History of The World-The Damned Edition: Wes Orshoski's documentary Don't You Wish That We W
No more getting pushed around, second time around Back to haunt you with our sound, second time around
-The Damned “Machine Gun Etiquette”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, how do?”
Anytime you have an artist who consistently grows and evolves, it is an instant hit and strike all in one perplexing swoop. Music is all that and more so. You have a band or singer break out like a big dog in one arena but the minute they branch out of those safety-audience-expectation zones, it is Riskville. Sometimes it can work critically, like Brian Eno going from glam-rock juggernaut to Ambient music pioneer. Other times, you get something like Shaun Cassidy's “Wasp,” which bombed like a big dog for the forward thinking 70's pop-teen-dream. (Seriously, it has songs written by Barnes & Barnes. Think about that.)
But in those stormy and often reductive waters, you have a band like no other. A band who have consistently evolved and remained solid-as-terra-firma from their very inception till the literal moment of me typing this sentence. The band in question? The one and only Damned.
When I first found out that there was going to be a documentary on The Damned, I was ecstatic. Then upon that great bit of news, reading that it was going to be made by the same team behind 2010's fantastic documentary about Hawkwind and Motorhead demi-god, Lemmy Kilmister, appropriately titled, LEMMY. The latter is one of the best music documentaries that have come out in the 2000's, so knowing that some of the same team would be tackling one of the greatest bands that come out of the 70's UK punk scene was thrilling.
Rewind back to around 1995, when I was junior high kid majoring in high-nerd-girl-awkwardness and stumbled upon Rhino Records DIY punk series, including the “Anarchy in the UK-UK Punk 1” volume. Hearing Dave Vanian intro, “Is she really going out with him?” and then the adrenaline crash of Brian James' guitar for “New Rose” was a pivotal light at the end of the tunnel. Picking up a cassette copy of “Phantasmagoria” along with the band's debut, “Damned Damned Damned” happened in short order. One is pure nasty, shredded punk album (in all the best ways) and the other is a lush, exquisite rock album with elements of goth, satire and subdued psychedelic undertones and both were absolute and revelatory. It has been fast and firm love ever since.
Fast forward to now-ish with this hour and fifty minutes long documentary packed with history, interviews and music. Covering a band with as storied a history of The Damned, complete with the music-world chestnut of original band members not talking with each other and botched deals, could not have been easy. Part of what has made The Damned such a force is the strength of all of their members over the years. Many of the past and present members alike are Aces in the Deck and when you have strong personalities collaborate, they are inevitably going to collide. Yet, what would have killed a weaker band seven times over, The Damned have persevered and stayed consistently great, leading right up to 2008's stellar psych-rock classic, “So, Who's Paranoid?” and beyond.
Needless to say, Orshoshki and company had their work cut out for them.
The film opens with the classic music documentary intro of pre-concert crowds and passers-by, ranging from the converted fans to the punkers going all but “Huh?” when The Damned get invoked. (Seriously, if “punk” is a word you use to describe yourself in a non-prison-bitch way and you don't know who The Damned are, you need schooled young, loud and snotty. Though if you get that reference, then you're not such a bad punk after all!) There is some stellar vintage footage inter-cut, including one choice gem of Captain Sensible, the band's first bassist and current guitarist, replying to a heckler, “You're the idiot! You paid money to see me!” (To call this man a chimerical bon vivant is both loving, slightly pretentious on my part and yet, oh so accurate.)
From there, we get a glimpse of the origins of the band, with interviews with all four of the original members in the form of lead singer and elder vampire (TM Jillian Venters aka Our Lady of the Manners), Dave Vanian, drummer and Holy Grail hunter (which is sadly not really touched upon in the film but was the subject of Christopher Dawes book, aptly titled Rat Scabies & The Holy Grail), guitarist and major lyricist Brian James and the aforementioned Captain. The film goes into the initial fracture, Captain's slide from bassist to guitarist, assorted past members (including an all too short interview with the fantastic Lu Edmunds, who is currently playing with Public Image Ltd) and their resident status of the biggest known cult band to have emerged out of the bleak soil of 1970's England.
It is peppered with commentary from outside musicians and figures, most of which make total sense. (Jello Biafra shows up, making one wonder why is he not used more often in documentaries as opposed to documentary stalwart and former Black Flag front man, Henry Rollins, who is amazingly absent. For the record, I like both men, I'm just saying if Rollins appears in at least 75% of the documentaries I have watched in the last five years. If one made a film about the History of the American Grilled Cheese sandwich and Rollins showed up with a funny and wry story about surviving off of them during the "Damaged" tour, would it really shock you?) Unfortunately, it does follow the art-documentary tradition of having at least one known artist interviewed that makes no sense at all. (Also see, Bono in the otherwise wonderful Charles Bukowski documentary, BORN INTO THIS.) In this case, it's Jesse Hughes aka Off Brand version Thomas Jane from BOOGIE NIGHTS from the Eagles of Death Metal. (Mein gott, what a hipstery band name. It reeks of forced irony, bad facial hair and nary a testicle descended.) Even if you're a fan of that band, he makes about as much as sense talking about The Damned as it would having Janis Ian talking about Varg Vikernes. (Though the latter I would actually be excited to watch!) More Lu Edmunds and less Mustache Boy, please.
Given how overall mighty and not to mention consistently evolving The Damned's discography is, some albums are barely mentioned, if at all. Their last two albums, “Grave Disorder” and “So, Who's Paranoid?” are not even really mentioned, despite being especially strong efforts. Nor is the bassist for the “Grave Disorder” era, former Gun Club, The Bags and Sisters of Mercy member, Patricia Morrison. (Even despite the fact that she is currently married to Dave Vanian.) With that, the film's repeated mantra of how the band should have been bigger feels curious in the bigger scheme of things. Granted, on one hand, it is absolutely choking with truth, because The Damned should be. They should be better known their better promoted contemporaries, aka the Sex Pistols and The Clash. The latter two are great and vital in their own ways but had a finite shelf life. The Damned have just kept going and never growing into a weaker animal. On the other hand, there are so many truly obscure punk and post-punk bands that never saw chart success, appeared on The Tube or Old Grey Whistle Test or have such a loving and well made documentary centered upon them. Bands ranging from Crass to Kleenex to The Screamers were fantastic and far worthy of love and attention too. The Damned deserve more but they have also done pretty fine for themselves.
There are generally two types of fans in this life: the refined tasters and the gluttons. But then, there's a third category. Those who feast but are picky about it. I'm firmly in the third and if it was up to me, every artist that I love would have a Ken Burns-length mini-series of the ages attached. If it's good, then there is no such thing as "too long." Knowing one's nature is, after all, an important thing. While I do truly wish in my heart of hearts that this film was at least double its already healthy running time of 110 minutes, I know that there are multiple factors fighting against such loftiness. Investors and distributors alone can turn ashen pretty quick at the prospect of creative ambition, especially when it starts crawling to what is viewed as an un-audience friendly running time. On top of that, with music documentaries especially, running into obtaining rights to use all, or in some cases, any, of a particular artists' music can become a logistical nightmare pretty quick. At least, Orshoski was able to secure enough music to give enough of a flavor throughout to excite the converted and inform the innocent.
When it comes down to it, he nailed what is the most essential elements about this band. A group of strong individuals with talent, piss, humor and smarts who are all an essential part of the musical fabric from the 1970's onward. (Both individually and collectively. We're talking The Damned, Vanian's side project The Phantom Chords, Brian James stellar work in one of the best 80's bands ever, The Lords of the New Church, Captain Sensible's solo career, everything Patricia Morrison touched, bassist Algy Ward's work in the seminal Australian punk band The Saints, bassist Paul Gray's work in Eddie & the Hot Rods, the satirical-pop-psych-rock genius of bassist/songwriter Henry Badowski and many, many more.) The Damned's musical ties and tethers are rivaled by few and far between and make for the most exquisite tapestry.
At the end of the day, the quote that nails it the best is from original guitarist and lyricist himself. In response to a question about if James regretted the Damned not having a manager like The Clash's fairly cutthroat Bernie Rhodes, James said, “...I play rock and roll for freedom. If I want to get told what to do, I'll go work in a factory. I'm clocking in and I'm clocking out and play my music in the evening. To mix rock and roll with that is a nightmare for me. I couldn't do it. Not for all the money in the world.”