Artist: The Damned
Venue: Gramercy Theatre (New York, NY)
Label: English Channel Records
Written By: Steve Bunche
“NEAT, NEAT, NEAT!!! 40 YEARS OF THE DAMNED AT THE GRAMERCY THEATRE”
Where to even start when discussing the Damned?
One of the seminal bands of the early British punk movement, the Damned always stood out from their safety pin-and-Doc Marten’s-sporting contemporaries in a number of ways, such as eschewing the era’s Mohawk and swastika fashion for markedly individual ridiculousness (singer Dave Vanian’s silly-yet-elegant Edwardian vampire chic and Guitarist Captain Sensible’s red beret, sunglasses, nurse’s uniform and occasional complete and utter nudity spring to mind), possessing a sense of humor, shamelessly allowing the beautiful voice of its singer to dominate the proceedings — seriously, Dave Vanian is blessed with one of pop music’s most singular, evocative, and beautiful vocal deliveries — and a flair for actual musicianship that flew in the face of British punk’s famous “any arsehole can pick up a guitar and bang out three chords” attitude.
While the majority of their contemporaries fizzled out like a fart in a thunderstorm, largely due to their cookie-cutter sameness and embarrassing (though well-intentioned) amateurishness, the Damned visibly grew and evolved from album to album, refining their sound from its rough-edged origins of four decades past into the tight, wholly professional and enthralling unit that endures to this day, despite numerous personnel upheavals and the criminally offensive ignoring that they receive from pretty much all but those in the know. Undaunted by such shabby treatment, the Damned have once more returned, this time to mark their forty years of merrily purveying polished mayhem to their loyal followers (and not one of their periodic so-called farewell tours) with an anniversary tour that recently brought them to NYC’s venerable Gramercy venue, a former vintage movie palace that now serves as an unpretentious concert space that’s mercifully free of the plague of hipster types that have infested what remains of the Big Apple’s dwindling old school punk scene.
Promising two evenings of godless rakka-frakka and rampant sarcasm, the Gramercy shows sold out mere minutes after tickets went on sale — no surprise; NYC is a Damned-loving town — and the children of the night converged upon the theater from all over the Five Boroughs and beyond, with the audience reflecting the diversity of the band’s fans. Many of the faithful had been on board since the early days and borne witness to the Damned’s ongoing metamorphosis from laddish punk noisemakers to unintentional trend-setters of “new romantic”/Goth fashion and tone, to the seasoned, grownup rockers that now squeeze the audience by its collective bollocks and hold them at their musical mercy while Vanian’s dulcet tones entice the throng to wheel and gyrate along with the glorious cacophony conjured by a band of skilled rock ‘n’ roll veterans.
Yours Truly attended both nights and each evening’s musical selections spanned the band’s history, progressing backward through their catalog and culminating with the deathless ditty that got the whole shebang rolling in the first place. (More on that later.) With all that in mind, here’s the set list from the Gramercy shows, a very diverse career cornucopia that offers something for everyone (for better or worse):
“Nature’s Dark Passion” The sole entry from the band’s most recent album, So, Who’s Paranoid?(2008), this saw things getting underway with the stage totally dark until the band members took their places one by one, with Dave Vanian’s voice in full-on theatrical mode while he sang from the black hole darkness of the pit. Eventually making his way to the stage after marking his aural territory, the mood was set and in no time the mayhem began in earnest.
The show proper ignited with selections from Grave Disorder (2001), which was perhaps the band’s truest return to its balls-out best in over two decades of recordings. Little of Vanian’s sometimes wearying forays into overly-theatrical wankery was found on that LP, much to the album’s benefit, but what there was of showcases for Vanian were heartfelt and emotional works accented with a soul-deep dark sadness that it was impossible to remain unaffected by.
“Democracy?” was the perfect song for the ominous countdown to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the rendition of it did not disappoint. Though referring to British politics, the sense of frustration and futility with the voting process and the useless human detritus put in positions of governmental power by it rang true, no matter what nation one hails from, and yet somehow The Damned managed to make such imminent despair danceable.
“Amen” Another of the band’s skewerings of organized religion, this one plays especially well to an American audience. Vanian’s deeper-than-usual intonation conjures up an insidious preacher who gets off on the power he wields over his brainwashed flock, and the effect was hypnotic.
“Thrill Kill” Sociopathic thoughts involving “a fantasy crime” and “messing ’round with a gun” are given expression in this eerie piece that seems all-too-real when given consideration.
“Absinthe” An ode in tribute to the seductive narcotic power of “the green fairy,” delivered with a silky gusto as only Vanian could deliver it. It’s a mood piece rather than a rocker, but it insinuates itself into the mind in much the same way as the seductive liquor it describes.
“Alone Again Or” The Damned has done a good number of covers during their four decades of rollicking madness, and their interpretation of the classic ’60’s tune by Love may actually surpass the original when it comes to mood and heartfelt intensity. The live performance of it clearly struck a chord with the eager audience, as they gyrated and sang along with its trumpet-accented histrionics. The only item from Anything (1986), this one’s always a crowd-pleaser
Next came selections from Phantasmagoria (1985), the album that cemented the Damned (though really mostly Dave Vanian) as icons of the ’80’s Goth aesthetic. (Vanian’s look from this period was appallingly ripped off for deployment on Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Sweeney Todd, some 22 years later.) The songs all veered straight into an Andrew Lloyd Weber-esque sense of Phantom of the Opera theatricality and orchestration, thus rendering the album “The Dave Vanian Show” like few other entries in the band’s catalog. The listener’s individual mileage may vary, depending on whether or not the sometimes over-the-top Broadway musical-like histrionics are one’s cup of tea. “Sanctum Sanctorum” is an overlong Vanian showcase that one hopes will at some point erupt into something that rocks, but such was not meant to be. This one’s for the ladies to swoon over and for sensitive souls to wring their hands in melancholy over.
“Street of Dreams” Declaring its intent in no uncertain terms by way of an opening saxophone riff, this turns Vanian loose to great effect and found the audience howling along with him.
“Grimly Fiendish” This is one of those love it or hate it songs, and it sounds like something written for Oliver! or Sweeney Todd, but wisely excised during pre-Broadway previews. Dominated by a jaunty harpsichord and “blessed” with cloyingly cartoonish lyrics, this is a number where one really has to wonder who thought including it in the set list was a good idea. The only thing missing was a chorus line of Muppets in Edwardian-era costume as the band admonishingly wagged their fingers at the audience as they sang “Bad lad, bad boy” over and over again.
“Shadow of Love” wrings the melodrama teat dry, but it has the decency to be something of a mover, with Vanian gorgeously breaking out a Danzig-style “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh” wail, which lends the piece a certain spectral verve. It’s all diaphanous gowns and puffy pirate shirts in an eerily-lit room as candles burn down during an intimate, two-person dance party. This could easily have become nauseating, but the orchestration and Vanian’s voice make it a classic.
“Eloise” Released as a non-album single, this cover of the 1968 Barry Ryan hit single greatly benefits from the Damned giving it their all and elevating it to a contradictory level of utter sadness made glorious. It rocks hard and the audience was right there with it, singing along with its every bleak lyric.
Up next were selections from Strawberries (1982), a somewhat experimental album that greatly polarizes Damned fans. Those of us who got into the band during their earlier punk years tend to hate this LP, simply because it’s not what we were previously used to. The material is all quite lovely, actually, but look elsewhere if you’re in the mood to rock out.
“Stranger on the Town” Apparently a favorite of those who love this album, “Stranger” sounds like something one would encounter as featured in some lighthearted comedy film. One can bounce up and down to it, but this is the Damned as kiddie music.
“Under the Floor Again” Arguably the best song on Strawberries, this one’s another melancholy Vanian spotlight piece, but at least it’s a good listen.
“Generals” A throwaway piece of anti-war pap, the same subject was covered to much greater effect with XTC’s “Generals and Majors” two years earlier. Another one that should have been left off of the set list.
“Ignite” One of the band’s all-time crowd-pleasers, this features the Misfits-esque “Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh” to seismic effect and serves as an audience-rousing and thoroughly fun singalong. (Which was drastically needed after that “Generals” nonsense.)
Following an intermission of perhaps twenty minutes, Set 2 kicked in and the veneer of Goth respectability was shed like a prom dress.
“Life Goes On” One of the rare songs sung by Captain Sensible rather than the dulcet tones of Dave Vanian, “Life Goes On” is would-be evocative but it’s pretty much the Captain repeating “Life goes on and on and on,” or at least that’s what it feels like. It’s the kind of thing that an adolescent would write in an attempt to seem “deep,” and it’s no way to kick off the second half of an anniversary concert.
“Disco Man” From the 1981 Friday the 13th EP, “Disco Man” brought the audience to its dancing feet with its kickass beat and lyrics that lampoon what used to be the thriving disco scene.
“Limit Club” Another entry from the Friday the 13th EP, this one’s nothing more than filler and the less said about it, the better.
“Nasty” First issued as the B-side to 1984’s “Thanks for the Night” single, this tribute to Britain’s “video nasty” controversy of the early 1980’s (look it up if you’re unfamiliar) was actually recorded for use in the “Nasty” episode of the now-classic, ultra-anarchic BBC comedy series The Young Ones, and it served as most Americans’ first exposure to the Damned (Phantasmagoria/Goth period). And what a rollicking first exposure it was! Loaded from top to bottom with manic energy that extolls the virtues of violent and gory cinema, or in this case home video, this tune is impossible to sit still through. “WITH THAT AXE YOU MEAN IT!!!”
Then came selections from The Black Album (1980), the LP that saw the Damned take their first steps out of the first wave punk era to begin defining themselves as a chameleonic cadre of genuinely talented musicians. The skill and talent were already evident, but their earlier work can now be seen as fortuitous growing pains that yielded many an indelible classic, while what followed had more shape-shifting tricks up its sleeve than John Carpenter’s The Thing.
“Wait for the Blackout” A definitive number and one of the key components of the Damned’s early labeling as a “dark” band,” this ode to all things penumbric somehow manages to be both evocative and subtly funny, as though its protagonist is willing to do pretty much anything short of painting himself jet black in order to enjoy all things dark.
“Twisted Nerve” Another Vanian showcase with sociopathic seasoning, this is a slow mood piece that bears no connection to the 1968 British psychological thriller about a demented young man who feigns mental retardation in order to get into Hayley Mills’ pants.
“The History of the World (Part 1)” More or less a self-assessment and critique of their press at that point in their career, this slower-than-usual piece could have easily become maudlin and self-pitying, but it’s saved by thoughtful lyrics and Vanian’s matter-of-fact delivery. You can’t really dance to it but it’s a good listen.
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” It’s once again “The Dave Vanian Show,” but at least the live version works more effectively and emotionally than the studio iteration.
And then it all got real, as the focus shifted to selections from the mighty Machine Gun Etiquette (1979). Arguably the definitive album upon which the band truly found their signature sound (if one doesn’t count the nascent clangor of their first wave punk debut LP), this album saw the band arising from the ashes of their largely disastrous sophomore effort, Music for Pleasure (1977), kicking ass with pretty much every track.
“Love Song” This instant classic has gone on to be the perfect romantic anthem for those who like their mushy stuff with pleasantly-biting teeth. It’s suddenly just THERE, like a tornado of emotion waiting to get out, as Vanian amusingly outlines his intentions to an inamorata by likening himself to rubbish if she’ll be the bin, and other questionable mating metaphors.
“Machine Gun Etiquette” Sometimes also known as “Second Time Around,” this lively stunner can be read as an attempt to write off Music for Pleasure as a mistake best not spoken of again, with Machine Gun Etiquette being the Damned’s true second time around. Oh, how right they were.
“I Just Can’t Be Happy Today” Another of the building blocks of the band’s moody reputation, “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today” lets you know what it’s about right from its title. A slow Vanian showcase but an essential work.
“Plan 9 Channel 7” Full disclosure: Though not the first Damned record I heard, this was the song that stopped me dead in my tracks and made me take sharp notice, after which I went out and bought every Damned album I could get my mitts on. Coupled with its video, this can be argued as the Ground Zero for the Damned’s quasi-Goth leanings, drenched as it is in B-movie and vampiric imagery. It also contains some powerful guitar work that simply screams to be cranked up to 11. One of the band’s absolute masterpieces, and it’s always a showstopper when performed live.
“Smash It Up” Covered to impotent effect by the likes of the Offspring and others, “Smash It Up” stands as one of the anthems for the waning days of first wave U.K. punk, and as such it is somewhat monolithic. It’s also a massive fan favorite that gets the crowd moving like underwear full of live cockroaches.
We were then treated to selections from Damned Damned Damned (1977), the album that amounts to the band’s dawn of time. The only album to feature the band’s complete original lineup of bassist/songwriter Brian James, drummer (and unlikely medieval scholar) Rat Scabies, former toilet-cleaner/guitarist Captain Sensible, and of course Dave Vanian, Damned Damned Damned is an unpolished gem that bears all the earmarks of an early punk effort, only minus the unfocused amateurishness that marred many of their contemporaries’ debuts. This was a statement of intent disguised as grungy basement noise, and it is a singular work of quasi-divine inspiration.
“Fan Club” A Vanian-fueled look at the dreary side of pop stardom, this one kind of slowed down the show’s proceedings, but it was nonetheless welcomed by those of us who got into the band for their early flavor. (By which I mean material from roughly the first three or four albums.)
“Feel the Pain” An early example of the Vanian-spotlighting that would at times dominate later albums, this one’s for those who wallow in dirge-like misery. I guess it was included for historic significance, but it really brought things to a crawl.
“Neat Neat Neat” Exuberance was restored with the infectiousness of this early instant classic, and it was merrily shouted along with by every man, woman, child, and revenant in attendance. Its lyrics are mostly nonsensical but who cares when you’re having this much fun?
“See Her Tonight” In praise of a girl from the early punk rock scene. Simple and very much to the point.
“1 of the 2” One of the first album’s best tracks, Vanian’s inner fire really comes through and makes his vampire rock star image seem all the more real.
“New Rose” The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” is often cited as the anthem that most readily defines first wave U.K. punk rock, but I make a case for this, the first U.K. punk song ever committed to vinyl. (Historically true!) “New Rose” truly bears that anthemic standard by being apolitical and expressing a manic exuberance a-borning in the face of the then-new youth movement of punk. It’s almost impossibly emotionally expressive, opening with Vanian’s indelible “AUGH!!!” and practically slamming the listener’s head through the wall as newfound enthusiasm consumes the singer. I have no idea what the initial query of “Is she really going out with him?” has to do with any of this, but who cares? From its thundering opening tom-tom drums to its abrupt conclusion, “New Rose” is a tour de force that loudly proclaimed that the Damned had arrived and they were ready to shake things up on their own terms. An absolutely perfect song, this one always electrifies the audience like forty-million volts shot directly into one’s genitals via jumper cables and a broken-into power station. It gets no better than this.
With “New Rose” totally pumping up the audience, it was the perfect way to end on a high note with everybody happy.
But wait! There was more!!!
After a brief pause, the band returned to the stage with…“Curtain Call,” the infamous (depending on your point of view) 17:13 opportunity for Dave Vanian to swan about from The Black Album, a piece that took up the third of the vinyl LP’s four sides. It’s the ultimate Vanian showcase and it goes on for fucking ever, so, in a rare moment of self-preservation, I walked out on “Curtain Call” on both nights of the show. There’s only so much of that sort of thing that some of us can take and I had reached my limit. But, that said, the 40th anniversary celebration was largely an enthralling event and one could feed off of the crowd’s excitement even if some of the individual tunes did not jibe with one’s own personal tastes. The Damned will be touring again in the spring, promoting their first studio album in nine years, with a stop at Brooklyn’s Warsaw. I’ll be damned if I miss it. (I’ll show myself out…)
1. Nature’s Dark Passion
4. Thrill Kill
6. Alone Again Or @Cover[34ec9a8d-c65b-48fd-bcdd-aad2f72fdb47]
7. Sanctum Sanctorum
8. Street of Dreams
9. Grimly Fiendish
10. Shadow of Love
11. Eloise @Cover[Paul Ryan]
12. Stranger on the Town
13. Under the Floor Again
16. Life Goes On
17. Disco Man
18. Limit Club
20. Wait for the Blackout
21. Twisted Nerve
22. The History of the World (Part 1)
23. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
24. Love Song
25. Machine Gun Etiquette
26. I Just Can’t Be Happy Today
27. Plan 9 Channel 7
28. Smash It Up
29. Fan Club
30. Feel the Pain
31. Neat Neat Neat
32. See Her Tonite
33. 1 of the 2
34. New Rose
35. Curtain Call
Official Website: http://www.officialdamned.com/