Four years after the release of “Lemmy,” director Wes Orshoski is back with a new documentary featuring, The Damned, a seminal yet overlooked punk band that has been gigging since the 1970’s. “Don’t You Wish We Were Dead” is an often funny movie about a quirky band with hidden depths.
Back in the 1976, the Damned released what is now regarded as the first British punk single, “New Rose,” and were the first UK punks to tour the USA. Indeed, former drummer Rat Scabies has even been credited with the dubious honor of introducing “gobbing,” or spitting at the audience and band members, to the New Wave scene. However, despite being one of the founding fathers of the genre, the Damned are rarely taken seriously by punkologists. They never had a strong political stance, no band member died young and their biggest hit was a soppy cover version of ballad (Elouise), released ten years after the death of punk.
“The Dammed have never been the cool kids on the block” Orshoski told Rogue Cinema at Sheffield Docfest. “That meant it was harder to get people to talk about them. I tried for about three years to interview John Lyden [of the Sex Pistols] but gave up in the end. The Damned aren’t cool outside their immediate fan base. In the end it was just persistence that got us the interviews we did get.”
The interviews are among movie’s strong points. Like “Lemmy” this movie features a broad array of musicians paying tribute to the subject, including a cameo from the Motorhead frontman himself. Other talking heads include Mick Jones of the Clash and Big Audio Dynamite (BAD), Don Letts of BAD, Chrissy Hinde of the Pretenders, Steve Diggle of the Buzzcocks and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys.
After completing “Lemmy” Orshoski told Rogue Cinema, he was at something of a loss where to turn to his next project. In the end it was his friendship with the Motorhead frontman that pointed him towards The Damned. Lemmy has long-standing relationship with the Brit goth-punks, and the movie features rare footage of him playing guitar with the band.
Orshoski’s movie follows the traditional rockumentary formula, with live clips and interviews recounting dressing room excesses, sex and drugs, and arguments and brawls. But what makes this movie stand out is the quality of the interviewees and the interplay between the band members, especially lead singer Dave Vanien and guitarist Captain Sensible, The Damned had a huge falling out over royalties in 1990’s and two of the original members – Brian James and Rat Scabies – don’t speak to the others. Following an interview with a grumpy, pension age Scabies, we learn that a reunion of the original line up isn’t on the cards anytime soon, and two versions of the group are currently in existence.
Other highlights include a former band member’s recollection of sharing a hotel room with the vampire-like Vanien, and seeing him rising slowly, Bela-Lugosi-like, from his bed each the morning. The fact that old punks may have contracted cancer through years of gobbing is a proposition explored semi-seriously, while an elderly Damned fan that follows the band on tour is a fascinating character.
“The Hollywood Reporter” called this documentary a “nonfiction remake of Spinal Tap” and at times it seems like it. The side-story of Captain Sensible, whose novelty hit “Happy Talk” saw him kicked out of the band for a number of years, is another highlight, and the Captain’s recollections of his career as a solo artist is the source of much hilarity. Indeed, the cover of the Damned’s “Black Album” – rendered in black with no details other than the group’s name ” – brings to mind Spinal Tap’s “Smell the Glove”.
While the subject matter is possibly not as interesting as “Lemmy”, Orshoski nails it well. Like Motorhead, you realize that The Damned are quality, albeit in a chaotic sort of way, and along with the director you find yourself wondering why some great bands make it big and some don’t. Overall, this movie stands up as an informative and funny insight into a highly original band.
Running time: 110 mins
Directed, written by Wes Orshoski