When I first heard that a documentary had been made about The Damned, I was absolutely chomping at the bit to see it. My love and respect for this band is well known to all and sundry; listening to, reading about and hearing The Damned has always been a constant joy for me. And thinking that someone had finally taken the time and care to make a film was both a moment of celebration and the thought of “this is long overdue”. I’ve always felt that The Damned were deserving of so much more of the spotlight, the accolades, the financial rewards that the other bands from that first punk rock wave/class of ’76 seem to have been reaping in the last few years. Every time I turn around, I hear in commercials and soundtracks the Pistols or Clash or Buzzcocks, etc. – and I begrudge none of them for gaining their well-deserved place in our culture. But The Damned, who had an endless amount of talent and a catalog of splendid music, never seem to be included in this.
I don’t need to write a history on The Damned here; there’s plenty of information and facts available – and if you want to get the best “story” on the band, seek out Carol Clerk’s magnificent biography, The Light At The End Of The Tunnel, which may cost you but it’s well worth the time to buy and read. Having said that, I hoped that this new documentary, Wes Orshawski’s Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead (a line from the title track of Machine Gun Etiquette, an album that is extremely personal to me – ask and I’ll tell you why) would be almost like the logical companion piece to that book (there actually was a documentary video film made by MCA Records in the ’80’s with the same title and graphics as the book to promote The Damned), except filling in all the gaps that would need to be addressed nearly 30 years after the book. So much time, so much history – it had all the makings of a cohesive, definitive statement on the band.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. First, from the personal – fan – standpoint, I was very disappointed. This is/was a band of dynamics – personalities, “characters”, members, stories, performances and so on. I felt none of that here. It was a bone-dry, flat/linear film that at times seemed to completely miss certain necessary points to tie things together. So many details were not explained properly; some of the segments segued into one another in a clumsy manner and for me, I think there was far too much road footage with the current line-up. It was also two hours long – this could have been trimmed down and resculpted to – perhaps – make a clearer statement. I also know that while some documents make you uncomfortable because the subject matter is thought provoking, this made me uncomfortable because of what came across as seething anger, smoldering bitterness and unspoken/unaddressed pain. Maybe I’m overreaching but it left me shaking my head in wonder as to why this wasn’t so much better. I also found some of the interviewees to be – unnecessary – particularly Fred Armisen. Why does he keep cropping up in everything now? I can understand Chrissie Hynde, Don Letts, etc. but some of the others could have been trimmed away. It would have been more enlightening to hear from more from Robert “Lu” Edmonds, Paul Gray, Roman Jugg and Bryn Merrick (who sadly, died earlier this year, after the film’s completion, losing his battle with cancer). And it certainly would have been nice to have some current recollections from Algy Ward, who played bass on Machine Gun Etiquette and is barely mentioned by name.
Truly, I wanted to love this film. My hope was to write about it and rave about how great it was to see all that footage (not as much use of early/earlier footage as I would have hoped for) and to say “I’ve said all along that The Damned are one of the greatest bands of all time and this film helps prove it” but I can only testify to the first part. The Damned are one of the greatest and most important bands of all time – there can be no question of this. But Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead didn’t do them the justice they truly deserve.
Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead will be available on DVD Friday, May 20th, 2016