Never mind the Sex Pistols. The Damned were first to record. They released the first British punk single New Rose in October 1976 and album Damned Damned Damned in February 1977. These were cracking songs that helped to return rock’n’roll to its raw, primal roots. Brief, bullet-like bursts of aggressive energy, punk released the pent-up frustration of young people in the mid-70s, in particular with the boring and over-inflated music scene of that time.
Following an “official” 40th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall in May, The Damned are now in the middle of a celebratory tour – perhaps not a very punk thing to do. They have continued to carry the flame despite multiple splits/re-formations and line-up changes over the years. They made a major contribution to gothic rock in the ’80s, and though their later music has not had the same impact, eight years on from their last offering an 11th studio album is on the way.
The two original members ‒ singer Dave Vanian and guitarist Captain Sensible ‒ may be in their 60s now, but there was no sign of flagging enthusiasm in a warmly received two-hour set at Brixton Academy. The others ‒ keyboardist Monty Oxymoron, bassist Stu West and drummer Pinch, who have all been with the band for well over 10 years – provided solid support, in a gig that had mainly older punks pogoing in the mosh pit as if they were teenagers again.
The rich-baritoned Vanian (as always vaguely vampiric with his ultra-pale skin, slicked-back hair and all-black garb including cloak and gloves) sang into a vintage-style microphone while prowling the stage. Captain Sensible (also in shades, plus trademark red beret, short denim jacket and tartan bondage trousers) was a more avuncular presence who engaged in most of the banter with the packed audience in between spurts of squealing Gibson.
With their sense of theatre and tongue-in-cheek humour, The Damned know how to put on an entertaining show, even if the intensity of decades ago has lessened. The first part of the gig was devoted to playing Damned Damned Damned in chronological track order, before going on to a wide-ranging retrospective, especially drawing from their underrated third album Machine Gun Etiquette.
After an intro of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s bloated classical rock Fanfare For The Common Man, Captain Sensible shouted out “Turn that shit off”, and the band were straight in with the super-charged, adrenalin-surging Neat Neat Neat. The iconic New Rose ‒ with its descending guitar chords hitting the gut like the lurches of a rollercoaster ride ‒ unsurprisingly went down a storm. These early keyboard-less songs were accompanied by hilariously jerky dance moves from the spaced-out, heavily permed Oxymoron.
The snarling Nasty (first played on The Young Ones TV sitcom in the early 80s) was dedicated to Rik Mayall. In contrast was the romantic melodrama of Eloise (a Paul Ryan cover with which The Damned had their biggest hit single), while there was some nice trumpet playing from guest Chris Coull on their version of Love’s Spanish-style Alone Again Or. Ignite inspired a mass sing-along with Captain Sensible thrusting the microphone towards the crowd at the front.
The encores included Captain Sensible’s wistful singing of Life Goes On, the band’s twisted, sinister cover of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit and Noise Noise Noise bringing the show to a suitably anarchic end. Over the years The Damned may not have received the recognition they deserve as punk pioneers in comparison with the Sex Pistols and The Clash, but this night the sound of celebration was loud and clear.