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Monday, March 5, 2012

The Damned, "Machine Gun Etiquette"

The Damned
"Machine Gun Etiquette"
Chiswick (1979)

1001 Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die

When punk rock became "punk rock," there were two bands at the forefront. In America, there was the popular Ramones and from England, The Sex Pistols. Iggy Pop is now considered the "godfather of punk," but at the time The Stooges were just performing raucous rock 'n' roll. Punk is now almost-defined by the stereotypical three-chord structure of the two previously mentioned bands, but that model died (only to be revived in the late '80s). No, early punk was full of groups that didn't mind stretching the genre's boundaries. The Damned were one of those bands, and "Machine Gun Etiquette" was its flagship record.

First, there have to be distinct elements of punk rock for something to earn the genre's acceptance. The Damned have plenty to qualify. First, and most importantly, there's the rebellious attitude. "Anti-Pope" is an obvious example, poking fun at churchgoing folks, and "Liar" borrows an unsophisticated approach to narrative from The Ramones. Other very punk touches include call-and-response style vocals for tracks like "Machine Gun Etiquette" and "Noise Noise Noise," and drummer Christopher "Rat Scabies" Millar's abuse of the crash cymbals.

On the other hand, the band takes moments to get away from the punk moniker as well. Opening single "Love Song" sounds like a punk track instrumentally, but the lyrics are as fluffy as anything in pop music. The happiness is short-lived, but the mood of gloom takes on other forms throughout. "I Just Can't Be Happy Today" sounds like a predecessor to goth rock, and "Plan 9 Channel 7" is post-punk before the genre could really exist. The bridge during the cover of MC5's "Looking At You" leans toward jam session, almost the ultimate irony in punk. Almost.

The album's closing track and most enduring song, "Smash It Up," is a two part song. The first is the ultimate punk irony, an instrumental. Part two muddies the water further. The musical approach is removed from punk, or at least the punk we expect after hearing songs like the title track, but the lyrics are the most telling on the album. Vocalist Dave Vanian calls for "smashing it up" and other anarchic behavior, while at the same time calling out the hippie culture for its passive approach to reform. Basically, the the most "pure" expression of the punk attitude.

"Smash It Up" is important, because although it keeps a foot in multiple genres, at no point are The Damned wishy-washy about it. Many bands had no qualms about expressing skilled musicianship within punk (namely the American hardcore bands) but few embraced jumping boundaries like this group.

INTERESTING FACT: The Damned combined with heavy metal band Motörhead to form the supergroup "Motördamned." The project only got halfway through recording a few songs, none of which were officially released. One track was to be a cover of The Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz."

Smash It Up (Part 2) by The Damned on Grooveshark

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