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About The Damned
They were rarely cited as the most important of the first wave of British punk bands, nor one of the most influential, but in many respects, the Damned can honestly claim to be first. They released the first U.K. punk single (1976's "New Rose" b/w "Help"), the first U.K. punk album (1977's Damned Damned Damned), and were the first British punks to tour the United States. They were also one of the first major bands on the scene to break up, and were later ahead of the pack when they reunited. And few of their peers have had a longer or more interesting career path. Playing music that was dark but playful at the same time, the Damned started out as a loud, hell-bent-for-leather punk quartet. They soon began adding psychedelic and garage rock influences into their music (1979's Machine Gun Etiquette), detoured into epic-scale pop with a dash of prog (1980's The Black Album), and embraced a tuneful but muscular take on goth (1985's Phantasmagoria), all within their first ten years. While the strong, mannered but witty vocals from Dave Vanian remained a constant, the band's personnel and style was in flux as the group broke up and reunited with remarkable frequency. They finally found a relatively stable lineup in the 2000s, led by Vanian and co-founder Captain Sensible, delivering a slick but enthusiastic fusion of pop, rock, and goth on latter-day albums such as 2008's So, Who's Paranoid? and 2018's Evil Spirits. Throug it all, the band's ability to take their music seriously without taking themselves seriously endeared them to a tremendously loyal fan base.
The first spark of the Damned occurred in 1974, when guitarist Ray Burns and drummer Chris Millar met while both were working backstage at London's Croydon Fairfield Hall. Burns and Millar, who would be better known in later years as Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies, kept in touch as both struggled in the stagnant mid-'70s London music scene. Things took a turn when Scabies talked his way into a rehearsal with London S.S., the ground zero of U.K. punk whose shifting lineup included future members of the Clash, Generation X, and the Boys. There Scabies met guitarist Brian James, and around the same time, Scabies was introduced to theatrical singer Dave Vanian, still working through his obsession with the New York Dolls and Alice Cooper. Vanian's own history allegedly included singing "I Love the Dead" and "Dead Babies" while working as a gravedigger, but whatever the background, he proved to be a perfect frontman, with a fine voice and striking stage presence. Scabies put Sensible in touch with Vanian and James, and the Damned were born, with Sensible switching over to bass while James handled guitar and songwriting.
In July 1976, the Damned played their first show in public, opening for the Sex Pistols at London's 100 Club. After a few more gigs, the band's speedy, raucous style caught the attention of a new independent record label, Stiff Records, which was looking for iconoclastic bands with a sense of humor. The Damned certainly fit the bill, and Stiff wasted no time putting them into the studio with producer Nick Lowe, cutting the breakneck original "New Rose" and a high-speed cover of the Beatles' "Help." The 45 appeared on October 22, 1976, beating the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." into shops by five weeks.
As the British media were busy making punk rock into the next big thing or a national scandal, depending on your outlook, the Damned's profile rose, and they were booked to take part in the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy" Tour along with the Clash and Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers. After the Pistols' infamous television appearance in which they repeatedly swore at presenter Bill Grundy, most of the dates were canceled, and the Damned ended up dropping out after disagreements with Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. In February 1977, Stiff released a full-length album from the group, Damned Damned Damned, and they landed the opening slot on what would prove to be the final British tour for T. Rex. They next headed to the United States for a few shows, including a memorable Los Angeles date that proved wildly influential on the nascent Hollywood punk scene.
Stiff Records and the Damned (who had become a quintet with the addition of second guitarist Lu Edmonds) wanted a second album right away, but the group were eager to have Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett produce the LP. It had been years since Barrett had been seen in public, and instead Pink Floyd's drummer Nick Mason ended up in the producer's chair. No one seemed happy with the finished product, Music for Pleasure, which appeared in November 1977; Scabies left the band, to be replaced by Jon Moss (who would later join Culture Club), and Stiff dropped the Damned from their roster. Frustrated all around, the Damned broke up in February 1978.
Sensible debuted the retro-psych act King, and Vanian temporarily joined glam oddballs the Doctors of Madness, but neither were satisfied with their new projects. While James had no interest in reforming the band, the other three members realized they still enjoyed working together. Settling the legal rights to the name after playing some shows incognito in late 1978, the Damned bounced back, with Sensible moving over to lead guitar and Algy Ward of the Saints taking over on bass. (Ward would go on to be replaced by Eddie & the Hot Rods refugee Paul Gray, and Bryn Merrick would subsequently take over for Gray.) Vanian's smart crooning and spooky theatricality paved the path for goth rock, and Sensible turned out to be a better guitarist than James, a master of tight riffs and instantly memorable melodies (and, when needed, a solid keyboardist). Scabies' ghost-of-Keith Moon drumming was some of the most entertaining yet technically sharp work on that front in years, and the Damned were widely judged to be better than ever.
Their comeback album, 1979's Machine Gun Etiquette, boasted instant classic tunes like "Love Song" and "Smash It Up," showing greater sophistication while still sounding like nose-thumbing punks. 1980's The Black Album was even more ambitious, a double set that boasted richer production, more adventurous songwriting, and the 17-minute goth/prog epic "Curtain Call." Their next long-player, 1982's Strawberries, found the Damned creating another fine release, but to less public acclaim than Captain Sensible, who surprisingly found himself a solo star when his cover of "Happy Talk" from the musical South Pacific hit the top of the British singles charts. While the dual career lasted for a year or two, the Damned found themselves starting to fracture again with little more than a hardcore fan base supporting the group work. Sensible finally left in mid-1984, and second guitarist Roman Jugg, having joined some time previously, stepped into the lead and the band continued on.
To everyone's surprise, the Damned enjoyed their greatest chart success following Sensible's departure. They signed with a major label, MCA, who issued Phantasmagoria in 1985, and scored a massive U.K. hit via a cover of "Eloise," a melodramatic '60s smash for Barry Ryan. It was vindication on a commercial level a decade after they started, but 1986's Anything received their worst reviews since Music for Pleasure and unimpressive sales. After a full career-retrospective release, 1987's The Light at the End of the Tunnel, the band undertook a variety of farewell tours, including dates with both Sensible and James joining the then-current quartet. The end of 1989 brought a final We Really Must Be Going tour in the U.K., featuring the original quartet in one last bow.
Of course, in typical form, the Damned changed their minds, and the suitably named I Didn't Say It tour was mounted in 1991, with Paul Gray rejoining the band. It was the first in a series of tours throughout the '90s that essentially confirmed the group as a nostalgia act, concentrating on the early part of their career for audiences often too young to have heard them the first time around. After some 1992 shows, the Damned disappeared for a while, but when December 1993 brought more dates, an almost all-new band was the result. Only Scabies and Vanian remained, much like the late '80s lineup; their cohorts were guitarists Kris Dollimore and Alan Lee Shaw, and bassist Moose. This quintet toured in Japan and Europe for about two years, while also recording demos Vanian claimed were for a projected album with both Sensible and James. Scabies decided to work out a formal release of those demos as Not of This Earth, first appearing in Japan in late November 1995.
Vanian had reestablished contact with Sensible during the former's touring work with his side project the Phantom Chords, and he responded to Not of This Earth by breaking with Scabies, reuniting fully with Sensible and recruiting a new edition of the Damned. Initially this consisted of Gray once again, plus drummer Garrie Dreadful and keyboardist Monty. However, Gray was replaced later in 1996 following an on-stage tantrum by punk veteran Patricia Morrison, known for her work in the Gun Club and the Sisters of Mercy. Scabies reacted to all this with threats of lawsuits and vituperative public comments, but after all was said and done, Vanian, Sensible, and company maintained the rights to the name.
Once the legal dust settled, this version of the Damned toured regularly, despite instability in the drumming department -- Dreadful left at the end of 1998, first replaced by Spike, then later in 1999 by Pinch. While Vanian continued to pursue work with the Phantom Chords, for the first time in years the Damned started to become a real band once again, the lineup growing strong enough to warrant further attention. In 2000, the Damned signed a contract with Nitro Records, the label founded and run by longtime Damned fanatic Dexter Holland, singer with the Offspring (who covered "Smash It Up" for the Batman Forever soundtrack in the mid-'90s). Meanwhile, Morrison and Vanian married, making them perhaps the ultimate punk/goth couple of all time.
By 2001, the Vanian/Sensible-led Damned looked to be in fine shape, releasing the album Grave Disorder on Nitro and touring to general acclaim. The fractured history of the band was captured in a seemingly endless series of releases, authorized and otherwise, from all periods of their career, live, studio, compilations, and more. The year 2005 found both eras of the band being represented; while the new lineup was touring and working on a new album, the original lineup was honored by the three-disc box set Play It at Your Sister, which was released on the Sanctuary label. The limited-edition set covered the years 1976-1977, featuring all the tracks from the first two albums along with John Peel sessions and live material. It soon came time for the lineup to issue their own album, which arrived in 2008 in the form of a slick, pop-influenced record titled So, Who's Paranoid? Extensive touring ensued, and in early 2015, with Sensible present, a documentary titled The Damned: Don't You Wish That You Were Dead premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. Former bassist Bryn Merrick, who had been performing in a Ramones tribute band, died later that year of cancer.
In 2016, the Damned played a 40th anniversary show at the Royal Albert Hall and announced their first studio album in nearly ten years. The following year, Stu West left the band and was replaced by returning bassist Paul Gray. In 2018, the Damned's 11th record, Evil Spirits, was finally released. The album was recorded by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, Morrissey) in New York, and was preceded by the lead single "Standing on the Edge of Tomorrow." The group toured in support, playing Europe, the U.K., and even a handful of North American dates, including a headlining appearance at uber-hip garage punk festival the Burger Boogaloo. In October 2019, drummer Pinch announced he was leaving the Damned; the news coincided with the arrival of a new career-spanning compilation, Black Is the Night: The Definitive Anthology. ~ Ned Raggett
- London, England
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