THE DAMNED - Royal Albert Hall
In 2008 I noted at the beginning of my review of a Damned gig that, when I first saw them in 1979, little did I think that three decades later I would still be attending their gigs. Well I think its even safer to say that I never thought that I would be attending their 40th anniversary gig and in such hallowed surroundings as the Royal Albert Hall. Even more so when they recently revealed that in 1977 the band had been formally banned from the same venue as not being a "suitable group".
From their earliest incarnation of Dave Vanian (vocals), Captain Sensible (bass), Brian James (guitar) and Rat Scabies (drums) they have been through countless line up changes and even the odd variation of band name (anyone remember the Doomed?). However, with the sold out signs up, and touts in evidence outside it, just goes to show that having little commercial success, being ignored by the mainstream media and always classed as the also-rans of the Big Three original UK punk bands, has not dampened the enthusiasm of their loyal, if now somewhat ageing, followers.
No support meant that they took to the stage at 7.30 sharp and, bar a half hour cigarette break in the middle, there they remained for well over three hours. One of my main gripes with bands nowadays is that , especially in larger venues, they seem to think that the music is not enough and they require a phalanx of video screens, lasers and sundry other whistles and bells to keep the audience entertained. Thankfully, whether due to their budget, the Damned relied almost exclusively (bar an eccentric smoke machine) on their career retrospective to hold the admittedly partisan audience in the palm of their hands. However, having said that, there was an audible gasp when the chords of opener "Natures Dark Passion",(from their last album "So, Who's Paranoid?"), cut through the darkness and lead singer Vanian was picked out by a sole spotlight high above the auditorium on the huge organ that adorns the back wall of the Royal Albert Hall, like a punk rock Phantom of the Opera.
It soon became clear that the set list was going backwards chronologically as they then careered through "Democracy?", "Amen", "Thrill Kill" and "Absinthe" from "Grave Disorder". Whilst this is laudable, in truth I think that most of the six thousand plus audience saw these tracks as mere aperitifs to the punk anthems the band produced in their early career. A solitary track from "Anything" ("Alone Again Or") came and went as matters picked up speed. Numbers from what was probably their most commercial album "Phantasmagoria" were reeled off, such as "Grimly Fiendish", "Shadow of Love" and "Eloise", all played note perfectly. The band members regimentally kept their positions on stage, with the exception of David Vanian who appeared made for the gothic backdrop the venue provided. The acoustics are very good so their sound was loud and clear and occasionally augmented by a trumpeter called Chris Cool. The crowd movement got noticeably more feverish as we moved into their "Strawberries" phase which was welcomed in by a blinding "Stranger on the Town". It was also nice to see Sensible name check ex-bass player Paul Gray as responsible for writing next track "Generals". The aptly titled number "Ignite" ushered in the break that, as the Captain said, allowed everyone to nip outside for a quick fag.
After a half hour the band returned refreshed with Sensible having changed out of his gold mirror jacket, whilst Vanian had replaced the Jekyll and Hyde Victorian gentleman's garb into a black vinyl Elvis number. Both, as ever, retained their obligatory shades.
A special welcome was reserved for "Disco Man", a track from their 1981 Friday 13th EP that is one of their chronically underrated tracks. Reinvigorated by the break the crowd partied like it was...er....1976, with a sea of bodies bouncing too and fro. Given the average age of the attendees, I'm sure some paid for it in the morning. A nice touch was the dedication of "Limit Club" to Malcolm Owen of the Ruts, who supported the band in one of their late 70's tours, but sadly passed away shortly thereafter. By now we had reached a point in their time-line when the band produced arguably the first punk/goth crossover with "The Black Album". Songs like "Wait for the Blackout", "Twisted Nerve", "History of the World (part 1)" and "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" were slower and darker than their first three albums and showed that the band had matured away from the normal three chord thrash of early punk. These songs in particular fitted in with the dark, brooding, gothic architecture of the Royal Albert Hall.
"Love Song" announced the arrival of tracks from "Machine Gun Etiquette" the first album after the bands reformation in 1979. At the time it reaffirmed their punk credentials and in fact "Love Song", released as a single, garnered the band their first bona fide hit, charting at number 20. Tonight it hammered along at a terrific speed with Vanian careering back and forth across the stage, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Further tracks "Machine Gun Etiquette", "I Just Can't Be Happy Today" and a cracking "Plan 9 Channel 7" kept the pedal to the metal and rekindled memories for me of seeing the band in flea pit venues back in the day. Having left usual show stopper "Smash It Up" to last Sensible pleaded with the crowd not to act out the songs sentiments in such palatial surrounds as they wouldn't be able to pay the effing repair bill.
Oddly no tracks were played from their second album "Music for Pleasure". Whilst it was an LP roundly panned when it came out (and led to the break up of the band) it still contained two great singles in "Stretcher Case" and "Don't Cry Wolf", but this was a small gripe on such a memorable night. Finally, the band arrived at their debut offering from 1977 "Damned, Damned, Damned" which was the UK's first punk album beating the Sex Pistols "Bollocks" by a good six months. Whatever the perception of the Damned is in the hierarchy of punk, it cannot be denied that the album was full of authentic punk rock and recorded the momentous change of direction that the UK music industry saw in the mid to late seventies. Short and sweet, the numbers burst out in to the auditorium, "Feel the Pain", Fan Club", "See Her Tonight" "1 of the 2" and their first two singles "Neat, Neat, Neat", with its iconic base line, and the single that kick started a revolution for those of us living away from the elite London punk scene..."New Rose", which they introduced ironically as a song by Guns' n' Roses.
In theory this was the end (or beginning) of the road, but after a short interval they returned with an encore of "Curtain Call" the song from the "Black Album" that clocked in at over 17 minutes and took up one whole side of the LP. Whilst slightly abridged tonight, it was still a magnificent and fitting way to end such a memorable evening for the band and fans. The atmosphere generated tonight was partly due to the fact that everyone - band and audience alike - knew that it was a one off. The Damned do not play venues of this size regularly and consequently people travelled from all parts of the country to make it a special night. As Vanian sang out the final lyrics, resplendent in huge angel wings, and the band took the well deserved plaudits of the crowd, it was clear to see why they have retained such a special place in the hearts of punks, young and old, a situation that is not going to change anytime soon. The Damned, 40 years and counting!
All photos © Christie Goodwin; more here:
Natures Dark Passion