DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED
Sensible’s fingers roll through a stirring-beast of a bass line.
Scabies beats the drum with two awakening blows.
Vanian screams a primal howl as James sweeps in with a crushing wave of guitar.
It’s February 18th 1977 and The Damned have just released the UK’s first punk LP. Soon to follow suit are the likes of The Clash, The Jam and Sex Pistols. The land of hope and glory’s cracks had continue to widen throughout 1976 as Wilson’s government failed to halt the rising tides of economic strife, racial tension, unemployment and strikes. Discontent and dissatisfaction had risen to the surface, and they weren’t going to stay down quietly.
Twenty years earlier, the political/artistic movement named the Situationist International was fused together from a number of avant-garde groups, with Guy Debord as its founding leader. The Situationist International promoted a post-modern, Marxist thinking, damning Western capitalism, Eastern communism and the alienation of individuals in a society immersed in a commodity-driven spectacle. The group’s writings spurred on the Paris Uprising of 1968, which saw a backlash against De Gaulle’s government, as students, teachers and workers joined together in an 80,000 strong march demanding the fall of the current regime. Revolution, comrades.
Eight years later within the British punk scene, pseudo-intellectuals Bernie Rhodes, Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid chose to attack under the influence of the Situationist International, mixing image with music; spectacle with society. Jamie Reid’s work is undoubtedly inspired in part by the photomontage and collage works of Dada, much like the Situationist International. The artwork for Sex Pistols’ 1977 ‘God Save The Queen’ single sleeve appropriated easily-accessible images and subverted their meaning to create highly politically charged, thought provoking propaganda. Dadaist Hannah Höch had already used the physicality of cutting into images, texts and papers, as seen in ‘Dadandy’ (1919), to reflect the savage divisions and tearing of society which happened throughout the First World War. Höch’s work was innovative not only for its process, but also the inclusion of the discussion of women through the images she used, questioning the way the media and society promoted females in the early 20th century. Reid’s works, and other detournement works common to the punk aesthetic (such as the outfits worn by The Clash), are also derivative of Kurt Schwitters’ work, whose uncharacteristically brazen political piece ‘The Hitler Gang’ (1944) contains the same bite and fight that resonates throughout the visuals of punk.
Indeed, it would seem the genius puppet-master behind British punk culture was unquestionably McLaren the impresario.. All hail he who is welcomed into the canon. Certainly, he did have a monopoly on
the scene, and knew how to manipulate it, with Sex Pistols becoming the figureheads of punk, achieving the most media coverage, and Rhodes’ The Clash running a close second under McLaren’s influence. Immersed in the all-important visuals and lyrics of political dissatisfaction and change, it seems a no-brainer to hang the punk hat here.
But the fundamental ethics of British punk, spawning from the loins of pub-rock, are rooted in authenticity, individuality, and independent thinking. Eschewing crass political slogans, with their inevitable hypocrisies, and an image that sells were The Damned; a band McLaren hated. The Damned stayed away from a flaunted and shock-tactic image, which resulted in mainstream advertising culture being unable to absorb them as a media-based commodity. Dave Vanian’s primal howl is not a pose, cliché or an instruction: it’s a feeling, and an affinity with a zeitgeist. It’s punk. Surely, in terms of Debord’s ‘spectacle’, no one in punk would smash it up quite like The Damned.