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Ask any millennial about punk and they’ll most likely name check The Sex Pistols and The Clash, yet The Damned remain ignored and forgotten. Just look at the April 21, 2016 issue of Rolling Stone with The Ramones on the cover where “The 40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Time” are listed. Aside from the usual suspects, Green Day, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Blink-182 make the cut, but The Damned are nowhere to be found, nevermind that they were the first UK punk band to release a single, an album and tour the US. Led Zeppelin were even rumored to be fans. Thankfully, director Wes Orshoski (Lemmy, 2010) has taken it upon himself to tell their story in their own words, for better and worse.
Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead reveals dramatic, tumultuous relationships amid a charismatic cast of characters. Vocalist Dave Vanian, known for his introversion and privacy, suprisingly opens up just enough to give away his quirky sense of humor and feelings of alienation. Guitarist and early bass player, Captain Sensible, plays the class clown torn between his multiple personalities, e.g., the loudmouthed Captain, family man Ray Burns and unsung guitar god. Rat Scabies, original drummer, portrays the level-headed businessman until his dark side lashes out at Orshoski and it becomes apparent why the former two members won’t have anything to do with him anymore. Brian James, original guitarist/bandleader/songwriter, can’t seem to get over the fact that the band he created fared better without him. On the sidelines, former bassists Paul Grey and Bryn Merrick (RIP) and late ’80s guitarist, Roman Jugg, help fill in the gaps along with current keyboardist, bassist and drummer – Monty Oxymoron, Pinch and Stu West, respectively. From their humble origins as working class louts making noise through their many shapes and forms in the ’80s to the present, the band’s story unfolds, ultimately settling on the acrimonious turmoil that has kept the band apart, and, in some ways, kept it together. Much is discussed about the group’s apocryphal “curse,” though the only curse seems to be themselves. Additionally, a broader argument about punk rock is brought to the table: Is simply expressing your disgust for the current state of affairs political in and of itself, or do you have to point fingers and name names to get your point across? Black Flag would certainly lean toward the former.
In addition to the film, released on Blu-ray and DVD by MVDvisual, director Orshoski adds poignant extras that further define the psychosis of the band, from Captain Sensible’s tour of his hometown in Croydon to the true story behind why The Damned were sacked from the legendary Anarchy Tour, further distancing them from The Pistols, Clash and even Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. A live performance of “Smash It Up” from Sensible’s 60th birthday party, a segment on Doomed bassist Henry Badowski and a bit of the Captain busking on the streets of Los Angeles with comedian (and long-time fan), Fred Armisen, round out the home edition.
The Damned never got their due and they probably never will. It’s just a fact we have to acknowledge. For those of us who care, however, we now have this film to shed just a little bit of light on the cobwebbed shadows of our mysterious heroes. Well done, Orshoski. Long live The Damned.
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