The Last Punks Standing: The Damned Team With Bowie's Producer for 'Evil Spirits'
They were the first and at this rate, they'll probably be the last. The least hip band of UK punk's first wave outlast the competition by 30-plus years and make a polished rock album.
13 April 2018
The Damned were the first UK punk band to release a single in October 1976. They were the first UK punk band to release an album in February 1977. Unfortunately, they lacked the hip gunslinger cool of the Clash, the danger and threat of the Sex Pistols, and the well-rehearsed nihilism of countless other bands from that era. Well, who's laughing now eh? The Damned have just released a new album, the drolly entitled Evil Spirits. We've been waiting since 1981 for the new one from Generation X.
It's a minor miracle that Evil Spirits exists at all. The Damned could not have bothered and joined a ye-olde-punke-rocke package tour, but instead, they went into a recording studio and made this, their 11th LP. The smart money would have been on quick retreads of "New Rose" and "Neat Neat Neat" and then off to the bar, but in a very un-punk-rock move, the band regrouped and polished up their act. The result is an album that's pretty great.
Damned diehards Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian have been rejoined by Black Album era bassist Paul Gray for Evil Spirits and the unlikely figure of Tony Visconti sat in the producer's chair. Is it ironic that Visconti's former protegee Marc Bolan toured the UK for a final time in 1977, with the Damned as support? Either way, Visconti has coaxed a great set of performances out of this motley crew and added a few signature flourishes while he was about it. A horn section might not be very punk rock, but it's a welcome addition to "Sonar Deceit", for example.
Fans of the 1984 spin-off project by Naz Nomad and the Nightmares (the soundtrack to a fake 1960s movie by a fake 1960s psych-garage band which was the Damned by moonlight), will appreciate the Farfisa organ which dominates tracks like "The Devil in Disguise" and "Procrastination" while fans of the Who will enjoy the "Quadrophenia" era trumpet and John Entwistle-style bassline of "The Daily Liar". This is an ambitious record, made by a band who obviously weren't happy just to sleepwalk through an album that sounded like 1977 was happening again.
Musically, the band seems to be in rude health. Captain Sensible turns in a very creditable guitar performance which goes way beyond the power chord frenzy of many of his contemporaries. Dave Vanian's voice has lasted the course, going from aggressive on "The Devil in Disguise" to a Las Vegas croon on the first part of "I Don't Care". The "new boys", Pinch on Drums and Monty Oxymoron on keys navigate their way through a collision of styles confidently and stylishly. Mr Oxymoron (possibly not his real name) manages to shift from "96 Tears" to Holiday Inn Lounge Bar pianist effortlessly. He's a class act.
Evil Spirits is a strong, weirdly timeless album. Just when you think you've got the measure of it ("Oh, they're going for garage band retro") they'll throw a curve ball like the Scott Walker stylings of "Look Left". That particular track has the dubious distinction of threatening to turn into "Bat Out of Hell" on a couple of occasions – that may be accidental, or a deliberate joke at the expense of their mid-'80s goth following… It's hard to pin this record down to a point in time – it certainly doesn't sound like 2018, but it sure as eggs are eggs doesn't sound like it's from 1978 either. It sounds like a band stretching out and having fun in a studio, under the watchful eye of someone who is accustomed to working with mavericks and outcasts.
The Damned were voted the band most likely to crash and burn from the early UK punk scene. In fact, they did, but they had the good sense to get back together and give it another try. They've been giving it another try for about 40 years. Sensible still wears a beret and a tutu and Vanian still looks like a debauched matinee idol. The difference between 1977 and 2018 is that the Damned are now a musically accomplished band with a huge palette of sounds and styles at their disposal. And unlike the Sex Pistols, the Clash and myriad others, they're still standing, and on their own terms. Now that's punk rock.