“I’d like to think we were punk royalty, but I’m more like an impoverished Count.” – Looking back on forty years with The Damned
In 1977 The Damned, flushed with the success of their debut album Damned, Damned, Damned and riding the crest of the UK punk rock wave, decided they wanted to take a different creative tack on their second album.
“We wanted to make a different album from the first album and get a really famous producer in. We thought 'Who’s more creative than Syd Barrett?’ ” says The Damned’s singer Dave Vanian. The Damned approached Pink Floyd’s management company and asked if they could ask the enigmatic psychedelic recluse if he’d take on the job of producing. The answer came back: Barrett was interested.
But when the door to the studio opened a few weeks later, it was Floyd’s drummer Nick Mason who walked in with bad news: Barrett had pulled out. “Apparently they felt so bad about it, they sent Nick Mason instead, hoping that he would be a good deputy,” Vanian says. “Nick was the drummer and a nice guy, but he had no creative input whatsoever.”
Barrett’s no-show came at an “awkward time” for The Damned. Guitarist Brian James, who’d written the majority of the material for Damned, Damned, Damned, wasn’t confident he had enough strong songs for the new album. While The Damned decided to persevere with Nick Mason in the producer’s seat, the resulting album, Music for Pleasure, tanked and The Damned fell into a creative lull. “It all went a bit flat unfortunately and it ended up with Brian quitting and saying the band was finished,” Vanian says. By February 1978 The Damned had broken up.
It had been a rough and ready couple of years for The Damned. Formed originally in 1976, The Damned’s genesis lay in Malcolm McLaren’s early efforts to create a band that captured the provocative aesthetic he’d seen in New York while he was managing the New York Dolls. “Malcolm arranged for some rehearsal sessions – it was me, Rat, Chrissie Hynde and a guy called Dave on guitar,” Vanian says. “We never played anywhere, but it led to The Damned.”
Eventually Brian James and Ray Burns (aka Captain Sensible) joined on guitar, and The Damned was born. Released in October 1976, The Damned’s first single, New Rose, is now widely regarded as the first UK punk single. While The Damned was integral to the punk scene, like The Stranglers, by 1977 The Damned was estranged from the dominant punk club that included the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
McLaren had booked The Damned to play alongside Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and The Clash on the Anarchy in the UK tour in December 1976. “Malcolm only put us on the bill because the Pistols hadn’t really toured and they weren’t pulling people to gigs, they weren’t really well known then, but we’d already been on the road and we had an audience,” Vanian says.
After the infamous television interview with Bill Grundy, Vanian says McLaren was convinced the Pistols had blown their chance. When England woke up the next day to tabloid headlines condemning the Pistols, he knew he was onto a winner. “From then on he said he planned it and he instigated it,” Vanian says. “History has him down as the person who practically invented punk, but in actual fact he was a very clever guy, he was an opportunist and he was able to seize the situation and use it in his favour, always trying to stir things up.” With the Pistols now Public Enemy Number One, The Damned had become superfluous to McLaren’s cause. By the end of the tour McLaren had kicked The Damned off.
Scroll forward a couple of years, and Vanian, drummer Rat Scabies, guitarist Ray Burns (AKA Captain Sensible) reconvened in early 1979, this time without Brian James who’d moved on to join Iggy Pop’s backing band. Despite a series of lineup changes – Captain Sensible was absent between 1982 and 1996, and Rat Scabies left in 1996 – The Damned have carried on. In 2016, they played its 40th anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
“We’ve been bludging our way through history trying to prove to people that we’re a decent band, and finally they’re starting to take notice, and not just looking at the antics that happened years ago,” Vanian says. “I’d like to think we were punk royalty, but I’m more like an impoverished Count.”
By Patrick Emery