June 20, 2016


Let me take you back to the glory days that were the early 1990s: Bill Clinton was in the White House, I was enjoying a post-college preview of the "real world", and I was getting involved in music. More specifically, the kind of "alternative" rock promulgated by the fanzine called The Big Takeover.

(Yes, I'm still a subscriber, why do you ask?)

One of the bands I "discovered" was The Damned, who were part of the holy triumvirate of 1977 punk along with the Sex Pistols and the Clash. If the Pistols were the Beatles and the Clash were the Rolling Stones, the Damned were more like the Who, with some wild experimentation and musicianship behind some killer tunes. (I also discovered the genius of their third album Machine Gun Etiquette).

All of this is a preface for possibly one of the best music documentaries of 2015, The Damned - Don't You Wish That We Were Dead?

I'm not sure where to begin with this documentary...because it's that good. Much of it is the music, but where the documentary really comes alive is in how the Damned's approach to music differed from its contemporaries. There was as much "art" as "thrash" in their style of punk, and part of what helped was that the Damned were making noise by touring when other bands were making news.

It's also remarkable how many of the band members seem...well, remarkably down to earth. Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible are the kind of people who seem more than happy to hang out and have a drink with you (at least, as long as you pick up the tab). Even former members come off relatively unaffected by their involvement - Brian James still has some ego, but a great sequence involving Paul Gray and (the now late) Bryn Merrick - both bassists for the band - really cements how a love of music permeates this band.

It's only Chris Miller, aka "Rat Scabies", who comes off in a very unflattering light. At one point, Captain Sensible hints as business issues, and Mr. Miller looks at the camera and provides a very patronizing lecture on how the Damned record royalties are distributed. An ill-advised tour with Brian James provides the only wince-worthy moment (their lead singer....well, let's just say that for ten seconds, you'll be in physical pain), and at the end, Miller just rails in bitterness. It's not a pretty sight....but it's one of the most honest moments in the film.

The Damned - Don't You Wish That We Were Dead also contains some great character moments: Captain Sensible discussing hijinks when cleaning toilet, David Vanian revealing more than you would expect from his performing persona....this is as much an entertaining film as it is a thorough documentary.

This one's a keeper. Watch it, especially if you really like music. It's nostalgia without the sappiness.

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