When the Damned hit the Key Club bandstand Sunday, expect a combination of unhinged, explosive punk and high atmospheric drama, an unusually potent amalgam that’s wholly particular to them, and one that’s made them one of the most influential yet generally underestimated bands in rock & roll history. Not that they’ve ever gone out of their way to be taken seriously—that would, after all, defeat the punk rock purpose entirely. But anyone who’s followed the band knows that—despite some disastrous missteps—the Damned has run through an electrifying stack of wildly volatile and defiantly original recordings. With the release of the classic single “New Rose” almost 30 years ago, they plowed into an unexplored, unexpectedly fertile region. With its pounding tom-toms and impossibly tight, aggressive delivery, the song carried a turbulent, incendiary appeal that not only introduced the band’s propulsive, brilliant sensibility, it also supplied somnambulistic mid-‘70s rock & roll with a desperately needed kick in the ass.
Founded by long-since-gone guitarist-songwriter Brian James and the unspeakably ferocious, now MIA drummer Rat Scabies, the two weirdos quickly drafted, as bassist and singer, anarcho-satirist Captain Sensible and wampyr-witch doctor Dave Vanian, swiftly capturing a prime spot among the UK’s big three punk trailblazers. Alongside the Clash and Sex Pistols, the Damned not only ignited a worldwide musical revolution, they did it with a cheery brand of animalistic insanity that distinguished them from the sneer-and-snarl fury of those vaunted colleagues, and more than lived up to their self-explanatory “Anarchy, Chaos and Destruction” motto. Hell, they could even take a sappy pop song like the Beatles’ “Help” (originally found as an ultra-rare B-side on the NME-sponsored Sick of Being Sick seven inch) and transform it into a high-intensity spree of punk fang-bearing that rendered it not only almost unrecognizable, it also rates as a drastically superior performance.
Despite a series of implosions and departures that would have silenced a less rabid creation, the Damned have managed to follow one of the most unpredictable and ambitious paths in punk’s gaudy history; jettisoning James after two albums (the peerless 1977 debut Damned Damned Damned Damned and not-so-hot follow-up Music For Pleasure), the Captain switched over to guitar and they began reaching ever farther. Their stunning Machine Gun Etiquette album went after everyone from the Pope to circus clowns, with an offbeat apocalyptic range (the destructo anthem “Smash It Up” and Holocaust happy-hour ditty “I Just Can’t be Happy Today”) and slashing employ of a strange melodic and structural approach that not only holds up decades later, but there’s still never been anything else quite like it (Sensible has claimed that the songs were inspired by a singular, near Dada-istic modus operandi—recording television commercial jingles, then playing them backwards and hijacking the results).
Subsequent releases delved deeper into a psychedelicized punk-goth arena, alienating their hardcore fans and winning a new army of gentler-minded sickos with The Black Album and Strawberries. They also made some notable side trips: as Naz Nomad & the Nightmares, they struck magnificently into garage-rock turf, and the Captain’s cracked solo dabblings (the warped-rap of “Say Wot,” a UK chartbuster, and his mad version of South Pacific’s “Happy Talk”) virtually elevated him to British pop hero status.
After signing with MCA in 1985, they found themselves with both a big fat lucrative deal and no sincere interest in carrying on as the Damned—until the melancholy groaner “Eloise” turned out to be the band’s biggest seller to date. Whether a blessing or a curse, the heat that number generated kept them at it, slugging it out through endless tours that ultimately wore Scabies down to the bloody raw nerve (and a post-departure lawsuit that has, sadly, ensured we’ll never see him back on the riser again). Vanian and the Captain have both remained faithful though, beating on with a revamped line-up that for years featured Los Angeles punk-goth veteran Patricia Morrison (the Bags, Gun Club, Sisters of Mercy) on bass until her recent retirement (as Mrs. Vanian, she opted out to stay home and raise daughter Emily—just imagine their nursery decor).
The 21st century Damned re-asserted themselves ably with 2003’s Grave Disorder, a powerful set that served as return to form even as it further expanded their subject matter’s reach (tackling everything from Bush 43 to the beckoning perils of absinthe) and the Vanian-Sensible duo shows little interest in slackening the pace. With a severely dedicated cult following and a deck of intriguingly disparate songs to draw from, the Damned continues to travel through a bizarre spectrum fraught with danger and melancholy, abandon and introspection, yet lurking just beneath the surface of every moment is that fabled, occasionally frightening volatility that made such an unadulterated shock in the late ‘70s. Whether one is a hardline punk fanatic or a macabre death-rock peacock, rest assured, Vanian and Sensible will force-feed you exactly what you need.
The Damned, the Epoxies and the Adored at the Key Club at Morongo, 49500 Seminole Dr., Cabazon, (888) 667-6646; www.keyclubmorongo.com. Sun., 8 p.m. $20.