On a frosty December night in Plymouth, The Damned are still fighting their corner in the punk wars. Always more theatrical, humorous, musically promiscuous and unashamedly melodic than more critically revered peers, the original pranksters of punk remain the misfit South London oiks at the back of the Anarchy tour bus, firing peashooters at the cool kids and mooning at passing motorists.
The Damned are a custard pie in the face of Britrock orthodoxy, an outsized cock and balls scrawled on the toilet wall of pop history. Once this infantile irreverence was a liability. Four decades later, it is arguably the band’s strongest selling point as they belatedly edge towards national treasure status.
The two last remaining founder members, Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian, look like they barely belong in the same century, never mind the same band. With his electric peroxide crop, signature red beret and loose-cannon comic energy, Sensible is a Looney Tunes cartoon in human form. Meanwhile, Vanian brings a perfumed whiff of old-school Hollywood glam with his undertaker robes, Victorian stage magician moves and booming crooner voice. One is in vivid Technicolor, the other in grainy monochrome. And yet the heady musical chemistry still works.
The frenzied first act of this show is a full run-through of the band’s 1977 debut, Damned Damned Damned. It is fast, frenetic and exhilarating, with evergreen amphetamine classics like New Rose and Neat Neat Neat still delivering their teenage kicks between rollicking, adrenalised throwbacks to 1960s garage rock. Naturally, Sensible has amended his set list to include puerile schoolboy humour, so Fan Club becomes Fanny Club and Born To Kill retitled Porn To Kill. Maximum respect. Pun’s not dead.
As ever, Sensible handles most of the stage banter, lobbing a few creaky brickbats at Eric Clapton and Cliff Richard. He also jokes about being the oldest person in the hall. “Anyone in the room older than 62?” he beams. “Seniors half price at the bar!” Later, after the shuddering fade-out of I Feel Alright, the mangled Stooges cover that closes Damned Damned Damned, he shares a very Damned memory: “After that they said we were washed up! Collect your P45s and fuck off!”
Of course, The Damned story did not end with Damned Damned Damned. But they did enjoy a bumpy four-decade ride after punk peaked, enduring multiple break-ups, fall-outs and line-up changes. Not to mention wild musical digressions into psychedelia, gothic rock and mainstream chart pop. And yet here they are, pretty much the last band standing from that original 1976 generation. Where did it all go right?
Rewind four hours to before the show, and Sensible is in more reflective mood backstage in Plymouth. Still boyish and lean at 62, he instantly snaps into zany cartoon mode when passing fans grab him for selfies etc. “Oi! Where’s that fiver I lent you 40 years ago?” he quips as he strikes comedy poses and gurns for snaps. But off duty, Sensible’s real-life alter ago Ray Burns is a little more, well, sensible. At the height of his early fame, the divide was not always so clear: “I used to make the mistake of thinking Captain Sensible and Ray Burns was the same person. It took me a nervous breakdown to realise that you should not try doing both at the same time. You need some offstage time where you are not performing for people. It drained me. I ended up in one of them clinics.”
Some of Sensible’s more manic behaviour might be interpreted as upswings in a bipolar cycle, but he denies having a depressive side. “No, never depressive. I am always upbeat. Look at any photo and I’m always smiling. That’s the only thing I ever had with Lemmy. He always told me off for smiling too much. Any picture you see of me and Lemmy, he’s scowling and I’m smiling.”
The Plymouth gig takes place shortly before the first anniversary of Lemmy’s death, and fond memories abound about the warty bass legend who helped keep The Damned together following their 1978 split with founding guitarist Brian James. After briefly joining Sensible and Vanian in their short-lived transitional group The Doomed, the Motörhead frontman remained a friend and champion. They last toured together in late 2014.
“He was a mate,” Sensible nods. “I used to sleep on people’s floors, and it was usually poor old Lemmy’s. The downside of that is he would make you watch Luftwaffe videos all night: ‘Not for the politics, Captain, for the style…’ You never slept if you were in his company.”
“Lemmy was a ridiculously funny, down-to-earth legend,” recalls drummer Andew “Pinch” Pinching, a 17-year Damned veteran. “He probably wanted to die on the road, to do a Tommy Cooper.”
Lemmy toured almost up to his death, a hardcore rock’n’roll statement that Sensible finds more inspiring than depressing: “That’s the way we all want to go. You celebrate the life, you don’t mourn the final act. We’re all born, we all die, it’s the stuff in between that’s interesting… and he had a lot of stuff in between, ha! He was magnificent, he never did anything he didn’t want to do.”
So will The Damned rock until they drop? Says Sensible: “Not if it starts getting gruelling. I always say I do the gigs for free but I want to get paid for the travelling. Especially when you get a bit older, it’s a bit much.”
Musing on what punk means today, if anything, Pinch insists “it was a good moral compass to grow up with, you learned to not be a dick basically.” Sensible says the liberating DIY spirit of punk saved him and thousands more working-class kids from a lifetime of shitty jobs –literally, as he was cleaning toilets when the band started.
In turn, The Damned famously had a strong galvanising effect on younger bands, especially in the US. But Sensible is ambivalent about third-generation punk-lite copycats like Green Day and Blink-182, who borrowed their blueprint and became arena-filling multi-millionaires.
“I always say we fought in the punk wars for the likes of them,” Sensible scowls. “We had to stand there getting drenched in phlegm, having punch-ups with Teddy Boys, ending up in police cells. They were pretty raunchy times in the late 70s, you know? Too much fighting on the dance floor. Some of it was quite scary, but it was magnificent as well. Then these wankers come along and rake up all the cash. So it does rankle a bit, I must say.”
Media hype around the 40th anniversary of punk has been contentious, but it provided a valuable energy boost for The Damned. Their latest 21-date nationwide tour, including Plymouth, was their biggest and best received in years. The anniversary momentum of 2016 is carrying over into 2017, with a deluxe re-issue of their debut LP due this month, followed by a major US tour and a summer of festivals.
The birthday celebrations began last May when The Damned headlined the Royal Albert Hall, their belated debut at the iconic London venue. “That was pretty amazing to us,” says wild-haired keyboard player Monty Oxymoron, a part-time psychiatric nurse and Damned veteran of 20 years. “Although we’ve played to pretty large crowds before, we’ve never done it on our own.”
After that high-profile London show, recalls bass guitarist Stu West, audiences have been larger and noticeably younger. “It’s all snowballed from the Albert Hall,” he says. “That was a couple of years in the planning, and it worked spectacularly. That got our name out, because a lot of people didn’t realise we still existed.”
There are certainly plenty of younger fans in Plymouth, some of whom were not even born when these punk godfathers were in their prime. One is 22-year-old Eloise Lacey, from Bournemouth, seeing the band for the first time. And yes, she is named after the Paul Ryan song that gave The Damned their biggest hit, in 1986.
Eloise is writing a university dissertation on punk culture, and she smartly lined up an interview with Sensible before the gig. “People my age should look to punk culture more,” she says. “I feel like that energy has disappeared. It’s not as prominent as it was in the punk era.” Also at the show is Eloise’s 50-year-old ex-punk dad Ray, a long-term superfan seeing The Damned for his tenth time. “My favourite band of all time,” he states, “Very underrated as musicians.”
Dave Vanian is the last to arrive in Plymouth. Shortly before showtime, he materialises in the backstage area by mysterious means, possibly gliding in through an open window. Garbed in full Victorian vampire gear, he is already in make-up, and carrying a vintage leather bag containing his signature retro chrome microphone. The suave old bastard.
This is Vanian’s long established routine, travelling separately from his band mates, staying in hotels rather than on the tour bus. Other members describe him an enigma, but there is no obvious tension or distance between them before the show. Sensible insists the singer is the only Damned member he has never fallen out with over 40 years.
“I love being with the band, I just can’t stand being on the bus,” Vanian explains, pouring himself a hearty glass of blood-red wine. “I can’t sleep on the bus, I can barely sleep anyway. So I just prefer to get a hotel.”
Close-up, Vanian looks younger than his 60 years, with a louche manner and laconic delivery strongly reminiscent of actor Bill Nighy. He scoffs at my suggestion that The Damned are finally becoming national treasures: “You make me feel like Judi Dench. Where’s my knighthood?”
Paraphrasing a famous line from Chinatown (“politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough”), Vanian concedes that The Damned have been embraced more warmly in recent years. “A lot of people dismissed us at a certain time,” he nods, “because the general view was that we were an older punk band who were partially maybe a comedy act even. Because we didn’t play the political games that certain journalists wanted us to play, we were kind of elbowed out of the picture. We didn’t fit then, but now they see it differently.”
This year, The Damned plan to record a new studio album, their first in nine years, a DIY affair funded by online fan pledges. Which, on one level, is about as punk as it gets in 2017. Vanian reassures fans the album will not be “Scott Walker beating on pieces of meat,” but it will be experimental and bloody-minded. So, a typically Damned statement.
“We decided to just create an album, whether people like it or not,” the singer explains as he finalises his pre-show transformation into Count Punkula. “It will be more psychedelic, and push some other boundaries. We want to surprise ourselves and everybody else. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but that’s always been the case. We’ve made music that people have said they absolutely hate, but it turns out to be the songs they want most as time goes by. So, much as I love our audience, and I’m very in debt to them for keeping us alive, I won’t pander to them.”
After the compact blast of Damned Damned Damned, the Plymouth show’s longer second half becomes a kaleidoscopic explosion of diverse styles and shadings, from noodling Floydian prog-punk epics to paisley-shirted cover versions to heart-jangling powerpop lullabies. Sensible dedicates Nasty to Rik Mayall before launching into the cascading melodrama of Eloise, the foot-stomping garage-rock swagger of Stranger On The Town and the wistful endorphin rush of Melody Lee.
The show closes with a blaze of all-time punk-pop classics, including Love Song and Smash It Up. As the gleeful yobbo-rock chant of Noise Noise Noise shudders to an end, The Damned have landed yet another musical custard pie, bang on target. They scrawled a massive cock and balls all over Plymouth’s big, stupid face, and we loved it. “Happy birthday punk rock!” Sensible grins, throwing his hands in the air. “Thanks for putting up with us for forty years.”