Pop music needs a new kick up the arse, says the Damned’s punk pioneer

As his 1976 anthem New Rose is hailed as a milestone, Brian James explains why another blast of fresh air is well overdue

International punk magazine Vive Le Rock is to confer its Pioneer award on Brian James from the Damned at a ceremony on 1 April. Now in his late 60s, but still playing gigs and recording with the Lords of the New Church, the veteran guitarist said he was flattered by the award.

“They describe me as a pioneer. A pioneer!” he told the Observer. “Does that mean I have to wear a Davy Crockett hat to the ceremony? But, seriously, though, it really is a great honour and I am very touched. When I wrote that song between February and March 1976, I never imagined it would be so influential and that people would be talking about it nearly 50 years later.”

New Rose is widely credited with being the song that launched the punk/new wave movement in the mid-1970s, and was covered by the likes of Guns N’ Roses and even Depeche Mode. But it might never have existed had it not been for a perhaps unlikely fanbase: Belgium’s French speakers.

“The group that preceded the Damned was called Bastard, and we could not get gigs or any contracts in the early 1970s in England. Most of the music was so bland that no one in the business in London or anywhere in England was interested in an angry rock’n’roll group called Bastard,” he said. “We were influenced by Iggy Pop and the Stooges at a time when most rock had gone all weird.

Brian James
 Brian James: ‘Before Belgium I was on the verge of giving up.’ Photograph: Ian Dickson

“One of our band members got a job in 1973 at a recording studio in Brussels so, rather than split up, we all decided to move over with him. We started gigging around Brussels and other parts of French-speaking Belgium, and we won over a cult following.

“That kept Bastard alive and allowed me to come back to England in the mid-70s and keep my interest in rock music. Indirectly, we have Belgians, French-speaking ones not so much the Dutch speakers, for me eventually writing New Rose. Before Belgium I was on the verge of giving up,” James said.

The appeal of the track spread far beyond Brussels. Even in conflict-torn Belfast, groups like the Damned inspired teenagers such as Paul Burgess to form bands. Burgess, founder of Ruefrex’, drummer and now novelist said: “My God … New Rose! If you were 17 and immersed in music then the energy and defiant insolence of Brian James’s song, set to a three-chord two-and-a-half minute package, was like mother’s milk. It was a perfect storm of rebellion, belonging and purpose where none had existed before.”

James believes the contemporary era of Factor-style manufactured pop stars and bands who don’t write their own songs calls for another punk-style pushback. “Back in 76, New Rose was a kick up the arse for the music industry. Which is why I am proud of the song and the way it’s getting recognition. This business needs another giant kick up the behind now,” he said.

Vive Le Rock sells 20,000 copies worldwide and is regarded as the biggest punk magazine on the planet. Its owner, Eugene Butcher, said James was a trailblazer. “He was a pioneer of angry guitar rock’n’roll while everyone was singing about dragons and wizards and playing banks of synths. Brian turned up the heat with incendiary guitar riffs. He remains one of the greatest guitar players of the punk era.”

New Rose starts “Is she really going out with him? Ah! I got a feeling inside of me / It’s kind of strange like a stormy sea / I don’t know why, I don’t know why / I guess these things have got to be.” But James insisted it was a never a love song.

“The rush of it – especially Rat Scabies’s drumming at the start and the opening riff – was like the heralding of a new era,” he said. “To be honest, I never thought about the lyrics. I just wrote them down. They were certainly not about a girl as I didn’t have one at the time and love was not on my mind. I suppose the words just fitted the tune. Afterwards I realised the lyrics were about this new era, this new emerging punk scene.”

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