By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
To be published in an upcoming issue of Absolute Underground Magazine
The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead is a fascinating documentary that looks at the rise, decline and resurrection of the United Kingdom’s seminary lords of the punk rock scene. They helped give rise to it mid to late 70’s, and the people they influenced included Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders — who played with The Damned albeit briefly before finding her own road to success.
Although I would have liked to hear more from her brief stint, many well-known names were interviewed about the influence this band had back then. They were very introspective. Appearances from Billy Idol, Lemmy, Son Letts, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Mick Jones of The Clash and Clem Burke of Blondie are just some of the names who lend their insights to what this group represented. Although they never attained the global success that bands like the Sex Pistols attained, that may be in part to the image the founding members — Dave Vanian, Brian James, Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies — wanted to project. They seemed rather schizophrenic early in their inception.
Through old and new interviews, stock footage and archival material, this product nicely covers a lot of ground. The drama is tough to find, but the retrospective in showing how The Damned evolved with the times is the highlight. The latter half of this program is more fascinating to watch than the first, but that depends on when the viewer became interested in this group’s music. This band’s style changed throughout the decades. From punk to goth, just where they can achieve their mainstream success is just one layer of this movie’s multi-length discourse.
From their years of performing, including seeing changes in their line-up of musicians, a lot of ground is covered. The drama between the two heavyweights, bassist/guitarist Captain Sensible and drummer Rat Scabies is at the core of this product. Some of which has been widely publicized and others have not. Part of this show looks at their disagreement over unpaid royalties. Whether this dispute is ancient history or not, that’s tough to say. Of the two, he thinks it is, but there’s more to his response than meets the eye. Interestingly, there was also a difference of opinion in what punk rock represents since these were the years the movement really got noticed. Even Brian James’ split is explored.
In a product that took three years to make, to find this documentary’s focus requires fully paying attention to the two-hour presentation. The sections I enjoyed was the refresher course in what the members of The Damned consider as punk. They were writing music and singing about the working class. These were the days of vinyl — and as one part of this film revealed, an entire side of the record album would be dedicated to explaining their side of the world, if not life. By this documentary’s end, the story comes full circle and I made the devil’s sign as my nod of approval.
In what this documentary nicely does is to provide more than a retrospective to a group who is still going strong. They are performing and letting fans know they are not dead. Although former bassist Bryn Merrick (Phantasmagoria) passed away after the release of this product, the rest of the mates are still at it. They have proved to me that their contribution to the world of rock is here to stay and I can move with the flow of how their music has changed with the times.
The video release contains a bevy of extras, like:
- Captain Sensible’s tour of Croydon.
- A featurette on the 1976 Anarchy Tour (in which the real story behind the Damned’s ousting from that tour is told for the first time).
- A featurette on The Doomed era of the band, featuring former bassist Henry Badowski.
- Audio Track by the Captain at a “Doomed” rehearsal at Rat’s parents home.
- A clip with the Captain and comedian/actor/musician Fred Armisen busking in L.A.