At early doors, the Academy (called The Dome the last time I lived up here- yes, I’m ancient) seems rather cavernous: by the time special guest Slim Jim Phantom and his ice-cool trio take the stage to welcoming applause, it’s considerably fuller and thus seems far more intimate. “Who saw the Stray Cats at Dudley JBs in 1980?” enquires the wisecracking drummer-vocalist, greeted by several warmly affirmative replies: with a set entirely comprised (other than covers of C’mon Everybody and the ever-popular Billy Lee Riley standard Red Hot) of classics like Rumble In Brighton, Runaway Boys and Rock This Town, he’s never in any danger of stiffing with the audience, but you can’t help feeling a little sad that whilst Brian Setzer has clearly moved on and amassed a credible solo back catalogue over the last 35-plus years, SJ’s still doing this. On the other hand, he did get to repeatedly shag Britt Ekland, so why should I feel sorry for him? And I’d certainly watch him again.
Which is of course something I’ve done since what seems like time immemorial -actually, sometime around the mid-90s, but who’s quibbling – with regard to The Damned. Like their counterparts the Stranglers and SLF, the Croydon crew tour so regularly that the less tolerant fan could potentially become extremely fed up with them: “another year, another gig”, they might say, and for certain ‘lesser’ bands (dependent, naturally, on one’s individual tolerance level) that might well be true. For me, however, it’s never been like that: every opportunity to witness Vanian, Sensible and Co in action should be viewed as a precious commodity, because no matter what you might think you’ll see, you never actually know what you’re going to get. And the current show – bolstered in no uncertain terms by the return of bassist Paul Gray – proves to be no exception.
Announcing their joy at being “back in the home of Sabbath and GBH, and they’re in tonight” (one presumes the Cap means the latter) they kick in with a three-pronged Black Album attack of Wait For The Blackout, Lively Arts and Silly Kid’s Games: one could be forgiven in briefly assuming they’re about to play the whole thing verbatim, like at the Roundhouse in 2011, but the sudden injection of Standing On The Edge Of Tomorrow – an extremely promising new track from their forthcoming Evil Spirits release – immediately pulls the rug from under that particular pair of spiky Goff winklepickers. Conjoining all the best elements of their melodic punk, darkwave and psychedelic styles, with backing ‘aaaahs’ aplenty from Sensible, Gray and Monty, it also sets the tone for much of what follows: one hidden gem after another, not once pandering to the obvious.
Sure, they play New Rose, Ignite, Eloise, Neat Neat Neat and Love Song – what sort of Damned gig would it be if they didn’t – but there’s also room for Under The Floor Again, Dozen Girls, Stranger On The Town, Generals, and Gun Fury, all originating from their much-underrated Strawberries opus. These fit nicely alongside a ferocious Anti Pope (Monty, as ever besmirched by the lack of keyboard duties in said song, bestriding the stage like a leaping loon) an ever-welcome trip down the Street Of Dreams and a mega-rare outing for debut album deep cut All Messed Up: conversely, not one album between Anything and So Who’s Paranoid, nor their oft-overlooked sophomore effort Music For Pleasure, is represented in the set, and there’s no room for my personal favourite Melody Lee, but even in punk rock, I guess there’s only so much you can squeeze into 105 glorious minutes.
Besides, given the choice, I’d rather have this Damned than the box-ticking incarnation I saw several times in the late 90s: Gray’s reappearance, supplying both incredible bass-playing and floppy-hatted charisma, has entirely upped their game, allowing them to rework material (Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, for instance) in which his most recent predecessor Stu West had hitherto displayed less interest. His presence has also reclaimed the much-needed middle ground betwixt the ever-sarcastic, looning Sensible and the uber-cool, unflappable, Ovalteenie-mike-toting Vanian: the latter even bursts into laughter on two occasions, and you don ‘t see that very often. Inserting a further brace of newies at strategic junctures, and finishing with the customary Smash It Up followed by a thrumming encore of Jet Boy Jet Girl (possibly the only two inclusions I would have happily laid stake money on) the quintet maintain their Goffick punk crown with aplomb: yet as ever, the dominant mood is not one of insurrection or anarchy, but of appreciation.
Sure, tonight’s audience, as earlier observed by Phantom, contains Goths, punks, skins, crusties, Mods, rockers and rockabillies in equal abundance, but with their flawless, peerless grasp of pop melody and psychedelic construction, overlaid by Vanian’s crooning vocal, the Damned exist on a level unbound by any genre. While one hates to use the term ‘classic rock’ to describe anything so subversively beautiful, in many respects that’s precisely what they are: a truly great British band like their heroes the Kinks, The Zombies, the Small Faces and The Who. And if we too are damned, at least we’re never downhearted: if there’s one slight sadness felt, it’s in knowing they’ll only be truly appreciated by the ‘mainstream’ after they’re gone, but who cares about those cunts anyway?
“Which silly bastard thought of organising a tour in February, it’s fucking freezing!!” opineth Der Kapitan shortly before we file to the exit: he’s right, but you can guarantee we’ll all be back in 2019. In an uncertain world, it’s nice to know there’s at least one uncertainty you can rely on.