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The Damned
Damned Damned Damned/Music For Pleasure/Strawberries (Reissues) Mick Middles , May 29th, 2015 14:59

The Damned's rather clunky discography has surely clouded their punk legacy, arguably the reason why – Carol Clerk's excellent biography aside – they never quite gained the press they clearly deserved. However for those who bounced around the unholy but joyous gigs of punk era Damned, the ferocious blinding white bolt that energised us so thrillingly at the time has not been diminished.

Two instances remain in vivid memory. The Damned storming through a set at the yet-to-be-convinced hairies at Manchester's Electric Circus in December 1977. It's odd to think that a Manchester crowd could seem so awkward and conservative seven months after the Sex Pistols famously stormed The Lesser Free Trade Hall. Indeed, the Pistols had played four times in the city before this quickly arranged Damned outing at the Circus, and yet their swift set was duly followed by a resounding chorus of "shit shit shit". A few of us, huddled in the corners, thought it was the most brilliant spectacle we had ever seen.

The band needn't have worried. The tide had already turned and, within a couple of months they were welcomed back to city and venue as all-conquering heroes. As if to emphasise this, during an equally ferocious set at the soulless Middleton Civic Hall, a safety-pinned friend of mine (named Bernard), leapt from the balcony and was saved from multiple fractures only by the layers of sweating flesh that bobbed beneath.

"I just got carried away in the moment." he breathlessly enthused.

This was a typical early Damned instance. A reckless juvenile insanity bled through their dynamic. How sad it was to see this thrilling live unit slowly crumble under the weight of musical uncertainty, ego and bickering.

Legend now tells of a band burning out during their formative years, ironically, before their commercial hey-day. But perhaps the time has come to recast them as a band unafraid to move into uncharted waters. After all, they couldn't possibly be expected to maintain their initial speed-freak punk ethos. The energy would have simply ebbed from their heart.

These three albums, reissued in heavyweight vinyl, certainly chart the crazed rise and initial dip of their fabulous creative energy and, at last, these reissues offer us the opportunity to reassess exactly what happened there.

Damned Damned Damned, arguably the first British punk album, emerged amid the fury of February 1977 and suitably extended the clipped perfection of the preceding single, 'New Rose', which opens side two. You cannot really argue with 'New Rose'. Recorded at speed, with speed in Nick Lowe's garage studio, it immediately became the absolute embodiment of British punk taking the basic Ramones charge and suitably London-ising  the sound. If anything, the single's classic status was amplified by the equally frenetic 'Neat, Neat, Neat', which opened side one. Anyone who spent time around The Damned at that time – I did, although only briefly – could be in absolutely no doubt that the raging glorious mess of these two singles, and indeed this album, was a absolute representation of their untameable dynamic. As such, Damned Damned Damned is simply a classic punk album, openly stating why, back then, young men joined rock bands.  

Damned Damned Damned's essentially narrow vision is allowed to cluster the album and is punctured only by the reflective 'Fan Club', just about the only hint of any kind of future direction. Oddly, I recall chief Buzzcock Pete Shelley telling me that, "I find the album too constricting... although I like 'Fan Club'." That may have been tinged with a slight edge of competitiveness as every punk band in Britain was effectively rushing towards album release, and The Damned had stolen an awful lot of thunder.

But, what you hear is what you get. A fact neatly acknowledged by Lowe, who always seemed perfectly in tune with the times. He knew, for instance, that his job was to simply can that energy. Any attempt, beyond 'Fan Club' perhaps, to stamp a stylistic production mark on this music, would dilute the effect. In achieving that, Nick Lowe has unwittingly provided a worrying portent for the band's future. They would have to move away from this state of perfection but, as it was so intrinsically linked with the times, where would they go?

Once beyond the slapstick front cover, which would be endlessly recreated by the likes of Green Day, the packaging deserves a nod. The live shot on the rear, at first glance looks like a montage. This is simply because Captain Sensible, resplendent in nurses uniform, is facing away from the camera. It was at his insistence that a sober front facial pic was added to the monitor. The Captain would later admit this, (to this writer, during a highly inebriated evening at The Marquee in 1984) and would state, "It sounds so arsey by, in all honesty, I thought that would be the only album we would ever make. I thought it was our moment." Some writers have churlishly suggested that this was actually the case, although that would be to dismiss extraordinary moments such as 'Smash It Up', 'Love Song' or 'Stretcher Case'.

It was November 1977 that saw the eventual release of Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols. An obviously headline grabbing moment. despite that band's famously chaotic exustence. For The Damned, unhappy in the shadows, it was perhaps not the perfent moment to release their follow up album, 'Music For Pleasure'. By now The Damned's line-up included second guitarist, Lu Edmonds. By all accounts, and perhaps in the interest of continued absurdity, the band decided to look for the most absurd producer possible. By now, signed to Sanctuary, they had entered a relative comfort zone, easier on the wallet, perhaps, but not necessarily conducive to aesthetic edginess. With this in mind they made an outrageous attempt to secure the services of the legendary ex Pink Floyd burn-out, Syd Barrett. One can only imagine just what might have transpired. Alas, and with record company interjection, this impossible trail led to Pink Floyd sticksman, Nick Mason, a somewhat less-flamboyant and oddly conservative choice. One can only presume that Sanctuary were attempting to provide  mainstream polish.

The resultant album, Music For Pleasure gained blanket condemnation upon release with most reviewers bemoaning the move away from Nick Lowe's simplistic Specteresque attack. There were also concerns that the song writing had lost it's essential naivete. Perhaps the Damned were simply trying too hard. It was more likely that cracks in the camaraderie had started to occur. Whatever the reason, it was enough to see Rat Scabies leap dramatically from the ship. In-part, the critical lambasting can be attributed to an extremely partial music press that could sense sudden sea change.

But Music For Pleasure is not the lacklustre affair it seemed at the time. I fully admit, as a Damned devotee at the time, I all-too-swiftly let it slip to the back of the record rack in order to concentrate on more obvious items. In a year when essential albums seemed to be release in wage draining knots, if an album didn't provide an instant all-encompassing accessibility – as had been the case with 'Damned Damned Damned', it would become swiftly lost in the shadows. There is an irony to 'Music For Pleasure' though, which couldn't have been recognised upon release by even the most perceptive reviewers. The use of twin guitars, with Lu feeding sweetly off Bryan Jams' scorching lead, scatters across the album and attains the kind of buzz-saw intensity that would soon become an essential ingredient of a swathe of bands in the latter seventies. We were teetering on the cusp of post-punk and soon PiL, Gang of Four, The Pop Group, The Mekons, Magazine and many more were steadying for a similar attack. The suggestion here inst that 'Music For Pleasure' is a buried classic, it isn't, but it is intriguing to note that, even given the much-maligned Nick Mason treatment, the album was not as adrift as many believed at the time.

For this reason, this reissue offers a great chance to revisit and there are moments when the intensity of those guitars lifts the the whole thing to a higher level. This was a band struggling to discover that next step and, in places, the struggle alone becomes the key. All too often however, the song writing becomes stretched and repetitive. 'You Take My Money' is almost unbearable to follow and only 'Problem Child' and 'Stretcher Case' offer nods to the previous album. Good to hear Lol Coxhall's sax inclusions on 'You Know', which closes the album.  

By 1982, the world had changed and The Damned had changed. Despite a fluctuating line-up, the re-energised band had scored unlikely hits with 'Love Song', 'Smash It Up' and, the slightly less successful, Giovanni Dodomo penned 'I Just Cant Be Happy Today'. In addition came the celebrated and frenetic Machine Gun Etiquette album, generally regarded as a return to form, and the extraordinary experimental double album Untitled (The Black Album), which deliberately flew in the face of punk convention.

Into this mix came The Damned's Strawberries. A lovable curiosity indeed, a pop-tinged mix up of all that had come before and featuring ex-Eddie and the Hot rods bassist Paul Gray with Roman Jugg on keyboards. With Bryan James lost beyond the rear view mirror, Captain Sensible boldly doubles on guitar. As if to distance itself from the times, the sleeve declares "This is a synth free album," instantly wrong-footing anyone expecting more of the dark retrospection of Untitled. The irony is that Strawberries actually seems perfectly in-tune with synth-tinged chartage. This could 'only' be an early eighties album and offers no hints of the band's successful oncoming 'fattening' – in the musical sense – soon to grace mainstream airwaves with 'Eloise'. Sparkling like shards of coloured light through stained glass windows are the unexpected psyche gems, 'Life Goes On', 'Generals' and 'Under The Floor Again'. That these escaped so many at the time, increases the credibility of this re-issue.

In typical Damned irony, no hits were spawned from Strawberries, arguably one of the most accessible albums in their entire canon. While it didn't change anybody's life, it remains difficult not to feel a certain fondness for Strawberries, or indeed for all three albums. They all – even Music For Pleasure - offer a sense of abandon. At all times, it is a band battling to discover the true heart of their personal dynamic. While that often set then off in an unwise course, it still seems pure, in retrospect, at least. Good to meet you again, you daft buggers.