Rat Scabies and Brian James : Hebden Bridge : Live review
Rat Scabies and Brian James play Damned Damned Damned
Hebden Bridge Trades Club
29 June 2012
A night of rare promise for any old skool punk aficionado. Let me just say it again. Rat Scabies. Brian James. Playing Damned Damned Damned. I mean, come on!
I have to admit first off to slight feelings of guilt about this one however. Let me explain; any seasoned (or even fairly casual) Damned-watcher will tell you that this band has been something of a soap opera, if not sit-com, to watch over the years with enough inter-band rifts, niggles, fallings out and downright murderous intentions to make Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles look like the bunch of MOR hippy wusses that they undoubtedly are.
Over a pint before this gig, the wife asked me about the fallings out between which members and why over the years, but her eyes started to glaze over after about ten minutes so I gave up. Me and hundreds (thousands?) of others have dutifully followed whatever incarnation of the band exists at any given time and I’ll hold my hands up that I continue to do so. That band, for something like the last sixteen (god, I feel old) years, has been the Sensible and Vanian show with an assortment of sidemen including at various times previous Damned members, members of Sensible’s old solo band and, er, Vanian’s wife. It’s a great show and I refer you to my review of their recent Warrington Parr Hall gig for my thoughts on that.
But, but, but”Â¦even those of us perfectly happy with the current band will occasionally get a bit misty-eyed thinking about those missing in action, specifically Messrs James and Scabies. So, any loyalty I may have to the current band is assuaged by the knowledge that from the off, back in the day, first and foremost, this was Brian and Rat’s band.
Brian had the foresight to spot Rat’s incredible talent for maelstrom, whirlwind, shitstorm drumming when certain other future punk luminaries were less than impressed.
Similarly, Rat saw in Brian someone who was the real deal with real talent. This was a man who, even by 1975, had been eking out a living in Belgium playing in the MC5/Stooges styled protopunk band Bastard (how I’d love to hear what that sounded like!). And let’s face it- Brian actually wrote Damned Damned Damned. Really, loyalties (real or imagined) aside, I was never going to miss this gig.
At least, I was never going to miss it once I actually managed to find out it was happening. There was an air of the clandestine about this gig that I suppose only an almost abject lack of promotion can bring. I first heard a rumour of it on the Damned message board and then found it listed on the Trades Club website- nothing on Rat and Brian’s MySpace page or on Facebook. The non-internet stance a first indication of a gig from out of the mists of the late 20th century.
We get to the gig in time to catch the two support bands, Elvis Kneivel a dynamic three piece who kick the evening off with some lusty Buzzcocks/Green Day type big tune punk, and Kingcrows who whip the gathering audience up with some impeccably delivered shoutalong chorus punk- big attitude with big hair and hats. Two excellent hors d’oeuvres.
By the time the Scabies and James band hit the stage the place is pretty much packed. This is a venue which, despite being slap bang in the middle of the picturesque yet bohemian vegan hippiedom that is Hebden Bridge, actually has the feel of a small late 70s sweaty punk gig. I had to smile when I spied a further allusion to the 1970s on catching sight of some bloke’s Trades Club membership card at the bar. Emblazoned across the top it read “Hebden Bridge Trades, Labour and Socialist Club”Â. Blimey, I thought, there’s a word you don’t hear bandied about too much these days.
The band amble onto stage and with zero fuss slam straight into Neat Neat Neat and roll on through that first album from there, although in no particular track order. The sound is loose, in a good way. It has a swagger- dammit, it positively swings, and then nails you to the wall with Brian’s trademark blistering solos- all heavy string bend and vibrato- and the Rat’s demented fills which just sound like no other drumming on earth.
From a sound perspective this is most definitely the Scabies and James show. The drums are crystal clear and the screeching treble of the telecaster through Marshall half stack nearly takes my head off its shoulders. It’s wonderful. The bassist for the night held the thing down in the way the bass lines were originally written- nothing fancy, let the drums and guitar do the flying.
The vocals were perhaps a little low in the mix although it would be churlish in the extreme to say that Texas Terri (for it was she) played anything other than a blinder. The vocals aspect of this show was always going to be tricky, given that not many of us have ever heard these songs sung by anyone other than Dave Vanian. I suppose getting a Vanian clone in may have been tempting. The inclusion of Texas Terri is a masterstroke. It reminded me of a Brian James quote I read somewhere where he said that originally with the Damned his aim had been to “find his own Iggy”Â. I don’t suppose he ever exactly got that with Vanian, although ol’ Drac did do his share of chest baring and chucking himself around in the early days.
Terri is the Iggy kind of singer that this garagey music needs and she and her performance fit the music hand in glove. She owns the stage and commands attention somehow (and this is the clever bit) without overshadowing what Rat and Brian are doing and without ever being upstaged herself. Full marks.
In this environment, this music makes perfect sense. It’s dirty and raw and although the club is full I was still able to get up close and personal to the band, down the front. It’s that kind of gig where there are no airs and graces and the audience feel part of it.
As the gig progresses the fluidity of the playing becomes more and more a feature. Scabies and James have always maintained that they have a musical relationship uncommon between a drummer and a guitarist and that really begins to show as the gig unfolds.
There’s an extended version of Music For Pleasure song “Alone”Â which features some sublime guitar and drum interplay before, on an imperceptible nod, Brian launches straight into the multi-chord riff of “Sick Of Being Sick”Â and off we go again. It’s as if these two have been playing these songs together every night for the last 35 years, which of course they haven’t, which is what finally makes this so special.
Let me say, before this review descends into arse-kissing territory that there are inevitable differences to the show you may have witnessed “back in the day”Â. While Brian’s “touch me not”Â cool (with thanks to Carol Clerk) is still present and correct he’s got a definite Pete Postlethwaite look going on these days. Rat no longer looks like he’s going to put his head through the drums, nor eyeball the crowd like he’s coming over the kit at them at any second. That’s not meant as a slight though- the energy is still there and isÃÂ channelledÃÂ 100 percent through the music. For an old Damned-watcher like myself it’s a joy to watch Brian tearing through the stooges “I Feel Alright”Â once more, although I’m disappointed that Rat has to attend to something on his kit before he can join in and that fantastic opening drum roll is curtailed (anal? Me?).
If I was wondering beforehand why the two of ”Ëem were out bashing this stuff out one more time (for a few quid? For the pure enjoyment? A bit of niggle that the current Damned have recently played Damned Damned Damned in its entirety but without one of the songs and with a keyboard player? A chance to show how it should be done? Perhaps some of all of the above?), on experiencing the show, the pair of them are so on the money that the question is redundant. They play the B-side-of-new-rose version of the Beatles “Help”Â like the last 35 years never happened. We get the exquisite tom-toms and hammer-on chords of “Stretcher Case”Â and in the end, of course, we get New Rose. By the guy that wrote THAT riff and the guy that came up with THAT drum intro. The evening is brought to that final crescendo and it’s all over. A couple of hundred sweaty old punks beam back to reality with smiles that beam off into the night.
In the end I came away with the feeling that I’ve seen these songs in a different, somehow more authentic setting than of late. Unpolished, a bit seat of the pants but ultimately incredibly well presented by two key musicians (and I choose that word most deliberately) from a period in music which still resonates strongly around the musical firmament. At a time when a certain other band have re-formed to play pretty much one classic album and a few choice cuts from the second, albeit in a much larger setting, these original garage-flowers (ahem) have shown they can still mix it when they want to.
After all this time- is she still really going out with him? Fuck, yeah!
All words and images by Philip Thompson. You can read more from him on LTW here.