The Damned
The Brian James Gang
Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
Friday July 12 2002
~review by Uncle Nemesis
(photos courtesy Nitro via the CD)

Stop me if I've said something like this before, and The Damned, we go back.

I suspect I've seen The Damned more frequently than any other band over the years. Which is odd, in a way, because if you asked me to name my favourite live band I probably wouldn't mention The Damned. And yet, something's kept me coming back again and again. In that time, I've seen some all-time classic shows: nights where a strange madness grips both band and fans, nights when the heat and light hits you like a physical blow, nights when everything seems removed to a plane of inspirational craziness.

I've also seen them turn in some right old wank.

Which way will it go tonight? Well, the omens are good. The Damned have a new record deal, a new album, and a new line-up, in which all the band members actually seem to like each other. Now there's a breakthrough. This is a big gig for the band: it wasn't so long ago they were playing small pub venues, just to keep the pot boiling until the new release came along. Pitching up at a large London theatre like the Shepherd's Bush Empire must give the band a feeling of quiet satisfaction (or perhaps an excuse to go 'Nyaah nyaah nyaah!' to their critics). The Damned are *back*.

But first, we have a support band. Supports at Damned gigs over the years have typically tended to be anonymous, derivative, thrash-and-shout punk outfits, presumably because the promoters of the shows can't think beyond the simple notion that The Damned are punks, therefore *everything* at the show has to be punk. The fact that if The Damned have had any kind of musical theme over the years, it's been wigged-out psychedelia, doesn't seem to compute. (As a matter of fact, the best support band I ever saw at a Damned gig was Naz Nomad And The Nightmares, but that's another story).

Tonight, our support is punk, and yet not punk. It's the Brian James Gang, an ad-hoc group formed some years back by The Damned's original guitarist, presumably to give him something to do while he was between bands. There has never been a permanent line-up: it's always been Brian James himself, plus whoever he happened to bump into in the pub. This time round he's accompanied by his old mucker from the Lords Of The New Church, Dave Tregenna - plus two members of the Flatpigs, the, er, anonymous, derivative, thrash-and-shout punk outfit which supported the Lords at their recent London gig. Hum. Well, a 50% success rate isn't bad, I suppose.

And what are they like? Entertaining enough, in an undemanding, bar-band kind of way. They knock off a set comprising a few Lords songs, a few Damned songs, and some anonymous, derivative, thrash-and-shout punk songs which presumably originate from the Flatpigs' songbook. And which should've stayed there, in my view, but there you go. The highlight (which, in all honesty, isn't *very* high) is a bashed-out version of that fine old Damned mosher, 'Neat Neat Neat' - which, like virtually everything from The Damned's early period, was written by Brian James. It's good to hear the song, to be sure - but frankly I'd much prefer to hear it played by The Damned.

And I get my wish. The big black curtain which has concealed most of the stage until now is pulled aside to reveal a set tricked out to resemble a Hawaiian beach. The drum riser (and Pinch, the band's post-Scabies drummer) is concealed behind bamboo trellis. They've even got a palm tree. There's Captain Sensible, in a yachting cap and a frightful Hawaiian shirt, and Patricia Morrison with hair down to her waist and a leopard-print top, toting her bass like a bikini girl with a machine gun. And Dave Vanian himself, an earl of suave in quiff and shades, prowling the stage like he owns the place. They roar into action and the mosh kicks off.

Notwithstanding the new album, tonight The Damned give us a fairly traditional 'greatest hits' set, of the kind they've have been playing for years. Well, I suppose they'd get lynched by the fans if they didn't play such classics as 'Love Song' (nice flourish on the bass-intro by Ms Morrison there) and 'Eloise', in which Vanian (as usual) utterly chickens out of the sustained high notes. It's interesting to note in passing that Vanian is the only person on stage tonight who was actually in The Damned when 'Eloise' was recorded. Line-up changes, don't you just love 'em. But a few new numbers make it into the set, in particular 'Democracy' (a high-speed car chase of a song) and 'Would You Be So Hot If You Weren't Dead' , The Damned's own tribute to John Lennon, in which Captain Sensible casually peels off one of his scorching psychedelic guitar solos. If you can look past the loony image, Sensible is actually a stunning guitarist, probably one of the best psychedelic plank-spankers the British rock scene has ever produced. I can imagine that contention generating disbelieving laughter in all sorts of places, but just *listen* to what the man can do. It's impressive stuff. That's not all Sensible does for us, either, because - yep, you guessed it - we get 'Happy Talk'', walloped out as a bargain-price thrash with Vanian on backing vocals. Not only that - we get 'Neat Neat Neat' as well, this time for real. Now there's a bassline you just can't beat.

The show is being filmed for posterity (and, let's hope, prosperity) and perhaps because of this the band don't *quite* scale the heights of craziness for which they're known. Captain Sensible takes his shirt off, but doesn't give us the full strip: this film is going to be family viewing. I get the impression that everyone's on their best behaviour for the cameras - it's not going to get *too* wild tonight. That said, even in restrained mode The Damned are still more exciting when they hit their stride than most other live bands around these days, and this show admirably demonstrates their crazed genius. All the vital signs are good - the crowd hails the band like conquering heroes; the atmosphere is warm and celebratory, and The Damned themselves are really cooking. Yes, tonight will go down in my personal Damned gigography as a good one.

At the very end of the set, Sensible addresses some touchingly sentimental remarks to the crowd, amid sustained applause. 'Thanks for sticking with your old mates The Damned, through thick and thin,' he says in tones of high emotion, and there's not a dry eye in the house. Then he signs off: 'Now, we're off to drink champagne in the VIP bar. Don't miss your bus home!'

The Damned's website:

One of many Damned fan-sites:

And another:

A recent interview with Captain Sensible:

The Shepherd's Bush Empire:

Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: