Sunday, July 25, 2010

November 2, 2009: The Damned’s ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’: 30 Years of Punk’s ‘Sgt. Pepper’

It was 30 years ago today…

The Damned never received the respect they deserved. As has often been explained, they were Britain’s first punk group to release an album and a single and tour America, yet they tended to be dismissed as amateurish, lightweight, and childish in light of the politically alert Clash, the iconic Ramones, and the media-grasping Sex Pistols. Yet, all these years later, The Damned are the only one of these groups that is still a functioning unit, and the quality of last year’s So Who’s Paranoid? proves that they are still delivering catchy, witty, furious punk rock spiked with ample doses of mid-‘60s garage rock and psychedelia. Respectability continues to elude them though. The Clash, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols have all been embalmed by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Damned haven’t even been considered. Of course, being shunned by Jann Wenner’s Mickey Mouse committee is a lot punker than standing around awkwardly on stage in a tuxedo and reflecting tearfully on days past. No, the Damned have continued to move forward while almost invariably remaining true to their original spirit (well, there was the glossy, lifeless Anything, but the mid-‘80s weren’t a highpoint for most bands).

Damned, Damned, Damned

The Damned ignited their career with a lean, lupine assemblage called Damned, Damned, Damned in 1977, the year that saw startling long-playing debuts by The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Jam, Wire, Television, The Dead Boys, and countless other budding punks. It’s important to note that most of these groups either quickly abandoned punk or met an early demise. The Sex Pistols put out one monumental (and monumentally overrated, in my opinion) album before splitting up. Television and The Dead Boys each released two. Wire went into icy ambient music; The Jam opted for proto-Brit Pop. The Clash, the brightest of the original punks, followed their frenzied eponymous debut with the somewhat less spectacular Give ‘Em Enough Rope, only to drop all aspects of punk save the attitude for their third L.P., a double-album’s worth of spectacular pop, jazz, funk, reggae, ska, soul, and Rock & Roll called London Calling released in 1979. Musically, the closest the record came to punk was the title tune, although even that track seemed to have more in common with The Kinks (note the similarity between Paul Simonon’s bassline and the French horn line of “Dead End Street”) than, say, The Ramones.

Machine Gun Etiquette

That same year, The Damned unleashed their third album. Like London Calling, Machine Gun Etiquette revealed a group’s development from a raw, undisciplined punk combo into a highly creative, eclectic outfit with a keen viewpoint and keener chops (no punk drummer could go stick-to-stick with Rat Scabies). Unlike The Clash, The Damned hadn’t shed punk’s noisy skin. In fact, the album includes a rhapsodic tribute to aural anarchy called “Noise, Noise, Noise”, (“Noise is for heroes, leave the music for zeroes…”), although the song is actually a somewhat misleading statement of purpose considering its surroundings. Machine Gun Etiquette is a noisy, loud, powerful album, its weighty production vastly improving on the relatively thin-sounding Damned, Damned, Damned, but it’s also melodic and varied in ways that no other true punk album (at least no album I’ve ever heard) is. “Smash It Up” bears a title that practically screams “‘70s punk anthem”, yet the song is punk by way of the farfisa-driven garage groups of the ‘60s like Question Mark and the Mysterians and The Music Machine, which inspired ‘70s punk rock heavily. The song’s chorus is as hooky as anything by ABBA. “Anti-Pope”, a heart-racing anti-religion screed, is speed-punk at its most exhilarating, but the song’s mid-section is an intricate percussion breakdown straight off a Pretty Things record. “These Hands” is a comedic fairground farce with one eye looking back on Alice Cooper’s cartoony shock-rock and one looking forward toward the burgeoning Goth rock movement. “Plan 9, Channel 7” also has its claws on Goth regalia (it’s a romantic tribute to Vampira, Ed Wood, and doomed heartthrob James Dean), but its feet are planted in ‘60s psych. The lovely piano figure that begins “Melody Lee” is expeditiously torn to pieces by a punishing beat and lacerating guitars. “Love Song”, “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today”, and an exhilarating cover of the MC5’s “Looking at You” all deliver punk fury and melodiousness in equal measures.

For managing such wild eclecticism and inventiveness in style, arrangement, and melody, while maintaining utter fidelity to punk rock—a form of music often cluelessly dismissed for lacking eclecticism and inventiveness— Machine Gun Etiquette is punk’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles’ most lauded album was responsible for turning Rock & Roll into a legitimate art form. Like Machine Gun Etiquette it was wildly eclectic, but still remained true to the band’s essential style and sound (even in ’67, there wasn’t a single song on the record that wasn’t rooted in sounds the group had already tried out). The Beatles visited the circus by way of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”; The Damned did so via “These Hands”. The Beatles closed their album with an eerie, multi-sectional opus called “A Day in the Life”; The Damned closed theirs with one called “Smash It Up” (Parts 1 & 2). The Beatles used a wide range of instruments to embellish their core sound. So did The Damned. Sgt. Pepper’s had a wild and colorful cast of characters: Lovely Rita the meter maid, Billy Shears, Lucy in the sky, Mr. Kite, and the title band leader; Machine Gun Etiquette had the demented circus clown, Vampira, James Dean, and Melody Lee.

Of course, Machine Gun Etiquette never came within a million miles of matching Pepper in terms of influence and ubiquity, but punk has never been about ubiquity. Ubiquity is far too mainstream, far too overground, far too Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. With their next few albums, The Damned inched further and further away from pure punk, although they never left it behind completely (the goth double-disc The Black Album has “Wait for the Blackout”, “Hit or Miss”, and “Drinking About My Baby”; the psychedelic masterpiece Strawberries has “Ignite”, “A Dozen Girls”, and “Badtime for Bonzo”, etc.) leaving Machine Gun Etiquette to stand as the ultimate statement of what can be accomplished on a real punk record, just as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band did with Rock & Roll twelve years earlier.

Machine Gun Etiquette was released this day in 1979 on Chiswick Records.
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