Rat Scabies – ‘P.H.D. (Prison, Hospital, Debt)’ reviewed

Rat Scabies, formerly of The Damned, surprises and delights with his first, ambitiously diverse solo album.

In 2016 there was a major clue that there was more to Rat Scabies (originally Christopher Millar) than his cartoon reputation as the chaotic ex-drummer with UK punk pioneers The Damned suggested. In the experimental Young Vic production If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me, “part gig, part theatre” (The Guardian), Jane Horrocks sang a variety of New Wave anthems while Aletta Collins’ dancers visually interpreted them to the accompaniment of a live band. Upstage and out of the limelight, Scabies switched fluently between the varied drumming styles required for tracks such as Joy Division’s ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, The Smiths’ ‘I Know It’s Over’ and Gang of Four’s ‘Anthrax’.

This eclectic promise bears fruit on his first solo album P.H.D. (Prison, Hospital, Debt), out on 18 May. It’s a pleasant surprise, revealing that – despite the conspicuously punky sleeve – the 60+ Scabies really knows his music, taking in 60s’ pop, psychedelia, glam, country and blues as well as, of course, punk. You suspect that the subtitle could easily be ‘The Soundtrack to My Life.’

P.H.D. is split unevenly between three songs and nine instrumentals (perhaps inevitably, given that it’s by a drummer). Delightfully, though, the songs are really strong. ‘Chew On You’, the opening track, is available now as a digital download and it’s easy to see why it was chosen to trail the album. A persistent guitar riff that references ‘Spirit in the Sky’, crossed with a Johnny Thunders guitar-bass-rumble topped off with stoner vocals by Jesse Budd of the band [?] Flipron, shows that Scabies can still punk rock with the best of them. It’s even more impressive when you consider he played almost all the instruments on it.

‘Dazy Bones’ is a great slice of guitary indie pop, with (I assume) Budd again supplying the vocal work. For historians of Scabies and his old band, the other song, ‘Rat’s Opus’, is an interesting curio. All goth keyboards, strings and overwrought lyrics – with Scabies at the mic? – it sounds like he’s taking the piss out of his former colleagues, specifically the Phantasmagoria-era Damned, the band’s most commercially successful line-up. The acrimony between Scabies, singer Dave Vanian and guitarist Captain Sensible is well documented and, as P.H.D. arrives hard on the heels of The Damned’s latest album Evil Spirits, it’s hard not to think that ‘Rat’s Opus’ is another chance for him to continue the sniping. If that’s the case, perhaps that’s why, accomplished though it is, it’s the least successful track on the album.

As the nine non-vocal tracks reinforce, Scabies doesn’t need to resort to such cheap stunts. They’re all musically varied and adventurous, at the same time showcasing his versatility as a multi-instrumentalist. Witness his slide guitar playing on ‘Benny’s Song’ and ‘Glad You Could Make It’, channelling blues and country styles respectively, as well as his assured ability to conjure up ambient and psychedelic soundscapes on ‘Floating’ and ‘Floydian Slip’. As the title suggests, the latter is a witty, spot-on pastiche of Pink Floyd (circa Dave Gilmour), based around audio samples of two UFO spotters out on a hunt for ETs. I’d love to know where Scabies got these soundbites from. It sounds like they’re from one of the quirky reports that used to feature on the old magazine TV programme Nationwide, particularly when you consider the unintentionally hilarious comment, “I work for the [London Electricity Board], Paul works as an embalmer, and it doesn’t mean that we have an awful lot of free time.”

Elsewhere, the second track ‘My Wrists Hurt’ is an obligatory lo-fi thrash punk work-out, while ‘It Feels Like Sunday’ brings P.H.D. to a low-key conclusion with lazy, echoed guitars sampled over each other. In between these two are the album’s stand-out tracks: ‘Shivers’ features mesmerising, slicing guitar chords and hypnotic keyboards, the perfect soundtrack for a spaghetti western yet to be made, while ‘Un Noveau Balai (A New Broom)’ is a ragged glam-stomp in the style of The Sweet, complete with a guitar hook that calls to mind ‘Blockbuster’. Best of all, for my money, is Scabies’ version of the Italian musician Louis Prima’s ‘Sing Sing Sing’, built around an infectious face-off between boogie-woogie piano and, appropriately enough, Rat’s tumbling drum fills.

I’m glad P.H.D. has arrived in time for the summer as it’ll be the perfect soundtrack to lazy days and balmy nights. For a comparison that might tempt Damned fans into a purchase, think the punk originators’ fifth album Strawberries (1982) – P.H.D. has the same aggressive assault at the beginning, gradually slowing to a chilled-out halt.

Happily, there’s life in the old Rat yet.

  Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.

Rat Scabies – ‘P.H.D. (Prison, Hospital, Debt)’ released by Cleopatra Records on 18 May 2018. Visit http://ratscabies.com/

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