Here’s hoping The Damned finally get the attention they deserve.
When talking about the early U.K. punk bands, everyone wants to talk about The Clash and the Sex Pistols. Rightfully so, as both the Sex Pistols’ Nevermind the Bollocks, Here Comes the Sex Pistols, and The Clash’s self-titled debut still serve as the blueprints on how to make a punk record. However, there is a third band that is often overlooked in these conversations. That band is The Damned.
They are often called the British band of firsts: the first punk band to put out a single, to put out a full-length album, to tour the U.S.A., etc. Of course, being the first doesn’t mean much if you can’t back it up with a solid release, but The Damned’s first full-length, Damned Damned Damned, is more than solid. It’s a classic. On that record, The Damned has a stronger focus on musicianship than the Sex Pistols and are more ferocious than The Clash would ever be. Still, they lack the overtly political nature of most punk bands at the time.
The Damned is more interested in a party, just as the cover of Damned Damned Damned suggests. (For the uninitiated, know that the cover of said album is all four band members after being hit in the face with pies. One named Captain Sensible is seen licking pie off of the head of another band mate—this is the type of band we’re dealing with.) Personally, I’d rank Damned Damned Damned just above The Clash and right below Nevermind the Bollocks. Their single “Neat Neat Neat” has got one of the best baselines to date. Go give it a listen if you don’t believe me; this review will still be waiting for you.
Though I’ve yet to scratch the surface on what makes this band so interesting, it’s a real head-scratcher as to how no one has made a rock-doc on The Damned sooner. Still, I’m glad it happened the way it did, because Wes Orshonski’s The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead is nothing short of excellent. The one reason I can think why someone would shy away a documentarian is that their legacy could easily put someone in a tizzy. The classic lineup consists of singer Dave Vanian whose something like Casanova fused with Dracula, bassist/guitarist Captain Sensible (aka Ray Burns, he’s almost like a punk rock Pierrot), drummer Rat Scabies (Christopher Millar), and guitarist Brian James. (Did I mention that the band would pioneer goth rock later on?) This line-up didn’t last long as a feud between Scabies and Sensible would split the band into two camps. Much of the documentary focuses on this feud that spawned a “conveyor belt of bass players” playing for The Damned. It’s not only different line-ups, but also hugely different musical phases color the film. At one point our Casanova in black Dave Vanian gets pushed to the front, and they become a goth rock band. (Note that Vanian’s look basically started the goth rock movement—he was dressed like Dracula while everyone else was wearing safety pins in ’77) Later, they try their hands at something more prog.
The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead is clearly a passion project for Wes Orshonski who describes his approach as “one guy, one credit card, one camera”. He followed the band for a three-year period and uses much of that footage in the film. His footage from the road is rough and messy which is appropriate for this type of documentary; I never found myself annoyed with his stylistic decisions. His passion carries over to the special features. It’s about an hour’s worth of bonus material, and all are very welcome. Most of it can be described as bonus interviews that didn’t make the cut, so the fan that wants more after the movie is over will be quite happy. Know that most all these bonus features focus on Captain Sensible; one is live footage from his birthday show and another is his tour diary of sorts. An interview with Fred Armisen is included. It’s a little odd, as I can’t really fathom why Fred Armisen is relevant here (despite that he’s a fan of The Damned, of course).
Don’t let the weird Fred Armisen feature fool you, Orshonski’s documentary is packed with interesting interviews from the likes of Mick Jones, Nick Mason, Jello Biafra, Billy Idol, the Sex Pistols, etc. Everyone you could ever want! But let’s not forget the famous rockers that were in the band at one point or another: Chrissie Hynde, Jon Moss, and yes, Lemmy. Best of all is the show stopping interviews with the original lineup. Every scene in the film with Captain Sensible is memorable. In a band of wild cards, he’s the wildest—often providing moments that feel straight out of This Is Spinal Tap.
But it’s not all fun, Orshonski manages to capture his vulnerability at points that are quite touching; though the most heart-breaking moment of the film belongs to Rat Scabies who breaks down crying when talking about a particular moment in The Damned’s career. I’ll never forget it. The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead isn’t just for fans of The Damned. Not unlike The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the biggest draws to the documentary are the personalities on the screen making it quite accessible to those who don’t even like punk rock. Still, they’re one of the more interesting punk bands to ever come along, so it’s really saying something that the personalities outshine everything else. Here’s hoping The Damned finally get the attention they deserve. | Cait Lore
The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead is distributed by MVD Entertainment Group in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Extras on the discs includes live footage from Captain Sensible’s birthday concert, a feature with how The Damned came to join and eventually be removed from the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the U.K. tour of 1976, Fred Armisen’s Hollywood meet-up with Captain Sensible, a tour of The Damned’s hometown of Crydon with Sensible as our guide, and a feature where various band members reflect on the period of time Henry Badowski played bass for The Damned. Also included in the set is a nice essay by director Wes Orshoski.