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From 'Lemmy' co-director/producer Wes Orshoski comes the first ever film about the long-ignored pioneers of punk: The Damned, the first of the UK punk bands to release a single, album and the first to tour America. This authorized film includes appearances from Chrissie Hynde, Mick Jones, Lemmy and members of Pink Floyd, Black Flag, Guns N Roses, the Sex Pistols, Blondie, the Buzzcocks, and more. Shot around the world over the past three years, it tells the story of the band's complex history, as it celebrated its 35th anniversary and found its estranged former members striking out on their own anniversary tour, while still others battle cancer. The film gets up close and personal with Damned founders Rat Scabies, Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible, and Brian James as it tells the story of one of the most criminally ignored acts in music history. File under: Vampiric, Absurdist, Psychedelic, Gnarled, Authentic, Influential, Energetic, Original, Uncompromising, Defiant, Trailblazing, Snotty...
This was like a gift from the gods. A comprehensive documentary focusing on one of the most under-exposed and under-appreciated bands of all time. And, by the way, one of my all-time favourites. I have been a fan since the seventies and even today I continue to love them to bits. Add to the mix that the movie is a self-confessed labour of love by director Wes Orshoski (who helmed the superb LEMMY) and it means I was always going to be first in line for the pre-order of the DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack.
The Damned were nuts from the start. Not just happily eccentric, not merely fun-loving pseudo anarchists, not just a touch out there, you know, but outright, dyed-in-the-wool, full blown, completely, irresponsibly, barking mad, dog raving nuts. Jerry Lee Lewis once summed up his entire life and career in a single psychopathic sentence: "I did what I wanted." The Damned lived this philosophy in the absolute. Orshoski's film demonstrates it clearly and without apology. Forty years down the line, and the band are still going with two founder members from the original four remaining – vocalist Dave Vanian and guitarist Captain Sensible. What lies behind them in their bizarre and erratic wake is a random trajectory of physical, emotional and psychological anarchy, chaos and destruction. From which a lot of people never recovered.
And there's the music, of course. The first British punk band to release a single (New Rose); the first British punk band to tour America and play CBGBs; the first British punk band to release an album (Damned, Damned, Damned); and oft credited with being the originators of the goth movement. Musically they ricocheted all over the place, from two chord speed punk (Neat, Neat, Neat) to seventeen minute prog-rock epics (Curtain Call) to sixties psychedelia (Naz Nomad and the Nightmares/White Rabbit), goth rock (Phantasmagoria), pop (Grimly Fiendish), synth rock (History of the World Part 1), apocalyptic ballad covers (Eloise), and so on and on and on. "Machine Gun Etiquette" remains a true musical milestone, the purest UK punk album ever made.
They've been on more record labels than the Queen's had corgi cremations, had more bass players and line-up changes than Taylor Swift's had boyfriends, been through more arguments, splits and acrimony than every British political party put together. Yet they keep on keeping on. Vanian puts it down to "sheer bloody-mindedness." This year, to mark their fortieth anniversary, they have toured relentlessly. At the Isle of Wight Festival they were as loud, fast, dynamic, lean, mean and smack bang on target with their set as ever. They somehow sounded fresh and propulsive, like they're still chasing something. Meanwhile contemporaries like Adam Ant and the Buzzcocks came across as old, lazy, bloated and tired-out relics going through the motions.
Sensible disparages miserable guitarists, says it's the best job in the world and he smiles a lot. He's sixty. He plays guitar like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and a vaudeville comedian. Vanian (the only band member to front and appear in every incarnation of the band) remains a force of nature, seemingly oblivious to any ravages of time, his vocals noticeably undiminished. He's fifty-nine.
Attitude. They just do what they do and they live it whilst doing it. Maybe that's the difference, a sense of enduring authenticity. In June 2016 they sold out a one night three hour concert at the Royal Albert Hall (six thousand tickets) a venue that ironically banned them in 1977. So there's something going on still, some draw. They've never lasted for long on a major label, never sold millions, never hit it really big. They never played the game. By rights they shouldn't exist. But they do and an audience always shows up.
Orshoski's film is a thing of great beauty and wonder to behold. The "do what you will" attitude permeates nearly every frame. The sheer hedonistic madness and frankly ludicrous dysfunction of the personalities involved is jaw-droppingly uncensored. Even the diatribes and sound-bites from bitter and damaged people who feel they have somehow been touched adversely by "the curse of The Damned" all resonate with something meaningful and positive as a result of their connection with the band. Long time drummer Rat Scabies – and still the best the band ever had (in the context of the band gestalt) – is sometimes aggressive, vitriolic, angry and "damning" about his experiences. Yet, there are flashes of affection, nostalgia and maybe even love and pride that filter through his dour missives.
It is, however, poignant and quite sad to see Scabies and Brian James, along with a wholly inappropriate female American vocalist in tow, trying to eke out a living playing live the songs from the first two Damned albums to practically empty venues. Sad fact is, you can always get another drummer and despite James having written most of the songs for "Damned, Damned, Damned" and "Music For Pleasure" the wealth of material in the band's diverse back catalogue was composed and recorded after his departure. You will never get another Captain Sensible or Dave Vanian. They are the essential core elements. Lose either of them and it's like Oasis without the Gallagher brothers. It's not Oasis.
Orshoski has delivered one of the most honest, heartfelt and powerful rock band chronicles yet compiled. I would suggest that for sheer entertainment value alone this holds appeal not just for fans (who will love it) but for those who are not fans and those who have never even heard of the band. So long as you have some interest in rock music, this movie will connect with you in some way. I'm going out on a limb and declaring it to be that essential. Watch it and be Damned.
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