“The first Stooges album I heard was the Funhouse album. I would have been about 19 at the time, and it was so instant and to the point and between the ears that it totally knocked me for six.” – Brian James, in a 2007 interview.
Kronomyth 1.0: NEVER MIND THE SEX PISTOLS, HERE’S THE DAMNED. The Damned’s first album introduced listeners to England’s newest musical craze, punk music. Unfortunately, I somehow missed the introduction and wasted my youth listening to The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Clash, The Buzzcocks and The Stooges. Not that it was wasted time, of course, but it would have been a damned sight more interesting with “New Rose,” “Neat Neat Neat,” “Feel The Pain,” “So Messed Up” and “See Her Tonite” in the mix. And so, while I recognize that the world doesn’t need another review of Damned Damned Damned, if it turns one more listener onto this music before it’s too late, I’ll have gained some measure of peace. While the obvious precedent here is The Stooges and MC5 (a scorching cover of “I Feel Alright” closes out the album), The Damned’s first record is very much a product of its personalities: Brian James as the rock-steady rebel raining thunderbolts of fury, Rat Scabies assaulting his kit like Keith Moon, Captain Sensible pounding like a jackhammer on the same notes and Dave Vanian infusing it all with his ghoulish charisma. Other punks more or less followed the same formula insofar as their talents and temporary sobriety allowed, but none of them did it any better than The Damned do here. Tracking the album’s influence is a bit tricky, since the first generation of punks were a surly lot by nature. When Siouxsie Sioux says she doesn’t respect The Damned, you have to wonder if her perspective isn’t fueled by a little competitive jealousy. The band’s first album remains a punk powerhouse; every song is a punch in the gut, not one song breaks the rock & roll commandment of “get in, get out, get on with it.” Ferocity and urgency are the order of the day, with producer Nick Lowe doing his best to get out of the way and capture the band’s live intensity on tape (which he does masterfully). As good as they were, The Stooges were sloppy; The Damned are neat neat neat, as sharp as a surgeon’s knife, and the twelve cuts delivered here left a permanent mark on music.
“It was an experiment, I didn’t want to repeat the same album.” – Brian James, explaining MfP in an interview with Uber Rock.
Kronomyth 2.0: HELL AND LU, YEAH. The Sex Pistols never released a second album. The Damned did, roughly six months after the first, adding a second guitarist (Lu Edmonds) to create a thicker wall of sound. Critics panned the effort as second rate. It’s true that the material on Music For Pleasure isn’t as startling or fresh as their first, but the same could be said about the sophomore efforts from Elvis Costello (This Year’s Model) and The Clash (Give ‘Em Enough Rope)—two albums that garnered rave reviews. I guess there’s no accounting for taste, or maybe critics never did have the taste for punk. I would tell you that Music For Pleasure is a roadrunner of a record. It’s a different record than their debut by design and, I suppose, by necessity. The band’s first record was like The Stooges on steroids and the material had been honed and vetted by live performances. The music on Music For Pleasure was written in short order, the riffs are powerful but predictable, and the addition of Edmonds gives the music an added dimension that covers up some of the creative holes. Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason proves a poor choice for producer, inexplicably burying the singular drumming of Rat Scabies, who at the time may have been punk’s greatest drummer. What The Damned’s second album has is attitude and energy, which turn out to be more essential to punk rock than catchy riffs. The stop-and-start motion of “Problem Child” initially seems a critical misstep, but on every subsequent listen its devil-may-care attitude grows on you and you realize that not even rush-releasing a second record is going to hold down The Damned. Brian James seems more interested in expanding the band’s horizons, from the interesting dual-guitar attack to featuring a saxophone on the album’s final track, “You Know.” The second record also features more songwriting contributions from the band, including an attack on Television (the band), “Idiot Box,” written by Captain Sensible and Scabies. Although Music For Pleasure doesn’t lend itself to highlights, there isn’t a bad song on here. It does feel rushed, both in conception and execution, but the extra guitar layers compensate for some of that and, of course, this is punk music; it’s supposed to be played loud and fast and cheeky.
Order be damned, this is the first Damned album that I bought. Damn, damn, damn. Not that it’s a bad record, but the band’s original punk principles had since been abandoned for a sort of gothic Adam & The Ants sound. Like The Stranglers’ later music, the songs are often very good but the arrangements too studied. Some listeners really enjoy this record, supposedly those whose love of darkness runs only skin deep, and I can’t begrudge them their mild mucking about in the graveyards of the gentle nobility. But in my personal vision of the underworld, there’s no place for Gary Barnacle’s saxophone, no sanctuary for the nasal psychedelia of “Edward The Bear.” On the other crawling hand that wouldn’t die, “Sanctum Sanctorum” is as cold and creepy as a crypt, and the spaghetti western refugee “Shadow of Love” is done al dente. While I wouldn’t say a theme is at work on Phantasmagoria, a Poe-tic coupling takes place on “Sanctum Sanctorum” and “Is It A Dream.” Vanian’s vocals are a little precious, like Ian McCulloch, but sung with a rich clarity. (It occurs to me sometimes that musical critics are no more than frustrated, would-be sommeliers. Me, I don’t like wine and can’t stomach hard liquor, so I listen to music and drink water with a little slice of lemon in it and write suitably sour reviews.) My favorite track on here is “Grimly Fiendish,” which is pure English pop drawn from the music hall rather than the hall of the dead. Yes, it’s very silly, produced by Bob Sergeant and the band with more than a little Madness in their method. Ultimately, Phantasmagoria is a very well produced record that fits stylistically somewhere between Echo & The Bunnymen and The Stranglers. It’s a damned better sight than most American new wave bands, but a little more cuddly than an album called Phantasmagoria by a band called The Damned has a right to be.