Captain Sensible, original member of the Damned, entered the stage alone and blew a kiss to the audience. He then grinned and spoke "Tonight we're going to play two albums. Some people have said they're classics. I'm not qualified to give an opinion myself." The band then broke into the opening lines of Damned Damned Damned's "Neat Neat Neat." Over the course of their two-set, two-hour show, original U.K. punks the Damned covered 1977's Damned Damned Damned and 1980's The Black Album in their entirety to a packed house at Slim's in San Francisco Oct. 29 as a way of celebrating their 35th anniversary.
Clearly envisioning themselves as "musicians" more than "punks," the band played a high energy version of their first LP without losing control of the their three chords. A rapid collection of 12 simple, but snappy numbers, the band stayed fairly true to the source material, bringing out the melody of the tunes while making sure that the jagged hooks remained sharped. Vocalist Dave Vanian, now sporting a John Cleese-style mustache, sounded phenomenal despite his nearly sixty years of age. While many vocalists seem to lose their croon around 45, Vanian sounded as good, if not better than on the band's debut, and put extra force in the lower rumbles of the songs, all while retaining his '50s pop croon at the upper edges. Now on guitar, as opposed to bass as with the original album, Captain Sensible played with energy, but seemed to focus on keeping the music aspect part of the show in lieu of raw, ragged thrashing.
While the versions stayed close to their studio counter parts, the "newer" rhythm section of bassist Stu West and drummer Pinch added a pulsating throb to the album which gave the performance a thickness absent on the somewhat tinny LP. Keyboardist Monty Oxymoron, who is notable for his larger frame and gigantic, fiery red afro, didn't have much to do on the first set because there are few keys to be played on the punk slammer. Without instrumental duties, Oxymoron added a few background vocals, and more impressively, perpetually danced behind the keyboard, at times pantomiming Frankenstein, striking the pose of a mad professor and just whipping himself about like a loon with energy that would make a 15-year-old jealous. Did I mention that he's 74? And completely awesome?
After a short intermission, the band retook the stage for the titanic and pre-goth Black Album set to a haunting soundscape. Captain Sensible announced that "This album changed my life. I think it had something to do with creation of that music that starts with a G… was it glam rock?" In contrast to the faithful rendition of Damned Damned Damned, the band decided to amp up the bleaker aspects of this second masterpiece, and brought out the drone aspects of "Twisted Nerve." Vanian let his vocals hang extra long on "The History of the World."
But, the real treat of the evening was the band's rendition of side C of The Black Album, the 17-minute "Curtain Call." Just as the band didn't flinch in 1980 when they released a prog-rock opus into punk culture despite the genre's increasingly unforgiving confines, they played a full version on Saturday night. Interestingly, during the song's midsection, where Vanian, Sensible and Oxymoron each occupied a set of keyboards, it became evident just how avant-garde the Damned were in 1980. While electronic music was still at its birthing stages, the Damned were creating nearly 10-minute soundscapes that weren't so much songs as they were experiments and sonic texture tasting. To the Damned's credit, while such a leap might leave some audience embers snoozing, live, the band was able to add interesting twists and turns in the lumbering march, such as weird sound effects and mechanical proto-loops, that kept the audience in tune and made the 17 minutes feel like just a few.
Finally, the band retook the stage for an encore consisting of the Captain solo tune "Jet Boy, Jet Girl," and the Dave Vanian workout "Eloise." The Captain took the microphone one last time and said "We saw Occupy New York, Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland. I'm too old to start a revolution, but I think something very interesting is happening. This song goes out to them," at which point the band launched into a rapid version of their call to fighting the system, "Smash It Up."
Opening act the Cute Lepers tore through 45 minutes of power pop. Armed with the classic two guitar, one bass, one drummer setup, the band supplemented their pop side with two dancing backup singers which referenced both pop and soul music. As difficult as it is to write a catchy, simple song, the Cute Lepers seem to have mastered the combination of high energy and song craft. While the songs were catchy, 45 minutes of 150-second songs seemed to get monotonous despite the quality of songwriting. Perhaps some experimentation, as suggested by the headliners, would take the band from being good to being phenomenal.
-According to Captain Sensible, the Damned once gave Elvis Costello a "hot foot."
-Much to my approval, wacky hairdos were in full effect. I spotted a 24-inch mohawk, a Bride of Frankenstein-style beehive, and even a perfect replication of the "Joe Strummer" circa Earthquake Weather. So convincing was the haircut that I'd bet he scalped the late legend.
-I was right at the front of the stage and an English guy demanded that I cede my spot to him because he was "friends with Pinch" and "was there in the beginning." (He was actually pretty furious and a little drunk.) Somehow, the battle for the spot was to be decided by a "Damned Trivia Contest." He asked me "Righ then, what do you know about Dave Vanian and the Phantom chords," at which time I gave him a brief history of Vanian's side project. I then asked him about the even more obscure, Dave Vanain and the Throb, which left the bloke speechless. Having successfully out-punxed an original punk, I was immediately bombarded with lightening bolts while Queen played over the PA, and the universe awarded me my defeated foe's punk-points.
-Arg, yet again I fell in love with a backup singer:
♥♥♥♥ Punknews Love Connections♥♥♥♥
You: The brunette back up singer in the Cute Lepers with a pixie-cut.
Me: I had on a Digital Underground t-shirt and was wearing neon green, glow-in-the -dark earplugs. Send me an e-mail. You can teach me about power-pop. I'll teach you about… I dunno… anarcho-crust-punk? It will be beautiful.