‘A Night of a Thousand Vampires’ feat. Circus of Horrors
The Palladium, London
28th Oct 2019
LTW’s Phil Ross and Svenja Block venture out into the blackness of the night to witness a spectacle from The Damned that would raise the undead.
Svenja and I are summoned to attend. We are drawn to His crypt. Compelled as if by some mystical life force, emitting from the very beating heart of London. The night is darker than usual as I emerge from The Underground.
His followers fan out in a huge semicircle, huddling around The London Palladium and the gateway to His tomb. I see her, Svenja on the opposite side of the street, shivering, alone. I push my way to her, she is scared, distressed. Her nostrils flare and I sense the warm blood pulsing through the artery on her pale marble neck.
“There is no pit”, she gasps. Her startled eyes lined thickly with black, flash wide, accentuated by the powdered whiteness of her face. “We have to stand at the sound desk at the back of the hall.” I watch her lips move, they are deep, bright red, “The pictures will be shit”.
Stunned by this terrible news, I look out over the heads of His legion. We must fight our way through this black mass of bodies to the interior of His lair. We must find a hiding place to bear witness to the proceedings. “Let’s go” I say, and together we step into the throng, too numerous to count. They hum and buzz in a mumbling electric drone, a great black swarm shuffling towards the centre of the hive.
‘Listen to them, the children of the night, what music they make’.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
This evening there are over two thousand children of the night, and after surveying the auditorium, we decide to chat to a few of them.
The band has asked everyone to help them set a Guinness World Record for having the most vampires assembled in one place. And virtually everyone is in costume. It also becomes apparent that many, if not most people have travelled great distances for A Night of a Thousand Vampires in this Grade 2 listed theatre in London’s West End.
Alan is wearing hooded cape. His first Damned gig was at The Barrowlands in 1988. He and Lorna, his gothic vampiress have just arrived from Glasgow. Adrian and Lara from York are dressed as The Count and Bride of Dracula. They first saw the band in Belfast in 1987. Starting over 25 years ago, Carl and Sarah from Newcastle have seen the band “Over fifty times”. While the fanged Ann and Tina just down from Wakefield, say they love “All of them”, when I ask for their favourite Damned album.
As I scribble notes, a tall blond woman with fangs and blood dripping for her mouth interrupts me. Her friend has pushed her into approaching us to be included, and have their photos taken too, she tells us. Her name is Philippa, she has also seen them over fifty times, “Starting at Reading Uni when I was sixteen. I fainted in the crush and got dragged out, I’d do anything for The Damned.” She laughs, “Well within reason.” She is an art director who worked for four years on Game of Thrones as well as Dark Crystal. “I placed a Damned poster on Ashes to Ashes,” she says proudly. She’s talking about the BBC cop series. “I was in the art department,” she says. It’s starting to dawn on me, they are fanatical, all of them. What is it about The Damned that has created such fanatics?
There have been two press releases sent out recently. The first detailing the ‘New greatest hits career-spanning album’ Black is the Night’. 39 tracks including the forthcoming single of the same name. While the second press release outlines tonight’s ‘Immersive theatrical show’ which is partnered with Hammer House of Horror.
For the uninitiated, the Hammer film company started life in 1935 just a few minutes walk away in nearby Regent Street. By the 1950s it had relocated to the legendary Hammer House, 113-117 Wardour Street. And its name became synonymous with a golden age in British Cinema that gave us one of cinema’s great pairings – Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
After casting them together in Curse of Frankenstein (1957) based on Mary Shelley’s novel, Hammer were keen to place their stars in another gothic, literary masterpiece. And thus the legendary vampire slayer Professor Van Helsing would pursue his bloodthirsty adversary in Dracula (1958) and numerous sequels.
Christopher Lee’s Dracula introduced a dark brooding sexuality to the character, subversive for the time, implying that, in the words of one critic, “Women might like to have their neck chewed on.” His portrayal would fix the image of the fanged, red eyed vampire in popular culture, along with the low necklines and heaving breasts of his many female victims.
Interestingly, in the original novel, as opposed to Van Helsing’s pre-prepared, sharpened wooden stake, Count Dracula is stabbed in the heart with a Bowie knife while being decapitated with a Kukri, before crumbling to dust.
The Count’s creator Bram Stoker was born in Dublin in 1847, where he studied with fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde and began his writing career as a theatre critic for Dublin’s Evening Mail. In 1878 he married Florence Balcombe and the couple moved to London, where he would work as business manager at The Lyceum Theatre for the next 20 years. In this prominent position he was part of The Daily Telegraph literary staff and wrote numerous works of fiction. He spent seven years researching European folklore and stories of vampires before publishing Dracula in 1897.
Although the book received critical acclaim, it was not a bestseller and Stoker died in near poverty. On hearing of the release of Nosferatu starring Max Schreck in 1922, Balcombe launched a legal dispute with the German production company. As the legal executor of his literary estate, and struggling financially, she had never given permission for the adaptation and was furious to discover that handbills for the film stated ‘Freely adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula’.
Despite winning the case, the company declared bankruptcy and she was not paid. She did however grant rights for successful theatrical runs in England and the US. And it was with Bela Lugosi in the title role that the play premiered in New York in 1927. It would be Lugosi and his characteristic Hungarian accent that would set the gold standard for vampires with his 1931 film performance for the next three decades.
A huge gantry has been erected on the stage tonight, designed to look like the pillared entrance to a cavernous tomb. A sweeping staircase rises up one side to where Pinch, the band’s drummer, will take his position this evening for the last time.
Circus of Horrors has warmed up the crowd. And now behind, dominating the proceedings, is an enormous screen running a classic Hammer clip of a fanged Christopher Lee peering through ruined cathedral columns, with a blood-red colour wash.
First to appear is Monty Oxymoron to play the slow, haunting, piano introduction Beauty of the Beast.
The rich baritone of Vanian drifts in from the wings, at the same time as a slouched figure shuffles the full length of the stage, dressed in a mini-top hat, white frilled cravat, suit and tails. A cheer goes up as The Captain takes his place in front of the mini-orchestra pit which rises up the left hand side of the gantry. His Victorian undertaker look is given an air of cyberpunk by his sunglasses and bright green Converse. “Ladies and gentlemen…” he struggles for a moment to control a single piercing whine of guitar feedback, “…And the un-dead, ‘ow do?” He grins.
Wait for the Blackout fires up. A figure in ghostly makeup, wearing a black Tricorn hat and riding coat steps out. It spins and struts, rocking backwards as if astride some invisible galloping mount. Looking like a character from the American gothic horror Sleepy Hollow, Paul Gray slings a long-necked Rickenbacker bass.
A silhouetted Castle Dracula swept by fast moving black clouds is on the screen as Vanian dressed as the classic Bel Lugosi-style vampire in morning suit, white waistcoat and bowtie, cape and slicked back hair, emerges from behind the black curtain of the crypt. He takes centre stage and the crowd roars as his voice fills the hall.
Don’t you ask me to come out
When the sun does shine
Let us stay here with curtains drawn
In darkness you’ll be mine
Symbolically, this song is the opening track on The Black Album (1980). The Damned’s fourth, which marked their evolution from the diminishing punk scene, and placed them at the forefront of Goth subculture along with Bauhaus, The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Vanian motions to the upper tiers of the auditorium, sweeping his hand upwards, twirling and flailing his cloak in perfectly synchronised swirls. He comes down to the edge of the extended lower stage, up close to the front row. I can see Philippa, the art director, she is standing, rocking, flailing her hair. I see Vanian’s eyes flare up wild and demonic.
It’s an absolute treat. The band’s set has been arranged in two halves with an interval. The first half in my mind, leans towards the 80s post-punk Goth side of the band. It climaxes in a wonderful version of Eloise in which the mini orchestra conducted by a Vanian, completely in his element, really comes into its own. And draws to a close with the magnificent Curtain Call in its full 18 minute splendour.
After the interval, what appears to be Vanian still in his Lugosi outfit comes on, but is murdered by a Nosferatu character who turns out to be the real Dave. He has only gone and shaved his head half way through the show! The second set leans slightly towards the earlier material with Neat Neat Neat and New Rose. And of course there’s a generous splattering of Machine Gun Etiquette over both halves.
As musicians The Damned are now possibly at their peak, and this is shown by two fine renditions of classic songs, The Doors’ People Are Strange and Bauhaus’ Bela Lugosi’s Dead which creeps out in a medley in the middle of Neat Neat Neat.
Creatively, it seems the band are also at their zenith. Sensible, much loved for his gobby banter, appears almost deferential this evening which allows Vanian to truly shine. The frontman long ago perfected his Vampire stage persona. And tonight, as he elegantly ascends and descends the gantry, cape flying, eyes flaming, his sharpened teeth bared, we see the full repertoire of his well-practiced movie mannerisms in all their glory.
We are delighted by a fluid blend of music, performance and cinematic imagery. There is the gothic violin duel, the ventriloquist dummy singing on Dave’s knee, before jumping off and running away, the murder of the man from Guinness. Quite literally, our cup runneth over with blood, gore and gags.
The orchestra lay down their bows as Vanian stumbles backwards to the crypt and lays down in his coffin. The dying cymbal crashes of Black is the Night draw the entertainment to an end as he pulls the lid closed on himself.
“Thank you,” shouts Sensible as the audience cheer. “And thank you Pinch”. He turns to the drummer up on the gantry, now standing, waving, fangs gleaming. “Twenty years of chaos that bloke’s had to endure”. He has decided that this will be his final show as one of The Damned. He descends the stairway to take the mic and say his farewells and thank yous to a warm, cheering standing ovation.
I’m wondering how hot it must be for Dave, still in the coffin, as Pinch declares among his long list of thanks – “Dave Vanian, without whom all of this would not have happened”.
I’m struck by an unusual image of the singer furiously scribbling notes, calling people, having meetings, willing this monumental creation to come to life. Being in a band is a collaborative affair, I think, but surely only a man who has spent over forty years dressed as a vampire would have the audacity and drive to see a project like this through to its completion. Only a fanatic, I say to myself.
And then it dawns on me that I have the answer to my earlier question about Philippa, the art director and the other two thousand who have travelled from far and wide. It’s so clear, He is The Fanatic, and they are His Followers.
The Damned are renowned for being the first punk band to release a single, New Rose in 1976, and perhaps, after tonight, they will earn their vampire Guinness record. But perhaps historically something more significant has happened this evening. The Damned is a punk band standing on the threshold of musical theatre. It seems to me that the one small step required to potentially create a long running West End show along the lines of Queen’s We Will Rock You or Abba’s Mamma Mia, is a little narrative storyline.
Please note: Use of these images in any form without permission is illegal. If you wish to use/purchase or licence any images please contact Svenja Block at email@example.com.
‘Black Is The Night’ – The Definitive Anthology is out now!
All words by Phil Ross. More writing by Phil can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.