The Song of Hiawatha: A Composition by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
‘Croydon’ is Captain Sensible’s autobiography in song, immortalising his days at Stanley Technical School, South Norwood. With a tale of the theft of the bronze bust in the entrance hall as well as trying to get to know girls from the local schools, and cleaning Fairfield Halls’ toilets, the song celebrated life growing up in Croydon.
Captain Sensible is known the world over as a former punk musician and songwriter spearheading the punk movement at several pub venues in Croydon, the most well-known being the Greyhound in Park Lane and the Star in Broad Green, as a member of South Norwood band Johnny Moped.
From 1975 he became bassist with the first UK punk band to obtain a record deal, the Damned, founded by Brian James, ahead of rival punk bands who signed to huge corporations with far more lucrative deals.
Stiff Records released the first ever punk single, New Rose by the Damned, in 1976, followed by the first ever punk album Damned Damned Damned, favourably reviewed in the music press. The band went on to record an early John Peel punk session for BBC Radio 1, with great trepidation from Radio 1 Controller Derek Chinnery. They received high commendation from BBC Producer Jeff Griffiths for their musicianship as well as their geniality and politeness in the midst of notorious scandals in the tabloid press after the Sex Pistols’ appearance on Thames Television’s Today programme.
Brian James’ departure gave Sensible the opportunity to become lead guitarist and a prolific songwriter, sharing some lead singing with Dave Vanian. Sensible left for a successful solo career from 1981, intermittently returning to the band. As of 2022 the original line-up thrives and continues to tour, post-Covid 19.
Sensible has never failed to claim and celebrate his South Norwood roots, although he was not born in the borough. Despite his musical competence and myriad musical influences from Coltrane to Egg and Quicksilver Messenger Service, he has always had time to engage with his fans and relate to people, displaying a loyalty to his music colleagues who helped his career, and celebrating the founding of his eponymous Sensible Garden. Other than a mural of the Damned on the soon to be demolished Nestle Building 6n Park Lane, the Garden is the only local celebration of a great humanist as well as musician.
Sensible’s affable personality and capacity for friendship in a medium plagued by music egos attracted quality performers such as Robyn Hitchcock and south London producer Tony Mansfield and ex-Selhurst Grammar musician/engineer Matt Fisher, both talented musicians who dabbled with innovative synthesizers such as the Fairlight CMI workstation, diverting Sensible away from his 1970s guitar riffs.
Mansfield helped him get a 4-year deal with the A&M label from the 1980s by producing four demos for him. His first solo album Women and Captains First was a collection of his own songs rejected from earlier Damned albums, with Robyn Hitchcock contributing to some lyrics. It was engineered and produced in 1982 in Croham Rd, Croydon.
The final track Croydon (lyrics co-written with Hitchcock) is Sensible’s autobiography in song, immortalising his days at Stanley Tech, with a tale of the theft of the bronze bust in the entrance hall, possibly of the trade school’s first President, as well as trying to get to know girls from the local schools, and cleaning Fairfield Halls’ toilets from 1974 to 1975. Sensible was pressurised by A&M to add an extra album track to balance out the quantity of songs on each side, so he was advised to cover a favourite record. Not wanting to proffer a poor imitation of See Emily Play or Waterloo Sunset, he rifled through his parents’ vinyl collection and found the LP South Pacific, choosing the lesser-known Happy Talk that was released against his wishes as a single. It got to the UK’s No. 1 slot. To his regret, the gold disc was received by Ridge Farm Studios who mixed the track, and not to Fisher or Mansfield who laboured over the entirely synthesised backing using a Roland MC500. Meanwhile, he sat drinking Youngs real ales in the Dog and Bull, Surrey Street, until Mansfield drove him to Fisher’s studio to create the vocal track. Ever the self-critic, he deplores hearing his drunken voice over a well-crafted backing track.
The Captain has proved very loyal to Croydon and South Norwood, a lifelong follower of local team CPFC, performer at the Fairfield Halls, and still continuing periodically to provide filmed interviews and contributing to Croydon’s Archives. He launched the opening of the Sensible Garden, named after him, in July 2014 on old waste ground on South Norwood High Street opposite his old secondary school. He returned to the garden in 2017 to preside over the installing of a bench in memory of the instigator of the Sensible Garden, Robbie Gibson.
The Early Days of Captain Sensible
Ray Burns was born on 24 April 1954 in Balham. His family moved to South Norwood where he attended White Horse Manor Primary School and Stanley Tech (now Harris Academy South Norwood). His family home contained a piano, guitar, drums and a Woolworths Bontempi chord organ, all of which he could dabble on. His first band which became the legendary and still operative Johnny Moped comprised his younger brother Paul and Paul’s Selhurst Grammar classmates who were improvising musicians, the most significant being Colin Mills (aka Fred Berk) and band archivist Dave Berk (real name: Dave Bachelor) who would later play drums for Sensible.
Bachelor kept all audio cassettes from those improv sessions which were assiduously critiqued for their imaginative musicianship by him and a young Ray Burns. Sensible’s son Fred Burns made an acclaimed film about Johnny Moped, with contributions from his father.
On leaving the band, Sensible generously gave his friend Chrissie Hynde a phone number with a view to her filling his place in the band after she gave up freelance writing for the NME. She has claimed that their talent put her to utter shame.
At Stanley Tech Sensible recalls studying woodwork, metal engineering and cast iron pattern-making, all technical training he claims he has never used. He has repeatedly claimed to be useless at the technical syllabus Stanley Tech offered, including maths and science, having failed the 11+ to attend Selhurst Grammar with his brother, yet he has proved to display a refined critique of his own musical work. Sensible continued to live in South Norwood throughout much of his highly successful musical career into the 1980s, lampooning himself on a TV settee with Anne Diamond in a 1983 version of Lloyd Grossman’s Through the Keyhole. He spent a short time in 1981 at an anarchist Essex commune with punk band Crass, turning him into a lifelong strict vegetarian and committed democratic socialist, then moved to Brighton where, long after an initial fracas with the local council who banned him from the town, he later made his permanent home.
Before his musical career, he worked in landscape gardening and had a local spell at British Rail. Most famously, he was employed from 1974 by the then Council-funded Fairfield Halls as a toilet cleaner and porter, working overtime as a concert hall steward when he spent most of his duties storming the front of the stage among the music fans. Meeting a Fairfield floor cleaner Chris Millar, aka Rat Scabies, then a drummer in a proto-punk band with Mick Jones and Tony James, transformed his musical career as a bassist when Scabies answered a newspaper advert from highly regarded songwriter and guitarist Brian James who was forming the Damned. Fairfield sacked both Millar and Burns in early 1975, leaving the door open for their burgeoning career in the first punk band to get a record deal. Despite early creative differences, touring traumas that caused Scabies to leave the band, and personality clashes causing James to form Lords of the New Church, the Damned have patched up old differences and tour worldwide in its original line-up.
Citing the influence of many early 1970s bands he saw at the Greyhound, from Robert Wyatt’s Soft Machine to Stray and Arthur Brown, Sensible wrongly predicted that the glam era of progressive music would evolve into jazz fusion with a huge element of chaotic, visual lunacy that was a reality when he saw Arthur Brown trapped on stage in a giant syringe, deafened by his own feedback, and having to be rescued by his road crew. Sensible has felt that punk filled the void he thought would be fuelled by fusion, but it did not disappoint with the elements of chaos. He has always loved dressing up and not being dressed, his modesty being protected only by his Fender Telecaster at Glastonbury and elsewhere.