At the start of 1976, there was a slight lull in the UK music scene with glam having disappeared about a year earlier and disco not really making its mark for another year, so all of a sudden we were slapped in the face with the onslaught of punk. It only lasted a couple of years but there is often a difference of opinion as to what the first punk single was, but it’s generally accepted that the first bona fide track was New Rose by The Damned which was released in October 1976 on the fledgling Stiff label but failed to make the UK chart, even with the frantic cover of The Beatles’ Help on the B side. In December 1976 they co-headline the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK tour but The Damned left after just one gig, siting musical differences. The Damned guitarist Captain Sensible explained to Q magazine, “We had a guitar speed thing going on, I saw the Pistols play and thought that they had a shambolic charm, but – and I’m probably doing us down on the old punk credibility scale – we could actually play our instruments. We simply wanted to play as fast and as loud and as chaotically as possible. I didn’t see the Pistols as being remotely in that genre.” The following year they released four singles, Neat Neat Neat, Stretcher Case Baby, Problem Child and Don’t Cry Wolf which bypassed the record-buying public and the group split.
Lead singer Dave Vanian joined a band called The Doctors Of Madness, drummer Rat Scabies started a new band called The White Cats, Jon Moss, who was the drummer before Scabies and then went on to be in Culture Club, with original guitarist Lu Edmonds formed a new band called The Edge, Sensible started King and founding member and guitarist Bryan James had formed Tanz Der Youth.
On Wednesday 5th September 1979 a gig at the Electric Ballroom in London’s Camden Town was billed as Les Punks and Dave Vanian wanted to be part of it, so decided to reform the band which was Captain Sensible (now on lead guitar), Rat Scabies and Lemmy (from Motorhead) on bass and billed themselves as The Doomed. Following that gig, Lemmy was replaced by ex-Saints bassist Algy Ward and they reverted to The Damned and signed to new deal with Chiswick records.
In 1978 they had recorded a track called Love Song which was pressed on the Dodgy Demo Co record label and given away as a freebie at gigs but it seemed too good to waste, Chiswick label owner Roger Armstrong explained a few years later, “The band had the Dodgy Demo out and so we re-recorded Love Song. The late Eddie Hollis (manager of Eddie & the Hot Rods) produced a version, but the vocal and the mix were not happening, so I took Dave into the studio – did the vocal again and mixed it.”
The song had a frantic bass intro and hilarious lyrics like; ‘I’ll be the ticket if you’re my collector, I’ve charge the fare if you’re my inspector, I’ll be the luggage if you’ll be the porter, I’ll be the parcel if you’ll be my sorter.’ The second verse was even funnier: ‘I’ll be the mail you’ll be the guard, I’ll be the ink on your season ticket card, I’ll be the rubbish you’ll be the bin, I’ll be the paint on the sign if you’ll be the tin,’ sounds like a match made in heaven.
Given the failure of their first five singles, they couldn’t let this one get away, so a couple of tactics were employed, “We certainly used the fan base to manipulate it into the charts,” Roger admitted. The single was issued in four different picture sleeve each with a different member of the band on and each one pressed on a limited edition red vinyl. “We were among the first to use coloured vinyl and invented the multiple picture sleeve with the four Damned shots on Love Song. Basically you had to give records away to the chart return shops to make sure that they had them in stock. Then a team of housewives would go in and buy them up. Friendly dealers might be encouraged to put in the extra sales in exchange for a consideration. It was all dreadfully corrupt, but at least everyone was being dreadfully corrupt. It was viewed as a bit of a game,” Roger confirmed. “I would say however that you couldn’t hype an absolute turkey and make it stick.”
Then it came to television. Roger continued, “With regards to Top of The Pops, it should have been amazing. On the first appearance Captain Sensible discovered that he could use the BBC costume department, so at the rehearsal he turned up in a full wedding gown and Doc Martens. Everyone in the studio just stood and applauded when he walked in. Then the producer told him that he could not go on in the wedding dress because that week they had an exclusive on David Bowie’s Boys keep Swinging video that featured the Grande Dame in drag and they thought that he might think that the Captain was taking the piss – bollocks! So what could have been one of the great television events of all time was still pretty good, but not as good as it would have been with Vanian in full bow tie and tails singing Love Song to the Captain in a wedding dress!”
With all the hype, the single, which runs to exactly two minutes, eventually made number 20 and spent two months on the chart. The Captain left in 1980 for a solo career and the line-up has changed numerous times over the years. Their biggest hit came in 1987 when a cover of Barry Ryan’s Eloise rocketed to number three. In 2001 they marked their 25th anniversary with a new album called Grave Disorder but didn’t sell enough copies to get into the chart.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the birth of punk and The Damned and next week sees the band begin their 31-date UK tour although six weeks ago they made their debut appearance at the Royal Albert Hall where they played a three-hour set list of every song they had recorded. It was a very special night for the band because back in 1977 they were deemed ‘not suitable group for appearance here’ by the Hall’s management, but a spokesman at the Albert Hall said, “We lifted the ban for a special performance marking the band’s 40th anniversary.”
Back in their early days on Stiff they worked and toured with label mates Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello and they once played a prank on Elvis Costello whilst he was asleep, they tipped the contents of an ashtray into his mouth and then set fire to his shoelaces to wake him up. I hope Elvis forgave them and hopefully they’ve grown up a bit!