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The Damned - So, Who's Paranoid (English Channel)

20 December 2008

With the release of So, Who’s Paranoid? (SWP), the group’s tenth studio album, THE DAMNED have further advanced their highly esteemed but still underrated reputation.

First, some context. The Damned made history by being the first English punk group to release a single, “New Rose,” the first to release an album, Damned, Damned, Damned, and the first to tour America. To many, that largely defines their legacy. And while those accomplishments are no doubt impressive, they speak more to enterprise and hustle than talent.

Yet talent is something the Damned have always had yet never fully received credit for, in large part I think, because the group never took itself too seriously and never cultivated what could be called a proper career in the traditional sense. The group’s members unapologetically pissed off people left and right and lived for the moment, damn the consequences.

And as a consequence of the Damned damning consequences, headline skimmers and people who judged books by their covers, especially in the early years, saw a chaotic mélange of fury, defiance and non-conformity and reflexively figured that with so much chaos no significant talent could co-exist.

But wrong they were.

The key takeaway with the Damned is that there’s an enormous difference between not taking yourself seriously in terms of how you are perceived vis-à-vis stage behavior, banter, dress, presentation, etc. and not taking the creation of your music seriously. The Damned have always taken the creation of their music deadly seriously and that continues to be the case today. (Admittedly, Music For Pleasure, Anything and especially Not of This Earth leave a lot to be desired.)

SWP is extremely good and stands up incredibly well to repeated listens. In fact, it’s probably the record I’ve gone back to more than any other this year. While not consistently on par with the legendary 1977-1982 period, it strongly evokes that era — think Black Album and Strawberries mixed with generous dollops of 2001’s winning yet slightly inferior Grave Disorder all retrofitted for 2008.

If you’re a Damned fan then by all means get this. If you’re new to the group, first go to Damned Damned Damned, Machine Gun Etiquette, The Black Album or Strawberries. If you like what you hear (you should!) then by all means pick this up. If you’re new to the group and going to one of their upcoming shows, then by all means pick this up.

What to expect? Energy, melody, dark tones and atmosphere mixed within a punk/post-punk/theatric/pop/prog-rock/psychedelic/gothic inspired stew.

SWP is especially impressive when considering that the group is in its 32nd year and fourth decade of existence. It’d be easy to expect that singer DAVE VANIAN’s voice would be less than stellar or that guitarist CAPTAIN SENSIBLE would swing his ax with less authority but that’s not the case at all. I think it’s fair to say that Vanian has never sounded better. His vocals really are perfectly calibrated for the material. And gorgeous keyboards from MONTY OXYMORON are featured prominently, adding numerous shades of color to songs.

“Under the Wheels” is perhaps the best song the group has recorded in over a quarter century. Beginning fast and with an Eastern-influenced keyboard intro, the song bursts out of the gates when an unexpected set of congos is subtly overlaid. Then Vanian’s singing enters. Slow relative to the speeding drums and manic bass lines, yet skipping like a rock skittering atop a lake, Vanian’s voice hugs close to the mandate but operates in its own distinct but parallel track. PINCH’s drumming here is stellar and STU’s bass playing proudly evokes 1979’s thrilling Machine Gun Etiquette. This is the Damned at its 2008 best. Thankfully, the group has been playing this astounding song in its current tour.

The opener “Nation Fit for Heroes” also is a winner. Upbeat, jangly and featuring keyboards reminiscent of the sixties, this hook-laden song (co-written with MARTIN NEWELL of the little known and underrated CLEANERS FROM VENUS) evokes THE STRANGLERS yet is very much a Damned song.

“Diamonds” has single written all over it. Catchy, contagious, brief and melodic, it could be sneered at for so being obviously positioned to be the single. But it delivers the goods. Admittedly, it’s not one of the very best songs on the record, but it plays its role perfectly. In fact, the band was recently on national TV (CBS’ The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson), playing the 1977 classic “Neat Neat Neat” and “Diamonds” on successive nights.

There are two big surprises on the record. The first is “Dr. Woofenstein,” a slow glam-infused ditty that concerns the (not-so?) good doctor and the plans he secretly hatches in nocturnal secrecy. Musically, this shows the Damned taking major chances and saying “so there!” especially by featuring it so prominently as the third song on the record. What does it sound like? If you think spumoni is interesting — you’ll likely love this. This is more akin to SCOTT WALKER meets BRYAN FERRY of ROXY MUSIC singing “Bitter Sweet” from the superb 1974 Country Life record, meets early 1970s prog-rock meets slightly subdued German beer hall singing.

“Dark Asteroid,” the epic 14-minute finale in honor of SYD BARRETT, is really a song in two parts. The first four minutes sound like vintage psychedelic late sixties, evoking THE BEATLES and any number of groups from the day. The vocals, curiously, do not sound at all like Vanian. That may be him at a higher register but it’s hard to say. Regardless, the first half is a winner. Then the song enters another trajectory. Granted, the transition is not seamless, as was the case with the hear-stopping 17 minutes and 13 seconds genius of “Curtain Call” from 1980’s Black Album. But “Dark Asteroid” then launches into 10 minutes of free-style jamming with Captain’s guitar and Monty’s keyboards taking center stage. Though Stu’s bass playing is repetitive that’s ok. The Captain and Monty show keep things interesting and moving.

The intensely moody, gothic and SWEENEY TODD-esque (by the way, JOHNNY DEPP’s hair in that movie is a direct rip-off of Vanian’s hair style circa 1985) “Nature’s Dark Passion” is very similar to “Beauty of the Beast” from Grave Disorder. Though this obviously caters to the goth crowd, I think the song works perfectly, accomplishing what it wants. Yes, it’s grandiose and verges on being heavy-handed and overly dramatic but it’s so heart-felt that the conviction ultimately wins. Score 1 for Vanian and 0 for skeptics.

Complaints? Sure. I have some. On the otherwise excellent “Danger to Yourself,” Vanian resorts to some distracting and unnecessary vamping (go 1 minute and 45 seconds into the song to hear). Also, “Maid for Pleasure” has good music and grows in stature over time, but the lyrics lack the originality, intelligence and cleverness that often characterize Damned songs.

“Perfect Sunday” sounds good as the song progresses but never really adds up to much. Neither does, “Just Hanging” or “Nothing,” both appropriately placed near the record’s end.

That said, this record is a clear winner. And Damned fans should rejoice at the amazing fact that it’s 2008 and their favorite group not only has a winning record on its hands but that it’s also actively touring it to enthusiastic audiences.