The Damned: Don’t You Wish We Were Dead is the fantastic new music documentary from talented fanboy Wes Orshoski, and arrives at Sheffield with quite a bit of hype and quite a lot to live up to. His last film, 2010’s Lemmy, was universally praised and attracted many of rock’s biggest names to take part. Some of those involved in Lemmy turn up again here, though this time as subjects.
Those of you that have seen Lemmy will know exactly what to expect from The Damned: Don’t You Wish We Were Dead, and in many ways it delivers and is nearly as good a film. Despite the fact that like The Damned, Lemmy himself is British and has played a massive part in the musical history of England, Lemmy is a decidedly American film. Almost all of those involved are from American rock bands and most of the film is shot over there. Being about Punk, however, and indeed its very beginning, The Damned: Don’t You Wish We Were Dead is a very British film indeed.
Though Lemmy focussed solely on one man, his life and his history, the attention here is turned more to The Damned as band (in fact, later on as we shall see, two bands) meaning that each of the characters is given only a fraction of the screen time. This is partly out of necessity to tell the story and partly out of the director’s hands. Despite this giving us a better overall picture of the band and providing many viewpoints on what has been, even in Punk terms, a very turbulent history, it does also dilute the film somewhat, resulting in a pretty choppy film that doesn’t seem to really know what it wants to say. It is all very well merely presenting us with a history spoken about by a few contemporaries and Duff McKagan (rapidly becoming rock music’s answer to Bonnie Raitt – seriously, does he have to be in every rock music film made?), but it does mean that the film tends to meander somewhat, resulting in a fairly standard (however good) biography.
What the film gets very right however is an immense reverence for the material. It’s obvious Orshoski is a punk fan, his knowledge of the genre and its history is huge, but more important than this, and this comes out as much as it did in Lemmy, he is also a massive fan of music and its history – not merely content to enjoy the songs for what they are, he is intent on learning of their stories, of where the songs and the bands that made them really came from.
In this case, Croydon, which is where we first meet Captain Sensible, founding member and guitarist, and self-styled eccentric. It’s obvious from the very beginning that Sensible, and indeed most of the other members of the band – and punks in general, wanted to be an artist first, and a singer second. He is the one constant throughout the film, providing its best material – the best performances, the most outrageous “punk” behaviour, the funniest lines (a story about a blocked toilet in a Croydon venue and his judicious use of the restaurant’s knife and fork to solve the situation one of the stand-outs. He is also the one we sense is most affected by the band’s history – the one who (one terrible solo single aside) would be most lost without it.
Like many films of this type, The Damned: Don’t You Wish We Were Dead switches between interviews with band members now and a chronological history comprising archive interviews and footage of the band live and backstage. As this history unfolds, we become aware of just how important to the world of music The Damned actually were. This history begins, as it should, with the release of the band’s début single (and also the first punk single to be released in the UK) in 1976, New Rose. This was followed by the UK’s first punk album, Damned Damned Damned in 1977 and shortly thereafter they would also become the first UK punk band to tour the United States.
A couple of things become abundantly clear to us as we watch the history unfold. Firstly, UK punk as we know it would not exist without The Damned – there would be no Generation X and, as Mick Jones himself points out, there would be no Clash. In much the same way that Lemmy embodies all of the great (and not so great) aspects of what we think a hard-living, hard-drinking rocker should be, so do The Damned embody what made UK punk so revolutionary at the time – they were depoliticised, they did not take themselves seriously and expected others not to either. But whereas Lemmy has succeeded by being just the way he wants and needs to be, The Damned found their punk aesthetic and attitude externally influenced over the years resulting in the band being torn apart by a conflict of personalities, financial infighting and the effects of years of abusing the perks of the lifestyle. How Lemmy has not succumbed to the latter is a matter for the gods to explain.
Of all of these problems it appears to be the financial difficulties the band faced that caused the most problems, most notably what many of the various members thought of as unfair distribution of profits. This aspect of the film reminded me very much of the Spandau Ballet film, Playboys of the Western World – another story of early UK musical pioneers torn asunder by financial inequities that threaten to drive the band members apart for ever, only for what turns out to be an incredibly emotional reunion. The Damned got back to together eventually, of a fashion. The split in the band resulted in a split in the line-up (something The Damned were, unfortunately, used to dealing with) with the current line-up closer to the classic one everybody loves, though even now there is a certain needle involved – we see the Captain and Vanian arguing whether or not to play “Stab Your Back”, because it was written by Rat Scabies and it’s “a nasty song”…Not very punk. We see, as part of the 30th Anniversary celebrations, Rat Scabies and Brian James reform separately and put on a gig of their own, though watching them we get the feeling that, however good a drummer and guitarist Scabies and James are, the real heart of the band is the combination of Sensible and Vanian.
It’s fascinating watching this all play out, and watching the various incarnations of the band play is always an absolute pleasure, and is one of the main draws this film has going for it – the music. For whatever was said about them in the past, and whether it was true or not, The Damned were one of the few punk bands then or now that could actually play their instruments…and play them well. It’s just a pity that their place in history is largely forgotten outside of the punk scene. Their brief attempts at going mainstream, including an awful foray into 80s goth with their lamentable cover of “Eloise” probably didn’t help them very much. This documentary then goes some way to placing them back where they belong, that is at the very forefront of the 70s punk revolution, and it does so with a raw attitude and loud noise befitting their time and style.
Wes Orshoski was at the screening doing a Q&A afterwards, and had to fend off some pretty out of place questions, asked almost tetchily, such as “Why didn’t you interview more British punks” and “Why didn’t you cover more of the band members?”…which former question prompted the rather terse response, rightly so, of “I made the film I wanted to make” and led to a rather awkward silence. This aside though, he was gracious and knowledgeable and his love of music is infectious.
Director: Wes Orshoski
Writer: Wes Orshoski
Stars: Gaye Advert, Fred Armisen, Roger Armstrong