The punk subculture was, like all countercultures, a war against mainstream taste. By the time punk came along, the bands of the hippie era were the dominant tastemakers and had been for some time. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd: all of these groups had once soundtracked the 1960s counterculture, choosing authenticity over commercialism and, rather paradoxically, making themselves a hell of a lot of money in the process.
By the mid-’70s this paradox was so blindingly obvious that music fans on both sides of the Atlantic were starting to search for an alternative. It’s perfectly plausible that punk blossomed in the UK and the US independently, mainly because they reacted against the same things. The key difference was how the two nations chose to express their iconoclasm on an aesthetic level.
For groups such as The Ramones, it was all long hair and melodic lead vocals. British groups, on the other hand, preferred to wear their hair short and spit their lyrics into the crowd. There’s no obvious commonality among the new wave of American punk groups that played CBGBs in the 1970s. Patti Smith, Television, The Ramones, Blondie: each were pursuing something distinct. The same was true of British outfits, but Malcolm McLaren’s desire to create a “truly unpleasant pop group” in the form of The Sex Pistols established a unique punk modus operandi that simply didn’t exist in the US.
As the punk movement accelerated, however, cross-pollination between US and UK punks became a matter of course. As the first 100 Club punk outfit to play on US soil, The Damned may well have been the ones to introduce the British punk attitude to American audiences, setting off a chain reaction that saw the previously distinct movements become nearly indistinguishable.
It happened on April 8th 1977, ironically the day The Clash released their classic debut back in Blighty. At the stroke of ten in NYC, The Damned – bleary from their long haul flight – crept onto the cramped CBGBs stage to deliver their American debut. To the uninitiated New York audience, The Damned must have seemed cartoonish in their theatricality. The art of the spectacle had become a key facet of the expression—another thing British punk groups had picked up from the country’s art schools.
While the crowd were initially hostile, it didn’t take much for The Damned to win them over. As Binky Phillips, who was present for the performance, recalled: “The opening band, The Dead Boys had done a great snarling set, full of vulgar piss and vinegar, with guitars set on stun. But, before a note was even played, by merely walking onstage, The Damned made The Dead Boys seem small, provincial, tame, and harmless.” Frontman Dave Vanian – dressed in his proto-goth getup – was a lithe cadaver, his sallow complexion catching the light as he stalked the stage. To his left, guitarist James seemed locked into his own world while bassist Captain Sensible pounded root notes – his bright red hair popping out from underneath an ironic Bohemian beret.
The Damned revelled in their outsider status, openly mocking the crowd before plunging into a cover of The Stooges’ ‘I Feel Alright’. It was carnage. As the crowd swirled and churned, a surge of aggression threatened to turn the gig into a mass brawl, something I’m sure Vanian and company would have welcomed with ball-fisted arms. At one point, drummer Rat Scabies lunged for someone he’d taken a disliking to. Keeping time on the cymbal with one arm, he swung violently at the crowd, taunting him in the hope that the offender would jump onstage, just in time to be beaten into a pulp.
When the set came to an end, the crowd parted, revealing a floor drenched with mud, sweat and nose blood. British punk had well and truly arrived.