The Clash and the Sex Pistols get populist nods and Wire get the critical acclaim, but it's the Damned who put in the hard work, pummeling rhythms, and stringent melodicism throughout 1976-77 to become the first British punk band to release a single (the thundering "New Rose") and an album (the 30-minute punch of Damned Damned Damned) and to tour the United States. Now, 40 years later, Damned cocreators Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible relish, and will celebrate Sunday at Theatre of Living Arts.
"That is our legacy, really, that hard work, that drive," singer Vanian says from London. "We really were working-class guys looking to get the job done rather than just talk about it."
The Damned were not poseurs, and the forward-moving thrust, deadpan crooning, and Mod-era Who-ish propulsion of Damned Damned Damned proves it – as does any and every album that Vanian and Sensible have made since their band's start (they're the only originals left from the fire-starting quartet). "Listen to that album," says bassist Sensible. "It's very real: a blitz of riffs and frenetic drumming. Still sounds fresh to my ears. What's left of 'em."
That working-class pragmatism is what removed the Damned (who actually employed the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde for a minute) from what might have been the club of punks that included the Sex Pistols' John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) and Steve Cook, the Clash's Paul Simonon, and PIL's Jah Wobble, all of whom looked at the punk moment with a stodgy anti-romanticism. "Yeah, maybe they're just sourpusses," Vanian says with a laugh. "Either way, we really were outsiders to that group of people."
Sensible adds that, "while other bands, then and now, worry about their status, we certainly don't. The Damned have always been outsiders with nothing to prove — just happy to be able to travel the world playing gigs in far-away places."
Mythologizing the then-burgeoning U.K. punk scene tied into Queen Elizabeth's silver anniversary with anarchist rhetoric and iconic totems meant nothing when it came to punk's true tests – playing hard, fast, loud music at a time when the U.K. (and U.S.) record industry was a pretentious, bloated mess.
"It was scuzzy, and we were all stone broke — skipping the fares on the trains and getting chased by ticket collectors on a regular basis," Sensible says before calling himself "the luckiest toilet cleaner in Britain when I met the rest of these guys.
"The popular bands were stadium proggers like ELP, Yes, and Genesis, singing songs about fantasy and wizards, interspersed by long, boring guitar and drum solos. Our class of '77 was playing seedy bars and basements, which was a lot of fun ... but hardly glamorous. During rehearsals, I was sleeping on [guitarist/principal songwriter] Brian James' floor. We spent our days traipsing around clubs, attempting to [scam] support gigs — which paid peanuts anyway, so we were generally starving."
Signed to the now-legendary DIY indie label Stiff – rather than the majors that snagged the Pistols and the Clash – it was "the promise of a slap-up meal that was the clincher," Sensible says with a laugh. "The bands all helped out boxing records and roady-ing for each other. Stiff was a bit of a revolution. It paved the way for all the indie labels that followed."
To this, Vanian adds: "Because Stiff was independent, small, and new, they worked as hard as we did, and did things in a manner the majors couldn't. Mad stuff, at that."
One particularly bold move, something that wound up resonating sonically – even now – was the Damned's use of Nick Lowe as its producer on the hollowed-out "New Rose" and the rest of the primal-sounding Damned Damned Damned.
"Lowe's nickname was 'Basher,' as in 'bash it down on tape,' " recalls Sensible. "And we did, with a minimum of effects and overdubs. The raw rock-and-roll on that album is markedly in contrast to what most of our contemporaries were up to, and nearly all records made today." Making records today, or since the Damned's start, has been crucial to keeping the band alive as they traveled down paths of psychedelia (Music for Pleasure), goth (The Black Album, which dovetailed nicely with Vanian's vampire-gravedigger look), power pop (So, Who's Paranoid?), and whatever it is they chose for the album recorded in 2016, to be released by 2017's end. "Our epic musical journey must continue," says Sensible.
Beyond all the band's other albums and singles, Vanian says, it is that first jolt that thrills him. "When 'New Rose' comes up in the set and I utter that Shangri Las' intro's words, all hell breaks loose, and everyone – the band, the audience – goes crazy," he says. "I never tire of that. Face it, that's three minutes and done, like any pop classic. As soon as it's finished, you want to hear it again. That's a great pop ritual."