Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of The Damned. They’ve been a favorite band of mine since I heard “Alone Again Or” on college radio in the late 80s. I’d heard of them, even remember their appearance on my favorite episode of The Young Ones doing the song “Nasty” (written specifically for the episode of the same name). My friend Chris loved the ridiculous punkiness of the b-side “Jet Boy Jet Girl” and got me hooked on it. But like some bands, I never got around to picking up their catalog until much later.
They’re kind of an unsung band, really. Like the Kinks, they’re shuffled off to the side because they’re hard to pin down. Not quite punk, not quite post-punk, not quite goth. And very British. They’ve got well-known singles from their entire career that still pop up on college radio from time to time. [And one of their claims to fame is that their debut single, “New Rose”, is officially the first UK punk single, predating the Sex Pistols’ debut by a good few months.]
They’re also a surprisingly melodic band. Listen to “Love Song” (from their third album Machine Gun Etiquette, from 1979) and you’ll hear some really interesting pop phrasings there, not to mention some really cheeky lyrics that aren’t that far from the Beastie Boys at their goofiest.
But on the other end of the spectrum — and from that same album — we have the fan favorite “Smash It Up”, with its lovely instrumental intro and its punkier second half, which features some interesting time signature shifts. It’s a classic song of rebellion, but instead of the volatility and anger of the Sex Pistols, it’s more on par with the DIY ethos of The Clash.
Their follow-up album, The Black Album, from 1980, is probably my favorite of theirs. It may have gotten mixed reviews from the critics and fans, considering they were shifting more towards that post-punk sound musically. It contains a lot of fascinating tracks that really show their musical chops. It’s also a double album, featuring three sides of studio recordings, and a fourth side of live tracks. And yes, they did in fact have the Beatles ’68 eponymous album in mind when they named it.
It also contains my favorite track of theirs, a sprawling seventeen-minute track previously available as a 12″ b-side for their “White Rabbit” single (back then they were known for doing odd covers as only they could do them). It’s an ambitious track that works in a slow-build prologue, the metaphor of life as a performance, some fabulous piano work, a midpoint breakdown that features a recorded loop of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”, creepy sound effects, and a reprise tying it all together. And interestingly enough, it’s got the same musical construction as The Beatles’ “What’s the New Mary Jane”. That’s a damn complex song for a band usually thought of as a goofy disposable punk group.
By their 1985 album Phantasmagoria, they’d become more of a goth-lite band, sounding more like a cross between Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Mission only with a much lighter outlook lyrically and musically. Consider the campy “Grimly Fiendish” (named after a UK comic book character from the 70s) with its excellent use of harpsichord:
…or the poppy “Is It a Dream” that almost veers into Echo & the Bunnymen territory:
…or even into Pink Floyd territory:
By 1986’s Anything, they’d sort of been written off as has-beens (especially considering chief songwriter Captain Sensible left just after 1983’s Strawberries album for a solo career) (yes, the “Wot” guy). They released a stellar career retrospective in late 1987 called The Light at the End of the Tunnel (highly suggested) before splitting up.
But just like every other band from the 80s, the Damned never really went away. The 90s were filled with a ridiculous amount of official and semi-official live albums, greatest hits and rarities collections. They resurfaced in 1996 with a sort-of-official album Not of This Earth (also known as I’m Alright Jack and the Beanstalk) and a few singles such as “Shut It” and “Prokofiev”, and resurfacing again in 2001 with Grave Disorder.
They’ve toured off and on since then, and keeping themselves visible with excellent reissues of their discography during the 00s, and releasing another new album in 2008 called So, Who’s Paranoid? which has brought their sound full circle, back to the punk-goth-postpunk hybrid.
Their discography is quite long and convoluted, and it’s mostly due to having been on numerous different labels over the years — sometimes for a few albums, sometimes for just one single — but they’re definitely worth checking out. There may be a few weak points and some filler tracks, but they’re still a lot of fun to listen to.