On this particular Saturday evening the pubs, bars and indeed Indian restaurants of Warrington town centre have a denser than usual population of middle aged men (and even some women!) in black jeans, punk t-shirts and leather jackets. A little thicker round the middle and thinner on the top (the men that is) than they probably were the first time they saw a Damned gig, most of them seem to know each other or, spotting a kindred spirit, are happy to let on with a knowing nod. These are the people that keep the Damned on the road, the group being, as the good Captain often states a peoples band.
There is a good natured atmosphere in the gig itself and you get the impression that, aside from some youngsters brought along by Mums and Dads who have been playing them punk tunes since birth, most people there have seen the band a good few times before and are ready for a good night of varied punk goodness.
So, billed as a 35th Anniversary tour even though it’ll be 36 years in July since their first gig, what do they have in store for us tonight? This tour follows hard on the heels of a recent jaunt across the USA and the UK playing two of their classic albums in their entirety and this reviewer in particular thought that that set (the incendiary Damned Damned Damned followed by the epic thali of their 1980 double The Black Album rounded off with encores of assorted crowd pleasers) would be a difficult act to follow. Seemingly the band may have thought so too; they open with the first three tracks from The Black Album (which suggests that they’re fully aware that their audience generally know their stuff and will get the idea) and proceed to mine their back catalogue for all it’s worth. And it’s clearly worth a lot to this crowd.
On stage the band are in good spirits and happy to banter with the crowd and between themselves. This being one of the band’s most stable line-ups (new boy Stu West on bass has been there for 8 years already, surely a record for Damned bassists) and one which constantly gigs they are relaxed as a unit and relish playing off one another, often going off at tangents during instrumental sections before snapping straight back to where they left off; witness an 8 minute plus version of Ignite which manages to include an audience participation sing-along (with Captain attempting to lower his mic stand into the crowd but only succeeding in bashing some poor unfortunate on the bonce), a reggae interlude and a spontaneous bout of piss-taking as Dave Vanian bursts into Happy Talk as Sensible skanks on his guitar. This is a band enjoying themselves and, as with all great Damned gigs, successfully mixing excellent musicianship with a desire not to take themselves too seriously.
The band rip through a selection of their best. Crowd pleasers for those less familiar with band’s oeuvre are all present and correct (Love Song, New Rose, Neat Neat Neat, even a souped-up Eloise) and some more esoteric, though no less impressive songs such as Plan 9 Channel 7 (with Vanian pointing out that a certain Mr Lloyd-Weber had appropriated the tune for his Phantom of The Opera), Limit Club, The History Of The World Pt 1, and the peerless Under The Floor Again are aired. If there is the faintest whiff of nostalgia it is acknowledged by a sanguine Vanian who, after Stretcher Case’s repeated refrain of third year with a problem reflects wistfully she’s probably 58 by now!. The crowd lap it up.
All in all they manage to get through 22 songs, including a version of Curtain Call which although not the full 17 minutes of the album version is still a hefty old song. They wrap up proceedings predictably with a rip-roaring Smash It Up and then are gone. A slight gripe maybe that considering the Damned’s recent renaissance as a recording outfit neither Grave Disorder or So Who’s Paranoid are represented tonight but I’m guessing that if that were levelled at the band it would be met with exasperation: You want classics?! You got classics!.
This is by no stretch of the imagination the raggedy-arsed ramshackle Damned of old, where you felt that everything could collapse to a halt at any moment (it doesn’t feel like the ghost of Scabies is present or indeed missed), but it seems the better for it to my ears. There’s almost a (whisper it) cool dignity to this Damned. They’re good. The songs are great. They know it. We know it. All power to them, and me and a bunch of other balding, leather-jacketed, good-natured drinkers across the world hope to see our old mates the Damned many more times yet.
All words Phil Thompson