By the time musical movements are given a name, their moment has passed. This is true whether you’re talking rockabilly, the British Invasion, or punk rock. Forty years ago, bands such as X in Los Angeles and the Damned in England were codifying what punk meant long before it had a uniform or defining sound. Like first children, they set the rules for subsequent generations.
“When [punk] started, it had no name, and it was all kind of eclectic music,” recalls Dave Vanian, lead singer of the Damned. “In a way, when the name went on it, it started to get regimented into parameters and laws, like you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that."
On October 22, 1976, five weeks before the Sex Pistols released “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the Damned issued punk’s first single, “New Rose” (backed with a hyperspeed version of the Beatles’ “Help”). Four months later, in February, the band released a debut album, Damned Damned Damned, again ahead of the Pistols.
That album is a warp(ed?)-speed rumble through weaponized Chuck Berry riffs and snotty insouciance. In goes from the gun-bereft wannabe assassin of “Neat Neat Neat” to the self-explanatory “Stab Your Back” and “Fan Club,” where Vanian seethes indulgent indifference: “I’m just another one-night stand/Anyway, I don’t know why I’m sad/For my fan club.”
Vanian met Damned drummer Rat Scabies in a combo arranged by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren featuring pre-Pretenders guitarist Chrissie Hynde. It went nowhere, so Scabies introduced him to the Damned’s guitarist/songwriter Brian James, who shrugged and said Vanian “looked like a singer” maybe because of his clothes.
“The most comments I would get at the time was, 'Why are you wearing all black? Are you going to a funeral?'” Vanian recalls. “Everybody else was getting that spiky-hair-and-torn-clothes look, and I was going the opposite way, kind of Edwardian. That was always the thing I loved. It suited me. I didn’t want to look like anybody else.”
It came with costs: Vanian had to buy a car he didn’t really want or need. “I kept getting in fights on the trains that I would ride late at night,” he recalls. “I was like, 'Fuck it.' I was fed up with it, so I went and bought a hearse.”
The Damned found a second home in Los Angeles, which was undergoing its own punk renaissance with acts ranging from surf punks the Skulls and Agent Orange to rockabilly-inflected bands the Blasters and the Flesh Eaters to punk satirists the Dickies and the Weirdos.
“L.A. sort of adopted us immediately,” Vanian recalls. “When you played in NY, it was very much a case of ‘OK, now impress us,’ whereas L.A. just went crazy... New York was almost like mourning, all dark colors, and when you went to L.A., it was all wild colors and wildness, like you were let loose in a bizarre trippy Gidget movie.”
Arguably the finest band to emerge from that first L.A. wave was X, led by the female/male voices of Exene Cervenka and John Doe. Guitarist Billy Zoom played like a bottle rocket set off in a '50s Fender factory, turning that early Bill Haley/Buddy Holly rockabilly sound into spark-spitting flywheel.
The lyrics spoke to a sense of disconnection and emptiness that permeated suburbia like TV signals, from the spiritual blanching of “Los Angeles” to perverted rich tales of “Sex & Dying in High Society” and overly persistent creeps (“Once Over Twice”).
“Punk rock did start out as anti-superstar, anti-hero," says Cervenka, who moved to Los Angeles from Tallahassee and joined X. "It started out of the people, no different than Woody Guthrie playing at a Union rally. It wasn’t artifice; it was about reality and being real.”
Zoom survived his second bout with cancer two years ago, almost scuttling a tour that had to go on without him. They’re all happy to have him back.
“Every time we play a show, I’m more grateful than I was in my entire life because I know it could be our last show,” Cervenka says. “We said that when we were young, ‘Let’s go wild because it could be our last show; we might die tomorrow.’ Now it’s like, ‘No, we could actually die,’ and we’re a better band because of it.”
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But the Damned and X aren’t linked only by their beginnings at punk’s ground zero. The friend Cervenka joined in California in 1976, Faye Heart, shortly thereafter moved back to England to be with Damned guitarist Captain Sensible. Later she bore children to Elvis Costello's keyboardist, Steve Naïve, and one of those children recently moved in with Cervenka in Los Angeles.
“So it’s a strange story, but if it wasn’t for the Damned, my goddaughter wouldn’t be here with me,” Cervenka laughs. That’s punk rock for you: bringing people together from across the world.