Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet
The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead
Directed by Wes Orshoski
Cleopatra / Three Count Films (TCF) / MVD Visual
110 minutes, 2015 / 2016
Even in their earliest days, the Damned were a damned fine live band. They played a few in CBGBs betwixt 1977 and 1979. Probably, I saw them half a dozen times, usually with the Dead Boys opening. They never failed to entertain, and if they could keep the audience interested after seeing Stiv, Cheetah and the boys, that alone is enough to show their draw.
Like the Dictators being signed before the Ramones here in the States, the Damned were the first acknowledged punk band to be on a major label before either the Clash or the Pistols. It’s hard to explain to most mainstreamers how important the band was to the U.K. scenes at the time. They weren’t political like most of the Brit bands in 1976, but were just fast and loud, with good hooks, quite adept playing, and a front man who easily stood out; two if you include the guitarist, and I certainly would.
As with the Who, each member of the first incarnation of the band actually brought something that made them special. Underrated guitarist and vocalist Captain Sensible, who would also have a solo career with great songs like “Wot” and a cover of the South Pacific nonsensical “Happy Talk” fueled the engine, stoked the rest of the band. He wore outrageous outfits of bright colors (including wild wigs), white sunglasses and a red beret (the latter two becoming his trademark). Rat Scabies was the ginger drummer who was a powerhouse; watching him play was exhausting (in a good way), as he put so much into each beat. Guitarist Brian James seemed the most nondescript, but he was the songwriting maven that gave them most of the material for their first records, such as “Neat Neat Neat” and “New Rose.” These songs still hold up today. Up front was Dave Vanian, who would single-handedly set the standard for the look of the coming Goth movement. Usually – especially early on – his black hair was slicked back, his face plastered white with dark circles around his eyes and dark lipstick, be it black or blazing red. He moved around the stage like an insane panther, and was not only interesting to watch, but had a decent voice as well, especially considering he never sang before joining the band. In time, he would have longer hair and a white streak that I’m sure was used by Johnny Depp in the Tim Burton mediocre film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).
But the Damned’s influence was not only for the Second Wave punk movement (i.e., British). As the band progressed and grew, its style changed and morphed into more…drama and emotion, being on the forefront of Emo and Goth. There is little doubt that they are to the Goth genre what the New York Dolls were to the New York (First Wave punk) underground sound that followed. And like the Dolls, their recognition factor did not go much above the fan base.
I believe part of the problem of the Damned was not necessarily their occasional infighting (e.g., Rat and the Captain), or even their revolving drummers and bassists – Lemmy did a stint early on, when the band temporarily changed their name to the Doomed – but rather their talent. The Damned would not be tied down to a single genre. Their catalog includes powerpop, disco (though they may call it something else, like Euro-pop), psychedelia and even some level of prog rock, as evidenced by the 17-minute “Curtain Call” from The Black Album (1980).
As documentaries go, this is a better than most (and also available in Blu-Ray). Yes, there is the mixture of old and new in both still images and performances, and interviews mixed in, but director Wes Orshoski takes a bit of a different approach. Among the talking heads, there is more of a philosophy of the band mixed in with the history, which almost comes secondary. I like this. The band doesn’t just become “I was the bassist from year X to year Y,” but rather shows the person behind the playing, what made the band a force, and also keeps them as individuals. Also, most members of the band through the years are interviewed, including Scabies and James, who jumped ship pretty early. While some of the personal bitterness comes to the surface through bits – and there is no shying away from the who and what and why – the humor is definitely there in a non-contiguous way, that shows even though they are not in the same band anymore, and possibly never will be, there is a bond that still hold them as being one of the Damned.
That being said, the documentary doesn’t limit itself to the Damned as a singular. They also follow a second group that is made up of the Damned’s other original members, called Scabies and James, who also play Damned, Damned, Damned while on tour in France, with another (American) punk cult singer fronting, Texas Terri. James takes over guitar rather than bass and shows himself to be quite spectacular in his own right.
This is also not a one-sided, “The Damned Rool” kind of approach used by too many, as we see the peccadillos, such as Rabies anger, the Captain’s insanity, James’s rambling and Vanian’s sometimes subtle power dynamics that led the band to break up its original form for good in 1991. This, of course, will only increase the myth them, but again, what I admire so much about this film is the humanizing of them. Not as punk gods, not as just in musician pantheon, not even villains, but makes them incredibly human, with frailties of pride, fear and uncertainty.
On a personal note, and I do mean this lighter than how I am going to say it, with a finger to the nose, there is a theme of “why didn’t they become as famous as the Pistols or the Clash?” I’m sure this is a question that has been following and plaguing them over the decades. I saw a hint of possibly just a part of why that may be: at one point, Vanian makes a comment about getting “a Jewish type of lawyer.” Now, this may sound like a yikes moment, but it brought back a very specific memory. In 1977, during a showcase at CBGBs, I was involved in an interview with Captain Sensible at one of the front tables between sets (HERE). After the show, we went backstage, to thank the good Captain, as we had kinda tricked him into it. I have a distinct memory of holding my thumb over the mouth of my beer bottle, knowing the Dead Boys’ reputation. As we were entering the dressing room, I did that side-to-side dance with Vanian as we tried to get by each other. He grumbled “Get outta my way,” to which I responded jokingly, being the obnoxious Brooklyn Boy I was, “It’s okay, I’m a Jew,” and rather than laughing or even smiling, Vanian smacked me in the back of the head with his palm, pretty hard. Yeah, even then I knew I deserved it, but perhaps it fed into something deeper with him? Considering the number of Jews that were deeply involved with running music business back then from the likes of record companies to promoters (e.g., Seymour Stein, David Geffen, Bill Graham), a reputation like that could have been career hindering.
There are lots of good interviews included, among many from musicians, most of them thankfully brief, from both sides of the Atlantic, including Lemmy (d. 2016, RIP) Chrissy Hyndes, two members of Blondie, fan Fred Armisen, Keith Morris, the omnipresent Ian MacKaye (of course; what no Henry Rollins or Dave Grohl?), Steve Diggle, Don Letts, Mick Jones of the Clash, and even Jesse Hughes, the idiot lead singer of Eagles of Death Metal (who actually makes at least one really good point that the band should get over their differences and get back together in their original form).
Five extras are included with this documentary, most of which could be considered deleted scenes. The first is the 5-minute “Captain Sensible and Fred Armisen: Nobody Busks in L.A.” This is a fun piece with Armisen meeting Sensible, and then both of them going out on the streets and them playing “Smash It Up” on acoustics with a small but enthusiastic crowd watching. Second is the 17-minute “Captain’s Tour of Croydon,” which is much more than it appears. It starts off as an extended scene from the opening of the film, with the Captain talking about his job cleaning toilets at a music hall, and this leads into showing where he saw bands, his first home as a child, where he and his first band, Johnny Moped, would hang out, and he brings us to the studio where the band recorded in some little dive/apartment. Here we get to meet Andy Gierus, one of the engineers who still works there. The whole thing is fun, thanks to the good Captain’s extroverted personality.
Next is the important 12-minute “The Anarchy Tour.” I noticed in the film that there wasn’t much talked about how the Damned were kicked off the infamous McLaren-Bernie Rhodes designed tour with the Pistols, the Heartbreakers and the Clash, but as I said, history was secondary to philosophy and personality in the feature. This is an important deleted part explaining what happened from the inside. Scabies makes a good point that with the Pistols getting banned a lot, “the Pistols’ reputation was from not being seen, the Damned’s reputation was from being seen” (i.e., touring a lot). I also find it interesting that the band talks about how the Clash went with McLaren advice and refused to talk to the Damned (unlike the Pistols), and yet there he is being interviewed for the main film, and a snippet shown here. Hmmm.
Number five is the 8-minute “The Doomed / Henry Badowski.” The viewer is introduced to Henry, a bassist / keyboard player who had been in bands such as Chelsea and Wreckless Eric, as well as having a subdued solo career. For a brief time he joined the post-James Damned when they were the Doomed. We meet him, who discusses the period, and why he was only involved a short time. Last up is the complete 4-1/2-minute multi-camera professionally-filmed performance of the song “Smash It Up,” from the Captain’s 60 birthday show in 2014, intercut with performances around the world.
As of this writing, the band, still containing Vanian and Captain Sensible, tour occasionally yet, and have a big following, especially in Japan (no surprise there). Their sets contain songs from all the periods, from their earliest to their latest, sometimes to the chagrin of band members. For example, they went on tour to do their entire first LP, Damned, Damned, Damned, and Sensible fought hard to not do the one Scabies song, “Stab Your Back,” due to the violent nature of it (as much as not wanting to have to give Scabies his royalty, I’m guessing). They remain dynamic if not presently important. But historically, they are one of the many great underrated bands of their generation, and most people will never realize the extent of their influence.