When it comes to the Damned, there are some concrete things that solidify their place in history, most notably that they were the first UK punk group to put out a single (“New Rose”), the first UK punk group to put out an album (Damned Damned Damned), and the first UK punk group to hop the pond and tour the US. Now, as any rinkydink internet commenter can tell you, being first doesn’t mean much if what you have to say isn’t any good, so it’s even more notable that the music generated by that first lineup of Dave Vanian, Brian James, Captain Sensible, and Rat Scabies was goddamn incredible. What is a shame though is how far down the punk ranks the Damned seem to have fallen since that late seventies run of inarguable greatness, with groups like the Clash and the Sex Pistols being cemented so much higher than them in the canon. It’s entirely possible that even hardcore punk history nerds have missed a thing or two in the long and complicated story of the Damned, so the new documentary The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead from Wes Orshoski doubles as a much needed intro and a refresher course on the band’s past, present, and even their future.
Even though it’s spread out over decades, all of that internal struggle is captured well here by Orshoski, who you also did that Lemmy doc a few years ago. There are so many layers to the ways the members of the Damned (nearly 20 total) have managed to piss each other off over the years, from withholding royalties to outright not showing up for shows or just making jokes about one of their songs being covered by Guns N’ Roses, and it would be easy to mess up presenting that convoluted narrative thread. But Orshoski crams in as much of that as he can and still keep things interesting.
The most interesting thing about Don't You Wish That We Were Dead for me was the almost casual way it conveys the ways that punk rockers age. In footage from the group's prime in 1978 and 1979 you see members tossing themselves across drum kits with abandon, and Rat Scabies is generally known as the guy who started the whole “spitting at the audience” thing, so watching as Captain Sensible negotiates with a more recent crowd in Australia when they throw drinks at the band on stage is certainly a change. One former band member, only half jokingly, chalks up a cancer diagnosis to the amount of “gob” he inadvertently swallowed, and now the show comes to a full stop until whoever tossed a drink is booted from the club. I don’t blame them, but it was an interesting twist of maturation that is presented in the film with little comment.
The Damned were a band that beat everyone to the punch early on but then spent the rest of their career playing catchup somehow, and Don’t You Wish We Were Dead is an excellent intro to the long and weird history of the group that also functions as a compelling reassessment of the group in the annals of punk.
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