By 1976, there was a grim sense that British youth culture was dead and buried. Glam was giving young music fans something to shout about, but it was really just the leftovers of a movement that had been and gone. Filling the void were groups like Genesis, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull – musical elitists with too much money to be relatable. There was a hunger for something new, for music rooted in the real-world experience of its progenitors. The Damned offered that. This is the story of their 1977 track ‘New Rose’, the UK’s first punk single.
By the time they got to recording ‘New Rose’, The Damned had already established a firm vision. After meeting drummer Rat Scabies at an audition for the London SS, guitarist Brian James set about forming a group of his own. His first port of call was a friend of Scabies, a long-haired jazz fusion guitarist called Ray.
James played him two essential groups: The Stooges and The Ramones, and with that, he became Captain Sensible, the group’s manic lead guitarist. “Rat suggested a singer called Dave Vanian, who was into vampire stuff,” James told The Guardian. “We got our name from two 1960s films: Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, about the Nazis, and the horror movie The Village of the Damned. It was perfect for us.”
Before the band had come together, James decided to show Rat a couple of ideas he’d been sitting on since his time with Bastard. One of those riffs was ‘New Rose’. “When I first got together with Rat….we were still in the stages of getting The Damned together – finding a bassist and singer and all that stuff. So I played him the riff, and he just took to it like water. Bang! He was off. He just attacked it. It was perfect. Now I had something I could build a song around.”
James quickly set about writing a set of lyrics. “The words were just imagery to go with the riffs,” he confessed. “However, some lines did express my excitement about the early punk scene: ‘I got a feeling inside of me / It’s kinda strange like a stormy sea.’ It was everything I’d ever dreamed of.”
With the band fully formed, The Damned signed to Stiff Records to do a single. Nick Lowe oversaw the session in a small eight-track studio in London, though the band spent more time in the pub round the corner than they did recording. “Everything started moving very fast,” Vanian said of that time. “We’d rehearse, get in the van, tear up the country doing gigs, then get back in the studio. Sometimes the tape would stop, and we’d hear some weird folk thing coming out of the speakers – to save money, it turned out, we were recording over someone else’s tape.”
Nick captured the untamed sound the group were looking for with ease. All that was left to do was wait. When the single landed, it was an immediate success, galvanising an entire generation of frustrated music fans.