The Damned 35th Anniversary Tour - Bristol Academy
In 1976 the average house price was £12,704, James Callaghan was Prime Minister, Britain suffered its worst drought on record, USA celebrated it bicentennial, serious rioting broke out at the Notting Hill carnival and the Damned began recording what was to become the first British punk album Damned, Damned, Damned. So three and a half decades down the road, I travelled to Bristol to witness an Anniversary tour to celebrate 35 years of madness, mayhem and punk rock, in which they would be playing their debut recording in its entirety, along with their fourth release The Black Album.
Matters were made even more appealing in that ex Slits guitarist Viv Albertine was the support act. Having ditched the band she had the last time I saw her live, initially she looked a rather forlorn figure standing alone in the middle of a fairly large stage. However, and without being too exact about her age, she has retained the beauty, sexiness and attitude that made her, and the other members of the all-girl Slits, stand out from the plethora of other punk bands in the late 70s. With a new album on the horizon I was unfamiliar with several of the numbers, but did recognise Couples are Creepy, Confessions of a MILF and Fairytale. The set was short, but nonetheless entertaining, and her voice has a certain childlike quality that makes it endearing.
As so the main act of the night. The Damned only retain two of their original line up, vocalist Dave Vanian and the ever eccentric, but loveable, Captain Sensible on guitar. Due to rather acrimonious circumstances the other two founding members, Brian James and Rat Scabies, have long since departed the scene. However the current line up is, as announced tonight, the longest serving, and the founding fathers are augmented by Monty Oxymoron on keyboards, Stu West on bass and Pinch on drums.
The playing of albums in their entirety is a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand you get to hear tracks that are rarely, if ever played live. However on the other, I doubt that even the most ardent of fans likes every track on a given recording and, with the certainty of the setlist, there are times when it would be nice to skip a song or two.
Beforehand if you had asked me which of the two of the albums I would have preferred, I undoubtedly would have chosen the Black Album. Whilst Damned, Damned, Damned was clearly the first UK long-playing punk album, historically it rather suffered from the subsequent debut releases from the Clash and Sex Pistols. However, on listening to it several times pre-gig, I was struck by the number of hidden gems it contained. New Rose will always be revered for its place as the first UK punk single, as will the brilliant follow up Neat, Neat, Neat; however I had forgotten the sheer hard edged, fast and furious, stripped down beauty of such numbers such as Fan Club, Born to Kill and Fish. This must be in part down to the creditable production of Nick Lowe, who manage to capture an element of their manic live performance on the album.
This was the first night of the UK tour, but the band had been touring extensively in the US, so they were musically tight and hit the ground running. Captain Sensible seemed to have taken a conscious decision to wear garb from around the time of each albums release, so for the first half of the gig was resplendent in a florescent pink Womble/Honey Monster suit that was later to adorn the cover of their career resurrecting album Machine Gun Etiquette.
And so for the next 29 minutes the band rattles through:
Neat, Neat, Neat
In retrospect perhaps this album should be given greater credence when the history of punk is (re)written again. Whilst the songs may be a bit rough round the edges, its ferocity helped kick start a musical revolution that changed the life of many, myself included. If you were not fortunate to be living in London in the late 70s, it was only by getting such vinyl quotations that you became aware of the rebellion that was taking place. And for that, I for one will be eternally grateful.
Things did not subsequently progress smoothly for the Damned. A less than enthusiastic response to their second album Music for Pleasure led to the band splitting up. However after a short sabbatical they reformed, but without Brian James, who unfortunately owned the rights to the bands name, so for a short time they performed under the moniker of either the Dimmed or the Doomed. Sensible switched to guitar and ex-Saints Algy Ward was drafted in on bass and new life was breathed into the band with the aforementioned LP Machine Gun Etiquette. But by 1980 the revolving door of members had continued with Ward replaced by Paul Gray (ex-Eddie & the Hot Rods), and they entered Rockfield Studios in Monmouth to record a double album that would include arguably the bands most innovative track, the 17 minute long Curtain Call.
After a short break the band returned with Sensible now sporting a rather fetching sailor suit and launched straight in to album opener Wait for the Blackout. The album has a distinctly darker, introspective feel, to anything they had released previously. Arguably, along with releases by Siouixie & the Banshees, Bauhaus and the Cure, the album helped launch Goth Rock. Given the keyboard led nature of many of the songs, Monty Oxymoron came into his own, whereas in the first half of the gig he was largely a bystander due to the stripped down, guitar heavy punk of their debut offering.
And so, in chronological order, we had:
Wait for the Blackout
And finally the set climaxed with their opus Curtain Call. When this was initially released I think it is fair to say it was met with a certain amount of bemusement by punk fans around the country. The genre had gone past its first flushes of youth and was now heading down a Garry Bushell led dead-end, from which it would take almost two decades to emerge. Punk then equated to the strictly formulated Oi sound and anything that deviated from the repetitive blue-print of three minute songs, played at speed, containing a shoutable chorus, was looked on as sacrilege.
So for the Damned to put out this track must have not only required some balls, but a pretty thick skin. However, to me punk was never about a sound but more an attitude. Doing something that was unexpected, that went against the grain, was always what punk stood for. Yes, Ill freely admit that after first listening to in its entirety I wondered if they knew what they were doing, but I can honestly say that Ive grown to love it. And just in case some of you doubt its punk credentials, here is a short extract of them performing live shown on early 80s TV show Whatever You Want. Check out the spikes and leathers in the crowd, pogoing away, not for a second doubting that it was punk as fuck.
With the curfew fast approaching the band returned for a short encore that consisted of their most commercially successful number Eloise, plus Love Song and Anti Pope from Machine Gun Etiquette.
Whilst most of their compatriots from the early days have fallen by the wayside, the Damned show no signs of slowing down. And frankly given the sheer quality of their available back catalogue, why should they!
The Damned, I salute you, heres to the next 35 years!
Words - Bones; Pix submitted by Fans on the Damned