A celebration of the Captain and Co.’s essential two-disc anthology Black Is The Night
There is a secret history of English speaking, post-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll. Of course there is. You know that. You grew up haunting used record stores that smelled of mold, tobacco and the ashy decay of newsprint; you grew nether hairs searching for salvation in the scratches at the far left of the dial. You know the score.
In the 1970s, an almost articulated conspiracy had shut the door on Punk Rock in the United States and robbed Americans of our musical inheritance: The next generation of classic rock bands. This was done when the American major labels and mainstream music media essentially blackballed the vital revival of rock ‘n’ roll primitives, reducing the whole thing to a joke or a quirk of fashion. Some of the most creative, innovative and powerful English-speaking bands of the 1970s had their legacies, livelihoods, and visibility severely compromised simply because they were never released on a proper Major American Record Label.
In the U.K. the initial Punk Rock movement (1975 – 1978) was welcomed as a logical and charismatic re-set of the music industry and the music culture; it made sense. After all, the post-Pistols A-Bomb in Wardour Street was just another version of what had happened in Memphis in 1955 and throughout Great Britain and North America, from Belfast to Seattle, in 1962. But in the United States, Punk Rock simply was not given the chance to challenge the Eagles/Styxian status quo.
Aside from some easily digestible mock-punk acts (like the Cars, Blondie, or Elvis Costello – certainly worthwhile artists, but utterly unthreatening to the extant standards of the American music industry in the late 1970s), the youth-driven, rough, experimental and minimalist British artists of the second half of the 1970s were largely cast as actors in as freak show: good to be gawked at, but hardly worth taking seriously as artists. I know what you’re thinking: what about the Clash and the Ramones? Yes, the Clash and the Ramones…and who else? I mean, who else making art that challenged the Steely Fogelbergs of the nation was actually given a genuine, high-visibility shot? Regardless of the fact that so very many of these first-generation Punk acts had the same shocking, basic-but-innovative energy as the early Kinks, the Who, Pink Floyd, etcetera (and more importantly had the same potential for growth!), the mainstream American music industry and music media wanted to cast the whole thing as a big safety-pin wearing joke: Good for a few laughs and a few obnoxious marketing campaigns, but hardly worth taking seriously as the logical and necessary re-set of rock ‘n’ roll that happens every decade or so.
Because of the fact that only a precious few genuinely “Punk” artists were able to engage the resources, patronage and support of American major labels, the entire story of English language rock was rewritten. In the United States, these talented outsiders never had the chance to become the new status quo. Significantly (and more pertinently to this story), it meant that as many of these first generation Punk artists aged and became creatively adventurous and ripe, their records were only known to small anglophile cliques in the United States.
Whether it was Wire (who remain likely the greatest art rock band of the post-Dark Side era — go fuck yourself Radiohead, you are not even fit to wash Porcupine Tree’s socks or Opeth’s jockstrap, much less Wire’s), the Saints (whose second album, Eternally Yours, is likely the best non-Ramones Punk album of punk’s first generation and whose work between 1979 and 1986 has a Van Morrison-esque richness), or even PiL (whose second album, Metal Box/Second Edition, may have been the most innovative, shocking and influential rock album since Pet Sounds), some of the most important English-language bands of all time were essentially dismissed and relegated to a Punk Rock ghetto because that’s the way they were originally perceived by fucking Rolling Stone and Ahmet Ertegun in the late 1970s.
In other words, once someone had stuck a safety pin in your mouth in 1977, it didn’t really matter what you did in 1983, did it?
Likely no single act suffered more from this ghettoization than the Damned. The Damned should have been regarded as one of the great neo-classic rock bands of the era. They consistently showed a depth, power, diversity, and commerciality that easily could have (and should have) earned them the right to be spoken of in the same way we speak of R.E.M., U2, Radiohead, etcetera.
But, ah, you are Americans. You barely know from rock ‘n’ roll, the ripest fruit of your native genius. You Americans. Us Americans. We Americans. We elect Hall and Oates to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, and no one burns the place down, and shrieks, you dishonor, at nearly every Wenner-fellating turn, the bruised and chained corpses of the slaves, sharecroppers, bleeding Acadiens, hardrocks and Ulstermen who built your church of rhythm! In our embrace of leaden-foot, “Mustang Sally”-rewriting clowns as Rock’n’Roll saviors, we might as well be hocking loogies at the ghosts of Alan Lomax, Louis Jordan, Bo Diddley, the Carter Family, Elvis the King, and others new Juba Saints who blessed America with the thumping snarling, sweet and mesmerizing American beat. Will Huey Piano Smith ever forgive us?
But who can be surprised?
We elect a conman president and still talk of other things, we talk of Taylor Swift, we watch the right raise hell and militias and we write angry tweets, yet we still talk of Taylor Swift. Can you imagine children in the future (if there is a future), saying granddaddy what did you do while our country and world was dying, WELL SON AN’/OR DAUGHTER I HAD MUCH ANGER ABOUT TAYLOR SWIFT AND HER PUBLISHING SITUATION AND OH SON andorraDAUGHTER I SHARED THAT ANGER WITH THE WORLD! And you Americans, we Americans, y’know, I just read something describing the Kinks’ We are the Village Green Preservation Society as “the greatest album you’ve never heard,” an’ I thought, really? That’s a truly great album, I mean superlative, but is it even close to being the greatest album you’ve never heard? Who is the “You” in question here? Presumably, they’ve never heard Scott Walker and Sunn O)))’s Soused, or Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth, or the Mekons’ Rock ’n’ Roll, or, you know, others.
See, Americans, us, even the wisest of us, even those of us who think we’re better than anyone else because we can hoarsely, with affected reverence, whisper the words BigStar, have been beaten into senselessness by the arrog/ignor-ance of Rolling Stone and the warm, dumb tones of FM, who convinced us that the Cars were deeeeeeeep and that Blondie was Punk Rock, maaaan; but mostly, prior to 1980 or so, we allowed American major labels to dictate our musical culture, even the wisest/wise-assed of us. This all meant that there’s a level of arrog/ignor-ance that was passed down even to the so-called hippest amongst us, because we all drank from a well poisoned by Wennerism.
Years ago, I addressed the following question: Who are the most underrated band of all time? So back then, a simpler time, ha, I wrote:
“First of all, some amazing artists linger in the land of obscurity, but it is important to underline that we are not discussing obscurity; we are discussing The Underrated. Big Difference. In order to qualify as “The Most Underrated Band,” one has to be an artist that was capable of universal greatness and acceptance, an artist where there is an enormous disparity between the potential for their work to be accepted and the ultimate acceptance of that work. So we are not just talking about those who were “merely” brilliant or “just” broke ground. This is why some of the greatest artists of our time do not qualify to be named the most underrated band of all time; for instance, the Velvet Underground, Neu!, and PiL are three of the primo art-rock bands of the last half-century, but they likely achieved precisely the level of cult-dom and appreciation they merited, so they could hardly be called underrated. Also ineligible for this prize are Very Popular Bands Who (Maybe) Should Have Been Even More Popular (so no R.E.M., okay?).”
Using a fairly rigorous standard of analysis, I determined that the Damned were – I mean are – the most underrated band of all time. Why? Because of the disparity between the level of popularity and acceptance their music could have achieved, and the level it did achieve.
As I wrote back then, “The Damned should have been the other great classic rock band of our era, right up there with U2. They were that good. They were full of power, subtlety and absolutely genius songwriting, and a diversity that ranged from the unsubtle frantic burps of punk to delicate and orchestrated mood pieces that would have made the Moody Blues proud. The Damned, with their predilection for both massive power and chaos and highly developed and subtle songwriting, were the natural and logical successors to the Who. Everything they did between 1976 and 1983 is worth owning, worth analyzing, worth dissecting, worth disseminating, and worth proselytizing about (this is doubly – heck, triply – true of albums three, four, and five, Machine Gun Etiquette, The Black Album, and Strawberries). There may be bands of that era I like as much as the Damned, but the Damned are the biggest loss, the band where there is the greatest discrepancy between what their public profile was and what their public profile (and legacy) should have been. Because the Damned should have been the Who, goddammit.”
I wrote most of that back in 2014, for an amazing news and culture blog called The Brooklyn Bugle (here I bow my aging, Dylan-esque mop of graying curls to the late, great John Loscalzo, who, by resurrecting my thirty-year dormant music journalism career a few years back, is directly responsible for the fact that I fling this nonsense at you right now). I stand by every one of those words today. But today, in the Science Fiction-sounding year of Nearly 2020, we have something we did not have back in 2014:
The first-ever truly comprehensive Damned Greatest Hits album, called Black is the Night. For the first time, we have a truly worthy collection to introduce the unfamiliar to the most underrated band of our era (yes our fucking era).
See, like many long-running British bands, the Damned have been on a lot different labels, and this often causes significant problems when it comes to compilations. That’s because labels are loath to lease their recordings for use on other labels’ releases. This results in piles of inferior Greatest Hits packages built out of lesser live tracks, outtakes, re-recordings, B-sides, and alternate takes. The Damned discography lists 30 (!) compilations prior to Black is the Night; virtually all of these are limited by one factor or another. But somehow, finally, everyone has gotten their act together and made whatever arrangements were necessary to produce Black is the Night, the first thoroughly excellent Damned greatest hits collection. Is Black as the Night perfect? No, of course not, but for the very first time, high-end material from each and every one of the Damned’s (remarkably varied) stages is on one collection, in one place.
Like the Who or the Kinks (both of whom the Damned can be very reasonably compared with), the Damned began as smart, sassy, musically inventive primitives. In other words; they were not merely simple or basic, but rather, they had their own inventive take on minimalism, reinforced by distinctive musicianship. And very much like the Who or the Kinks, the Damned progressed and expanded their musical palette from that point, retaining detectable facets of their original character; i.e., the careful ear can hear the early caveman-riff Kinks in “Waterloo Sunset” or Picture Book,” much the same as the careful ear can hear “Neat Neat Neat” in elaborate, Britrock melodramas like “Plan 9 Channel 7” and “History of the World (Part 1).”
Unlike every prior Damned compilation, Black is the Night gives (more or less) equal time to all of the stages in the band’s 43-year history, each of which is distinct, and each of which provided terrific music. The first era (1976 and 1977) featured a sizzling, very tightly wound act that morphed the Feelgoods and the Stooges, with some slight but effective art-smoke from Roxy, Suicide and Doctors of Madness. This “first era” group, who recorded two full albums, was led by guitarist/songwriter Brian James, and also featured Dave Vanian on vocals, Captain Sensible on bass, Rat Scabies on drums (and for their second album, Lu Edmonds on second guitar; we note that Lu has been a member of the Damned, the Mekons, and PiL, which is one monster of a trifecta). For the second era (1979 – 1984), James is out, and Sensible moves to guitar and becomes the primary songwriter. This is, without any doubt, the golden age of the Damned, as Sensible fuels the group with his extraordinary gifts. You see, Captain Sensible is one of the great BritPop songwriters of his time, and must be very favorably compared with Robyn Hitchcock, Andy Partridge, Morrissey/Marr, and Noel Gallagher. Then, the Damned’s third stage: For a spell in the mid-1980s, Sensible was out, and Roman Jugg (who had joined on second guitar and keyboards midway through stage two) moved over to the primary guitar spot. During this phase, the Damned pursued a romantic big-pop gothic sound that sometimes sounded like Scott Walker, Madness, and the Damned gathering together to re-record Days of Future Passed. Strangely, the band had some of their biggest hits in this era: “Grimly Fiendish” is primo eccentric Britpop, sort of like Madness recording the theme to a Dr. Phibes film. Sensible returned for good in the late 1990s – longtime drummer and occasional songwriter Rat Scabies left not long after – and since then the band have recorded sporadically and sometimes indifferently, though their most recent studio work shows a renaissance of intention, attention to quality, and craft.
Black is the Night touches effectively on every era of the Damned, from 1976 to the present, and very wisely includes a fair amount of material from their most artistically fruitful period, around the time they released their masterpieces, The Black Album (1980) and Strawberries (1982). Listen, if you take away nothing else from this erratic piss stream of words, take away this: The Black Album is one of the great britrock albums of all time, and really needs to be spoken of in the same hushed breath in which we discuss London Calling, Abbey Road, The Queen is Dead, Mott, Led Zeppelin IV, The Bends, etcetera. If you haven’t spent much time with The Black Album, it jangles in a way that anticipates R.E.M. while containing significant echoes of the work of Brian Wilson…yet it is still very much a Damned album. Honestly, The Black Album sounds like the Soft Boys, the Damned, and Mitch Easter-era R.E.M. joining together to make the Beach Boys’ 20/20. How fucking good does that sound?
Now, do I have qualms with Black is the Night? Yes, but they pretty much pale in significance to the overall quality of this collection. But here they are anyway:
Although I am happy to see some deserving lesser-known first-era Damned cuts here (notably “Stretcher Case Baby” and “Sick of Being Sick”), I am sorry to see the omission of the slurring, riffing “Don’t Cry Wolf,” easily the best cut off of the Damned’s underrated, Nick Mason-produced second album. A more significant omission is one of the Damned’s very best songs: the plaintive, Brian Wilson-esque “Life Goes On,” from the Damned’s fourth album, the magnificent Strawberries. Honestly, I am a little confused by this omission: “Life Goes On” represents the Damned at the peak of their ability to be exotic and introverted, delicate and bruising. One other small-ish complaint: We don’t really need the Damned’s almost entirely superfluous cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or,” a track from 1987’s Anything (an LP which has the unfortunate distinction of being the first album the Damned released that wasn’t really worth owning). Also, I think five tracks from Damned’s 12-track debut may be pushing it a bit. However, these meager grumbles are overshadowed by an unexpected bit of gothy lagniappe: the album’s sole new track, the titular “Black is the Night,” is the best thing the band have released in ages. It is a rather wonderful example of what the band have been honing in the last two decades, and it sounds like the Shadows, the Animals and Jack Nitzsche attempting to write a late ‘60s Scott Walker song.
From first to last, Black is the Night is a pleasure, and avoids the pitfalls of most contemporary greatest hits albums: No live tracks, no muddying the waters with lesser obscurities, it is a rather smashing reflection of the diversity, consistency, power, and genius of one of the very best British rock bands of all time.
AUDIO: The Damned “Black Is The Night”