Back in August 2015 I listed out all the bands I have ever seen, and those that I still want to see before I die. On 20th May 2016 I ticked a big one off my to-do list because I got to see The Damned play at the Royal Albert Hall. They were playing a 40th anniversary show and was part of the ongoing celebrations this year in honour of the birth of punk in the UK in 1976. For my part, I’ve had a tattoo of a safety pin etched into my arm to mark the occasion but that’s a story for another time. For those that don’t know, they are a UK punk band formed in 1976 with a notorious reputation for their boisterous antics – both onstage and behind the scenes. Better than the Sex Pistols or even The Clash, they are the best British punk band, which also makes them the best punk band in the world. They were also always better musicians then either of these bands and have been consistently good over a longer period of time.
Despite having bought my ticket a year in advance, the only option available to me was a seat near the back, up in the rafters. Although I would have preferred to be near the action on stage, standing – it did give me the opportunity to appreciate the venue better, and the Royal Albert Hall is pretty impressive to say the least. The Damned were banned from playing here in 1977 incidentally, but more on that later.
The view of the stage action was spectacular nonetheless – even at that height and distance – and also offered me the added bonus of being able to people-watch the vast audience (and there certainly were freaks-a-plenty to behold amongst the throng). I decided not to get shit-faced; an odd decision to make at a punk rock gig you might think (and especially when you consider me being me), but at £8-per-pint this was a fiscal stance more than anything. And at least I was able to remember the gig on the morning after, unlike many – judging by the staggering on display.
The band were introduced by Clive Jackson of Doctor and The Medics fame (still dressed as ridiculously as you remember him), which segues nicely into a Phantom of The Opera style pastiche from lead singer Dave Vanian on the balcony, before joining Captain Sensible et al on stage. They promptly burst into Nature’s Dark Passion from 2008’s So, Who’s Paranoid? album and the whole sequence is not as corny as it probably sounds – the band had a real impact and stage presence from the outset, and clearly had not lost any of their enthusiasm for playing through their 40-year history.
I had assumed it might be a disappointment, due in part to the nature of the event; ageing punk rockers past their best, holding on to dreams of the past playing in an inappropriate choice of venue (given their previous history here). Gladly my apprehensions were unfounded as they played a blistering high-energy 3-hour set in reverse chronological order; a crowd-pleasing greatest hits show, starting with their more recent material and finishing in their raw punkish beginnings. And the truth is The Damned never let us down; their longevity in the punk scene is unequalled – as is their mark of quality – and from their sprightly performance, you would never guess that Dave Vanian and co are all around 60-year old age bracket.
They dressed the part as you’d expect – Vanian is gothed up and Captain Sensible sported his trademark red beret and tartan bondage trousers. Keyboardist Monty Oxymoron on the other hand looks like a glammed up James May from Top Gear receiving electroshock therapy. Rat Scabies left the band in 1996 but still got a song dedication from Vanian, as does another founding member Brian James and also the erstwhile Ruts frontman Malcolm Owen, long since dead.
More than just a nostalgic punk gig, this was a full-on rock opera, including a nod to The Abominable Dr Phibes and the Wizard of Oz along the way; about as far removed from a modern day Rolling Stones gig concert as you could possibly get. And I mean that in a good way.
Somehow despite their mischievous punk pedigree, the band resisted the urge to sing the famed Hitler-themed ditty about the Fuhrer losing his balls in the venue – but that is the only trick the band missed all night.