Even after decades, The Damned is still grandly flying its freak flag.
By Matt Hanson
No one knows exactly when punk rock started. Many have suggested different possible origin stories, ranging from the first records of The Stooges or The Velvet Underground to the garage rock singles unearthed in the famed Nuggets compilation. There are candidates much farther back in history. Punk is, after all, more of a style or an attitude than a strict dogma, no matter what the purists might claim. All that said, historically the first British punk single belongs to the perpetually underrated The Damned, who burst out of the gate with their still-fresh single “New Rose” in late 1976, just in time for The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Buzzcocks to run riot.
As the superb recent documentary Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead explains, The Damned never quite made it to the levels of fame and recognition those other bands did, which both was and wasn’t their intention. The lads resolutely did their own thing whether anyone followed or not: lead singer Dave Vanian, a former gravedigger, dressed up like Dracula and sang in a gothic bellow inspired by old horror movies because he felt like it. The hilariously named Captain Sensible sported a purple beret and the occasional tutu onstage; he sometimes took to playing his guitar on top of his head. After the thirty minute sprint of their debut record, the band proved it had staying power with Machine Gun Etiquette and developed their own unique take on goth rock over the next few decades, occasionally breaking up and getting back together.
This year marks the release of Evil Spirits, their first record in ten years and their eleventh overall, depending on how you count. A lot of punk and hardcore bands understandably burn out over time, worn thin by relentless touring and shoestring budgets, so it’s exciting (and perhaps a bit surprising) to see that The Damned can keep their freak flag grandly waving after a few decades. Recorded by the legendary producer Tony Visconti, who has worked extensively with David Bowie, as well as T Rex, Iggy Pop, and others, Evil Spirits has a delightfully propulsive energy. Recorded using vintage equipment live in the studio, it was partially funded through crowdsourcing from The Damned’s loyal fan base.
It’s an invigorating bunch of songs, and their first top ten hit in the UK. The single “Standing On the Edge of Tomorrow” is a worthy addition to the band’s catalogue, boosted by an apocalyptic premise and Vanian’s deep echoing backing vocals, which helped make The Damned pioneers in the first place. Vanian can still belt out choruses with the best of them, and Sensible’s guitar work crackles. They haven’t lost the old black magic: slight touches of otherworldliness are still there, as well as the underlying goofiness that keeps things from becoming too earnest.
My current favorite track is “Devil in Disguise.” In it, a growling Vanian vocal intones over ominous keyboards, opining on the world’s malfeasance: “Don’t use your charm to buy you time/ Don’t blame the victim, blame the crime/ You passed the torch, lit the fire/ As you build your walls/ And empires fall/ It seems the truth doesn’t matter any more.” True indeed, Dracula, true indeed. Perhaps a bit too automatic, but it’s nice to have a decent rock record to shout away the late capitalist blues. I’m also partial to the almost ska-like “Sonar Deceit,” which features some oddly aquatic lyrics and sinuous bass work on the part of their on-and-off bassist Paul Gray. “Daily Liar” alternates between a gospel style chorus and an ironically regal trumpet riff, with a BBC announcer solemnly declaring that “the human race has lost its mojo.” Whether or not this is true I know not, but I’m pretty sure the proclaimation is why we need these kinds of records in the first place.
As a band, even a loosely arranged one, The Damned has cultivated its own distinct style. It has never been afraid to experiment. There are horn sections on some tracks, and some of the tunes veer into more overtly political territory, which works better at some points than others. Eerie synths and cavernous atmospherics occasionally overshadow the raucous vibe, but The Damned’s musical strengths always lay in melding their trademark thematic heaviness with good old-fashioned rock and roll rave ups. Regrading the latter, Evil Spirits successfully keeps up its high-spirited momentum from track to track, making it feel more like a glorious live concert than a polished studio product. The album offers a refreshingly spur-of-the-moment experience and, given the state of the world these days, I’m happy to take whatever kicks I can get. Evil Spirits offers some flickers of social conscience, but ultimately what makes it all work is hearing how much fun they’re still having, especially after being undead all these years.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.