‘People are ready for live music’: how The Damned are refusing to lie down before lockdown

·5-min read
The original Damned line-up: (l-r) Brian James, Dave Vanian, Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible - Reuters
The original Damned line-up: (l-r) Brian James, Dave Vanian, Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible - Reuters

Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t. That seemed to sum up the attitude of the original punks when, last month, they announced a reunion in the middle of a global pandemic. “It’s probably the worst time to get the band back together,” frontman Dave Vanian (aka David Lett) admitted.

“I’d hate to be standing over one of our graves saying, ‘We should have done that reunion,’” shrugged drummer Rat Scabies (aka Christopher Miller).

Given that The Damned are all in their mid-sixties and sporting Covid-19 masks in new publicity photos, you have to wonder about the wisdom of a return to the mosh pit. But they’re apparently determined to get back together before they die, even if it kills them. Perhaps the most intriguing question is: who in their right minds would purchase tickets for a concert next year, when nobody knows for sure if concerts are even going to be able to take place?

And the answer to that seems to be: Damned fans. The first show, at London Eventim Apollo on July 9, has almost sold out, with the band adding a second night at the 3,500-capacity venue – with no social distancing in place. “You can’t have social distancing in a mosh pit,” bassist Captain Sensible (aka Raymond Burns) pointed out.

“I think people are ready for the return of live music,” says Neil O’Brien, an agent and promoter (who is not involved with these shows). “For Damned fans, it’s a must-see show.

“I don’t think everybody who has bought tickets is blind to the risks – but they don’t want to miss out on artists they love. Whether the gigs happen or not, they want the ticket, and they’re willing to take a chance. I think The Damned are a good example for the whole industry.”

That may be the first time The Damned have ever been accused of setting a good example. For Captain Sensible, the intention appears to be quite the opposite. “We caught the tail end of a golden period for rock ’n’ roll. It was bloody good fun, the booze, the birds and all the rest of it – the abandon and the lunacy. We’re hopefully going to bring a bit of that back.”

'It may be the worst time to get back together': frontman Dave Vanian - Reuters
'It may be the worst time to get back together': frontman Dave Vanian - Reuters

It’s all in keeping with the devil-may-care image of a band who always seemed to be having more fun than any of their punk peers. The Damned formed in the white heat of the London punk scene in 1976, playing their first gig supporting The Sex Pistols at the 100 Club on July 6. Working at breakneck speed, they put out the first UK punk single, New Rose, in October, and the first British punk album, Damned Damned Damned, in February 1977.

Their music was really a mash-up of glam rock, garage rock, and pub rock, played fast and furious, with none of the politics that bogged down their peers. According to Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, “they were probably the most musically accomplished punk outfit in town.” A swiftly recorded second album, Music For Pleasure, arrived in November, but stalled in the charts.

By February 1978, the original band’s frenetic career came to a screeching halt following riotous tours in which fights frequently broke out between band members on- and off-stage. The entire career of the original Damned lasted less than two years.

Of course, that’s not the whole story, but it’s the one they’re sticking to. The Damned reformed with a different line-up in 1979 and went on to record another 9 albums with Dave Vanian as the lynchpin. There have officially been 19 members of The Damned over the years, but fans shouldn’t expect to hear any of that material at the reunion. “We’ll be playing the first two albums,” according to guitarist Brian James, who wrote almost all of the band’s original songs. “They’re the only ones we all know.”

“We were convinced that there was an appetite for these shows. After all, it’s the original line-up of the first punk band ever,” says veteran PR Alan Edwards of the Outside Agency, who organised a socially-distanced press conference last month to announce the tour. Journalists sat a safe distance from the band, wearing masks branded with the legend The Damned, which caused its own unique problems. “Can you speak up?” James asked from the stage. “We’re all a bit deaf now.”

I suspect there was something about the band’s willingness to present their case in person that has encouraged fans to take heart and buy tickets for a tour when every venue in England is locked down. “It’s a great noise the four of us make,” declared Sensible. “It’s raw power.”

He insisted they weren’t worried about a return of the animosity that saw them break up so quickly. “It would be boring if we didn’t have any rows. As for punch-ups, you’ll have to pay more for that.”

“It’s a bit like planning summer holidays – they keep us going through the dark months of winter,” Edwards suggests, discussing the public appetite for these gigs. “And so it is with gigs, whether they be open air spectaculars or a rocking night at Hammersmith Apollo with the original punks. We start imagining the set list and what the stage show will look like.

“Human civilisation is built on positive thinking, and that’s never going to stop. In a way, all the trials and tribulations can make the experience extra-special. And that’s how it’ll be for those lucky enough to be part of the village of The Damned next July.”

The band, however, haven’t begun rehearsals. “It’s a bit difficult with social distancing,” said Vanian, “but we’ve got time.” Sensible added: “We never rehearsed much anyway.”

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