Oct. 28, 2019: Dissatisfied with being the first at everything in English punk-rock history (first U.K. punk 45, first U.K. punk LP, first Britpunks to tour America, first U.K. punk band to break up, first to reform), the Damned called upon the masses to help them enter The Guinness Book Of World Records.
Booking the vast London Palladium, they presented “A Night Of A Thousand Vampires,” inviting the audience to join singer Dave Vanian in donning the garb of the undead. Plenty did. But audiences borne of punk culture are notoriously contrarian, so many didn’t sign the guest book. Sadly, the Damned’s claim to have assembled the world’s largest gathering of vampires couldn’t be substantiated.
Nevertheless, the show was a memorable one. Vanian began the night in his typically elegant Draculoidal attire. He returned after intermission with a freshly shaved head a la Nosferatu to sing Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Their two sets spanned the breadth of their 43-year career, proving the Damned were much more than a three-chord punk band.
But when they were a punk band, they were a helluva punk band. They had, hands-down, Rat Scabies, the Best Drummer Punk’s Ever Produced. Both original guitarist Brian James and Captain Sensible were beyond the “bludgeon riffs.” And Vanian croons. For a vampire, he can really sing.
Sure, the Damned had a gothic-pop phase and have indulged interests in psychedelia and prog. And Sensible’s exceptional guitar work is as much Carlos Santana as it is Brother Wayne Kramer. These factors keep them interesting, alongside their sense of humor and devil-may-care attitude. They were always a random chaos-and-destruction machine, laughing their way through their shambolic life. Below are five essential albums you need to hear.
Damned Damned Damned (1977)
Drummer Chris Millar met guitarist Brian James while auditioning for London SS, a glam outfit featuring future Clash guitarist Mick Jones and eventual Generation X bassist Tony James. Millar left the audition with James’ attention and was renamed for a rodent sighting and his skin condition: Rat Scabies. James couldn’t tolerate the rejection of a shit-hot drummer and opted to form a more streetwise band with him. Scabies’ toilet-cleaner friend Ray Burns (Captain Sensible) became their bassist after a haircut and a crash course in the Stooges, New York Dolls and the MC5. Singing grave digger Dave Letts (Dave Vanian) eventually joined. They were dubbed the Damned after Luchino Visconti’s 1969 historical drama.
Signing with Stiff Records, they beat every other U.K. punk band to vinyl with their pounding debut 45 “New Rose.” It would be featured on February 1977’s debut album, cut live to eight-track in 10 days by Nick Lowe. Damned Damned Damned was a crazed affair, with James’ songwriting and post-Detroit guitar work shining alongside Scabies’ chaotic drums. Blitzing rockers as “Neat Neat Neat” and “So Messed Up” are the best legal stimulant this side of espresso.
Machine Gun Etiquette (1979)
To summarize the Damned’s 1977: T. Rex tour following the LP; a U.S. road blitz; an incredible single (“Sick Of Being Sick”) recorded by ’60s production genius Shel Talmy; an ill-advised second LP produced by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason; Rat Scabies’ dismissal; and breakup. In 1978, they reform as the Doomed with Motörhead‘s Lemmy on bass and Sensible on guitar. Replacing Lemmy with ex-Saints bassist Algy Ward, they became the Damned again and signed with Chiswick Records.
The quartet decamped to Wessex Sound Studios as the Clash cut London Calling in the next room. Tracks such as “Love Song,” the title track and “Anti-Pope” are as brutal as any they’ve laid out. But keyboards abound alongside Sensible’s Santana/thrash guitar stylings. Sensible also claims many songs resulted from playing TV commercials backward. Certainly cuts such as “Plan 9 Channel 7” indicate both pop sensibilities and a prog-rock background. Things no punk band ever admitted in those days.
The Black Album (1980)
Things start getting even more interesting with this one, as keyboards start becoming predominant. But this one opens with one of the Damned’s most ball-busting rockers, “Wait For The Blackout.” (Which sounds eerily prescient as we hunker in our bunkers through this COVID-19 worldwide pandemic.) “Lively Arts” sounds better in its stripped-down, guitar-driven version they did for the BBC upon the album’s release. (The more keyboard-heavy version here is fine.) The Sensible-fronted “Silly Kids Games” could’ve been a 1967-era Pink Floyd outtake. Scabies’ “Drinking About My Baby” rocks everything back into fine balls-to-the-wall fashion.
In short, Etiquette‘s follow-up is even more schizophrenic. There’s punk-rock fury (“Hit Or Miss”), LSD-drenched psych whimsy (“Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde”) and even prog (“Twisted Nerve”). Some prefer when Captain Sensible smacks a Gibson SG around like an errant fish over the keyboards. But hey, we gotta experiment, right? This album also features ex-Eddie And The Hot Rods four-stringer Paul Gray, who many feel is their greatest bassist. Although many love Vanian’s closing 17-minute prog opera “Curtain Call,” it’s not for everyone.
Like every Damned album, Strawberries begins with a blazing rocker. “Ignite” has some jangly moments displaying Sensible’s ever-expanding chops and innate pop sense. He goes into a wah-pedal freakout midway through and finishes by hacking at his strings like he’s strangling his SG. It’s a nice way to begin what turned out to be his last Damned LP for 19 years.
Strawberries bridges the Damned’s still-punk-but-getting-experimental period and the Vanian-led goth-pop days (Phantasmagoria). “Bad Time For Bonzo” skewers President Ronald Reagan over a classic Sensible riff. All in all, high drama and expansive pop predominate over the rampaging punk tracks. But it could’ve stood more bashers such as the MC5-flavored B-side, “I Think I’m Wonderful.”
Grave Disorder (2001)
A lot happened in the 19 years between Strawberries and this one-off for Nitro Records, released almost three weeks before 9/11. The Damned sold more records making goth-pop tones than punk ramalama, while Captain Sensible made (and pissed away) a fortune as a creator of cheery novelties (“Happy Talk,” “Wot”). Sensible and James returned for a farewell tour in 1989. It ended even more ignominiously than their original split. Then Vanian and Sensible quarreled so hard with Scabies over financial issues that the drummer stormed out, never to return. They had to wait for ex-English Dogs drummer Pinch to join to fill Scabies’ shoes. Then they could make a record.
With ex-Bags/Gun Club/Sisters Of Mercy bassist Patricia Morrison in the fold and manic keyboardist Monty OxyMoron, Vanian and Sensible truly had a cast worthy of the Damned’s good name. “Democracy” continued the tradition of blitzkrieg-rocking LP openers, while “Song.com” lampooned the internet over surf-tinged punk. “W” blasts President George W. Bush over drum-machine psychedelia, whereas “Thrill Kill” wouldn’t have been out of place on The Black Album. Add in rockers such as the near-hardcore “Lookin For Action” and you have the best Damned album in ages.