[26 June 2007]
In the hierarchy of UK punk rock debuts, Damned Damned Damned ranks behind only Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols and The Clash in terms of its impact on the music world. The trio of bands behind those albums ushered in the first generation of punk, like motley pied pipers attracting misfit followers everywhere they played. Those not fortunate enough to catch these groups live must have been astonished when, in 1977, all these great new records began popping up in the bins. Sure, the Pistols started the whole thing, and the Clash were the Clash. The first albums from those two groups were great, and everybody knows it. Amazingly, the Damned’s debut has hovered just below the radar for these last three decades. While it couldn’t exactly be called obscure, Damned Damned Damned deserves to be regarded as a true classic, must-have record alongside the others.
Castle’s three-CD 30th Anniversary Expanded Edition of the album should help this cause considerably. This is a beautiful package, full of pictures, essays, interviews and detailed track information. The arrangement of the material is smart, too. Disc one contains the original album, and nothing more. All of the bonus material comes on the bonus discs. I always prefer this method, keeping the primary album intact and pure. The second CD is loaded with all kinds of goodies, beginning with a trio of demos recorded in June 1976. Although the sound isn’t great, it’s fun to hear the Damned at this very early stage. More powerful are nine Peel session performances from November ‘76 and May ‘77. Also from that May, we are treated to a ten-song concert recorded for the BBC. They’ve also tossed in a couple of b-sides (including the band’s, um, streamlined take on the Beatles’ “Help”) and the Damned’s between-albums 45, “Stretcher Case Baby” backed with “Sick of Being Sick”. After the orgiastic smorgasbord of disc two, the third CD is another unadulterated sonic experience. Mostly notable for historical purposes, and probably worth listening to only once, the 12 cuts comprise the Damned’s first ever concert, recorded July 6, 1976 at the 100 Club in London (where the Pistols frequently played, as well). The quality of the recording is pretty poor, but it’s quite the important audio document. It also conveys the atmosphere for punk bands in that embryonic period. The Damned rip through their set pretty convincingly, especially for their first outing on stage, but the near-silence between songs is more profound—the three or four bodies cheering were probably all members of other punk bands.
By April 16, 1977, when Stiff Records first released Damned Damned Damned, the audience for punk music had built considerably, thanks to the vast amount of press given to the movement, be it raves, pans, or utter befuddlement. As a live phenomenon, punk had caught on. Still, precious few recordings had been issued by this time. The Pistols had unleashed two singles, and Buzzcocks had birthed their Spiral Scratch EP in January, while the Clash issued their first LP the same month as the Damned’s. 30 years later, it’s hard to imagine the world of music before punk. That raw energy has been with us for so long now. But, at the time, Damned Damned Damned must have been mind-blowing. Even today, it remains powerful and fun.
The album kicks off with “Neat Neat Neat”, the band’s second single and one of punk’s classic tracks. The three-word song title whizzes by like the Roadrunner’s “meep-meep!” as it zips away from the Coyote. Blink, and the prize is gone. Fortunately, with a CD, you can just play the song again. It’s just as good the second time, or the 1,000th. The album also features the even more addictive, tom-tom-driven “New Rose”. Released in November 1976, it is said to be UK punk’s first single. What a way for the genre to begin! While both of those tracks are high-speed poppy punk, the Damned were branching out even on their debut. “Fan Club” is mid-tempo and driven by surf motifs. The slow, dark, and druggy “Feel the Pain” presages the group’s later excursions into art-pop, new wave, and goth. The album’s final track, the bluesy garage-rockin’ “I Feel Alright”, is a cover of the Stooge’s song, acknowledging the genre’s forefathers. Mostly, though, Damned Damned Damned is full-throttle punk rock, with three tracks clocking in under two minutes. Even the 60-second “Stab Your Back” is more than a throwaway, though. It’s exciting, threatening, and, in a really dumb way, pretty catchy. Another of the short cuts, “Fish”, actually features a guitar solo, one of the elements of arena rock bloatedness that punk rock sought to undermine. Right away, the Damned were clearly mavericks, unwilling to play by even the rules of a scene that supposedly had no rules. The band’s weird personality shines through on this album, helping to elevate Damned Damned Damned from very goodness to total excellence.
The Sex Pistols were outrageous, sang about anarchy, and truly did kick-start the UK punk movement. For those reasons, Never Mind the Bullocks will always remain at the top of the totem poll. The Clash successfully built on their eponymous opening entry, later creating one of the best albums of all-time in London Calling. These legacies are impossible to compete with, especially considering the short run of greatness the Damned enjoyed. They produced one more excellent album with 1979’s Machine Gun Etiquette and then went downhill in the ‘80s. Nonetheless, if you can ignore all the hindsight and history and hoopla in order to isolate the music, Damned Damned Damned is the equal of its 1977 rivals. While it may seem overly lofty to term a blistering punk record a “near masterpiece,” that is most assuredly the case here. Castle’s new Expanded Edition gives us that much more to love about the album, the band, and this exciting era of music.