Phantom's Divine Comedy, Part 1 (1974)

As hard to believe as it may be, it has now been more than 50 years since the death of Jim Morrison, the legendary lead singer of the Doors, who died at age 27 in Paris, France in 1971 under unclear circumstances. Because the circumstances of his death are so mysterious – only a few people saw his body, no autopsy was performed, his coffin was closed – many conspiracy theorists have postulated that Morrison actually faked his 1971 death to escape from the trappings of fame, and that the rock legend was actually living a secret life somewhere, somehow, some way. Those who were in particular denial about Morrison’s passing had predicted that the Lizard King would later reveal himself to be alive and well, and would make a grand comeback – possibly under another guise.

And in 1974, some people were convinced that Morrison was, in fact, re-entering the world – musically and otherwise – under the guise of a mysterious band called Phantom. This band released its only album, titled Phantom’s Divine Comedy, Part 1, on Capitol Records that year. The vocalist on this album often sounded so much like Morrison that it was downright eerie. The credits were as vague as can be, crediting the songwriting, vocals, and some instrumentation only to Phantom, suggesting that it was the work of (literally or figuratively) the "phantom" of Jim Morrison.

Capitol Records capitalized on this phenomenon. Sales of the album were boosted by rumors that Phantom was actually a pseudonymous Jim Morrison, and the label allowed the Morrison rumors to continue by not denying them. But the label was soon threatened with legal action by Elektra Records, the company that distributed the Doors’ music. After this development, the Phantom album – as well as the band – quickly disappeared from view. (There was no Divine Comedy, Part 2).

Decades later, the true identities of Phantom were finally revealed. The Morrison-like lead singer was actually one Arthur Pendragon (aka Ted Pearson), who also played lead guitar and piano, and wrote all of the songs. (Pendragon reportedly committed suicide in March 1999). The drummer (credited only as “X”) was James Roland, the bass (credited to “Y & W”) was primarily played by Harold Breedless, and the keyboards (credited to “Z”) were played by Russ Klatt. The band was based in Detroit, Michigan, and was previously called Walpurgis. The album’s production was credited to Hideout Productions; it was actually produced by the duo of Gary Gawinek and Punch Andrews, the latter of whom was the producer of many Bob Seger albums. Andrews was reportedly the one who wanted the album to have its Doors-like sound, and pitched it to Capitol Records as such a work, but it’s not clear who masterminded the (intentional?) deception about who recorded it.

Phantom’s Divine Comedy, Part 1 still has a cult following, particularly among Doors cognoscenti, some of whom still seem to cling to the belief that Phantom was a living Jim Morrison in disguise. The album was reissued on CD by One Way Records in 1993 (One Way S21 56842), and on vinyl LP by Sunday Records in 2013 (Sunday 0109), but is not currently available as of this writing.

So, how is this album? It’s very good, actually. Although Pendragon’s vocals are sometimes slavishly Morrison-like, and his guitar-playing sometimes recalls that of Robby Krieger, Phantom’s Divine Comedy would have marked quite a musical departure if it had been recorded by Morrison and/or the Doors. Although the record’s sound had roots in the same school of ‘60’s psychedelia, it was more in tune with ‘70’s progressive rock concept albums, and now comes across like an early prototype of Goth metal. Pendragon wrote fairy tale lyrics about wizards and demons, quite unlike Morrison’s writing, but most of the lyrics in the four songs that make up the album’s Prelude section are not such a far cry from Morrison’s brand of acid poetry. The album does have a moody atmosphere comparable to that of a Doors album, but it has its own horror-movie-like tones and textures befitting its conceptual tale (based on Dante's Inferno) of a magician who sold his soul. The piano and keyboard sounds would only occasionally be mistaken for the work of Ray Manzarek. In fact, the album’s second side sounds less like the Doors and more like British metal.

Discovering this album in 2022 is analogous to stumbling upon a found-footage horror movie about the ghost of Jim Morrison, especially when you learn of the Blair Witch Project-like reputation it had in its day. Or, you can think of it as a soundtrack to a Yesterday-like fantasy film in which Morrison turns out to still be alive circa 1974. But better yet, you can simply appreciate Phantom’s Divine Comedy, Part 1 for what it is: a fascinating, well-made album that is a lost gem of the prog-rock era, and a precursor for future doom metal works.

Phantom’s Divine Comedy has been much-bootlegged in Europe, and bootleggers on that continent also purveyed a supposed Lost Album by Phantom, claiming that its tracks were early recordings from 1973 by the same band. However, bootleggers are not known for being reliable sources of accurate information. The tracks on this bootleg were actually demos which were recorded five years later in 1978 by another Arthur Pendragon-led band, which was called Pendragon. The first track, “Your Life”, is certainly on the order of the Divine Comedy album, with raspier Morrison-like vocals and lyrics about a wizard. However, the next four tracks find Pendragon trying to emulate Bruce Springsteen, in terms of vocals, lyrics, and instrumentation. (This would have been quite a remarkable approach if the tracks actually had been recorded in ’73, when Springsteen was not yet a household name). The last two tracks, “Release Me” and “Sailing Away”, return to the Doors-like sound and mysticism, although these demos do not possess the moody atmosphere or mystique of the Divine Comedy album. If the band called Pendragon had recorded a finished album, these demos suggest that they could have either gone the way of a less dark Divine Comedy, Part 2, or of an earthy and less conceptual rock album on the order of Springsteen’s Born To Run, and they could have done a good job of either with a good producer. But for those who wish to continue fantasizing that Phantom was a secret Jim Morrison or Doors project, the final track “Sailing Away” is the one they will enjoy the most.


Phantom's Divine Comedy - Phantom's Divine Comedy, Part 1

Phantom “Phantom’s Divine Comedy, Part 1” (Capitol ST-11313) 1974

Track Listing:

Intro

1. Tales From A Wizard

Prelude

2. Devil’s Child
3. Calm Before The Storm
4. Half A Life
5. Spiders Will Dance (On Your Face While You Sleep)

Wizard

6. Black Magic, White Magic
7. Merlin

Entrance

8. Stand Beside My Fire
9. Welcome To Hell


Phantom's Divine Comedy - The Lost Album

Phantom “The Lost Album” (bootleg) (Ghost GR-12-1000) 1990

Track Listing:

1. Your Life: Tales From The Wizard
2. Queen Of Air
3. Lone Wolf
4. Storms
5. The Music Rolls On
6. Release Me
7. Sailing Away

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