The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead
"If you're only vaguely familiar with the Damned, this documentary will leave you wondering where you've been all your life."

"The Pistols and the Clash changed the world, right? We were just fucking there."

How does a band that played a vital role in the birth of punk, released eight albums and toured the world for decades find itself penniless? The Damned weren't exactly living the high life: this isn't another rock n' roll odyssey of mansions, casinos, fast cars and faster women. There is an answer, however, and Wes Orshoski's documentary goes some way toward finding it. Halfway through the film, a second question emerges: why is Dave Vanian so enigmatic and distant from the rest of the band? The two answers may be related.

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If you're only vaguely familiar with the Damned, this documentary will leave you wondering where you've been all your life. If you're a fan, you'll be confounded by the opening sequence in which a series of people who look as if they're hanging around a gig confess to never having heard of them. This ignorance, however, probably stems from the fact that they're in the US. Several aspects of the film's tone are likely to feel odd to UK audiences, but of course, it's often that outsider perspective that brings something fresh to a subject and reveals aspects of it that familiarity had hitherto concealed.

The pattern of the film in many ways echoes the Damned's musical output. At first it hurtles by, structurally simple but highly energetic. Then there's a confused bit where it slows down and tries to go in several directions at once, and finally there's a return to the spirit of the early part, a little slower but with a new kind of roughness that adds to its charm. It's not always particularly coherent but it packs a lot in.

With a story like this, it's not easy to make a balanced film. It might have been smarter not to approach it in a linear way but despite the awkward pacing there is generally enough going on to hold the attention. Captain Sensible hogs the limelight as one might expect, whether he's explaining how to deal with a turd that just won't flush or talking candidly about depression and how that onstage high briefly allows him to feel normal. A fleeting reference to his birthday fails to let those who don't attend the band's gigs in on the joke, but there's plenty of mileage in tales of his sparring with Rat Scabies, who probably comes off worst here despite the strong impression made by his musicianship. The band's tendency to go through bass players like Spinal Tap go through drummers allows for plenty of cameos, including a poignant one from Lemmy, who cuts through the bullshit with his usual acuity; whilst others may be scandalised by drunken antics, he was born having seen and done it all before.

Vanian hovers, appropriately, in the shadows. There are Dracula references aplenty but nobody mentions the g-word. Like Scabies, he's disinclined to cooperate with preserving anything for posterity, breaking what fourth wall there is at every opportunity, but in the process he lets a little more personality leak out than interviewers have been successful at extracting in the past. Meanwhile, the others cheerfully tell the story of the time he failed to turn up for a signing and they substituted a similarly attired 22 year old fan without many people noticing.

There are a lot of great stories in here, the fruit of long years of partying hard, and they ensure that the film is entertaining, but they also allow it to skim over other subjects. The roots of tension in the band are never really properly explored, just repeatedly dismissed as a product of "too many bouncing personalities." There's nothing at all on the mysterious hard right following in the UK that pisses off the band and makes some of their gigs inaccessible to other fans, though one long-time follower, who did ten years in prison after 'accidentally' killing a man with a pickaxe, testifies that the Damned saved him from life as a football hooligan. Meanwhile the band members ask one another why they've put up with so much abuse over the years, from being gobbed at on stage to having glasses thrown at them. That question is easier to answer. As the fans themselves deliver one of the film's closing songs, one can't help but note that, whilst their peers are raking in cash to have their music play in adverts, even Iggy Pop now in the service of the bourgeoisie, the penniless Damned have kept it real, lived the life that others only sang about, and had a damn good time doing it.

Reviewed on: 25 May 2017
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