Saturday 15 November 2014

The Damned

A drummer (and part time toilet cleaner) from Croydon auditions for the semi-mythical pre-punk band London SS (a band at one time or another containing many of the original London punk musicians (who weren't the Sex Pistols)).
The thing that makes London SS so revered is (a) their member history, and (b) the fact they never actually played live.
In spring 1976, Brian James leaves London SS and joins up with the aforementioned toilet cleaner, and his bandmates in the Masters Of The Backside (another early punk band whose existence was confined to the practice room only).
Brian James, Rat Scabies, Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible become ... The Damned.

Although not the first punk band (the Pistols pre-dated them by some 6 months), they were:
  • the first to release a single
  • the first to release an album
  • the first to tour the US
  • the first to split up (and by association, the first to reform)
They performed their first show supporting the Sex Pistols in July, soon after they signed to Stiff Records.  Their first single ("New Rose") was issued in October 1976, followed by debut album ('Damned, Damned, Damned') and second single ("Neat, Neat, Neat") in February 1977.
Following a tour with Marc Bolan, second guitarist Lu Edmonds joined, and recording of the second album commenced.
The original intent was to engage Syd Barrett as producer.  Unable to tempt Syd, the band invited Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason to take the producers seat.
The addition of Lu Edmonds caused friction within the band (Brian James brought Lu in, but the other members were unsure his presence was required).  Also, the relative inexperience of Nick Mason as a producer, and his unfamiliarity with the band and their music resulted in a somewhat lacklustre second album.  There are high points on 'Music For Pleasure' ("Problem Child", "Stretcher Case", "Idiot Box"), but when held up against the debut. it misses by a long way.

By the end of the year, the band had been dropped by Stiff Records, and were without a drummer after Rat Scabies quite following the recording of the album.
The Damned limped into 1978, recruiting Jon Moss (future Culture Club drummer) to fill the vacant drum stool, but the band folded by February.

Dave Vanian, Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible (switching from Bass to Guitar) joined forces with Lemmy (Motorhead) on Bass under the name Les Punks for a one-off gig in September.  This reformation continued into 1979 (with Henry Badowski replacing Lemmy) under the name The Doomed (it is understood that Brian James may have copyrighted the name preventing it being used by any band that he wasn't a member of).
By April 1979, The Damned moniker was restored, Algy Ward replaced Henry Badowski and they signed with Chiswick Records.  "Love Song" was released as a single, and the band appeared on Top Of The Pops.  Second Chiswick single ("Smash It Up") came in September, followed two months later by the album 'Machine Gun Etiquette'.
Opening with the urgent, frenzied bass of "Love Song" and bounding into the title track (including the coincidental lyrical refrain "Second Time Around"), this is an album full of urgency, invention and stretch from the basic 3 minute thrash formula.  Tunes abound everywhere, including the sumptuous Hammond organ break in "I Just Can't Be Happy Today" and the piano introduction to "Melody Lee".  There is a darker tone with "Plan 9 Channel 7" suggesting horror flicks are never far from the Damned formula, and a return to their roots with a cover of MC5s "Looking At You".  The absolute masterpiece of the album is the closing track - the two part "Smash It Up".  Starting slowly, Part 1 is an electro-acoustic psychadleic influenced instrumental, almost wistfully melancholic, containing some very un-punk chords.  Part 2 takes this platform and provides an almost perfect slab of pop-punk tunery, complete with nihilistic lyrics inviting us to smash up everything that gets in our way, including Krishna burgers, Glastonbury hippies, frothy lager and blow wave hairstyles.

"Smash It Up (Parts 1 &2)"

With positive critical acclaim, a return to public attention (possibly even more so than before), and a truly magnificent album behind them, The Damned V2.0 was triumphant.
1980 saw Algy Ward leave (to form Tank) and be replaced by Paul Gray from Eddie and The Hot Rods.
(trivia note: Paul Gray had already appeared on a Damned album ('Damned, Damned, Damned') - as part of Stiff Records slightly off-beat/skewed marketing methods, the live shot of The Damned at The Roxy on the back cover was replaced by a photo of Eddie and The Hot Rods (featuring Paul Gray) on early pressings)

This was to be the most stable line-up of the band to date, lasting until early 1983.

The first outing for this re-convened unit was a cover of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" in mid-1980, followed by the ambitious double LP 'The Black Album' in November.
Taking the garage/psychadelic influences further, and applying more of the darker tones hinted at on 'Machine Gun Etiquette',  'The Black Album' moves the band further from their 3-Chord spiky-haired punk peers.
Commencing with an anthem to all things dark ("Wait For The Blackout"), the dark pop of "History Of The World", more darkness on "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" and "Twisted Nerve", the almost folk-tinged, reflective "Silly Kids Games", the machine gun drumming punk of "Hit And Miss" and "Sick Of This And That", and the psychedelic freak-outs "Therapy"- this album really does cover all bases.  And then, to finish, The Damned err into Prog-Punk territory with the 17 minute "Curtain Call" - how many other punk bands would have (a) the ability, or (b) the balls to produce a song which takes up one entire side of an album?

"Wait For The Blackout"

'Machine Gun Etiquette' is the definite zenith of The Damned, followed closely 'The Black Album'.

A major falling out with Chiswick saw the band move to NEMS in 1981 and release one EP, before NEMS collapsed.  From there, they signed to Bronze and released the single "Lovely Money" and the album 'Strawberries' (from which two further singles "Dozen Girls" and "Generals" was culled).
"Strawberries" shows continued growth, and remains a very listenable ,cohesive slab of power-pop/rock, if not a truly great album.
It is tinged however with the usual Damned "buggeration" factors - Paul Gray was in dispute with the band over songwriting credits (which ultimately resulted in Gray leaving the band), and the band themselves were in dispute with Bronze over contracts, royalty payments and just about everything else.  Add to this the distraction of Captain Sensibles burgeoning solo career, and the future looked about as bright as the cover of 'The Black Album'.

A one-off single on their own imprint Damned Records ("Thanks For The Night"/"Nasty") was released in 1984, and was promoted with an appearance on an episode of The Young Ones.  The band included Roman Jugg on guitar (he had previously provided keyboard duties on 'Strawberries')  and Bryn Merrick on bass (replacing Paul Gray).  This did not lead to a change in fortunes, and the band once again found itself without a record label and one member down as Captain Sensible left the band in August 1984.

With Sensible gone, the gothic affectations and sounds were brought to the fore, and the band (somehow?) landed a deal with a major label (MCA).  Things were definitely looking up - for the first time in 8 years, they might actually get paid!
"Grimly Fiendish" was released in March 1985, and the album 'Phantasmagoria' followed in July.  The album, in parts, could be considered as 'The Black Album Part 2' (or perhaps, more fairly, the leftover tracks that weren't quite strong enough to make the cut).  Other highlights include the singles "Shadow Of Love" and "Is It A Dream" and the none more gothic "Sanctum Sanctorum".

And then something strange happens: buoyed by the commercial success of previous MCA releases, the band record a one-off cover version of "Eloise" and find themselves in the Top 10 (their best chart performance to date was number 20 with "Love Song" back in 1979).
So now would be the time to capatalise on this new found success?  What The Damned did was to release a complete clunker of an album in the shape of 'Anything'.  Apart from the cover of "Alone Again Or" and the driving, relentless "Psychomania" there isn't much worth re-visiting here.

Work on a follow-up never got past the demo stage, and the band were released from the MCA contract.
Brian James and Captain Sensible rejoined for a series of shows in 1988, and then the band disbanded.
Since then, there have been various reformations featuring different members, and the release of further albums.  Of these, 2001s 'Grave Disorder' is perhaps the best of the bunch - it may not be up there with 'Machine Gun Etiquette' or 'The Black Album', but it is definitely better than 'Anything' (apart from the aforementioned cover of "Alone Again Or", which (and people are going to hate me for saying this) I prefer this version to the original by Love).

Tuesday 4 November 2014

The Libertines

Nestled away at Track 4 on the Libertines debut album is the track "Time For Heroes".  An in 2002, it probably was.  The band were already the darlings of the NME, and were soon to cross-over into mainstream media courtesy of Pete Doherty's "colurful" life.
Time For Heroes?  An anti-hero perhaps.  A widely recognised anti-hero whose exploits certainly helped the band achieve further recognition, and possibly contributes to their ongoing legacy.

Formed following a seemingly chance meeting between Carl Barat and Pete Doherty (Barat was sharing a flat with Doherty's sister).  Shared musical interests and ambitions saw them both abandon their academic studies (Barat: Drama, Doherty: English Literature) and take to the stage - their early gigs were primarily at the flat Barat and Doherty now shared.

Their first proper demos were recorded in early 2000.  A change of line-up (Drummer Gary Powell and Bassist John Hassall), and a showcase event saw interest from Rough Trade.  By the end of 2001, the band were signed to Rough Trade.

Their first single ("What A Waster") was released in June 2002.  Although acclaimed and coupled with their first NME front cover, sales were low, and airplay scant to non-existent (although this may have something to do with the the "slightly fruity Anglo Saxon" in the lyrics).
Whilst not exactly re-writing the rules of rock & roll, the song lays the template of the bands sound (rough, dirty edge guitar power chords, thumping drums and a twin vocal attack) which was to be employed throughout the remainder of their life.
Second single ("Up The Bracket") arrived in September followed the next month by their debut album.

That first album was a dust-clearing, statement of intent.  A burst of pure adrenaline, wrapped in a bedshit-low-life-"Elegantly Wasted"-chic type package.
A collection of short, sharp songs imbued at times with a romanticism, at other times with a definite edge.
They weren't stretching the boundaries, but what they were doing was providing an object lesson of how to mix Garage Rock, Punk, Pop and a soup├žon of sleaze.  There are times when it is almost an unlistenable mess, but the energy and commitment of the band keep the attention.

Tensions in the band were rising, most noticeably on stage where performances were curtailed due to in-fighting, or simply din't happen at all as either Pete Doherty or Carl Barat failed to turn up (in fairness to Carl Barat, it was usually his sparring partner who was a no-show).
Following a show in Germany, which Pete Doherty did not play, he was effectively sacked from the band - Barat refused to play on stage with him unless he straightened out.
Then in a scene which wouldn't be out of place in a farce, Pete Doherty was arrested for burgling his bandmates flat.

Surely, this was the end ...

Carl Barat met Pete Doherty straight from Prison, and it seemed normal service was resumed as they went straight and played a gig in Kent that evening.  This was followed by more shows in London, and then, a couple of months later, back into the studio for album number 2.

The second album maintains the signature sound, and in places is even more ramshackle than the first (it feels like some of the songs weren't truly honed, just chucked down to get them done).
The prime difference here is the songs have a harder, less wistful edge, with moments of biography and lost friendship.  The album is bookended by two such songs ("Can't Stand Me Now" and "What Became Of The Likely Lads" *) which are the pick of the tracks here (with "What Katy Did Next" a close third).

* unfortunately, this is not a cover version of the theme to the 1970s sitcom.  A part of me, however, wishes that they had done that song.

After the release of the album, the band fell apart when Doherty was excluded from the band (again) until he'd cleaned up.  This reformation seemed further away with the release of the debut album by Babyshambles (featuring Pete Doherty) and the formation of the Dirty Pretty Things (featuring Carl Barat and drummer Gary Powell).

Taken side by side, the initial releases from the pair stand up (although the Babyshambles offering 'Down In Albion' does take a bit more listening to).  The Dirty Pretty Things release ('From Warterloo To Anywhere') is to these ears the de facto third album from the Libertines, retaining the recognised sound and also including another of these "Story Of The Band/Relationship" type songs in the shape of "Bang Bang You're Dead" (although Carl Barat denies any suggestion of this, perhaps putting it down to mere coincidence on the part of the listener).

The Dirty Pretty Things stumbled on for another couple of years, folding in 2008, and Babyshambles managed 2 albums before going into hibernation - returning with a new album in late 2013.

The Libertines reformed for the Reading and Leeds Festivals in the summer of 2010.  The appearances received acclaim from the press and the public, but in true Libertines style, nothing more happened as they went their separate ways again.
They broke the silence again with an appearance in 2014, and then embarked on their first tour for 10 years.  It was also intimated that there may be new material in the offing.
This being The Libertines, it may of course never happen and the whole project will descend into acrimony, arguments, and another split where the two main protagonists refuse to talk to each other for another 3 years.  Then they'll try again ... and again ... and again.

Up The Bracket

Can't Stand Me Now

Dirty Pretty Things - Bang Bang You're Dead