The Damned are widely credited—and widely take the credit—for being the first punk rock band from the U.K. to cross the pond: first punk rock band to release a U.S. single (“New Rose” in 1976), first to release an album (Damned Damned Damned in ’76), and first to tour the U.S.
Wes Orshoski, who co-directed the documentary Lemmy, about the famed Motorhead front man, has now directed, produced, edited, and written The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, which debuted on March 18 at SXSW. As Orshoski put it, “one band, one camera, one credit card.”
If nothing else—even if you don’t know who the Damned are—it is a thrilling example of film editing, weaving live performances and interviews and “candid” moments with the band—plus brilliant set pieces like Captain Sensible talking about his prior job cleaning toilets—at the very toilets he cleaned 40 years ago—a massacre of band biopic tropes that brought guffaws from the audience.
As a piece of punk, Orshoski has succeeded. He also delved deep into the nagging beefs that have kept various band members from playing with other members, and the “curse of the damned” notion (that the Sex Pistols and the Clash fared better both in punk lore and in duckets). His stated goal to create a film about a band that was both influential and had longevity now exists as an examination and a celebration of a band that’s gone through too many incarnations to be categorized succinctly.
But perhaps the best moment of the film screening was a two-fingered punk salute by none other than Captain Sensible, who walked through the theater—seemingly right off the screen—and offered us pieces of hard candy, saying “these are the boring bits,” as the figures onscreen talked about past beefs.
At the Q &A, Captain Sensible admitted to having some trepidation at participating in the film, because “we were a fairly intense and debauched punk rock group,” but he admitted “We’re not what we were, we’re still fairly eccentric—that’s the job that we do. His humor was firmly in place as he talked about visiting a crematorium, as is Dave Vanian’s. Captain said, “I phoned [Dave Vanian] just before I left for the screening, and I said, ‘What shall I say?’ and he said, ‘Tell them I died this morning.’”
But his best line was probably the most simple: “I did walk through life with a smile on my face because, life is weird and you’ve got to enjoy it.”
We reached Wes Orshoski last week via email to talk about his film.
There’s no question they’ve been overlooked. Most of America knows nothing about them. I didn’t know much about them growing up. It’s crazy that I never heard “Love Song” or “Smash it Up” on commercial radio, even during the alt-rock explosion of the early ‘90s. They’ve definitely made an impact that has been passed on, take someone like Duff McKagan, for example. He says in the film that the Damned’s energy, the way they played with such “attack” is something that he adopted into his own style. Look at old GNR videos, you can see and feel the band’s influence… I mean, GNR even covered “New Rose.” But, also, guys like Stan and Leonard from the Dickies told me they started a band after seeing the Damned on their original tour of America in 1977.
It had an impact, but it wasn’t nearly as important as what was happening in Michigan. The Damned, the original band, is the offspring of the MC5 and the Stooges. There were other influences, Rat Scabies dug the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Captain Sensible loved Soft Machine. The Ramones obviously registered an impact on all the U.K. punk bands, but the real foundation of the songs that Brian James was writing came from Iggy and the MC5.
I’m not sure it has power, as much as nostalgia. I think John Varvatos is a saint for turning his store into a temple of rock. Makes me wonder how long his lease is, like how long do those stickers underneath that Plexiglas have before they’re covered in drywall? But what he has done with that space and the shows that they do there are incredible. Getting to see Paul Weller there was really special, considering the Jam played there in 1977. I’d love to somehow get the Damned in there as well, since, after all, they were the first UK punk band to play CBGB. New York is still New York, it’s still cooler than every city in this country, pretty much. But, yeah, for sure, the soul of Downtown is certainly fading.
The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead premiered Wednesday March 20th at SXSW; also screens Thursday and Friday.