When I was a lad you would often hear impassioned rows that revolved around the relative merits of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, but for me it was always the Damned (or maybe the Buzzcocks) that were more fun, had better songs, playing them first on Top of the Pops, and then to fans they seemed to genuinely appreciate having. If nothing else, their longevity surely shows I had a point, as does their ability to evolve and move on, though I have to confess to being surprised that after ten years they’ve brought out a new album.
Before sampling music from Evil Spirits, however, there was time to squeeze in half a jolly hour with Johnny Moped. The very antithesis of “moving on”, John is unapologetically the same, and notwithstanding a pretty tight band, their playing is largely in the service of cacophony, with Johnny wailing and warbling his way over the top and as if the last forty years hadn’t happened. I would be fibbing if I pretended to recognise much of what was performed, though the seminal Panic Button sounded better than ever. Another band to improbably record a brand new album, we also got a selection of newer songs. My favourite was Real Cool Baby, and there was certainly no arguing with Ain’t No Rock and Roll Rookie.
I’ve seen The Damned more times than I can remember, but not lately, and the upgrade is quite a shock. UEA is not a huge venue, but it is compared to the sweaty, claustrophobic Waterfront, uncharitably described by Sensible as a cesspit. He was standing behind a very grand backdrop at the time, which had been dramatically hoisted up moments earlier. With Pitch’s considerable drum kit high up on a riser behind him, flanked by theatrical backdrops and lighting, my immediate reaction was - blimey it looks like they’ve putting on a proper show. My memory of the band’s formative years might now be a little hazy now, but I seem to remember them being – well - a little shambolic. The songs were always great, but appreciation of them was in spite of the playing and was usually mitigated by being stomped on in the mosh pit.
By way of contrast the opening Born to Kill was played with verve and clarity, with Sensible’s properly good guitar work a singular revelation. Pinch’s drumming was fabulous, driving forward in partnership with prodigal son Paul Gray, recently returned and bouncing around like a man who’s just won the lottery of life. It’s a long time since Dave Vanian did the vampire thing, but with the shades and the leather gloves he still looked the coolest sexagenarian this side of Samuel L. Jackson. His sonorous baritone is one of the best singing voices in rock, and after a brief trip to the post millennium back catalogue with Democracy he got the chance to showcase it with the first truly outstanding song of the night. How pleasing it should be a new one.
Standing at the Age of Tomorrow must rank amongst their best ever songs - which is no small claim - with Monty’s keyboards brought to bear in a way the older numbers never quite manage, while Vanian and Sensible offer up some very credible harmonies. Ambitious yet accessible, grand without being pretentious, the song has all the makings of a fully formed classic that should easily elbow its way to the front of must play playlist. It wetted my appetite for what other gems might be lurking on the new record, but unfortunately I counted only two other songs from the new album, with I Don’t Care another highlights. I think that’s a pity. We’ve waited a long time for some new Damned material and on the strength of these few baubles I wish that and it had the confidence to play more.
We got an unusually large slice of the Black album, but noticeably absent was material from Phantasmagorical, or indeed very much at all beyond 1982, which seemed odd from a band that prides itself on not looking back. Perhaps the gothic period just doesn’t seem right with them anymore, or perhaps there are just too many mandatory hits to squeeze in. Room, after all, has to be found for Love Song, New Rose and Neat, Neat, Neat, the latter closing the main set.
They came back, of course, not once but twice, and in the second encore arrived complete with Santa Claus hats and beards. While this was notionally in support of singing Their Ain’t No Sanity Clause, I strongly suspect that the song was an excuse to dress up, and was typical of the good natured fun throughout the concert, not least between Sensible and Vanian, who batted back and forth all night. I remember when, back in the day, Sensible did all the talking, while Vanian prowled around menacingly, reserving his voice solely for the songs. It was a great theatrical device but everyone’s a lot more jolly now, and where’s the harm in that?
That said, it should be noted than Mr Vanian declined to wear a beard.