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The Damned
Damned Damned Damned John Robb , September 21st, 2009 09:04

There is a theory that Dammed guitarist Brian James invented punk rock. It's an argument that upon examination actually makes a lot of sense. Way back in early 1975 there were two young bands of guitar-slinging hipsters in London. One was the Sex Pistols, but they'd yet to play a gig and were fumbling around for the on switch. The Pistols already had the look — short hair and fucked up neo-mod togs and an already outrageous-looking singer.

The other crew was a combo known sometimes as London SS who were holed up in the basement of a cafe on Praed Street. This ad hoc crew were built around future Clash man Mick Jones and future Generation X bass player Tony James, and were busily auditioning every chancer in town, trying to create the perfect rock 'n' roll band.

They had long hair and looked like extras from a Mott the Hoople gig but they knew what they wanted and turned down many a hopeful because they didn't look right. But when Brian James turned up he sailed through their meticulous screening because he was so, well, dammed cool and he knew a thing or two about rock 'n' roll. He had already been converting the high-octane of The Stooges and the MC5 into a band of his own that had fucked about on the club circuit in Europe.

This legendary trio rehearsed for a few months and on Brian's insistence played fast and loud. A tape exists but Tony James won't let anyone hear it. They had bumbled into the blueprint of punk rock early.

It could never last and Brian left within months, taking this young drummer who insisted on wearing his flares — Rat Scabies — with him. Rat picked up his nickname from his complexion and a rat infestation in the rehearsal room, and played drums like a demon; his sartorial inelegance ruled him out of the London SS, so he was happy to jump ship with Brian. Rat was one hell of a drummer and Brian sensed that this was the kernel of a great band.

Brian already knew what was coming and he outlined punk rock to everyone he spoke to. People from the time still call him a visionary. Rat brought along this awkward-looking bloke called Ray who loved the underground end of prog and who cleaned the bogs in Croydon Fairfield halls. He would play bass and eventually be nicknamed Captain Sensible by the Tyla Gang.

They had two singers — one was a long-lost bloke who dressed in white, and the other a gravedigger who wore black known as Dave Vanian. Natural selection favoured Vanian and the Dammed played their first gigs in 1976.

Over the years it became fashionable to write the Damned out of the punk rock history; in fact now it even seems quite fashionable to write out the Sex Pistols! The story had become the story of the Clash — who, despite being a wonderful group, were just one of many great bands at that time.

The Dammed are written out because they were 'clowns' and didn't conform to the strict dress code of punk rock, but you ignore them at your peril. They do not collect the kudos because they didn't have a major label machine behind them and didn't have the posh PRs to hype them into the rock lineage.

Musically they were the equal of their peers and their debut album Damned Damned Damned still sounds utterly fantastic to this day. If anyone ever wants to know what pure unadulterated rock 'n' roll is then play them this album. It's totally molten. Brian James' guitar playing is stunning. It still sounds amphetamine-fast today and the solos are outrageous — he instinctively knew how to construct a thrilling rock 'n' roll song and the album is stuffed full of them. Even if it only had 'New Rose' (the first punk single to ever get released) and the follow-up single 'Neat Neat Neat' on it it would be still be a classic album, but there are plenty more thrilling high points in a non-stop assault that makes the record one of the greats — easily up there with The Stooges, MC5, The Clash and the Pistols as prime examples of white heat guitar thrills.

'Fish', 'So Messed Up' and their demolition of The Stooges' 'I Feel Alright' are perfect examples of speedball rock 'n' roll. When they lessen the pace for the atmospheric 'Fan Club' and 'Feel the Pain' they sound dark and ghoulish, perhaps inventing goth and horror punk.

Powered along by Rat Scabies' extraordinary drums (he should have been one of the best-regarded drummers of his generation) the songs are fever-pitched exercises in pure adrenalin. Dave Vanian's crooning vocals make musical sense of the melee and the album should have been massive in year zero. Somehow the band came unstuck — they were shoved aside by the Clash and the Pistols because they were a not taken as seriously. The album artwork probably didn't help: although more sardonic than silly, it rubbed up the po-faced punk tastemakers the wrong way. Even covered in cream Brian looks cool as fuck.

The Captain's outrageous showing off was considered uncool in that English way of shying away from a true extrovert — ironic in a period like punk when everyone was pretending to be wild and free but were actually conforming to new straightjacket, albeit with a couple of safety pins shoved into it.

The Damned's label, Stiff Records, was not yet in its prime and didn't have the power to force the kids into liking the band and by the autumn of 1977 when they released their second album the game was up. They were probably selling enough records to own the top ten in 2009 but were deemed failures at the time. Brian James quit, going on to form the even more ignored but equally great psychedelic outfit Tanz Der Youth.

The Dammed were swiftly airbrushed from the punk lineage but they had actually sold enough records to cement a place in punk rock history. The spotty 'kids' loved them despite what the music press were being ordered to tell them. When they reformed in 1979 they were welcomed with open arms and their erratic carrier has continued to this day. Currently under the tutelage of Vanian and Sensible, the band is a great live act with an extraordinary and ridiculous history of fallouts, fuck ups, hit records and bust-ups. Brian lives in Brighton and produces the odd local band, his legacy lost in the mists of time — but this album is a stark reminder of the sheer raw power he once had at his fingertips. He should be remembered as one of the great English rock 'n' rollers and this album is pure, high-octane proof of his innate genius and foresight.

It's simple. Damned Damned Damned is still one of the greatest punk rock records ever released and it's high time it was restored to its rightful place in the pantheon of rock 'n' roll classics.