The Damned at CBGB: The Night Punk Was Officially Born in the USA

In early April 1977, The Damned were the first no-kidding British Punk band to come to the States. They were one of the very few already notorious amongst the cognoscenti in New York.
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In early April 1977, The Damned were the first no-kidding British Punk band to come to the States. They were one of the very few already notorious amongst the cognoscenti in New York.

Being the first British Punk band to play the-already-on-its-way-to-being-hallowed-ground of CBGB, they truly inaugurated and coagulated the Punk Scene in America in spectacular fashion. They were the pebble in the pond that started the ripple effect.

For Punk, 1974, '75, '76 were years of unfocused fermentation.

In the 1960s, The Who, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, had all laid the bedrock foundations of Punk, each with specific contributions.

In 1972, The New York Dolls upped the ante visually and reveled in their raw limitations musically. In the early 70s, at the height of Progressive's obsession with Pomp and technique: ELP, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, et al. The Dolls were a crude shock to the system.

The Ramones in 1974, a band that worshipped The Who, The Stooges, The Dolls, further distilled and purified the concept: who needs lead guitar? Who needs songs more than two minutes long? Hell, sometimes, who needs more than one verse of lyrics?

But, truly, it was the explosion of Punk in England in the middle of 1976 that turned a bunch of disparate oddball bands and their jaded and alienated followers the world over into a true movement. As had been the case ever since the original British Invasion of 1964/65, the English just seemed to have a distinctly better grasp on image and packaging.

Having been down at CBGB from the start, I(can tell you) there was absolutely no commonality between The Ramones, Television, Blondie, Patti Smith, except for their distinct lack of commerciality and their determined striving for a record contract.

And, by this time, my own band, The Planets, were well-established in New York City and had major label interest, so, I was down at CBGB to check out The Damned as "competition," as opposed to being a fan boy. In fact, I was there with a chip on my shoulder. The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls, The Ramones, were all New York City bands. My town was Punk Ground Zero. As much as I dug The Damned's first single, "New Rose," an absolute Punk classic even then, these upstart co-opting Brits had me in locked in Prove It! mode that night.

Anyway, around 10pm, The Damned sauntered onto CBGB's stage for their American debut, a true Before and After moment. Yet, while there was a real crowd, the place was not packed. I was right down front and was instantly impressed by the band's almost cartoon-like larger-than-life-ness as they casually strolled onstage as if this was the soundcheck.

Actually, impressed isn't the word. Agog is accurate. I was, in fact, without a struggle, reduced to fan boy within 30 seconds.

It was as if the entire evening proceeding them had been in black and white and suddenly we were thrust into Technicolor Oz. The tingling sensation of Newness and Event and Glamorous Danger instantly rippled through the club. The opening band, The Dead Boys had done a great snarling set, full of vulgar piss and vinegar, with guitars set on stun. But, before a note was even played, by merely walking onstage, The Damned made The Dead Boys seem small, provincial, tame, and harmless.

Dave Vanian, The Damned's singer, was dressed in 19th century black-black-black, looking like a cross between a Victorian Dracula and an undertaker in the Wild Wild West. His hair was slicked back in an odd and sinister Peter Lorre way and he seemed somewhat cadaver-like from some subtle make up that made him look edge-of-gangrene ghoulish.

Brian James, the guitarist, while dressed way down in standard jeans, dark t-shirt, worn black Chuck Taylors, appeared to be stumbling around in his own little world. While actually kinda handsome, he was also somewhat wall-eyed and was using that mild affliction to great effect, appearing totally out of it.

Rat Scabies, the drummer, was in what is now classic Punk style, but that night, seemed wildly fashion-forward. His bright rust red jacket had one sleeve attached only by safety pins, and was covered with badges and small tears, his shirt in tatters, his hair, a lunatic's rat's nest version of the classic Jeff Beck Mod cut.

Bassist Captain Sensible's presence, however, was the crowning visual achievement. He was wearing a beatnik beret, ludicrously hideous cheap women's sun glasses, his hair a totally artificial day-glo red, a Love Boat captain's jacket and.. a tutu. As he walked onstage he seemed completely and manically crazed, way past fifth gear, sort of along the lines of Heath Ledger's Joker. Captain's little Beatle-style violin bass had been sloppily spray-painted solid silver -- and I mean the entire thing -- even the neck, the fretboard, the tuners, even the strings.

After strutting around the stage and openly mocking the New York crowd, suddenly, without warning or even a count in, they launched, catapulted, tore, into "I Feel Alright" by The Stooges. It wasn't the beginning of a song, it was Detonation! Their power, energy, and volume was all simply breathtaking. They slammed into the main riff (sort of a sped up version of "Spoonful") with a frantic and almost desperate ferocity. I can vividly remember sensing the whole of CBGB sort of just collectively gasping, "Holy Shit!"

Less than a minute into this opening song, Vanian started trying to loosen his fancy Dickens-era cravat and couldn't get it undone. He spent the entire rest of the show clawing and ripping at his collar looking like Dwight Frye trying to strangle himself. His oddly sullen-yet-urgent vocals matched his losing-control demeanor. He seemed possessed.

Brian James wandered around in a circle paying no attention to anything or anyone. Looking down at the floor and then gazing up at the ceiling, turning and staring at his amp as if he'd never seen it before, but playing deadly hard guitar.

Sensible spent as much time in mid-air as on the stage. It was only sheer pure luck that he didn't fall/fly off the stage. His lunatic carousing was totally heedless. He careened full force into his singer and the drum kit more than once.

Then, about three minutes into the song, Rat Scabies decided he didn't like someone down front. He jumped up and while keeping time on one cymbal with his right hand, came out from behind his kit, and started challenging and taunting the guy in the audience to get onstage so he, Rat, could kick his ass.

"Wanna get into it wiv me, ya right twit? I'll fackin' pound ya! Yeah, you, ya fackin' cooont!!"

He stood there, thwarted and seething because he had to keep playing, while the Captain and Brian obliviously bashed away. For at least 30 seconds, Rat just kept giving this guy in the crowd merciless shit. Eventually, Mr. Scabies went back and sat down and started pounding his drums even more aggressively. The other three in the band had paid no attention to any of this while it was going on, none whatsoever.

As a coda, they viciously bashed the main two-note riff of the Stooges classic for at least 3 full minutes without let up or adornment. It became trance-inducing, hypnotic. Hari Rama Krishna Krishna!

When they finally ended the song, Sensible leaped as high as he could and came down belly first and landed, center stage, full force flat on his hollow-body bass. That he didn't instantly destroy it was miraculous. I marveled at how he clearly didn't give a shit whether he'd even have an instrument to play after just one song.

Truly, this opening number was actually as almost as exhilarating as The Who doing "My Generation" back when they were pill-ed up and demolished everything like they did in "Monterey Pop".

If The Damned had walked offstage at that point, after just that one song, I would've considered them one of the top three or four bands I'd ever seen in my life. As it was, it was impossible for them to top themselves and as the set went on, the firepower and insanity slowly dissipated a bit. But, by the end of the show, it didn't matter. The Punk Revolution had officially started.

Coda: I'm very glad I went to the early show. I had some friends who experienced the late show 90 minutes later. The Damned came out on stage and announced that Mick Jagger had sent them some pies and without any warning started hurling real pies into the audience, as in, maybe 20 of them. Within 60 seconds, dozens of people down front were covered in cherry and blueberry gunk, chocolate ooze, lemon meringue, whipped cream and crust (one friend of mine had to spend $300 having her camera professionally repaired and cleaned). The band stood there, cackling and pointing at their goo-splattered victims before smashing into this mess with the same opening number, "I Feel Alright."

In retrospect, I believe they were reenacting their own debut album cover with the audience, while letting New York City know that we didn't mean jack to The Damned!

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