“Birmingham, birthplace of Black Sabbath and GBH and they’re all here tonight” remarks evergreen guitarist and all-round top geezer Captain Sensible as The Damned make their way onto the stage of Birmingham’s O2 Academy to the strains of Gustav Holst‘s ‘Mars (The Bringer Of War)’ from his admittedly pretty successful album The Planets. It’s doubtful that any of the band’s 1976 gigs were ushered in by classical music, but tonight’s performance shows many sides to a perhaps under-appreciated British institution, of which punk is but one.
Earlier, Slim Jim Phantom, former stand-up tub-thumper for The Stray Cats, treats the considerable crowd to half an hour of rockabilly classics, including a couple by his old band (isn’t ‘Runaway Boys’ just a great song?), and some cherry-picked covers (including Eddie Cochran‘s ‘C’mon Everybody’ and Elvis Presley‘s ‘That’s Alright Mama’). He is flanked by a be-quiffed double bass player (of course) and a similarly presented ace guitarist, young men who look like they have just arrived from Morrissey‘s 1991 tour. It’s hard not to be swept away by Slim Jim and his crew; they go down a storm.
So, The Damned, then. They have so many songs that could be tailor made to be opening tracks to their performances, but tonight it is a triple salvo from 1980’s The Black Album: the rousing ‘Wait For The Blackout’ is swiftly followed by ‘Lively Arts’ and then by the time Sensible takes lead vocal duties in ‘Silly Kids Games’, his long time partner in crime Dave Vanian is taking a break, only to return shortly for a spirited take on new single (yes!) ‘Standing On The Edge Of Tomorrow’. “Every 10 years or so we release a single”, explains Sensible. “It’s available from all good download sites.” It’s more rock than punk rock and might have fitted quite well onto 1986’s (Sensible free) Anything album.
The best reactions are reserved for the old classics, but the clutch of new material played tonight is greeted warmly too. But nothing really beats the one-two of ‘New Rose’ (famously heralded as the first punk single EVER) and ‘Love Song’, the two ultimate Damned songs, the latter of which gave them their first hit and contains the best introduction to any song in the history of recorded sound. Returning bassist Paul Gray does justice to the fabulous opening, as he does all of the material on show. ‘New Rose’ is still impossibly life-affirming, and although he deadpans before it that he has “never sung this one before”, Vanian joins Sensible in gleeful abandon and the energy is palpable.
1982’s Strawberries is also well-represented tonight, (no fewer than six tracks from the last Sensible-featuring Damned record before his hiatus from the group), with ‘Ignite’ and ‘Dozen Girls’ being particular highlights.
A couple of songs from the non-Sensible years appear: the band’s biggest hit by far (1986’s Paul & Barry Ryan cover ‘Eloise’) and Phantasmagoria’s brilliantly moody opener ‘Street Of Dreams’. When the set ends with the euphoric ‘Neat, Neat, Neat’, the audience bays for an encore and is rewarded by a four-song burst including the title track from new album Evil Spirits and the band’s anthem, ‘Smash It Up’ (complete with its ‘Part 1′ instrumental beginning).
The band are dragged back one more time for a playful romp through ‘Jet Boy Jet Girl’ before sending the audience home happy, a sublime set of goth / punk / pop classics still ringing in their ears. Surely The Damned have now reached National Treasure status?
Photo credit (taken at Fibbers, York): Simon Godley