Doll by Doll: Endgame

What just happened? Who were these guys that had just played the most intense show I’ve witnessed in ten years of relentless gig-going?

By spring 1978 punk’s seismic shockwaves had smoothed out into a less threatening catch-all umbrella the music business liked to call new wave. It suited safer new trends such as power-pop but, with rare exceptions like The Clash and Motörhead, the previous year’s thrills and danger seemed to be steadily diluting to a point where I was wondering how to keep my Zigzag magazine in the fire and away from this rather dull new frying pan and punk’s degeneration into parody.

Zigzag March 1979. Kris Needs Archive.

Then a towering new inferno came to town which, it’s safe to say now, changed many of my perceptions of life on several levels, starting with some of the most mind-blowingly powerful music I had ever heard and, as it turned out, would ever hear. The band was called Doll By Doll (the name taken from an e.e. cummings poem). Too extreme for their time and any long-term career, they barely lasted five years and, having largely escaped the retro-hipness bestowed on many lesser talents from that era, now seem almost forgotten beyond the lifelong loyal cult following who stand as fellow devotees scarred for life. I’ve written about Doll By Doll and their leader Jackie Leven many times, but never accompanied by the detail and background knowledge I’ve gained since.

Here’s what happened…

A friend called Mark runs the weekly Acme club in a grimy backroom behind the down-at-heel Buckingham Arms in Aylesbury, mainly to give local bands a place to play. There was no stage, one light and minimal PA system but we saw it as our Roxy and I started DJing by playing Motörhead and reggae pre-releases during intervals.

One day in May 1978, Mark is excited about an unknown band from London he’s booked after their manager rang up asking for a gig. All we know is that the band hail from West London’s squatting community, donate their gig money to R.D. Laing’s Philadelphia Association charity for the mentally challenged that society has pushed under the carpet and, although they’ve played around 80 gigs, have never been reviewed in the press. They are also said to be immensely exciting and very psychedelic.

Hearing all this sparked a curious gut feeling that, after witnessing this band, I may come out tilted to a different angle but nothing could prepare me for what I saw that night or its deep long-lasting impact.
The few locals gathered in that small room barely notice the four musicians pick up their instruments. The guitarist’s black leather jacket is their only concession to current fashions. The towering, unruly giant cradling a guitar next to him grabs the microphone and looks like he’s about to use it as a deadly weapon. Suddenly the PA sparks into life with a jagged guitar fanfare that quickly drops to the menacing double-echo thud of a bass drum heartbeat. It sounds like a firing-squad.

A voice comes from the giant behind the microphone and cuts through the smoky air like a steel comb. “All my friends…” (lengthy cliffhanger pause) “…were waiting…” (another gap) “…in a room at the motel” (deafening silence) “…just to wish me luck on the day I entered hell.” Doll By Doll launch into ‘Butcher Boy’, a merciless onslaught that stuns the crowd into rapt but uneasy silence. It’s followed by the seething trawl of ‘Chances’, whose mid-section eruption is the first of several stretches where it’s as if each musician is plugged into their own supernatural electric chair; gesticulating, shuddering and slashing to a mind-frying climax with an intensity almost frightening to behold. The song then resumes as if nothing has happened, apart from a few twitches and howls of trembling feedback.

They play more songs that grasp for ecstatic heights and subterranean depths usually left alone in modern music, whether opening up raw wounds of harrowing memories or unexpectedly unleashing a dazzling bolt of sweeping romance that caresses hearts pumping with fearful adrenalin in opiated rapture. They play skin-crawling confessional ‘More Than Human’, gorgeous ballad ‘Janice’ with its broken-hearted coda “Walking barefoot through the snow, baby please don’t go” and the harrowing ‘Sleeping Partner’, that hops from instant pop chorus to filthy, leering deluge in the blink of an eye. The epic ‘An Honest Woman’ begins with the singer’s desolate acapella, “I walk the faded fields of Fifeshire with a sadness in my eyes, where the viaduct and vapour trails have worn away the sky” before the band commence their climb to its fearful climax.

The singer is Jackie Leven, who likes to give each song a short, often self-deprecating introduction in his soft, Scottish burr and starts smiling as the crowd, whose silent shock is turning to unfettered joy that a band so confrontational yet deeply moving can actually exist and has chosen our tiny club to manifest in, spurs his band on into the performance of their lives.

After ‘The Palace Of Love’ hits its final verse; (“I love stealing fuck magazines and tearing them apart/Last might one exploded and a page blew in my heart/and as I looked to see which picture caused my mortal wound/a woman who had trusted me was drowning in my blood”) it rears into a cacophonic feedback onslaught that sounds like the screaming rush of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ being re-enacted by Hendrix. Guitarist Jo Shaw is doubled over his AC30 and, by the relentless steamhammer crunch of the coda, all three front men are in various stages of close proximity to the floor, Robin Spreafico nursing his flat-out bass like a fallen war comrade while drummer Dave McIntosh annihilates his drum-kit. One last gasp feedback shriek and Doll By Doll walk away from the performance corner. The crowd goes crazy now so they walk back, encore with a time-stopping ballad then retire to the public bar next door.

What just happened? Who were these guys that had just played the most intense show I’ve witnessed in ten years of relentless gig-going? I had to know more and, quite nervous after what I’ve just seen, approach them as they sit nursing their drinks. All four turn out to be very friendly and even buoyant, over the moon to have hit it off with an out of town crowd and now a Rock Writer that loved them at first sight. Before I rushed off to stop the presses and hand-write their first review anywhere for Zigzag, we exchange numbers and arrange to meet again soon.

Doll By Doll’s next nearest gig is at High Wycombe’s Nag’s Head. Deciding without any hesitation to give them four pages in the next issue, I arrange to meet Jackie and Jo in Aylesbury first, where we will do the interview before travelling to Wycombe about half an hour away. That’s the plan anyway. Walking through the subway (where it’s said the tramp-kicking sequence in A Clockwork Orange was filmed), we’re greeted by two familiar figures coming the other way, looking grim and battered. Jackie and Jo have come straight from the hospital and haven’t slept.

As we walk to a friend’s nearby flat, they recount being attacked last night after playing the Tidal Basin Tavern in Victoria Docks. Back then, East London’s dockland area was still dark, decaying and dangerous. This long-closed but only recently demolished day-time strip-pub was a notoriously violent shit-hole. Jo needed chest X-rays and treatment for a smashed mouth and lost teeth, Dave the drummer suffered a fractured jaw that required stitching up and Bruce the manager had deep head lacerations. Jackie escaped injury, past experiences (including jail) teaching him that steaming in himself would have been a kamikaze move for everyone. Instead, he forced himself to maintain an unconcerned detachment despite the mental torture of stepping over his bleeding friends.

“It was definitely set up to be an intensive care job,” he says. “Very nasty. About thirty of them and six of us. It stopped at a kicking but there’s no doubt that if all of us had waded in to help the three who were being smashed we might have ended up floating in the dock.” Later, he laughs weakly and say, “I don’t think we’ve had an indifferent reaction yet.”

Tonight’s gig is initially touch and go but the band decided to gamble on adrenalin and painkillers getting them through and don’t want to blow out their first press interview. Easing themselves into big easy chairs at a friend’s flat, Jackie and Jo commence telling their story for over two hours that still rank among the most riveting interviews of my journalistic career. Jackie does most of the talking, brandishing dramatic charisma and a way with a tale honed through over ten years trying to win over rock and folk club audiences. As I soon learn, he’s prone to making sometimes shocking statements quietly for maximum dramatic effect or lengthy, convoluted explanations that sometimes sound like he’s finding something out for himself in what is basically Doll By Doll’s first press interview. With that gently intense Scottish brogue illuminated by his mesmerising eyes, it’s all about the way he tells them. Meanwhile, Jo is the devoted lieutenant, a quiet virtuoso who shares vocals and sends soaring counter harmonies over Jackie’s roaring angels and demons. His comments are more direct affirmations of what Jackie’s trying to get across. Both men are 27 while, like this writer, bassist Robin and drummer Dave are 24. All seem much older than me and their years, especially Jackie, who carries the hard knocks wisdom of someone twice his age.

Jackie was born in 1950 into a Romany family in Kirkaldy, Fife, moving four miles away to Glenrothes in time to start school. As one of the first Scottish new towns, Glenrothes was a violent cauldron of conflicting cultures and religions, Jackie’s Romany background leading to him being persecuted at school. He played truant often and learned how to defend himself at a young age but felt free and most alive when roaming the nearby glens and fields on his own, building burial mounds for small animals and birds he stumbled on. That’s how he became a lifelong loner.

Jackie’s mother loved American blues by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Big Bill Broonzy, which he heard along with ancient songs of Fifeshire and the Beatles as he leaned to play guitar and discovered he was blessed with a remarkably powerful voice. By his early teens, Jackie was playing his own blues songs in folk clubs and with local bands, including the psychedelic Deflecting Grey and poetry-based St Judas (named after a James Wright poem). Although married at 16 and working in a factory, proud Romany Jackie became a target for a vicious local gang, whose reign of terror drove him out of Scotland to several years wandering Europe and sleeping rough. “I thought, ‘Fuck this, I’m gonna get out of Scotland and see what the world’s all about’.”

He supported himself by playing folk clubs (as John St Field), busking around Ireland, Berlin and Madrid (where he made an album in 1971 called Control) and bedding down on the roof of the Hayward Gallery at London’s recently-constructed Southbank Centre. “I’ve been on the line a few times,” he says, mentioning incarceration for violence (at Birmingham’s notorious Steelhouse prison), two further marriages and mental pinball struggles exacerbated by potent LSD. Squatting around the UK brought him to the forsaken area near Warwick Avenue tube station that, at the time, was like a forgotten city within a city (and had already spawned Joe Strummer’s 101’ers). Like an isolated colony for those who society had cast aside or who rejected the cruel indifference of corporate culture, the area was populated by hardcore junkies, violent Scottish hard cases and burnt-out hippies, who Jackie met and befriended along with some who had mental problems that had been mishandled or ignored (Jackie liked to quote American poet Theodore Roethke’s declaration “for what is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?”)

Jackie had first met Jo around 1974 when both were in Dorset, but they went their separate ways. Jo went to New York and played sessions at Electric Lady Studios (including with soul titans Chairmen of the Board) and in Hamburg and Berlin where, after meeting Bowie and Iggy, he experienced the city’s most extreme creative enclaves. Jackie had been groomed as a solo artist by MCA in Europe, “and had nervous breakdowns supporting bands like Nektar” doing “more or less stand up Lenny Bruce-style rants interspersed with really hard songs” (Elsewhere he would later describe this act as “like Billy Connelly on acid”).

When the pair found themselves squatting in the same neighbourhood in 1977 they decided to form a band, playing Jackie’s songs at first. They gained self-described “Dutch peasant” (though Italian-born) bassist Robin Spreafico and drummer Dave McIntosh, both vulnerable souls who’d fought their own battles. Finally, in October 1977, Doll By Doll was born and, after making their live debut in front of a bonfire on a Kennington bomb-site, played anywhere that would have them, including London pubs that weren’t considered major venues in the pub-rock hierarchy but put on bands.

Advertisement for Peter Robinson’s ASYLUM.

Jackie gives me a Doll by Doll “press kit” comprising specially-typed out lyrics, including the e.e. cummings poem from which they took their name; “He really touched my heart, it’s like a beautiful, innocent idea of romance that I believe everyone harbours.” There’s a flyer for Asylum, the 1974 film shot in one of Laing’s houses, a promotional photo that is not of the band and a press release (headed “KEEP DEATH ON THE STAGE”) that doubles as information sheet about the Philadelphia Association. The latter highlights the fact that “There have been no suicides” at the community houses run by R.D. Laing’s organisation, despite the absence of tranquilizers or sedatives. It continues “At present there are 50 places available within these alternative asylums, occupied by a wide cross section of people who feel that society is destroying them or have been labelled ‘mad’. These houses are run on a totally self-governing basis. The professional personnel who give their services to this radical approach to “mental illness” are unpaid. Establishment psychiatry and its associated sources of finance have shunned the Association and the implications of its success rate; there is no money available except in the form of private donations.

Lyric sheet – The Palace of Love. Kris Needs Archive.

“THINK ABOUT THIS: One in ten people in this country are hospitalized because of ‘mental problems’ in the course of their lives (for women the ratio is one in six). ‘Insanity’ and ‘stress’ are problems which science seems to be contributing to rather than solving. You can spend an evening in the company of the most untranquilized band in the land – DOLL BY DOLL – in return for a donation to the Philadelphia Association. The amount is your concern.”

Jackie, who says the cause “suddenly seemed appropriate” when Doll by Doll started receiving fan letters from P.A. residents who’d seen them play, explains, “All they do is, they get any houses they can and, say you had a nervous breakdown or just felt like you couldn’t cope in any way at all and it was obvious to everyone around you. They’re all saying ‘Kris has gone a bit nuts, better tell his folks.’ There’s a chance you’d get committed. What happens here – and that R. D. Laing believes – is something like a nervous breakdown can be an extremely enlightening experience, rather than something which is slightly toilet-ish in inference, and you can go there. The houses are run on a self-governing basis. You’re in there with a lot of people who have diverse reactions to the same problem. It’s up to you to work it out. You can take as long as you want. It’s an alternative to ECT. It’s as simple as that. It’s more than frowned upon though and they’re hassled quite heavily in quite subtle ways.

“I find it very healthy to raise money for them in relation to a lot of the other dubious causes flying around at the moment, plus there’s nobody else doing anything for these people. These people are in trouble. Big trouble. Sometimes it’s not much but the fact is, it’s money they didn’t have before, and we’ve had the experience of playing the venue.”

The band members survive by working various day jobs and living in the squats. Jackie is a necromancer, who “reveals the future through communication with the dead. Half my family is Romany gypsy and it’s just the thing that’s been passed on down. It’s very much word-of-mouth. I’ve got a good name with a lot of people who want to know particular things like that and get more people than I can handle because I find it very draining.”

Doll by Doll’s posters, badges, giant stage backdrop and first album cover depict the tortured (or ecstatic) imprisoned face of French poet and Theatre of Cruelty founder Antonin Artaud, who Jackie deeply admires. He shows me a book of Artaud’s poems, reads out “The image of the world’s madness is incarnate in a tortured man” and explains, “That’s very much at the basis of my spiritual motivation.” He goes on to explain how Artaud was consigned to seven years of ECT “for telling the truth. People that tell the truth didn’t do well in Artaud’s day. They still don’t.”

Kris Needs Archive.

That press photo, which they insist is used with the feature, eschews the usual cool band shot in favor of four elderly mental asylum residents. “There’s no pre-conceived ideas about us at all that way,” explains Jo. “I think it’s a better idea in the sense that rock music has become such a visual trip,” adds Jackie. “You look at a band and think, ‘Oh yes, I can relate to this band because they’ve done their hair like this.’ It’s a lot better if they come along and they don’t compare what they see with this preconceived image. Who needs it? I don’t think it’s doing us any harm.”

With Jackie’s vivid, intensely personal songs betraying his wounded, turbulent past, Doll By Doll almost seem like a last chance saloon for its members but, at this point, they’re still working out how it will evolve. That will happen on the stage rather than through any sit-down planning. As Jackie says with a little chuckle, “We need to do a certain amount of work because of the intensity of the set we’ve got, otherwise we’d probably kill each other. It’s very much like we’re playing it all by ear. It looks as if in a lot of way’s there’s a devastating amount of planning and strategy and tactical experience gone into this, but in actual fact we’ve just played it by ear all the way. I think we’re good enough to take on all-comers, which is the assumption we’re working under. We’re not rushing it. The right record company will come along. If they’ve got any sense they’ll see it. It’ll be apparent because, what we’re doing has been neglected for so long…and I can’t define what we’re doing! It’s not a question of we have to worry about the record companies. We’re doing the work, it’s up to them really. We’re out on a limb. It’s going to be difficult to pigeonhole us in any way, but it doesn’t really bother me if they do. It’d be quite silly to call us a punk band; we’re quite big lads and we’ve been around for a while. We’re not pretending we haven’t.”

It has to be remembered that Doll By Doll were flying against punk rock’s gale-force wind when they appeared. By then, the traditions and uniforms punk had initially set out to destroy had turned into a new set of rules based on cartoon travesties and Mohican-growing contests. The Pistols were already gone and The Clash would soon get it in the neck for progressing into the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll that reached its zenith on London Calling. Doll by Doll were more extreme and “street” than any punk outfit but suffered similar lambasting, exacerbated by being too old, too musical, too heavy, too romantic or often just too different from the desperate retro-squeaking proliferating at that time.

When I took Mick Jones to see Doll By Doll at the Marquee it hit him even deeper than he let on, remarking a few years ago, “I followed them for quite a while. I admired Jackie Leven very much. He’d been there, he’d lived it, and that came across in his songs.”

The e.e.cummings poem with Jackie Leven’s handwriting. Kris Needs Archive.

“We were playing music that was very fierce and were coming up against audiences that were very volatile,” said Jackie later. “It’s a myth to think that punk, as we now know it, was all that there was. There was a mutual sense of surprise between bands and audiences that something unexpected was happening all over London. I was excited by punk and we really appreciated its energy, but we had decided to get together and put together a ferocious band without having much awareness of the punk thing happening around us. We were intimidating. Punk was like going to a funfair where some of the rides were scary but you knew in advance you were going to be scared. Even in our live shows where we were absolutely exhilarating, people would love what we were doing but would go away thinking, ‘I never want to see these fucking bastards again my life’. We did like the fact that people were both exhilarated and shell-shocked. We were actually on a real high most of the time even though we were portrayed as being unhappy and unhinged.”

At this point I should emphasize that most of the time I spent around Doll by Doll was enlivened by humour, if often of a matt black hue. During many lone conversations with Jackie, after a couple of hours he started uncovering hidden emotions or events that even shocked him as they led to further revelations. It seemed that extreme emotions, such as anger, agony, deep melancholy or self-doubt, were woken up by the performances.
“I have got a sense of humour but I’m not primarily interested in rock ‘n’ roll as a source of entertainment,” he declares. “I think it’s a source of information. I don’t think any of us would disagree that, in a lot of senses, we privately feel that time is running out, and a lot of people feel there’s a limit to the energy they’ve got to use in entertainment and things like that. The main thing about doing this is that it’s given me enough insights into what is necessary to happen in rock, rather than what will happen. To feel that this band has a very good chance of doing something important for an awful lot of people.”

Doll By Doll often seemed like a mental life-raft for its members (and some of the audience); a real attempt at becoming one of those special bands that may not sell many records but would leave a mark once the intensity of their short existence had burnt out.

“I think it’s very much that we don’t compromise and we have a show that’s got structure and which has got a real sense of dynamics,” says Jackie. “If you’re at a vulnerable point in your life and take the whole show in, then there’s no doubt it’ll have the effect it’s designed to have and is going to turn you right round to have a look at yourself. If you don’t like what you see in the mirror it’s not our fault. We’re only pointing out that facility exists, and that’s why I think we got all shit smashed out of us last night. It’s the same sort of thing.”
“We point out certain things they would not like to accept,” adds Jo.

“Things that even we would not like to accept,” says Jackie, “but the fact is we’re in the band. I think we give people a sense of loss, but they have a basic feeling of admiration towards themselves that they’ve been able to admit it. We want people to face the reality of their own life. The crux of it is that we reduce people to individuals rather than encourage a sense of false comradeship the way bands like the Tom Robinson Band do. It’s not us against them because I don’t believe there is a them. It’s you and me as far as I’m concerned. That’s what it comes down to.”

In 1978, a time when macho male swagger still ruled genres such as rock and punk, such blunt honesty is unusual and brave. I have to ask Jackie how audiences react to such a candid keyhole peek at one man’s past problems and nightmares? He replies without missing a beat.

“One thing we’ve noticed a lot recently is that the degree of upfront emotion turns a lot of people off initially, especially punk audiences. They find it very uncomfortable; ‘Hey, this guy’s singing about being hurt and bewildered.’ But eventually you hit ‘em with something that’s so strong as a piece of pure rock that eventually they’re back there listening. That’s the way the whole set’s designed – to catch every fucker one way, and having got them, not let them go… I hope. We do get an aggressive vibe sometimes. It’s just unfortunate. We don’t go out for it. I don’t think we’re aggressive on stage, we don’t go out to cause an aggressive reaction, and I don’t think the songs are aggressive in content either. I think they’ve got animalistic power but it’s not like striptease violence or anything.”

The interview ends when it’s time to leave for High Wycombe. This is going to be interesting and different from that first show as now I know a little more about this band, although now the main concern is simply whether they’ll make it through the set. The little Nag’s Head loft, which has recently played host to The Clash, the Heartbreakers and Siouxsie and the Banshees, is reasonably populated for a band with no press or records behind them.

Jackie walks out under the lights, grabs the microphone and announces, “We’re Doll by Doll. Last night we played at a place called Holly’s in Silvertown, which is near the Royal Victoria Dock, in the dockland of East London. The drummer has a fractured jaw and a lot of stitches, and the lead guitarist has a few teeth missing. Between us we’ve just under 300 stitches, so we’re not going to play too long a set tonight.”

Over an hour later, Doll By Doll are trying to put the brakes on a devastating ‘The Palace Of Love’, whose end section has scrambled into a screeching cacophony that seems to be funneling all the fear, anger and pain of last night’s attack into a tidal wave of deafening, shattering power. But before that there have been some amazing ballads, including the beautiful Soho-at-night soul of ‘Stripshow’, although a cataclysmic ‘An Honest Woman’ provides tonight’s out of-body moment.

After this, around half a dozen Aylesbury friends form Doll By Doll’s first out-of-town fan-base, following them where we can while they become a vital crusade in my magazine. The band continue playing the Home Counties to reactions ranging from ecstatic conversion to hostile from those who take exception to any deviations from the junior punk rulebook. That first article seemed to change Doll by Doll’s fortunes overnight. With Zigzag‘s office acting as a kind of clearing house for enquiries, including eager record companies, it wasn’t long before the gigs got better and a deal was signed with Automatic, a new label distributed through Warner Bothers started by Nick Mobbs, the man who signed the Sex Pistols to EMI but was then forced to dump them.

The mainstream press start covering Doll By Doll, including future tabloid TV critic Garry Bushell in Sounds. After witnessing Doll By Doll at London’s Speakeasy, he describes them as “different, disturbingly so. They’re not easy, they’re thought-provoking and they defy definition.” Melody Maker’s Ian Birch reveals himself as a more committed early champion and also secures them a page feature. Asked about the Artaud image, Jackie explains, “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I do relate to him as a personality very strongly. Artaud wrapped up some aspects of the human condition so well that there’s no point in re-treading the ground. The criticism that we get is that we’re pushing the line that despair and anguish are groovy, whereas to me that was the last thing Artaud was about. He puts his finger on things so cannily.”

Remember is recorded through January, live at Wessex Studios with the late Bill Price, who I first met when he engineered for Mott The Hoople and had recently enabled the Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks. Next he would help The Clash record London’s Calling; all in this same converted church studio with its wooden paneling.

It’s ecstatic and life-affirming to finally hear Doll By Doll’s multi-hued acid rock on record, and something of a triumph to see them being released through a major label in these new wave-drenched times. Crucially, they capture the full-tilt ferocity and whisper-scream dynamics of the live show on a blood-freezing ‘Butcher Boy’, the multi-storied catharsis of ‘Chances’, true life horror story ‘Sleeping Partner’ (about a brutally murdered former lover), slow-grind menace of ‘More Than Human’, Jo’s narcotic love celebration ‘Lose Myself’, ‘Janice’ as a poignant Sam Cooke ballad crowned with gorgeous vocal harmonies and, finally, ‘The Palace Of Love’.

The orgasm of power and terror that guillotines Doll by Doll’s live set is all there and closes the album in a blaze of cathartic noise (and is curiously edited down to the song section for their first single). With the benefit of studio technology, the songs gain an extra presence that can see guitars glowing like precious stones in a treasure chest of snakes and Jackie’s voice assumes a mesmerizing power sometimes lost at gigs.

Kris Needs Archive

Doll By Doll’s press officer at Warner Brothers is the esteemed Mick Houghton (who annotated their 2007 reissue campaign and recalls Jackie and Jo turning up for their first meeting reinforced by strong LSD). This time I put Doll By Doll on the cover of Zigzag with a photo of Jackie onstage, doubled as a mirror image. For the feature, I’m invited to spend a couple of days with the band on their home turf.

There’s snow on the ground when I emerge from Warwick Avenue tube station and look for Formosa Street, location of Bruce’s Hard Ventures management operation. The house-boats and fine houses of Little Venice are just a stone’s throw from the rotting thoroughfare I stumble onto. It’s like the gateway to another world; a desolation row populated by human detritus and misfits trying to survive amidst squalor and decay.

Practically every house is a squat and, after the Sufi HQ moved on over a year ago, the hardcore junkie faction has all but taken over from the remnants of the area’s old hippy community. Jackie may refer to them as “walking dead” but this abandoned enclave that even the police ignore is where Doll by Doll choose to make their home and find inspiration; not so much as subject matter but in the way of receiving instruction from distressed souls who Jackie refers to as “my superiors”. He says he is able to look beneath and beyond the surface decrepitude, self-abuse and sadness to see the “life and death, love and loss of love”. Jackie sees this community as an extreme example of “a plague that’s rife everywhere.” As a band trying to function within it, Doll By Doll have become its ambassadors and “spokesmen for this extreme malaise and all its ramifications.”

Locating the black door of Hard Ventures, I find Bruce on the phone booking gigs and dealing with record company matters. He also has a rich past, including gaining a degree in linguistics at Oxford, diving in the Persian Gulf and losing a fortune backing an Australian rock band. Over the next couple of days, I will gain an idea of the environment that spawned Doll By Doll and constitutes their day-to-day existence by witnessing them rehearse with alarming intensity in a dank basement, hanging out at their local pub, sitting shell-shocked with them in candle-lit rooms and meeting locals they have become friends with; mostly good people with a story to tell that led them to this parallel society at the end of the world,. Seeing this area now all spruced up and its houses selling for millions can’t help but bring back memories of Jo showing me how he’d rewired and fixed up the damaged Victorian building on adjoining Clifton Villas where he’d made his home, with furniture fashioned out of street junk and many Persian carpets.

First we hit the pub and within minutes of sitting down in the threadbare Prince Alfred (then a run-down neighbourhood bar, now a top-rated gastro establishment) are approached by a genial old hippy who turns to me and really does say, “Hey man, I lost all my records. Have you got that Quintessence album that folds out?” It’s decided it might be better to do our interview across the street at a friend’s place.

In the nine months since that first interview, apart from the many gigs we’ve caught, Doll By Doll have been kicked off a British tour with over-hyped wacky irritants Devo because, according to Jackie, “We were told we ‘weren’t Devo enough’.” (In other words, they refused to wear stupid outfits and gargle zanily like a pissed-up nerd trying to make an impression at the office party).

Obviously the first album is of paramount importance. Jackie starts. “We went into the studio to do an album which was a question of faithfully documenting what we’d been doing onstage, what we’d been doing to people. We weren’t attempting to change the experience we’d been giving to people anyway, and I think we’ve done that fairly faithfully. We’re looking forward to reaching an acceptance in terms of popularity which allows us to actually feel parts of ourselves which are unquestionably being anaesthetised by the whole business process at the moment. It’s just aspects of us as human beings which are still not being allowed to surface because what we’re attempting to do seems to be fairly large in relation to how rock and roll bands are expected to gain from their aspirations.

“The album was good fun to do but all very straightforward. We received a lot of pressure and criticism from the normal corporate quarters that you would expect pressure to come from, but in actual fact it was a very straightforward process of documenting what we were doing. It was very much just putting our stamp on the map of rock ‘n’ roll and seeing where we go from there. Most of the album is first takes live in the studio and we double-tracked a few things just to give emphasis to a few more important emotional points, which you can compensate for visually on stage. We’re just making up for a visual experience for someone who hasn’t heard us live.”

Exercising his dry wit, Jackie uses his disbelief at how the band can even make it onstage to enter heavier terrain in the conversation. “I’m surprised how it works but it just does. We’re not good musicians or anything. I mean, Jo’s brain’s all shot away, I look at him stumbling about when we’re onstage and think, ‘How the hell is he doing that?’ And I mean standing up! Dave’s a lousy drummer – we have to stop him doing all those rolls round the kit which he fucks up. Robin’s all over the place, I just pick a few notes up here and there. We’re like a bunch of psychotic woodsmen swinging around with axes and just missing each other. The Night of the Psychotic Woodsmen!

“In this country there’s a downer on individualism which is clearly shown with various disputes, etcetera. At the moment we are individuals, not successful individuals but we have our own basic idea of what we feel. We have an emotional priority when it comes down to the way we feel people should conduct their life in an emotional light, and also improving their understanding of their death. We’re not going to be moved from that. We don’t have any political affiliation, which is the basis of a lot of problems in terms of mass acceptance. We’re not prepared to go along with any established point of view about what rock bands should be doing. At the same time, just the sheer vulnerability of what we’re doing is something that not many other people in rock ‘n’ roll are doing, so it’s a little sad that a band like this should stand so much out on a limb and be seen as walking along the top of a dangerous clifftop, when really all we’re doing is exactly what everyone knows should be done by rock ‘n’ roll bands anyway.”

“It’s not fun or just wallowing,” adds Jo. “It’s a real alternative being presented. People have just got to have time to come to terms with it. They’ve never had it like this before.”

“You see, a lot of our problem is we don’t radiate a sense of personal success,” continues Jackie. “It’s quite obvious that as human beings we’ve undergone major personality destruction, but I think that’s true of anyone of our age and of any generation. We’re essentially an amateur band in as much as we get on stage and fall about and falling about isn’t intentional, it’s just part of the fact that we’re on there to do the best that any four human beings can with the amount of destruction which is inherent with our group. We just get on and do it and it’s obvious we’re all fucked up, but that’s fine. We’re not playing on it, it’s a fact of life. The fact of life is we’re fucked up! (laughs).”

After Jo takes off for the pub, the conversation becomes a one-on-one with Jackie in a room now illuminated by large, flickering candles. He continues diving into much deeper waters than promoting the album. Like I said, there’s elements of drama in his lengthy narratives, along with self-therapy even he might not be aware of (Jackie later admits that his manic-depressive personality got him into “some seriously bleak places…I was just fucked up and absolutely on my own…I was the lead fucked up person within the band.”).

At this time, I’ve only been interviewing musicians for five years and have never encountered anyone like this. Jackie continues, “Essentially, as far as I’m concerned, we’re involved in a rather ghoulish process of being paid to exhibit how death can be slow, and just to show that process of slowly falling apart ‘till something ultimately horrible happens to the band. I think sooner or later something fairly grim will happen to us and the very least we can say is that it will be well-documented, whatever use that is for other people. I don’t think we strike anyone as a band who are headed for a happy hunting ground in which we all smile and shake hands with each other and get huge beer guts and phone each other up from our estates all over the country. I don’t think that’s what’s gonna happen at all. I think it’s summed up in ‘An Honest Woman’’ where I sing ‘I’ve been a poor boy, I’ll be a poor boy again.’ It’s very much a question of, at the moment, we’re in a position to say a lot of things which I think historically will prove more important than what happens to us as individuals. Our individual fate is a fairly grim contemplation really. Basically I feel we’ve a brief to do something about the present human predicament and the brief comes from an intelligence and an understanding which lies far beyond our own individual understanding of what’s going on. We accept that as a band, the fact that we are principally part of a process in which we gather information, translate it, then put it back out. We’re very much just cogs and of no particular relevance and of no particular destiny that you could say was a vulnerable or favourable destiny. This band is unquestionably involved in a death trip, and when you’re involved in a death trip it ends in one thing alone and that’s death.”

When?

“I think it will definitely happen within the next three LPs.”

Why?

“I’m just aware of the enormous degree of personal unhappiness I feel with my own contribution to the band and making records – and it’s got nothing to do with the people. It’s just when you’re disseminating information at the level we are, obviously at one point or another the spiritualist buck must stop, and I do feel at the moment that it stops at me personally. I know that affects the rest of the band and it’s got to have some kind of logical fatal conclusion.”

How?

“It’s really not my place to say. Events must unfold….”.

Talk turns to Sid Vicious, who has just died and who Jackie knew when he lived at nearby Pindock Mews. Jackie holds a much different view of Sid than those who liked to dismiss him as a junkie moron, illustrating his respect by mentioning a passage in Fred and Judy Vermorel’s Sex Pistols biography where Sid “flips out on films. It’s one of the most lucid pieces of spontaneous speech I’ve ever read in my entire life. It doesn’t make me feel I had anything over Sid as an intellect or a person that understands what’s going down. It’s absolutely lucid to the point of terror. Sid was a private person, whereas we’re trying to make our private agonies public. It’s difficult to translate your private unhappiness into public terms, and we’ve done that as far as we can with the music, and if I’ve written a song which is obviously some private agony translated into some kind of reference point, the band have responded to that in their own way, so they carry the can as much as I do. But I don’t think what we’re doing is essentially any different from what Sid did and what happened to Sid is understandably a test of extremes. It’s not what I see as the ultimate fate I feel somehow awaits this band. In a sense I’d be disappointed if that wasn’t the case because it would seem to suggest that we’d been thrown off our initial objective, and I really can’t see me shaking hands with Kenny Everett at the Grosvenor Hotel winking away for the camera, and having a few glib things to say about our latest platinum album.”

Surely you want to be around for a while to see Doll By Doll make some kind of mark?

“I personally don’t give a flying shit. The things that I’ve gone through which ostensibly fall into the realms of life experience lead me to feel that nothing can conceivably lie in the death experience that can be any worse, and that’s completely and utterly my honest feeling about that. Personally, I’m getting no particular enjoyment out of this, apart from being able to work with people I enjoy working with and who I like as human beings. But I’ll personally be very glad when it’s all over, because I haven’t enjoyed this experience of baring my own soul – and I don’t think I’m supposed to enjoy it. I’ll be glad to be out of it.”

He leans over and says, “I had a suicide attempt just before Christmas. If Jo and Joni hadn’t got me to the hospital ultra-quick it would have been all over. I took an overdose of reds, Tenuate, Valium and booze. I was enjoying myself and I knew what I was doing. I was really unhappy about things.”

And there, with perfectly dramatic timing, the tape ran out. We leave the house, join the others in the Prince Alfred and no more is said on this subject. In the pub Jackie becomes a different person, laughing and joking as a larger-than-life and soul with a smile for everyone. After the pub shuts, the party returns to the same house and, after a few more hours of warm talk and music, Jo shows me the cosy basement bedroom where I spend the rest of the night, although I lie awake for most of it contemplating this startling bombardment of new directions, revelations and music. 39 years later, I still am. The thought of Jackie dying was too much to take in then – and still is.

  • KN