Through the one decade plus from ’76 into the late ‘eighties, the band’s musical style morphed, and I suppose you could say ‘matured’ – although that would imply that original format punk was immature, which I don’t believe was the case.
From the start, The Damned had a different take on original punk from both The Pistols and The Clash, and were certainly the most unconventional of the three bands in terms of their instrumental backdrops. The Damned, more than perhaps any other group in British punk, defined what came to be regarded as the punk rock style. That hyper-fast, double-time backbeat adopted by so many of the generic punk groups springing up after the initial wave – that came from The Damned. Not at all from the Sex Pistols (who actually played a much steadier, if very heavy, brand of rock), and only in a cursory sense from The Clash.
But going into the 1980s, the band’s music evolved as much as their ever-changing line-ups. The Black Album (1980), and Strawberries For Pigs (1982), took in and spat out a much wider proportion of the rock spectrum than the band’s ‘70s repertoire had done. Although The Damned were still very much a punk band in approach and attitude, some of their tracks could easily have come from the likes of The Who or any other highly-regarded non-metal rock band. I’ve heard it said that The Black Album was a goth album, but setting aside the sleeve and the epic track Curtain Call, it really wasn’t at all. Both The Black Album and Strawberries were predominantly commercial rock artefacts, with a noticeable ‘60s influence and punk vitality. Until 1985, The Damned remained a punk/psychedelic (and vaguely prog) rock band with a goth lead singer.
In 1985, they became a goth band, finally releasing a real goth album – Phantasmagoria. The year following that album’s release brought The Damned a good deal of mainstream prominence and chart success (riding on the heightened profile of the goth trend). But by 1987 they were back in the shadows and without any real commercial backing. The goth movement was in major decline, and The Damned’s latest album (Anything) – far too rigidly ‘60s to really matter in the late 1980s – had presumably left a bad taste in the mouth of the record company, MCA.
And so we arrive at this album – Final Damnation. It’s a live recording made in June 1988, as a reunion of old incarnations of the band. It was clearly a bid to airbrush the mid 1980s out of the band’s history and get back to the two 1970s albums which were revered by the most devoted fans. Namely, Damned Damned Damned, and Machine Gun Etiquette. Predictably, there’s nothing from the almost unmentionable ‘other’ ‘70s album Music For Pleasure.
But for the odd exception, Side One features tracks from the first album Damned Damned Damned, and Side Two is all about the third album, Machine Gun Etiquette.
Side One features the band’s original line-up of Dave Vanian (vocals), Rat Scabies (drums), Captain Sensible (bass), and Brian James (guitar).
Side Two features the stable early ‘80s line-up of Dave Vanian (vocals), Rat Scabies (drums), Bryn Merrick (bass), Captain Sensible (guitar) and Roman Jugg (keyboards). This wasn’t the exact line-up who recorded the Machine Gun Etiquette album, but it was a line-up many fans would recall playing the tracks on stage between March ’83 and August ’84. All these tracks from Machine Gun Etiquette were still an indispensable part of the band’s live set for the duration of this line-up.
However you might have heard The Damned portray themselves musically over the years, this album is categorically punk rock. It’s the band going back to their 1970s roots. Powerful, fast and furious, and absolutely nothing like the material they’d been pedalling for the three or so years prior to this recording being made.
Dave Vanian’s vocals are typical of his stage work. The ‘vowel-warping’ does work and was an inextricable part of watching The Damned live in the ’80s. But listening back to it these days you just can’t help thinking of Vic Reeves’ ‘pub singer’ routine from the quiz show send-up Shooting Stars. On the studio albums, Vanian performed differently and you’d never have associated him with comedy ‘pub singing’. He’s got an excellent natural voice, but I don’t ever remember him using it on stage. Live, he always did this exaggerated ‘vowel-warping’ thing.
If you want to know where punk rock’s defining musical idiosyncrasies came from, this is a great album to listen to. Had it not been for the songs on this cassette, it’s hard to know what subsequent bands would have regarded as punk music. Elsewhere, there really wasn’t a style you could definitively single out and say: “That’s punk”. But in the course of two 1970s albums, The Damned changed that. It wouldn’t matter what you looked like, or how you dressed, or even what your views on life were. If you played music like this, you’d be a punk band.