Film Spotlight: The Damned – Don’t You Wish We Were Dead

The Damned – Don’t You Wish We Were Dead (2015)
Writer, Director, DP, Editor: Wes Orshoski
(Three Count Films)

“We were also there.” This phrase is bandied as a boastful declaration and as a dismissive admission by the various members of The Damned. The phrase is in reference to their place in punk’s birth. The pivotal, crucial, qualifier is the word, “also.” The Damned’s career is continually defined relative to their more successful peers, Sex Pistols and The Clash. The phrase is used by Rat Scabies, drummer, is muttered as a surrender of any plea for recognition. But more often, it’s cried by Captain Sensible as a barter for a paycheck.

The issue with reviewing this film is to discern the quality of the storytelling – the editing of bounteous footage – and the frustration felt as a punk fan arguing with the TV as I hear these protests. Many stellar bands from 1977 England did not get the monetary compensation or historical lauding which they deserve. 999, UK Subs, The Adicts, The Adverts, Wire – never mind Cock Sparrer or Menace. Broaden the geography; Stiff Little Fingers, Mission of Burma, Black Flag. Did they all get their critical due? But, the bitch of it is, The Damned were first. They were. They were the first to put out a single 45, “Neat Neat Neat”, a full length LP, Damned Damned Damned, the first to tour the US, to play CBGBs, and to be on BBC with John Peel.

The film sets the immediate tone of disappointment. The cameras ferret out young punks at festivals and shows, inquiring if they know who The Damned are. These youths, with molded and sculpted attributes of rebellion, answer in the negative. Often casual and confused, the kids decline knowledge of four men who created a world that permits them to dress and act like this.

Most band documentaries begin with a compilation of music royalty singing the band’s accolades. The Damned: Don’t You Wish We Were Dead certainly exhibits those moments, including underground luminaries such as Ian MacKaye, Mick Jones, Jack Grisham, Jello Biafra, Don Letts, UK Subs, Keith Morris, Buzz Osbourne, Fred Armison, and even Duff MacKagan. But the film’s beginning, filled with these repeated declarations of our punk heroes contrasted with the young, modern punks squeaking confessions that they never or barely heard of The Damned, is crushing for an older audience.

That sentiment is echoed as the filmmakers portray withered and bitter visions of The Damned intercut with glorious, raucous footage of the band’s early days. The Damned form earlier or at the same time as the more public icons, 1976. We hear the participants of the scene laud The Damned’s confrontational and liberating attitude. The discerning element of the band was their playing; the ferocity and skilled musicianship. Rat Scabies artillery of pounding drums were the backbone of their intensity. Brian James’ writing was focused and harsh, yet catchy. Dave Vanian’s vocal ability was as emotional; his antics, theatric. And the cornerstone of the band, for better or for worse, was their bassist, Captain Sensible. While stuck behind a bass guitar, he pushed and provoked audiences to trigger ire and hysterics. Again and again, we hear that The Damned were on the radio, released a single, a full length before any other contemporary. These reticent facts are repeated by many members, managers, producers and fans a plethora of times. The dooming factors for the band were the aspirations and vices of the members. Drugs and alcohol played as much of a part as vanity and disappointment.

When James left, Captain took over on guitar. His abilities surpassed everyone’s expectations. He is a true virtuoso. But, writing a hit song goes far beyond that capability. And maintaining a working with relationship with a self-hating addict (Scabies) and a despondent recluse (Vanian), while you are hiding behind an adolescent cartoon character (Sensible), is impossible.

The pain for the audience is watching these fated men split and splinter and reconnect many times to varying degrees of success, no degree as impactful as the original. Initially, I was hopeful for lots of information that would reveal The Damned to its naked core. They have perpetuated myths and puzzled fans for forty years. But often they were mirroring rock star celebrity stereotype of destroying property and equipment; only with the financial resources to compensate poor proprietors.

The Damned took many forms. The cursed band had their many doomed resurrections and reformations through the 80s. In the film, we are exposed to the rotating former members spouting tales of spent fortitude. The blundering exhaustion is palpable as ex-members revisit self-destructive talks of the main players. Keith Morris, who himself has many of the same tales from the same era, rationalizes the rigors of touring. After a few months of sweating and cramping and smelling with bandmates, patience wilts and dies. Sensible later admits, as he exits a tour bus and collides with fans, and we watch the switch from tired human, Raymond Ian Burns, into super-nut, Captain Sensible, that he has remained the sixteen year old he was when he began this band.

Basically, The Damned’s members use only one metric of success; which is money made relative to The Clash and the Pistols. We, as an audience and older punks, know The Damned will not attain the monetary achievement. But, let’s dissect punk into the two expected divisions; the fashion crowd and the politics crowd. Obviously, there are people who love the art, the anger and passion. But, The Damned spent the movie saying how they weren’t the Pistols (just for fashion) or The Clash (spread their politics through pop music). Well, then how can you expect to be as successful as them? The Pistols had the arrogant agitation aspect. The Clash had ardently personal and political lyrics, while unearthing a catchy sound mixing Chuck Berry, punk and reggae. The Damned had the motivation of only for the music. I understand you can’t pay your bills in intense fandom. But, currently, The Damned are playing festivals and venues much larger than any elder hardcore band I still go see.

And that enters the modern tragedy of the band. The filmmakers show us the current incarnation of The Damned as they tour the world to many delighted fans. They have big hotels and green rooms. The play grand stages in front of large audiences. Vanian remains an enigma to this close partners. Sensible is riddled with gripes. But, Monty Oxymoron, Pinch, and Stu West (the current keyboardist, drummer, and bassist) are fantastic musicians. They are thrilled to be playing this music for enthusiastic crowds. Admittedly, Sensible can note some happy and meaningful moments. But, this dubious refrain is often quieter than his cries for a paycheck and acrimonious thoughts of Scabies.

The benefit of a punk or hardcore documentary, any underground subculture really, is that you get about two hours showing and discussing a band or art which you can’t find anywhere else. Mainstream people get to see their favorite subjects plastered in ubiquitous fashion. However, when a documentary is driven by a story – an arc or characters that would lure even non-fans – this when a film transcends the band documentary. Every band has a story, but we hope the filmmaker tells this one in the most compelling manner. Orshoski, as he did with his previous doc, Lemmy, did that here.

Sensible’s naïve whining denies the reality of hundreds of underground bands which he inspired. The impassioned punk would advise Sensible to start a label or be a producer; give something back to the scene to reap from it. Even Johnny Lydon reinvented himself, before returning to the machine. The Clash got mainstream success because they played music that inspired and resonated with multitudes; while Sensible hated his vapid Top of Pops solo work. So, why expect The Damned to be anything more? He gets to play bigger stages in countries that most punk bands never see. They do not have the honor of starting it or “being there as well” when it began. He is a sixteen year old disillusioned and in a spiteful tantrum.

So, yes we have our conflict that perpetuates the story. But, the thrill of DYWWWD is the early archival footage of the chaotic live set. We hear the stories of debauchery, irreverence and mayhem in the wake of small English stages. We hear the music which was the seed of decades of propelled fans into frenzied fits from Tokyo to The States. We see the odd 1980’s transition into a Vanian fronted goth pop monster, rife with music and fashion and make up and character acting.

One aspect heralded from all who shared their reverence, was the band’s musicianship. Whether Scabies’ furious drumming, Dave’s mastery of tonal vocals, original guitarist James’ songwriting or Sensible’s layered talents with six strings, the legacy of the albums speak volumes. This film is an amazing companion, to see behind the curtain. The film prods and provokes. For that, it is a great film. It will certainly have the audience elated and torn and feeling mixed emotions, if not talking to the screen. The film incites thoughts in the head that bandy and frustrate. And that’s what a documentary should do. And remind you to turn off the TV and go play your Damned records. Loudly.

Pick up The Damned – Don’t You Wish We Were Dead here: Amazon | MVD

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