Like rings in a tree, you can age me by the rock and roll songs that have embedded themselves in my brain and body. My musical dendrochronology begins somewhere in the late 50s with Chuck Berry and radiates outward to include layers of Brit pop, American garage, psychedelia, R&B, punk and substratums of blues, folk and jazz. I measure my life not so much in time but through epiphanies triggered by music, art, sex and drugs – a string of cosmic firecrackers shooting sparks into the ultimate reality of whatever the fuck I’ve become. I’m shaped by the things I love. And I love rock and roll.
In 1977, I was living in Boulder, Colorado. It was the year of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and every radio station across the known universe was transmitting that unstoppable, unavoidable ear worm, creating a phonological loop in even the most resistant of hosts. I owned the record. I played it. I liked it. But was it a life-changer? No fucking way. But something epochal, something brain-sizzling and exhilarating was churning in the near distance and heading straight for my very receptive rock n’ roll heart: a burst of punk ferocity called The Damned.
“New Rose” arrived in my life when I was searching to stretch my own art into new shapes. I was a poet who had grown tired of the solitary act of writing. And while I was good enough to be published in some small press magazines, I really wasn’t all that interested in seeing my poems in print. I was far more excited by doing poetry readings. I dug the interplay between me and an audience. Poets say you should write for yourself. I always thought that was bullshit. I wrote to be heard. I wrote to stir things up and topple empires. Poetry, for me, was a revolutionary act and the revolution wasn’t happening in universities or the dusty corners of bookstores. It was happening in bars and on the streets. And suddenly, in the year of ’77, it was starting to happen on the airwaves and in rock clubs.
Bands like The Damned, Patti Smith Group, The Ramones, The Stranglers, Talking Heads, The Clash, Blondie and Television were making music that was subversive, surreal, weird, untamed and unpredictable. It was like the Dadaists or the Beats had picked up guitars and formed rock bands. The gates were flung open and everyone was invited. It was explosive and it changed rock forever. And it changed me. I packed up my Smith Corona and bought a Telecaster.
Wes Orshoski’s The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead is the first documentary to explore the tangled history of Britain’s seminal punk band in depth. It’s raw, funny, intimate and at times heartbreakingly sad. Orshoski had total access to the group, both current and past members, and the complex and highly dysfunctional relationships that have driven the founding bandmates into two antagonistic camps is one of the truly sad tales of a rock and roll marriage turned toxic.
The film certainly has its dark side but it is also an exhilarating account of what total commitment to the life of a rocker is all about. The Damned have done it their way since their inception and they’re doing it still. Chock full of live footage from all of the eras of The Damned and wonderfully witty and prickly interviews with Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies and Brian James, among many others, the movie is emotionally intense but it is also sublimely entertaining. Still punker than shit 40 years after they first got together as teenagers, The Damned are the embodiment of an uncompromising spirit that is as admirable as it is exhausting to sustain. While other bands from the class of 77 went on to some fame and fortune, The Damned never really got their due. Time for that to change.
Orshoski did an exceptionally fine job of documenting the life of the Motörhead frontman in Lemmy (2010) and his skill in getting artists to open up and be candid about their lives is particularly evident in the Damned movie. At times the intimacy of the film can almost be too much. When Rat Scabies or Captain Sensible drop their guard, the results can be a potent mix of bitterness, anger and a begrudging kind of love.
The jealousy, resentment and bad business dealings that split the Damned apart is a rupture that if healed could see the band playing together again with all of its original members. Not too many bands you can say that about. There will be no Clash re-union and The Ramones are gone for good. But the Damned still walk among us. Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible currently tour as The Damned. Rat Scabies and Brian James often do live gigs performing Damned songs. But it’s been almost 25 years since the four of them have played together and as long as they’re still all alive, that’s a damn shame.
Dangerous Minds conducted an interview with Wes Orshoski shortly after the Austin premier of The Damned: Don’t You Wish We Were Dead. Orshoski talks about his passion for The Damned, touring with Motorhead, and the struggles involved in making movies with a single video camera and a credit card. It’s clear that despite the complexities and hardships of getting an indie movie made in this day and age, Wes would have it no other way. Punk rock demands punk rock film makers. His no bullshit approach is exactly what The Damned deserves. Fuck the ho-daddies, fuck the poseurs.
After the jump watch some never before released live footage of the Damned and an interview with a guy from El Paso who fooled everyone into thinking he was Dave Vanian. Plus, a terrific review of The Damned’s American debut at CBGB in 1977…