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The Damned reunited: They lived and breathed punk and now they’re back

The year is 1976. The British music scene has been dominated by hard rock to the point of stagnation. Bloated, out-sized rockers and teenybop boy bands control the charts. Such bands as Mud, Bay City Rollers, Gary Glitter and 10CC reign supreme. And then a bunch of upstarts from London start a cultural earthquake that sweeps away all before them.

THe old line-up of The Damned is the new line-up of The Damned
THe old line-up of The Damned is the new line-up of The Damned

In London, The Damned, Sex Pistols and The Clash start a revolution. In Manchester, Buzzcocks follow.

The movement is a heady mix of youthful rebellion characterised by distinctive clothing, deliberately offensive T-shirts, safety pins and bondage gear. The subculture spreads around the world and becomes the most important youth movement since The Beatles and the Rolling Stones hit in the 1960s.

The Damned were at the forefront and 46 years on from those heady days, the band’s four original members have reunited. They will play a series of shows in California next month before returning to the USA in August then concluding their reunion with five UK dates in October and November, including a headline at Birmingham’s O2 Academy on November 5.

Yes, you can expect fireworks.

Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies and Brian James have returned for the unique set of shows, while also telling their remarkable story in a new, signed book: The Damned 1976-1978.

The band was put together by guitarist Brian James, a man who’d experienced modest success in the UK and Europe before creating a new group. He enlisted drummer Rat Scabies, an energetic kid who’d been working at a concert hall in south London and drumming in his spare time.

The two hit it off immediately and soon recruited a colleague of Rat’s, Captain Sensible, who’d been turned onto music as a schoolboy.

Next, they needed a singer. A vampire-like guy from the London scene, Dave Vanian, was up against another wannabe by the name of Sid Vicious. Vanian turned up for the audition while Vicious didn’t show and the rest, as they say, is history.

James says: “1976 was when we did our first gigs. That was at The Hundred Club on the 7th of July. We had the Pistols crowd, obviously. We didn’t have any fans of our own at that time, apart from the odd girlfriend. I thought they’d just hate us but they didn’t, they liked us.

“They were there for the Pistols, no doubt about it, they had all the clobber on, Malcolm McLaren’s stuff. But we didn’t go down bad, at all. We opened up for the Pistols. Then we were up and running.

“Mind you, McClaren, well, the less said about the dead, eh. We were getting about £20 for being the support band then he charged us about £30 for the use of the PA. Typical Malcolm.”

The band lived and breathed punk. It wasn’t an affectation. They were outsiders who didn’t feel a part of the mainstream and who embraced punk’s unwritten code.

Rat remembers: “We were something else, something different. We’d be wearing leather jackets, jackets with paint on, dog collars, ripped T-shirts, drainpipe trousers. That was fair game. It wasn’t just The Damned, it was everybody.

“The thing I liked was that we were almost saying: ‘Society’s given us nothing and this is what we do when society gives us nothing. We make shirts out of bin liners. We get clothes that nobody else wants from Oxfam.

“For the sake of a few pence, we put a zip in a shirt and it looks great and makes a statement.’ It was like that.”

Captain Sensible remembers the way in which punk blew away all that had gone before. Glam rock and heavy metal were powder puff in the face of a new onslaught.

The songs written by Brian James were at the forefront: “I listened to Brian’s ideas and his ideas were completely radical compared to anything in Britain at the time. It was completely different. It was intense. The bloke had a vision.

“I thought: ‘Yeah, all the cheesecloth shirt-wearing bores on the Old Grey Whistle Test are going to be blown away.’

“All that stuff, that country music, that Emmylou Harris, that soft rock, Little Feat, The Band – I know Brian was going to blow that away. He was going to wipe all that off the face of the planet. I really believed that. And even if it didn’t dramatically change the music business, it was still the music I wanted to hear.

“There was nothing else. The glory days of Glam had gone. Music on TV was rubbish. The music coming through Croydon, where we lived, was poor. Everyone was going to watch bands in stadiums. Something horrible had happened. There was a disconnect between bands and fans.

“All the bands were megastars and you’d see them at the stadiums on a big screen. If you looked at the person they looked smaller than an ant. They were on stages a mile away. I couldn’t work out why people were paying to see bands when they were half a mile away.

“A lot of people thought the same and that’s what caused punk, I suppose.”

Dave Vanian was the man who connected the band’s ethos with the fans. A creative type who planned to go into graphic art or illustration, he’d initially had no plans to join a band.

For a while, he’d got a gig digging graves, to earn a few quid. Then he’d go to London at weekends.

“Teenagers had gone through a post-War era where they had money and a voice of their own for the first time. When the sixties came they partied hard, dropped out and went crazy. Once that dream had faded, the new generation of teenagers wanted to dance to a different drum.

“My generation was one that didn’t want to fit in with what was expected of them. People would be inspired to create something of their own.”

The Damned’s impact was immediate. They became the first punk band to tour the USA, to release a single – New Rose – or to release an album – Damned, Damned, Damned.

Their presence was phenomenal. They possessed one of the best drummers in the country, one of the most talented and influential guitarists, a bassist who was remarkably charismatic and went onto achieve his own, solo success and the enigmatic Vanian up front.

What happened next was a blur as The Damned were catapulted to fame.

Vanian recalls: “Touring Britain, America and the Marc Bolan tour happened so quickly. Even the recording of the album was done in an instant, I think it took less than a week.

“We went to this studio that was like a converted living room and dining room in a house. It was very, very small with a tiny ladder like stair that went up to the top floor.

“Downstairs, the control room was only big enough for two people.”

Captain Sensible has similar memories: “It all happened so quick. I never thought the British public would go for anything like us as the pre-eminent bands of the time were so technically brilliant. They’d all had training at the Royal College of Music and all that nonsense.

“There was Rick Wakeman, the Genesis guys... hot musicians. I thought nobody would really go for a bunch of aggressive oiks like us. And we probably whiffed a bit, too, as I was sleeping on Brian’s floor. I don’t remember taking a shower that often and lived in the clothes I stood up in.

“We’d go and do a gig and you’d sweat like a pig under the stage lights and then you’d spend the next few weeks in the same clothes. The only time they ever got a wash was when I went home to mum and dad.

“Anyway, I was astonished when we started getting written about in the music papers.”

The Damned hit the road with Sex Pistols and The Clash as well as playing a punk festival in France and flying out to the USA.

It ended all too quickly as the tensions that had given the band such energy and dynamism conspired to tear them apart. Rat and Brian both left, leaving Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian to soldier on.

Brian remembers it as a life-changing era. “My memories of our time together are basically happy. You know, someone had to go first and Rat got beat up on the European tour. We were playing somewhere in France.

“He basically freaked out or something, I don’t know. We were doing this and doing that. Things would go that much further.

“Rat needed a rest, we all did. He was the one being the drummer, using the energy.

“We used to get given a lot of things, a lot of drugs and that sort of thing, not heroin, but everything else. Really, I’ve said it before, but the time we were on stage, the hour we were on stage, was probably the only time people weren’t feeding things down our throat. You know: ‘Have some of this, or have some of that.’ All of that was going on all the time.

“One of us had to blow. And it so turned out that Rat’s fuse blew. He didn’t want to be in a band no more. He’d had enough.”

It may have been short-lived, but The Damned’s legacy lives on and will be celebrated this year with their tour and their new signed book.

Signed copies of The Damned 1976-1978 are available from www.officialdamned.com and the band’s tour dates are also online.

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