Tortures of The Damned: “Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead” sinks its fangs into the seminal UK punk band

By on July 19, 2016

The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead — now streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — is an authorized biographical look back at one of England’s pioneering punk bands, beloved by fans (like the filmmaker Wes Orshoski) but — unlike the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Ramones, to name a few — they’ve been largely forgotten by the mainstream punk press who have managed to re-write history and ignored the fact that the Damned were there from the very start.

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The Damned — Brian James (guitar), Captain Sensible (bass), Rat Scabies (drums) and Dave Vanian (vocals) — formed the band in early 1976, and it was this original lineup who were the first to release a single in England (the ferocious “New Rose” on Stiff Records, produced by Nick Lowe and released on October 22, 1976), the first to release an album (their self-titled Damned, Damned, Damned, also produced by Lowe and issued by Stiff on February 18, 1977 (Brian James’ 22nd birthday), and they were the first to tour the U.S. (April 1977).

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They were also the first to disband (Feburary ’78) and to reform (April ’79). The Damned had briefly called it quits after sophomore album, Music for Pleasure (1977) was panned by the critics, but when they reformed, they soldiered on bravely without their original songwriter and guitarist, Brian James, releasing at least one certified masterpiece, 1979’s Machine Gun Etiquette.

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Shifting gears to add new members and along the way in the 1980s, they began to incorporate elements of goth rock, new wave and psychedelia while scoring nine Top 40 UK singles and releasing a series of fine albums — The Black Album (1980), Strawberries (1982), Phantasmagoria (1985) and Anything (1986) (those last two did not feature Captain Sensible, who had left the band in ’84).

In 1988, James and Sensible rejoined to play what was said to be The Damned’s final live show (released as their live album Final Damnation in 1989), and they reformed again, briefly, for a follow-up tour in 1991, before the band members decided they couldn’t continue on with the original lineup.

Over the years, that Damned lineup has constantly shifted with Vanian being the only consistent member, and the others coming and going multiple times, releasing more albums — Not of This Earth (1995), Rat Scabies’ last with the band, 2001’s Grave Disorder and 2008’s So, Who’s Paranoid?

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Wes Orshoski

New York-based filmmaker, photographer and writer Wes Orshoski debuted at SXSW 2015 (he made his directorial debut with the award-winning, critically acclaimed documentary Lemmy: 49% Motherf**ker, 51% Son of a Bitch).

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Lemmy

The film begins with an opening montage — set to the band’s “Neat Neat Neat,” one of the best punk singles ever released — and throughout features a lot of their best songs, whether they’re the original studio tracks, rehearsals, live performances or embedded into music videos, some of which aired on “Night Flight” back in the day.

In addition to presenting clips of the Damned in their early prime days, this documentary — shot in numerous continents around the globe over a period of three years — also captures the band as it celebrated its 35th anniversary with a world tour and found its estranged former members striking out on their own anniversary tour, while other former members battled cancer (not to mention alcoholism, nervous breakdowns, drug abuse and bankruptcy).

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The documentary zigs and zags in its attempt to tell what happened with each original member, a timeline that ends up going back and forth in time, skipping ahead or returning back to a fixed point, in order to reconstruct what happened and when it happened.

These interviews with each of the band members (former and present) always manages to stay focused on their current complex relationship with each other, letting each of them tell their own side of the story in a kind of sniping free-for-all fashion that ends up looking a little Spinal Tap-ish at times, but also serves to illustrate their curiously confounding and ongoing relationship.

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It’s clear to anyone who sees the film that they’re a dysfunctional band of brothers who don’t always get on with each other in the press, which isn’t too surprising, really, given the fact that each of them are dynamic personalities on their own. While not any of them are in particular depicted as the villains or heroes of this story, the audience gets a sense that the story is too complex to capture in a single documentary, and also some of them may not have presented themselves (as well as their bandmates) in their best light.

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Speaking of light, Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead sheds a little more light on the mysterious enigmatic frontman Dave Vanian, who one former bandmate says rises up from his bed each morning the same way the Dracula himself rises out of his coffin.

Vanian continues to tour Captain Sensible to this day — along with keyboardist Monty Oxymoron, drummer Pinch and bassist Stu West, a lineup that has remained consistent since 2004 — but he travels separately from the rest of the band on their bus, showing up ten minutes before a gig and leaving ten minutes afterwards. He’s depicted throughout as a loner who lives a kind of vampire-ish life, not really getting on with people in general.

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During an early press interview with the film’s director, Orshoski said that Vanian flew all the way to Austin, Texas in order to be part of the SXSW premiere, but chose not to leave the hotel and missed the film’s first screening.

Captain Sensible, meanwhile, left after the first five minutes, yelling out “Rubbish!” and storming out of the theater (he later came back with backpack full of candy, which he proceeded to hand out to members of the audience seated near him).

According to Marc Campbell of Dangerous Minds, when the Captain saw that Dave Vanian hadn’t showed up to the band’s autograph tent at the Fun Fun Fun Fest (2011), he grabbed a Vanian “look-a-like” who had been waiting in line and had him impersonate their reclusive lead singer, signing posters, record jackets and t-shirts for an hour and no one caught on to the prank.

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Neither Vanian or the Captain, in particular, have anything nice to say about Rat Scabies — who only keeps in touch with Brian James, at one point teaming up with him to do their own Damned Damned Damned full album tour — saying that he mismanaged their monies early on and because of this, they weren’t paid properly.

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Keith Morris

Scabies, meanwhile, has one of the more poignant moments in the film when he’s discussing their re-birth in the 80s rebirth as a goth-pop band who should have been much bigger than they were, saying: “We had everything we’d ever dreamed of; the guitars, the drums, the amps, the roadies, the success, all of it. But the one thing we didn’t have was the will to play.”

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The Captain, meanwhile, comes off seems slightly unhinged at times, with regards to both Scabies and Brian James (during a final performance in 1991 with the band for which he was the primary songwriter in their earliest days, James walked off-stage mid-set, after which Captain Sensible joked that the band’s first single, “New Rose,” was written by Guns N’ Roses — a reference to the fact that they’d covered “New Rose” on 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident?).

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Fred Armisen

The film also features appearances from some of their contemporaries and celebrity fans — people like Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders), Mick Jones (The Clash), Steve Diggle (Buzzcocks), Chris Stein and Clem Burke (Blondie), Ian MacKaye (Fugazi, Minor Threat), Lemmy Killmister (Motörhead), Duff McKagan (Guns ‘N’ Roses), Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Jack Grisham (T.S.O.L.), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Buzz Osborne (Melvins), Dave Gahan (Depeche Mode), comedian/actor Fred Armisen and many more.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.