LIVE: The Damned @ Alexandra Palace, London

By Katherine Allvey

“The good news is we’re still alive, the bad news is it’s quite loud and you might lose your hearing…but who cares? It’s rock n roll!” Captain Sensible, clad in his trademark red beret, smiles triumphantly as he almost apologises for The Damned’s presence. But, for this crowd at least, this is absolutely not needed. These are the folk for whom punk didn’t die but entered their veins and powered their very beings through day jobs in the intervening forty years, and this show is the evolution of punk if the first wave of rockers had been left alone in a musical biome. The Damned have moved beyond punk and are now something indescribably more. 

Of course, The Damned in their lineup were not just visiting Alexandra Palace in North London to reaffirm their status as punk innovators. Their first album in five years, ‘Darkadelic’, which dropped two days after the show and whose title references their gothic and psychedelic heritage, understandably was the core of their setlist, and shows they can work a ‘woah’ like no other group. The first single, ‘The Invisible Man’, is smashing punk drumming varnished with a brush of wah-wah to make it shine inbetween the spoken samples, and also the inspiration for Dave Vanian’s stage outfit – a Karl Lagerfeld-meets-the-Child-Catcher strutting power suit. ‘Beware  Of The Clown’, sandwiched between new songs ‘Western Promise’ and ‘Wake The Dead’ is a much stronger promise of greatness for the new record: catchy, poised without posing, and with proper shining electric guitar opportunist flourishes. They embraced their pounding rock selves in that moment and it worked. 

But that’s the great thing about The Damned: they’re mercurial, and have refined their craft over the years to create sedimentary layers of genre in each song. Take the magnificent ‘Standing On The Edge Of Tomorrow’, a song which must be The Damned’s version of sci-fi, otherwise known as ‘I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper’ if it was covered in the ruins of a karaoke bar after civilisation ends. Under the whimsy and Flash Gordon bravado, it holds a promise of the new and makes you want to lean back over the fence of guitar tension and look up to the stars. Immediately following this with ‘Neat Neat Neat’ but incorporating bits of The Doors’ ‘LA Woman’ and The Man in Black’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ into the breakdowns is either genius or madness, and the Damned walk the tightrope recklessly between the two. 

Intriguing as the newer and stranger material is, most of the crowd must be drawn by the promise of hearing the original lineup of The Damned performing their biggest hits. Unlike similar acts of the same starting era, the big singles don’t seem to have become dated. They’ve become refined by years of grinding and love, rather than just being trotted out into the sepia spotlight of nostalgia. ‘Eloise’ is pure eighties power pop magic; a shot of sherbet to the heart as the introductory chords relight the first encore. ‘Love Song’ is now a proper Topper Headon drum spectacular with a breathtaking freshness. The mundane lyrics have this John Cooper Clarke charm to them and sometimes we just need to share in a celebration of the ordinary via a set of rock n roll survivors to smash up the over-produced Top Of The Pops studio in our perception of these older bands. Vanian’s vocals on ‘Smash It Up’ are a call to arms, and he’s lost none of his dramatic flair and dynamite punk power under a slightly more polished bass style from Paul Gray than they originally had when they started back in 1977.

If anything can sum up the buzzing, monumental experience of seeing The Damned in concert, it was the second encore of two songs. The first, ‘Girl I’ll Stop At Nothing’, is from ‘Darkadelic’ and represents The Damned as they are now: tremendously skilled, playful and intelligent with a combusting guitar from Sensible and snake-hips from Vanian. Their sound has a certain mature and British edge that comes from a lifetime mining the vein of rock music. Paired with this song, of course, is ‘New Rose’, the song that made The Damned a household name among those who are gothically inclined. Vanian sneers, “Is she really going out with him? Really…,” before launching into that drumbeat which sweeps the adrenaline of the audience into the stratosphere.  They have not lost their touch and this will always be a punk anthem; a song that will echo and celebrate a place and time which mutated into this perfect moment at Alexandra Palace. 

If we look at where their contemporaries are now, it’s clear that The Damned are continuing to forge their own path as they always did. The Cure have become the kind of iconic philosopher songwriters that can hypnotise a stadium, and John Lydon has just become a parody of himself, but The Damned have always been a bit different; intelligent and the rock end of ‘punk rock’ but with an outsider’s wry humour on watching the rest of the world. They’ve absolutely still got that magic touch behind the theatrics and know how to put on a show that inspires devotion from their fanbase and lights the touch papers among newer devotees. Long may they run and continue to reign supreme as kings of the original punk scene.