Saturday, February 27, 2021

Why does it always end like this?

The Damned, ca. 1980
I finally got around to watching the terrific Damned documentary Don't You Wish That We Were Dead, released in 2015 (airing now on Prime). Director Wes Orshoski (Lemmy) has gathered together archival footage and new video shot in the early-2010's of the current lineup featuring only singer Dave Vanian and guitar Captain Sensible from the original, incendiary iteration of the group, the first punk band to issue a single in the U.K. and to tour the United States. Original guitarist Brian James and drummer Rat Scabies are interviewed, and the sometimes uneasy blend of Vanian and Sensible's careerist drive and James and Scabies's bitterness makes for riveting viewing. The story's depressing or graphically realistic, chose your poison. Men growing up, and apart. Ideals and commitments changing; pettiness leaking in with age. Near the end, backstage somewhere, Vanian and Sensible's grumpiness almost visible—they'd been complaining about how the songs of their contemporaries are used in commercials, but never theirs—Sensible mutters that the Damned are bound to have a good year soon, forty years after their debut. Vanian: Yeah, after we die. Laughter all around. Battles over lost royalties and the humiliations of onstage bitchiness are a bit tiresome, and utterly familiar to the the Music Documentary Genre, yet these issues ultimately derailed the original lineup in ways that still hurt: James strums alone in a seaside room, gently contemplative, if sore; Scabies prowls an open-air market loudly cursing his former band.

Vanian comes across as unsurprisingly aloof, heavily veiled, Sensible as a good-time Charlie, a punk inspiration one minute, a juvenile asshole the next. James and Scabies look older than their former bandmates—I guess that's an unfair observation to make, and probably not very valuable, but I certainly noticed. Bad lighting? The harsh weathering that regret and disgust (and drinking) visits upon one's face? By comparison, the jolly Sensible and remarkably well-preserved Vanian look youthful for their age. The joy of playing live to besotted audiences across continents? (Good lighting?) Anyway, it's a great watch, and to witness the band's development from snotty punk kids to 80s' proto-Goth to revived touring outfit is to see hard work and perseverance personified, the wake left behind them, of jaded and skeptical ex-members as well as amped-up and admiring fans and of members of later-generation bands, both familiar and inevitable.


Of course I went back to the music, and was struck again but the brutal, simple majesty of this track, from 1980's The Black Album, a hinge in their evolution from first generation punk to New Wave/Goth. But screw labels: "Hit Or Miss" is planted firmly in eternal rock and roll, and it's one of the most exciting songs of the era. Given the perspective of the many decades since the band's debut, one could see the lyrics as prescient: though Vanian's singing about a night striking out, he might be unwittingly serenading his band's future commercial ups and downs ("I gave you everything that money could buy...I didn't see you stab me in the back"). What I love most about this great rock and roll song is the middle eight, coming in an era when even iconoclastic bands cared about such things:
Why does it always end like this?
Why does it always end like this?
Like the most urgent and desperate middles, this one rises swiftly to the surface like a festering boil, fed by lust, bafflement, and resentment, goaded by Sensible's fiery, pissed-off guitar solo, and just before it bursts, the eighth bar ends and it's back to channeling—wrestling, really—those feelings into verses and a chorus. If the middle went for one more bar we'd have a real mess on our hands. Great, timeless stuff, no matter what group of kids might be singing it, famous or unknown, or in which packed venue or nearly-empty rehearsal room.

Photo of the Damned ca. 1980 via Punky Gibbon