The Damned: Strawberries

The Damned
Strawberries
(Bronze/Castle)

The context: The Damned deservedly get credit for helping invent and define British punk and goth rock. But the band's fleeting tenure as a pseudo-psychedelic pop act gets short shrift, when it's recognized at all. And yet the band's fifth full-length, 1982's Strawberries, isn't just an exhilarating side trip on The Damned's rambling discography, it's a welcome oddity in '80s music as a whole.

Granted, garage rock and late-'60s psychedelia were never alien to The Damned by any means; shades of those sounds had been surfacing in their songs since 1977's ill-fated (and underrated) Music For Pleasure, for which the volatile outfit ditched punk orthodoxy and enlisted Pink Floyd's Nick Mason as producer. (The first choice, Syd Barrett, understandably declined the honor.) The Damned's greatest release, 1979's Machine Gun Etiquette, established even more of a retro-'60s spirit, all while maintaining the furious punk edge that would deeply inspire American hardcore.

But in 1980, The Damned dove too recklessly into reinvention: The double-length The Black Album, while admirably ballsy, had too few hooks hiding in all the keyboards and bloat. Two years later, with an eye toward concision, The Damned recorded Strawberries—a hell of a weird record, marking the bandmembers' turning point from quirky adventurers to bland self-parodists.

The greatness: After the opening track, "Ignite"—The Damned's last great punk song—amply lives up to its title, Strawberries simmers with "Generals," a piano-driven tune that swipes a lick from Pink Floyd's "Lucifer Sam" even as it spits some timely anti-military sentiment in the wake of the Falklands War. A couple of songs, namely "Dozen Girls" and "Bad Time For Bonzo" (the latter being practically a sister of Ramones' similarly Reagan-baiting "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes To Bitburg)" from 1985), manage to raise a little of The Damned's classic chaotic glee, but the remainder of Strawberries shoots for subtlety. Of course, subtlety as practiced by one of the most cartoony, ham-fisted bands in rock history makes for the failed experiment "The Dog," an aptly named dirge that limps along for more than seven minutes as singer Dave Vanian croons goth slush like "She extends her arms for an embrace, a tiny smile / Ruby lips on a doll-like face."

But "The Dog" is the disc's only backfire: "Gun Fury" is a seemingly straightforward rocker that breaks in and out of swirling 5/4 time, and the album's curiously robotic, stiffly catchy closer "Don't Bother Me"—sung by guitarist Captain Sensible, soon to depart the band—bears a strong resemblance to "Closed Groove," the last track of Stiff Little Fingers' Inflammable Material. An even stranger echo—albeit a prescient one—comes from the slithery, haunting "Life Goes On." Killing Joke loudly claimed that Nirvana swiped its 1985 song "Eighties" for "Come As You Are," and even sued over the alleged plagiarism—but the exact same riff forms the backbone of "Life Goes On," released three years before "Eighties." "Pleasure And The Pain," far from one of The Damned's early, S&M-friendly assaults, gets reflective and almost mature without slackening its hormonal rush, wrapping Vanian's proto-emo heartbreak ("It tears my heart out deep inside / To think of times I spent inside") in gorgeous organs and cello.

Strawberries may be, at best, The Damned's third-greatest album—but it's also a unique record that's simultaneously confused and assured, reactionary and progressive. For a bunch of punk founding fathers trying to get a grip on the '80s, Vanian and crew went out with an infectious, Technicolor bang. Not that they broke up afterward, but it would be three years before Strawberries' follow-up, Anything, which is noteworthy only for a tired-but-faithful version of Love's "Alone Again Or" and the insipid "In Dulce Decorum," which inexplicably appeared on the Miami Vice II soundtrack. Needless to say, it was all downhill from there.

Defining song: "Ignite" is easily Strawberries' strongest, mostly because it's a thrilling throwback to The Damned's gorier, madder days. But it's almost out of place on the album; in fact, the subdued, almost sophisticated "Stranger On The Town" best embodies the group's pseudo-pop mid-period. A grim monologue about urban alienation set to a horn-spiked, giddily dynamic backdrop, it's the perfect tough-guy-gone-soft lament. And when the coda explodes in a burst of brass, it's about as transcendentally anthemic as rock music gets. Funnily, "Stranger On The Town" shares much of its mood, arrangement, and lyrical theme with "Strange Town" by The Jam. Neither Vanian nor Sensible could touch Paul Weller in the songwriting department, but "Stranger" nonetheless has its own raw charm and messy ambition, and it shows that The Damned was far more than some one-trick horror-punk pony.

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