The Damned: Punk Heroes Go ‘Dark’

When punk took off in and around London, three bands were in the vanguard of what came to be known as the “punk class of ‘77.” Sex Pistols and The Clash would be the highest profile acts who broke through into the public consciousness, but a third group – The Damned – made serious inroads as well. And rather than coast on the reputation they cultivated in the 1970s, today’s Damned makes new music with all the spirit of their punk-era work.

Burning brightly, Sex Pistols quickly collapsed under their own weight. The Clash held true to their values and scored critical and commercial success, but they sputtered out after a decade together. In contrast, The Damned endure to this day: three of its four founding members (plus one key member who was there for some of the band’s best early work) are in the group today. The current run of shows represents the first tour in 35 years to feature The Damned’s classic ‘80s lineup.

When The Damned first appeared on the scene with their debut single “New Rose,” their brash and bratty attitude helped pave the way for punk’s ascendancy. Produced by Nick Lowe, the song distilled punk essence into two and a half minutes, with nuclear blast guitar, whip-smart drumming (from Rat Scabies), Captain Sensible’s insistent bass lines and the from-the-grave vocals of Dave Vanian. Guitarist and songwriter Brian James would depart the band within a year, beginning The Damned’s cycle of revolving-door membership. But Vanian, Sensible and Scabies would be on board for nearly all of the group’s best work.

Sensible (born Raymond Burns) switched to guitar decades ago. With a lineup featuring Vanian and longtime member Paul Gray, The Damned created 2023’s Darkadelic. That album combines punk attitude and psychedelia-meets-goth flourishes, while taking a sharp aim at current-day topics. “We don’t really discuss what the lyrics are going to be like before entering into an album project,” Sensible says. “But we did talk about the music this time around; we decided it was going to [have] more of a garage psych element than the last few records.”

Intentionally or not, many of the themes on Darkadelic are topical. Sensible’s “Beware of the Clown” focuses on self-centered liars and buffoons who attain high elected office. Another of his compositions, “Leader of the Gang” ruminates on disgraced (and currently incarcerated) glam rocker Gary Glitter. A co-write with Gray, “Follow Me” takes aim at social influencers.

“We were just talking about the lyrics of Darkadelic compared to our songs from back in the day,” Sensible recalls. Citing early Damned classics like “Stab Your Back” and “Smash it Up,” he admits that those songs had primitive lyrics compared to current-day tunes. “I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing,” he says with a laugh, “but we’ve certainly gone up a couple of levels.”

Another one of Sensible’s tunes on Darkadelic is “Wake the Dead,” a songwriting collaboration with Martin Newell. A poet and musician who has written scores of enduring pop-rock tunes, Newell has always taken a do-it-yourself approach to music. That set of principles has kept him at some distance commercial success.”Why Martin isn’t one of the biggest names in music history, I don’t know,” Sensible says. “I always describe him as a one-man Beatles. And he’s great to write with.”

“Wake the Dead” leverages The Damned’s status as goth heroes. Sensible explains that through his travels on social media, he discovered that many of the group’s songs have been played at funerals. “I suppose we and our audience are the right age where people do pop off occasionally,” he deadpans. So he decided to write a tune purposely designed for that use. “It has a heroic, ‘two fingers to the Grim Reaper’ vibe,” he says. “It’s not all, ‘Oh, I’m scared of going!’ Goths and punks, they’re not scared of that nonsense. Just enjoy life while you’re here!”

And at age 70, Captain Sensible certainly seems to be enjoying his life, both in and out of the band he co-founded nearly 50 years ago. Sensible left the Damned in 1984 for a solo career, returned, left again and returned to stay in 1996. “I gave The Damned up [in ‘84] because it wasn’t paying as much,” he says with a hearty laugh. “Disgraceful, isn’t it?” His solo career leaned in a more pop direction, earning him money plus several hit singles in the UK.

But Sensible says that The Damned is his first musical love. “I just love standing there with an insanely loud amplifier and a Gibson SG in my hand,” he says. “It’s just a marvelous thing; I recommend it highly.”