Then-current album: at this stage in their career, quite unnecessary
Opening acts: …honestly don’t remember. There might not have been one?
Back of ticket ad: Pirate Radio, we meet again. With an even worse font.
Maybe there was a hidden artistic mantra in this never ending parade of blue-themed tickets. Maybe it had something to do with the Smurf conspiracy outlined in Slacker. The scraggly tear at one edge doesn’t really bespeak adventures but imagine if.
Anyway, this was my first full-on nostalgia act show that I ever attended — definitely not the last, and perhaps not intended by the band as such, but then again…
I blame The Young Ones for it all, and blame them happily. As mentioned in my Fugazi entry, my knowledge of whatever punk was only arrived in bits, fits and starts, but the Damned had a key role in it all, and it arrived at a time when I was in an in-between phase. Way back at the start in the series, I talked about how I didn’t really see any shows in high school aside from the Sting/Steel Pulse one near the end of my senior year; music itself, having been pretty important to me in middle school, had taken a slight back seat to books, movies and dealing with high school in general. TV watching was still high on my to-do list as well and one of the random benefits of MTV’s coverage in the late eighties was their fondness for occasional indulgences in British comedy.
I’d already mainlined Monty Python from some years back (though it was a great excuse now that we had a VCR to tape all the episodes) but their other anchor series for a while there was The Young Ones — if both series were already dated and often felt astoundingly insular to even the most aware American fan, The Young Ones was a little less so, though the perfect timeframe for it on MTV had already passed when the channel’s rampant UK music fascination started to redirect towards metal, hip-hop’s initial rumblings and the off-again on-again top 40 cycle. Still, the stereotypes of Vyvyan the metal/punk freak and Neil the hippie and so forth were already commonalities that even a random doof like me could pick up on.
Anyway, I was watching one episode that was a crossover between the two series in a way — the ‘Nasty’ episode, featuring Terry Jones as a drunk and belligerent priest — and towards the end of the episode this happened:
Somewhere around this same time a friend in English class had played the Damned’s song “The Dog,” a cut from their Strawberries album specifically about the character Claudia from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire — one of several million Rice-inspired songs since but probably the first such song written and recorded to my knowledge, and still an effective, very moody piece:
Between the two I was pretty well sure I needed to find out more, and so after getting my own first CD player in early 1988 one of my first purchases was the career-spanning if slightly haphazard Light At the End of the Tunnel 2 CD collection on MCA. With that, I was off to the races.
Throughout college, I kept adding more knowledge about the group to my brain (and albums by them to my collection) to the point where I pretty much could consider them an all time favorite — and I still do. The more time goes on, the more I get a sense of how they were a classic jack-of-all-trades band, never quite fitting into one scene or sound or another, a bit burdened with the necessary history of their time and place but knocking out a series of albums that nearly all had some wonderful songs on them while more than a few were full-on great in a funny and theatrical psych/rock/metal/goth/whatever vein.
As the years and line-ups have gone by they’ve released a couple of all new albums but — partially due to all the label hopping they’ve done — they rival the Who and the Kinks in terms of ‘greatest hits’ repackagings over and again, and when it comes to what people know and remember them for, it’s definitely the ten year stretch between “New Rose” and their UK commercial apex with the cover of Paul and Barry Ryan’s “Eloise” rather than what’s followed (though that said Captain Sensible’s solo hits in the early eighties and Dave Vanian’s Phantom Creeps side project are both winners in their respective rights).
All this by way of long-winded background and explanation — the band had supposedly broken up after a ‘farewell’ tour in 1989 but a couple of years later and they were back on the road. Having never thought I was going to see them at all — this still being well into the days when I thought that when a band announced they were done, they were actually done — this was an opportunity I was not going to miss for the world. Turns out that in retrospect this was an extremely fortunate decision as this was apparently the final US tour featuring Vanian, Sensible and Rat Scabies, the trio who had first reactivated the band after its initial late seventies collapse and who had created what for me was its strongest period with the Machine Gun Etiquette/Black Album/Strawberries trifecta. Vanian and Sensible have long since split with Scabies and that’s a breach that looks like it’ll never be healed, so hey, hurrah once again for being in the right place at the right time.
Which was the Palladium once again, the third show for me in about five weeks’ stretch in said venue. A little hard to say I was an old hand at the place by now but the basic drill of teeming mobs down below and me up above in the balcony — pretty sure I went with Steve M. and other folks once again, not positive either way. I do remember chatting with this one guy who had to have been there for the opening act, except I really don’t remember there being such an act at all. If anything, he was in my position for Fugazi a few days beforehand — he had heard of the Damned but had never heard anything by them; pretty positive he was more of a straight-up metal guy as I am sure he was wearing a Slayer shirt. Friendly dude, though; I don’t recall what got us talking but I told him a little about the band and how I thought they were great, and that I wasn’t too sure what I was going to get either.
There was no new album to promote, no new single, no new anything, so when they got on stage they just went for it, drawing on their first four albums and associated singles for the most part, though there might have been a Strawberries track or two in there somewhere. Vanian was looking his stylish self, I’m pretty sure Paul Ryan, bassist from the Black Album/Strawberries days, had returned to that slot for this tour, the Captain was being engagingly ridiculous as ever and Scabies was bringing his punked-out Keith Moon flair to it all — old pros doing what they did well and did best, and having a time of it with a crowd who wanted nothing more than that.
Which would have included me. I’ve railed a few times in recent years about pernicious nostalgia impulses, how I prefer it when bands keep at least some sort of strong focus on what they’re currently doing, how the whole ‘play-the-old-album-straight-through’ idea is pretty terrible (Sparks being the great exception, since they did their entire career and then put it all to bed, more or less). But that’s largely because I’m old enough now to not need to see things like Jane’s Addiction reunions and the like — twenty-year-old me, eager to see a band I adored do the old songs I loved, was not so set on that point. I just wanted to enjoy the show.
And I did — it was a fantastic romp. They even did a barn-burning version of one of their most unlikely songs, the dramatic “Curtain Call,” originally a vinyl-album-side long studio number from The Black Album, played in shortened form that night. Rob Tyner of the MC5 had recently passed on so they played their version of “Looking At You” in honor of him, and at one point the Captain delivered one of his trademark rants about annoying people as a perfect introduction to “Disco Man.” Then there was the encore, in which he unsurprisingly appeared wearing his guitar and nothing else. Beyond that it’s all a blur — they did “Smash It Up,” they did “New Rose,” they did all sorts of things. It was all nostalgia for stuff I had never experienced the first time and I loved every minute of it.
On my way out I ran into the Slayer T-shirt wearing guy and asked him what he thought. He’d clearly been in the fairly hyperactive pit the whole time, drenched in sweat — with a big ol’ grin on his face he said he really loved it and was going to check out their albums as soon as he could. Couldn’t ask for a happier ending.
(I note that they’re actually playing this Saturday here in Costa Mesa at the OC Fairgrounds. Hope they win over another batch of folks who might have heard of them but have no idea who they are. Yet.)