In 1977, The Damned released one of the greatest and most archetypal punk debuts, but even the greatest and most archetypal punks were doomed to extinction if they didn’t evolve (The Ramones being the exception that proves the rule, of course). Their typically punk, inspiration-barren follow-up, Music for Pleasure, suggested The Damned might croak with the other dinosaurs, and the group quickly started peeling apart with Rat Scabies scurrying from the ship and Brian James following close on his tail. It looked like an ignominious end to one of the key British punk acts, especially in light of the premature death of The Sex Pistols in early 1978. But a miraculous thing happened: the band that punk’s many critics hated the most reformed (with Scabies, but not James), signed to a new label, and proved that they could evolve with the best of them. In 1979, The Damned released Machine Gun Etiquette, the greatest punk album ever made because it made good on the genre’s rapid-fire aesthetic while constantly approaching the quintessential punk sound with immense creativity and intelligence. Whether they were trafficking in parody (“Love Song”), comic-book fantasy (“Plan 9 Channel 7”), rabble rousing (“Noise, Noise, Noise”), or cultural comment (“Anti-Pope”), whether they were layering a variety of keyboards or percussion over the standard guitars and drums, whether they were coloring their tunes with psychedelia, sixties garage rock, or the purest sparkling pop, The Damned were making music that was and is unmistakably punk (the one exception may be “These Hands”, a fairground sing-along about a killer clown… which is actually pretty fucking punk).
Now that the reformed, reinvigorated Damned had perfected their birth genre, it was time to continue the evolution by mostly leaving the quintessential punk trappings behind and fully embracing their creativity on The Black Album. There was still a fair share of punk on the album— and tracks such as “Wait for the Blackout”, “Lively Arts”, and “Drinking About My Baby” are some of The Damned’s best in that vein—but there were also experiments with Beach Boys harmonies on “Silly Kids Games”, synthesizers on “History of the World (Part 1)”, prog-rock invention on “Therapy”, slinky psychedelia on “Twisted Nerve” and “13th Floor Vendetta”, goth balladry on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, and all of these things on the unprecedented, totally gonzo epic “Curtain Call”, which gets my vote for best Damned track and best damned track of the 1980s. Still, The Black Album is essentially a transitional album, and the most perfectly realized expression of the group’s psychedelic leanings was still to come in 1982. Nevertheless, as transitional albums go, The Black Album is one of the very, very best.
Ace Records is now reissuing Machine Gun Etiquette and The Black Album on vinyl. Played against the most recent CD iterations of these albums, the vinyl sounds a little dull and lacking depth at first blush, but that is partially because the CD remastering was too bloody loud. The sound on Ace’s new LPs is comparable to the mastering of the Machine Gun Etiquette and Black Album tracks on the original vinyl edition of the 1987 compilation The Light at the End of the Tunnel, which I had to use since I do not have the original vinyl editions of MGE and The Black Album for comparison purposes. This means Ace’s LPs most likely offer greater authenticity to the mastering of the original vinyl releases of The Damned’s albums than the remastered CDs do. You just need to boost the volume knob on your stereo... and if you’re not boosting the volume knob when playing Machine Gun Etiquette and The Black Album, you’re seriously missing the point of them.