Dark with a Sense of Humor

More than thirty years old, the Damned attracts a new generation to its gothic-tinged punk rock.

After years of what drummer Pinch calls “bubblegum punk” on the radio, it’s reassuring to know that the Damned is still out there. For those unfamiliar, the Damned formed in London in 1976. After being involved with and influencing the early punk scene, it went in a gothier direction for a while, and managed to have a significant impact on the goth scene, too, with albums like 1985’s Phantasmagoria. The creative tension between singer Dave Vanian’s theatrical impulses — Pinch says that he’s always been inspired by movie soundtracks — and guitarist Captain Sensible’s “pop and psychedelia raucousness” gives the Damned a unique sound that’s never boring. More than thirty years into its career, the band has yet to fall into the trap of being a pastiche of itself.

Although it remains more or less a cult band in the United States, in the UK it’s a bit different. The Damned is part of the British cultural landscape — anyone who grew up in the UK in the Eighties can remember hearing “Grimly Fiendish” and “Smash It Up” on the radio, and the band appeared on cult TV show The Young Ones in 1984. It was also featured in the 2006 BBC2 documentary Is She Really Going Out With Him? (Britain does treasure its punk history.) Despite somewhat less mainstream exposure stateside (although there have been some high-profile covers of its songs by bands like Guns N’ Roses and the Offspring), the Damned’s influence on other bands is considerable, and it remains a much-loved part of the punk scene.

After going through a series of lineup changes, the band seems to have settled into a comfortable and cohesive group, with Vanian and Captain Sensible backed by drummer Pinch, bassist Stu West, and keyboardist Monty Oxy Moron. The funny thing about the Damned is how its members seem to have maintained genuine enthusiasm for being in a band even after so many years in the business. As venerable as they are, they don’t feel like a nostalgia act. They still play the old favorites — “You have to stick staples in there because otherwise people go away pissed off,” as Pinch points out — but overall its setlist is in a constant state of flux, and its members never stopped writing new material. Although none of the band’s members live close enough to each other to make it feasible for them to sit down together to write, they all have their own recording studios and constantly send each other files, collaborating long-distance.

Although there’s a distinctive Damned sound, it’s a flexible one — punk classics like “New Rose” mingle with more gothic tunes such as “Grimly Fiendish.” The members say they never try to write songs with the idea that they should sound like Damned songs. In fact, Pinch says that his early attempts to do so when he first joined the band were met with a distinctly disinterested response from Vanian and Captain Sensible, while the more off-the-wall things that he was nervous about presenting to them were met with enthusiasm. Overall, though, there’s always a distinct mood to Damned songs that’s dark and yet still fun. Unlike a lot of goth bands, it has never lost its sense of humor. It’s that tension between darkness and dark humor, along with subtly political lyrics, that forms the Damned’s distinctive sonic signature.

Despite having been around for so long, the members still clearly love touring. Last year was their busiest year in a while, although the band’s maturity has led to a somewhat unusual approach to the whole touring business. “The band are almost like food tourists nowadays — we remember shows by how the meals were and what great restaurants there were,” said Pinch from his home in San Diego, where he works as the stage manager for House of Blues when he’s not on tour or recording with the Damned. (Apparently the last venue they played in San Francisco had a great sushi place nearby.) Last year’s schedule included a special value-for-money credit crunch tour with the Alarm and Henry Cluney from Stiff Little Fingers playing a solo acoustic set. That tour was a great illustration of how unexpectedly plugged-in and aware the Damned still is. The band knows its fanbase well and has always been responsive to what the fans want. “The people I guess who were getting affected most by all that recession bollocks were the forty-year-olds who have their mortgages, they’re struggling with their families, they may have lost their jobs, so it made sense to put on a kind of a more mature bill.”

The band’s approach to its live shows pretty much sums up its overall ethos — unpretentious, straightforward, hardworking, and determined to make its fans happy. “We pretty much write out an hour and a half and if it’s a fantastic gig and we haven’t got a curfew, we’ll just keep playing. Some shows that we do for our official Damned messageboard fans in the UK we play like three hours for them. It’s just, you call them out, and if we can remember them, we’ll play them.” The band has a massive back catalog to draw on, which inevitably means that it’s impossible to play everyone’s favorites (Pinch says that sometimes people come up to the tour bus and complain afterward if their personal favorite isn’t included in a show), but the members do their best. Their philosophy seems to be that as long as people are willing to keep booking them and fans are willing to turn out to see them, they’re willing to show up and play.

Those high-profile covers have exposed a younger generation of fans to the Damned, leading to an oddly charming tendency for parents and kids to sometimes show up to their gigs together. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though — a tour with Rob Zombie in 2002, instigated because Zombie is a huge Damned fan, didn’t go so well. “They hated us — they fucking hated us so much. …. There were 6,000 people with their backs turned to us, flipping the bird to us. After the show the bass player was collecting enough quarters that had been thrown at us to buy himself a meal. We had shoes thrown at us, glasses, you name it. It was like back in the old days, it reminded me of the Blues Brothers with the chicken wire. It was horrible.” Other tours that you might not expect to work well have gone better. On a tour with Motörhead last year, “They completely understood us, which was a worry going in to it, of course.”

It just goes to show that you can never quite tell what the Damned is going to do next, or who it’s going to appeal to. Like many bands who’re weathering the financial downturn in the music industry well, the band is “self-financed, self-promoted, self-managed — we’re a completely independent company.” What that means is flexibility — they can do more or less whatever they want, and they’ve used that freedom to keep making the kind of music that they care about. Given that some band members are now in their fifties, they won’t be around forever, so check them out while you still can. The Damned is a living piece of punk history, and there aren’t many bands like it left.


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