The Damned earned themselves a well-known and oft-quoted place in modern musical history books by issuing the U.K.’s first punk single (1976’s “New Rose”) and the first full-length British punk album, Damned Damned Damned, in 1977. A year later, after the poorly produced and dismally reviewed Music for Pleasure, the original band imploded — and that, for all intents and purposes, was the end of the Damned as a vital punk concern. But not, fortunately and gloriously, as a vital musical concern: throughout the ‘80s, the Damned issued a stellar sequence of albums, wherein they managed to channel punk’s energy into great, dark, theatrical pop music (without the cheese factor associated with most “New Wave” music of the day), while somehow also managing to cast the visual and sonic template for much of the Goth movement in the process.
The early ‘90s found the band drifting a bit, toying with nostalgia for a spell by reuniting the original band, then working through prolonged legal and creative roadblocks rising from tension between founding members Dave Vanian (vocals) and Rat Scabies (drums). But by 1998, with Scabies out of the band (having essentially self-released the dubious and marginal Damned record Not of the Earth, over Vanian’s protests), fellow founder Captain Sensible (guitar) and Vanian built a new version of the band, featuring Patricia Morrison (onetime bassist for the Gun Club and the Sisters of Mercy), keyboardist Monty Oxy Moron and drummer Andrew “Pinch” Pinching (ex-Janus Stark and English Dogs).
It was this version of the band that played Valentine’s Tuesday night, touring behind their latest record, Grave Disorder, which marked the first batch of officially sanctioned new Damned studio tunes since 1986’s Anything. And let me tell you, Bob: this version of the Damned was as kick ass and classy a rock band as any I’ve seen, and I can’t help but think that if they were unknowns fighting their way up through Clubland, any number of record labels and music magazine would be falling all over themselves to dub them the next U2, the next Strokes, the next Radiohead, or the next whatever the record labels and music magazines were excited about at that particular moment. There are benefits to being in the history books of times a quarter-century past, sure, but getting fresh and open-minded listens from the industry are not, apparently, among them. Which is a damned, damned, damned shame, since new songs like “Democracy,” “She” and “Would You Be So Hot (If You Weren’t Dead?)” held their own most emphatically with the classic war horses and thoughtful album cuts that filled out Tuesday’s set.
The startlingly-young-and-healthy-looking Vanian was in fine voice throughout, his sultry and powerful baritone stylings closer to the more potent bits of the Jim Morrison or Bono canons than to Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer’s barks and whines. And the ever affable bloke Captain Sensible somewhere along the line managed to turn himself into a real guitar hero, laying down string after string of sweet, sweet solo lines, just so and just right. Morrison, too, proved herself to be a virtuoso on her instrument, her left hand moving like a spider on crack, doing everything it could to get up that freakin’ waterspout, taking numbers like the seemingly straightforward “New Rose” or “Neat Neat Neat” into places where punk-flavored songs rarely have the audacity — or opportunity — to tread.
Those two Damned Damned Damned-era nuggets were set highlights, as were the expected “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today” (a demi-hit from ‘79’s Machine Gun Etiquette) and the U.K. chart-topping single “Eloise.” It was also a treat, though, to hear savage renditions of unexpected cuts, such as “Disco Man” (a B-side to 1981’s “Friday the 13th” EP), or “Under the Floor Again” (a minor, rarely anthologized track of the Strawberries album in ’82). Based on the total package delivered by the Damned Tuesday night, I think they’ve still got it in ‘em to earn another important page or two in tomorrow’s musical history books, which should make for a damned, damned, damned good read.