The Damned were never really a horror-punk band, in the sense that horror was never the only thing they sang about. But when your lead singer (Dave Vanian) is a fanged former grave digger whose adopted last name is an abbreviated version of Dracula’s homeland, you’d be silly to expect horror to never rear its ugly head.
They were the first. The first British punk band to release a single. The first to release an album. The first to break up. The first to reuinite. And meanwhile, there’s plenty of people out there who’d argue that they aren’t a punk band at all. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again…
THESE PEOPLE ARE IDIOTS.
Y’know, kids, there was a time, way back in those days of yore, when “punk” was a more wide-ranging term than what you have now, with your Ramones-lifted three-chords-or-less as-fast-as-you-can-play-it as-loud-as-it’ll-go dressed up in safety pin and torn clothing drag.
I know, one of you is saying “hey, gramps, whadda YOU know about punk, huh? Green Day’s been doing this since 1988! THAT’S what punk’s all about! THEY know what’s what!”
F that S in the ear, kid. Back in the days when knights roamed the countryside, you could go to Max’s Kansas City, or CBGB, or the 100 Club or wherever, and see bands that sounded as disparate as DEVO, Suicide, Blondie, the Clash, the Ramones, Wire, the Cramps, the Buzzcocks, the Jam, Television and Pere Ubu, and THEY WERE ALL PUNK. Punk had more to do with venturing outside the boundaries of what was dominating the Top 40 airwaves, and experimenting with what you found out there in the detritus.
And right there in the middle of it was the Damned. The Damned. The mighty, mighty DAMNED.
(And, not for nothing, but before US bands like D.R.I. and the Cro-Mags did the “crossover” thing between punk and metal, the Damned did that first as well. Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead played bass for them when the Damned reunited after their first breakup in ’78, Motörhead toured with them, and the “Motördamned” collaboration between the two bands led to recordings of “Ballroom Blitz,” “Over the Top” and “Bomber.”)
Sure, the Brian James-led first version of the Damned (before that first breakup) might have had a couple of ghoulish leanings (the brooding proto-goth of “Fan Club” and “Feel the Pain,” f’rinstance, and lead vocalist Dave Vanian’s penchant for Victorian formalwear and Dracula capes), but it wasn’t until the band’s glorious resurrection one year after disbanding, and the resultant album—1979’s Machine Gun Etiquette—that Dave Vanian’s full-on vampiric sensibilities became a prime focus. There’s the love letter to LA horror hostess Vampira on “Plan 9, Channel 7” and the evil stalking killer clown of “These Hands.” There’s the apocalyptic vibe of “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today.” There’s the story that Dave vanished during the album’s recording sessions, only to turn up at the studio in the middle of the night after days missing in order to record the chilling falsetto howl that closes “Plan 9.”
Then there’s The Black Album. Opening with a paean to the nocturnal life in “Wait for the Blackout,” venturing through the homicidal psychosis of “Twisted Nerve,” exploring the two sides of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and visiting the Maldine Square residence of the Abominable Dr. Phibes in “13th Floor Vendetta,” The Black Album took the band into darkly psychedelic territory alongside more straight-ahead “traditional” punk numbers, much like the Clash’s London Calling or Sandinista! ventured into reggae and dub.
From that point onward, the joys of the ghoulish have been a constant presence in the music of the Damned. Whether it’s their tribute to the British “video nasty” phenomenon (in which movies deemed too violent for the public good were banned, often times based purely on their titles alone) in the song “Nasty,” paying homage to Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire and its vampire “daughter” Claudia in “The Dog,” or the Peter Lorre-isms of “Grimly Fiendish,” the Damned’s devotion to all things dark and demented make them a vital part of any Halloween season.
And hey, they’re on the soundtrack of Return of the Living Dead! At least, they were until they got replaced for some stupid licensing reason on the most recent domestic DVD and Blu-Ray releases of it.