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A Look At Dave Vanian’s Fascination For The Horror

How The Damned’s frontman shaped the traditional punk appearance by embracing goth and grandeur.

Darkness is in the eye of the beholder. Naturally, the goth movement had its fair share. Yet, the boundaries between art and sheer shock value are often blurred. In some ways, this added to the mystique of the genre. It was an underground movement formed organically from the tastes of its artists. Many of them looked back to esoteric literature and continental cinema. As a result, it provided a hotspot for artistic experimentation. The Damned’s Dave Vanian was a prime example of this.

Vanian has always been highly conscious of his image. He once commented that going onstage sometimes meant dressing down for him, whereas it was totally normal for him to wear a full dinner suit at home. His vampiric looks and the way he did his makeup also added to this image, yet he also had a clear philosophy about it. Vanian never saw this as feminine. Instead, he framed it in interviews as male grooming. What most stands out about the singer is that he blurred the lines between performance, art, and life. Even offstage, he served a stint as a gravedigger, which suited his lack of fear of death. However, it was within the scene that he came together as a cohesive whole.

It’s quite hard to say what parts of Vanian were rebellion and what parts were creativity. His interests varied and found their way into the Damned’s performances. They ranged from old horror movies, including the 1920s classic Nosferatu to Renaissance art. Vanian had a knack for uncovering the gothic from any topic and making it glamorous. Beyond darkness for the sake of darkness, he asks us whether the horror can be well-groomed and part of society. In this way, he looks upon the fear-inducers of not just previous decades but even previous centuries – and transforms them into something romantic.

“I wanted to live in that castle on the hill.”

Dave Vanian

All in all, it is this quality that enabled him to cut such a charismatic figure onstage and there are two particular factors that added to his distinction within the scene. The first was the fact his image has always matched his actual personality. As a result, there was an air of mystique and danger about it. If Vanian was dressing down onstage, who knew what he would be like offstage? This hooked fans who wanted something more exciting than danceable radio pop. Furthermore, it got him credibility amongst fans who sought to emulate him. In short, it was tailor-made for the grassroots qualities of goth. Vanian’s personality did his marketing for him, and he gained natural traction.

The second factor was The Damned’s punk roots. Vanian was by far the most clean-cut member of the band. Fellow members Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies leaned towards a more punk aesthetic. Vanian, by contrast, loved grandeur. As a result, they set themselves apart in two ways. For Vanian to still maintain his punk sensibilities shows a shrewd business sensibility. People like Vivian Westwood did combine punk with high fashion. Yet Vanian went one step further. He took the grandiose elements of centuries of gothic culture, repurposed them, and made them accessible to the common man.

The Damned were still capable of causing both confusion and controversy in 2004. Authorities chose Vanian and Captain Sensible to turn on the Cambridge Christmas lights. Headlines ensued. Churches took offense to the fact that amongst the band’s songs was “Anti-Pope”. In it, the lyrics talk about stealing from a local church. Here, Vanian has the narrator defend the incident by citing a congregation that won’t change their ways. They also take aim at the mixing of religion and right-wing politics. Whether Vanian was just out to shock, making a social statement, or actually encouraging the behaviour is hard to say. Yet this kind of approach allowed him to blur boundaries over the course of his career, between goth, punk, art, and horror. Amidst all this, he and Captain Sensible were happy to switch on the lights. Maybe they saw it as a secular occasion with no relation to the church whatsoever. Either way, the incident showed Vanian’s comfort with the juxtapositions of his image.

What is absent from the lore surrounding Vanian is the occult. It is difficult to say if he ever showed an interest in it. Yet the industry was rife with artists who dabbled in occultism. These included other fashionable icons like David Bowie. Yet when Vanian was so upfront about darkness, did he need any esoteric hobbies? Either way, he is a mysterious and charismatic frontman who always stood out amongst his more punk-friendly bandmates. Vanian left his offstage private life mysterious. Yet this too worked as part of a larger persona and he let people read into him what they wished. And, without these ambiguities, it’s unlikely he would have cut such a unique figure.

Featured Image by Stefan Müller

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