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.
Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue
With Pleasure Forever and the Swingin' Udders
8 p.m. Sunday, October 7
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."
February 1977 saw the release of the Damned's genre-defining debut album, Damned Damned Damned. It was the first album released by a British punk band. Together less than a year, the band became rock stars in its home country. History has proved Damned Damned Damned's greatness: It still sits on countless top-100 lists of the century's best rock albums.
"I put the first album on not too long ago myself and gave it a quick listen," says Vanian, with nary a hint of backward-gazing nostalgia. "It surprised me how well it stood up. Then, so do the Stooges albums or the New York Dolls. I went back and played the first Bowie records and was amazed at how fresh they sounded."
In April 1977, the Damned were the first Brit punks to tour the United States; a highlight of the outing was a series of four shows at CBGB during two sold-out nights with the Dead Boys. Vanian had been reading about the New York's premier punk club CBGB since 1970. "It seemed like this great place, and of course when you get there, you realize it's a real shithole. Still, it had a great atmosphere and great people, and it was absolutely packed. It was pretty wild, as I remember.
"We were very young, and it was the first time any of us had been out of the country," he continues, "let alone been to America. You know, coming from England you hear all these things..."
Still, the last thing the fresh-faced limeys expected Stateside was a dissing from a band they held in high esteem. Booked for a series of West Coast dates with Television, the Damned learned upon arriving in Los Angeles that they'd been sacked from the bill. Television's spiteful gesture left the band stranded and broke in sunny Southern California.
"What happened was, [Television] read the reviews of us that were coming out of New York and Boston and Chicago and Detroit and stuff, and they suddenly decided that they didn't want us on the bill," explains Vanian. "So we got to L.A., and we didn't have any money at all. We couldn't fly home, we couldn't do anything. So we were stuck there. We actually stayed at Tumata Du Plenty's [of the Screamers] house. The manager hassled around trying to find us a show. We did the Starwood or the Whisky with the Dickies, I think."
Back at home, the Nick Mason-produced followup to Damned Damned Damned (released the same year) tanked critically and commercially. Music for Pleasure was, in fact, a red flag signaling that the end of punk was drawing near. In hindsight, the record shows essential signs of movement beyond punk rock's rigid restraints. Besides, the idea to call in a member of Pink Floyd to produce a punk band was, at the time, beyond reproach. But in the Damned's camp, the production move was righteously and typically hilarious.
"Music for Pleasure was an unusual one," understates Vanian. "That was a funny period for us. We were suddenly for the first time in a real recording studio in Wessex. The Clash were in the other studio at the time doing one of their albums. At that point, we all thought that this could go on for a bit longer."
As a band name, the Damned was nothing if not prophetic. In early 1978, the bandmembers continued their string of punk-rock "firsts" in becoming the first U.K. punk band to break up, just three weeks before the Pistols' final show at San Francisco's Winterland theater. Founder and main songwriter/guitar hero Brian James walked. "James told us he'd had enough. We were left in limbo, not knowing whether we were gonna continue -- but of course, we did."
Vanian and Sensible were well aware that the halcyon days of punk rock were fast becoming memories when the band re-formed minus James a year later. Sensible switched to guitar, and they recruited Saints bassist Algy Ward. The band signaled its return with the critic-muffling blast of fuck-all luster, "Love Song" (covered by the Offspring on the 1996 Batman soundtrack). The Damned were back, and the tune landed in the U.K.'s top twenty.
A string of singles ensued that took up residency in the lower reaches of the British pop charts. The next three albums -- the wonderfully self-mocking Machine Gun Etiquette, The Black Album and Strawberries -- all displayed a depth of songwriting and musical irony that snagged the band a hopelessly loyal worldwide fan base. Captain Sensible then carved himself a solo career that peaked in 1983, when he landed a novelty hit at the top of the charts. He dropped off the scene in 1984.
The Damned soldiered on in a decidedly "darker" direction, eventually scoring their biggest-ever hit in 1986 with a cover of Barry Ryan's over-the-top '60s jewel "Eloise," from their goth parody Phantasmagoria. Ironically, Phantasmagoria became, in certain humorless circles, a goth opus. Vanian and company were merely goofing on the idea of goth. "Sometimes a song gets written about something, and it gets interpreted in a totally opposite way," he explains.
Soon after, the band began its slow decline. The next ten years were propped up with spotty live albums, dubious one-offs and rent-paying reunion tours. The band sputtered to a halt around 1995.
In the late '90s, Vanian and Sensible decided to put another version of the Damned together and started touring and writing. The band's current roster includes Vanian's wife/bassist Patricia Morrison (the Bags, Sisters of Mercy, Gun Club), keyboardist Monty Oxy Moron (Punk Floyd) and drummer Pinch (English Dogs). On Grave Disorder, the lineup is accomplished enough that songs brim with authority without losing the musical fisticuffs of the Damned's early days.
Both a founder and inheritor of punk rock, Dave Vanian, in many ways, hangs true to his '76 ethos. For one, he conveys an almost frightening commitment to self-reliance. The Damned, for example, is self-managed. Vanian designs all of the band's merchandise and cover art. The tunes on the near-perfect Grave Disorder are unsullied by heavy-handed contemporary production. It sounds like a rock-and-roll record made for all the right reasons.
Vanian likens his personal philosophical views to the music he grew up on. As a kid, he tuned in to a weekly AM radio show hosted by Wolfman Jack that highlighted '60's American punk. The young Vanian moved from his old man's German tango and big-band 78s straight to the raucous noise of the Standells, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Seeds.
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"Those records never came out in England. But these bands were literally making their records in the garages. I mean, some of that stuff is so inspiring -- some so badly played but so brilliant because of it. So when the Damned were first interviewed, we were asked what bands we liked, and I said, 'Well, we're kind of like these '60s bands,' and they just didn't know what we were talking about. So I said, 'I guess we're a garage band.' What happened was, the term 'punk' happened, which was only a few weeks later. We forever became a punk band."
Too stringently ruled for reinvention and already clinging stubbornly to nostalgia, punk rock was six feet under by late 1979. Based solely on the idea that any art form too comfortable with its own concept is therefore finished, punk became a sweaty, pitiable beast wallowing in parody.
"Eventually, punk got one-dimensional," says the man who pranced stages in the uniform of a vampire in 1997. "That's when it died off, but the first bands had real fire."
In a softer tone, one that sounds almost nostalgic, Vanian continues. "Of the bands that were there at the time, if you compared the Pistols, us and the Clash, and bands like the Adverts and, obviously, the Buzzcocks, they are all so different from each other. All these later bands kind of had blinkers on. They played only a certain type of music, only dressed a certain way, only listened to certain things. And that was the total opposite of what punk started off to be. Punk was never about that."