At the European premiere of The Damned’s 2015 documentary Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, in London’s Leicester Square, guitarist Brian James and drummer Rat Scabies, who still tour as one version of the band, were present, but bassist Captain Sensible and singer Dave Vanian, who tour as another, were conspicuous by their absence.
The documentary comprised 90 minutes of comically incessant intra-band squabbling that made Guns N’ Roses (who covered The Damned’s New Rose on 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident?), look like the model of harmony. At a Q&A following the screening, Rat Scabies, getting serious for a moment, had tears in his eyes as he doubted the original foursome would ever reunite.
Considering their turbulent history, you can’t help wondering if there were ever any moments of accord in The Damned. But 40 years ago they kept it together long enough to become the first British group to take punk to America, in 1977, the first UK punk band to record an album – the same year’s Damned Damned Damned – and the first to release a single, in October 1976. And an astonishing opening salvo that was, too.
New Rose was a blistering example of controlled mayhem, from the girl group-aping ‘Is she really going out with him?’ and quasi-Burundi drum pattern intro, to the incendiary guitar riff, with lyrics that hailed the oncoming punk scene.
It doesn’t come as much surprise to learn that the song was partly written by Brian James when he was in an earlier band called Bastard.
“I was in Brussels in late seventy-four,” James recalls, “and I had this riff nagging at me. I played it with the drummer from Bastard, a guy called Nobby Goff, and he just didn’t get it. He didn’t set fire to it like he needed to. It was in limbo for a while, kind of like a homeless riff.”
It took Christopher John Millar – better known by his punk moniker Rat Scabies, after a dubious skin condition – to give that riff a home. He also gave it lashings of piss and vinegar.
“When I first got together with Rat,” explains James, who remembers trying out the song at an old church in London’s Lisson Grove, “we were still in the stages of getting The Damned together – finding a bassist and singer and all that stuff. So I played him the [New Rose] riff and he just took to it like water. Bang! He was off. He just attacked it. It was perfect. Now I had something I could build a song around.”
Most assumed the words – ‘I’ve gotta feelin’ inside of me/It’s kinda strange like a stormy sea… I’ve gotta new rose, I’ve got it good’ – were routine pop fare about infatuation. In fact, James admits, he didn’t have a girlfriend at the time (he would soon start dating eminent US punk femme Judy Nylon of Snatch), so he wrote it about the burgeoning punk movement itself, so excited was he by what he heard and saw around him.
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“There was a feeling in the air of being able to play the kind of music I wanted to play, and there were people in London with similar attitudes to me,” he says. “It was about that, not a woman. That’s why it says ‘it’, not ‘her’.”
New Rose was recorded – “for about fifty quid” – Pathway Studios in Islington, with Nick Lowe producing. It took a day to record and a day to mix – “or a few hours, knowing Nick,” James says with a cackle. The B-side was a furious rendition of The Beatles’ Help!, the idea being to mimic the pace and cartoon energy of The Ramones after NME journalist Nick Kent introduced The Damned to the New York punks via a copy of their February ’76 debut album. “It was pretty fast,” allows James. “It suited the title of the song. It was desperate.”
Did they get any stick because of the then-prevalent ‘fuck history’ credo?
“No,” he says, aware that The Clash’s anthem, 1977 – ‘No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones/In 1977’ – was coming. “It’s funny, because there wasthat ‘That was then, this is now’ feeling, and there was us blasting away on an old Beatles song.”
New Rose was released on Stiff Records on October 22, 1976. “We didn’t want to sign with a straight label,” says James. “Jake [Riviera, Stiff boss] was the real McCoy, who ran Stiff out of an old shop. Everybody mucked in. Plus they had people like Dave Edmunds, Pink Fairies and Lemmy – good people who we could hang out with. Dave Edmunds used to thrash us at darts in the pub next door.”
The single came out a month before the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK. But James denies it was important for them to beat the Pistols and The Clash, The Damned’s rivals, into the shops. “Jake was competitive, but we weren’t,” he insists. Indeed the Pistols’ Paul Cook and Steve Jones were mates whom The Damned would bump into regularly at the dole office or in the Earl Of Lonsdale pub down Portobello Road.
New Rose wasn’t a hit, but it received unanimous praise in the music weeklies. “We were on the covers of magazines!” James exclaims. “It was like, ‘What?’ Never in our wildest dreams did we expect to be on the covers of Sounds and Melody Maker.”
It also set the standard for punk 45s to come. How does James think New Rose stands up next to Anarchy In The UK, White Riot, In The City and the rest?
“Listen, no one knows anything’s a classic till after a certain amount of time,” he insists. “But as soon we heard the playback it was ‘Woah, that sounds great!’
“That was the epitome of it,” he adds. “Here was a song I’d written, and it sounded absolutely magnificent. If I was to fall down a fucking hole and never play again, I’d have that. If it all stopped tomorrow I’d be so proud of actually having made a record that sounds so fucking good.”
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