Friday, February 17, 2012

Nevermind ‘Never Mind the Bollocks,’ Here’s ‘Damned, Damned, Damned’!

Historians like to bury Britain’s true punk pioneers because they weren’t as genre defining as The Sex Pistols or as political as The Clash. They had a sense of humor, which was fine for American goofs like The Ramones and The Dead Boys, but totally unacceptable among the serious-minded, message-imparting English punks. They slopped it up on stage and tickled their audience’s worst tendencies, encouraging gob wars and stage storming. And what about that business of agreeing to audition for a censorious panel in order to play a gig in Derby on the Anarchy Tour? Is that the kind of thing a true punk would do?


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Never mind the bollocks. The Damned out-punked their peers by being so damned unacceptable. And didn’t money-grubbing entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren recruit Johnny Rotten after he proved his musical worth by lip-synching to a naff Alice Cooper record? What’s so punk about that? And what of the true tale behind The Damned’s expulsion from the Anarchy Tour? They ended up on McLaren’s shit list for getting chummy with rival impresario Jake Riviera, and McLaren then did everything he could to undermine the band in a scheme to push them from the package. First McLaren brought The Clash on board, bumping The Damned down the bill. When the tour came to Derby, The Sex Pistols’ recent antics on “fucking rotter” Bill Grundy’s show resulted in a ban for that particular group and the insistence that the others audition. The Clash and The Heartbreakers refused to audition in solidarity with The Pistols. The Damned supposedly considered performing, but emphatically refused to audition. McLaren twisted the facts, claiming they’d both agreed to audition and perform, as an excuse to give them the boot. Their standing in the dogmatic punk community never quite recovered.

So, the textbooks tell us The Sex Pistols are the icons of punk, legitimately anarchic, dangerous, and ear damaging; The Damned are clowns better remembered for their staggering string of firsts than their music: they were the first British punks to belch out seven inches of backstabbing vinyl, the first to beat it out at 33 1/3, the first to swoop across the Atlantic like rabies-ridden bats and infect the yanks. All of that looks pretty on a punk timeline, but what about the music?

Spun decades after the fact, Damned, Damned, Damned remains the definitive British punk record to these ears. It isn’t as beautiful and eclectic as The Clash; it isn’t as poppy as The Buzzcocks’ Another Music in a Different Kitchen. And it isn’t bloated and slick like Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Captain Sensible later told Clinton Heylin that particular record’s lead single, “Anarchy in the UK”, “sounded like some redundant Bad Company out-take, with Old Man Steptoe singing over the top.” When The Damned first heard it they “sat there pissing ourselves.”

Play The Sex Pistols’ anthem back-to-back with the very first British punk single. “Anarchy in the UK” is a mid-tempo, over-beefed chug overlaid with a poser’s mannered sneering. “New Rose” is a blinding rampage. Nick Lowe’s production is coyote lean, Rat Scabies’s pounding pulls the baton from Keith Moon’s increasingly withered hands and sprints off the nearest cliff. Dave Vanian spits it out on pure instinct, Brian James keeps it all grounded in the filth with his floor-wiping S.G. “Anarchy” reads like a middle-aged hack satirist’s idea of a punk lyric: “I wanna destroy passersby!... I get pissed, destroy!” Terrifying! James pays no lip service to such clichés, shouting “fuck off” to fashionable sloganeering in favor of a disarmingly sincere love lyric.

Even better, “Neat, Neat, Neat” does traffic in the wanton destruction The Sex Pistols were trying to pass off, but without the trite gestures. Over the pogo bounce of Captain Sensible’s Hofner bass, Vanian bellows abstractions about a foggy call to arms: “A distant man can’t sympathize, can’t uphold his distant laws, due to form on that today, I got a feeling then I hear a call…” Brian James’s lyric explodes into violent absurdity on the chorus, weaponry commingling with polite tidiness: “Neat, neat, neat! She can’t afford no cannon / Neat, neat, neat! She can’t afford no gun at all!” The disordered rant of a real mad man, not some cliché-farting windbag. Here’s the band to fear, laddie. Sid Vicious walked it liked he talked it, but The Pistols who actually recorded Bollocks weren’t much to be feared. The Damned would creep into your room, shit in your bed, sneak out through the window. Hell, they did it to each other… what makes you think you’re safe?

The long-playing Damned, Damned, Damned presents ten more opportunities for disturbed terror and deranged jest. Each of James’s songs thrill, bare fangs, and sucker punch funny bones: “Fan Club” with its wry glare at Rock followers, “Born to Kill” and “Stab Your Back” with their dumb destruction, “Feel the Pain” with its sadomasochistic proto-goth pale, “Fish” with its dirty-boy humor. The band often derided as sloppy and disposable attack each track tautly. Could The Pistols, The Ramones, or even The Clash find their ways around the escalating intricacy of “Fish” with the dime-stopping dementia of The Damned? Not bloody likely. How many bands could make The Stooges sound tame, as The Damned do in their drooling revision of “1970” as “I Feel Alright”.

The butt of jokes had the last laugh by outlasting almost all of their highest-profile peers. They evolved and challenged as self-assuredly as The Clash, experimenting with a bracing fusion of punk, goth, and psychedelia on The Black Album and Strawberries and accomplishing the fine late-career statements Grave Disorder and So Who’s Paranoid? Of course, the punks weren’t supposed to last (certainly The Buzzcocks never did that). They weren’t supposed to experiment or develop their song craft (certainly The Clash never did such things). They were supposed to burn out (just like The Sex Pistols, who would never consider some sort of filthy lucre-grabbing reunion tour… right?). Well, it’s a good thing The Damned pissed on these entries in the British punk manifesto, making some of the most exciting records of their era in the process. They had every right to considering they wrote that rule book’s opening chapter when Damned, Damned, Damned ripped its way into the world 35 years ago today.
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