The Damned: punk's old dogs pick up ferocious new tricks

The Damned
(Image credit: Spinefarm Records)

Bands, especially punk bands, aren't supposed to improve with age, they're supposed to burn brightly, then fade away. That's the accepted modus operandi. It's unfortunate, some might even say tragic, yet perfectly understandable. Keeping the old fire in the belly stoked is one thing, but living cheek by jowl with the same few faces for literally decades can only take its toll. 

So how is it then that The Damned (after 44-years of anarchy, chaos, fart-filled vans, smashing things up, smashing things down and tirelessly blow-torching rock's candle at both ends) have just released one of the finest recordings of their entire career?

On first listen to Keep 'Em Alive (the newly unleashed lead single from The Damned's forthcoming The Rockfield Files EP) it simply makes no sense that Dave Vanian's richly rounded and commanding baritone boasts a clarity and power the match of any previous performance in his recorded repertoire. Or that Captain Sensible's guitar breaks sing from the speakers with the sort of ferocity more readily associated with Detroit '69 axe-abusers half his age. And then there's Paul Gray's signature bass, casually deploying its pin-sharp, melody-highlighting, Entwistle-channeling Rickenbacker runs. 

And how do the new boys hold up? Psychedelic keyboard wizard Monty Oxy Moron and ever imaginative drummer Pinch have only managed to rack up a trifling 44 years of Damned service between them. Yet the former provides Vanian and Sensible with a lush, authentic backdrop upon which both weave their own particular vision of the sixties, while the latter proves himself to be (with all due respect to Rat Scabies) the optimum occupier of the Damned's drum-stool.

Having been front-line troops in Ye Olde Punk Rock Wars, The Damned could be forgiven for relying upon formulaic rock'n'roll cliché, to flaunt lyrical attitudes as tired and musty as Rip Van Winkle's nightshirt, but Keep 'Em Alive doesn't just shoot for relevance, it actually scores.

Roxy Luddites might well throw metaphorical fish at Keep 'Em Alive's ecological 'save the bees' central theme, but any punk rocking purists wilfully intent on accusing the vegetarian, pacifist, psychedelic-prog-favouring, animal rights activist Captain Sensible of being some kind of 'hippy' haven't really been paying attention. Anyway, tearing our ears away from the irresistible nagging hook, the searing guitar punctuations and the glorious final breakdown of the song in question, how is it that The Damned are still improving as they romp toward their golden anniversary in harness? How did they manage to stay together for so long?

Well, they didn't, and therein lies the secret of their success. The Damned first split in '77, disbanded in February '78, reformed to play the first of their many farewell shows in April of the same year, and were back together again by the September. In fact, they've all left the band at one time or another.

Prior to 2018's Tony Visconti-produced Evil Spirits reformation album, the last time that a Vanian/Sensible/Gray-fronted Damned had graced us with their combined presence was at the dawn of the eighties when they favoured us with double-disced magnum opus The Black Album and '82's often overlooked Strawberries

In the interim, Gray joined UFO, the good Captain embarked upon solo adventures after miraculously Happy Talking himself to number one in the singles chart, while a spectacularly hirsute Vanian led a decidedly more gothic incarnation of The Damned to their greatest commercial success to date when their immense cover of Paul And Barry Ryan's Eloise made UK number three.

Obviously much else occurred, but you get the picture. Ultimately, the only way for bands to live happily ever after, is to enjoy massive mid-career fallouts. Have a bit of a rest from one another. Then, when the dust settles and all are mature enough to realise that there's really nowhere else for them to go, they make their peace and take care of business.

See also: Mick/Keith, Daltrey/Townshend, Killing Joke.

Of course, The Damned aren't only known for racking up extensive longevity while constantly splitting up, but also for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and while Keep 'Em Alive captures the quintet at the absolute zenith of their creativity, it also marks Pinch's last recording with the band. Their twenty-year veteran drummer announced his departure on the eve of their landmark London Palladium show last October.

It's a setback certainly, but as we've seen, The Damned are not a band you should ever write off.

The Rockfield Files EP will be released on October 16th 2020 via Search and Destroy Records/ UMG.

Ian Fortnam

Classic Rock’s Reviews Editor for the last 20 years, Ian stapled his first fanzine in 1977. Since misspending his youth by way of ‘research’ his work has also appeared in such publications as Metal Hammer, Prog, NME, Uncut, Kerrang!, VOX, The Face, The Guardian, Total Guitar, Guitarist, Electronic Sound, Record Collector and across the internet. Permanently buried under mountains of recorded media, ears ringing from a lifetime of gigs, he enjoys nothing more than recreationally throttling a guitar and following a baptism of punk fire has played in bands for 45 years, releasing recordings via Esoteric Antenna and Cleopatra Records.