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Never Mind the Sex Pistols... It Was The Damned Who Pioneered UK Punk

Forty years after “New Rose”, we sat down with Dave Vanian of The Damned to dissect subculture, originality, and why punk is better off dead.

by Biju Belinky
Nov 22 2016, 3:26pm

Forget what you heard before: The Damned were the first UK band to release a punk single. Their 1976 track "New Rose" – which was released one month before the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" on Stiff Records – is equal parts snarling and strange. "Is she really going out with him?" mutters singer Dave Vanian, before Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies lurch into a cacophony of unearthly, frantic rhythms. Their debut album, Damned Damned Damned, arrived soon after, becoming the first album released by a UK punk group – and as we all know, a new era swiftly bloomed.

While The Damned are regularly cited as pioneers of punk, they did not become the go-to poster boys of the genre. In fact, as a band, they always stood out as unlikely and bizarre in a scene that was already unlikely and bizarre. With musical references ranging from garage to orchestration and psychedelia – performed by a theatrical frontman with slicked hair, black lipstick and silver earrings, and a guitarist who never took off his thick white-rimmed glasses – many audiences didn't know what to make of them. Even as the musical eras progressed, The Damned maintained themselves as true originals – swerving between genres and styles that felt right, not what "should be punk". In that way, they were outsiders among the outsiders.

Over the last forty years, there have been multiple lineup changes, ten albums and one letter from The Royal Albert Hall apologising for banning them from the venue in 1977 for being "unsuitable for appearance". Several decades later, I find myself calling the original singer of The Damned, Dave Vanian, to talk about being the very first, the importance of optimism in today's climate, and why there should never be a punk revival.

Hey Dave. Let's chat about subcultures – are they still important today?
They're massively important, because anything interesting will begin in a homegrown fashion. Then eventually, it will change things, or it will become part of the main social structure. Although sometimes a subculture will just pinpoint what's wrong with everything, rather than giving an answer to change it. But it will always reflect what's going on, starting from the underground.

Obviously, things have shifted since the internet. It all goes much faster, and I kind of miss how slow it was – it felt like a more organic way for things to grow and develop. Before, if you wanted to find out about something, you might have to go to a different part of the world. Finding people who were like-minded was more difficult.

Yes, and "70s punk" seems to have become a buzzword associated with a vague way of dressing now.
See – it never was that. It started from people realising that if you had enough passion and commitment, you could try your hand at almost anything. As a young person, the doors weren't barred to you like they were in [previous decades]. Before, Britain was still pretty much in a post-war mindset. It was still a very grey place, set in an old-fashioned imperial kind of system that didn't have much to say to young people who didn't want to follow the system. So it was a time of massive change, not just for music, but for creativity of any kind: writing, journalism, art... It was fun.

Do you feel like we're reaching a similar time of political rupture right now? Because the gap between the old generation and the young generation is getting pretty visible and angry.
I don't know, actually. What I find is that when punk first started, it was very optimistic – it was a celebration of going forward. I think we've hit a cynical time worldwide – no one trusts anybody, everyone sees the bad side of everything before it even happens. It feels kind of odd, and I don't particularly like it. Obviously there are good things about it, but it also feels like humanity has gone through different stages: we've gone through the juvenile delinquency stage, and now we've reached middle age, that cynical "Ugh, the government is not telling me the right things!" and "Everything I like is killing me!" With things like film, for example, there's a loss of innocence. Very rarely do you get a film or a TV show or literature that is really quite touching because it's innocent.

It's interesting that you call punk celebratory and innocent because a lot of people who were not part of the movement consider it to be based mostly on anger and lashing out against the system. As the first punk band, did you feel that?
It was full of energy, and it was kind of angry, but a lot of that came after the first wave. It was more a case of the press building it into a label that then became a sort of speaker box. I didn't always see eye to eye with that side of it. That's why I think The Damned were always outsiders. We weren't a political band, but by what we did we were being political. That's as far as it went, as far as I'm concerned. There were a lot of false politics being thrown around in the early days, and I used to think: "These bands are just whining about something; they're not offering solutions." It's different if you open someone's eyes to a problem and you point them in the direction of something that needs to be looked at. But some of it to me was essentially just whining.

As a young man, what drew you to music in the first place as a form of expressing yourself?
Ironically, I kind of fell into it in a weird way. Obviously I've got a great love for music, and most of my childhood was very mixed in terms of references – early 50s, classical music and soundtracks – but I wanted to be a graphic artist. I had no musical leanings. What happened was that I couldn't get a job in that field, but I knew I wanted to express myself in my own. At that time, I was in London all the time, going to see plays or performances, and there were only certain places where odd looking people like me would be welcome.

But then someone asked me about being in a band and I must've said, "Yeah I can sing a little bit." And before I knew it I was in a studio with a made-up band playing 60s stuff. As things went on I realised how much I really liked it. Maybe that's why I've got a different viewpoint – because I didn't go into it with a burning desire to be in a punk band. I was always the person before I was in the band – I didn't reinvent myself to be in the band.

Yeah, I guess that's very different to going into it and deciding to try and make up a cool, dark persona, so people pay attention to you.
I was actually very uncool. I didn't dress like everyone else, and what I did wasn't called punk at the time. I just thought I was in a garage band, like the bands I loved from the 60s such as The Stooges and MC5. Then some journalist put the "punk" label on us, and that was that.

As The Damned, how did it feel to always stand your ground making your own style of music in the punk scene?
I think the important thing is there shouldn't be any rules. I didn't like to be pigeonholed into one thing, which was difficult. Record companies wouldn't understand why our music wasn't all the same. It wouldn't fit in a box. But the truth is, we've got so many different band members with different influences. When we got together to write, all those influences are a part of it, and our creative process just happens the way it does.

You also looked very different to the other "punks". Was there much backlash at the time?
At the beginning, we most certainly did get a lot of backlash. They thought I was far too theatrical. I didn't have the spiky hair and all the stuff that was supposed to be de rigeur for punks. I didn't want to look like punks. I was just me, and that was that that.

There were entire towns of people that were against us in those days. There were several gigs we had to run out of. Once, there were people on the other side of the street waiting with chains and pick axe handles, and we had the van smashed up many times while it was parked outside the gig, with the tires slashed. Captain [Sensible], as he says, got used to running very fast.

"Paving the way" is often complicated because there are no references to look to – what kept The Damned going? Did you ever have moments where you were like, "I can't be bothered with this anymore, I'll go be an accountant."
There are moments in your life where you go, "Oh for Christ's sake, I'm making life harder for myself, why don't I just blend in?" Then you do that for a little while, and you realise how uncomfortable you feel. Then you go back to who you were, and what you were doing, and you see how much better that feels. I tried to blend in when I was a kid for a bit – I think because I was in a tough environment, and I regretted it.

Nowadays, a kid goes out wearing black clothes and black fingernails and no one looks twice at him. But when I was young, you had to be careful to not get beaten up on every corner. People shouted things at you. It sounds weird now, but just then wearing black clothes was a big thing. People used to come up to me all the time and say, "Why are you all dressed in black, are you going to a funeral?" And my retort was, "In the Victorian ages you'd find it weird if I wasn't wearing black." You have to admire someone for sticking up and doing their own thing, but if that's who you are then why should you fight it?

Is there going to be a new revolutionary music movement?
I always hoped so. I think it'd be ridiculous if there wasn't one – every 10 to 15 years comes a massive rush of new ideas, and I'm just waiting for it to happen so it can wash us under the carpet. I think something will happen with music that won't be with guitars anymore – could be instruments we don't even know exist, or a resurgence of theremins or something. Classical music has been sitting for years just the way it is, so it's prime time for someone to take it and actually use it. We've got all those amazing sounds and instruments there, you can do anything with it. Because I tell you what, when you hear a 100-piece orchestra going crazy it's something to hear. I'm sure some new kind of music will show up, and I will welcome it when it happens.

What do you think will be the spark of it, socially?
I mean, if I knew it, I'd actually try it myself! Obviously when things get difficult, great art comes out of that because it reflects a struggle, or it gives people release from the struggle. Just like right before the nazis, there was amazing music in Berlin – it all had a subtext to it about what was coming. Who knows what will be next? The only thing is, today, everyone seems to have a car, a phone, a television and internet access, so I don't know... maybe we're getting too complacent. I really hope something will come along. And I really hope it's not nostalgic, not a punk revival or something – I want something new. It might be unlistenable to someone like us, but it will have its worth and I'm sure it'll come.

You've been making music for forty years now – how do you stay interested?
Because I'm still learning and discovering. Music is not like anything else – you can listen to a piece of music thousands of times and never get tired, whereas you can watch a TV show many times not feel so excited. There's still so much out there I haven't heard, be it from the 30s, 60s or some orchestral piece I missed. I think that's the one thing about "punk" that was always supposed to be there that disappeared with time: you are never supposed to be bleaker than your outlook on music. It wasn't "You should listen to this, you shouldn't listen to that". You can find good worth in anything, if it's good.

Lastly, in the spirit of punk, do you think you need to be a good musician to make good music?
No. I think especially now that you've got the tools that you've got in computers. The more important thing is to make the idea – hearing the music in your head and then transposing it into a sound. I think sometimes, even if you're limited in what you can do, you can still do amazing things. Some of the best songs we've written came from that.

Thanks, Dave.

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The Damned are touring to celebrate 40 years of "New Rose" - click here to buy tickets.

(All photos by John Ingham)