How The Damned wrote Phantasmagoria

cover art for phantasmagoria

As much as the music press of the day might’ve liked to have pigeonholed The Damned as British punk rock’s clown princes – all mohair jumpers, custard pies and foul-mouthed goofiness – there was always something darker and more sophisticated lurking in the shadows of their fizzing creativity. Even as far back as the band’s Damned Damned Damned debut, songs like Fan Club and Feel The Pain showcased a penchant for back street menace and macabre shifting shadows, frontman Dave Vanian’s potent baritone suavely bringing a dash of Hammer Horror melodrama to the album’s trashy post-Stooges clatter. On 1979’s belligerent Machine Gun Etiquette album, Vanian repeated the trick, donning metaphorical black leather gloves and raising a callous eyebrow, duly morphing into the demented circus clown of These Hands.

Up until the mid-80s, however, Vanian’s self-evident affinity with all things cobwebbed and sinister was consistently offset by the unstoppable pop and psychedelic sensibilities of co-songwriter Captain Sensible. Most people’s perception of The Damned hinged primarily on the blustery, hook-heavy likes of Love Song and Smash It Up, rather than anything more overblown, but that all changed when the band released The Black Album in 1980. Although still brimming with brisk melodic gems like Wait For The Blackout and Drinking About My Baby, Vanian’s confidence as a songwriter was clearly growing: on the creepy Twisted Nerve, the self-explanatory Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde and the genuinely unsettling Therapy, his personality cast an ominous shadow across The Damned’s trademark snottiness. Best of all was the album’s epic denouement, the 17-minute Curtain Call. As wilfully extravagant as any prog rock monstrosity, it was Vanian’s frilly-cuffed pièce-de-résistance that moodily proclaimed the punk mainstays’ ambitions extended beyond chaotic appearances on TOTP. Similarly, on 1982’s masterful Strawberries, Vanian’s haunting ode to a prostitute, The Dog, stood firmly apart from the rest of the album’s contents; a gothic Grand Guignol of beguiling subtlety and subversion.

Also in 1982, Captain Sensible sniggeringly reinvented himself as a pop star, scoring a number one hit with Happy Talk and conquering mainland Europe with the gurning pop-rap of Wot. Bewitched by the promise of a successful solo career, he quit The Damned in 1984, inadvertently paving the way for Dave Vanian to write the album that hindsight suggests he was destined to make, it would also become the most successful record of his band’s chaotic career.

Recorded at Eel Pie Studios in London in the spring of 1985, Phantasmagoria amounted to a wholesale reinvention for The Damned and, to a great extent, a last-ditch attempt to keep the whole show on the road. With a line-up now featuring Vanian, long-standing drummer Rat Scabies, Sensible’s replacement Roman Jugg (who had assumed keyboard duties on Strawberries) and new bassist Bryn Merrick, the band put a temporary end to years of record label turmoil by somehow negotiating a contract with MCA who, wisely, saw their chart triumphs with Sensible as some indication that The Damned were a talent pool worth plundering further. Their faith was immediately rewarded when the album’s pre-emptive single release, Grimly Fiendish, put Vanian and his cohorts back into the Top 40 singles chart for the first time since Smash It Up in 1979. Swaggering into life with some jaunty harpsichord, the song – essentially a Roman Jugg composition with lyrical assistance from Doctor And The Medics’ Clive ‘The Doctor’ Jackson – was named after cartoonist Leo Baxendale’s Grimly Feendish character that appeared in 60s comics Wham! and Smash! and only offered a vague hint as to Phantasmagoria’s unexpectedly dark detours, slithering up to number 21 and notching up some significant radio play. The album’s second single was the clincher. The Shadow Of Love, a reverb-drenched slab of prime gothabilly topped with Vanian’s booming croon, was another chart triumph and led to a memorable Top Of The Pops appearance for Vanian’s now towering duochrome bouffant. In the age of gothic rock, The Damned were rapidly becoming the genre’s most high profile progenitors.

Released in July 1985, Phantasmagoria was Vanian’s album through and through. The majority of the music had been written by Roman Jugg, but it is the frontman who dominates. Ushered in by some overwrought saxophone courtesy of esteemed session player Gary Barnacle, the opening Street Of Dreams was a sustained rush of vampyric bombast, with Vanian moodily intoning about beauties, beasts and the dead beats and the dispossessed. Bearing a similarly slick sheen to the album’s first two singles, There’ll Come A Day, Is It A Dream and The Eighth Day retained some of The Damned’s pop credentials, but with a bigger sound befitting of 80s pop’s scant regard for the understated.

The greatest moment on Phantasmagoria, and the most pointedly gothic piece of music the band have ever recorded, came at the end of the album’s first side. Six-and-a-half minutes of nightmarish grandeur, Sanctum Sanctorum was a wildly indulgent sprawl of ghostly pipe organ, concert hall piano and thunderstorm sound effects that brought Vanian’s grimly poetic tale of doomed love vividly to life. The song’s enthralling atmosphere was mirrored by Phantasmagoria’s astonishing cover art, which could hardly have been more in tune with the gothic scene’s aesthetic preferences if it had come with free bat wings. Featuring a beautiful but ashen maiden wearing a black, hooded cloak, traversing a shadowy graveyard, the cover scores maximum goth points even without the knowledge that the woman depicted was in fact Susie Bick, renowned model and now wife of goth-approved great Nick Cave.

Swiftly outstripping all of its predecessors, Phantasmagoria peaked at number 11 in the UK album charts and went on to earn The Damned a silver disc. While most of their punk peers had either given up the ghost or succumbed to the law of diminishing returns, Vanian and co were now authentic pop stars; an achievement consolidated by the release of their much-loved cover of Eloise, a suitably grandiloquent slice of motoring melodrama originally recorded by 60s pop singer Barry Ryan. Transposed to a lower key to suit Vanian’s voice, the song was inescapable during the autumn of 1985 and took The Damned to number three in the UK charts via another dry ice-shrouded TOTP appearance.

In typically calamitous Damned style, the band’s moment of glory was relatively short-lived. Their next album, 1986’s Anything, was a pale shadow of its glorious predecessor and, despite MCA releasing four singles from it, it failed to resonate with either pop or gothic audiences. MCA dropped the band soon after and a disillusioned Vanian returned to the shadows, emerging in the early 90s alongside Roman Jugg with a new band, The Phantom Chords, that echoed Phantasmagoria’s schlock horror fixation without making a credible attempt to emulate its success.

A new incarnation of The Damned, replete with Captain Sensible, would continue the band’s legacy in the mid-90s and they continue to tread the boards to this day, but the fabulously grandiose Phantasmagoria remains Dave Vanian’s defining statement and his masterpiece.

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Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.