The Damned have announced a 2024 tour featuring the classic ‘80s line up. That's Vanian, Sensible, Scabies and Gray – together again after 35 years. Finally, the songs you want to hear, by the people you want to play them. Get excited and revisit the time CREEM writer Toby Goldstein tagged along with the band for another set of sort-of reunion gigs back in the summer of 1979, including a Manchester "kiddie show" and a disastrous London gig that, regardless, landed them back on the charts.

Saturday: '“This is why the Russians don’t bother to steal British secrets.” The middle-aged cabbie points out his window, his arm sweeping over a massive Manchester council estate called Hulme (rhymes with tomb). Put up just ten years ago, these ugly, squat buildings are showing visible signs of decay in their yards of packed rough dirt, the dead gray, cracked structures. The Russell Club, known as The Factory on the nights punk bands play, is smack in the center of Hulme. It's a tatty place, but one that offers a small spark of communality for the frustrated area youths who quit school at 15 and work as janitors or street sweepers when they find work at all.

Over 1500 of the North’s lost generation are likely to pack The Factory for two shows by The Damned, as the group bums rubber across Britain, trying to prove its burial was premature. This tour is make it or permanently break it for the band, who were spewed into prominence on the first wave in 1976, sharing national headlines with the Pistols and Stranglers. But the cheers soon turned into jeers when The Damned were unable to write songs that matched the fury of their hit singles (in England), “New Rose” and “Neat, Neat, Neat.” Their gigs drove away potential supporters, turned off by the group’s sloppy performances at overload volume.

Original CREEM archive layout for the article
CREEM, August 1979

Only the sight of Chris “Rat Scabies” Miller heaving a glass across The Factory’s floor hints that The Damned have not undergone total personality alterations. Bassist Alastair Ward, the replacement for founder member Brian James, is a good-natured 19-year-old who confesses he has photos of Deborah Harry tacked all around his flat. Lead singer Dave Variian (as in Transyl), dressed in street attire of well-cut funereal black, looks a lot less ghoulish than the dressalikes who've snuck into their sound check. And even Ray “Captain Sensible” Burns, newly switched from bass to lead guitar, confines his infamous antics to pulling practical jokes, such as showing he likes you by exploding a firecracker behind your back. It even appears the Captain has left his former stage costumes of tutus and nurse's uniforms to history and, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt and jeans, he's a rather pleasant chap. The Captain warms up by singing both parts of that kitsch classic, “You're The One That I Want,” and is rumored to encore with “Summer Nights” when the audience is reasonably well-behaved.

Which is definitely not the case during the 6 p.m. “kiddie show,” exclusively for under-16s. A few hundred leather boys, and maybe six girls, hurl their malnourished bodies around to the unceasing beat, and gob for all they’re worth. A local culture hero named Gordon the Moron clamors onstage to make announcements, holding an umbrella in front of his face. Within 45 seconds, the black nylon is soaked with spit. So are The Damned, but they don't mind; it’s proof they've connected.

“We like our audience,” says Vanian, who looks ready to drop. “That’s what it’s about, the contact with the audience. It’s not a conscious thing and it’s not planned that way.” Whatever the cause, there are dozens of somebody’s children clustered around the group, collecting autographs and standing in awe. Not so different from Kiss's hold on impressionable American youth, I venture. “What, that brainless mentality?!” challenges Scabies, but at least he's laughing.

The Damned attract the younger wing of the punk movement, and have agreed to be interviewed by four reporters from a local alternative paper. Of the lot, only 14-year-old Neil plans to become a journalist; the others want to play “heavy, fast music” says Robert, 13. David, the leader of the pack, tries to get serious with Rat and Dave, who are remarkably indulgent of the lad's unease at being in their PRESENCE. They tell him about their forthcoming release, “Love Song”, agree that everyone is better off without Brian James and talk about how well the tour’s been going. David carefully takes it all down. At the age of 16, He's already lost three jobs for his love of rock 'n' roll.

The Damned with a group of their fans outside the Russell Club in Manchester, circa 1979.
The Damned with a group of their fans outside the Russell Club in Manchester, circa 1979. Photo via Getty.

Wendy is backstage, too. She’s 19, works in a factory, and has hitched 100 miles to see The Damned. Her reward will be more tangible, as the next morning she breezes into the breakfast room on Rat's arm. However, there’s no explaining the dedication of The Damned’s #1 fan, a pimply-faced overweight boy, dressed punk to his luminescent socks, simply called Spy. Spy, who has a responsible day job with American Express, is The Damned’s shadow. He knows more about their venues than they do. He loves to be playfully slapped around when Rat yells out, “Get the Spy!”, cuffing him while the minibus coasts down the motorway. Spy will quit his job when The Damned tour America so he can see all the shows.

Wendy and Spy are up front for The Factory’s midnight show, along with a thousand others, again almost every one a rpale. From an excellent (if cowardly) vantage point in the balcony, I can see a skinhead pogo to the edge of the stage, then throw himself over the bodies of his jiggling neighbors. Liquids are consumed and released at an astonishing rate as the mob struggles to keep pace with The Damned’s speeding frenzy.

Watching Scabies pound his drums into a pulp, occasionally using his head as a stick, I understand why some felt Rat should have been The Who’s next drummer. What's more, Dave Vanian’s vocals can actually be heard, a major improvement over the morass that passed for their show at CBGB’s. “We have to slow our numbers down ‘cause people complain that we go off too early otherwise,” Vanian says afterward, repeating the band's sworn goal to be "the fastest and the loudest." The group mixes above-average cover versions of “Ballroom Blitz'’ and “Pretty Vacant” (how’s that for balls?), with a sampling of tunes from their two Stiff albums, Damned Damned Damned and Music For Pleasure, and three new numbers, written by the improbable team of Scabies and Sensible.

“They are the best behaved boys we’ve ever seen.”
--Front Desk Lady, Manchester hotel

After the empty bottles have been swept from the floor and I’ve calmly declined Captain’s offer to come backstage and show him what New York girls do with their tongues, Damned manager Rick Rogers checks me into a local hotel, known for its acceptance of punk bands, even this one. “They haven’t been giving you any trouble?” he tentatively asks the desk lady. ”Oh, no," she responds. “They are the best behaved boys we've ever seen.” “You didn't hear that,” pleads Rogers.

Sunday: Despite the group’s overwhelming success in Manchester, conquering the vast London Lyceum is a whole other game of cricket (Sensible’s favorite sport). London has not forgiven The Damned for their theatrical bravado and musical incompetence, and may not be ready to accept a group that was splintered into four different acts less than six months previous. Depressed by their increasing lack of revenue, ending their association with Stiff and gettingon each other's nerves, they parted company. James formed Tanz der Youth, Scabies—the White Cats, Sensible—King, and Vanian stayed home with his wife Laurie and recorded weird demo tapes.

“All that prima donna routine we were stuck with, that was Brian,” muses Scabies, his tobacco-yellow fingers never without a smoke. “Now it’s not such a pain in the ass to work with us. Looking back, I’m sure it was. Me and Captain wanted to get the group back together. I don’t know about this swine [points to Vanian]. He wouldn’t join. ‘Come back, Dave!’ ‘No.’ ‘We'll give you lots of money!’ ‘Well, just for this one gig.’ That's how we got him back.” Spy: “No, it wasn’t, you said you, we’re goiig to America.’ Scabies: “Well, how look at you, you're back.” “I never thought I’d do this again,’ and peers disconsolately out the window. Rat breaks the mood with a fast chorus of “On The Road Again.” The music press, who have no reputation for charity, will be reviewing the Lyceum.

The group is slightly relieved when they see their younger fans waiting for autographs at the stage door, while out front, the queue has already started, complete with an overlarge police detail...There was a punk/police riot in London the week before, which doesn’t help The Damned, who still get banned. ”That’s ‘cause out of all the punk bands, we’re the only one that isn’t respectable,” says Rat. “We’re the ones that everyone says, ‘The Damned, ooh, fuck me, no!’ They’ll have The Clash play at Newcastle City Hall and it’ll be exactly the same audience that we get, but with us, it’s uh-oh.” Dave explains, “The Damned are still very unpredictable. People just don’t know what to make of us. And it’s true that when you’re working with Captain Sensible, things can be unexpected.’ The reporter had earlier been shown a photo of a nude Sensible, strategically hidden behind his guitar. Consider a man to whom it makes sense that, in doing a gig for your home town, you show them you’ve got nothing to hide.

There is a reason that terms like “new wave” have not appeared in discussing The Damned, while punk is mentioned often. The Damned are the last of the self-defined punk bands. Their fans come to get crazy, not to protest or to team. The cops shake down the arriving throngs, turning away hun, dreds who were waiting for tickets, but are unable to prevent a sellout of the plush Lyceum. Candy-colored heads top stalklike bodies with provincial accents. Enough zips to encircle the earth gleam dully in the palais’ muted lights. .

The show is a disaster. There are enough flaws in the sound system that, instead of their carefully planned buildup of excitement, the group has to stop and start over twice. They curtail the set, Rat knocking over all his drums, and in utter dejection, leave the stage. Nobody is allowed backstage, even to commiserate.

But the expected press lashing never happens. Instead, reviewers comment about the band's unlikely control over their instruments, praise the new songs, welcome the solid brass rhythms of Algy Ward, and in sum, give The Damned a fair shake. “Love Song” is released on a Friday. By Wednesday, it’s made “record of the week” in NME and Sounds and has sold 45,000 copies. It enters the UK chart ahead of Rod Stewart. The Damned start practicing looking cute in case they go on Top Of The Pops.

It’s more than possible that when The Damned hit America this summer, they’ll be fit to challenge The Ramones to a high-decibel battle of the bands.

There’s a Mona Lisa print hanging in Rick Rogers’ office, completely defaced by Captain Sensible. It was taken for the “Love Song” ad, tagged with a simple saying: “Wipe that smile off your face. The Damned are back.”

Originally published August 1979.



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