Review by Gary Spiller for MPM
Situated on Oxford’s Cowley Road the O2 Academy is slap bang in the middle of the city’s ‘leisure district.’ To the south-east of the city centre, and poet Matthew Arnold’s “dreaming spires,” it’s a vibrant, lively ethnically diverse area.
Quite what that Victorian poet would have made of the contrast I’m not sure but it’s a lovely early spring evening and pioneering punk rockers The Damned are in town so all is good in the world for a few brief hours.
This red-brick Edwardian building has been hosting live music for decades, its year of construction, 1907, visible out front on the centre gable. Situated above three shops, originally it was a Co-Operative party hall before being transformed in The Venue in 1990 with Oxford band Radiohead shooting their video for ‘Creep’ in there in ’92. Following a further refurbishment in 1995, part funded by Radiohead, Ride and Supergrass, the building became the much-respected Zodiac.
The official launch of the Academy took place in September 2007 with in partnership with, firstly, Carling then latterly with telecommunications firm O2. Some of the best gigs to date have come from the likes of Stereophonics, Ozzy Osbourne and Royal Blood. Out on the street there’s a wide range of cuisine to choose from and mercifully I don’t succumb to a late-night fried egg and marmalade sandwich concoction like I did upon my first visit to the area as a wide-eyed teenage university student.
It’s a good few decades since that drunken culinary construction and things seem a bit more sedate now. Aside from a rubbish bin going up in flames a wee bit too close to The Damned’s tour bus ahead of doors it’s all rather orderly.
Formed, in 1979, out of the ashes of Birmingham’s punk group The Prefects, this evening’s openers The Nightingales market themselves as a post-Punk alternative rock band. Deftly suited and booted they deliver an eclectic, wondrously meandering 40 minutes of avant-garde off-kilter punked-up fury. From gritstone Wedding Present riffs to Hawkwind-esque physch elements via a healthy stomp of The Stooges it’s all wrapped up in a whimsical approach.
Following a hiatus just short of 20 years the band regrouped in 2004. Ever since line-ups have fluctuated about sole founding member and razor-sharp lyricist and vocalist Robert Lloyd. In fact, the current line-up – featuring Lloyd, Andreas Schmid (bass), guitarist James Smith and drummer Fliss Kitson (ex-Violet Violet) – has proven the longest standing and most stable coming together in late 2014.
Barely a breath is taken and there’s little in the way of interaction with the crowd save for Fliss, right at the end, thanking The Damned for having them along for the tour. This is intensity intensified from the starting gun. ‘Ace of Hearts’, opening proceedings, grabs attention with pounding artillery rhythm before the pin-sharp guitaring of the whimsical ‘Crafty Fag’ takes us back to 1983’s ‘Hysterics’ album. Rapid drumming and more than a touch of the late and, most certainly, great Ian Dury in the vocals enhance.
Orwellian dystopia swirls in ‘I Love CCTV’ whilst Lloyd breaks his stern serious demeanour cracking a quick smile at the end of post-punker ‘Diary Of A Bag Of Nerves’ as he re-pockets his harmonica. Dark industrial tones pervade ‘I Needed Money At The Time’ with a staccato six-string embracing a machine-gun output. Lloyd wryly sings “It’s just the same old cabbage.”
A truly memorable kazoo break is housed within the quirky essence of ‘Best Of British Luck’, this is an outfit that ebbs and flows as the tide. A rockabilly scent pervades ‘Watch Your Posture’ prior to Batman invading ‘Real Gone Daddy’ before the track lurches tastily into a comedy skit via a Doors inspired jam.
‘The Top Shelf’ would sit contently alongside material from The Meffs rolling into The Wedding Present fuelled ‘Dick The Do-Gooder’ with Lloyd proclaiming “I was the bringer of the rubber stamp.” This is Van Gogh crossed with Andy Warhol, all the while reverential to their roots but possessing a forward-thinking aesthetic that makes them outstandingly stand out.
Having toured across Europe throughout March punk pioneers The Damned swankily steamroller into town in advance of the release of their twelfth studio offering. Entitled ‘Darkadelic’, their first release since 2018’s top ten smash ‘Evil Spirits’ is branded “12 new songs for a Damned new world.”
Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy ‘The Man With the Golden Arm’, rumbling bass and screeching brass, heralds their arrival on-stage. Drummer, and most recent addition to the ranks, Will Taylor settles as the dapper Captain Sensible grabs the wild-haired keyboardist Monty Oxymoron in a playful armlock. Bassist Paul Gray, now well into his third stint with The Damned, is the veritable book-end to mirror the Cap’n. Sharp as a razor, in all back suit and under a trilby, ‘out-dappers’ Sensible with a touch of the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’s Hotblack Desiato emanating.
“We can turn that shit off” encourages Sensible, in trademark red beret, circular shades and striped red and black top, before adding “Hello Oxford, we’re The Damned and we sound something like this!” Ascending into the gothic noir realms that ‘Street Of Dreams’ inhabits. Soaring, rousing the opening track from 1985’s ‘Phantasmagoria’ sets the tone just right. Continuing, the haunting ‘phaseology’ of ‘The Invisible Man’ wondrously verges on the chaotic. Vanian wickedly cackles as Sensible throttles the life out of his Gibson SG. Winched in off the forthcoming ‘Darkadelic’ it’s hooky, contagious paving the way for further introductions coming from those quarters.
White spotlights burn incandescently as the net is cast into the waters of 1980’s ‘The Black Album’ netting ‘Wait for the Blackout’, that builds up to a crazed freneticism, and the irreverence of the thumping ‘Lively Arts.’
One thing for sure is that The Damned don’t do things by the text-book, they never have. “Now we’re gonna do the new album, a fine selection from” introduces Sensible continuing “Not ‘arf pop pickers!” It’s an emboldened manoeuvre that sees a slight drop in the mood, but the respect is evident throughout from the assembled ranks within the Academy.
The bulk of ‘Darkadelic’ is despatched, mainly in running order, in one hefty nine-track segment with the brooding etherealness of ‘Bad Weather Girl’ – complete with a band tech rolling around on the stage – revving along into the rocket of ‘You’re Gonna Realise.’
Latest single ‘Beware Of The Clown’, penned by the good Captain to deride what he refers to as the “conveyor belt of bozos” who lead us, picks up the pace. A red-nosed Vanian, snarling baritones, issues the warning “The circus is coming, it’s coming to town, a tent full of misfits” with stampeding menaces.
The gothic-punk of ‘Wake The Dead’ flexes its muscle stalking the graveyard. Vanian joining the animated Oxymoron as spectral keys are issued forth. The shadowy ‘Follow Me’ casts the band’s eye upon the effects of social media before self-confessed motorcycle nut Vanian plays the ‘mystery rider’ in ‘Motorcycle Man’ fully twisting the throttle. Maximum revs herein.
Nostalgia-tinged ‘Leader of the Gang’ takes Oxford upon a glam-rock stomp headlong into the bluesy noire of ‘From Your Lips.’ “That’s the new album bar one song” announces Sensible before dedicates the furious 100% punk of ‘Born to Kill’ to founding member Brian James. “None of us would be here if it wasn’t for Brian” notes the Captain. Motorhead pace and punch twists the sphericals and gets the crowd bouncing.
The crowd goes ape, pogoing unified as one, reliving the heydays in the raucous ‘Love Song’, etiquette of the machine gun. The energy advances in ‘Second Time Around’ before ‘Evil Spirits’ is dipped into with the nostalgic hook of ‘Standing on the Edge of Tomorrow.’ The gutter rat punk of ‘Neat Neat Neat’ – the first Damned single to chart – is faithful in every way imaginable with its buzzsawing nascency as fresh as it was back in ’77. With admirable control the power surges and eases with an according response within the crowd, clearly a symbiotic relationship that is unbreakable.
The Damned are far from done and produce not one but two encores to satiate the hunger emanating from the Academy crowd. Their biggest hit ‘Eloise’ – a complete owning of Barry Ryan’s 1968 smash hit – is extended in full glory. Vanian’s opulent baritone to the fore with ghosting keys for accompaniment.
Vanian playfully instructs the Captain to “Fuck off” before introducing ‘Smash It Up’ as “A song to rival Rammstein.” Sensible’s rich and abundant tones ensure the explosion that’s been threatening goes off in spectacular fashion, roaring “Yeahhhh!” Vanian leads the charge as crowd-surfers add to the mayhem. It’s raw and bleeding hearts on the sleeves sort of a moment.
In confessional Vanian states “I wasn’t completely honest with you earlier” as the hi-octane ‘Girl I’ll Stop at Nothing’ thunders with Vanian snarling and barking. Pugilistic in its spirit this new track slots rightfully into the encore, sliding right into the history-making ‘New Rose.’ Vanian’s time-honoured deadpan parody of the Shangri-las “Is she really going out with him?” is the cue for utter detonative fury. Stormy seas breach the sanctuary of the inner harbour with this full-blooded onslaught.
The Damned have, for me, demonstrated the reasons for their deserved longevity. Polished to the core with a sentient power these punk pioneers are a bloody excellent live act!
Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM