Still Damned

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Here comes the Damned, arguably the first real British punk band.

Technically, yes, the Sex Pistols played first, but the Damned put out the first single ("New Rose," released by Stiff Records on Oct. 22, 1976), five months after its first gig.

And though plagued by a revolving door of musicians and managers, the Damned was among the most prolific and productive of the early punks, recording its first album, touring America and playing on the BBC all within its first year--and before the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" came out.

Of course, beating out the Pistols wasn't what endeared them to the Brits of '76. Elvis Costello, a longtime fan, once told rock critic Greil Marcus that the Damned, just as wild as the Pistols, had no art--that is, no pretense or calculation. No Malcolm McClaren as a guiding hand.

When original member Brian James wrote the bulk of the first album, the Damned adhered to rough, three-chord punk. (John Lennon called them one-dimensional.) But by its third, "Machine Gun Etiquette," written mostly by guitarist Captain Sensible (nee Ray Burns)--he of cross-dressing (and undressing) infamy--the Damned had advanced to 10-chord epics such as "Smash It Up," which the O.C. punk band the Offspring would cover for "Batman Forever."

The latest material, which will remain unheard on a U.S. tour that stops Sunday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana--and unreleased until they find a new label--takes the best elements of "Machine Gun Etiquette" and adds a dollop more psychodrama.

This, their largest tour stateside, will be the last time Damned fans can hear a live set composed entirely of such classics as "Neat Neat Neat" and "Eloise." If this isn't a reunion tour, since the band never entirely disbanded, why the greatest hits package? Why not showcase the new material?

"Physically, there's no time," lead singer Vanian said by phone from a stop in Kansas. "Our new songs are ready to go, but it's a matter of saying goodbye to the past. We could go on [after this tour] and rehash the first album forever, but it wouldn't be honest, and we would feel like old farts on a nostalgia trip. I'm itching to get on with the new stuff."

Looking for a label deal while on tour should ring familiar. The Damned's first U.S. tour 21 years ago this spring failed to secure them a label, and drummer Rat Scabies (a.k.a. Chris Millar) departed soon after. He has since rejoined and quit the group several times and is missing from the current lineup.

"Rat did some dirty business on me, I'm afraid," Vanian said. "It's a sensitive subject."

The last Damned release, 1995's "Not of This Earth" (on the L.A. label Cleopatra), is a sensitive topic as well. Vanian claims that Scabies enabled the label to release demo-stage material without the other band members' consent. With a suit against the label now pending, Vanian hesitates to comment on the situation. He does say, "[It] was not a Damned album. I let [Scabies] have far too much artistic control, and it went to his head."

The Damned might be damned indeed if not for its constant infighting; the vitriol seems to fuel the combustive moments that fans love. Scabies has blasted the band for daring to use the name in his absence; James has also claimed name ownership, forcing the players to play as the Doomed for at least a few months in '78 even though he had moved on to Tanz Der Youth.

To replace Scabies and fill out the lineup, the Damned has brought on tour keyboardist Monty the Moron and drummer Garrie Dreadful, as well as bassist Patricia Morrison, late of Sisters of Mercy and Gun Club. ("That way, there's not one but two gorgeous girls in the band," Vanian joked, referring to Captain Sensible's dress-wearing tendencies.)

Even when the band members got along, chaos ruled on stage. Scabies was legendary for setting his drum kit aflame--and continuing to play (talcum powder made for a nice smoke effect). Captain Sensible, when not disrobing, played court jester. Vanian, in black leather, shiny vinyl and ghoulish makeup, clung to the imagery from his onetime job as a gravedigger.

The disparate personalities made each member seem as if he belonged in an entirely separate band. But after short-lived solo careers outside the Damned, they always have come back to each other.

"We weathered the storm," Vanian said. "So here we are again."

* The Damned plays with the Pushers on Sunday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $22.50. (714) 957-1133 and (714) 957-0600.

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