • For more about Rat Scabies visit his official website on this link.
Rat Scabies - Chew On You (Official Art Track)

About the author

Full time journalist, music lover (obvs) and truly terrible guitarist. You can find Matt on twitter @matcatch