Laser-focused on The Clash or the Sex Pistols, punk history might have forgotten one of the most influential bands of all. The Damned were the first to put out a punk single in the U.K. Even before the Sex Pistols’ ill-fated 1978 U.S. tour (or The Clash coming to America a year later), The Damned already had nearly a week’s worth of gigs at CBGB, alongside Patti Smith and The Dead Boys, notched away.
Recently screened for a second round in the U.S. before its May 20 release (on iTunes, DVD and Blu-Ray), “Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead,” tries to make sense of the band’s convoluted tale of in and out bassists, and a long, tumultuous relationship with drummer Rat Scabies and original guitarist Brian James, who penned most of the band’s first two albums, Damned, Damned, Damned and Music for Pleasure. It’s not an easy tale to tell, but director Wes Orshoski (“Lemmy”) manages to truncate the main bits while paying homage to the seminal punk band, from the Chiswick recording studio where the band recorded its first three albums through tagging along on a self-funded worldwide tour—all along trying to make sense of where it might have all gone wrong (or right) for The Damned.
“The band has been marginalized in the history of punk, which has largely been written by people who didn’t even experience punk rock’s big bang when it was happening,” Orshoski told Royal Flush. “This is sort of a lest ye forget sort of project, reminding people that The Damned were the first British punks on wax, the first to come America, the first to put out a single and an album.”
The Damned documentary journey started in August 2011 when Orshoski was asked by the band’s drummer Pinch to shoot their 35th anniversary performance. Fresh from documenting the life and times of metal’s biggest punk, “Lemmy,” who coincidently filled in as The Damned’s bassist for a handful of gigs back in 1978, an anniversary show wasn’t enough. The Damned story had to be told.
And it wasn’t without difficulty. Orshoski funded the film entirely, from months in the U.K., Australia, Asia or wherever The Damned may have gone, to getting mugged with guitarist Captain Sensible in a Croydon train station and working with some reluctant band members.
“Everything about it was super difficult, from finding the money to make it to getting mugged while shooting in London,” said Orshoski, who also had band members working against him at times and fought to get Scabies and James on board. “This is a film that didn’t want to be made, one that I sort of forced into existence.”
This isn’t an all-inclusive pass into the life and times of The Damned. It’s not a chapter-by-chapter look at Strawberries, The Black Album, Phantasmagoria, nor a dissection of every Damned song. “Don’t You Wish That
We Were Dead” (a title pulled from a “Machine Gun Etiquette” lyric, the band’s third album), is a tightly spun novel about a punk band that, at times, were not whole but still managed to stick around.
Mick Jones, Jello Biafra, Dexter Holland, Don Letts, Gaye Advert and more who lived through it with the band rehashed memories, while others shared how The Damned helped catapult their own music. “The first record really taught me to attack when I play music,” said Duff McKagan.
There’s no answer to why The Damned may have been forgotten. Perhaps it was Dave Vanian’s darkly demeanor or a tutu- and faux fur bodysuit-wearing Sensible, but lack of U.S. distribution might have been the real culprit in The Damned never reaching Clash status—something the band didn’t get until the mid-1980s when they had transformed into a more goth-synth component. “They weren’t being pushed on a massive scale, and as a result they aren’t a part of people’s memory and nostalgia for that era in the way that the Pistol and the Clash are,” said Orshoski.
May 20 was not only the film’s North America release date. On this day, The Damned celebrated its 40th anniversary with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. (The band’s first gig was supporting the Sex Pistols on July 6, 1976 at the 100 Club in London.)
Back in 1977, the band was deemed “not suitable” and banned from playing the Royal Albert. Times have changed. The Damned “ban” has been lifted, and the band played on.
“I want them to come out of the cinema feeling as though they were at a Damned gig,” said Orshoski of the film. “I want them to learn something new, be entertained, and it would be great if it sparked debate about the Damned’s place in music history.”