❉ We celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Damned’s New Rose – the first UK punk single.
Thanks to exhibitions, radio documentaries, recycled archive footage, and the increasingly frequent appearances of Don Letts on BBC4 talking about his “Year Zero”, you could be forgiven for thinking that Punk had decided to take the Oliver Reed route, and simply celebrate its birthday all the time. That’s the convenient media take on it – lather, rinse, repeat, and then repeat the repeats.
You know the form.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN PUNK DOCUMENTARY OR FEATURETTE:
Open with grainy clips of jaded England in decline.
Cut to that old footage of the Sex Pistols on So It Goes or at the 100 Club, that must be falling apart by now.
Occasional jump-cut to Johnny Rotten leering or to young punks on the Kings Road.
The usual talking heads.
That gig in Manchester that everybody that ever made a record in Manchester went to.
That’s not to put a downer on the Pistols. It’s just a boring media shortcut used to paint a picture of a seismic movement in broad strokes. It’s a standardised segment that, with a little judicious editing, could fit into any documentary about postwar British life. Really, punk was something that didn’t just suddenly happen. There were innumerable bands of ne’er do wells in London squats that formed a sort of temp agency that eventually spat out the Pistols, the Clash, et al. Before that, there was proto-punk, bits of glam, even pub R&B.,. Before that, there were the Stooges, the MC5. Hell, before that there was even Arthur Lee. It’s just that the story sticks out a bit more to the masses if you wrap it in a Jamie Reid sleeve.
Anarchy in the UK wasn’t even the first punk single of this wave. No, the true moment where punk stopped being proto was on 22 October 1976, when somebody sarcastically asked a question:
“Is she really going out with him?”
What followed was the loudest, tightest, most thunderous record anybody had heard in ages, possibly ever. It was powered by the chunky, stuttering riffs of Brian James and Captain Sensible, and the John Bonham-like assault of Rat Scabies. Topped off by singer Dave Vanian’s distinctive bellow-croon, it was energised, thrilling rock and roll. It was like the ghost of Eddie Cochran had been listening to the Stooges, like ‘Raw Power’ had been condensed into a single side. It was called New Rose.
The Damned weren’t the first punk band, but they might have been the most immediate, the most instant. A band not svengalied and moulded using the Andrew Loog Oldham rulebook by Malcolm McLaren for a year or so. They came together from assorted proto-punk bit-part bands, and led by the ambitious Brian James, recruited Vanian, rapidly emerging as a fully formed, ferociously loud rock band.
They were an instant whip of a band. They played their first gig in July 1976. Three months later, New Rose was released by Stiff records. Their debut album Damned Damned Damned followed within months. The sleeve of ‘Damned Damned Damned’ showed the gurning band covered in the remnants of pie. They were up for a laugh, but they didn’t mess around. Vanian may have dressed like a B-movie vampire but was arguably the most stable personality in the group. James, Sensible, and Scabies were all loose cannons, but also fiercely accomplished musicians.
New Rose doesn’t make any attempt at a message or comment on society. It’s not Anarchy or White Riot. It’s simply a fast, loud good time. The main thing it’s likely to destroy is the floorboards and the odd speaker cone. It nods backwards to the Stooges and MC5, and sideways at Motorhead. It’s more metal than punk in execution. We won’t talk about the Guns n’ Roses version here. 2016 has been depressing enough already.
The original line-up didn’t last, but they managed to record two albums and then split up in the space of a year. All of this happened in the blink of an eye compared to the protracted album sessions their peers went through. The Damned managed to pip the Pistols to the post not only with the single and the album, but also the burnout. The band would eventually reform without James and develop a more quirky sensibility, eventually moving towards goth, and becoming a much-loved touring band, but never really recapturing that original moment, no matter how good ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ is.
New Rose remains the Damned’s greatest achievement, one of the fastest, loudest, most fun singles ever released. It’s not just the first proper ‘punk’ single. It might just be the best.
Just one question remains unanswered.
“Is she really going out with him?”
❉ Before you go, celebrate the spirit of ’76 and Anarchy in the Year Zero with this hour of power from our Spotify channel. ‘This Ain’t No Summer of Love’
❉ Kicking off this November, The Damned are set to embark on a massive UK tour taking in more than twenty towns and cities across the UK, to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of ‘New Rose’ and are currently working on a brand new album for 2017.