Live Reviews

The Damned – O2 Academy, Birmingham: Live Review

The Damned – O2 Academy, Birmingham – 5th November 2022

“This could be the last time” and the shattered remains of a Hohner bass suggest it probably was.

Pardon me if I don’t quite hear you, as I find myself today, like another couple of thousand other elderly revellers, just that little short on my hearing. Any connection with the ceremonies of the night before, the closing night of the Damned original line-up reunion tour, is entirely and convincingly related, for it was a terrific and joyous din of an evening. Of course, the Damned still exist as a parallel iteration, and Dave Vanian will regroup that version and get back out on the road again soon, but the chances of this foursome sharing again a stage seems slim. Given the common knowledge of grudges and ructions between several of the players, it seems a miracle it ever happened at all, but, at face value, all hatchets seem buried, other than in each other, and the unit seemed in good spirits and congruent. Indeed, with three of the four looking impossibly sprightly, it seems hard to believe it all began 45 years ago.

My bad, with my travel arrangements cast asunder by the cancellation of the rail strike, seemingly leaving even fewer trains than if it were on, I missed the opening acts, particularly disappointed to have missed T.V. Smith. But I had, and Penetration were regaling the capacity plus crowd as I arrived. Pauline Murray and Robert Blamire remain the focus, as originals, Blamire courtesy his height and striking bass motifs, Murray for her extraordinary mash-up of who she was and who she is now. From an elfin gamine, she has become a punk granny and, no ma’am, you just wouldn’t mess with her. With only a song and a half left, I liked the look and I liked the sound, but, within minutes, she was thanking us for listening to their “very short set”, suggesting perhaps some earlier issues, unless a sly dig at the logistics of getting 4 bands on and off stage ahead the 11pm curfew.

A short gap to swap the stage, revealing a surprisingly big drum kit for Mr. Scabies and, shortly after 9.30, lights down and on they lurched. Even the earlier reviews of earlier shows had failed to conceal the shock of quite how frail seemed Brian James, helped on stage and helped on with his guitar, the looks between audience members gauging the worry that he might not make it through the performance. In a fedora, grey of locks and whiskers, he acknowledged that concern with a smile and a wave. The other 3 larrikins? Well, Scabies looked in good fettle, if bespectacled now, and he has found himself some teeth since some of the alarming vox pop appearances he has made on TV recently. Captain Sensible, thinner and thus seeming taller, his hair colour needing less colour than before, was immediately in best cheeky chappie rascal mode, still sporting stripes and a sailor suit top, sporting a natty Hohner bass. And Dave Vanian, resplendent in his trademark black, shades as dark as his swept back hair, well, he just seemed to confirm stories around selling his soul, looking barely a day over 40, and leaping around the stage, black gloved hands and black of lip.

Tonight’s MO was to recreate the first two records as faithfully as they could, not necessarily in order, but to transplant time back to the sets they may have played all those years ago. Possibly to some of the punters here tonight, many of whom looked to have had full military honours in the punk wars. Lots of jibes, from Sensible, about the then competition, mainly directed at the Sex Pistols, reminding us quite which band was first off the blocks with record deals and product, and a whole lot more. There was a feel of collective pride that the faith had been kept.

Kicking off with a wallop with I Feel Alright, the Stooges song they made their own, the first thing to notice, and throughout, was quite how good a drummer is Scabies, his fills energetic and exhausting, whilst never losing grip on the rhythm. Or the tempo, relentlessly and fearsomely fast. There were no slow songs here tonight. James, for all his apparent mobility issues, never let that affect the controlled thrashing he gave his guitar, stock still, just his hands doing his business. Sensible prowled and pranked about the stage, interacting with the audience, and playing better bass guitar than you remember. Vanian, losing his top layer and shades early on, revealing unsurprisingly blackened lids of his eyes as well, was alone in having trouble in reproducing his parts, his microphone seeming to vary randomly in volume. Not that it mattered, the audience were singing all the words anyway, and he looked every inch the part.

On through the entirety of Damned, Damned, Damned, their, um, experimental version of Help included, many of the songs seemed to merge together, sometimes with uncertainty as to when one ended and the next began, hindered a little by the tendency to add a coda to any song that went down particularly well. Which was several. I Feel The Pain I recall as being especially good, as was, at the 2/3 mark, Neat Neat Neat. The audience response to this anthem was resounding, arms pumping for the staccato chorus. Having read of how ragged around the edges had the band been on earlier performances, either they had tightened up with the practice or maybe the collective bonhomie was sufficiently transformative, as I felt them tight, competent and totally together. Astonishingly so. By now they were adding the odd song from Music For Pleasure, with Sensible never failing to remind everyone quite who was responsible for the vast bulk of the songs here tonight, namely James, with a feel of genuine affection for the band mate, whose role he effectively later usurped.

On towards the end, through a personal favourite, Scabies’ own Stab Yor Back, and bringing on a saxophonist to reprise the deceased Lol Coxhill parts for the skronkfest of You Know, the player then sticking around to add some dissidence to a further song. Thank you, goodnight and they were off, again, it taking a while to shift James. Which made me feel a little sorry for him, subject to the farcical rigmarole of the score experience. Heck, it wasn’t as if, surprisingly, the audience were all that arsed about raising the roof. Are we now all so conditioned to expect as to now just sullenly wait in expectation?

Such philosophising apart, back, for sure, they came, and, with Vanian asking the necessary introductory question, straight into New Rose they helter skeltered. It was a blast. To follow, a perfunctory run through Bo Diddley’s Pills, before the frayed edges of a familiar riff came filtering through. Yes, it was the much-touted and much made upon version of the Stones’ The Last Time. Within the context of this being the last night of this tour, the gravity of the song was anything but lost, few taking bets on any future opportunities. The woman standing behind me was weeping openly. Onstage, Sensible looked at his bass, looked at the audience, his face betraying the question crossing his mind. First he feigned the movements, then going the full Townshend, holding the neck and pounding the stage with the body. At perhaps the 3rd or 4th strike it eventually gave way, denoting it as proper kit, not a last-minute throwaway substitution, designed to splinter on first impact. With Vanian then delivering the various pieces to the front ranks of the audience, it seemed likely no comeback likely tonight. And, after all, will Sensible ever be needing a bass again?

Thank you Messrs. Vanian, Scabies, Sensible and James. Thank you for making it up and making it real. And, whilst I will be back for Vanian and the new mob, a show like this I won’t see again. Accept my apologies for the blurry snaps, but believe me, deep in the mosh pit of pensionable age, it was carnage!!

Damned online: website / facebook / twitter / instagram

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