Film premiere: The Damned – Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead
Prince Charles Cinema,
Leicester Square, London
3 June 2015
Since I first wrote about the renaissance in my love for The Damned for Louder Than War, back in 2013, it’s become something of an obsession. The more I’ve listened, learned and – especially – seen live, the less I’ve understood how a band so talented and entertaining has been largely overlooked. So the knowledge that Wes Orshoski, acclaimed US director of 2010 rock doc Lemmy, was making a film to put the record straight has long been a source of frenzied anticipation, and a quick browse of the band’s lively Facebook groups suggests I wasn’t the only one with baited breath.
Unbeknown to many casual observers, The Damned’s is a hell of a story; and Orshoski can’t be criticised for tackling it with a mainly chronological approach. And who wouldn’t want to launch a film like this with the heady first phase of punk; his pacey editing effectively recreating the excitement felt by the few in the know. The often-confusing detail of the band’s pioneering rise is conveyed swiftly and compellingly, and I almost envy those who don’t know it.
Also present and correct of course are the talking heads: Chrissie Hynde, Don Letts, Duff McKagan, Lemmy himself and many, many more. There’s a distinctly American flavour to much of the celebrity fandom, unsurprisingly given Orshoski’s heritage, which sits slightly oddly with moments like bassist/guitarist Captain Sensible’s tour of former Croydon workplace the Fairfield Halls, but actually adds to the comic effect as he describes his jaunts there with workmate/original drummer Rat Scabies.
Ah Rat, Rat and Brian James, band-founders and the two original members no longer in the band. Arguably though they contribute the most to the film, reminding the packed cinema of fans of what’s actually been a pretty sad sequence of events. Thankfully no-one’s died, and the segment on two former bassists’ recent battles with cancer is only one of the reasons that’s surprising, but The Damned’s story is one of melt-downs, fall-outs, disappointments and bad behaviour. To his credit the director works hard to get at truths probably long forgotten, but Scabies’ tears at the band’s inability to flourish in the spotlight speak volumes all on their own.
Clearly a super-fan himself (at least when he started…), it’s not just Orshoski’s pursuit of detail that make the film captivating for fans. I thought I’d seen every piece of footage out there, but no: there’s the band in the studio in – I think – 1978, and there they are shooting the Alone Again Or video. And having followed them since 2011 he can complement the old stuff with great material of his own, even getting behind singer Dave Vanian’s suave persona. With around as many Damned line-ups as albums, many former members are also glimpsed in all-too-brief vox pops – sadly a single film can’t contain the potential content and I suspect much has been saved for the DVD.
The length, complexity and sheer stupidity of the band’s history does drag things down a little in the second half, despite the leap from 1980’s Black Album to Top of the Pops in 1985 with little footage of what went in between (making Vanian’s appearance in the latter, suddenly all in white with an inflated mop of Gothic hair, all the more amusing to the audience of old punks). Even then we see little of the band at its commercial peak, before it so quickly found itself unsigned and falling apart again – the supposed ‘Curse of the Damned’ strikes again. But perhaps current drummer Pinch has it right when he suggests that, having never played by the rules, the band can’t complain about not reaping the rewards.
Sadly this is one of the few contributions he’s seen to make, as the narrative starts to grind to a halt with the mid-90s falling out of remaining original members Vanian and Scabies. Sensible quickly returns, having chosen his solo career over the band 12 years earlier (and arguably allowing them their major label success by doing so), but this new line-up’s career goes unexplored in the film. In fact it’s made two albums, and in my view has perfected the art of the live rock show over almost two decades of relentless touring, and joining-members like Pinch and keyboard virtuoso Monty Oxymoron deserve more credit.
But I suppose something had to give, and what we get from the original horses’ mouths goes some way to making up for the omission, with Sensible, Rabies and James all giving candid interviews to camera. Old scores are dredged up, personalities are dissected (Vanian’s going some way to explaining his lesser participation) but the band’s notorious sense of humour is never far from the surface, and there are laugh-out loud moments aplenty. The thing about being in a band, muses Sensible, is that you don’t have to grow up: the original ‘four frontmen’ have been able to stick around age 20. And if there’s one thing this film demonstrates, it’s the truth of that.
I’m less sure that there’s plenty of music, which could confound my hope that this film will show the world The Damned’s greatness. But there’s no question that Orshoski’s feat of pulling such tangled chaos together so entertainingly, and hawking it around the UK himself on a punishing screening tour, should earn him a proper distribution deal. After which the film will sit beautifully in that BBC4 Friday night slot.