Friday, April 15, 2016

The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead

So in the two years since I've updated this site, I've been focusing most of my attention on a band of my own. As fate would have it, the day after shooting the last Mikey Erg video, I met up with the frontwoman of my group at an OFF! show. We've since actually opened for Mike a few times, as well as played a slew of other great shows, done some mini-tours of the Northeast, and recorded an EP.

That said, "journalism" is something I've wanted to get back into, and in honor of MC Ren following the Punk Rock Pravda twitter account, I figured I'd bring this thing back to life. The following is some new old content, a review I wrote of the documentary The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead, which originally appeared on last summer. Enjoy and keep on the lookout for more to come!

Dave Vanian, Brian James, Captain Sensible, and Rat Scabies formed The Damned in 1976. Over the years this lineup constantly shifted with Vanian being the only consistent member, and the others coming and going multiple times. This original lineup released the first UK punk single, album, and was the first to tour the United States. After then-primary songwriter Brian James left the group, the band achieved nine top 40 UK singles with remaining members incorporating elements of goth, new wave, and psychedelia into the sound. This is quite a resume. But despite being loved in the punk community, it becomes apparent in The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead that all four members are pissed that they don't have the same mainstream recognition as The Clash and Sex Pistols, as well as pissed at each other.

Of the many documentaries on bands that I've seen, this comes closest to Spinal Tap in terms of peeking in at the sheer dysfunction between band members. Unlike the Ramones' End of the Century, where these feuds were already well-known, or Metallica's Some Kind of Monster, which is a shouting match between Jamess Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, this paints a complex, bitter, and sometimes hilarious relationship between band members, previously unknown to fans like myself. 

When he's not pursuing a career as a novelty pop musician or checking himself into mental institutions, Captain Sensible really hates Rat Scabies. We get to see him before a show trying to convince the current formation of the band not to play "Stab Your Back", a song Scabies wrote on Damned Damned Damned, despite the fact that the band is embarking on a tour playing the album in its entirety. Dave Vanian, who according to one former bandmate rises mechanically from bed like Dracula from his coffin, maintains a working relationship with Sensible, the only other original member in the current lineup. In fact, Vanian seems to maintain as little contact with others as he can, at one point having a look-alike fill in for him at an autograph signing. Rat Scabies only keeps in touch with Brian James, at one point teaming up with him to do their own Damned Damned Damned full album tour, in what seems out of spite towards the official one. The other members have few nice things to say about him, claiming he mismanaged the band's finances and did not properly pay them. The relationship between the others and James isn't much better. Brian admits to being insecure, to the point where we see him stop playing with the band in dramatic fashion. His final performance with The Damned ends at a 1991 show, walking off-stage mid-set after Captain Sensible jokingly refers to his song "New Rose" as being written by Guns N' Roses.

Then there's the long line of former bassists that are dug up for interviews. This ranges from their first fill-in, Motorhead's Lemmy (who sounds so incoherent that I wish he'd been subtitled), to current member Stu West, and plenty in-between. While none of them have spontaneously combusted, two of them meet up years later after realizing they're being treated for cancer by the same doctor, which one blames on being spat on so much.

Despite all the bickering, with the exception of Scabies and his questionable business ethics, all members come off as likable. Sensible seems to be a sympathetic figure who has a life of the party stage persona, but is a tortured individual outside of it. Vanian is a vampiresque loner, occasionally breaking face with a clever comment, or to speak to a fan who’s husband recently passed. James is a somewhat socially awkward three-chord songwriting genius.

The film also does a decent job at providing a timeline on the band. I say decent because certain things are touched upon too briefly or not at all. I would have loved to hear more about two of the band's notable early tours. However their first trip to America is mentioned in passing, while the infamous Anarchy Tour with the Sex Pistols and Clash (which ended with Malcolm McLaren kicking them off) is not even noted. Furthermore, no music past 1995's Not of This Earth is mentioned.

I don't want to give the impression that the film is all about the individual musicians, because it’s just as much a celebration of hearing the music that they created. From the opening montage set to "Neat Neat Neat", to the finale of a live performance of "Ignite", the movie is full of awesome tunes pulled together from studio cuts, rehearsals, live performances, and music videos throughout the years. For those unfamiliar, the documentary does a nice job showing their evolution of sound from their punk standards, to the 17-minute Jim Morrison-esque "Curtain Call", to the pop hit "Eloise".

In addition to the interviews with numerous members of The Damned, there are plenty with musicians who were their contemporaries, or were influenced by them. While these provide some cool insights, I feel they could have been used better. Mick Jones and Glen Matlock reflect on the early punk scene, but we do not see them questioned about the Anarchy Tour, or their thoughts on The Damned feeling like they've been reduced to a footnote compared to their respective bands. Big Audio Dynamite’s Don Letts talks about how he thinks the band greatly influenced early California punk, yet Jello Biafra, Jack Grisham, and Keith Morris also appear in the film and are never asked about the influence of seeing those shows. We've got Dexter Holland, but nothing about him releasing the Grave Disorder album, Pink Floyd's Nick Mason talking extremely briefly about producing Music For Pleasure, and GNR's Duff McKagan having no thoughts on how he strangely contributed to Brian James' departure. 

Don't get me wrong; this is a great documentary and a must-watch for fans of The Damned and rock music in general. But ironically with the complaints of being looked at as second-tier to their peers, I couldn't help but compare this to The Filth and the Fury and End of the Century, which are both superior documentaries. I just wish the four members realized that's nothing to be ashamed of, because musically and through this film, what The Damned have created is fucking great.