The feel-good music of the Damned | The Listener | Chicago Reader

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The feel-good music of the Damned

Everything else may suck in 2020, but the Damned are as much fun as ever on their new EP.

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The Damned - COURTESY THE ARTIST
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  • The Damned

Listening to music causes our brains to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases our ability to feel pleasure and motivation. It can also positively impact heart rate (among other functions) and help control nausea, which is especially helpful when every day brings a new litany of disgusting GOP malfeasance and cruelty. Though neuroscientists believe that any music you love can trigger these chemical changes, not all songs are equal in the "feel good" department.

The Damned, who in 1976 became the first UK band to put out a punk record ("New Rose"), always make me smile. Punk has a persistent strain of purism, but the Damned have always thumbed their noses at it, adding genre twists to their records that over the years have included psych, prog, and of course goth. (What else would you expect from a group whose front man, Dave Vanian, looks enough like a vampire to have inspired a local ghost story that's lasted nearly as long as he's been a rock star?)

Plenty of the Damned's songs might seem frivolous—they're about romance or carousing, or simply tell a spooky tale—but the band always approach them with smarts and playfulness. This attitude also helps when they tackle more serious subjects, including politics (2001's "Democracy?") and religion (1979's "Anti-Pope").

In spring 2019, I got to see the Damned on tour for the 40th anniversary of their third album, 1979's Machine Gun Etiquette. I went in with modest expectations and left with my mind blown: Captain Sensible's guitar sounded perfect, and Vanian's voice seemed ageless (maybe there's something to that vampire thing after all). I was still thinking about that show a few weeks later when my life turned upside down. But even during terrible times, shuffling through the Damned's catalog—from old favorites through 2018's Tony Visconti-produced Evil Spirits, which easily stands up to their classics—could make me feel at least OK.

So in this psyche-crushing year, a new Damned EP is welcome news. The Rockfield Files (Spinefarm) was recorded at Rockfield Studios, where in 1980 and '81 the band made some of their most celebrated releases, including The Black Album. The new EP's four tracks feature three members present at the original Rockfield sessions: Vanian, Sensible, and bassist Paul Gray. Even when the songs sound bright and upbeat, their themes aren't necessarily sunny—opener "Keep 'Em Alive" incorporates Magical Mystery Tour ambience into a song about protecting the environment, while "The Spider & the Fly" tells a murderous love story from the perspective of an arachnid. Just last week the Damned shared more good news: in 2021 the band's four founding members—Vanian, Sensible, Rat Scabies, and Brian James—will reunite for the first time since 1989 for a handful of shows.  v


The Listener is a weekly sampling of music Reader staffers love. Absolutely anything goes, and you can reach us at thelistener@chicagoreader.com.

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