The first U.K. punk band to release a record, and perhaps the only such first-generation act still active 40 years later, the Damned nonetheless never quite achieved the notoriety or commercial success of contemporaries like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Wes Orshoski’s documentary “The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead” chronicles that very long run in a mix of archival, interview and on-the-fly materials. Even those unfamiliar with the subject may find sufficient entertainment value in this portrait of a band whose umpteen personnel changes and (not unrelated) interpersonal conflicts make for a colorfully convoluted history.
Indeed, the pic’s first showing at SXSW was continually interrupted by lead guitarist Captain Sensible’s loud commentary in the auditorium whenever a moment or a former band member he didn’t like appeared onscreen — underlining that some of the energies that kept the Damned alive for so long are also among those that have hobbled it.
The Damned were founded in a fertile London cultural context so eager to reject mid-1970s mainstream rock bloat that prospective members included future members of numerous famous bands, including the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde. Its original lineup was the very first such out of the box in 1976, releasing a classic debut single (1976’s “New Rose”) and album (the following year’s “Damned Damned Damned”). But turmoil quickly established itself as the one Damned constant. Brian James, who wrote all their earliest material, split after other members insisted on contributing songs to a poorly received sophomore long-player (“Music for Pleasure”). Other famous alumni include drummer Rat Scabies and subsequent Motorhead leader Lemmy.
The Damned regained its artistic footing with 1979’s “Machine Gun Etiquette.” But the internal strife seldom let up, exacerbated by erratic commercial fortunes, frequent personnel changes and sometimes bewildering stylistic shifts including periods of goth rock and hit mainstream balladry. Their prankish, theatrical sides (Sensible being a natural “anarchist comedian,” lead singer David Vanian indulging a penchant for vampire makeup) made them easy at times to dismiss, particularly as held against the more overtly politicized images of fellow early U.K. punk outfits.
But the Damned’s unpredictability only endeared them further to a diehard fan base, and it makes this docu all the more entertaining. Still feuding with James decades later, we see bassist-turned-lead-guitarist Sensible (nee Raymond Ian Burns) shrug “I can’t stop myself, I’m an a–hole.” And theirs is hardly the only note of discord; even members who regularly tour together to this day seem to barely tolerate each other. All wish the Damned would make the big bucks commensurate with its longevity and cult status — but the ongoing unwillingness to compromise seems to ensure such success will remain just out of reach.
Pretty much a one-man enterprise, Orshoski’s follow-up to “Lemmy” belies its DIY process with a lively, expert assembly that draws on voluminous archival materials and a sometimes bewilderingly wide array of commentators. (What is Fred Armisen doing here?) If, at the end of the day, a viewer may remain somewhat unclear on the Damned’s complicated history, or the value of its overall contribution to music — well, that viewer is surely in good company.