Album of the Week, January 11: Machine Gun Etiquette by the Damned

DamnedMachineGEThe Damned formed in the potent cauldron of mid-70s British punk. Raymond “Captain Sensible” Burns and Chris “Rat Scabies” Millar had known each other for a couple of years in and around the circuit. When Scabies failed an audition to drum for the legendary London SS (which fostered the early talents of members of the Clash and Generation X), he and SS guitarist Brian James hit it off. They decided to form a band, bringing the Captain on board and inviting Dave Vanian — who had worked with Sensible and Scabies before — and Sid Vicious to audition as vocalist. Vicious never showed, so Vanian got the gig, and the first incarnation of the Damned was born. With a distinctively thrashy sound and a fundamental love of pop singles infused with their punk approach, they released the first punk LP in the U.K., Damned Damned Damned, and had the first punk single on the British charts, New Rose. They also became the first British punk band to tour the U.S. Tensions began to arise, however, and shortly after the second album was recorded Scabies quit in disgust. The band dissolved shortly after that, seemingly another early casualty of the Brit-punk scene. Instead, they also became the first punk band to re-form. After a series of side projects, Sensible, Scabies, and Vanian came back together, with the Captain moving to guitar and keyboards. They went through a series of bassists — including some shows with Lemmy of Hawkwind and Motörhead — before adding Algy Ward to the permanent (for now) lineup.

Title Machine Gun Etiquette
Act The Damned
Label Chiswick Release Date November 1979
Producer The Damned and Roger Armstrong
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  31
Tracks
  1. Love Song
  2. Machine Gun Etiquette
  3. I Just Can’t Be Happy Today
  4. Melody Lee
  5. Anti-Pope
  6. These Hands
  7. Plan 9, Channel 7
  8. Noise, Noise, Noise
  9. Looking At You
  10. Liar
  11. Smash It Up, Parts I & II

The absence of James resulted in a more democratic approach to songwriting and a more experimental approach to the music. While still firmly grounded in the punk ethos, the Damned played with a variety of sounds. Vanian’s energetic deadpan hit a groove, accidentally helping to create the early Goth sound. Scabies and Ward were perfect rhythmic foils, keeping things moving and intruding at all the right moments. The Captain proved a much better guitarist than bassist and his keyboard work helped define the new, improved Damned sound. The stage was set for one of the best albums of the era of British punk.

Love Song is flawless Damned. Witty, snarky, subversive, and fun, it’s an inverted tribute to romance that features such couplets as “I’ll be the rubbish, you be the bin!” Delivered fast and just thrashy enough, it’s a pop punk gem and the perfect welcome to this ride. The title track is a grumpy, skittering noise fest with shouted vocals that celebrate the “second time around.” It’s a fitting, brief anthem for the reunion of a band that has found its finest groove. And that bass line…

Vanian proves himself the master of tongue-in-cheek proto-goth with I Just Can’t Be Happy Today, an apocalyptic epic with soul. Sensible’s delightful organ lines helicopter onto the scene with stuttering glee as Scabies pounds out a flawless backdrop. The spoken-word bridge is a delight, and the organ wails in celebration. Perfect.

The Captain opens Melody Lee with a sensitive piano figure that would fit on the best Elton John disc of the period. It sets the nostalgic tone for this ode to a favorite comic strip character who was threatened with the end of her publication run. The balance of the song is a great punk protest, and the juxtaposition is brilliant. The fun continues with a rare topical song, the scathing Anti-Pope. With the Captain sharing vocals with Vanian, it’s a vicious dissection of the dark side of religion as an opiate, excuse, and opportunity to do harm. Angry but smart, it’s great punk delivered with passion — and great guitars.

Things go cinematic with These Hands, the short story of a demented, homicidal circus clown. With keyboard work that summons up images of a possessed calliope lurching toward Hell behind him, Vanian narrates a nightmare story that could be a lost Twilight Zone episode or a story from a 1950s horror comic. It’s magnificently done and shows off the band at its dark comic best. Plan 9 Channel 7 keeps with the theme, providing a loving tribute to cult horror icon Vampira and a lost age of Hollywood legends. The Damned manage to be celebratory, nostalgic, musically savvy, and hauntingly fun all at once.

Punk returns to the forefront with Noise Noise Noise, a guitar-thrash ode to its title. Featuring guest “hooligan chanting” from Joe Strummer and Topper Headon (the Clash were recording London Calling next door), it’s a great punk ode with heart, melody, and a bit of Vanian camp.

Throughout their career, the Damned have featured a number of smart, surprising covers. They’ve smashed their way through the Beatles’ Help!, sensitively re-worked Love’s masterpiece Alone Again Or, and turned in fun versions of White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane) and Ballroom Blitz (Sweet). For this album, they turn their attention to Detroit, adopting the MC5’s noisy ballad Looking At You. It’s a clever choice and shows off the Captain’s guitar smarts well on a solid, sympathetic cover. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite fit and while serviceable, provides the closest thing to a false note on this great disc.

Things return to Damned fine form with Liar, another smug punk pop number driven by Ward’s bass and rhythm guitar. Honest about its intentions with perfectly delivered irony, it’s another sterling moment.

Nothing beats the closer, however. Smash It Up comes in two sections. The first was intended as an homage to friend of the band and personal hero to the Captain, Marc Bolan. It’s quietly elegiac, showing off the beauty of a more restrained Damned. After about two minutes of meditation, things speed up a bit, as the song shifts to a noisier but no less affecting tribute to the power of song. With a surging organ line, delightful harmony vocals, and a wonderful sense of fun, it’s one of the best celebrations of rock as a power for joy around, nicely juxtaposed with a punk ethos that’s both literal and metaphorical. Nothing could capture the spirit of the Damned better, and Smash It Up brings this album to a delightful close.

BONUS TRACKS: Two different CD releases have featured an array of bonus items. They include some nice singles and B-sides from the era and some interesting alternate versions. They also distract from the seamless wonder of the original album. The bonus material is worth having, but the best listening experience is 11 tracks long and fades out beautifully with the last notes of Smash It Up.

FURTHER LISTENING: Damned Damned Damned is a great debut and a particularly fine sample of early British punk. It lacks the spirit of later albums and suffers a little from Brian James’ strong presence, but I highly recommend it for any fan of the genre. After Machine Gun Etiquette, the Damned surged forward with occasional breakups and numerous personnel changes. With over two dozen official members, the Damned have been helmed by vocalist Dave Vanian as the only constant. The Captain and Rat Scabies have each served long runs, seldom overlapping since the early 90s. The band’s sound has evolved into more of a goth-pop groove with solid playing and nice rock roots. No single album really stands out, with the offerings ranging from the almost-wonderful (1980’s The Black Album and 85’s Phantasmagoria) to the should-they-still-be-together mess of 1996’s Not of This Earth. Fortunately, the splendid two-disc Light At the End of the Tunnel provides a great overview and most of the best songs from the band’s first two decades.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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