Books

THE DAMNED: Although, they’re terribly nice people, really

Title: Smashing It Up: A Decade of Chaos With

Author: Kieron Tyler

There are too many people out there who still believe that punk began with the Sex Pistols when, in fact, that band appeared late in the scene. America was doing punk way before the UK even heard of the word. In fact, the US-based punks where not even aware that they were at all punkish in their attitude until the term was pasted on roadside street lamps years after they began cavorting on stage. Iggy Pop and Lou Reed helped start the genre. The freaks and strangeness that hung onto the tails of Andy Warhol gave it substance. Later still appeared the likes of the New York Dolls then, afterwards The Ramones, Television, Blondie and more.

The essence of the scene was – whisper it quietly – hippie-like in its form. That is, US-based ‘punk’ formed a protective home to people who lived outside of the system and, really, truly, didn’t give a damn. Bankrupt and decaying New York provided that ideal home. It was a place to share ideas, to be wild, to experiment in art and sex and to have fun. Real fun. No holds barred fun. Many would have so much fun that they would actually die in its pursuit. Iggy Pop should have died on many, many (many) occasions yet, remarkably, he is still here. No-one knows why. That includes Iggy.

We, in the UK only really had Bowie as a compatible touch-stone. In fact, Bowie knew, liked and mixed and became totally smashed with many from the early US scene. He was possibly the only enlightened ‘punk’ musician in the UK, at that time.

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A lot of water had flowed under the bridge before the Sex Pistols even considered forming. Before John Lydon and his rotten teeth even met Malcolm  McLaren. If you took US-based punks, plucked them from the New York streets and then dropped them into the UK version, somewhere around the King’s Road, then you would see sheer confusion and no little alarm on the faces of the Americans (this actually happened, in reality too).

Part of the reason was because the UK version of punk was a whole lot darker. It was far more political. It was soon to be infused with Thatcher, punk’s own favourite Moriarty. Thatcher was the evil genius sporting a hand-bag full of socially destructive and divisive policies aimed at destroying the lives of the poor and scaring the life out of the middle classes.

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This is why The Clash (the first member of UK punk’s Holy Trinity) were so political in their music and opinions. This is why The Sex Pistols (the second member of UK punk’s Holy Trinity) found it hard to even play a gig, because political revolution, media manipulation and the riotous response of ‘the masses’ prevented it.

It fell to The Damned (the third and final member of UK punk’s Holy Trinity) to inform the UK public just what pure, undiluted punk was really all about. What the essence of Mk.1 punk was. It was not about destruction, that was happening all around – punk or no punk – and it was government sponsored (both governments…Conservative and Labour). Being a punk was about living for today. It was about FUN. Not the Sex Pistol’s ‘No Fun’. I say again, FUN.

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England had freaks too. England had people who lived outside of society’s grasp. England had urban decay. England could do punk just as well as the Yanks. You needed the right attitude, though. The Damned had lots.

This book is all about the UK punk band that ‘got it’. The first punk band to release a single in the UK (New Rose) and an album too (Damned Damned Damned). The original outfit was formed by Brian Robertson (later Brian James), the frustrated founder of the early 70s outfit, Bastard, Christopher John Miller (Rat Scabies) and, later Raymond Ian Burns (Captain Sensible) and lead singer, David Lett (David Vanian…and as author Tyler reminds us, it is David and not Dave).

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After a useful introduction in which the reader is offered a potted band history including the varying band line-up changes, we dive into the deep history and how the group members were forged into the band including some interesting nuggets in which the future punk glitterati mixed and flowed and danced around each other, much like the rocky detritus post-Big Bang, before the bands coalesced and formed into the institutions (oh, the irony) we know today. It’s at this stage of the book that you perk up a bit because Vanian is quoted via interviews. That, in itself, is a plus for the book. The shy lead singer normally avoids interviews of this type.

The story follows the early scene, the chaos, the violence, the blood and the arrests as well as the politics. when the Pistols signed to EMI, Sensible commented, “I used to look at the Pistols and think, ‘What are they doing that for?’ Then we heard ‘Anarchy’ and thought, ooo, that’s a bit turgid. I always rated Rotten but didn’t think much of the band.”

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Again, that quote tells you everything you need to know about The Damned. Avoid heavy scenes, keep the music ‘fun’. Have lots of it. Fun, that is, whether that be touring with The Dead Boys or Marc Bolan. Although as the book describes, the USA didn’t accept the band. Accusations that The Damned were sloppy, unprofessional, wild and not ‘arty’ enough, prevented The Damned making it big. Even some of the US-based outfits were uncomfortable appearing with The Damned, “[Television’s] Tom Verlaine didn’t fancy working with us,” said Captain Sensible. “Obviously the word had got to him that we were a bit, um, ha ha. It was pretty mad at times. Maybe he was right. If you want an easy life, I wouldn’t work with the Damned.”

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The book is full of detail and insight, from their connections to producer, Shel Talmy to working with Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason “It’s a difficult thing to say you like Pink Floyd because of what they became,” said Sensible. “Two totally different bands, they became a bucket of shit when Gilmore stopped copying Syd. Syd Barrett was inspired.”

An entertaining read that focuses on the early years and then skips a fair bit towards more recent times, later in the tome, this book focuses on the meat of the band’s career and does so with a fast-paced, journalistic zip.

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