By Binky Philips
In early April 1977, the Damned became the first no-kidding British punk band to reach the States. With gigs at CBGB and elsewhere, they truly inaugurated and coagulated the punk scene in America in spectacular fashion. They were the proverbial pebble in the pond.
For punk, the years 1974, ’75 and ’76 were a time of unfocused fermentation. The Who, Velvet Underground and Stooges had laid the bedrock foundations of punk in the ’60s, each making a specific contribution. In 1972, at the height of prog-rock’s obsession with pomp and technique, the New York Dolls arrived as a crude shock to the system, upping the ante visually while reveling in limited musical ability. A few years later, the Ramones — a band that worshiped the Who, Stooges and Dolls — further distilled and purified the concept. Who needs lead guitar? Who needs songs more than two minutes long? Hell, sometimes, who needs more than one verse of lyrics?
But, truly, it was the explosion of punk in England in the middle of 1976 that turned a bunch of disparate oddball bands and their jaded and alienated followers the world over into a true movement. As had been the case ever since the original British Invasion of 1964/65, the English just seemed to have a distinctly better grasp on image and packaging.
Having been down at CBGB from the start, I can tell you there was absolutely no commonality between the Ramones, Television, Blondie and Patti Smith except for their distinct lack of commercial prospects and their paradoxical determination to get record contracts.
My own band, The Planets, was well-established in New York City and had major-label interest, so, I went to check out the Damned as competition. Truth be told, I was there with a chip on my shoulder. The Velvet Underground, New York Dolls and Ramones were all New York City bands. My town was punk Ground Zero. As much as I dug the Damned’s first single, “New Rose,” these upstart co-opting Brits had me locked in prove-it! mode that night.
Around 10pm on April 7th, the Damned sauntered onto the CBGB stage for their American debut, a true Before / After moment. There was a good crowd, but the place (legal capacity: 350) was not packed. I was right down front and was instantly impressed by the band’s almost cartoon-like larger-than-life-ness as they casually strolled onstage as if this was a soundcheck. Actually, impressed isn’t the word. Agog is more accurate. Without a struggle, I became a fan boy within 30 seconds.
It was as if the entire evening proceeding them had been in black and white and suddenly we were thrust into Technicolor Oz. The tingling sensation of newness and event and glamorous danger instantly rippled through the club. The Dead Boys (another group of interlopers on the Gotham scene, having arrived from Cleveland the previous summer) had done a great snarling opening set, full of vulgar piss and vinegar, with guitars set on stun. But before a single note was played, by merely walking onstage, the Damned made the Dead Boys seem small, provincial, tame and harmless.
Singer Dave Vanian was dressed in 19th century black-black-black, looking like a cross between a Victorian Dracula and a Wild Wild West undertaker. His hair was slicked back in an odd and sinister Peter Lorre way; subtle make up for that edge-of-gangrene ghoulish look lent him a cadaverous aura.
Guitarist Brian James, dressed in jeans, dark T-shirt and worn Chuck Taylors, appeared to be stumbling around in his own little world. While actually kinda handsome, he was also somewhat wall-eyed, and used that mild affliction to great effect, appearing totally out of it.
Although now classic punk style, drummer Rat Scabies that night looked wildly fashion-forward. His bright rust red jacket had one sleeve attached by safety pins and was covered with badges and small tears; his shirt was in tatters and his hair was a lunatic rat’s nest version of Jeff Beck’s Mod cut.
Bassist Captain Sensible’s presence, however, was the crowning visual achievement. He was wearing a beatnik beret, hideous cheap women’s sunglasses, his hair a totally artificial day-glo red, a Love Boat jacket and…a tutu. Walking onstage, he seemed completely crazed, way past fifth gear, a long-away preview of Heath Ledger’s Joker. His Beatle-style violin bass had been sloppily spray-painted silver.
After strutting around the stage and openly mocking the crowd, without warning or even a count-in, they launched/catapulted/tore into “I Feel Alright” by the Stooges. It wasn’t the beginning of a song, it was detonation! Their power, energy and volume made it breathtaking. They slammed into the main riff (sort of a sped-up version of Cream’s “Spoonful”) with a frantic and almost desperate ferocity. I can vividly remember sensing the whole of CBGB collectively gasping, “Holy shit!”
Less than a minute into the set, Vanian started trying to loosen his fancy Dickens-era cravat and couldn’t get it undone. He spent the entire rest of the show clawing and ripping at his collar, looking like Dwight Frye trying to strangle himself. His oddly sullen-yet-urgent vocals matched his losing-control demeanor. He seemed possessed.
Brian James wandered around in a circle, paying no attention to anything or anyone. Looking down at the floor and then gazing up at the ceiling, turning and staring at his amp as if he’d never seen it before, but playing deadly hard guitar. Sensible spent as much time in mid-air as on the stage. It was only sheer luck that he didn’t fall/fly off the stage. His lunatic carousing was totally heedless. He careened – more than once — full force into his singer and the drum kit.
About three minutes into the song, Scabies decided he didn’t like someone down front. He jumped up, came out from behind his kit, and while keeping time on one cymbal with his right hand, challenged the guy in the audience to come onstage so he, Rat, could kick his ass.
“Wanna get into it wiv me, ya right twit? I’ll fackin’ pound ya! Yeah, you, ya fackin’ cooont!!”
He stood there, thwarted and seething because he had to keep playing, while the Captain and Brian bashed away obliviously. For at least 30 seconds, Rat kept giving this guy merciless shit. He eventually went back, sat down and started pounding his drums even more aggressively. The other three in the band had paid no attention whatsoever to any of this while it was going on.
As a coda, they bashed the two-note riff for at least three full minutes without let up or adornment. It became trance-inducing, hypnotic. Hari Rama Krishna Krishna!
When the song finally ended, Sensible leaped as high as he could and came down belly first on his hollow-body bass. That he didn’t instantly destroy it was miraculous. I marveled at how he clearly didn’t give a shit whether he’d even have an instrument to play after just one song.
Truly, this opening number was almost as exhilarating as the Who doing “My Generation” back when they were pilled up and demolished everything, like they did in Monterey Pop. Had the Damned walked offstage after that one song, I still would’ve considered them one of the top five bands I’d ever seen in my life. As it was impossible for them to top that, the firepower and insanity dissipated a bit as the set continued. Regardless, by the end of the show, it didn’t matter. The punk revolution had officially reached New York.
Coda: I’m very glad I went to the early show. I had some friends who survived the late show 90 minutes later. The Damned came out and announced that Mick Jagger had sent them some pies and without any warning started hurling them into the audience, maybe 20 of them in all. Within 60 seconds, dozens of people down front were covered in cherry and blueberry gunk, chocolate ooze, lemon meringue, whipped cream and crust (one friend of mine had to spend $300 to have her camera professionally repaired and cleaned). The band stood there, cackling and pointing at their goo-splattered victims before smashing into this mess with the same opening number, “I Feel Alright.” In retrospect, I believe they were reenacting their own debut album cover with the audience, while letting New York City know that we didn’t mean jack to the Damned!