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Remember: Doll by Doll
21st October 2015

In 2007 I interviewed Jackie Leven in a bar on the South Bank for this article, written to coincide with the reissue of Doll by Doll’s four studio albums. The well-known monthly music magazine that commissioned me never published it. Earlier in 2015 I approached the same well-known monthly music magazine, now under a new editor, to see if they’d be interested. The new editor declined on the grounds that ‘no-one is interested in Doll by Doll’. Thought I might as well post here in just in case he’s wrong.

I kept in touch with Jackie after that first meeting. I last saw him in Exeter not long before he died. I bought him a pint of pear cider and we discussed working on a song together. He was the sort of person you couldn’t fail to notice. He was, too, a generous, good-humoured, warm-hearted man.

Remember: the story of Doll By Doll

You could read all the millions of words that have been written about the punk/new wave era and find just the scantest mention of Doll By Doll. Outsiders from the off, they collected a tiny, passionately loyal audience but never sold many records. And though they were loved by a few critics, many hated them. The recent CD reissue of all four of their albums breaks open the locks on one of the last great secret histories in rock.

In a time of short sharp songs and musical minimalism, Doll By Doll stretched out their fierce electric soul to prog-like lengths, playing like the old pros they really were. And if perpetually swimming against the tide whilst operating at a pitch of intensity rarely reached in music wasn’t enough, Doll By Doll also endured more than their fair share of record industry shenanigans. These not only damaged the band’s career when they were active but kept their four unique albums mired in archival purgatory for more than two decades. The recent Warners reissue programme is the first time the albums have been available since their original release (1978 – 82). You could almost believe they were cursed.

Doll By Doll were one of many bands termed new wave that were actually more than a little old wave. Think too of contemporaries The Only Ones, hiding Spooky Tooth’s drummer in their ranks. Leven himself had played in local bands and folk clubs in his native Scotland from the mid-1960s, and released an album of unusual acid-tinged folk (Control) in 1971, under his then stage name, John St Field. He spent much of the first half of that decade touring Europe supporting the likes of Necktar and Man, before fetching up in a squatted farmhouse in Dorset. There he met guitarist Jo Shaw and drummer David McIntosh, residents of neighbouring squats. These three would form the nucleus of Doll By Doll, eventually reconvening in West London just as punk was breaking out.

Although never a punk band, Doll By Doll played with something of the genre’s brute physicality, which partially accounts for – along with geographical proximity and plain lazy journalism – the new wave label. Leven comments that punk bands tended to project “cartoon violence”, whereas with Doll By Doll there was a sense of genuine menace which, he says, “wasn’t entirely unwarranted.” This came across in performances and even now stares out of photos of the band, as if they were defying anyone to actually like them and buy their records. Closer to thirty than twenty and dressed in Oxfam casuals, they came across somewhere between bohemian men of letters and dockers on a night out, looking for a fight.

Eye witness accounts talk of the band generating an almost supernatural sonic attack live. But the power was never just bluster, and Leven and cohorts could shift gear from a thunderous barrage to elegiac wistfulness in the course of a single song. Doll by Doll was a band with surplus talent. Leven sang as if directed by a higher power (you’re reminded of Tim Buckley, Scott Walker and some idealised deep soul baritone) while strumming an open-tuned Burns electric guitar with the easy confidence of a veteran. McIntosh was a nimble drummer who could sing harmony, and singer/guitarist Shaw formed the other half of a twin guitar attack as versatile as Television. Several bassists came and went during the band’s life. Leven was the main songwriter, though Shaw chipped in occasionally. Lyrically they walked a lonely road, with Leven formulating a foggy mysticism – “a land beyond the spoken word” – occasionally illuminated by flashes of insight or offset by quotidian domestic detail.

Not content with standing several degrees removed from prevailing musical trends, Doll By Doll eschewed the era’s fashionable causes like Rock Against Racism too. Not because they disagreed with them, but because they were set on being contrary. Instead they muttered darkly about mental illness and played benefits for the Philadelphia Association, the organisation fronted by the maverick psychiatrist RD Laing.

Despite being so obviously and deliberately out of step, and saddled with a reputation for hostility, Doll By Doll’s embarrassment of creative riches and Leven’s abundant natural charisma meant that got signed, and signed again. Their first home was a short-lived imprint called Automatic, connected to WEA. To this day Leven believes there was something “not right” in the set up, some unspoken, unresolved oddness behind the scenes. Meetings were awkward and things never quite added up. Even so, Automatic did initially push their new signings very hard.

Remember

Doll By Doll’s debut, Remember, appeared in March 1979 on the back of an extensive advertising campaign in the music press. A lush promo package of the album, featuring inserts printed on a sort of mock parchment, somehow found its way into the shops, too, alongside the official release.

The album is a lightly polished recording of Doll By Doll’s stage set, captured mostly live in the studio by Sex Pistols associate Bill Price, with a few vocal overdubs added as sweeteners. The sound is raw and hard, but it shows off the band’s chops – dextrous twin electric guitar interplay, multiple harmonies, and a songwriting sophistication learned in the old school. In fact, punkish energy aside the album is resolutely old school in many respects – five of the album’s seven songs clear five minutes, at a time when anything over three minutes was heresy. And the material ranges from pulverising hard rock to crooning white soul. The album closes with the ‘Palace Of Love’, the crescendo of Doll by Doll’s live set, cranked up to a climax of white noise, strobe lights, and remorseless rhythms that Leven says were inspired by The Velvets ‘Sister Ray’.

By this time a Doll By Doll shows provoked extreme responses. People tended to either become life converts on the spot or leave in disgust. That said, there was the occasional comic turn. “In a cataclysmic moment in heavy strobes at the end of ‘The Palace Of Love’ at The Marquee”, says Leven, “I tried to do a forward roll, misjudged where the stage was and broke the Burns [guitar] clean in two against a monitor. It made a fantastic clanging sound which Jo insisted came from his Strat.”

An edited version of ‘Palace Of Love’ – minus the discordant opening riff and the closing freak out – was released as the album’s single, with the classic ‘The Fountain Is Red, The Fountain Is White’ on the b-side (the latter added to the CD reissue). But both single and album were resolutely avoided by the public, despite the promotion. Indifferent reviews didn’t help, although Leven is keen to offer a corrective to the view that Doll By Doll were loathed by all music journalists. They weren’t, and got some good reviews – it’s just that some sections of the press actively detested them, and created a reputation that the band could never quite shake off. Leven likens this to “a kid in a family who is always in trouble, a black sheep who no-one likes”. Even when the behaviour that gave rise to the perception changes, the constraining stereotype remains.

Gypsy Blood

Disappointed by the commercial failure of Remember Doll By Doll moved quickly to record their second album because, as Leven says, “there was nothing else to do. Remember didn’t do at all well, we had the songs rehearsed, and we needed to get something else out.” Automatic Records kept faith although the second album, Gypsy Blood, was not promoted to the same extent as its predecessor. It seems to have been pressed in smaller numbers too, so while vinyl copies of Remember are easy enough to find Gypsy Blood is quite rare.

Although happy with the sound of Remember, for Gypsy Blood the band were keen to add more shades to their sound. The song selection is varied, ranging from the fast pop of ‘Teenage Lightning’, the single, to the poignant grandeur of ‘Strip Show’ and the stark final track, a musical setting of the Anna Akhmatova poem, ‘When A Man Dies’. Producer John Sinclair drafted in Graham Preskett to add violin and keyboards, and BJ Cole contributed pedal steel decorations. Female voices blend with the band’s harmonies, too.

All of this adds up to a work of depth and texture that stands up to repeated listening, and one that Leven is justifiably proud of, considering it touched by greatness. And he’s right. Reissue culture has spawned a chronic overuse of the term ‘lost classic’, but Gypsy Blood is one of the few fully deserving of that billing. Yet like its predecessor it sold poorly, not helped by Automatic’s decline as an effectively functioning label. It was clear that the band had to adapt to survive. They signed a new deal with Magnet, and toned down both sound and live performance in an attempt to pick up a bigger audience.

Doll By Doll

The move to Magnet seemed a curious one for a serious rock band. The label was owned and run by Michael Levy (later Lord Levy), and had a reputation for nurturing chart pop acts, pure and simple. On its roster at the time were Alvin Stardust, Darts and Bad Manners. But the label was keen to sign Doll By Doll, and worked to present the band as a more palatable prospect to the public.

The band changed, too, with the severe live shows replaced by a something more like a mainstream rock gig. Leven talks of the band’s uber-commited approach to performance as serving some cathartic purpose, and after Gypsy Blood they had “got something out of our system – we just couldn’t keep going like that any more” and “it began to feel false to pretend we were in this crazed, deeply intense state if we weren’t.” All of this might sound like a recipe for artistic compromise, yet from the shift came a good album.

Doll By Doll appeared in 1981 spawning two singles, ‘Main Travelled Roads’ and ‘Caritas’, the secound of which got the the vogue-ish extended 12” remix treatment. Production credits went to Jackie Leven himself and ‘Wild’ Tom Newman, who had Tubular Bells on his extensive CV. Newman had a mobile studio on which the basic backing tracks were recorded in the band’s rehearsal room. These were then taken into Utopia studios for overdubs and mixing. This yielded a bright, glossy sound, with the basic guitar band augmented by synths, accordion, mandolin and much more. Most of the songs were credited to the band – a departure – with the exception of ‘Main Travelled Roads’ to Leven, and ‘The Street I Love’ to Shaw.

‘Main Travelled Roads’ remains Doll By Doll’s best-known song, and the subject of some controversy. An epic ballad of cryptic lyricism couched in lush synth orchestrations and ringing guitars, it secured much airplay and was almost a hit. The problem was that people kept on saying that the melody was a dead ringer for the Johnny Mathis/Donny Osmond song ‘The Twelfth Of Never’. The publishers of said standard thought so, anyway, and according to Leven sent an angry communication pointing this out. But Leven’s song was actually based on a traditional Scottish ballad, ‘The Bonnie Earl O’Moray’, the notation of which Leven duly sent back in response, after which nothing more was heard of the matter.

‘Main Travelled Roads’ was the song that got Doll By Doll signed to Magnet. Michael Levy was particularly taken with it’s parting shot – ‘eternal is the warrior, who finds beauty in his wounds’ – and was disconcerted when he came to see the band live, only to hear Leven sing ‘eternal is the warrior, who finds sooty in his womb’.

Leven thinks of Doll By Doll as “a really good pop album”, a fair assessment. The songs were structurally straightforward, lacking the thrillingly disorientating twists of the first two albums, but they were songs of substance nonetheless. Perhaps only the band’s difficult reputation and simple bad luck prevented it from being a hit.

Yet while the musical change in direction was a qualified success on record, as a live act the band lost direction, unable to find a plausible on-stage identity to replace the borderline psychosis of old. A German TV appearance with a not-quite-comfortable looking Leven (now on YouTube) bears this out. Without any real commercial breakthrough to boost flagging spirits weariness and doubt crept in. Leven felt that the band were becoming “just another rock act”.

The end came in Newcastle over the August bank holiday weekend, 1981, at the Rock On The Tyne festival. Doll By Doll occupied a lowly place on a bill that included Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and U2. Leven remembers being halfway through a song and looking out to see the collective attention of the audience diverted to the coming man, Bono, who was simply walking through the crowd. Then during the closing number he realised the band was playing to no drums, and that Dave McIntosh was nowhere to be seen. Leven quickly wound up the set, sloped off to scattered applause and went into the dressing room to find the missing drummer watching TV and eating a sandwich. Challenged as to why he’d left the stage prematurely McIntosh replied “I thought we’d finished” – and soon they were. Leven broke up the band shortly afterwards. “Our huge psycho-rock experiment had unquestionably failed”, he says. But he took the Doll By Doll name back to Magnet for one last try.

Grand Passion

The final album under the Doll by Doll name was made by Leven, the previously unfamiliar Helen Turner as co-vocalist, and a shifting cast of session players. Tom Wilson again co-produced with Leven. The album provides further supporting evidence of Magnet’s notion of Leven as a pop star – the back cover photo casts him as a smouldering, big-haired Byronic romantic, supplanting the hoodlum poet of old. And more than any other Doll By Doll album, Grand Passion conformed to the production norms of the day. Being 1982, that means big gated drums and layered synths. It’s a strong set of (ten) Leven songs, finely sung, but its balance is upset somewhat by the inclusion of a cover of the Stones’ ‘Under My Thumb’, actually recorded by the old band. Magnet chose to issue this as the album’s single, thereby depriving radio listeners the chance to hear the tangible vocal chemistry between Leven and Turner.

Leven had come across Turner at Utopia Studios during the making of Doll By Doll. He detected in her stentorian delivery something of Nico, but she also had the range, versatility and power of contemporary white soul singers like Alison Moyet. The pair combined to great effect on ‘Strong Hands’, ‘Cool Skies’ and ‘Lonely Kind Of Show’, and Turner takes lead on the keening ballad, ‘So Long Kid.’ Ironically for a band so associated with Leven’s stirring voice, it was this song with closed Grand Passion, providing the full stop to Doll By Doll’s public story, although behind the scenes there was an epilogue to play out.

By the time Grand Passion was released Leven was in conflict with Michael Levy in particular and Magnet in general, principally because they wouldn’t pay him what he thought he was due. He recalls going to the Magnet office every day for two weeks, before finally extracting a cheque for much less than what he felt he was owed. He and Turner – by now linked romantically as well as professionally – went on strike, hiding away in a remote beach-side cottage for six months and refusing to promote the album. There were no big announcements of a split, no farewell tours. Rather this most intense of bands just quietly wound down.

After Doll By Doll Leven released two singles for Charisma in a similar pop/soul vein to Grand Passion, before an unprovoked street attack strangulation left him unable to sing and addicted to heroin. He eventually turned this adversity to a sort of triumph by forming the CORE trust, a holistic addiction charity, with which he remains associated. It wasn’t until the 1990s that he re-emerged on Cooking Vinyl for a low key solo career. Jo Shaw joined The Pretty Things for a spell and now designs recording studios. Dave McIntosh teamed up with Glen Matlock to do sessions. Through the 90s the trio would periodically reunite to perform live as Doll By Doll, and could do so again. An album of unreleased material recorded concurrently with Grand Passion may be released later this year.

Twenty five years after his band fell apart Leven sinks in the embrace of a capacious sofa in a bar on the South Bank, looking back on what was, and what might have been. The mad-eyed stare has mellowed to a rogueish glint, and you sense that it means a lot to him and his old band to have this music that cost them so much to make available again. He spots a terrier separated from its owner scurrying about outside and likens Doll By Doll to that little dog – lost, cold, alone and frightened. It’s a touching but oddly vulnerable image to apply to a band notorious in their time for aggression, belligerence and damaged power. But there was fragility in Doll By Doll, a bark and a bite, certainly, but a searching lostness too. And their greatness resides in their ability to combine all of this into rock music of rare profundity. Remember.

March 2007