The Damned and Punk Rock have an odd relationship. As anyone who knows their punk history will testify, the group are vital and absolutely seminal to the genre. ‘New Rose’ was – depending on who you ask – either one of the earliest or even the first ever UK punk 7″ single; and the group’s 1977 debut ‘Damned Damned Damned’ remains a watershed moment in British punk. Despite all that, though, The Damned are a band that transcend the style they’re best known for. A huge part of their longevity comes from the creative, eclectic approach which they opted for after the departure of original guitarist Brian James.
Forty plus years on, The Damned remain unmistakably punk rock but, playing to a packed audience at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion, it’s perhaps the group’s experimental, often genre-defying sense of imagination that’s made most obvious. The group pluck their near-enough two hour set from a wide array of albums from their back catalogue, the setlist not exactly running like a Greatest Hits so much as an extensive anthology, highlighting their broad sonic ethos over the course of a hearty main set plus two encores.
Of course, the band’s quintessentially punk early material is no way in short supply tonight; ‘New Rose’ is thrown in early on, frontman Dave Vanian‘s sardonic “is she really going out with him?” intro drawn out to tongue-in-cheek new lengths. ‘Neat Neat Neat’ likewise makes the cut, the song’s barbed riffs and breakneck pace as vital now as it must surely have been in 1977 – the crowd certainly seem to think so, anyway. Half-full cups of beer are thrown in the air and more than a few tonight partake in the furious pogoing more likely to have been seen at one of The Damned‘s shows forty years ago.
The band have weathered the decades very impressively and their earliest numbers are presented with a huge amount of guts and gusto, given how many times they must have been played by now. Guitarist Captain Sensible‘s string work is as vitriolic and hearty as ever, the rambunctious energy of the band’s early career kept thoroughly intact even now.
It’s not just the group’s more overtly punk rock work that gets an airing tonight, however. Their varied, inventive later work is well represented too. If The Damned were important players in the first wave of UK Punk, then they were just as ready to embrace the diversified sonics of the post-punk movement. Albums such as 1980’s ‘The Black Album’ and 1982’s ‘Strawberries’ often found the group working with a more melodic framework to excellent effect. Such material is plentiful tonight, ‘The Black Album’s ‘Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde’ an early highlight. The cuts played from ‘Strawberries’ and 1979’s ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ ably demonstrate the group’s rather underappreciated knack for sharp melodic hooks – the former’s ‘Stranger On The Town’ and the latter’s ‘Love Song’ both great examples of that, despite their heaviness.
It’s ‘Strawberries’ album opener ‘Ignite’ that gets the blood of the crowd racing the most tonight, the song’s anthemic wordless chorus immediately memorable and powerfully infectious enough that few in the audience resist singing along, to the point where the band drop out and let the crowd carry the song alone for a few bars. The audience have no trouble getting into the mood and atmosphere of tonight’s show and that’s a feeling which is reciprocated by the band. Throughout the gig, there’s a sense of playful dynamism on stage with the band appearing to genuinely enjoy the performance. Although all five members of the band speak at least once, the majority of the plentiful chat between songs is courtesy of Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian, both of whom quip to each other and the audience, promoting a real sense of fun throughout the band’s performance.
When they leave the stage for the first time, after an already entirely reasonable hour and forty minutes, it’s to well-deserved hearty cheers. Most bands would have called it a day there or, perhaps, have offered a cursory one song encore. If tonight’s show proved anything, however, it’s that The Damned are not like most bands so, instead, they return for a lengthy encore followed by another for one final blast of Punk Rock fun.
Few bands of The Damned‘s vintage remain such a strong proposition so far into their careers; tonight’s show is one performed with real energy and verve and the excellent setlist only highlights what a varied, rewarding catalogue the group have amassed.