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The Damned- ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ Classic Album review

Towards the end of 1979, and in response to a negative reception of their second album ‘Music For Pleasure’, The Damned stepped it up, with a revised line-up, to offer the world arguably one of the best albums of, if not the decade, at least that year itself in ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’. With original member Brian James having left following the bands’ previous release, he was replaced by bassist Algy Ward in a move which saw Captain Sensible switch his role as bassist for lead guitar, (so in essence it was Captain Sensible who replaced Brian James but alas) with Sensible also taking up lead songwriting responsibilities.  With this change in personnel, the reigns were loosened, allowing for a blend of different creams to rise to the top of their hypothetical mug, seeing bits of Psychedelia, Metal, and heavier Gothic Rock styles fused into their formula.

Opener ‘Love Song’ is written primarily by singer Dave Vanian and offers a rare insight into his lyrical capabilities. The track/album starts with an intro from none other than Corrie’s Jack Howarth (Albert Tatlock) saying ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, how do?’ before the band descends into chaos with shredding guitars and a dingy bassline. ‘I’ll be the ticket if you’re my collector, I’ll pay the fare if you’re my inspector’ incites the feeling that whoever the protagonist is, they’re willing to do things for this one person that they wouldn’t usually do, reluctantly breaking their macho exterior.

Title track ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ features much harder and chaotic instrumentation akin to Lemmy Kilmister’s Motorhead, as well as an apocalypse style riff which falls in and out of the spotlight throughout. Featuring Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon on clapping duties due to the nature of both bands recording their 3rd albums at ‘Wessex Sound Studios’ at the same time, it offers exceptional talent throughout, despite Strummer and Simonon maybe not being on their preferred instruments (The Hands™).

3rd track and 3rd single ‘I just Can’t Be Happy Today’ depicts a world where despite all efforts to do so, it’s impossible to feel satisfied. Lyrics ‘There’s no feeling fine without being fined’ and ‘Illegal to dance Forbidden to cry’ suggest humanity is doomed due to resistance to human emotion. Accompanied by distinct organ play and melodic backing vocals, this song does in itself have a gospel style to it, so it’s amusing to find that there had to be an alternative version for certain radio airplay due to references to ‘devil worshipping’.

‘Melody Lee’ starts with quaint, rhythmic, piano playing before jumping to a punchier beat for the remainder of the 3 minutes. The song is thought to have taken inspiration from Bunty Comics’ story following a girl of the same name and her life on the streets and other events, however the comics themselves are difficult to track down.

The Damned were never a particularly political band compared to other punk bands, however you could definitely make a claim that ‘Anti-Pope’ is a great analysis of religion and those sucked in by it. Lyrics ‘Religion doesn’t mean a thing, It’s just another way of being Right Wing’ is just one of many brave claims made throughout this record, and show the great change in songwriting between this and the albums prior.

‘These Hands’ flows with circus themed instrumentals that could easily transfix you in a dream-like/nightmare state depending on the way you perceive it. A relentless tale based around a clown with killer tendencies who’s sick of having to act happy despite suffering on the inside. ‘Chasing you through the night with my hands around your neck, Funny how everything seems in technicolour, yet I find I’m laughing at you’ takes the song into a very sinister area and is surprisingly reminiscent of the songwriting in tracks like ‘Feel the Pain’ from the first album.

Following this you’re shocked back to reality with what is arguably the best track on the record. ‘Plan 9 Channel 7’ exposes the talent Captain Sensible has as a guitarist, which he probably doesn’t get enough credit for. You could very easily sit back and allow it to swallow you whole as the energy continues to build throughout, a triumph in atmosphere with the shrieks towards the end goosebump inducing to the best of people.

‘Noise Noise Noise’ again features The Clash, with Topper Headon and Strummer contributing backing vocals. Another inherently ‘punk’ track with its 3 minute length and thrashing instrumentation. The lyrics ‘Noise is for heroes, Leave the music for zeroes’ shows The Damned are still keeping to the ‘basic’, stripped back ideology that punk was born from despite the change in style and supposed ‘burn-out’ of the genre by ’79.

In ‘Looking At You’ The Damned fall into a more progressive/classic rock sound. Carrying a raw energy, the track is made up of 5 minutes where probably 90% of it is guitar shredding, taking influence from the art/proto-punk of the late 60s. You could say this track takes form as a love story too, but maybe a drug/booze induced one. The lyrics ‘I saw into the dancing crowd, Felt like screaming out loud, Saw you standing there, Saw your long hair’ incites a lust and ‘love at first sight’ that you might regret in the morning.

Penultimate track ‘Liar’ is again another homage to the punk of ’76 with a stripped-back, roaring musicianship that brought them onto the scene in the first place. The perfect pre-cursor to ‘Smash it Up part 1’ with its contrasting styles working in juxtaposition to eachother.

Closer(s) Smash It Up Parts 1&2 are genius in the art of merging styles, as part 1 essentially acts as an instrumental introduction to the second. Switching dream-like melodies for gritty fast-paced musicianship, it’s the final available proof that this record took The Damned to where they needed to be after the ‘disappointing’ 2nd album, and showed that they had no plans on sticking to the same sound like many may have expected.

By 1979 punk rock had transformed the way in which the music industry operated, paving the way for ‘new wave’ to dominate the airwaves for the next decade or so, and influencing every boundary-pushing piece of music that was to follow. With this record The Damned pushed the boundaries they’d set out for themselves in the first two albums and shattered the notion that punk bands weren’t capable of anything but being one trick ponies. Machine Gun Etiquette lives to disprove the lazy opinion that punk rock requires zero talent, and might even take more skill than whatever ‘superior’ music you’re unfortunate to listen to. In the words of Rat Scabies ‘Bruce Dickinson can think what he likes- But I defy Iron Maiden to play ‘Smash It Up’ as it was written!’.

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