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The first nuance you notice when speaking with Dave Vanian is how soft-spoken he is. He's articulate, too, and stokes the conversation with droll anecdotes and disarming jabs of self-deprecation. Certainly not what one might expect from an ex-gravedigger known to yodel Alice Cooper's classics "Dead Babies" and "I Love the Dead" while scooping cemetery sward -- or from someone who helped define England's history-altering punk-rock scene as lead singer for the Damned, barking witty, speed-addled odes to lager, fish, chaos and roses against a backdrop of snarled rock and roll.
Where's the expected middle-aged punk-rot misanthrope with the pub-withered voice and ribald demeanor who takes the piss on anything? Not here, chief.
Dave Vanian, it seems, is aging with grace. He has no axes to grind, and never once does he offer disparaging words about any one person, even when goaded. He is thankful to have emerged from the punk class of 1976 with a career intact while at the same time recognizing deserving friends who didn't fare so well. Long regarded as a spiritual granddad to both punk and goth in his affection for the individuality of the former and the dramatic themes and poses of the latter, Vanian exists, as he always has, it seems, in quiet exile. Untroubled, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
What saved Vanian from career ruin early on was that he learned to embrace punk's clarity of expression and declaration only as a point of departure. He and the revolving door of musicians in the Damned took punk's fundamental principles to untold conclusions, the consequence of which has been a series of ambitious albums that, at the very least, managed to sidestep self-parody.
Yet after a glorious and tumultuous run that started in 1976 and peaked ten years later with a number-three hit in the United Kingdom, the '90s were, for most Damned fans, better left for dead. The period was marred by on-stage tantrums, nostalgia-act-like reunion tours, silly side projects and 1995's blundering batch of demos, Not of This Earth -- a record Vanian never endorsed that was released courtesy of ex-stickman Rat Scabies. Hence the enduring fallout with Scabies that followed.
The brand-new Grave Disorder is the group's first release since the 1995 debacle, and it's got Damned fans worldwide trumpeting it as the group's zenith. The thirteen-song disc goes lengths in restoring lost faith, and is, arguably, the band's best since 1979's song-driven Machine Gun Etiquette. It also finds Captain Sensible back in the fold, collaborating with Vanian for the first time since the band's fruitful years in the late '70s and early '80s. One reviewer recently called Grave Disorder "a return to form."
"Whatever that form was," Vanian says, laughing, via phone from his U.K. home. "We certainly had a lot fun making it, and we like it. You're never actually certain until after you've done something exactly how it's going to turn out: love it, hate it or completely miss the point."
The Damned made their debut opening for the Sex Pistols at London's famed 100 Club in the summer of 1976. The group took punk's direction for conduct -- garnering public attention by attempting to create chaos -- to another level, and did so without the political posturing. They simply drank more booze, screwed more girls, did more speed and peddled musical turmoil in a manner that surpassed any other rooster-head in the Summer of Hate, all the while carrying themselves with a kind of madcap mien that did Keith Moon proud. The lovable bunch was actually booted off the Pistols' ill-fated Anarchy tour, only to be asked to support T. Rex on its last tour of Great Britain.
Vanian remembers the T. Rex dates well. The national high-profile jaunt was a first for an English punk band. "It was our first major tour. Obviously, we played in front of all the Marc Bolan fans in large venues, and they all loved us, it was great...We all traveled together on the same bus, which was a luxury for us, because we'd been in the back of a Ford transit van on top of a mattress."
The Damned's debut single, "New Rose"/ "Help," was released 25 years ago this month. The record, the first-ever British punk-rock release, provided a clue as to what later punk would sound like. Its gnarly mess of Seeds-ish '60s garage filtered through Iggy's Detroit and Johansen's New York bottlenecked two generations of three- and four-chord youthful racket and verve. The single charted high. The future was rosy.
Nevertheless, the Damned were punk's no-hopers, regarded by journalists as the least likely to succeed. The band's tongue-in-cheek, lust-for-life antics slouched in the face of the Clash's political dramatizing and Johnny Rotten's eye-glaring nihilism. Jon Savage, in his impartial tome on English punk, England's Dreaming, wrote that the first incarnation of the Damned (Vanian, drummer Rat Scabies, bassist Captain Sensible, guitarist Brian James) was the "Bashstreet Kids of Punk: their lack of calculation and insistence on high-octane, hell-raising fun meant that their rapid rise was bedeviled by the impossibility of any planning."
"Everything was moving so fast then," says Vanian. "Things changed so quickly, we had no idea what was really going on. We were just being ourselves."