The Damned - Phantasmagoria / Anything Reappraised

Album Review by Stephen Toman | 07 Apr 2009
Album title: Phantasmagoria / Anything Expanded Editions
Artist: The Damned
Label: Universal
Release date: 6 Apr

Formed in 1976 The Damned (Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies, Brian James) were the first punk band to release a single (New Rose, in 1976 – one month before the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK) and an album (Damned, Damned, Damned, in 1977). Nearly ten years later Brian James and Captain Sensible were gone and Vanian and Scabies, joined by Roman Jugg and Bryn Merrick on guitar and bass, issued Phantasmagoria (1985), followed by Anything the following year.

After Sensible’s departure Vanian’s gothic sensibilities became more evident, as on the single Grimly Fiendish, a cartoonish, twisted take on the theatrical mini-operas of The Kinks, with the music dominated by his deep crooning voice. With the success of the single under their belt the band recorded and self-produced Phantasmagoria (along with George Martin’s engineer Jon Kelly) - an attempt to prove that there was more to them than two-chord punk.

Propelled by Scabies’ rolling rockabilly drumming, the band’s post-punk take on gothic vaudeville, all harpsichord and ringing arpeggios, is moody without being overly-pessimistic, playful and energetic with a healthy dose of Hammer-horror campy spookiness. The distinctively clean '80s-sounding clean production has not aged well, but as far as goth-tinged post-punk goes, Phantasmagoria is as enjoyable now as any of their earlier ‘punk’ albums (with the exception of their fantastic Motorhead-inspired Machine Gun Etiquette).

Anything, on the other hand, is abysmal. The success of Phantasmagoria allowed the band the time and expense to decamp to Denmark to a state-of-the-art digital studio to record their follow-up with producer Jon Kelly again in tow. While the digital reverb and flat production on Phantasmagoria created an interesting contrast between the band’s gothic sound and the expressive theatricality of their songs, on Anything, the actual sound of the band is gone, hidden beneath layers of bleeps and cheesy synths.

The Damned maintain that Anything was their ‘psychedelic’ record, as emphasised by their cover of Love’s Alone Again Or, but this is far from the energetic psychobilly of peers like The Gun Club or The Cramps. Gone are Scabies’ driving, thundering toms; only the occasional appearance of twanging surf-guitar provides relief from the rest of the record's reliance on synthetic sound. On Anything, The Damned, arguably the UK's first real punk band, managed to reduce their sound to the level of mid-'80s radio mediocrity. Needless to say the album was a commercial flop, poorly received by critics and resulting in the termination of the band’s record contract. It would be their last album for a decade.

On April 6, Universal will re-release both Phantasmagoria and Anything as two-disc expanded editions. Phantasmagoria comes with four live tracks (including a cover of the Pistols' Pretty Vacant) and a Radio One session that provides an excellent snapshot of The Damned as a live act at the time (as well as the difficulty in incorporating the then state-of-the-art technology in a live setting). Otherwise the bonus tracks on the expanded Phantasmagoria and Anything are different mixes of album tracks that were released on a variety of formats for financial gain by the record company: 7-inch singles, 12-inch singles, instrumentals, 7-inch double-pack versions, and only one B-side (from the Grimly Fiendish single).

Get Phantasmagoria (****) for the record itself and the live tracks: the various mixes are for completists only (if such a thing as a The Damned completist really exists). As for Anything (*), download the solitary live track Psychomania as evidence of what the band could have been sans terrible overproduction, but give the rest a body swerve.

The Damned play ABC, Glasgow on 5 Jun, tickets £17.50.