David Vanian: The Damned – Interview
“I often wonder if the Grundy show had never happened how different history could have been.” David Vanian speaks to Dave Jennings about forty years as The Damned frontman. All photos by Dod Morrison.
It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that The Damned are celebrating their 40th Anniversary this year. The first Punk band to release a single and an album, they were also the first to tour the USA, to split up and then reform. For many, including their legions of loyal fans, they will always be the first and the best.
The Damned have just completed a whistle-stop tour of the USA, LA and New York to be precise. They will then head out on a British tour which includes a visit to loyal Damned territory when they play The William Aston Hall at Wrexham Glyndwr University. I caught up with David Vanian within hours of a triumphant two-night performance at a packed Gramercy Theatre in New York and found him in buoyant form as he anticipated the British leg of the tour.
We began by discussing what was surely the jewel in the crown for many Damned fans in their years of following their never less than compelling career, the 40th Anniversary bash at the Royal Albert Hall.
It was certainly a great experience for those lucky enough to be present in the audience, but what was it like for the man who took centre stage.
David Vanian: It was probably one of the best nights of my life. One of my best friends made me laugh afterwards when he said “well that’s it, you can die now!” It was fantastic for so many reasons, everything went perfectly well which you never know with something that big. We were doing two ninety minute sets so there’s potential for things to go wrong there but it didn’t. Everything I’d worked out theatrically went well which was a relief. It had been quite stressful and there were lots of little things to get right but the people at the Albert Hall were brilliant. They even said that The Damned was one of the best band concerts they’d had. They couldn’t believe the audience reaction.
The audience were absolutely amazing. It was almost as if they were willing the show to be the gig of their life and it was very emotional I imagine for the crowd. I was certainly emotional, especially when my daughter came on and played the violin during the encore. It was very humbling how easily she did it at twelve years old and of course the audience loved that. It was like a culmination of everything that‘s happened over the years, this journey we’ve been on with our audience. It felt like all the crap we’ve been fighting through for years with record companies and such like had finally been worth it. We had finally got to a point where we could do something like that and the band deserved it and so did the fans.
Obviously, with this being your Fortieth Anniversary, people are looking back at your debut album, Damned Damned Damned which is in many people’s eyes the definitive Punk album. What is your perspective of that album looking back?
DV: I think it’s an amazing album. I can look at it totally from the outside as I didn’t write any of those songs, I was just fortunate enough to be the singer.
I don’t sit and play that album but recently I saw some footage of us from 1977 playing in Brighton. I actually hesitated before watching it, worried about how we’d look but I was glad I did. The film quality was really good and I thought “that band looks really exciting, I’d go and watch that band now. Brian wrote some amazing songs for that album, totally different from other bands that were around at the time. I’m really proud of being the singer on that album and if I hadn’t been the singer, I definitely would have gone to see that band.
Earlier this year, Brian James told me that his fondest memories of The Damned was the time before the Sex Pistols went on Bill Grundy and the term Punk was even coined. He felt there was an energy and spontaneity to the movement that was ruined by media-hype and manager’s agendas.
DV: I would agree with that completely. The movement got ruined in so many ways. It was so optimistic and seemed like it was really going somewhere then, all of a sudden it was like “this is what it is and we’re going to give it this name and you should only listen to that and blah blah blah”. I often wonder if the Grundy show had never happened how different history could have been. It’s ironic really when you consider that swearing on TV is almost de rigeur today.
After splitting then reforming, The Damned stormed back with Machine Gun Etiquette, an absolute tour de force of an album but its follow up, The Black Album, is a hugely important and criminally overlooked piece of work. It showed that The Damned, Punk standard-bearers, were able to innovate and push boundaries and crucially, take their audience with them in a totally new direction. The Black Album is probably more influential than has ever been acknowledged but what is your view on it?
DV: I love it because it’s the album where we started to change and evolve into The Damned we really were. The first album was brilliant but it was Brian’s album. By the time we got to The Black Album we had all realised our song-writing strengths and where we were going. It all came together so well, we were pushing boundaries and it was a very exciting time.
Recording Curtain Call was a move that could have buried us. We were a band that was known for doing songs that were fast, full of energy and under three minutes long. Then suddenly you’ve got this eighteen-minute track, laden with atmospherics. But we saw it as being truthful to who we were and hopefully our audience would see that and of course, they did. We weren’t writing music for other people and their approval, we were just writing good music for the sake of good music.
1982 saw another defiant gesture. When many of The Damned’s contemporaries were seeking a change in musical direction towards a more chart-friendly sound, the band came up with the psychedelic masterpiece of Strawberries.
DV: With that album we were bringing in all the music that had influenced us in the first place. We’re all heavily influenced by the first garage bands of the Sixties like The Seeds, The Shadows of Knight, The Doors, Strawberry Alarm Clock and hundreds of others. Then there’s obviously MC5 and The Stooges while Captain is heavily influenced by Prog bands and Terry Riley and all kinds of odd stuff. He also loved Bolan and Glam and all those influences just seemed to bubble up and it became Strawberries.
There’s no doubt that The Damned’s career has been littered with misfortune, an almost criminal lack of respect from the ‘music media’ and often disdain from record companies. However, that has never been reflected by your status among the people that matter, the fans. You are playing Wrexham on this tour, a small town that boasts a large following for The Damned, as many places around the UK do. I remember a gig in Ashton-Under- Lyne in 1983 that sums this support up well. The Damned had no record label, Sounds, NME and Melody Maker had virtually ostracised you and yet the gig was packed to the rafters, the doors were rushed by fans who were locked out and your performance was absolutely electric.
DV: The fans have always kept us going through the rough times when we were without record labels, managers or the right people with us to make things work.
There was a time when we were absolutely reviled by the music press and yet we were packing out big gigs with people wanting to hear the music. I could never understand that because the press are meant to report what they see, not give an opinion. Instead of reporting that people were queueing round the block and couldn’t even get into our gigs, there was one review at the time that basically said, “The Damned played and I went home”.
I thought “why is that” and the answer is because we didn’t play the party game. We weren’t spouting false politics, we were being true to ourselves and it worked against us. But our audience have always known who we are and respected us for it and that’s why we keep doing what we do.
Maybe another reason why your support has remained so strong is the interaction between the band and the audience which is part of the show. It’s an almost unique chemistry and the Wrexham gig, for example, will be different from others on the tour. It’s special for the people there that night.
DV: This band never goes on stage and just does the gig. We work hard up there but you never know what’s going to happen. The audience know that and that’s why they like us. They know we’re a real ‘live band’. We’re not just going to go up there and say the same things we said the night before. Even if the set-list is the same, the show will still be different somehow. I wouldn’t do it otherwise; it just wouldn’t be right.
Word is out that you’re working on a new album. Can you give us any clues as to what we can expect?
DV: We’re starting to work on it for next year. We’re going to push a few boundaries and hopefully head off into more psychedelic territory, which I’m really looking forward to. We’re thinking at the moment that maybe it won’t just be songs on there, but possibly some instrumental tracks as well. There’s a lot of creativity floating around at the moment so we’ll have to see what we can do.
Looking back over the last forty years, what would you regard as your proudest moment?
DV: I think it would have to be The Royal Albert Hall gig, as we’ve already discussed. The other would be a track off The Black Album, Thirteenth Floor Vendetta, about Dr Phibes.
That song was written completely within 24 hours. When we started working on the first part of it, Rat went to bed and said “no forget it, it won’t happen”. But Captain and I soldiered on through and it became what I thought was one of the best sounding tracks on the album for production, and also one that we did for ourselves. So from inception, writing it, recording it and producing it took from around 5pm to 6 am the next morning. I’m really proud of that track.
Also those first early gigs of ours would be another. Like Brian said to you, the time before a label was tied to it and we were just a bunch of young kids playing the best music we could in the only way we knew how.
So besides the Albert Hall, is there another gig you can think of that summarises The Damned for you?
DV: There was one actually, a festival we played with Arthur Lee and The Electric Prunes. Obviously we’d done covers of songs by both of them; I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night by The Prunes and Alone Again Or by Love.
Meeting them before the show was a bit nerve-wracking to say the least. I was expecting to walk into the dressing room and they’d be shouting “you ruined our song you bastards!”. However, they were all really nice and loved what we’d done and we got on really well and kept in touch. It was a weird ‘indie’ festival in a field somewhere but it was probably the most psychedelic you will have seen The Damned as we were so hyped up with meeting them. I have to say Arthur Lee that day was amazing, his voice was as good as ever. He proved his songs had real worth to a new generation and it was such a shame he died not that long after. The Prunes were brilliant too, they’d give any young band today a run for their money.
It’s fair to say that The Damned would certainly give any young band today a run for their money too. In fact, they would blow most bands off stage and out of the building. Can you sum up your outlook for us in a few words?
DV: There’s the one thing The Damned have in their songs and that is optimism. That’s the key word for me. Some songs may be about a downer, but they will also be about how you can be uplifted by something if you really try. You don’t want to hear people going on about how terrible the world is and how we’re all going to die, well I certainly don’t. We don’t anyone to leave a Damned gig feeling miserable.
The Damned UK Fortieth Anniversary Tour starts on November 12th and they play Wrexham Glyndwr William Aston Hall on November 16th. For Wrexham tickets go here
Photo credit Dod Morrison