Editor's note: Doug McGrath is a music contributor with four decades of experience as a member of the Dallas music community. This week, he reviews a new album from English band The Damned.
Band name: The Damned
Album: Evil Spirits (2018, Spinefarm Records)
Rating: 3 out of 4
One line: Founding members Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible propel The Damned through the tail end of a fifth decade with a surprisingly solid collection of new songs.
Review: The first time I heard The Damned was at a party in my drummer’s basement when I was 17. Yes, in Denver we had these things called basements.
Prior to this, my exposure to punk was limited to Sex Pistols, The Clash, Black Flag, and The Ramones. It wasn't clear to me how The Damned fit in with the rest of them. Unlike many of their fellow punks, The Damned were not very political. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if The Damned were punk.
Yet there they were at the center of England's formative punk scene, which had largely been constructed on a platform of sociopolitical distaste and a hatred of disco or virtually anything endorsed by the prior generation. I think The Damned probably embraced disco, depending on which members you asked.
Quickly, I decided this didn't matter. The Damned were (and still are) fun and different, and 17-year-old me spent many nights and weekends with their records and singles.
Although a collection of misfits, The Damned could play their instruments well. They were also among the first from that era to release a single, "New Rose," in 1976, and the first to release a full-length LP (Damned Damned Damned in early 1977).
In singer David Vanian, The Damned had a crooning, theatrical, black-cowled frontman who many would agree was possibly a real vampire.
Bassist Captain Sensible, who now plays guitar for the band, was typically a jerk at shows, dressed in wacky outfits (and even occasionally nude) and was frequently at war with himself, the band, and the audience.
Evil Spirits is The Damned's 11th album and their first since 2008. It comes one year after their 2017 U.S. tour to celebrate their 40th anniversary. The tour stopped in Dallas at the House of Blues, where they plowed through a set of classics, but probably the most memorable element was seeing Sensible hilariously enthroned on a toilet, having broken a rib a couple weeks earlier in Toronto.
It's a sign of the times in the music industry that the band resorted to a crowd-funding campaign to release Evil Spirits — and a sign of the loyalty of their fans out that the campaign was successful.
Music lovers win because Evil Spirits is a surprisingly good album. With 10 new tracks, the band whirls and rips through a pleasing sampler of classic Damned, summoning vintage releases such as The Black Album (1980) and Strawberries (1982).
At the producer helm is Tony Visconti, a fellow old-timer best known as the longtime collaborator of David Bowie. Original bassist Paul Gray rejoins the band; although he performed on reunion gigs in the '80s-'90s, he hasn’t recorded with The Damned since 1982.
Vanian's voice is as strong as ever. Onstage, he's one of the coolest men alive, having lost none of his swing or swagger. (On their new video for "Look Left," he and Sensible appear pretty much as they have for the last 20+ years.)
On the title track, Vanian sings, "Feels like nothing's changed," while Sensible echoes his sentiment, chiming in with signature leads on guitar. "Procrastination" is a call for action, with Vanian reminding us that "Time waits for no man, but it's only an illusion," over playful keyboards by Monty Oxymoron.
Evil Spirits won't likely be my favorite Damned record, but it's good enough to be instantly recognizable and enjoyable — a fun balance between serious and self-indulgent. I give them credit for keeping it going as the last-remaining band from an important era, and their enduring role as lovable oddballs still manages to put a smile on my face.