At a time when punk band names are being printed on pre-faded t-shirts and sold at couture prices, it's a cruel irony that The Damned -- who according to many released both the first “official” punk single and punk album -- aren’t as popular as The Clash or The Sex Pistols. Damned, Damned, Damned, released in 1977, is a flagship example of the genre at its best. It’s a perfect mix of crashing cymbals and guitar riffs played at breakneck speeds, and because of its lo-fi production, it actually sounds like a punk show at a bar, where a bunch of drunk idiots might jump around and hurt each other for fun.
Despite the lack of high end t-shirt sales, the band continues to play out like they’re still in their 20s. Damned, Damned, Damned turned 40 this February and the band is celebrating the anniversary with a world tour, which comes to the Fillmore in San Francisco on April 11. I spoke with Vanian, now 60, last month, right before he left for Australia.
He answered the phone with “I’m not here," then proceeded to show that he is in fact very much still here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KQED Arts: I watched the documentary about the Damned, Don't You Wish We Were Dead, last night and that footage from the show at the Waldorf in ‘79 is pure chaos. It’s pretty amazing. How does a show like that happen?
Dave Vanian: For that particular one, it was just horrendous sound. It was really, really bad and we were getting pissed off because it was so bad. It just all went horribly wrong.
For a punk group, it seems like you took your playing very seriously.
We did and we still do. That was it was all about. The difference between this band and some of the others is that we came up with the punk movement, and it all started with us and around us, but we weren’t conscious of being that. We were just a band. There was no name for it, and I only saw similarities to us in bands like the New York Dolls, or the Stooges, or the MC5. They were close to what we were doing and had a similar attitude. Someone asked back then what did we make and I said if we’re anything, we’re a garage band. But punk was coined a few months later and we all got tarred with the same brush.
Out of all the guys in the band, you were the only one who hadn’t really been in a band before. How did you know you could be a singer?
I didn’t even want to be in a band. I’m serious. I had no aspirations at all to be in a group. I was trying to do other things but I couldn’t seem to get ahead. I was always going to see bands and music was really important to me, and then it dawned on me that I should give it a go. I basically lied a little bit and said I had been in a band, and got in a group. That group quickly disbanded when we were still rehearsing and suddenly the Damned was there and I was in the band. Never looked back.
Were you nervous at all at that first practice? I mean, all those guys are players.
No. I thought I could do it and if I couldn’t have done it, they would’ve told me straight away. That’s the kind of business it was -- no one was afraid of saying, “Wow, you’re terrible.” You had to be good at what you were doing and I just hoped I was good enough, and I must’ve been. Then I had to learn what I was doing as I went along. I had to learn to be a proper singer because I had never sung before, except in my bedroom.
You guys are celebrating Damned, Damned, Damned with this upcoming tour, but I was talking with a friend yesterday and we both agreed that Machine Gun Etiquette is when the Damned became The Damned.
That’s because that’s the first time we were all writing the songs. Damned, Damned, Damned is Brian James. Wonderful album, but when you get to Machine Gun Etiquette it becomes a collaboration, and the group as people are very different from each other. You wouldn’t expect them to be in a band together because our influences are all so different, but when we come together musically, it all seems to work. My influences are completely different from Captain (Sensible, guitarist) -- his are based in prog rock, Terry Riley and a little bit of Syd Barrett. Rat (Scabies, ex-drummer) was very much into the mod scene and the Who and all those kind of bands. Mine was anything from classical music, tango, film soundtracks, to seedy garage bands from the ‘60s. Luckily in that melting pot, when it worked, it worked well.
And it seems like you can tap into that same “Machine Gun” sound whenever you want. For example, the song “Under The Wheels” off 2008’s So, Who’s Paranoid? sounds like it could be a single from Machine Gun Etiquette. Do you ever feel pressured to make a “Damned-sounding” song, or do songs like that just come naturally?
No, I don’t think we even have something we’d considered a “Damned sound.” I never know what a song is going to be until it starts to happen. I don’t think we’ve ever tried to consciously write in any kind of direction either; we just go with it naturally.
As time has gone on, we’ve grown in other directions and done different things. We always like to challenge ourselves a bit and push ourselves further. Sometimes we’ve taken risks that have paid off well that others might not have done, like writing a song like “Curtain Call.” At the time, every song was three minutes and suddenly you’ve got this 18-minute piece. But it just grew and grew and grew from a basement tune on a harmonium into this monstrous song.
When you wrote a song like “Plan 9, Channel 7,” which has you really going for it vocally -- was there any apprehension there? I mean, there’s a lot going on there that isn’t exactly “punk.”
It was weird, but as I said, we never really thought about that. It was more a case of “If we liked it, hopefully someone else would.” As long as it wasn’t too self indulgent. [Laughs]
Funny enough, part of Plan 9 was written on a guitar with one string on it. Rat gave me an old guitar -- I didn’t know how to play guitar -- and it was broken. He said, “I don’t want it, see if you can do something with it.” I put a string on it -- bare in mind I didn’t have a tuner or anything -- and I wrote this part of the riff. I played it to Captain and asked him, “Do you think this is any good?” And he said, “I like that” and he started to put other bits on it, and it turned into Plan 9, which is all about vampires and James Dean, obviously.
I understand you are working on a new album.
Yeah, we’ve started putting things together but because the tour’s imminent, we’re not going to be able to get into the studio until we come back. So far it seems like quite the mixture of material, and it’s going to go back farther into our psychedelic roots. I’m also thinking it’s not going to be a conventional album, with song/song/song/song -- 12 songs, that’s the end. It’s probably going to be songs and pieces of music.
Yeah, there’s going to be a bit more to it then just an album of pop songs or punk songs or whatever it will be. And hopefully that will be a good thing. [Laughs]
Also, I tend to work a lot of music and not vocals. I’ve done a bit of composing for the odd B-movie and TV show, and I love doing that. I’ve always liked soundtracks, so I tend to write a lot of music that’s never going to see vocals, and probably not a drum kit either. It’s weird, but about two-thirds of my music has no vocals at all; it’s all instrumental. Yet I’m a singer.
It’s great to hear that you’re still so passionate about music.
If you love music, you never run out of it, because you never really find it all. It’s always there and just around the corner is something else you haven’t heard before, and it’s fantastic. Also, we’ve never really hit the big time, so we’re still a bit angry and pissed off enough that we can do the other stuff.
Yeah, you always seem able to write a great fast song.
We’re not so blasé because we’ve done 60,000 in huge stadiums with millions of screaming kids. It would be nice, I guess, but I think you can get complacent quite easily that way.
I have to ask about what two old Damned bassists, Paul Gray and Bryn Merrick, said in the doc Don’t You Wish We Were Dead -- that playing in the Damned probably gave them cancer. (Merrick, who happily joked about the claim in the documentary, died of cancer in 2015).
They would say that, now wouldn’t they. [Laughs]
Is playing in the Damned bad for your health?
I’ll tell you what it is, and it’s a strange thing, but I used to see it all the time: When people used to come to the band to work for us, like a tour manager or a roadie, and sometimes even a band member, they would just go totally nuts. It was like the Damned was the excuse for them to let loose all their demons. “I’m going to drink 12 beers before breakfast” and all that kind of stuff.
Suddenly they’d go crazy, and then they’d keel over and wonder why. And though we were crazy and did a lot of crazy things, we all knew to handle what we were doing. Yeah, we were nuts, but we didn’t need 12 beers to do it. And it wasn’t full-on all the time. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here; we would’ve been dead long ago.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.