Alongside The Clash, the Sex Pistols and a few others, The Damned were very much a part of the first wave of English punk bands, rising out of the pub-rock scene with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood looking on. 1976's “New Rose” is largely considered the first British punk single, while the Damned Damned Damned album from '77 is a bona fide classic.
Over the years, band members have come and gone but, for the most part, they've kept releasing albums that have varied in quality somewhat but have never been terrible. 1979's Machine Gun Etiquette is another near-perfect album, and 2001's Grave Disorder and 2008's So, Who's Paranoid? aren't too shabby, either.
That said, a full decade had passed since the latter before The Damned released Evil Spirits this year. It's a typical riot — dark but campy fun, high-energy, infused with some topical lyrics that are largely unusual for frontman David Vanian. There are a few twists, but it's largely business as usual for the Brit band. So what the hell took them so long?
“It's a bit of a long story, but I could say that we were in a bit of a rut,” Vanian says. “Management, no record company— we were spiraling into that situation that bands sometimes do where you're playing shows but you're not playing anything new. It took a while to get us sorted out. I decided it was time and got some decent management in.
“Financially, we didn't have enough money to make an album. Through pledge, we got enough to get that and through Raw Power and Search & Destroy, the management and record company, we got enough to get this album together. It was a long time. It's a weird thing — it seems a long time but it didn't seem a long time when it was happening, when you're always busy.”
Yep, the older we get, the faster time seems to pass us by. Vanian takes his role in ensuring the integrity of The Damned's legacy very seriously, and he didn't want the band to spiral into oblivion without having one more really good record. They've achieved that goal.
“The thing about this album is, one thing that was clear to both Captain [Sensible] and I, I think we were very keen on melody and music, and catchy lines,” Vanian says. “Everything seemed to be working that way for both of us, even though we weren't writing together — we were writing in separate places. But when we brought the material together, it locked together very easily. We were on the same page, so there wasn't any conflict. Until we decided to do this, we hadn't put any material together as The Damned. So when we signed with Raw Power and when we asked Tony Visconti to make the album, neither had heard a note. They went for it on trust, which was quite amazing.”
“The big difference is that Dave has got his songwriting mojo back,” adds guitarist Captain Sensible. “He wanted us to ‘push the envelope’ and be adventurous this time round. He was playing us Scott Walker and John Barry soundtracks. ‘I Don’t Care’ straddles 3 diverse musical genres in one brief song. It’s no holds barred — we don't particularly care if we get the occasional critical slagging. We are on a musical adventure.. and it hasn’t finished yet.”
That's right — Tony Visconti, famed for his work with David Bowie among many others, produced Evil Spirits. Vanian says the experience was a positive one, albeit brief.
“It was short-lived, because it was nine days in Brooklyn, basically,” he says. “In those nine days, we probably did a month's worth of work because there was a lot to be done. It was fun. I would have liked the luxury of a bit more time, but it was great.”
“Tony’s an old fashioned gent – it was a pleasure to work with him,” Sensible adds. “He combines all that’s best of the classic '70s way of recording — everyone together in the same room, arranging as you go. Honing a tune until he says 'that’s it, that’s the one'.”
Another change in personnel on the new album is the return of bassist Paul Gray, replacing Stu West, who in turn replaced Vanian's wife, Patricia Morrison (also of Sisters of Mercy, Gun Club, The Bags).
“[Paul] came in at the last minute, in fact, when we'd written all the songs, and then Paul learned the songs and played his own parts,” Vanian says. “He added tremendously to the sound, of course. But he's been coming and going. He's not a permanent member of the band. He has a full-time job, and he was kind of retired out of the music biz, so we have him as a kind of luxury now and again.”
As previously mentioned, some of Vanian's lyrics on Evil Spirits are uncharacteristically political. The Damned have dabbled before — the songs “Democracy?” and “W” (about George W. Bush) on Grave Disorder are clear examples. But this might be the first time politics has such a weighty impact on a Damned album.
“I usually don't write so many politically minded songs,” Vanian agrees. “On this album I found myself writing political lyrics, because you can't not write them. It's so prevalent on everybody's mind right now, what's going on. I couldn't turn my back on that. I found myself writing words that I didn't expect to write. But nothing's really planned with this band. You just start and see where it takes you. It grows organically. You start it off and there's no telling where it's gonna end.”
A first with Evil Spirits is the fact that it was funded through crowdsourcing. For Vanian, this approach just makes sense given the current state of the music industry.
“To be honest, the way of getting people to put in money to pay for something that they want to see or hear is really what punk rock was about — doing it yourself — and it enables artists to be totally free and do the job, whereas they might not be able to on their own, which is fantastic.”
On Nov. 2, The Damned play the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood and then, the following night, the FivePoint Amphitheatre in Irvine with Danzig, Venom Inc. and more. Vanian says that coming to SoCal is a bit like coming home for him.
“Ever since we first came out in '76, they always seemed to understand what we were doing more than anywhere else, I think,” he says of SoCal. “We always got a great reception, and there are so many interesting people over the years who have come to see us from all walks of life, so I always look forward to California. It's got a wild, colorful aspect to it that some of the other places don't.”
Naturally, Vanian was a fan of bands such as The Germs and X, while his wife was in L.A. punk pioneers The Bags. Apparently, years before they met, Morrison and The Bags were annoyed with Vanian and The Damned after the latter inadvertently “stole” The Bags' idea of posing with paper bags on their heads (for the “Neat Neat Neat” single sleeve).
“I think they got a bit pissed off, because they'd already done it, and then our record sleeve came out and there we were with bags on our head,” Vanian says. “It was weird. It was one of those things that happened by accident. We were in a photo session at the guy's house, and I spotted all of these brown bags that came over from America. We just started goofing around, thinking it would be great. Anti the beautiful covers that you got in those days — everyone in love with themselves.”
The Damned will, of course, be welcomed back to L.A. with open arms, and we'll get a set that mixes old favorites with new goodies. It being so close to Halloween, we may get a few of the darker numbers, such as “Grimly Fiendish” from Phantasmagoria or “Plan 9 Channel 7” from Machine Gun Etiquette.
“The Damned of today is more like a gentlemen’s club for eccentric seniors,” says Sensible. “Our only concession to modernity is that M.r Vanian’s pipe is of the vape variety these days.”
The Damned play with Radkey and The Darts at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 2, at the Henry Fonda Theatre. They play with Danzig, Venom Inc., Power Trip, The Meteors and Mutoid Man at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3, at FivePoint Amphitheatre in Irvine.