Coming of age in the late 1970s, I was in the right place at the right time to enjoy the character-shaping birth of British Punk Rock, as well as having a ground zero experience of the Southern California Punk Rock movement, which was equally legendary. It was a great time to be a teenage music lover! It was also a blessing that driving up to LA to see a punk band was not always necessary, because Orange County had its own live music venue that booked both US and UK-based acts; a dive-y little joint, hidden away in an industrial neighborhood of Costa Mesa, which was called The Cuckoo’s Nest. It was at The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1979 that I first saw The Damned live, on tour in support of what is arguably still their best and most popular album, Machine Gun Etiquette. Lyrics from that album’s eponymous track now lend themselves to the title of a fantastic documentary on The Damned, Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, which has just become available on home video. I am overjoyed to report that this film is a must-see for all Damned fans, old-school punks, rock music historians and anyone who was a punk back when the guys in Sum 41 were still toddlers.
Directed, written and produced by Wes Orshoski (Lemmy) over a three-year period, with a limited theatrical release in 2015, Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead gets absolutely everything right as it brings to life the rich history and continuing artistic impact of The Damned; a group comprised of four distinct characters who beat both the Sex Pistols and The Clash to the punch by releasing the first punk single (“New Rose”), recording the first punk album (Damned Damned Damned) and being the first of their ilk to tour the United States. But as is the case with so many pioneers, those who blaze trails often do not get to reap the financial rewards of their considerable efforts, as do those who follow in their wake. This was the case with The Damned, because while they were out doing everything first, other punk bands were building an enigmatic reputation and getting hyped up-the-ass by Svengali managers (Sex Pistols), and scoring high-paying record deals (The Clash). It is sad, because it’s true.
The Damned: Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies, Brian James Circa 1977
Considered by their peers to have included the best musicians of any punk band, The Damned’s music still sounds as exciting and, to my ears, somewhat mind-blowing, today as it did when their debut album was freshly released, nearly 40 years ago. Orshoski uses archival footage of the band playing live, from their earliest shows up to the present, mixed with dozens of interviews and candid clips, to tell the story of a band who got in on the ground floor of a sociopolitical movement-turned pivotal music genre and rode a wave through countless creative reinventions and line up changes, and still have all four original members alive and well. Even Captain Sensible (real name: Ray Burns) admits “One of us should be dead.” How did it all go down? Watch and find out.
Orshoski is exhaustive in his research and coverage of both the personal and professional history of key band members, and this makes for one of the most complete and engaging profiles of any band ever committed to film. Founding members Brian James, who was only in The Damned for one year and one album, and Rat Scabies (real name: Chris Millar), whose questionable business practices have caused great animosity and irreparable loss of professional trust between him and Captain Sensible, show up over and over again for lengthy interviews throughout the film. It should please diehard fans that Orshoski focuses mostly on the original line up, although when it comes to getting the full warts-and-all story of what went on in every incarnation of The Damned, no stone is left unturned. The result is a film which is both heartbreaking and hilarious, and endlessly entertaining.
If you’ve ever wondered “Where Are The Now?” about literally (almost) anyone who was ever in the band — and remember that The Damned has enjoyed a very fluid line up over its decades-long existence — this is the place to find out. Once Brian James left the band (before their second album — produced by Nick Mason of Pink Floyd — was recorded), and Captain Sensible took over as lead guitarist, The Damned went through bassists like Spinal Tap went through drummers. Many of those guys are interviewed for, and add great color to, Don’t You Wish…, including the late, great Lemmy Kilmister, who filled in on bass before Algy Ward joined for the recording of Machine Gun Etiquette. Other notable former members include future Culture Club drummer John Moss, who replaced Rat Scabies before the band broke up, and then reformed, in 1978. Talk about a rich history of storied personnel! The only glaring omission is the absence of any visual presence (save for one photograph, which is on screen for a split second) or any reference at all to Patricia Morrison (ex Bags, Gun Club, and Sisters of Mercy) who joined on bass, and married Dave Vanian in 1996, remaining until she gave birth to the couple’s daughter in 2004. I can only guess that she specifically declined to participate in filming and asked that Orshoski respect her privacy by not including her at all in the project. That’s a shame.
Also being very generous with their on-screen contributions of memories and anecdotes are some of The Damned’s punk contemporaries, including Chrissie Hynde, Mick Jones of The Clash, Steve Diggle of The Buzzcocks (who still perform with 2 original members), and Billy Idol (who, as the lead vocalist for Generation X, was considered to be a complete poseur by Rat Scabies). Super fans who went on to have considerable careers themselves also offer enthusiastic praise for the band’s music and influence, including Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan, who admits he ripped off his on stage persona and vocal style from Dave Vanian, Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), Dexter Holland (The Offspring), Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks), Jesse Hughes (Eagles of Death Metal) and comedian/musician Fred Armisan. It is such a blast to wax nostalgic with all of these guys while enjoying The Damned’s fantastic music, which absolutely refuses to date. High-fives all around on this one.
Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead is now available on DVD and Blu-ray at Amazon Dot Com and elsewhere.