Sometimes it takes 25 years for a band to get its due respect. While the Sex Pistols and the Clash are usually credited as the seminal English punk bands, it was actually the Damned who put out Britain’s first official punk single when they released “New Rose” in October 1976. With its machine gun-style guitar riffing, infectious pop hooks, and catchy, anthemic chorus, that two-and-half-minute classic is loudly echoed in the poppy punk of Green Day, the Offspring, and just about any angst-fueled tune being banged out in a garage today.
After releasing such acclaimed albums as “Damned, Damned, Damned,” “Machine Gun Etiquette,” and “The Black Album,” the band suffered through the typical music business problems: myriad lineup changes, internal squabbling, label difficulties. But singer Dave Vanian, the original pale-faced Goth-punk, has kept the group going in various incarnations.
Vanian recently reunited with original guitarist/showman extraordinaire Captain Sensible to record a new album, “Grave Disorder” (due August 21 via Nitro), the first studio collaboration between the pair in nearly 20 years. “I did a show with Dave, where both our solo bands were performing on the same bill,” Sensible says. “Backstage we realized we got on quite well, and the only door stopping me from getting back into the Damned, really, was the fact that I found it difficult to work with the drummer. So Dave sacked him, which let me back in.” Practical matters seemed to influence Vanian’s decision. “Drummers don’t write tunes,” Sensible surmises.
The unpopular drummer in question was founding member Rat Scabies, who has been replaced by Pinch (ex-English Dogs; ex-Janus Stark), a gen X-er who was weaned on bands like the Damned. The new, 13-track set deftly showcases his skills, as well as the funky, sexy bass prowess of Patricia Morrison (ex-Sisters of Mercy; ex-Gun Club), and the moody, often spooky, keyboard playing of Monty Oxy Moron. Sensible’s always searing, melody-driven guitar leads and Vanian’s sensuous, Iggy Pop-meets-Jim Morrison croon ensure that “Grave Disorder” never veers too far from the band’s classic sound.
Vanian and Sensible credit producer David Bianco — a 1995 Grammy Award-winner for his engineering work on Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” — with finessing this delicate balance. “We had a short list of producers that we’d listened to, but the main problem, I think, was finding a producer who was able to work with different sounds and different types of music,” Vanian says. “We tended to get CDs sent to us from producers of songs that sounded very much the same. They were kind of like 20 different punk bands, basically, and I wanted to hear something with a piano on it, or a ballad.” Sensible admired Bianco’s restraint. “He’s extremely good at capturing the live vibe,” says the guitarist. “It’s not an overproduced album.”
Restraint is not usually a word associated with the Damned, especially when it comes to the band’s lyrics. And with its biting, no-holds-barred jabs at political and cultural icons — from George W. Bush and Tony Blair to Michael Jackson, and even John Lennon — “Grave Disorder” is certainly no exception. The lead track and first single, “Democracy?,” is a blistering indictment of the British political system. “There is no democracy anymore,” Sensible says. “You vote for the lesser of two evils, and that’s not really choice, is it?”
By setting a narrative about U.S. electoral absurdities to an ultra-modern, techno-driven beat, “W” (written by Pinch) displays both lyrical and musical irony. The band pokes fun at chat room addicts in the funny and wildly infectious “Song.com,” but gets a bit more serious when taking on religious intolerance in “Amen,” which recalls “Anti-Pope,” from 1979’s “Machine Gun Etiquette.” “[Prime Minister Tony] Blair is giving more money to church schools, which is so evil, because that’s brainwashing and indoctrinating and shouldn’t be allowed,” Sensible says.
Vanian gets to fully showcase his vocal talents on the eerie and hallucinatory power ballad “Absinthe,” as well as the evocative horror film tribute “Beauty of the Beast.” He indulges his romantic side on “She,” a raunchy valentine to Morrison, who happens to be his wife. “In lots of ways it’s purely Patricia’s pushing that got this whole thing off in the first place,” Vanian admits. “She really worked hard on building the band up.”
Distributed by Caroline, the Huntington Beach, California-based Nitro Records was founded in 1994 by Dexter Holland, lead singer of the Offspring. A longtime Damned fan, Holland saluted his idols with his own band’s 1995 cover of “Smash it Up.”
“For Dexter, the Damned are one of those bands that made him want to start a band,” says Nitro general manager Brad Pollack. “We wanted to make sure that the Damned had the opportunity to make the record that they wanted to make, that was obviously the Damned, but had the 21st century in it as well. And they did exactly that.”
According to Pollack, promotional copies of “Democracy?” have already gone to modern rock radio stations. At the end of August, Vanian and Sensible will be in New York for two days of intense press events. But the bulk of radio, television, and print opportunities will be pursued when the Damned embarks on an ambitious North American tour, which will run from Sept. 21 through Nov. 3.
New York audiences got a preview of the current lineup’s live power when the Damned played a brief, yet blistering set at Joey Ramone’s posthumous 50th birthday bash in May. The rabid response the group received should guarantee packed houses when they return to the city in October.
Although he’s enjoyed a successful solo career (including the No. 1 U.K. hit “Happy Talk”), Sensible says he now wants to focus his full attention on the Damned. Vanian, on the other hand, has expressed an interest in rejoining his side project, the goth/rockabilly band the Phantom Chords, when the Damned’s tour is over. “They’re so vastly different from each other,” says Vanian. “They don’t actually affect each other, but I have to work out the timing.”