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April 29, 2005

Damned deserve spot in Brit punk hall of fame with ferocious 1977 album

You can be fairly sure that you're in a punk rock band when your drummer's name is Rat Scabies. That name conjures up the image of zit-faced, spiky-haired, sexed-up 20-somethings in a way that Johnny Rotten doesn't quite approach. It is thus fitting that the band that Scabies drummed for, The Damned, made punk sounds that the Sex Pistols, their friends and erstwhile band mates, didn't quite approach. Although traditional histories of British punk (it's kind of strange to use the words "traditional" and "history" when talking about British punk) focus on The Sex Pistols and The Clash, they would do well to talk a little bit more about this band that released both the first U.K. punk single and album.

The reasons are mostly musical; discussions about the relative merits of all of these bands, important though they may be for cultural history, retreat in fear when one listens to the first eight bars of Damned Damned Damned. Released in April of 1977 and reaching number 30 on the charts, this record deserves a place right up there with Never Mind the Bollocks and The Clash, not to mention The Ramones.

Simply put, this album sears. The first track, "Neat Neat Neat," begins with a driving bass riff from Captain Sensible. It sounds harmless enough until Mr. Scabies' drums pound the Captain into submission, while guitarist Brian James launches a Chuck Berry-like bomb run and proto-goth singer Dave Vanian (formerly a gravedigger who liked to sing "Dead Babies" while working) screams at the top of his lungs.

At this moment, it's clear that you've got yourself a punk rock record. The Damned are somewhat sloppy players over these first measures, around 80 percent ferocity and 20 percent accuracy. If you care, turn the record off. You won't like it.

The band settles down as the first verse starts, although the drive is there under Vanian's vocals. The chorus of this first track, though, just about lifts you off the damn ground. Scabies punishes his crash and ride cymbals with such malice that one wonders why Pete Townshend didn't phone him up the second Keith Moon finally succumbed to enough drugs to kill the galaxy. The whole band screams "Neat! Neat! Neat!" in quick succession between bursts of Vanian singing other lines: "Neat neat neat! / Can't afford no cannon / Neat neat neat! / Can't afford no gun at all / Neat neat neat! / Can't afford no cannon / Neat neat neat! / He ain't got no name to call."

These lyrics don't convey much apart from a vague sense of frustration, perhaps at some sort of impotency. But it really doesn't matter. Nick Lowe's production is so overwhelming (sounding a lot like one of the band's main influences, The Stooges, who the band covers on the album's final track) that trying to figure out what Vanian is singing about is a lot like complaining that your pan-seared ahi tuna is too rare.

It's not that the words aren't interesting. They express much of the lifestyle that the lads lived (for example, the encounters with drugs in "Feel The Pain"). But what sets this record apart from other punk records of the time is both its maximum punch and how effortlessly The Damned shift tones through musical means, from the all-out fury of "Neat Neat Neat" and "Stab Your Back" to the more macabre and theatrical "Feel The Pain." In some ways, this is not a straight-up punk record. Furious and fun though it can be, it is also dark, scary, and evocative, as the strangely lit black background of its cover suggests.

The atmospheric nature that makes this record interesting depends fully on the stripped-down nature of the production. On both furious and strange tracks, there is an affected impact that more heavily produced records such as Bollocks lack. (As Sensible put it, The Pistols sound like "Bad Company with Paul Rogers taken off and John Lydon tossed on.") One cannot deny the historical importance of the Pistols; they played around London first. Some of their tracks are undeniably powerful, though many fall flat. The Damned worried less about making an impressive record and more about immediacy. Listen to "God Save The Queen" next to the James-penned "New Rose." The Pistols have a clean, whooshy, produced sound; you can hear the distance that a little reverb brings.

Punk rock is not about distance, though. Punk rock is about punching the listener in the ear as hard as possible, especially the kids standing right next to the band, right next to the speakers. There is no distance in Lowe's sound. James' guitar burns your ears off. Vanian sounds like he's shouting right in your ear. There is a presence to this record. At least three of the songs here ("Neat Neat Neat," "New Rose," and "I Feel Alright") hurt my ears, mainly thanks to Scabies' cymbals (really, that Keith Moon reference above is no exaggeration; Scabies propels this album).

Although this album turns dark at points, it is primarily fast and vehement. Later on, the darkness will really begin to come out as Vanian's gravedigger persona takes center stage, but here it functions more as an undercurrent to the all-out sonic assault that the band delivers. Damned Damned Damned deserves as much praise and attention as any other punk album of 1977, as it may be the most furious half-hour of that year. Where the Pistols can feel a bit dated now due to their tendentious lyrics, this record expresses a more abstract and timeless anger, the anger of a man named after a painful disease beating on things with sticks.