Revisiting Punk's Glory Days with the Damned Singer Dave Vanian

click to enlarge Revisiting Punk's Glory Days with the Damned Singer Dave Vanian
Dod Morrison
Two of the UK’s best punk bands — the Sex Pistols and the Clash — have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And yet, the guys in the Damned, the group that arguably preceded both of those acts, have not yet gotten the call.

Damned singer Dave Vanian says he thinks the band deserves a nod.

“I guess because the Clash [are in because they] had a couple of big hits, and Pistols had their notoriety worldwide, but the Damned were just plugging away all these years,” he says in a recent TransAtlantic phone call. The band brings its 40th anniversary tour to House of Blues on April 28. “I think there’s definitely something wrong there. It’s a terrible oversight. We must have somehow been on the list and then got coffee spilled on it. If the check is in the post, we’ll be there.”

Formed in 1976, the Damned released what is arguably the first-ever British punk single and album. They also became the first UK punk act to tour America. Last year, the band celebrated the 40th anniversary of the release of its first single, “New Rose,” with a limited edition 7-inch reissue that included original artwork, picture disc and exclusive fold out poster. Earlier this year, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its 1977 album, Damned Damned Damned, the group released a special Art of the Album: Deluxe Edition of the album.

When the band first formed, Vanian, who had previously played in a band with singer Chrissie Hynde, who would go to great fame with the Pretenders, didn’t have a sense that the Damned would become something special.

“You don’t join a band expecting it to last,” he says. “You never know how long it will last. For a punk band, three years is a long time. [At my audition], [guitarist] Brian [James] gave me a sheet of paper with some lyrics on it and played the lyrics and sang the lyrics out in a phony American drawl and one, two, three, and we were off. I guess they liked it. But we could have been gone within a year. After the second album, [guitarist] Brian [James] wanted to quit the band and break it up because he thought that was it.”

Critics have cited political and social unrest as one of the triggers for igniting the UK punk scene. Vanian admits that had a significant impact.

“It was a hard time to be a teenager,” he says. “It was pretty grim. That summer of ’76 and ’77, there was a dustbin strike in London. They weren’t emptying any dustbins for months and months. The rubbish was piled up about ten feet high. There was a heat wave, and London absolutely stank. On top of that, there were strikes and power cuts where the electricity was going out all the time. There was massive unemployment. A lot of England still seemed like the post-war period. It still had that kind of feel about it. I guess it was the first really big teenage movement since the ‘60s. I think the punk thing was a young movement. It was just exciting. There was a buzz. You go places, and people would gravitate to whatever it was. Everyone was anxious and looking for something. Out of it came music and poetry and photographers and artists and comedians. It was a massive artistic revolution.”

In the wake of releasing that first single, the Damned hooked up with the then-unknown Sex Pistols for a tour dubbed Anarchy Tour of the UK. The jaunt lived up to its name as the Sex Pistols quickly became superstars and promoter Malcolm McLaren dismissed the Damned from the tour before it was over.

“They weren’t that well known [when the tour started],” Vanian says of the Pistols. “They were playing to 30 or 40 people. Most of the gigs they did were old cinemas and church halls. They weren’t proper gigs. We were put on the bill to fill the hall. What happened was that this limousine turned up one day, and they drove off to the BBC to do The Bill Grundy Show and then came back and [Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm [McLaren] was ticked off. He told them they blew it. The next day, the press went crazy. It was everywhere. After that, Malcolm acted like he instigated the whole thing and was behind it all. He was a great opportunist. We used to call him ‘what can I do you for’ Malcom. After that, he didn’t need us anymore. It all got a big ridiculous. All because of a few minor expletives that are on TV now every five minutes. It was only because Grundy was drunk to begin with. History would have been totally different if they hadn’t done that TV show. After that, the whole world knew who the Sex Pistols were.”

After the tour, the band recorded its full-length debut, Damned Damned Damned, with producer Nick Lowe. With its blistering guitars and rapid-fire vocals, album opener "Neat Neat Neat" still stands as one of the greatest punk tracks of all time.

“It was great fun,” Vanian says of working with Lowe. “The whole thing took about a week and a half to do. We didn’t have time to build a lasting relationship. The studio was a tiny little room that had a mixing desk that only two or three people could sit in the room and even the master tape was second hand. It was someone else’s demos that we recorded over. It was done on the cheap. [Lowe] tried his hardest and recorded us as we were. If it had been done at an expensive studio with a fancy producer, it would have been ruined. It captured the energy of the band at the time.”

In the wake of the album's release, the Damned embarked on the first U.S. tour by a UK punk band. While it wasn't entirely smooth sailing, it did broaden the group's fanbase.

"It was mixed," says Vanian. "It was all good but not without its problems. In L.A., they really loved the band. When we played in England, it was a fight to get people to listen to the music and not have a go at us. It was difficult. In L.A., they seemed to understand it from the first moment, and it felt like a second home. New York was just as good but in a different way. When we played New York the first time [with Cleveland's Dead Boys], it was cooler in its reception of bands. I think they thought, 'Who are these English upstarts?'"

Given that the band formed amidst social and political upheaval, Vanian admits that with Brexit and with the divisive presidential election in the U.S. things have seemingly come full circle. And yet, he still looks back fondly on punk's early days.

“It can never be like the days when we started again,” he says. “I can remember coming to America the first time and places like New York were really seedy and overrun by mobsters. It was too run down, but some of it has been cleaned up and gentrified that the artistic people aren’t there anymore because they can’t afford it. I do miss those days.”

The Damned 40th Anniversary U.S. Tour, Bleached, Sweepyheads, 7 p.m. Friday, April 28. House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $23,

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
Scroll to read more Music News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.