The Damned singer Dave Vanian, calling from a London rehearsal studio, sounds remarkably relaxed for a man who is about to put on one of the most elaborate (and hotly anticipated) rock shows of the year on October 28—just five days from now—at the legendary London Palladium.
“This is a big one,” he says of “Night of a Thousand Vampires,” a show that promises to blend a Damned concert with extravagant theatrics from collaborators Hammer House of Horror, the famed film production company. He is careful not to reveal too much about the show—but he does disclose that it will include “an 8-piece string section, a strange aerial act, and some songs we’ve never, ever played [live].” It will also, he says, be unabashedly dramatic because “I love old theater and that kind of magic. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
“I’m hoping, if it works out well enough, I might try and bring it to the States, but each show will be totally different, it will never be the same. Eventually, I’d like to expand it into an immersive experience, with actors—and maybe even a play that runs through the thing.”
However, only the audience members at the sold-out show will get to enjoy this spectacle, as there are no plans to live stream it or record it for later release. In other words, as he says, it might be “one of those things where, if you’re lucky enough to see it, you see it, and if you don’t, you just hear about it.” He is fine with keeping this event exclusive to the performers and the people right in front of them. “I miss when you used to experience something in a room with a lot of people and then you’re the only people who’ve ever had that experience. There was something a bit more special about it.”
Speaking of playing to a lot of people, The Damned recently performed at New York City’s fabled Madison Square Garden (sharing the bill with The Original Misfits). Vanian was, apparently, equally unflappable about that show. “I went onstage with the same mindset I would have in a club with 200 people, to be honest,” he says, adding, “I prefer slightly smaller venues, I must admit, although that [MSG show] was fun to do. I like old gothic theaters, rather than the big stadiums, which are nice to see a band at, but a bit soulless.” Still, he’s glad he had the chance to perform there, finally: “I can tick that one off, that I’ve actually played there, which is lovely. Everybody in the past, from Jimi Hendrix to the Beatles and Elton John has done it.”
At this point, there’s no question that The Damned deserve to join that list of iconic performers, thanks to their long and legendary history. “We’re coming up to 44 years [together], which is ridiculous,” Vanian says, amused.
He may joke a little about it, but there’s no doubt that he and his bandmates take well-deserved pride in their work. They will release Black is the Night, a 39-track “definitive anthology” that will be released on November 1—and unlike with previous compilations, this time the band members themselves chose which tracks to include. There is also one new track, the majestic “Black Is the Night,” which was included “so you’ve got a track that’s completely new and fresh, and hopefully shows we’re still relevant and not just a bunch of old farts!” Vanian says, laughing.
“Hopefully people will be happy with the whole thing,” he says, explaining how they chose to group the songs by style type, rather than chronologically, because “That’s how you used to play records, you always had your favorites when you were getting ready to go out for the night, the uptempo numbers that would get you in the mood—and then another [style] for when you’re more relaxed. I think it works really well.”
It certainly showcases just how diverse The Damned has been over the years. “We don’t just do one song that sounds like the next one. We’re all very varied in our musical tastes, and it all goes in a massive melting pot, and we mold it until it becomes a Damned song. It shouldn’t work, because none of us listen to the same kind of music, and we’ve all got different attitudes to it all, but I suppose we’re quite democratic, so it works out OK. We appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and cover whatever you have to, and it works so well.”
Looking back over their history, he is particularly proud of their innovative and adventurous spirit. “Some songs have weird things on them because when we first did them, there weren’t synthesizers available, so you had to make up sounds yourself. We used to do things like raid the kitchen to find things to make noise. I remember, when we first did the demos for ‘Curtain Call,’ Captain Sensible (guitarist) and I actually made the sounds of the seagulls, because we didn’t have any seagulls [sound effects]. So we’re going, ‘Ah, ah, ah!’” He laughs at his over-the-top seagull mimicry, but then grows more serious as he ponders whether modern technology has perhaps put a damper on this type of creativity.
“In our day, you had to be in an expensive studio because it was the only place you could actually put the stuff on the tape. And now you just have a computer and plug in and bam, you’ve got a good tune, hopefully. I think technology is great, but it does make people a little lazy sometimes, because it’s so easy: ‘Oh, I need this,’ and you just press a button. I think sometimes the fun is in not only trying to find the sounds, but also accidents that happen that you never expect, and they sound better than the idea you had, maybe. Whereas, if you have a machine, you want seagulls, you press a button and there it is.”
He certainly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to creating songs that will stand the test of time. In fact, The Damned inarguably made history right from the start of their career: their debut single, “New Rose,” was the very first punk song ever released. But, Vanian says, they initially had no idea that what they were doing was so unique.
“When we started, we didn’t think of it as a movement. I think we just saw ourselves as a band that was a continuation of that sixties American sound that came out with The Doors, and then later, MC5 and the Stooges. Before it was coined punk, it didn’t have a name for a few months. We were just a band, [but] I guess we had the whole [punk] attitude and the stance. The very first interview I did was with Sniffing Glue, a small fanzine here in England, because papers wouldn’t write about us then. And they asked me what The Damned were, and I said, ‘Well, I guess we must be a garage band,’ because that was the closest reference that I could think of. Of course, ‘garage band’ means something totally different now.”
But even though Vanian wasn’t aware that The Damned would become one of the most groundbreaking bands that has ever existed, he sensed right away that they were doing something special. “All I really knew is, I loved what I heard when I was first in a rehearsal room with Brian [James, the band’s original guitarist and songwriter]. I thought, ‘This is great!’ I was blown away by it. But to be honest, you didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. We did the [debut] album in a week, basically, and it was all very much on the cheap. Everything was very fast. You didn’t have time to analyze it, but you had time to enjoy it.”
However quickly they attained fame, the band have certainly paid their dues, particularly in the early years. “Things happened to us,” Vanian says. “Like, when we first came out to America, we were supposed to support Television, and that fell through and we were stuck in California with no money, no gigs, and we all slept on the floor of another band for a few days while our manager ran around trying to get us a couple of gigs to pay for us to go home again!”
He is grateful that it has all paid off and says that he has no problem performing those same songs more than 40 years later. “I can honestly say, I don’t actually get tired of the tracks. I should, because I don’t know how many millions of times I must’ve done “New Rose” now. But I always get a little smile when I hear that drum beat come in—it’s such a good song. I mean, Brian [James] wrote that, and I think it’s just a perfect song, really. Other tracks have different memories. Some of them will be a specific place or date, and what fun it was creating them in the studio.”
As enjoyable as it may be to reminisce, though, Vanian has no interest in indulging in such nostalgia for long. “I’d rather not be resting on my laurels yet. I don’t just sit back and think, ‘Well, I can play “New Rose” and “Neat Neat Neat” and “Smash It Up,” and then that’s great.’ I actually prefer it when you do a gig and no one knows what the hell they’re going to get, and you don’t know what the reaction is going to be. I like it when there’s this frisson in the air, this excitement of, ‘They may hate you,’ and you’ve got to prove your worth. You can only do that by challenging things a little bit with new material.
“It’s what we’ve always done. We did it first with ‘Curtain Call.’ It was a ridiculous thing for a band that were famous for writing three-minute songs to suddenly do one piece of music that is really quite overblown and 18-minutes long. It was kind of, ‘Ah, hell with it, we like it, let’s see what happens.’ It was the same thing with “Eloise”—it’s one of those that the diehard fans were, ‘Oh, don’t know if we like this,’ and now it’s the one they want to hear. As a musician, you’re always wanting to go forward and always work toward new things.”
To that end, The Damned are already working on another album, which they plan to release next year. As always, Vanian says the band plans to take a broadminded approach to the writing and recording process for this next release—and he hopes that listeners will be equally open-minded to whatever they create. “The message that we’ve always had is, whatever you listen to, you shouldn’t be blinkered, you should listen to anything. We never had those rules where, ‘You shouldn’t listen to this because you’re into that kind of music.’ There’s value in all kinds of music. I’m not against any form of music. I won’t stand there and say, ‘Oh, God, I hate all that, that’s crap,’ because there’s always something there that’s interesting. You may not like something, but someone might have put their life blood into that. That might be their whole existence, that piece of music. So, I can put worth on things even if I don’t like the music.”
Vanian says that they’re still so driven “because we’ve never made it properly yet, so we’re still blindly bludgeoning our way through, thinking it might happen this time!” He laughs, then grows more serious. “Forget all the crazy antics and who we were and what we did—it’s always been the music that binds us together. That’s the important thing that’s kept us going—wanting to make music, and not just make it to fulfill a contract.
“I’d like to make some money, too. One day, maybe,” he laughs. “I mean, we’ve never lied about that, right from the beginning. It’s stupid to say you don’t want to make a living out of it, because that is your job, as well as being a love of your life. You’ve obviously also got to live. But I’ve been lucky enough to make this a paying career.”
That next album will no doubt be another fascinating entry into The Damned discography—but for right now, at least, Vanian’s thoughts turn to the more pressing business at hand: the upcoming “Night of a Thousand Vampires” show. It is, to him, the perfect way to celebrate Halloween, his favorite holiday: “I love the whole thing about it—it’s where we can become normal for a night!” he says. “We don’t do much trick or treating in England, we’ve only [recently] gotten used to it. But we’ve got a neighbor that said something very nice last year. She came to the door with her kid, and then she turned around and said, ‘You are Halloween!’ I loved that!”
Listen to “Black Is the Night” by The Damned now on all streaming platforms. Black Is the Night: The Definitive Anthology is available November 1 via BHappy Halloween From The Damned MG as a 4 X LP/2 X CD set wherever music is sold.