The Damned - HMV Picture House, Edinburgh
Old jokes home #18: How come you still like The Damned? Because I’m not dead yet.
This was the last night of their 35th anniversary tour and they’ve been my favourite band for maybe 30 of those years. That’s the kind of sobering shit that hits you by dint of not falling victim to one of life's little surprises.
Of course, for almost all of that period The Damned have remained the resolutely unfashionable members of the 1976 club, oft glossed over in the official histories of punk, and shunned by many in the inner circle at the time; even the iconic ‘custard pie’ sleeve of their first album marked them out as jokers in the pack, despite the fact that musically, their amphetamine-fuelled thrash owed much more to the sound of The Stooges and MC5 than their sometimes comparitively sedate contemporaries.
Their survival into the 1980s, and a pleasingly obtuse career that saw them explore punk's glam, psychedelic and even prog-rock roots may have alienated the press even further, but the record buying public generally stayed with them (as they did with The Stranglers, those other ne'er-do-wells from the wrong side of the tracks) before they embarked on what seemed like an endless round of empty anniversary shows and back catalogue mauling that even made me fall out with the reality of the band, if never the music itself.
Various permutations of the band (with vocalist Dave Vanian the only permanent fixture) have continued to play ever since, but the current line-up (with Captain Sensible - guitar/vocals, Stu West - bass, Pinch - drums and Monty Oxymoron - keyboards joining Vanian) has remained static since 2004 - the longest serving line-up in those 35 years. The irony is, of course, that this just another anniversary tour but after a couple of solid albums of new material, it seems anyone who’s ever doubted them is now back in the fold and the near-capacity Picture House is a significant step-up from the near-toilet circuit of the late 90s and early 2000s.
The first part of this evening’s entertainment is a swift run through that debut. The (slightly) younger rhythm section keep the tempo high and, while it’s not as raw as back in ‘76, few would deny the energy, inspiring a fair bit of movement down the front. Sensible occasionally complains about the complexity of original guitarist Brian James' compositions, but he maintains his guitar-hero credentials through all the blistering runs and fills before launching in the climactic version of The Stooges' '1970' at a speed that would stretch players half his age. (Much entertainment is also to be had by simply watching the antics of the largely redundant Monty, who takes the notion of freak dancing to a level not seen since about 1968.)
Most were here, however, for the airing of The Black Album, their 1980 double album sometimes described as ‘punk’s Sgt. Pepper’, although it may actually be closer to the Rolling Stones' flawed psychedelic experiment Satanic Majesties in tone, if not necessarily in sound. A confident mix of three chord punk, wildly experimental pop and Vanian's darker, film-noir and horror movie inspired material, the band segue the first four or so tracks together as per the album, meaning there's no pause for breath between fan favourites 'Wait For The Blackout' and 'Lively Arts' before Sensible takes lead vocals for his anti-TV commentary 'Silly Kids Games'. Other stand-outs include 'History of the World (Part 1)' - one of the great lost pop records of the era (and perhaps the only song to mention both TV soap Crossroads and Hitler's failed assault on Stalingrad), while side two closer, 'Therapy', allows The Captain to indulge in some Jimi Hendrix-inspired antics and general abuse of his guitar.
But the highlight was saved for last, a 15 minute version of ‘Curtain Call', which took up the third side of the original double album. Performed in its entirety live for the first time, it might be The Damned’s magnus opus. How many times have I heard this track? Hundreds? And yet tonight it's like understanding it for the first time: “No more will I roam / My childish dreams I’ll soon outgrow / But here we stand in our own theatreland / Curtain call, about to fall.” As a metaphor for a life spent on stage, and indeed for life itself, it gives lie to the notion of The Damned of having never grown up, of being the class clowns. It is, of course, not punk rock - unless you subscribe to Kurt Cobain’s quote that ‘punk rock means freedom’ - instead, a grand swathe of dark psychedelia that builds into a melange of electronic pulses - even stopping to sample Rimsky-Korsakov along the way - before returning to the original melody. Metal Box it is not, but as a 'fuck you' to their critics - especially from an ex-gravedigger and toilet attendant who are probably as surprised as anyone to still be getting away with it after all these years - the ovation they receive at the end, and their slightly embarrassed demeanour afterwards, says much.
The five song encore includes a quick dash through Sensible's number one hit 'Happy Talk' (puncturing any notion anyone should have regarding writing something pretentious on these five loveable arseholes) before climaxing with their anthem of sorts, 'Smash It Up', surely the first - and only - call-to-arms with a pro-Real Ale agenda.
The post-gig chatter is uniformly positive, the message boards alight. "Absolutely one of the best (tours) I can remember" Tweets the good Captain. Still here, then. Still the misfits. Still my band - until life comes along and deals whatever cards it sees fit.