The Damned - Phantasmagoria
Unlike most of the other big punk bands The Damned didn't secure the backing of a major label until they signed with MCA at the end of 1984. Guitarist Captain Sensible had recently departed from the band, unable to juggle the commitments of a solo career with his other duties, leaving only Dave Vanian and drummer Rat Scabies from the original line-up. Vanian was - for the first time - given free reign to craft the band's direction and with a decent marketing budget behind them, in came the frock coats, ruffled shirts and a certain cobwebbiness that saw them lumped in with the increasingly visible goth scene.
Released the same month as The Cult's 'She Sells Sanctuary', the first single of the new deal was 'Grimly Fiendish', a jaunty, harpsichord-driven ditty that owed more to the consumate English pop of Madness than punk rock, climaxing with a 'Penny Lane'-style trumpet solo that showcased a determination to play with audience perceptions. To the band's great disappointment, it only managed to reach #21 in the charts - although it is easy to forget how rare it was for 'alternative' acts to have genuine hits in a pop-dominated culture. A tour to promote follow-up single 'The Shadow of Love' and a forthcoming album during May and June saw the band play an incredible 37 gigs in 47 days, a schedule testament not only to their popularity but also to the nature of the concert circuit at the time, a mixture of university campuses, town halls and theatres that still exists to a greater or lesser extent, but not one which today's bands seem able or willing to exploit in the same manner.
The spaghetti western guitar that introduces 'The Shadow of Love' heralds a rollicking bass line and one of the album's highlights. Elsewhere, guitarist Roman Jugg (unfortunately listed as 'Juggs' on the credits) crafted a series of upright, adult pop tunes of a kind that no-one really does these days: vaguely melodramatic, English gothic - although tracks like Franz Ferdinand's 'Walk Away' suggest Kapranos and co. are at least aware of this most commercially successful, but least acknowledged part of the band's career. Centering the album was Vanian's torchsong, 'Sanctum Sanctorum', a track initially crafted with Elvis Costello collaborator Steve Nieve and the template for 'Nature's Dark Passion' from last year's So, Who's Paranoid? album.
Almost 25 years on, Phantasmagoria is a pleasant enough reminder of the time and has stood up reasonably well, although the production is very 1985, with the Fairlight synthesiser rearing its head at every opportunity. The compilers of this expanded edition have done their best to round up the relevant b-sides and extended 12" mixes, although collectors would surely have preferred to hear the demos mentioned in the liner notes than throwaway live covers of 'Pretty Vacant' and 'Wild Thing'.
The following year, MCA decamped the band to Denmark demanding a follow up. An interim single, a cover of Barry Ryan's psychodramatic 'Eloise' would give them their only Top 10 hit and one which was arguably denied the top slot by MCA's refusal to finance a promotional video. The pressure told, and only able to deliver a half-hearted affair in Anything (also now re-issued), its critical and commercial failure would lead directly to the band fracturing and at least a decade's worth of messy anniversary and re-union shows that threatened to tarnish the band's legacy for good. Not until 2001 and the release of Grave Disorder would fans once again have a version of the band worthy of the name.