The Damned didn’t care about definitions, which is why their classic third album sounds as fresh now as it did in 1979. Available again on vinyl.
Henry Rollins usually begins his regular Friday night listening session with “Machine Gun Etiquette”. He is, as he says, a “Bowie-fixated, Zeppelin-worshiping Stooges freak” but the Damned’s third album sets the bar for what follows, issuing a challenge to all his other favourites.
“Machine Gun Etiquette” was by a different Damned to that which made 1977’s “Damned Damned Damned” and “Music For Pleasure”. They split in early 1978 and guitarist/main songwriter Brian James set off to pastures new. On reforming, bassist Captain Sensible switched to guitar, his main instrument. Rat Scabies and Dave Vanian were back too. Bassist Algy Ward was new, had recently left the Saints and was from Croydon like Captain. The new Damned swiftly picked up momentum, first as Les Punks with stop-gap bassist Lemmy, then the Doomed and finally under their old name. Chiswick Records saw what a live draw they were and picked them up, initially with a one-off deal for the ‘Love Song’ single. It charted. The album followed. It charted too.
Issued in November 1979, “Machine Gun Etiquette” was more than a valediction. A thrilling, wild ride, it took in hyper-speed, guitar-driven pop, psychedelic pop and surreal pop songs drawing from the girl’s comic Bunty and Vanian’s fascination with Hollywood and horror. Pop, though, was what the album was about. Tunes. Whether with the hard-edged anthem ‘Noise, Noise, Noise’ (featuring members of the Clash on vocals; they were recording “London Calling” at the same studio booked by the Damned), the kinetic ‘Liar’ or the astonishing, atmospheric ‘Plan 9 Channel 7’, this new Damned prioritised melody.
It was also a Damned which – whatever the humour – was dead serious about setting its stall and making a mark. There was no filler: even the cover of the MC5’s ‘Looking At You’ slotted in without breaking the flow. “Machine Gun Etiquette” hit shops within weeks of “London Calling” and Public Image Limited’s “Metal Box”, both benchmark albums showing how far their creators had moved beyond what had been defined as punk. The same applied to the Damned, who likewise recognised no musical barriers and did what they wanted: the true defining characteristic of punk. They didn’t care about definitions anyway. Which is why this classic, essential album sounds as fresh now as it did in 1979.