The Damned – the greatest surviving British punk band, bar none – are back with their first new album in a decade, still firing on all cylinders, and breaking all the rules. Where their peers either burnt out, or faded away into mediocrity, this most spiritually chaotic of all punk groups have never been away, never surrendered their ideals, always forged onwards.
From 1977’s high-energy entrée ‘Damned Damned Damned’, via the riotous variety of ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ (1979), to the macabre psychedelia of 1985’s ‘Phantasmagoria’ and beyond, The Damned have never stayed in one place for long. Colourful, anarchic, yet propelled by an indefatigably urgent creative motor, they’ve evolved and expanded their remit with every phase, to become one of the top-flight UK groups of ANY pop era.
Since 2008’s ‘So, Who’s Paranoid?’,
they’ve toured constantly, to raise awareness of that amazing body of work, culminating in a memorable career-spanning show at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of their arrival in the explosive Summer of ’76.
Two years on, they now capitalise on all that road work with ‘Evil Spirits’, an eleventh studio album, which is not only fit to rank high amongst its many illustrious predecessors, but also within the great rock pantheon. As their enviably gifted guitarist, Captain Sensible, points out, “I have some incredible albums at home, by The Kinks, The Who, The Small Faces, and what have you – I want ours to be as good as those.”
Far from merely trading on the shock value of bestriding the stage with just three chords and some lively egos, The Damned were always about proper music. Alongside The Sex Pistols and The Clash on the legendary ill-fated Anarchy tour in December ’76, they were the ones who wanted to get out there and play, and felt frustration rather than elation at being banned everywhere. Through ’77, they were duly courted by pre-punk giants who’d sniffed out their superior musicality, including Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who came down to check them out at the Roxy, and Marc Bolan, whom they supported on his final tour with T-Rex.
Flipping the bird at punk’s diktat that you shouldn’t consort with ‘dinosaurs’, The Damned even tried to lure Syd Barrett out of retirement to produce 1978’s ‘Music For Pleasure’ (but ended up with Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason instead).
Fast forward to 2017,
and they have collaborated with another legend from pop’s golden age – Tony Visconti, whose production on innumerable classic albums by David Bowie, T-Rex and more, mark him not only as a master of his craft, but a perfect match for The Damned.
Says singer Dave Vanian, “It was hearing Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ that made me think about working with Tony, particularly the title track – being a long piece, where you go through all these different passages, it reminded me a bit of ‘Curtain Call’ [17-minute epic off 1980’s ‘Black Album’], and what we do sound-wise, generally. We wanted a modern album like that, but not to lose sight of what made his records so brilliant in the past. Plus, we’ve had young producers before, where you’re making references for them, and they’ve never even heard those records. Tony obviously was going to have that knowledge.”
Adds Sensible with characteristic gusto, “His ’70s records compare so favourably up against all the maxxed-out ultra-compressed autotuned guff that passes for records these days. We thought, ‘There’s a bloke who specialises in beautifully crafted old-school production – but how could we ever afford him?’ Then someone mentioned this new-fangled route of a PledgeMusic campaign…’”
To stump up cash for this exciting new phase, The Damned set up their first ever crowd-funding venture. All their graft on the road soon paid dividends, as their freshly galvanized global fanbase quickly coughed up a sum unimaginable to these lifelong DIY-ers. It turned out Visconti, now 73, had first heard of them from Bolan circa ’77, and was shocked they’d never approached him before. He duly signed up, without hearing a note of prospective music, as the band hadn’t actually finished writing any songs yet…
* * * * *
With four songwriters on the team – on top of founder members Sensible and Vanian, their keyboard wiz Monty Oxy Moron (joined in ’96) and drummer Pinch (1999) both contribute compositionally – each set to work in isolation. Ideas were pinged around by email, and worked up in twos and threes where opportunities arose, but with their sticksman resident in San Diego, there were no full-band run-throughs of the 20 tracks they penned until they convened with Visconti and his team in October ’17 for Day One of an intensive nine-day session at Brooklyn’s Atomic Sound studio.
Says Sensible, “Tony chose this studio in the old docklands area of Brooklyn, which is still pretty industrial – lots of warehouses, and working-class housing estates, and when the wind blew the right (or wrong?) way, there was a distinct whiff of fish in the air. But Atomic Sound was great, it has a heap of wonderful-sounding antique valve gear and mics, and a lovely old Neve desk, all of which often had to be cajoled into action with a few taps. Tony had us all playing live, bashing it out in the same room, with a focus on getting the initial band version of each song as close as possible to the finished thing – the same way our debut album was made.”
Just before the sessions commenced, post-millennial bassist Stu West quit, making possible a short-term recall for Paul Gray, a Damned alumnus from the early-’80s purple patch that spawned the ‘Black Album’ and ‘Strawberries’ (he will return to his main job with Eddie & The Hot Rods following February’s UK tour). “Paul’s a spectacular bassist,” confirms the Captain. “He once told us that if he got paid by the notes he crams into a gig, he’d be a multi-millionaire.” Adds Vanian, “He plays like a lead guitarist, basically, so he brings a different and very musical dynamic”.
Lifelong fans and newcomers alike will be blown away by the sheer breadth and quality of ‘Evil Spirits’: there’s hurtling Scott Walker-esque chamber pop (‘Standing On The Edge Of Tomorrow’), Farfisa-stabbing garage-psych (‘Devil In Disguise’), even the sweeping Broadway-isms of ‘Look Left’. There’s diversity, too, in the character of The Damned’s main players: Vanian, often cited as the very originator of goth, brings his brooding nocturnalist perspective to ‘Shadow Evocation’, while the madcap polemicist Sensible serves up unforgettable agit-pop aplenty.
Crammed within ‘I Don’t Care’’s all-too-fleeting three minutes are a trio of distinct movements – one with Vanian musing amid piano and violins, and a second where his care-free feelings boil over into eruptive Who-esque rock, before we finally come to earth with a jazzy late-nite outro. It’s punk, Jim, but not as we’ve ever known it before.
As Vanian points out, “Anyone looking for out-and-out raucousness and nothing else might not be happy. This album is filled with a lot of influences from our earlier, pre-’70s tastes – the ’60s stuff. ‘Standing…’ is really linked into Joe Meek, ‘Telstar’, and that kind of stuff. I said in an interview that the album would be psychedelic, and maybe a trip through the historical side of The Damned, as in, what we like. It’s not as obvious as it could’ve been, which is good. It’s not like pastiches of songs you remember, it’s more a case of, what was great about something you loved as a kid has somehow influenced a guitar sound, or the way the drums are. You might not even know it if you’re one of our younger fans, but if you’re a little older, you’ll hear it, which is kinda cool.”
Also a Damned constant are the premier-league tunes: songs are filled to bursting point with grandstanding melodies, and subtle little hooks, with scarcely a second of airtime wasted. The Captain has truly excelled himself this time, often evoking that ace Gray-enhanced *Strawberries era. His swingeing critique of Blairite imperialism, ‘We’re So Nice’, bounces along gloriously on a Tamla beat and supremely catchy phrasing, while ‘Sonar Deceit’s tale of maritime eco-horror has a contrastingly skippy bassline not dissimilar to Elvis’s ‘His Latest Flame’.
“At the end of the day,” Sensible observes, “it’s all about the tune, and making something fabulous that grabs the listener. The message is a bonus. It’s a crazy world we find ourselves in. The songs are mostly about pretty serious stuff – a reaction to the lunacy of today’s nonsensical politics – i.e. whoever you vote for, nothing changes; the wars, political corruption and economic idiocy carry on regardless.
“I started buying records in 1967, the Summer of Love,” he adds. “There were so many positive changes happening through the ’60s and ’70s – civil rights, feminism, the anti-nuclear demos. Whatever happened to all that? Where are today’s anti-war marches? Whatever happened to the beautiful hippy dream of worldwide peace and love?”
You could argue that Vanian, Sensible and their punk generation were all about trying to reassert the highest ideals of the ’60s counter-culture after the whole thing had collapsed into egotism, virtuosity and musical flatulence – and here they are again, 40-plus years on, still performing that task with undimmed commitment and urgency.
* * * * * *
Still a seat-of-the-pants DIY operation after all these years – it’s too late to stop now! – The Damned cut ‘Evil Spirits’ in nine days flat with Visconti – “a month’s worth of work in that short time,” recalls Sensible, “so it got a bit manic, with the clock ticking mercilessly.” One of the master producer’s most invaluable contributions, says Vanian, was as a “psychologist”, quietly making sure each member was happy, and contributing their best in this pressure-cooker environment.
“He concentrated a lot on the vocals,” says Sensible, “and got some amazing vocals out of Dave. He’s a producer who listens to the song, and pays attention to the lyrics. He wants you to capture the spirit of the song in the performance, you can hear that on the album, so much so that when Dave is singing a lyric written in the third person, it actually sounds like a different person singing. Dave’d have made a great actor!”
Considering how late the material came together and the ensuing hectic schedule, they managed to bring an incredible diversity of instrumentation to the task, including brass, strings, and on ‘We’re So Nice’, mellotron. Vanian even played the jug on one track, à la Thirteenth Floor Elevators, but that one didn’t make the cut.
After those crazy nine days, Visconti really came into his own at the mixing stage. Says Vanian, “We’re in an age where technology’s taken over, and there’s generally a blandness to the mixes of things. Like, often you’ll get a full-on loud tune, and it hits you – great, but after you’ve heard it, there’s nothing more. You go back to Tony’s mixes, and they’re way more complex. You hear a track and it’s great, but then you go back and it’s, ‘Oh, I didn’t notice that before’. It’s more of an exploration. There’s a depth and subtlety to the mixes he did for us that we’re really happy with.”
So, on every level, ‘Evil Spirits’ excels by the highest standards set by rock’s all-time greats. Armed with this late-career classic, The Damned can now look to the future, and rightfully claim the respect they’ve always deserved.
“In the early days,” reflects an unapologetic Vanian, “so much of the focus was on our craziness as people, and not enough was said about the fabulous music we were creating. Looking back, maybe we were our own worst enemies sometimes. We’d do gigs where we were out of it and drunk – brilliant gigs, but for different reasons! Captain would send me careering off the stage, and then it was just a case of getting your own back.
“We were termed ‘punk’,” he continues, “but in the press at least, that became a niche, where it only did certain things. That’s never what it was about, but we then became the outsiders, staying true to the original ethos. We always believed in it being more open-minded and variable, and that’s what we’ve tried to maintain over the years.
“It can get difficult, if you have a history of good songs, because you can too easily rely on playing those songs. You could do that forever, but then you become a nostalgia story, and this band has always predominantly gone forwards.” He pauses meaningfully. “We think this album shows we’re a relevant band NOW, and not just a bunch of old guys making an album because they have to, or because it’s ‘what you do’. It really shows what we’re capable of again.”
From The Damned, makers of some of the most exciting and influential music of the last fifty years, these are no idle claims. Here’s dreaming of a better world.