Mentioning that The Damned never had nearly as much commercial or critical success as those other two British punk cornerstones is always a convenient way to introduce any discussion of the band. For Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian, and Rat Scabies, it’s serious business. Money issues dug the rifts between these guys that still gape today. They are often marginalized in or completely left out of the conversation about the history of punk they did so much to write. There isn’t even a single decent biography about the band that—here we go again—released the first UK punk LP and 45 and personally delivered British punk to the States, almost singlehandedly jumpstarting the LA punk scene. As far as I’m concerned, they’re also responsible for the single best punk album and the single best song and album of the eighties.
If The Damned are touchy about their lack of “success,” they really have every right to be. And if we fans sometimes get defensive about them the way some crew-cut asshole gets defensive about some football team, it’s because we recognize their underdog status and believe the band deserves more than their lot. I love The Clash, but I wouldn’t feel like smashing a pint glass over the head of anyone who says The Sex Pistols were better. If someone made a similar comparison with The Damned in place of The Clash, however, he’d better protect his fucking skull.
So, Wes Orshoski’s The Damned: Don’t You Wish We Were Dead isn’t just another worshipful rock doc; it’s a bloody necessity. Fortunately, it serves both functions, telling the tale of The Damned in satisfying manner, and letting the band members air their grievances in their own manners. Mr. Vanian is caught in a candid moment griping about how many of his punk peers are raking in the filthy lucre by licensing their music when no similar offers are in the offing for his band (please forgive the anti-semitic tinge to his diatribe). Mr. Scabies rants about how much he doesn’t care about the band’s loser status, making how much he really cares perfectly clear.
Filling in the rest of the narrative, Nick Mason shows up to give a short account of the Music for Pleasure sessions and Paul Gray and the recently departed Bryn Merrick share cancer war stories. There are testimonials from Mick Jones, Billy Idol, Chrissie Hynde, Clem Burke, Chris Stein, TV Smith, Gaye Advert, Jello Biafra, Lemmy Kilmister, and many others. There’s even an extended focus on that greatest song of the eighties, “Curtain Call” (though, I exercise my right as a fan to be disappointed that the greatest album of the eighties, Strawberries, is left out of the discussion entirely). The elusive Dave Vanian sits out much of this before receiving an unusually enlightening profile late in the film.
The fact that The Damned are often painted as punk-golden-age also rans is a complete drag, but it is also what makes we fans feel so strongly about them (well, that and the incredible music), and Orshoski makes plenty of time for us too, whether it’s an original Damned maniac who went up the creak for murdering a guy with a pick axe or comedian Fred Armisen. I’m sure those guys and everyone else like them has shoved a copy of Damned Damned Damned or Machine Gun Etiquette at some in-the-dark friend in an attempt to make a conversion. With its historically significant story, incredible music, outrageous humor (Cap’n’s tale about an exceptionally resilient turd will stimulate your laugh reflexes and your gag reflexes), and real emotion, Don’t You Wish We Were Dead will hopefully also get shoved at a few Damned virgins now that it’s out on DVD and blu-ray. MVD supplements the feature with 45 minutes of extras, including a sweet meeting between Captain and Armsien that finds the latter giving Strawberries the attention it didn’t get in the movie and both guys busking “Smash It Up” in LA, Captain giving a hilarious guided tour of Croydon (some of this material is also shuffled into the film), an extended segments about The Doomed (The Damned plus Lemmy) and The Anarchy Tour that brought together UK punk’s three cornerstones before tearing them apart, and a live performance of “Smash It Up” from Captain’s 60th birthday gig.