❉ The Damned have never been a band to take the easy option, writes Robert Fairclough.
THE DAMNED with special guests The Nightingales: Lower Common Room, Norwich UEA, 15 April 2023.
As revealed in the 2020 documentary about Robert Lloyd’s extraordinary life, King Rocker, the place of The Nightingales in the history of UK punk and New Wave is assured and Lloyd was there at the start, so The Nightingales are a fitting choice of support act for a 2023 tour with The Damned. They impressed immediately. Drummer Fliss Kitson was the thundering centrepiece of a Fall/Birthday Party-esque wall of sound, while vocalist Robert Lloyd concentrated on his left-field lyrics.
It says a lot that tonight punk progenitors played all their new album, Darkadelic (out at the end of the month). The Damned’s confidence in the eleven tracks was rewarded with an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from the crowd in the LCR. I can’t imagine that even the fabled Rolling Stones would have the balls to try something like this. But then, The Damned have never been a band to take the easy option.
I saw their original line-up last year at one of two special gigs at the Apollo in Hammersmith in London, benefits to raise money for The Damned’s original guitarist, Brian James. He defined their early sound with buzzsaw guitars and nihilistic lyrics – ‘Feel the Pain’, ‘Born to Kill’ and the first British punk single, ‘New Rose’, among others. They were good, but for me The Damned as they are today only came into existence with their third album, Machine Gun Etiquette (1979).
Captain Sensible swapped his bass for a guitar and brought in psychedelic, ’60s beat group and blues melodies. Vampire-styled vocalist Dave Vanian was given free rein lyrically to indulge his love of the horror genre and film and TV. Two signature results were the pile-driving wit of ‘Love Song’ – “I’ll be the rubbish, you’ll be the bin” – and the epic darkness of ‘Plan 9, Channel 7’, the story of the unlikely and ultimately doomed friendship between troubled actor James Dean and horror icon, Vampira. The Damned’s combination of the cartoon and the cult redefined them in 1979 as the band that blew the roof off the LCR tonight.
In 1996, the band were joined by an eccentric to equal The Damned’s two elder statesmen, the marvellous Monty Oxymoron, on keys. (I once saw him threaten to stop a gig because someone threw a pint of beer over his keyboard. He wasn’t bluffing). The core trio of Sensible, Vanian and Oxymoron gave the band a new lease of life after the detour of the Goth years, and the line-up is even stronger now circa 2023. Paul Gray, former Hot Rod and bassist on The Black Album (1980) and Strawberries (1982), is back in the fold, with new boy – and, compared to the others, he is a boy – Will Taylor on drums.
Sensible and Vanian are such living legends that you can’t help concentrating on them. The Captain is all Dennis the Menace striped jumper, badges and beret, gurning and growling good-naturedly at the audience like a man completely in love with playing his music (which he is). Encouraged by a vocal member of the audience, the band even joined in on an impromptu jam of Sensible’s solo hit ‘Wot’, although, slightly embarrassed, he quickly segued into a storming version of ‘Smash It Up Parts 1 and 2’.
As The Damned left the stage, the Captain recalled the various venues they’d played in Norwich over the years and, finally, threw his beret into a sea of eager, grabbing hands. He’s so disarmingly friendly and funny that, thanks to him, at The Damned’s gigs you feel part of the group experience rather than just a spectator.
Dave Vanian, by contrast, is very probably the coolest man in British rock. He’s certainly the suavest, tonight sporting an immaculately tailored black suit, dress shirt, and a fedora to die for. The requisite leather gloves add a sense of strangeness, complemented by Dave’s nimble, stylish dance moves. He usually leaves bantering with the crowd to Sensible, but was on garrulous form tonight, inciting the crowd to let the band’s management know how much they liked the new songs.
Of the back catalogue, ‘Street of Dreams’ from the Sensible-less Phantasmagoria (1985) era opened the set, quickly followed by The Black Album’s seminal ‘Wait for the Blackout’ and ‘Lively Arts’. ‘Love Song’ came complete with the “Ladies and gentlemen – ‘ow do” intro from Machine Gun Etiquette and was as infectious as ever. An extended ‘Neat Neat Neat’, which had the Captain playing his guitar behind his head Hendrix-style, closed proceedings before the band returned for the high melodrama of ‘Eloise’, The Damned’s only Number 1.
Of the new material, stand–outs for me were ‘Girl I’ll Stop at Nothing’ and ‘Leader of the Gang’. Given a few listens, it sounds like the former could be an epic on a par with some of the ‘60s-styled numbers on Strawberries, while the latter is a VERY thinly veiled swipe at certain old glam rockers. Hijinks ensued on ‘Leader of the Gang’ with the road crew, as they invaded the stage for an impromptu boogie and one of them dressed up like the song’s title character, camping it up behind the drummer.
“We’re The Damned and we’re a punk band!” Sensible once declared on the BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test before the group trashed their equipment. The UK’s first punk band to release a single and album, the first to split up, the first to reform, the first to have a Number 1 single… on tonight’s incendiary form at the LCR, they might well be the definitive band of their time.
They’re certainly the finest.
❉ The Damned’s new album ‘Darkadelic’ will be released on 28 April 2023 on earMUSIC. The album can be pre-ordered HERE.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a writer, designer, photographer and sometime actor. He writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). Robert has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites and is a creative consultant for The Restoration Trust, an organisation that delivers ‘culture therapy’ for people with mental health issues. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org and his website can be viewed at robfairclough.uk
Photographs © Robert Fairclough, 2023.
The Leeds gig was similarly excellent. It’s good to see a “heritage” band having enough confidence in their new material to play an unreleased album in full on an entire UK tour!!