TO SAY that the Damned were seminal for punk would be an understatement. Formed in 1976, they were the first UK punk rock band to release a single, the explosively energetic ‘New Rose’. The punk era was spawned, and five weeks later given an ungodly birth at the hands of The Sex Pistols’ debut single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’.
With their original line-up of vocalist David Vanian, guitarist Brian James, bassist Captain Sensible, and drummer Rat Scabies, the Damned released their first album, Damned Damned Damned, in 1977.
Wes Orshoski’s film, Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, showing as part of a season of punk films at Triskel in Cork, looks at the formation, history and numerous incarnations of the band.
“Here was a band that had tons of great songs but never got any respect and ended up kind of marginalised in the history of music,” says Orshoski, also a music journalist and photographer.
“Somehow even hangers-on to the Clash or the Pistols got more attention than these guys, who were around since the very beginning.”
Orshoski wasn’t a fan of The Damned when he embarked on his independently-funded documentary odyssey. Interviewing David Varian and Captain Sensible for his critically acclaimed 2010 film, Lemmy, (Lemmy from Motorhead briefly played with the Damned), he realised the band would make an ideal subject for his next project.
It’s a timely retrospective, given that The Damned will play a 40th anniversary gig in the Royal Albert hall next May. Fitting, too, is the film’s title. Taken from the lyrics to the title track of their 1979 album, Machine Gun Etiquette, it reflects the viewer’s discomfort at watching punks age.
RAUCOUS AND RAW
Punk was raucous, raw, and young. Punk glorified a nihilistic disregard for one’s own health, safety, and sanity, personified in cult figures like Sid Vicious and Dee Dee Ramone, both of whom died of heroin overdoses.
Watching Captain Sensible complain about a lack of iced tea, or hearing about bassist Bryn Merrick’s battles with cancer doesn’t sit comfortably with our romanticised image of punk.
Sensible, who began as the band’s bassist and became their guitarist after Brian James left, refers to himself as an OAP (Old Aged Punk) in the film.
The Damned did what few of their contemporaries managed to do and stayed both alive and touring; much of Orshoski’s footage comes from their 30th anniversary tour, which reunited Captain Sensible, who had left in 1984, with his former bandmates.
Watching these ageing musicians reconciling their middle-aged preoccupations with the energetic abandon expected of them by their fans isn’t easy.
Orshoski is aware of this tension; in a sense, it’s what he set out to document. “They live inside the idea of punk,” he says. “You and I go and see a band play and then go home. You don’t really think about the band members as human beings. Other than Brian, they were all teenagers when they started the band. It’s all they’ve ever known.”
Dadaist iconoclasts, self-destructive drug-fuelled furies, or politicised post-folk anarchists? Whatever punk represented, it was certainly a reactionary movement. UK punk was borne in on a wave of youth unemployment and grim prospects; the big-haired Californian surfers in the charts were simply not reflective of what life was like in Britain at the time. “It was grey, it was miserable, it was shit,” Brian James says in Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead.
Of course, the ripples from what the Damned and the others were doing in London soon spread across the Irish Sea.
Mick Lynch was one of those who got swept up in the movement in Cork in the late 1970s. Later to achieve a modicum of stardom himself as singer with quirky new wave band Stump, he remembers hearing a Ramones album and being instantly hooked on punk. “It was the f**k-you–ness of it,” he says.
Lynch got jobs collecting glasses in the Downtown Kampus in the Arcadia Ballroom, the hub of Cork’s live music scene at the time, and in TNT records on Paul St, where he was put in charge of ordering the stock for Cork’s core group of punks, which amounted to “about 50 or 60 people, really”.
By the early 1980s, a cohort of Leeside punks, complete with the standard uniform of mohicans, piercings and bondage gear would be a regular, sight on Saturday afternoons hanging out in Daunt Square.
Lynch remembers going home to his parents’ house on the South Douglas Rd with his first punk hairdo. It was September 1979 and his girlfriend had bleached two stripes down the sides of his head, a badger-like effect that didn’t wash with Mr Lynch senior.
After several angry engagements over dinner, the family sat around the TV and Mick and his dad started arguing again.
Desperate to watch the historic events unfolding on the telly, Mick’s mother did something uncharacteristic — she swore. “For f**k’s sake, can you two stop arguing?” she shouted, “Can’t you see, the Pope is landing!”
Lynch was there the night the Damned played the Arcadia in 1978 (in later years the band also played at Spiders nightclub in the city).
“They were sound checking and I got asked to show them where their hotel was,” says Lynch. “They were staying in the Metropole. So the next thing you know I’m sitting in their van with them. That night, what a gig.”
The Damned were branded as sell-outs by die-hard punk rockers after their re-emergence in a decidedly more commercial form with their 1985 gothic rock album Phantasmagoria, and six months later, their biggest commercial success, ‘Eloise’, a cover of a Barry Ryan song.
Throughout Orshoski’s film, vocalist David Vanian insists that a band has the right to evolve, and his point is valid; over the course of a musician’s lifetime, their interests, preoccupations, and experiences are bound to change, and to give rise to new musical output.
The loss of principal songwriter Brian James also changed the band’s sound and feel: Gone was the raw frenetic buzz, replaced by more melodic tracks, a greater variety of tempos, and a typically 1980s emphasis on keyboards.
Does Orshoski see them as sell-outs? He’s non-committal. “They definitely made a play for something bigger. Take a song like ‘Eloise’; I don’t know if they were intentionally selling out or if they just liked the song,” he says.
Mick Lynch is very clear about when punk died. It was 1979: “When the Police released ‘Roxanne’ and were described as a British punk band.”
While punk in its pure form may have been shortlived, its legacy has been a longreaching one that still has a presence in popular culture today.