In 1976, Punk music (although it was not yet called that) was a vibrant and underground movement making some powerful noise in the London Music scene. But what had emerged as a live music experience was first captured on tape and released to the general public when producer Nick Lowe of Stiff Records teamed up with The Damned to release the first UK Punk Single on October 22, 1976 – “New Rose”
The Damned were formed in London in 1976. Several of its founding members had previously played together in another early Punk group, Masters of the Backside. Masters was managed by the Pistol’s famed manager Malcolm Mclaren, and included future Damned members Dave Vanian (born David Lett), Captain Sensible (Raymond Burns) and Rat Scabies (Chris Millar), as well as future Pretenders lead Chrissie Hynde. Brian James was the drummer in a band called London SS, which is largely remembered for housing, not only James, but also future Clash member, Mick Jones and future Generation X member, Tony James.
Scabies had met Brian James while auditioning for London SS. While he didn’t get the part, the two decided to form their own band. James recalled: “We rehearsed and rehearsed for about a year with London SS, but it never really got off the ground. We couldn’t find a singer or a drummer. When we did find a drummer (Rat Scapies), the others didn’t want him, so me and Rat went and formed the Damned.” They invited Dave Vanian and future Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious to come audition for the role as lead singer. Vanian told the Guardian: “The band were auditioning for a singer, and I went early to check out the the guy before me, but he never turned up. Turned out it was Sid Vicious. Could he have become the singer in the Damned, rather than the bass-player in the Sex Pistols? We’ll never know.”
The Damned were fully itnegrated into the emerging punk rock scene of London; their first live show was on July 6, 1976, alongside the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club. But the Damned can be credited for taking the raw power and attitude of this small (but loud) group of musicians and fans to awareness, not only outside of London, but to the larger, international stage. Five weeks before the Pistols released their landmark single “Anarchy in the UK”, the Damned released British punks first single ever “New Rose” – a track which would eventually bring the UK punk scene to America.
The main riff for “New Rose” was written by Brian James, in 1974, before The Damned had even formed. But it was with his new bandmates that the song really took off. James recalled: “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 [New Rose] 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.” In fact, it’s Scabies fast-drumming that opened the track, and sounded unlike anything in the mainstream rock world. Of course, we now think of this sound as the epitome of the UK Punk sound, but in 1976, these musicians just thought of themselves as reimagining rock ‘n roll. James told the Guardian in 2018: “We thought we were a fast rock’n’roll band, but the journalist Caroline Coon coined the term “punk rock” so suddenly New Rose was “the first British punk single”. Everything happened very quickly after that.”
James has explained that the song lyrics were largely spontaneously created to match the guitar riffs they were playing. Without any real intention of writing a love song or having deep meaning:
I got a new rose, I got it good
Guess I knew that I always would
But James does connect the spirit of the lyrics to the energy of the emerging punk scene of the time. He said: “…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. And there I was in London with everyone going crazy for it.” And while the song lyrics may not have been deeply meaningful for the band, they were notably different from some of their contemporaries. While other punk bands seemed to focus on the world around them, the Damned’s music seemed to embody the same basic structures of older rock and roll lyrics, but issued with a lot more intensity and certainly less polish. James explained: “I was only interested in politics in terms of stirring things up […] If things are flat and boring and you’re being programmed to be like your grandparents then something’s wrong. Something’s wrong if you’ve gotta spend all your life working for a fucking pittance. We weren’t shouting about anarchy or giving it the big Clash number but that was never what we were in it for. We just loved music and we just wanted to play.” “New Rose” epitomizes that spirit. The punk music of the damn was certainly a revolution, but not a political revolution…. a musical one. And in tearing down the status quo and in stirring the pot of what people thought music should be, you could say it inspired a cultural revolution.
That cultural revolution could happen because the Damned made punk music which would bring an underground London musical scene to mainstream awareness. And part of that credit can be shared with the brilliant production of Nick Lowe, who understood how to capture the radical, ephemeral quality of punk and put it on tape.
The Damned were picked up by Stiff Records early on – a new label which had only released its first track a few months before in August of 1976. James explained: “We didn’t want to sign with a straight label….Jake [Riviera, Stiff boss] was the real McCoy, who ran Stiff out of an old shop. Everybody mucked in. Plus they had people like Dave Edmunds, Pink Fairies and Lemmy – good people who we could hang out with. Dave Edmunds used to thrash us at darts in the pub next door.”
Stiff Records’ first release, was in fact Nick Lowes’ “So it Goes” and it was Lowe who would produce “New Rose” and the Damned’s first album “Damned Damned Damned”. Elvis Costello who worked with Lowe for his first five albums explained: “Nick’s production style….was to exhibit massive enthusiasm for the moment and seem possessed with the conviction that whatever we had just played was absolutely ‘IT,’ ”
Lowe was able to use that enthusiasm to channel the Damned’s hyped-up rock and roll sound into a recordable medium. Vanian recalled in 2019: “It was an amazing experience because the idea was to capture the essence of the band – the live essence of the band. And if we had a big fancy producer, a big studio, and spent time, I don’t think we would have gotten that. Instead, you got this perfect encapsulation of seeing that band live, and it was an explosion of sound that was very rudimentary in production. In fact, no production – just the volume was set. I remember singing in the hallway because there was too much of the music coming into my microphone. I had to sing out there with the door shut, and it was still very loud because everything was full volume. There was barely enough room for the band when we recorded it, but it was a fantastic experience.” Likewise, Brain James told the Guardian: “We signed to Stiff to do a single, and Nick Lowe produced us in a tiny eight-track studio. We spent more time in the pub round the corner than we spent recording, but Nick captured how wild we sounded.”
That tiny eight-track studio was Pathway Studios in London. Dave Vanian recalled a quick and energetic recording experience for both the single and their first album: “New Rose was a raw, visceral, classic three-minute pop song. My famous spoken intro – “Is she really going out with him?” – is from the Shangri-La’s Leader of the Pack, which I adored. I’d just been clowning around, but everyone liked it so we kept it. We recorded a whole album – Damned Damned Damned – in two days flat. In those days, there was never much food around. We were fuelled by amphetamine sulphate and cider.”
“New Rose” was released by Stiff Records on October 22, 1976 – the first true single by a UK Punk Band. The single’s B side was punk cover of The Beatles’ “Help.” The First album, “Damned Damned Damned” was also the first full-length album by a UK punk band. While the song wasn’t a massive hit, in terms of sales or chart rankings, it’s influence and historical importance is undeniable. It introduced the UK punk scene to the larger music public. And took what was an underground – albeit loud – musical movement into mainstream awareness.
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video to learn more about “New Rose”!