The Damned were the first. Dave Vanian’s ironic, sneering nod snatched straight from old skool teen angst pop – “Is she really going out with him?” – and punk was off the blocks with a new kind of love song. And what a glorious noise. Anchored by the breakneck pounding of the drums and an electrifying guitar riff that sliced straight through the backbone of the song, ‘New Rose’ was a derisory, non-conformist racket that hit home harder than a ball-end hammer. “If there is such a thing as a punk sound, then that’s it,” insists Captain Sensible today. “It’s snotty and loud and fast, it’s gnarled and it’s got passion.”
A matter of weeks previous to the Pistols introducing us to their own brilliant but far more conventional punk rock stylings via ‘Anarchy In The UK’, The Damned had really set the template for what history would judge – for better or for worse – the true sound of punk. Fast and frantic, loud and snarled, ‘New Rose’ was the rough-hewn pattern from which punk would fashion itself for many years to come.
This first single of the revolution might well have ensured that The Damned could scrawl their name large on the title page of rock’s battered and mistreated book of remembrance, but there were no coincidences here. Guitarist Brian James knew exactly what he was doing when he pulled this disparate crowd of misfits and street yobs together to form a band – he wanted to make ‘chaos music’. And while the Pistols busied themselves in the studio with the powerful but pedestrian-paced ‘Anarchy’, The Damned had already put their very own chaos theory into practice. For Brian James it was all about speed. Never mind the bollocks, put the pedal to the metal!
As the two acts lined-up to co-headline the Anarchy In The UK tour in December 1976 (The Damned would ultimately leave after just one gig), the difference in musical styles was so monumental that Captain Sensible even felt they could not really be considered competitors. “We had a guitar speed thing going on,” he explains. “I saw the Pistols play and thought that they had a shambolic charm, but – and I’m probably doing us down on the old punk credibility scale – we could actually play our instruments. We simply wanted to play as fast and as loud and as chaotically as possible. I didn’t see the Pistols as being remotely in that genre.”
Originally drawing on his love for the emerging New York punk scene, when he had built The Damned Brian James made sure his bandmates understood his passion for a kind of furious, frantic music that you just couldn’t find on the radio. “Mainstream pop was going in one direction and we were just a little group of people going in a totally different direction,” recalls the Captain of those early days. “Brian would constantly play us the MC5, the New York Dolls and the Stooges to get it through to us where he was coming from. The stuff that was being played on the radio in Britain at the time was fucking diabolical and Brian washed our ears out with this stuff – he changed my whole perception of music.”
The Damned might have been the first punk band to release a single and to appear on the telly, but they were also the first punk band to split up. The general chaos of The Damned’s touring lifestyle had taken its toll on the band through 1977, but ultimately it was Brian James who pulled the plug. His determination to keep sole ownership of the musical directive meant not just frustration for budding songwriter Sensible, but also that the rushed second album, ‘Music For Pleasure’, did not have the wealth of quality material that had graced ‘Damned Damned Damned’ earlier the same year. At the beginning of 1978 – as many of their contemporaries were just starting to get into their stride – James called a meeting and announced that he was forming a new group and The Damned were no more. His bandmates were devastated. “I was really enjoying being in the Damned,” says the Captain. “One minute I was a toilet cleaner, the next minute I’m in a band – and for some reason birds find someone with a guitar slung around their neck more attractive than toilet cleaners.”
In the end though, after just six months apart, Vanian, Scabies and Sensible realised there could be a life after James and became the first punk band to reform. Despite having lost their prime songwriter, Sensible’s earlier frustrations were vindicated when he supplied many of the tunes for what stands as the band’s best album, ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’. ‘Love Song’, ‘Smash It Up’ and ‘I Just Can’t Be Happy Today’ proved The Damned were more than capable of surviving the rigours of rock’n’roll without James.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Dave Vanian: An ever present in The Damned’s ever-changing line-up, he maintains a career fronting Dave Vanian and the Phantom Chords, while still touring in the current incarnation of The Damned. After last year signing to Nitro Records – the label run by big fan, Bryan Holland of Offspring – The Damned released ‘Grave Disorder’, their first studio album since the ’80s.
Brian James: With the biggest part off his career dedicated to Lords Of The New Church, which he formed with former Dead Boy Stiv Bators after leaving The Damned, James has most recently been working with Ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer in Mad For The Racket, with among others Stewart Copeland, Clem Burke and Duff McKagen of Guns N’ Roses.
Captain Sensible: The Captain scored huge with the chart-topping Happy Talk in 1982, and a clutch of successful follow-up solo singles eased him out of The Damned, although he has been in and out of various line-ups of the band ever since. Having maintaining an intermittent but occasionally inspired solo career, he and Vanian are the only original members of the current Damned line-up.
Rat Scabies: For many years a constant with Vanian in The Damned, Rat played his last gig with band in 1995. His most recent musical project has been Slipper, a high concept band who make soundtrack albums for films which have never been made (Reservoir Digs – starring Will Smith as underwater archaeologist Elvis Cousteau?).
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007