Ray Burns, better known to nearly everyone as Captain Sensible, once said, "The Damned, much as I love them, were just hell-for-leather destruction merchants." However, the good Captain doesn't seem to appreciate that it was the Damned's glorious recklessness, especially in their early days, that made them so memorable -- while most of the first wave of British punk bands had some sociopolitical axe to grind or a fashion statement to make, the Damned just wanted to play fast, loud, and frantic, and nearly 30 years after they were recorded, the group's first single ("New Rose" b/w "Help") and first album (Damned Damned Damned) have worn far better than what most of their contemporaries were doing at the time. The Damned's earliest sides were issued by the then-fledgling Stiff Records, whose fondness for absurdity and good-natured scams made them worthy partners for the path-breaking punks, and Play It at Your Sister is a boxed set collection that features everything the Damned recorded during their 16 months as Stiff recording artists. Opening with three June 1976 demos and closing with the band's misbegotten second LP, Music for Pleasure, Play It at Your Sister documents the rise and fall of the Damned Version 1.0 as well as you could hope, including some stellar live material from two John Peel sessions and a May 1977 concert recorded for BBC Radio One. While the band got tighter and more muscular during the course of their tenure with Stiff, part of the charm of these recordings is that the band knew what they wanted to do right off the bat, and the speed-fueled attack of "New Rose" isn't especially different from the highlights of the Music for Pleasure sessions (though it doesn't take long to figure out that Nick Lowe was far better suited to produce the Damned than Nick Mason). The Damned split up for a short spell after Music for Pleasure landed with a thud, and even that seems to seems indicative of the band's way of doing things -- they came, they saw, they made a lot of noise, and when they began to think they were wearing out their welcome, they went away, only to come back when no one was expecting them, almost as a prank. In addition to the two discs of studio and BBC material, Play It at Your Sister includes a bonus disc featuring the Damned's set at the August 20, 1976, "First European Punk Rock Festival" in Mont de Marsan, France (lousy fidelity but tremendous historical importance, and no small amount of fun) and a glorious 130-page book featuring a detailed history of the band (as well as the rise of U.K. punk) along with lots and lots of pictures. The Damned kept making worthwhile records after their time with Stiff, and this is far from the definitive look at the band's career, but Play It at Your Sister is a superb record of what made them great right out of the box (no pun intended).
© Mark Deming /TiVo