The Damned

TrackAlbum / Single
Love SongChiswick CHIS 112
Smash It Up (Parts 1 & 2)Machine Gun Etiquette
New RoseStiff Records BUY 6-A
Plan 9 Channel 7Machine Gun Etiquette
Wait For The BlackoutThe Black Album
Looking At YouMachine Gun Etiquette
Neat Neat NeatStiff Records BUY 10-A
NastyDamned Records DAMNED 1
IgniteStrawberries
Alone Again OrAnything
Edward The BearPhantasmagoria

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Contributor: Neil Waite

The Damned managed to form, release the first punk single and the first punk album, split up and reform before my normally receptive music radar spotted them. But as soon as I knew of this incredible outfit they were a staple in my punk diet. Music For Pleasure appeared seven months after the first Clash album and although I was aware of it, mainly thanks to the colourful sleeve displayed in our local record shop, I needed more to go on before taking the financial risk of a purchase. For the Damned was one group I didn’t first hear on John Peel; it was my cousin who played me Neat Neat Neat, which I loved, with its chaotic guitar explosion and great melody, so fast that it nearly trips over itself.

My next experience of the Damned was in 1979, on the Old Grey Whistle Test. I was only rarely allowed to stay up for this great programme (I was only 13), but I remember watching Annie Nightingale introduce the band as Dave Vanian larked about behind, putting her off. They played Smash It Up, and lived up to the song title by doing just that with their gear after the set. I wasn’t very struck by the song at first and indeed it wasn’t a great performance. But I was transfixed by Dave Vanian, with his vampire look and theatrical voice. So I bought the third album, Machine Gun Etiquette, with my Christmas money. This remains my favourite Damned album. I remember playing the record as soon as I got home and from the opening – “Ladies and Gentlemen… How do” – to the final Peter Jones sample (from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’), “nibbled to death by an okapi”, I was hooked.

I’ve included four songs from Etiquette. Love Song has always been my favourite on record. I say ‘on record’ because they have never recreated that distinctive distorted bass intro on stage. This catchy song was a hit and got them onto Top Of The Pops. And I was excited that the single came in four sleeves, each depicting one band member, but it was a shame when my local record shop had only the Algy Ward sleeve. I was desperate for the Dave Vanian one. Of course it was just a trick to sell more records – and if I’d had more money I’d have fallen for it. Smash It Up is the band’s signature song and hearing it on record made me realise just what a great composition it was. The album included an extended intro called Part 1, written by Captain Sensible just after hearing of Marc Bolan’s death – a sedate run-up to the tongue-in-cheek violence of Part 2. For ‘smash it up’, apart from saying a lot in three words, hit the spot of what punk was about. Plan 9 Channel 7 has thick power chords, an irresistible chorus and fiery guitar trimmings.

Now the Damned have recorded many covers over the years, some of them brilliant, such as Eloise, but they’ve also murdered some fine songs, notably the Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz (though a live favourite), the Beatles’ Help, which was the B-side of the debut New Rose, and Grace Slick’s White Rabbit. The B-side to White Rabbit – Rabid – was far superior. So I shouldn’t have liked the cover of one of my favourite MC5 tracks – Looking At You – but it respects the original and, at the same time, Vanian’s vocal adds a darker gothic feel. Sensible’s long reverb solo also puts the band’s stamp on it.

The Damned in NY

The Damned in New York – the Machine Gun Etiquette photo session
Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible and Algy Ward

This great release set me to exploring the back catalogue: Music For Pleasure and the debut Damned Damned Damned. One was brilliant and the other was not so great. The debut had a similar feel to Machine Gun Etiquette, with twelve songs clocking in at just over 30 minutes but all great. Ten songs were penned by guitarist Brian James (Captain Sensible was on bass for this album), and as on Etiquette there were no fillers. I make no apology for including the obvious but awesome Neat Neat Neat and New Rose. Neat Neat Neat is pure punk energy driven by Sensible’s pulsing bass. New Rose is urged along by Rat Scabies’ drums and cymbals and rhythm guitars that are a foretaste of the Undertones. Fish, I Feel Alright and Fan Club also almost made my top ten.

Music For Pleasure was a different story. Produced by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, it’s strange how poor this is compared to what came before and after. It has highlights in Stretcher Case and Problem Child but it lacks the fast, catchy melodies of the debut. It was a good job I heard Etiquette before Music For Pleasure as otherwise I might have lost interest.

The Damned outtake

Damned Damned Damned cover outtake
Rat Scabies, Brian James, Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian

The Damned have had too many personnel changes to mention, and the forth release, The Black Album, had yet another line-up. Vanian, Sensible and Rat Scabies were now joined by Paul Gray on bass. I loved this LP. It was completely different from Etiquette but more refined and certainly more diverse, with prominent keyboards. But one disc would have been better than two. Disc 2 had the strange 17-minute Curtain Call on one side and below-par live tracks from Shepperton on the other. But Disc 1 was brilliant. Such songs as The History Of The World Part 1 and Twisted Nerve showed what competent musicians they were, with Vanian’s unique singing. The best one was Wait For The Blackout, with a pounding snare drum intro and typically dark vocals by Vanian. The song then slows right up, leaving just an acoustic guitar, before racing off again – brilliant!

The Black Album cemented my love for the band and at this point I entered that pregnant state of eagerly awaiting the next release.

The fifth album, Strawberries (nearly called Strawberries For Pigs), was certainly a happy event. The songs were strong and they kept up their great use of keyboards. In a fussy mood I might say it felt overproduced, loosing that rawness of the initial releases. Although good songs, the weakest ones are Life Goes On and Don’t Bother Me, due to Sensible taking over lead vocals. For me the Damned weren’t the Damned without Vanian’s distinctive croon. The best track is Ignite, which starts with a razor-sharp guitar riff before nostalgically returning to the chaotic feel of the early Damned. The chorus includes a football-style chant which has made it a favorite for fans to join in on in live sets.

Around this time I read in Radio Times that the Damned were to appear on the next episode of The Young Ones. I was on tenterhooks all week and when the day came at last I watched it with some mates. They played the brilliant Nasty, a top-speed song making fun of horror clichés, which became the B-side of Thanks For The Night, and I remember loving that look – Sensible with his red beret, Vanian with his chalky face, long black coat and black swept-back hair with a highlight and Scabies half-dressed as ever. This was always the band’s image, though their look changed over the years.

The next album was the moody and gothic Phantasmagoria. The copy I purchased had a free 12″ single of Eloise. I played the album to death and thought it the best thing since Etiquette, albeit very different. All three singles – Grimly Fiendish, Is It A Dream and The Shadow Of Love – could have been in my topperten, but I’m going to be a bit controversial and choose the only song I like without Vanian singing. Edward The Bear is sung by guitarist and keyboardist Roman Jugg. With its pulsing keyboards and heavy twangs on the guitar it’s like a reworking of Pinball Wizard. The single release of Grimly Fiendish has a slightly longer but inferior version of Edward The Bear on the B-side, so I’m including the album version.

Whereas Phantasmagoria didn’t suffer from the loss of Sensible, the next release, Anything, certainly did. Anything was far from the original punk style or the more recent gothic rock. The smoochy keyboard instrumental The Portrait, with waves breaking in the background, is really not good. For me the only redeeming feature was a cracking cover of Love’s Alone Again Or. Not quite up to the original but some fine acoustic guitar and singing. The album was a flop and I wasn’t surprised to see the band split after a few farewell gigs.

In 1991, two Damned singles came out even though the band weren’t together – Fun Factory and Prokofiev, which both failed to chart. The former was a song recorded in 1982 and the latter was by the original line-up of Vanian, Sensible, Scabies and James, but neither song was up to par in my opinion.

The Damned reformed in 1993 and toured extensively before releasing their eighth album, I’m Alright Jack & The Beanstalk (sometimes called Not Of This Earth). This was a disappointment and I began to think of the Damned as a live act that were unlikely to do anything good again in the studio. Yet I was proven wrong by Grave Disorder (2001), which seemed to bring together all the old Damned genres I was missing. It had been 19 years since Sensible had been on an album and it was a good comeback. Highlights are the theatrical Absinthe and the fast and punky Thrill Kill. The follow-up in 2008, So, Who’s Paranoid?, was even better. A cross between Strawberries and Phantasmagoria, it isn’t really punk but the songs are great, especially A Nation Fit For Heroes and Shallow Diamonds. No post-1990 material makes my topperten however.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see the Damned until their Phantasmagoria period, but I’ve seen them a few times since. They’re certainly a live act to make an effort for, and Vanian is as charismatic as ever. Despite their varied line-ups and equally varied output, the Damned remain the first, original and inimitable exponents of punk rock.

The Damned official website

The Damned biography (iTunes)

Although Neil tried hard to bring this in as a Damned topper-ten, he miscounted and it’s a topper-eleven. First time I’ve been able to tell a teacher he “must try harder”. You’ll find Neil’s other topper-posts on 70s UK punk bands elsewhere on this site (see Chronology) including … The Undertones, The Clash, Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks

TopperPost #380

3 Comments

  1. Linz Adams
    Nov 10, 2014

    Love your article. Struck such a chord with me. Nasty..grimly..eloise..new rose..thank you for reminding me of things that shaped my teens.

  2. Paul Black
    Nov 10, 2014

    nice choices…

  3. David Lewis
    Nov 10, 2014

    Continuing on the theme of unusual covers, captain sensible did ‘Happy Talk’ from South Pacific. It’s a remarkable cover: as faithful as he could get it and a lovely note of poignancy in his performance in ‘you’ve got to have a dream/ if you don’t have a dream/ how you gonna make a dream come true.
    Eloise was an incredibly brave choice for them to do. It’s my ‘wot!no?’ But I don’t know what to remove.

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