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The Damned’s Original Lineup Performs for First Time Since 1991

Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible, Brian James, and Rat Scabies buried the hatchet at tour-opening gigs in London
Photo: Wes Orshoski

After two years of pandemic delays, the original lineup of the Damned played its first shows in more than 30 years Friday and Saturday in London, ending one of the longest-running feuds in punk rock history. It went off without incident, a shocking development even for the band itself. “We did it! And nobody died!” bassist Captain Sensible said with a laugh near the end of the first show.

Full throttle, rough and ragged, Friday’s show was part class of 1977 London fan reunion and part bucket list experience for generations of Damned disciples who pined for decades for Sensible and drummer Rat Scabies to bury the hatchet. And bury it they did by stepping onstage together at the Eventim Apollo with singer Dave Vanian and guitarist Brian James for the first time since 1991. Saturday’s show ended with Sensible and Scabies alone together embracing at center stage.

The band played the same set both nights, and as expected, the 21 selections were drawn from the first two albums, 1977’s Damned Damned Damned and Music for Pleasure (the only ones to feature these four members). Fans assembled from around the world to the former Hammersmith Odeon, with some dressed in brightly colored furry jackets and nurse’s uniforms in a nod to Sensible’s iconic early punk stage costumes.

After openings acts that included the Skids and T.V. Smith of the Adverts, Scabies’ kit was revealed to be an almost perfect recreation of his iconic torn and destroyed Damned kick drum head (adorned with a dangling rat skeleton). To the right was James’ red Gibson SG and Marshall amps — the sound that created the early Damned.

The Damned’s Brian James. (Credit: Wes Orshoski)

Considering the Damned was initially born from James’ songs and vision, it was perhaps appropriate that he, in full white light, walked onstage first alone, quietly strapping on his guitar. Punk’s answer to Keith Moon, Scabies, who has been dearly missed by many since leaving the band in the 1990s, stepped out next and was immediately greeted with a huge roar as he reached his kit. Sensible was next, then Vanian, and without ceremony, the quartet launched into a blistering cover of the Stooges’ “I Feel Alright.”

With the stoic James grinding out riff after gnarled riff, the seemingly ageless Vanian darted back and forth, doing his best Elvis shimmies and whipping the mic cord, his voice as strong as ever. Scabies struck familiar poses, raising his arms and pausing momentarily before bashing the cymbals at the end of several songs as he used to do in the band’s early days

The vicious “Neat Neat Neat” exploded like a bomb 13 songs in. Saxophonist Mike Smith joined in both nights for a pair of tunes (a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Pills” and “You Know,” which he helped transform into a Stooges-like romp). The iconic “New Rose” was saved for the first of a three-song encore each night.

If Sensible tempered his normally larger-than-life persona on Friday night, he put all that energy into his bass playing. When James quit the Damned in 1978, he dissolved the group. It wasn’t long after that Vanian, Scabies, and Sensible decided to reform the band without him, but with Sensible ditching the bass and emerging as the band’s new guitar hero on hits like “Love Song” and “Smash It Up.” For these shows, the Captain was back on bass and played it with power, attack, and a perfectly gritty tone. When he turned to face Scabies and the pair fused together as a rhythm section, it was clear to the audience what a rare sight they were seeing.

The Damned onstage in London. (Credit: Wes Orshoski)

While forever in the shadow of fellow original U.K. punks the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the Damned was the first of that class to release a single (“New Rose,” 1976), the first to release an album (Damned Damned Damned, 1977) and the first to tour America.

The Damned also owns one of the most convoluted histories in rock, with multiple members leaving and rejoining over the decades. The original four have reunited with success in the past, but their last gig was in Washington, D.C. in 1991, a tour that saw James leave mid-itinerary after a fight with Sensible and Scabies.

Over the past 25 or so years, Sensible and Vanian have remained the only original members. And in that time, the relationship between Sensible and Scabies soured to the point that fans had given up on ever seeing the four of them play live again. As such, the sight of Sensible and Scabies hugging onstage was almost unimaginable.

Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies. (Credit: Wes Orshoski)

In the lead-up to this reunion, Sensible said the animosity had become irrelevant and he couldn’t even remember what the grudges were about. Even still, the band is aware of its dysfunction. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, it ended both sets with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,” featuring the chorus “This may be the last time / I don’t know.”

The original lineup tour continues this coming weekend in Manchester (Nov. 3), Glasgow (Nov. 4), and Birmingham (Nov. 5). After that, the Damned is expected to resume recording and touring with its current lineup of Vanian, Sensible, bassist Paul Gray, longtime keyboardist Monty Oxymoron, and drummer Will Taylor.