The punk veterans The Damned had slipped into a brutal crisis when their figurehead, Captain Sensible, quit the band in order to pursue a career as a solo artist in late 1984. Left behind singer David Vanian and drummer Rat Scabies, who were meanwhile without a record deal, did not give up, however. Overnight, they carved themselves a completely new image and declared the Dracula suspense aura of their frontman the new band norm.
After much wrangling, The Damned obtained a new deal with MCA Records on the strength of the song “Grimly Fiendish”, which was released as a single the following March. Phantasmagoria was then recorded at Eel Pie Studios between March and June 1985. The record reached No. 11 in the charts, and besides the release of Evil Spirits in 2018, it still ranks the band’s highest-charting album ever.
Phantasmagoria deeply symbolises Vanian’s emancipation as a composer, as almost everything on this record springs from his ideas. One really gets to sense the influence that he had on the group at the time. It feels a bit as if he had thrown a black veil on the former image of the band. Their initial Punk roots slipped out of view and instead, pianos and Fairlight synthesizers now dominated the scene. Everything became Goth: the music, the lyrics, the atmosphere, the artwork and even the clothes. The mystical cover artwork, by the way, adorns British Model, Susie Bick who is today none other than Nick Cave’s wife.
The album opens with “Street Of Dreams”, an experimental Goth Rock track involving a very jazzy sax and a chorus you won’t get enough from. From the first bars on one can clearly feel the previously untouched New Wave atmosphere which now plays a central part. This is also prominent on the next track. “Shadow Of Love” is bathed in reverb, setting a cold and funereal atmosphere to the Rockabilly melody that’s accompanying it. Luckily, there’s still Dave’s haunting voice which brings in a little warmth.
A quickly evoked chorus as remembered from “Street Of Dreams”, but in a style a little more Pop can be found in the beautiful “Is It A Dream”. And then there are of course the first harpsichord notes of “Grimly Fiendish”. The single really displays the black humour existing between the lyrics, its interpretation and this rather decadent atmosphere which almost reminds one a bit of The Fearless Vampire Killers. Finally, we encounter “Edward The Bear”, which is the only song on the album to not feature Dave Vanian on lead vocals but is sung by temporary Damned member Roman Jugg. Again, this track takes on a dimension a little more New Wave while keeping a few Pop elements here and there.
On “There’Il Come A Day” and “The Eight Day”, we are not assailed by the pompous character of the previous tracks. With a sense of melody that hits the mark, we feel that the group reconnects a little more with its roots. With tracks like “Sanctum Sanctorum” or “Trojans” on the other hand, they certainly move away much more again. The latter reveals itself as being a very jazzy track that gradually evolves into different psyche, pop, or more ballad-like notes. As far as “Sanctum Sanctorum” is concerned, we are again witnesses of the band’s cinematographic influences of goth and horror. Despite this often ghostly sounding arrangements, there is always something that brings out a little happiness.
Each song on this record stands out and represents “the top of the basket” of The Damned’s discography. Phantasmagoria, if we put aside its imposing goth hue, is an album with extremely meticulous arrangements. Sometimes melodious, sometimes catchy, sometimes biting. All of them are small gems, which effortlessly disconnect the listener’s mind. In the end, Phantasmagoria became a really big cinema for the ears, especially because the music merges perfectly with the fog wafting around at knee level.