Due the substantial honor of being the very first British punk band to issue an album (Stiff Records’ first LP) as well as the first to tour America, the Damned hold a special position in musical history, if not always in music. Over an exceedingly checkered multi-label career — breakups, reformations, side projects, farewell gigs, a spell as the Doomed, vast popularity, near obscurity — the Damned have consistently managed to shatter expectations and defy the odds, wreaking havoc and nonchalantly tweaking convention. But getting a cogent critical perspective on their large recorded oeuvre is as elusive as attempting to read the label on a spinning 45.
Damned Damned Damned was a major groundbreaker, a stripped-down punk album of high-speed songs filled with raunchy guitar rock and equally aggressive sentiments. With Nick Lowe producing, the Damned trounced such then-hard-to-challenge traditional recording values as musical precision and studio-quality sound. Unfailingly energetic and vital, it’s the only Damned studio album to feature the original lineup of Dave Vanian (vocals), Brian James (guitar), the exceptionally skillful Rat Scabies (drums) and Captain Sensible (bass). Just to heighten the bratty iconoclasm, early copies of the sleeve “goofed”; the back cover pictured rivals Eddie and the Hot Rods in lieu of the Damned. (According to the band, rumors that Lowe had achieved ramalama audio escape velocity by speeding up the tapes were groundless. They evidently sped themselves up using other means.)
Surprisingly enough, the second Damned opus turned its back on new wave formalistics and was produced by Nick Mason, drummer of true blue old farts Pink Floyd. With added guitarist Lu Edmonds and no audible stylistic plan, the attack sounds blunted, and there aren’t as many great songs as on the first LP. Despite a great cover, Music for Pleasure doesn’t live up to the title. (Stiff reissued both LPs as a mail-order-only double in 1986.)
The Damned broke up and reformed several times before cutting Machine Gun Etiquette with a new lineup. Sensible had traded bass for guitar, Lu had departed (to join a number of bands, including Public Image) and ex-Saints bassist Algy Ward had joined. (Ward left after the one album, going on to form a grebo metal band, Tank, which released at least five LPs.) Despite the tumult, the band is totally revitalized and on top of things — more mature, but no less crazy — tearing through enduring greats as “Love Song,” “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today” (both UK hits), “Smash It Up” and the anthemic “Noise Noise Noise.” A great record by a band many had already counted out. The 1991 CD/cassette reissue has a new cover, cool liner notes by Jack Rabid and bonus tracks: a six-minute edit of 1983’s “White Rabbit” plus three erstwhile B-sides: “Ballroom Blitz,” “Suicide” and “Rabid (Over You).”
With ex-Hot Rod bassist Paul Gray joining the lineup, the Black Album — a two-record set in the UK, one disc in America — takes off in a totally different direction, displaying unexpected character traits. The first two sides (the entire US release) are packed with melodic rock verging on power pop, using acoustic guitar, vocal harmonies, mellotron and synthesizers, as well as other seemingly inconceivable components. “Wait for the Blackout” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” indicate how far the debonair Damned had traveled; other tracks prove that they had not abandoned the roar’n’roll with which they began. But the last two sides are dead weird: one is a single composition, strung together by church organ, that doesn’t work; the other a live best-of that’s impressive but halfbaked. (Live at Shepperton 1980 comes from the same gig, but runs for two sides, not one, offering such additional tunes as “Neat Neat Neat” and “Help.”)
Friday the 13th, a four-song 7-inch of new non-LP material released during the band’s brief (and unproductive) liaison with the NEMS label, features “Disco Man,” “Billy Bad Breaks” and a cover of the Stones’ “Citadel.” Meanwhile, the band’s former label put together The Best of the Damned — not exactly that, but rather a reasonable collection of ’76-’80 singles (A-sides and some B-sides) from “New Rose” to “Wait for the Blackout,” including Sensible’s worthless 1982 solo cover of Elton Motello’s “Jet Boy, Jet Girl.” (As Damned Damned Damned had finally been released in the States, the ’91 reissue of The Best of the Damned, which deletes “Neat Neat Neat,” replacing it with the “White Rabbit” single, and swaps the classic “New Rose” for a live version, is of trivial import.)
Mindless, Directionless, Energy, recorded live in London (1981) with the Scabies-Sensible-Vanian-Gray lineup, boasts crummy sound and an indifferent set of songs. “Smash It Up,” “Love Song” and “I Feel Alright” are fair inclusions that receive exciting performances, but a terrible rendition of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” (dedicated to Lady Di and sung with a chorus of “great big tits”) and other duff items make this dodgy record worth burying, not buying. (The CD adds a blistering “New Rose.”) Not the Captains Birthday Party? is another live album, capturing the original band running through some of the first album onstage at London’s Roundhouse in late 1977. Additionally, a Newcastle show was released as an authorized bootleg in ’83.
One of the two EPs (later joined on the one-disc Sessions of the Damned) of tracks for John Peel’s BBC radio show were recorded in November 1976 and May 1977 and provide solid evidence of the young band’s playing abilities away from Nick Lowe’s production. The earlier date (released second) offers punchy renditions of “Neat Neat Neat,” “Stab Your Back,” “New Rose” and two more. Besides shoddy performances and flat sound, the choice of material for the ’77 session is weak, capped by “Fan Club” and “Sick of Being Sick.”
With a humorous porcine cover shot, Strawberries is something of a continuation of Machine Gun Etiquette. Eclectic and inconsistent but well-produced (by the band with Hugh Jones) and boasting some fine tunes (the baroque “Generals,” the strutting “Stranger on the Town” and “Bad Time for Bonzo”), it shows Sensible’s increasing pop prominence (his chart-happy solo career got under way around the same time) and Vanian’s willingness to explore a stylistic pallette with no debt to punk. Even the rewrtite of “Slow Death” called “Dozen Girls” is entertaining. (Outtakes were later packaged as a 1990 EP on Sensible’s Deltic label.)
Another compilation, Damned but Not Forgotten covers roughly ’81 to ’84, with tracks from assorted singles (including B-sides), Friday the 13th and elsewhere.
Phantasmagoria is mainly Vanian’s show. His imposing baritone provides all the character the graveyard songs like “Grimly Fiendish” and “Sanctum Sanctorum” lack. Jon Kelly’s production (complete with horror-film effects and phantom-of-the-opera organ) is adequate, but the Damned no longer has a unique sound beyond Vanian, so it’s fairly academic. (The LP was also issued in the UK with a bonus blue vinyl 12-inch of the subsequent “Eloise,” a drippy Paul Ryan song which became a hit for them.) An EP of the album’s “Is It a Dream” adds four live tracks.
Released pseudonymously by Naz Nomad & the Nightmares, Give Daddy the Knife Cindy is the Damned’s imaginary ’60s psychedelic film soundtrack, filled with covers of such classics as “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” “Kicks,” “Nobody but Me,” Kim Fowley’s “The Trip,” plus a pair of originals. The material is great, but the unembellished studio performances are merely functional. A nice thought anyway.
The Damned’s lineup of Vanian, Rat, Roman Jugg (the guitarist/keyboardist who joined in 1981) and Bryn Merrick (bass) lasted from 1984 until 1987, and stability proved deleterious to the band’s creativity. Anything boasts a neat version of Love’s “Alone Again Or,” but otherwise falls well short of achieving anything memorable. Despite the Damned’s proven ability to alternately rock gothic and play nice, there’s no audible point to the music; it’s hard to imagine who would find this LP pleasurable.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel is a haphazardly sequenced two-record decade-spanning compilation with a dandy family tree by that British national treasure, Pete Frame. The unassailable 27-cut selection includes hits, album cuts, non-LP mixes, B-sides (like “Help” from ’77) and other rarities, but what possible illogic guided the track order? (“New Rose,” “Neat Neat Neat,” “I Feel Alright” and “I Feel the Pain” are all on different sides!)
The Long Lost Weekend is a compilation of odds and ends from ’79-’84: singles, three tracks from Friday the 13th, four cuts from Strawberries, even a joint recording (“Over the Top”) with Motörhead.
In the late ’80s, with Sensible’s solo career off the charts, the Damned — Vanian, Scabies, Sensible, James, Merrick and Jugg — began doing reunion shows, culminating in a triumphant ten-date US tour in 1989. The live Final Damnation, taped the previous year in London, has 17 of the songs you want to hear performed at reasonable tempos in a powerful mix of musical skill and self-amused abandon. With nothing left to prove, the Damned merrily live the legend without making a fuss about it. Easily their best live record and the only one truly worth owning.
After recording a lone seven-inch in 1991 (“Prokofiev”), Vanian and Scabies reunited for a project mostly written by Alan Lee Shaw (with help from Scabies) and issued under the Damned moniker as Not of this Earth. The project also features Brian James, Kris Dollimore (Godafthers), Moose (New Model Army) and Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols). Though not enough to resurrect the band’s career, it’s a step in the right direction from Anything. The spirit and energy are apparent (“I Need a Life”, “My Desire”), but elsewhere the arrangements fall short on otherwise fine tracks (“Testify”) and the wink-nudge humor has gone missing. “Heaven Can Take Your Lies” could be a Doors song, and “Shadow to Fall’ is a straightforward rocker. Though Vanian’s unmistakable goth-croon makes it recognizable and passable as a Damned album, the continuum is stretched a bit thin. This incarnation toured but infighting quickly caused it to fall apart.
I’m Alright Jack and the Beanstalk is a re-release of the songs from Not of This Earth (all four versions differ in artwork and/or running order) with bonus BBC tracks. Testify is an album of remixes. The Damned Boxed compiles Not of This Earth with Testify and The Chaos Years. Molten Lager, the Looking at You 10-inch and the double 7-inch Ignite are all live documents of this lineup.
Grave Disorder is a nice surprise. Captain Sensible is back in the fold for his first studio album with the band since 1982, joining a lineup with bassist Patricia Morrison (Vanian’s ex-Sisters of Mercy/ex-Gun Club wife), drummer Pinch (ex-English Dogs) and keyboardist Monty Oxymoron (ex-Punk Floyd). The band proves it can once more deliver goth with a sense of wit, albeit from somewhere near the middle of the road. The opening track “Democracy” bangs out a melodic riff. “Song.com” is the obligatory Internet observation. “Lookin’ for Action” is close to vintage Damned and one of the few tracks benefiting from the Captain’s lead guitar work. “Would You Be So Hot?” is a pop song with a perfect hook that (like “Wait for the Blackout”) enters a devolving jam. “Neverland” is an amusing observation of a different devolving. There’s also a poke at “W” (with a melody reminiscent of Julian Cope). A fine return.
The Collection, Eternally Damned, Neat Neat Neat, Born to Kill, Marvellous, Alternative Chartbusters, The Pleasure and the Pain, Punk Generation, Neat Neat Neat – The Alternative Anthology (two retrospective CDs with inadequate annotation plus a live disc from 1979, 1980 and 1988) and Totally Damned contain previously released best-of and concert material. Skip Off School to See the Damned compiles the original band’s first singles on Stiff. The Damned Live is yet another re-release of tracks from Final Damnation. Eternal Damnation and Live Anthology take tracks from School Bullies and Ballroom Blitz (itself a version of Mindless, Directionless, Energy). The MCA Singles recapitulates a bunch of 12-inch remixes. Tales From the Damned consists of the Friday the 13th EP and other rarities. Sessions of the Damned and The Radio One Sessions are tracks recorded for BBC Radio. Noise compiles various live recordings. Fiendish Shadows is a concert album that uniquely features the Vanian/Jugg/Merrick/Scabies lineup. Play It at Your Sister compiles the first two albums, B-sides, demos and a live show from 1976.
Another Damned Seattle Compilation and It’s a Damned Damned Damned World: A Worldwide Tribute to the Damned are geographically conceived tribute albums.