The Damned were the first UK punk band to release a record, the first UK punk band to tour America, the first to split up (in 1978). By the time they reformed, six months later, The Clash were still only on their second album.
A frantic and furious British version of the Stooges and the MC5, their debut single New Rose made The Clash look timid and the Sex Pistols look turgid. New Rose came out in October, their debut album Damned Damned Damned came in February 1977, and in-between was the small matter of the Anarchy In The UK Tour
The Anarchy Tour doesn't even get mentioned in Danny Boyle’s Pistol series. Which is weird because, as a punk package tour featuring the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, it was kind of a big deal. It happened right as the Bill Grundy scandal kicked off, at the beginning of December ’76. By 7 December, the Damned had been thrown off and labelled ‘punk traitors’.
In Derby, the second proposed date of the tour, the council had refused to let the Pistols play, but said the other bands could. The Clash and the Heartbreakers refused, but the Damned? Well the Damned were willing to consider it. And that made them sell-outs.If you believe Malcolm McLaren’s side of the story, that is.
“The truth is,” says Brian James, founder, original guitarist and the band’s main songwriter back then, “the only reason Malcolm wanted the Damned on the Anarchy tour was because the Pistols had hardly ever played outside of London.
“I don’t think the Clash had ever played outside of London, and we had. [In fact The Clash’s first gig had been supporting the Pistols in Sheffield in July that year, and they had also played Leighton Buzzard, 40 miles north of London.] We had a bit of an audience going, so he wanted to make sure the Damned were on the bill, otherwise 30 miles outside of London there’d be no-one there.
“The night before all the bands were doing a soundcheck when the Pistols came running in: ‘You won’t fucking believe it! We’ve just done the Bill Grundy show… blah blah blah’. Laughing about it. The next day, it’s all over the fucking papers, Bill Grundy’s sacked, the whole thing.
“And the full effect of that kicks in maybe two days into the tour. At that point, the line-up was the Pistols headlining, the Damned before the Pistols, and then Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and The Clash on first.
“Two nights into the tour, Malcolm starts having a go at our tour manager. He was like an office boy at Stiff, he wasn’t an experienced manager or anything, he was just there to make sure we got to our hotels and stuff. We weren’t travelling with the rest of them.
“They had record company support: EMI, CBS and stuff like that. They had a big coach, we had a little Transit. We weren’t part of ‘the Malcolm McLaren gang’. So Malcolm gives this kid such a hard time – saying ‘I don’t need the Damned’ and all this shit – that he’s in tears.
“So I steamed in and I had a go at Malcolm: ‘What the fuck are you on about?’ I didn’t give a fuck in them days, I was ready to fuckin’ hit ‘im to tell you the truth. But he had his bodyguards.
“So it comes to this big showdown. Malcolm wants the Damned to go on first, then Heartbreakers, then the Clash… It turned into this big political number. Meanwhile, the gigs were being cancelled because the promoters were getting the heebie-jeebies because of all the bad press.
“We’re getting all this crap from McLaren and there’s people contacting our office saying, ‘Will the Damned play anyway?’ We’d turn up somewhere like Manchester to find the gig’s cancelled, but they still want us: ‘Fuck it, we’ll do it’. What are we meant to do? Say, ‘Oh no, we’re not doing it! Not if our mate Malcolm’s not doing it!’? You know what I mean? I could’ve fucking killed that bastard!”
The incident as reported in the music press ruined some of the band’s credibility. Years later, in Jon Savage’s respected punk tome England’s Dreaming (opens in new tab), it was still being distorted: the Damned weren’t good enough, The Clash wanted to be higher up the bill, the Damned couldn’t be trusted.
“Total nonsense. Him [Savage] and McLaren have re-written things,” says then bassist, now guitarist Captain Sensible. “These people - they refuse to allow the rest of us any credit for dreaming things up or having intelligence.
“So of course punk didn’t start in the bars down Portobello Road with the bands, it was McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. Nothing to do with us.”
The Anarchy Tour wasn’t the only tour the Damned were thrown off.
A support slot with US rockers the Flamin’ Groovies was also short lived. “They couldn’t keep up with us, I’m afraid,” says Sensible. “I wouldn’t have liked to work with the Damned at the time, to be quite honest. It was quite dangerous, I’d imagine. To have come through it still alive… I’m not overstating it: there was serious amounts of lunacy going on. If the hotel was next to another building, we’d jump from roof to roof, pissed as parrots, just to get the flag off the roof. I’m scared of heights! The things you do when you’re paralytic…
“We had banners made up that said ‘Gob now!’ And we’d hold the banners up behind the band we were working with. The audience, of course, would comply and the band would be absolutely covered in stuff. We had one support band, they got the whole fisherman’s outfits – sowesters, everything – and they wore them every night onstage!
"The Flamin’ Groovies didn’t approve! They’d never seen anything like it. There was another band that came over from New Zealand, called Split Enz. They had weird haircuts and funny clothes and in Australia they were shocking people by the way they looked. They came out on stage in the UK and the audience shocked them! Straight on the first plane back home they were. They were pretty manic days.”
The original line-up of The Damned tour the UK (opens in new tab) from October 2022. Pistol is streaming now on Disney+.