The Damned - Biography

London punk rock band The Damned's motto of "anarchy, chaos & destruction" proved to be one the all-time great examples of truth in advertising. With a ferocious, drastically accelerated sound, their brand of amplified savagery delivered the most exciting, over-stimulated form of rock ‘n’ roll extant in the mid to late 1970s. Famed for their manic, oft violent onstage antics (routinely employing fire and hurled equipment), bizarre noms de guerre — Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies and Dave Vanian — and tumultuous music, The Damned were an altogether electrifying band. To call them groundbreaking would scarcely begin to cover it. The Damned were the first British punk group to release a single, the first to release an album, the first to tour America, the first to breakup (and reform) and while not the first to sell-out to a major label (as had Sham 69 and X-Ray Spex), they have enjoyed sustained longevity, a feat which none of their other contemporaries managed, albeit doing so by morphing into a goth-pop hybrid act.


The threesome of drummer Chris Millar (AKA Rat Scabies), bassist Ray Burns (AKA Captain Sensible) and guitarist Brian James — true rock & roll street rabble — had been trying to launch a band for most of 1975, at one point even working to develop an act with future Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde (one that involved her whipping the musicians as they played) but none of it amounted to anything. After meeting Nosferatu-fixated teenage gloom hound David Letts (AKA Dave Vanian), they appointed him vocalist despite the fact that the kid had never before sung a note (legend holds that their other choice, Sid Vicious, simply didn't show up to audition). Following six weeks of amphetamine-fueled rehearsals, The Damned played their first show at the 100 Club, opening for The Sex Pistols, in mid-1976. Lead guitarist and primary songwriter James’s stated mission was to create "chaos music" and action quickly suited words. When an audience member lost an eye after being hit with a flying beer glass at their first gig, the press played it up, blaming the band itself (Sid Vicious had actually launched the pint). Not long after, Scabies won the band more notoriety by hurling his bass drum into an unappreciative crowd at the Little Nashville club.


Within months, the press-generated furor helped them land a contract at indie Stiff Records ("where every meal is a memory") and their terrific first single, "New Rose," galvanized the quickly expanding punk rock scene. The release of their classic debut album, the Nick Lowe-produced Damned, Damned Damned (1977 Stiff), cemented their reputation as one of the hardest charging shock troupes in all of punk and their infamy grew when they hit the road as one third of the Anarchy in the UK Tour, along with The Clash and The Sex Pistols (the latter, on most stops along the way, were prevented by authorities from actually playing). In Britain, Damned shows almost always generated small scale riots, with vandalism in the parking lots bringing police, escalating into brawls, foot pursuits, arrests and more than a few quick escapes by the band. The Damned then looked to America, playing a series of April '77 shows in New York and Los Angeles (where, mid-song, Vanian ignited emergency road flares and tossed them into the audience) that also exerted a powerful influence on the burgeoning stateside punk movement.


Their second long player, Music for Pleasure (1978 Stiff), was somewhat of a misfire. James insisted on bringing in a second guitarist, his pal Robert "Lu" Edmunds, and when he and Sensible, a stone psychedelia fan, conspired to assign production chores to acid casualty/hermit/genius Syd Barrett (but settled instead for Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason), Vanian and Scabies were, not surprisingly, pissed off. After the non-stop thrills of Damned, Damned Damned, the second album was, despite a few standout tracks like "Problem Child," a flabby, unconvincing let down. Not long after the support tour ceased in early 1978, so too did The Damned. James bailed and they all started up new bands (most notably Sensible's The Softies, whose cover of Elton Motello’s "Jet Boy, Jet Girl" remains a cherished, bizarre punk nugget).


Before long though, Sensible (now playing lead guitar), Vanian and Scabies, with Softies bassist Henry Badowski, began performing as The Doomed. Badowski didn't have the stomach for the band's insane lifestyle though and he was replaced by Algy Ward from The Saints, a hard rocking — and even harder drinking — bass slinger. With Ward in place, the inevitable occurred and The Damned returned, playing their first shows at a two night stand at Islington's Hope & Anchor pub in the fall of ‘78. The founding members were as wild as ever and Ward easily held his own, heralding a whole new, unhinged lease on life. Another deal, with Chiswick Records, produced the single "Love Song," which enjoyed moderate chart success and won them two appearances on the TV show Top of the Pops. They took another swipe at America (in San Francisco, Scabies climaxed their show by knocking Sensible out cold with a well-aimed drum stool), somehow managed to survive and returned to record another superb album, Machine Gun Etiquette (1979 Chiswick).


The Damned roared on, knocking 'em dead with their hyper-freaky performances and always unpredictable shenanigans. The Captain, whose wardrobe often ran to dresses and waitress uniforms, switched to plush DayGlo fur outfits (which he would usually doff onstage, stripping down to his briefs and, at least once, produce a bindle of drugs from the waistband, which he'd whiff up between songs). While Vanian adopted an increasingly Victorian, gothic mode of attire, Scabies would just show up in whatever smelled the least. They closed out the decade at the top of their game but punk rock as a whole had already deteriorated into a ghost of its former self and the band (after firing Ward, due to overindulgence issues, replacing him with Paul Gray of Eddie & the Hot Rods) tentatively began to scheme on how to push the music in a different direction.


The result was The Black Album (1980 Chiswick), a set brimming with softer pop flourishes and a load of frilly goth numbers, including the seventeen minute enigma “Curtain Call.” For the band’s straight up punk fans, it was most aptly titled. Follow-up, the Friday the 13th EP (1981 Chiswick) introduced new member Roman Jugg on keys and ended their stay at Chiswick. The band signed to a new deal for the Strawberries album (1982 Bronze) but when Captain Sensible’s solo novelty hit “Happy Talk” hit number one on UK charts, he split from the band (Jugg took over on guitar). As Sensible exploited his strange, new mainstream popularity, The Damned cut their brilliant garage rock cover album Give Daddy the Knife Cindy (1983 Bronze). Billed as Naz Nomad & the Nightmares, it proved that the band was capable of exquisite furor sans the Captain. Still, throughout ‘83-‘84, misery ruled The Damned; their finances were in shambles, Scabies ever more disruptive and Paul Gray chose to quit (he was replaced by Bryn Merrick).


Just as it seemed that dissolution was inevitable they landed a contract with big-time major MCA and turned almost exclusively to a goth-pop style, first with the moderately successful Phantasmagoria (1984 MCA) and next, the flop album Anything (1986 MCA). For some reason though, the groaning, sludgy pop cover “Eloise” resonated with the UK audience and the single hit number two in ‘86, providing a new lease on life for a group that felt like rigor mortis was setting in. It remained the calling card which allowed The Damned to continue, even though they parted ways with MCA the following year and took an extended hiatus. As Vanian toiled with his rockabilly-goth hybrid The Phantom Chords, it seemed as if The Damned were history but like a virus bursting out of remission, they were back at in the early ‘90s and Sensible finally rejoined in 1996, as did Paul Gray. Inevitably a legal dispute over Scabies’ control over some of their unreleased master tapes finally got him fired and Vanian prevailed in court. Without Scabies’ volatile escapades and unparalleled drumming, the band would never be the same (replacement traps man Garrie Dreadful, the first of several, lasted three years), yet they never broke their stride and even Brian James returned for a string of 25th anniversary shows. When former Bags/Gun Club/Sisters of Mercy bassist Patricia Morrison replaced Gray, the American-born goth empress soon found herself not just on what seemed like a perpetual touring schedule but also on the way to the altar with Vanian.


With Grave Disorder (2001 Nitro), a set that deftly balanced hard rockers and shadowy goth, they turned in their most convincing album in years. Morrison continued performing with them until a pregnancy and the 2004 birth of the couple’s daughter, Emily, prompted the hiring of bassist Stu West, who with keyboardist Monty Oxy Moron and drummer Pinch (on the riser since ‘99), seem to have settled into the most stable line up the band have had in years. Absent from the studio for quite a stretch, but rarely inactive on the road, The Damned finally spat forth their tenth long player So, Who’s Paranoid? (2009 English Channel) signaling that after more than three very challenging decades later, Vanian and Sensible have no intention of going away anytime soon.

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