The Damned Biography

Formed in 1976, this UK punk band originally comprised Captain Sensible (Raymond Burns, 24 April 1954, Balham, London, England), Rat Scabies (b. Chris Millar, 30 July 1957, Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey, England; drums), Brian James (b. Brian Robertson, England; guitar) and Dave Vanian (b. David Letts, England; vocals). Scabies and James had previously played in the unwieldy punk ensemble London SS and, joined by Sensible, a veteran of early formations of Johnny Moped, they backed Nick Kent’s Subterraneans. The Damned emerged in May 1976 and two months later they were supporting the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club. After appearing at the celebrated Mont de Marsan punk festival in August, they were signed to Stiff Records one month later. In October they released what is generally regarded as the first UK punk single, ‘New Rose’, which was backed by a frantic cover version of the Beatles’ ‘Help’. Apart from being dismissed as a support act during the Sex Pistols’ ill-fated Anarchy tour, they then released UK punk’s first album, Damned Damned Damned, produced by Nick Lowe. The work was typical of the period, full of short, sharp songs played at tremendous velocity, which served to mask a high level of musical ability (some critics, unable to believe the speed of the band, wrongly accused them of having speeded up the studio tapes). During April 1977 the Damned became the first UK punk band to tour the USA. By the summer of that year, they had recruited a second guitarist, Lu Edmunds; soon afterwards, drummer Rat Scabies quit. A temporary replacement, Dave Berk (ex-Johnny Moped), deputized until the recruitment of London percussionist Jon Moss (b. 11 September 1957, Wandsworth, London, England). In November their second album, Music For Pleasure, produced by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, was mauled by the critics, and worse followed when they were dropped from Stiff’s roster. Increasingly dismissed for their lack of earnestness and love of pantomime, they lost heart and split in early 1978.

The members went in various directions: Captain Sensible joined the Softies, Moss and Edmunds formed the Edge, Vanian teamed up with Doctors Of Madness and James founded Tanz Der Youth. The second part of the Damned story reopened one year later when Sensible, Vanian and Scabies formed the Doomed. In November 1978 they became legally entitled to use the name Damned and, joined by ex-Saints bass player Algy Ward, they opened this new phase of their career with their first Top 20 single, 1979’s storming ‘Love Song’. Minor hits followed, including the equally visceral ‘Smash It Up’ and the more sober but still affecting ‘I Just Can’t Be Happy Today’. Both were included on Machine Gun Etiquette, one of the finest documents of the punk generation, as the band again became a formidable concert attraction. When Ward left to join Tank he was replaced by Paul Gray from Eddie And The Hot Rods. The band continued to scrape the lower regions of the chart during the next year, while Captain Sensible simultaneously signed a solo contract with A&M Records. To everyone’s surprise, not least his own, he zoomed to number 1 with a novel revival of ‘Happy Talk’, which outsold every previous Damned release.

Although Sensible stuck with the Damned for two more years, he finally left in August 1984 due to the friction his parallel career was causing. However, during that time the Damned remained firmly on form. The Black Album was an ambitious progression, while singles such as ‘White Rabbit’ (a cover version of Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic classic) and ‘History Of The World’ revealed a band whose abilities were still well above the vast majority of their peers. Strawberries announced a more pop-orientated direction, but one accommodated with aplomb. With Sensible gone, a third phase in the band’s career ushered in Roman Jugg (guitar/keyboards), who had already been playing on tour for two years, and new member Bryn Merrick (bass), joining the core duo of Scabies and Vanian. Subsequent releases now pandered to a more determined assault on the charts. In 1986 they enjoyed their biggest ever hit with a cover version of Barry Ryan’s ‘Eloise’ (UK number 3). Another 60s pastiche, this time a rather pedestrian reading of Love’s ‘Alone Again Or’, gave them a further minor UK hit.

The authenticity of the Damned’s discography from the late 80s onwards is open to question, while their back-catalogue has proved ripe for exploitation by all manner of compilations and poorly produced live albums, to muddy further the picture of a genuinely great band. 1985’s Phantasmagoria and, more particularly, the following year’s lacklustre Anything failed to add anything of note to that legacy. The band continued to tour and record into the new millennium, with Vanian joined (sometimes) by Sensible and Scabies, and there are numerous side projects to entertain aficionados, but it is unlikely that the Damned will ever match their early 80s peak.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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