They were the first punk band to release a single – October 1976’s New Rose – and the first to release an album – 1977’s Damned, Damned, Damned – yet The Damned have often been overlooked in favour of The Sex Pistols and The Clash when it comes to the history books.
But as they come to celebrate 40 years of these landmark releases, the band’s frontman Dave Vanian feels they are finally getting their dues.
With original bassist-turned-guitarist Captain Sensible also on board, on their current tour the group have been playing their debut in full, followed by a career retrospective that has seen them playing mammoth two-hour-plus sets.
‘It’s been a very, very long time since we played some of those songs,’ Dave tells The Guide. ‘The first night was strange, very strange. But I must admit it’s quite a workout and some of the guitar parts are quite challenging, shall we say, for the Captain. But he’s doing a great job and it sounds good. And you forget how good those songs are when you haven’t heard them in such a long time.’
He admits it had been a while since he’d listened to the full album.
‘I did listen to it about 10 years ago, because we were doing something with it, but other than that... It’s not that I don’t like that album, it’s just that when you’re doing your own thing and moving along with new music you don’t really listen to your old stuff.
‘It very much inhabits its own world that album – it’s (original guitarist) Brian James’ album and playing it again, especially playing all of it, it shows how different it is in atmosphere and everything compared to what we’ve done since.’
The Damned were quick to move on from the rough-and-ready three chord charge of their early material and soon embraced other styles, such as psych, garage rock and goth.
‘We hit a second album, had a sort of break-up – Brian decided he didn’t want to do it any more – and the band should have ended there really, but we decided to carry on for couple of gigs as The Doomed with Lemmy on bass before we sorted it out properly.
‘We found that every character in this band, even those who come and go, have been so individual in their music tastes that it could only go one way – it would either have to be one person saying: “We’re going to do it this way”, or the way it has been done, which is much more interesting – a melting pot of experimentation and trying things which are a bit of a challenge.’
The whole point of punk was that you had your eyes and ears open and you were open to all kinds of eventualities and opportunities, finding good in anything and then using itDave Vanian
While the band have held the same line-up now since 2004, could Dave see them playing a few anniversary shows with Brian and original drummer Rat Scabies? ‘It’s never been discounted, it could happen, who knows? It would be nice to happen, I think. We do still get on.’
Given how most histories of the era focus on The Clash and Pistols, does Dave feel their role has been a bit overlooked?
‘A bit?’ he chuckles, ‘We’ve been overlooked a lot.’
He is however, philosophical: ‘I can look at it from another point of view, particularly as I didn’t write that album – I’m the singer on that album. We had a bum deal on that album, and the ones that followed. We had a lot of bad luck and we created some of our own bad luck too, it has to be said.’
As was common with bands of the era, they had their fair share of booze and brawls along the way.
‘It used to annoy me that they couldn’t see the musicality of it. I always feel that Captain never got his dues as a great guitarist – he’s one of Britain’s great guitarists of his age. People never saw past that Captain persona to listen to what he was playing, press people more than anything.’
Ah yes, it’s fair to say The Damned have had a somewhat combative relationship with the music press over the years.
‘I think that’s worked against us,’ admits Vanian. ‘We’ve never been frightened of being brutally honest and that gets you in trouble. You either create some sort of outrage, or they just want nothing to do with you.’
Does he think they’re finally getting their dues, then?
‘It’s almost a little too late. It’s almost like people are realising: “We missed this – hold on!” And I think a lot of kids who have got into things like Green Day, they’ve Googled punk and they find all this stuff about The Damned and think, who the hell is this? Then they realise what a heritage we’ve got and where the nucleus of what they like came from.
‘I’m not going to say we created the whole thing, that would be wrong, but we were a big spark in it all.’
However Dave, while happy to embrace the punk ethic, sees their music as stretching beyond the limited boundaries often attached to the genre.
‘We never saw ourselves as anything other than a good band, but the label of punk was something attached to us. In our thinking and what we did we certainly were (punk), but it wasn’t something we called ourselves. First and foremost we were a band – the music was the important thing.’
And he also gets frustrated with how reductivist punk became over time. ‘At the very beginning, when it started, there were some amazing bands who came out, some who could play very well, and some who were very passionate and could do great music anyway, and a lot of them fell by the wayside or got overlooked.
‘Then that second wave came, and that was a bit disappointing as it was fuelled more by the press and putting people in a box and saying you should listen to this or do that, and the whole point of punk was that you had your eyes and ears open and you were open to all kinds of eventualities and opportunities, finding good in anything and then using it.
‘The whole thing of you shouldn’t listen to this or that became very one-dimensional.’
He gives Curtain Call, the side-filling song on 1980’s The Black Album, as an example of how they could break free of those constraints.
‘I never thought for one minute that when I was writing Curtain Call on a wheezy old harmonium in my cellar that it would become an 18-minute track that people wanted to hear from a three-minute band.
‘There was no trepidation about putting it on the vinyl, but in the back of your mind, there was that thing that people were either going to love this or hate it. It could work against us, but it was the right thing to do because we really believed in it musically and it worked – it proved you don’t have to blinker yourself. It’s amazing how many hardcore punks I’ve met over the years who’ve told me that, after they’ve come home from a night of pogoing, they put that on to chill out.’
So does this make The Damned the unlikely godfathers of chill-out?
He laughs: ‘Captain would like that.’
The band has now had the same line-up for more than a decade, with Vanian and The Captain joined by Stu West on bass, Pinch on drums and Monty Oxymoron on keyboards. And they’re currently working on the follow-up to 2008’s So, Who’s Paranoid? Using the online crowdfunding website Pledgemusic, they more than doubled their goal to finance the new album, which is earmarked for release at some point next year.
‘It’s the most stable line-up we’ve had for years.
‘It’s been going great, we did a pledge campaign and people were just falling over themselves to pledge for us to get it done, which is fantastic, so we can now get it done.
‘It’s a sad eventuality in music now that unless you’re young and you’ve got a massive machine behind you, it’s tough to make money from music anymore. Everything’s given away for free now, or available for free.
‘The punk ethic is still there – what could be more DIY than a pledge campaign? There we are doing it four ourselves yet again, except this time it’s worked!’
The Damned play at The Pyramids in Southsea on Thursday, December 1. Doors 7.30pm. Support comes from Emptifish. Tickets £27.50. Go to pyramids-live.co.uk