The Damned – An Appreciation
The Damned play Rebellion festival this weekend.
Jo Nightingale writes an appreciation of the band…
I should start by admitting that I’m not the best qualified person to write about The Damned. Despite having first jumped onto their spooky train as a young teen in the mid-80s, and since discovered the full breadth of their talent and influences, it’s only relatively recently that I’ve realised how perfectly they encompass a broad spectrum of my musical interests – from the obvious punk, and what I like to call ‘dark melodic’, to psychedelia, garage, croon and psychobilly.
However, having seen them (at the wonderful Holmfirth Picturedrome) on Sunday night for a pitiful third time (the first, in 1993, I can barely remember – in the light of Suede and Radiohead I think I thought I’d moved on; the second, a couple of years ago, helped me realise I hadn’t), I feel that I have little choice but to write about them, as – previous LTW writers excepted – no other bugger is. Having once again enjoyed a great live experience, and a brilliant night out, I can’t bear the injustice of the lack of online coverage of these under-sung rock survivors; as Dave Vanian himself says in this rare online interview “We do live shows and it’s great, but no-one’s actually there and says anything about it. No-one actually covers it or reviews it.”
Well, I was there, and I’m feeling evangelical. So here are four reasons why I think every right-thinking guitar-music fan should see The Damned at least once.
- Their sound
It’s easy to assume that The Damned’s music falls into two, and only two, clear phases: they were punk and then they were goth. In fact, as early as 1979’s Machine Gun Etiquettethey’d begun to re-invent themselves with a sound that, over the years, would draw discernible influence from styles and genres including rock and roll, garage, Merseybeat, UK R&B, the Joe Meek stable, rockabilly, horror film scores, cabaret, lounge music, fairground tunes and rafts of classical that I’m incapable of describing.Despite their range of influences, the distinctive musicianship of the original ‘four frontmen’ (Brian James, Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies and increasingly crooning vocalist Mr Vanian) and the skills of successive members have created an identifiably ‘Damned’ sound, which means their live performances today can successfully encompass everything from (‘first ever punk single’) New Rose to their 21st Century releases. And, after 37 years in the game, The Damned are one shit-hot live act.
- Their songs
I’m going to let these speak for themselves: New Rose, Neat Neat Neat, Love Song, Smash It Up, I Just Can’t be Happy Today, Wait for the Blackout, Curtain Call, Dozen Girls, Thanks for the Night, Street of Dreams, Anything, In Dulce Decorum – it’s all subjective but to my mind these are irresistibly great, etch-themselves-on-your-brain, songs.
- Their look
My theory is that the main reason The Damned have largely been written out of music history is The Goth Phase, so let’s clear that up. David Letts transmogrified into Dave Vanian, a cartoon punk in a cape alongside the Captain in his trademark beret, in the early days of his musical career, years before a recognisable goth movement started to emerge in the early 80s. In the mid-80s, with the temporary departure of the Sensible influence and pop goth riding high in the charts, he really went for it, and according to folklore the record company was all in favour of riding the wave. ‘Encouraging’ the other members to get on message they achieved a string of top 40 hits and significant public profile for the band (click hereto see one of its most unlikely-looking occupants on the TV-AM sofa).Personally I’m a big fan of the dark-sider look – my favourite band of the last few years is The Horrors, who (though I’ve never heard them acknowledge it) surely owe a sizeable debt both visually and aurally to The Damned – but I can see that the mid-80s Damned’s style could be hard for some to get over. Coupled with the passage of time (Vanian is now 56, Sensible 59) one might also make certain assumptions about how they must look in 2013 – as Vanian says, “People think that when you’re a band of our age you’re gonna be a bunch of fat guys, not doing a very good show anymore.” But (perma-sunglasses admittedly in place) they look amazing: Captain is still Captain, and seems to have barely aged a day, and Count David has morphed into a 1930s movie idol complete with slacks, turned-up collar, mini-quiff and Errol Flynn ‘tache. It shouldn’t matter what they look like, of course, but The Damned are all about a fun night out, and the members’ theatricality and energy is a key part of that fun.
- Their commitment
According to Songkick, The Damned have played 1740 gigs to date. Stand still long enough in many UK towns and cities, and they’ll be round again within a few months. Yet their enjoyment of playing songs well into their fourth decade seems undeniable, and, whether anyone’s listening or not, every so often another album comes along too. The band clearly keep themselves and their musical skills nimble, and on stage they seem to have the time of their lives. And their commitment is almost matched by that of their fans, who keep turning up – in the greatest display of band-T-shirt-wearing I’ve ever seen at gigs – and pogo-ing the night away.
But (frilly shirts aside) perhaps The Damned’s availability has been their greatest crime against wider acknowledgement and appreciation. The reunion tours started as early as the early 90s but if they’d waited for the 21st century ‘re-form and cash-in’ bandwagon, having disappeared for a good couple of decades, would there be more interest in their talent and legacy in the music press?
The Damned resist definition – they’re the punk band your mum can sing along to, the over-blown balladeers who can bring a genuine lump to your throat. Most importantly, they’re a live rock’n’roll experience that neither your heart nor your feet can resist. I may not be an expert on their work but I know what I like; check them out for yourself – they just happen to be on tour.
The Damned play Rebellion this weekend.