It was never easy for British punk miscreants The Damned to act like gentlemen on the road. They were too busy following a scorched-earth policy. After playing a mid-'80s San Francisco concert, for example, the group — which has undergone countless lineup changes in its nearly 40-year history but still features founding members Dave Vanian on vocals and guitarist Captain Sensible — returned to its hotel and spent the night unspooling the fifth-floor firehose, turning it on at full force, punching holes in walls, and tossing various furnishings into the courtyard swimming pool. The next morning, at checkout, their road manager shrugged, then quietly peeled a stack of hundred dollar bills from his wallet to atone for the group's exploits.
"I remember that really well," notes original drummer Rat Scabies (real name Chris Millar), 60, of the notorious evening. "We arrived in San Francisco in limousines, but we did so much damage that we could barely pay that hotel bill, so we had to fuck off to the airport in the morning on a tiny shuttle bus. The Damned were so incredibly stupid. We didn't care about the money or anything else — it was all about the moment and entertaining ourselves." There were hundreds of similar incidents, he adds, too many to remember. Luckily, 41-year-old filmmaker Wes Orshoski has painstakingly assembled many of them in his new documentary The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead, which screens for one night only at The Roxie Theatre on Friday, Aug. 28.
Using vintage punk-era clips, recent tour footage, and interviews with contemporaries like Mick Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Dexter Holland, and Damned members themselves, the movie starts with 1976's frenetic "New Rose" — the first punk single ever released — then follows The Damned through breakups, reformations, and dramatic stylistic shifts like the cryptic hit "Phantasmagoria" in 1985. Occasionally, Vanian was a concert no-show, and his bandmates defiantly performed the sets without him. At one telling point, Scabies actually gets choked up recalling the ennui that followed the band's Gothic phase.
"For me, it was a tragic point, and the point of no return," sighs Scabies, phoning from a studio session with his latest overseas outfit, The Mutants. "It was like, 'Well, here we are. We got everything we ever dreamt of, and nobody knows what to do.' I didn't expect my guard to drop as far as it did when I was talking to Wes. But it's strange, because it's a bit like owning up to how much something really matters to you, when you've been telling yourself that it doesn't."
Scabies initially turned down Orshoski's invitation to be in the film. But the Ohio-bred director, who had started his career as a music journalist and concert photographer before directing his first Motörhead-based feature in 2010, the critically-kudoed Lemmy: 49% Motherfucker, 51% Son of a Bitch, won the drummer's trust.
"Wes eventually convinced me," says Scabies, who winds up being the picture's thoughtful, humorous heart. "He wanted to get inside the personalities that made the band what it was. And you've got to remember — this isn't my film. This isn't the band's film. This is Wes's film,hisinterpretation of what The Damned were about."
Orshoski financed the undertaking himself and spent four years perfecting it, including a year and a half on editing alone. It started innocently enough, he says, when current group drummer Pinch — impressed with the Lemmy flick — invited the director to film The Damned's 35th anniversary tour, just as Orshoski was considering his next documentary subject. "And I realized that The Damned were perfect," he says. "And I joke now that they said 'yes' and have regretted it ever since."
Orshoski had everyone involved sign off on his control of the final cut. "There were so many warring factions, I wasn't going to be able to make this film without it," he admits. Thus, when Dead had its world premiere at South By Southwest in Austin this March, none of The Damned had seen it. And they were nervous.
Vanian never arrived. "And Captain Sensible [the group's guitarist] created a huge scene," Orshoski says. "Ten minutes into the film, he yelled, 'Rubbish!' at the screen and walked out. Then he comes back, and he starts playing with candy wrappers to prevent people from hearing Rat talking onscreen. Then he goes up and down the aisles, handing out candies — it was quite a spectacle."
Sensible — reached by email — pulled his punches, somewhat. "I feel [Dead] dwells too much on tedious squabbling," he writes. "But the 40-year-old footage was an eye-opener though — blimey, we look like kids!" He plans to watch it again, though, to see how it settles. But he harbors no punk-rock regrets: "If I could go back in time, be more professional, better behaved, cut down on all the debauchery, frivolity, maybe it might help us climb a rung or two on the ladder of success. But that sounds like too much of a bloody drag!"