These are getting ridiculous. This one took me a week to write. It’s not even that long. But I did have a good time writing it and realized I’m borderline in love with Dave Vanian.
Despite the length of time it took to write, it is timely: a post about horror punk band in mid-October. I’ve always had a soft spot for horror punk which is weird because I usually like there to be some kind of emotional oomph behind a song for me to care very much about it. What is likeable about bands like the Misfits and the Cramps is their artiness, but that’s really the best they can do for me. Be arty, and I guess “rock” or whatever. And in general they do that really well!
I don’t actually know whether it’s fair to categorize the Damned as horror punk* without a major caveat. The second half of their pre-reunions output has little to do with the first, horror-punk half. After three albums, they did the impossible, saw the writing on the wall, and switched gears, staying underground and relevant through much of the 1980s during a time when punk rock was eschewed as kinda passe. This transition was handled poorly by great bands like X and TSOL who prove that it isn’t easy or automatic. The Damned were leaning in the more gothy, post-punk direction with that third album, so it makes sense that they’d more gracefully bend into something more fashionable.
*For being such a memorable part of early punk, there aren’t a lot of bands that fall into the horror punk category cleanly. Not many would argue about the Damned, the Cramps, and of course the Misfits. Wikipedia identifies a few others, among them TSOL, which I wouldn’t have put into this category in a million years? Not mentioned in said Wikipedia article on horror punk is also the Ramones, who I would give an honorary mention here because of some of the literal horror punk songs like “Pet Semetary” and borderline ones like “Teenage Lobotomy” and “Cretin Hop,” and there’s the freak show imagery and horror comic art they weaved in throughout the years. A hot take of absolutely no consequence there for ya.
The Damned are in the pantheon of bands I got into in college, which I think like a lot of people is where I had fully formed tastes and stand by pretty much everything I was listening to at the time*. They immediately stood out to me among horror punk bands because they transcended being arty and cool by being arty and cool AND making me feel things, even though I was heavy into the Cramps and the Misfits at the time as well. I think this is because Dave Vanian really thinks he’s a ghoul or whatever. This is just my gut,** but evidence here and there points to this and I want to believe. Example: he was once employed as a gravedigger before the Damned. See? He thinks he’s a ghoul.
*In fact, four songs of the top ten on this list are by bands I got into when I was in college.
**I know very little about him and only found out just now that there’s a little-read and wildly out of print official biography of the Damned, going for over $500 used on Amazon, which as far as I can tell is the only solid source. I guess I won’t be picking it up for the season.
Let’s talk about Machine Gun Etiquette. That is a very special album. There is not a wasted second on that album. I even love the “Looking at You” cover despite borderline hating the MC5. If memory serves, before I fell hard for “Plan 9 Channel 7,” I felt very strongly about “Melody Lee,” which strikes you as a semi-romantic and sympathetic ode to the title character whose life and mind are evidently falling apart, but guess what? The lyrics are taken directly from a british comic character of the same name. Again, it’s all in Dave Vanian’s wholly convincing vocal performance. I love “Anti-Pope,” the funnest anti-religion song I’ve ever heard. I mean:
It's gonna be fun tonight
Spreading news around the town
That the vicars are transvestites
With a fetish for robes and gowns
It sounds like a fucking party, I love it so much. Before I get to the red meat here, I really need to talk briefly about “These Hands,” the best fucky clown song I’ve ever heard. I’m not into the fucky clown meme particularly. It’s a little tired. I don’t think people are really that scared of clowns, aside from actual homicidal clowns, which is really very rare when you think about it. They just kind of suck. In the song, however, I do love the intrusion of the circus-inspired music to talk about the demented circus clown and the batshit insane “hahaha hahaha hahaha ha hohohoho!” that runs the clock out at the end, followed by a snappy “STOP LAUGHING!” followed by a very effective sound effect of footsteps on gravel. Spooky.
That sound effect goes right into the introduction to the Damned’s greatest song, “Plan 9 Channel 7,” whose greatness is buttressed significantly by that rich, creamery intro. That guitar. Why is it so heavy? It is the perfect lead-in to the song because there’s such gravity to it. It’s so serious. And of course Vanian’s vocal performance makes the song as impressive as it is. It’s emotive as hell and considering the theme, which I will get into shortly, you really have to wonder where it’s coming from. He thinks he’s a ghoul. The backing vocals are also pretty key here and if my ears don’t deceive me, Vanian’s backing himself up. The very best of the vocal performance comes during the outro with an almost self-parodyingly dramatic falsetto OOOOOH-OOOOOH-OOOOH, which again I believe is Vanian himself, but can't say for sure despite watching the unofficial official video (linked below) and a handful of recent live performances. I guess they don’t do the OOOHs live (anymore?), which is really too bad but understandable. Dave, who has not settled in with age, god bless this ghoul:
So what’s this bad boy about? I assumed all this time that it was some typical long form horror punk B-movie reference but it’s far more complicated than that and I LOVE IT. The “Plan 9” piece of the title obviously points to Plan 9 from Outer Space, the B-moviest B-movie that ever B-movied. Starring in Plan 9 the film is Vampira, with whom Vanian is famously completely obsessed. But it’s not *just* about Vampira. Evidently she had a brief affair with James fucking *DEAN*, and this song is about their ill-fated affair. What the fuck? Pete and I recently discovered this grainy video that was clearly once official but is now pixelated and belongs to not one but all of us and you can really see the division between the guy probably saved the band from themselves by leaning into his ghoulish delusions and everyone else, who seem to be acting like fairly typical british punk rockers, obtusely not caring about shooting a video. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it’s a remarkable historical document.
We saw them live at the Black Cat in 2014, which looking back is fairly frustrating. It was during the week, late in October and I remember leading up, I was so excited, but I think when the time came, I was tired and we were busy and I think I had to go straight from work. They played “Plan 9 Channel 7” second and the set list was over all amazing and now that I’m profoundly NOT over going out to see live music, I’m very sad that the whole thing went by in kind of a blur. I hope they swing back by in 2023 or whatever the estimate is for things to be normal again.
I would like to make a quick mention again that I wanted to honor “Alone Again Or,” the Damned’s cover of the Love song, which was on my original draft of this list but I switched it out at the last minute because I didn’t feel much like talking about it. I recently gave Love a chance and they aren’t good, so even though the Damned’s cover doesn’t deviate a whole lot from the original, it’s a whole thousand times better and one specific piece of it that elevates it is of course the simple-but-amazing music video, here:
Now, part of the reason I love it is obvious: the spaghetti western imagery is cool, particularly juxtaposed with the 18-wheeler in that it’s an awfully expensive set piece that just seemed plopped in there*. I like it also because the video reminds me of one of my favorite Weird Paul songs, “Pot of Macaroni.” In hearing this tune, I have always imagined a beautiful woman wearing a fancy, ornately decorated dress, doing some Mediterranean-inspired dance to it. Listen to it here:
The whole combination makes me very happy.
*Though if I know Dave Vanian like I think I do, this was very intentional and has some bizarre and belabored meaning I will find out in several years and I will laugh out loud. He really does think he’s a ghoul.