How did we miss out on one of the greatest classic rock bands of all time?
There’s a peculiar and history-bending phenomenon that I call Vinylism. This is the mistaken perception that Punk Rock was a lot bigger and more visible in the United States in the 1970s than it actually was.
Recent-ish movies and streaming series set in the mid and late 1970s love to fill their saloons, biker bars, nightclubs, sleepovers and dorm rooms with all manner of hipster punk and post-punk, regardless of the fact that the actual contemporary humans not invented by Netflix were far more likely listening to Andy Gibb, Bob Welch (God bless him) and Black Oak Arkansas. I want to be absolutely and utterly clear about this: Even in the cities and the college campuses, circa 1977 Punk Rock was a minority of a minority position in the United States; frankly, you counted yourself mega-lucky to find someone who was into Todd Rundgren or Cheap Trick, and about 94 percent of the time that’s as hip as it was going to get. This is the truth, an’ deal with it: It was a big deal when The Babys were on The Mike Douglas Show. You called your friend in the anti-Leo Sayer brigade and said, “Turn on the TV now! The Babys are on Mike Douglas! And the Tubes are on Kirshner this weekend!” Even if you were listening to Pink Flag and Spiral Scratch, that’s about all you got in the United States in terms of mainstream engagement with vaguely cool music.
The Netflixian idea that everyone was hanging around grooving to Generation X or “Neat Neat Neat” is a total effing fantasy. This is the reason that totally reasonable people you met in 1978 actually cared about Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airman. Because, see, what was played on WNEW sucked Muni’s shrunken, albeit meaty balls. Got it?
There are manifold reasons for this misconception. Here’s a few: Because early MTV was so reliant on videos made in the United Kingdom (and so very many of these were of alternative artists), because Netflix et al are so eager to let you know how hip their music supervisors are, and because Nirvana-ism thrust punk rock so forcefully into the forefront of public pop consciousness, it has been largely forgotten that in the pre-MTV era – say, 1976 and 1981 — American commercial radio, the American major labels, and the mainstream American music press virtually conspired to shut down exposure of the loud, simple and radical new sounds coming from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia. Even bands of enormous charm and potential were filed away as safety pin-wearing freaks. The uniformity and adamancy of this blockade was virtually on the level of conspiracy; it was, essentially, an assumption by the mainstream music industry that the American marketplace would have no interest in Punk Rock, beyond the kind of FM-acceptable tokenism one found in Cheap Trick, The Cars and Blondie.
True, a handful of American and British Punk acts landed major label deals, and some even found a few words in Rolling Stone or a cursory spin on FM radio. But for every Clash, Costello, Blondie or Talking Heads, there were a dozen acts of high quality and significant commercial potential that either failed to land major label deals in the United States, only landed deals late in the game, or had deals with labels that did minimal promotion of new British music.
The net result of all this – that is, the American music industry’s pervasive attitude that the vast body of non-U.S. Punk acts were non-starters in any commercial sense, and worthy of only being treated as a cult or a side show – was that an entire new generation of (potential) Classic Rock Bands had their careers essentially smothered in the cradle. One needs to look no further than three bands in particular: The Stranglers, The Saints and The Damned. Each of these acts not only had significant potential mainstream appeal, but all three also matured, rapidly, into the kind of acts who could have and should have taken their place as the next generation of Classic Rock Acts, following in the footsteps of the Moody Blues, The Doors, Van Morrison, The Kinks, and The Who. Because the American music industry shut the door on these bands in their infancy, we were deprived of their extraordinary maturity.
No single act suffered more from this pigeonholing than The Damned. The band’s four-album run between 1979 and 1985 — Machine Gun Etiquette (1979), The Black Album (1980), Strawberries (1982) and Phantasmagoria (1985)—displayed that they could have and should have been a truly monumental classic rock powerhouse, a major player in the next generation of classic rock, right up there with U2, Radiohead or Pearl Jam.
Beginning with 1979’s Machine Gun Etiquette (their third album overall, and the first recorded with the extraordinary Captain Sensible as their primary songwriter), The Damned revealed that they had the power, diversity, intent and unique musical skill to play alongside the big boys that American 1970s FM radio had long worshipped. The Damned’s rapid artistic progression during this period and their honing of a power-fueled subtlety resulted in a body of work that clearly revealed they ought to be considered heirs to The Who, The Kinks, the Beach Boys, The Faces, and The Move/ELO. Too bad hardly anyone over here was listening.
And The Damned peaked with Strawberries, released 40 years ago this autumn. Strawberries is the Damned’s masterpiece, the definitive showcase for their mixture of Beach Boys-influenced depth and exotic delicacy, Who-ish power, and Beatle-esque willingness to investigate the studio and bend expectation. The Damned had gotten very close to this glittering prize on The Black Album, the first album in which they fully blended Brian Wilson, Byrds and Nuggets in a way that echoed the Soft Boys and anticipated R.E.M. (but all done with a healthy slather of Who-ish gwooooar). The Black Album, however, still had some soft spots; a handful of tracks, like “Therapy” and “Sick of This and That” hearken back to the lesser obligatory aggro that plagued about half of Machine Gun Etiquette; the live side is weirdly low energy and beyond superfluous; and “Curtain Call”, which comes close to being one of the Damned’s greatest songs, is unnecessarily extended to fill out an entire side (if it had been cut to about 5 or 6 minutes, “Curtain Call” could have been The Damned’s “Good Vibrations”).
But Strawberries has none of these issues. Melancholy, rapturous, melodic, full of wit and variety, it’s quite damn comparable to The Kinks’ Face to Face and Something Else and The Who Sell Out. Ranging from a sweet, punky kind of northern soul (the Dexys-esque “Strangers on the Town,” one of the Damned’s very best and most accomplished songs), Walker Brothers-type basso/Amsterdam melancholy, Barrett-ian quirk and intimacy, and high-achieving Nuggetts-ism filtered through Sensible’s Wilson and Hitchcock influenced songwriting, Strawberries is nearly flawless, while still being filled with variety, spontaneity, and utterly inventive application of the studio and the mixing board.
What really pushes Strawberries over the top – that is, what clearly places it on a different mountaintop entirely than the wonderful Black Album – is the inclusion of two of the Damned’s best-ever songs, “Life Goes On” and “Under the Floor Again.” First, we must note that the familiar opening and reoccurring riff of “Life Goes On” that later surfaced in both Killing Joke’s “Eighties” and Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” appeared HERE first, and more effectively than in either of the latter songs which appropriated it (I hate that this even needs to be mentioned, but it ought to be underlined). “Life Goes On” is the perfect, exquisite, archetypal Captain Sensible song: like “Waterloo Sunset” or “Sunny Aftermoon” – or, say, “Can’t Reach You” or “Our Love Was” from The Who Sell Out — it’s dark but not a ballad, melancholy but deeply catchy, and profoundly thoughtful in terms of arrangement and instrument choice. Honestly, it asserts that on the right day and given the right tools, Captain Sensible could compete on the same playing field as Brian Wilson, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, and Robyn Hitchcock. This is not hyperbole.
The other masterpiece on Strawberries sounds very little like “Life Goes On.” “Under the Floor Again” shares the bittersweet though catchy autumnal melodicism of “Life Goes On,” but it references both a Moody Blues-esque depth of arrangement and a backbeat/power that alludes to The Black Album and Machine Gun Etiquette. The song also contains two of the most satisfying and ecstatic moments in the entire Damned canon: the rapid-rhythm, Sensible-sung, Barrett-esque/Hitchcock-ian pre-chorus (which shouldn’t work in this song, but it totally does); and the slow/fast, extremely melodic chorus that immediately follows, which features Vanian at his Scott Walker croony/emotional best, underscored by a fantastic cityscape of an organ counter melody. Now, I count six (!) clearly different sections in “Under the Floor Again” – you might count more – but they flow seamlessly in and out of each other, in a way that somehow echoes Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Jimmy Webb, classic Damned, Henry Badowski, and even a sniff of NWOBHM, all in one marvelous, powerful, majestic song. When viewed alongside “Curtain Call” and “The History of the World” (from The Black Album) and “Plan 9 Channel 7” (on Machine Gun Etiquette), “Under the Floor Again” displays that The Damned, makers of some of the sharpest, shortest shocks of the first era of Punk, sought to go far beyond Punk and Post Punk to create a quasi-epic kind of classic rock that had far, far more to do with the three W’s — Webb, Wilson and Scott Walker – than anything any of their contemporaries were creating.
True, The Damned splintered after Strawberries, and in terms of a sensible (no pun intended) artistic continuum they were never truly whole again. (However, I do include including the sans-Sensible Phantasmagoria as part of their classic run, due to its well-realized Moody Blues-meets-London Dungeon ambitions and the fact that songs like “Grimly Fiendish, ”Shadow of Love,” and “Edward the Bear” are pretty undeniable.) But the extraordinary achievement of Strawberries – honestly, it’s not just the best Damned album, it’s one of the best and most beautiful and accomplished pop rock albums of the entire decade – reminds us of what The Damned should have and could have become, if the American mainstream marketplace hadn’t shut out them out: One of the great classic rock bands of the 1970s and ‘80s.
P.S. My neo-Oi band are going to be called The Anti-Leo Sayer Brigade.