(An occasional series delving into the wild and woolly world of rock music’s notable double albums)
Give the Damned their due. They spearheaded England’s punk revolution, releasing the scene’s first single (“New Rose”) in October of 1976, and had an LP out the following February, months before London’s famously raucous Jubilee summer. While news of this upheaval was still being absorbed across the Atlantic, they were racking up another milestone by being the first such band to play in the States. And in a movement brimming with maverick characters, the Damned were no slouches—featuring a bassist who went by the name Captain Sensible but was known to perform in a tutu, a drummer dubbed Rat Scabies who wasn’t afraid to leave his seat behind the kit to scrap with audience members and Dave Vanian (as in Transylvanian), the lead singer who transitioned into the music business from his previous job as a gravedigger.
In the early days with original guitarist/songwriter Brian James, the sound was archetypal—full of buzzsaw guitars, turbo-charged drumming and declamatory vocals on songs with signifying titles like “Problem Child”, “Feel the Pain” and “Machine Gun Etiquette.” Although both intense and irreverent, the Damned never gained the socio-political cache of the Sex Pistols or the Clash. By 1980, they had slipped from the head of the pack (even referred to as “the Darned” by waggish record-rater Robert Christgau), fated to cut their own peculiar, semi-famous course. Hence The Black Album, their fourth LP, cheekily recalls the Fab Four’s sprawling 1968 classic as a reference point for their own double disc.
The Damned, circa 1980
There were two strong sides of conventional-length songs, an impressive 17-minute epic named “Curtain Call” that pointed the way towards the Damned’s imminent proto Goth-rock sound and a fourth side of early favorites performed live in-studio for a group of fan clubbers. They are quick out of the gate with rallying rocker “Wait for the Blackout” with Scabies’ dynamic drumming and some great Townshend-esque guitar flourishes by Sensible, who moved up to six-string (and keyboards) after Brian James’ departure while Paul Grey ably took over the bass duties. The opener also conveys the Damned’s increasing tendency to be champions of all things nocturnal with Vanian’s invocation of “the darkness (that) holds a power that you won’t find in the day.” Sure, there are a few of the witty, up tempo bursts of energy that were a punk-era calling card (“Drinking About My Baby”, “Lively Arts”, “Therapy” and “Sick of This and That”) and others like the Sensibly-sung “Silly Kids Games” that showed the band’s classicist side: in the spirit of mid-Sixties Who or Kinks, using a chipper tune to deliver serious lyric concerns—in this case, the core absurdity of avarice.
It’s little surprise, though—for a group that named themselves after the 1960 creep-out classic Village of the Damned and that featured a lead singer who looked like he wandered in off the set of Dark Shadows—that their more cinematic and macabre side would begin to take precedence. This more melodic bent, marked by Vanian’s newfound crooning vocal style, is heard to great effect on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (“I try to be true, he tries to be cruel/I’ll hold you gently, but he’ll smother you”) and “13th Floor Vendetta”,” with their acoustic guitar and keyboard shadings. The band itself grumbled a bit about Han Zimmer’s booming overproduction on the otherwise astute “The History of the World (Part One),” even though they are listed as co-producers, but no such complaints can befall the side-filling “Curtain Call”, where the group went balls-out to stake a new course that had more in common with the art-rock show-offs that the unschooled punks were rebelling against not long before. Its doomy minor-key ambience is perfect for Vanian to take center stage in a benchmark performance that directly or indirectly informed the subsequent legions of a darkly-clad and black-fingernailed subculture (“We’re coming up from the deep, the lizard sheds its skin/Night obliterates the day, and all the fun begins”). The long interior instrumental section also excels, especially a shivery, suspended passage that feels like getting lost in the woods before a piercing violin splits the fog and the Captain’s fright-film keyboards and nervy guitar solo summon back Vanian for the conclusion (“Tragedy, love all lie within/Each player takes his chance to play/And lives to fight another day”). “I like the fact that we push things a bit,” Sensible said later, dismissing the flak that “Curtain Call” caught from some of his contemporaries. (”They can bog off.”)
Despite something of a career setback in the years after The Black Album, this individualistic streak stood them in good stead in the decades (yes, decades) that followed. By the mid-80s, established as Goth-rock pioneers, The Damned scored hits with tunes like “Grimly Fiendish” and “Eloise,” with its strange Brian Wilson-meets-Bela-Lugosi vibe. They may not have “made it stinking rich/straight up there without a hitch” as they once ironically predicted on “Machine Gun Etiquette” (re-titled on the live side here as “Second Time Around”). But onward they skulked into the new millenium with Vanian as the constant member, always joined by either Scabies or Sensible if not both. On their 35th anniversary tour in 2011 they were even doing a 25-minute bog-off medley of “Therapy” and “Curtain Call”. Live to fight another day, indeed.
The Damned on stage today. Original members Capt. Sensible on left and Dave Vanian, middle.<