It was either a ridiculously expensive protest of punk commodification or a blatant publicity stunt. Regardless, Damned frontman Dave Vanian didn't take kindly to Joe Corré publicly setting fire to some £5 million worth of punk memorabilia last November as a reaction to Punk London, the city's celebration of the 40th anniversary of the infamous cultural movement. In the process, the wealthy son of punk impresarios Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood destroyed such pricey artifacts as an ultra-rare Sid Vicious doll and, perhaps less appealing, a pair of pants worn by Johnny Rotten.
"Wasteful, just wasteful," tuts Vanian, whose legendary and still busy combo were the first British punk outfit to release a single, 1976's bombastic genre-defining "New Rose," which sent their Damned Damned Damned debut album (recently reissued) rocketing into the UK Top 10. "If he was going to make a statement, why didn't he just donate all the money to a good cause of some sort? I think it was a big publicity scam, actually, and that doesn't sit well with me."
Besides, figures Vanian, why shouldn't London be able to trumpet a sound and fashion style that helped define the city four decades ago? "If people want to say it was a great time and admit that something good came out of it, that's fine. It's only bad when you exploit it and make money from it," he adds, delivering one last dig, "which is obviously all Malcolm and Vivienne have ever done."
The Damned's classic lineup consisted of Vanian, Stooges/New York Dolls-influenced guitarist Brian James, drummer Rat Scabies, and bassist Captain Sensible. And while Sensible is still involved, the membership changed almost as often as the group's sound, including a grim mid-'80s Goth phase.
"We've never written anything to a formula for any particular reason — it was just that we were exploring that kind of music at that time," says the singer, who through PledgeMusic is crowdsourcing financing for the next Damned disc, which he promises will be much more psychedelic. "So we don't sit there and go, 'What exactly is this album going to be?' It generally writes itself after a while, and we never know how it's going to turn out."
The Damned spent much of 2016 on the road, commemorating its own 40th anniversary, highlighted by a gala gig at Britain's Royal Albert Hall and worldwide screenings of director Wes Orshoski's in-depth documentary The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead. Vanian has also kept busy with soundtracks, a rockabilly side project, and briefly hosting a cable-network horror show. The rest of the time, he lives a quiet family life with his wife of 21 years, Bags/Gun Club/Sisters of Mercy bassist Patricia Morrison (who has also joined The Damned from time to time) and their teenage daughter Emily.
Vanian says the original punk movement was much less homogenous than it's been made out to be. "There were no restrictions to what you did, or where you got your influences from," he recalls. "Then suddenly, it became a movement, with laws and a uniform. But The Pistols, The Damned, and The Clash? The only similarity was that we were all young kids, just trying to do something with our lives. And do it in a way that people took notice."