LIVE REVIEW: The Damned – Cardiff University (31/03/23)

Punk Pioneers The Damned return to Cardiff Student Union.

The Damned. First UK punk band to release a single, first to release an album.  But there’s not much point in me telling you what Wikipedia can tell you – if you didn’t already know (and what self respecting punk wouldn’t?)

They weren’t the first band I ever saw because by the time I was old enough to go to gigs they had split up. I’m not sure if they were the first to split, but I’m prey sure they were the first to reform. Their comeback album ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ was released in 1979, and it was on the tour to promote this album I first caught them live – in the old Top Rank.

I have lost track how many times I have seen them since, but it has to be close to being in three figures.

I think they like Cardiff.  I’ve seen them in almost every decent venue the city has had to offer. Several times in the Top Rank (now gone), the old New Ocean Club (now gone), The Point (now gone) The Coal Exchange (now gone), The Tramshed and the Student Union.

Sticking with the Welsh gigs, I’ve seen them play in Newport and Usk.

They have even welcomed several South Wales musicians into the line up, Roman Jugg, Bryn Meryck (RIP) and Paul Gray. Paul played bass with the band from 1980 to 1983, before going on to play with UFO. He returned to the fold in 2018 and is still with them now.

I’ve never really been one for having loads of band names on my jackets,  but I did paint The Damned on the back of me first leather, to accompany me ‘Three years of anarchy chaos and destruction’ badge’ from that first Top Rank gig.

I’ve hitched, bussed, trained and driven up and down the country to see them in places like JBs in Dudley, The Gold Daggers in Cheltenham and The Town and Country in London. I’ve sofa surfed, crashed on strangers’ floors and slept on park benches in Brixton.

What I am trying to say is – I loves The Damned and they are a major part of the soundtrack of my life.

In the past I’ve taken the piss out of  people going to see the likes of the Rolling Stones because they are rock dinosaurs. Yet here I am, still going to see a band that has been around close to five decades. I think the difference is, the Stones haven’t recorded anything worthwhile since 1973, where as The Damned are still creating credible music today.

There aren’t many of that first wave of punks that are doing anything interesting now. Many of them are flogging a dead horse and living on the glories of their youth, forty five years on. But The Damned are genuinely still making music that I find interesting.

It’s not the same music they were making though. They have long since lost that three minutes of high energy chaos vibe. They turned down a psychedelic road in the eighties. And I like psychedelic stuff.

With ‘The Black Album’ and ‘Fantasmagoria’, they planted the seeds for what would become Goth, but you rarely hear them classed as Goth. (As I type, John Robb’s new book on Goth is sat on my doormat,  he may disagree)

Over the years The Damned’s popularity has waxed and waned. Looking at the tour schedule and the size of the venues, I think they are probably as popular now as they have ever been. If not more.

The Great Hall of Cardiff’s Students Union is bigger than I am normally happy with, but I couldn’t say it is a bad venue. Good sound, good lighting and unless you are short, a reasonable view from most angles.  Fiver a pint is a bit steep, but with the amount of time I’ve spent in London the last few years, I’m no longer shocked by it. And the bar staff are efficient enough to make queuing painless.

A short arse’s view from the back

I knew from social media that there would be a good smattering of mates out to play. As it turned out there were more familiar faces around than you could shake a stick at. Mates I’ve seen at recent gigs, mates I haven’t seen for several decades and mates I’ve never seen at a gig before. I really don’t remember The Damned being this popular back in the day. They have gone from being ‘one of those weird punk bands Clint listens to’, to mainstream legends. Quite a few of the obscure bands I’ve watched have made this journey, but they haven’t taken forty years to do it. It’s not that long ago they were playing venues like Newport’s TJs (now gone).

Their continued relevance is in no small part down to their ability to continue to make good music. This tour is to promote the new album ‘Darkadelic’, a title that encapsulates both that hint of Goth and Psychedelia. I have had it on pre-order for ages. When I check my order I note the album is not due out for a month, which is a strange timing, given they are touring the album now. As soon as I get in I head for the merch stall to see if they have copies.  They don’t.  I bump into a mate who tells me the release was meant to coincide with the tour but was unavoidably delayed.  But that’s just one of those Damned things.

We head into the main hall to catch the end of Birmingham’s The Nightingales.  They are one of those marmite bands, you either love them or hate them. Although chatting to a few people tonight,  there is a bigger percentage of the crowd that have never heard of them. All I can say is, watch ‘King Rocker’, the documentary they made with Stewart Lee. It is hands down the best band documentary I have ever seen. Even if you have never heard of them, watch it.

The Nightingales

By the time The Damned hit the stage the room has filled up. Poor old (short) Megan is stood looking at the backs of heads. Her eldest boy, who has joined us tonight, is taller so has a good view, but prior to us grabbing him a ticket he had not heard of The Damned, let alone the Nightingales.

They open up with olidie ‘Street of Dreams’ then “Invisible Man’ from the new album, then ‘Wait for the Blackout’ and ‘Lively Arts’. A sensible approach me thinks, mixing the as yet unheard album with old favourites.

They then proceed to play most of the new album, with no familiar tunes to break it up. A bold move. I get that this tour is to promote the new album, so they have to play it. I get that artistically they don’t want to just come on and do a greatest hits set, but me thinks shuffling the set about would have made more sense. I get the vibe that are few are pissed off by their approach: I find out later a few walked out. But I’m used to going to see bands where I don’t know all of their tunes. I see this as no different to going to see a band I’ve only just discovered.  I’m just glad to discover this album I have pre-ordered is actually quite good.

There is banter between band and crowd, but not on the scale it used to be. That was always an important feature of a Damned gig for me. Captain Sensible abusing the crowd and the crowd responding. I even drunkenly try to start a chant of “Sensible’s a wanker, la la la la”, which was par for the course back in the day. Nobody joined in and people looked at me as if I was the wanker.

Dave Vanian does reminisce about gigs of the past, referencing the Top Rank and Cwmbran. I struggle to recall Cwmbran until I bump into an old mate, Sean, who had put them on in the Yew Tree pub. He is chuffed that the band mentioned it and I am chuffed to just remember the gig, I had completely forgotten about it.

Eventually they drop oldies ‘Born to Kill’ and ‘Love Song’, to loud cheers. I’m hoping they do ‘Neat Neat Neat’. A tune that traditionally morphs into a cover version of something like the Doors or the Stooges, before ending in that neat riff.

I head off to the bog and as I’m on my way back I bump into another old friend I haven’t seen for ages and we chat for a while. I head back into the hall to catch the closing notes of ‘Neat Neat Neat’. Bugger.

They head off stage but are soon back for an encore of  ‘Elouise’ and ‘Smash it Up’ before disappearing again. The lights don’t come up though, and no music kicks in, so I guess we are in for a rarity these days. A second encore.

They return with another track off the new album,  ‘Girl I’ll Stop at Nothing’ and then that first punk single, ‘New Rose’. It would be weird to try and top that – and they don’t.  We are left to file out into the night.

Opinions are divided. Most agree that they should have mixed the new tunes in with the old, myself included. But I’m not about to complain.  I’m just eagerly waiting for that new album to drop.

Read our interview with Dave Vanian from 2001 here