“Jung said, ‘Love is matching psychic disturbance’, and I often think that’s what we had in Doll By Doll. We were all refugees from big traumas, finding a place, possibly for the first time in our lives, where we steadied into a belief that we could in some way rescue our eternal souls through art.”
–Jackie Leven, 2007
“Eternal is the warrior who finds beauty in his wounds.”
‘Main Travelled Roads’, 1980
On their second album, Jackie Leven says Doll By Doll will take a subtler, more streamlined approach, that will be “more emotionally expansive. Instead of delivering a swift kick to the bollocks, we’ll take longer about it.”
By now bassist Robin Spreafico has been replaced by Maida Vale hustler and Aleister Crowley acolyte Tony Waite. Now urgently needing a hit album to firm up his new label, Automatic Records honcho Nick Mobbs puts the band in Sarm West studios with John Sinclair producing (not the Detroit one). Having got the pent-up aggression and epic live catharsis out of their systems on Remember, the new set is drawn from Jackie’s new songs and some that didn’t fit the first album, with nothing exceeding five minutes.
Somehow this simple strategy gets twisted as Doll By Doll drive further into their heart of darkness and emerge with Gypsy Blood, its remarkable distillation of their awesomely powerful psychedelic essence producing a vivid, swirling masterpiece of terrible beauty. Glazed in a luminous lysergic shimmer not encountered on any record before or since, gloriously widescreen Technicolor has replaced the savage monochrome of Remember and Gypsy Blood still sounds as strong, enigmatic and haunting as it did in 1979; unusually for many of the albums released around that time, its time-frozen life-cycle has not dated.
No band ever forged so fearlessly deep as Jackie wraps his raw emotional traumas in hallucinogenic romantic poetry and intricately-crafted music that carried the resonance, depth and fine-detailed terror of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Heard now it’s little wonder Gypsy Blood proved too brutally real even for that supposedly-liberated post-punk landscape. Even the main sleeve photo replaced any attempt at the posed cool so prevalent at the time with a close-up of Jackie looking wild-eyed and desperate. Taken at the end of a photo session around London’s then-decrepit docklands, he had caught his foot in a length of old chain and gone over the side, facing a 15 foot drop to hard clay until he managed to grab on to something, hanging perilously for endless minutes before managing to clamber back up. The picture was taken at that moment when he stood, shaken and shattered but safe; perfect for the album.
It’s almost amusing how Doll By Doll start the album with the seemingly innocuous ‘Teenage Lightning’, the nearest it gets to a snappy anthem with vocals over the beat and catchy guitar response, although Jackie’s lyrics capture the bleak reality of adolescent exploration on the meaner streets where, “They don’t wanna hear no hard luck story about the rise and fall of love/There is no starman watching from above.” After the also upbeat and almost innocuous title track it’s as if, with the band’s idea of record company radio demands satisfied, they can get down to the serious business of blood-letting their current emotions and showing their scars through dark romantic poet visions. ‘Stripshow’ is a gorgeously bitter-sweet ballad embroidered with French restaurant violin by session fiddler Graham Preskett (of Mott The Hoople’s ‘Violence’ fame), the band navigating a complex exercise in controlled dynamite beneath Jackie’s soaring vocal. Everything seems perfectly placed, from the subtle vocal harmonies that underscore each line to repeat echo on Jackie’s “I’ll” in the main lyrical punchline “I’ll give you something you’ve been searching for.” But the underlying dynamic suggests it could all go wrong at any time, even in this gold-framed world of Soho after dark and rainy London where taxi drivers yawn from Earls Court to The Strand.
The dark ethereal spirit of Gypsy Blood lies in the epic gospel psychodrama of ‘Human Face’, which starts by Jackie deploying one of his most majestically poignant melodies as he reflects, “She lives in a steel comb world, where sad men in leather will fight over girls/Break my heart but don’t let me down/The first time I kissed you we lay on the ground.” The song then seems to strain at its psychic leash as it rises, falls, twists and turns, Jackie’s mercurial vocal leaping from deepest baritone to gliding falsetto before the Haunted Valley Chorus piles in with a full gospel chorus of “Jesus wept”. Jo sounds as if he’s been plugged into the celestial mainline to the Velvet Underground on a brief outburst of raging guitars that glide abruptly into uneasy calm for the return of the vocals. If you want a stunning five-minute encapsulation of why Doll By Doll stood head and shoulders above just about any other band of the late ‘70s, this is the track.
Many would have ended side one after such an astonishing onslaught but Doll By Doll follow it with a swooning true love ballad called ‘Hey Sweetheart’. No hidden nightmares or traps to speak of as Jackie’s soul celebrates that lightning bolt moment when “love comes and takes my breath away”, his awestruck punchline hotwired by a joyous explosion of booming particles from the band.
Side two gets under way with Jo’s relatively accessible ‘Binary Fiction’ before the astonishing five-part final sequence of the album’s life cycle proceeds through the ominous ‘Hell Games’, sky-clawing ‘Forbidden Worlds’ and vividly beautiful desolation of ‘Highland Rain’ (which started as a Jackie poem about lost innocence called ‘Dreams of Blood’ – “Goodbye to the young man’s dream”).
The album feels like its approaching the end of its journey with Jo’s almost unbearably poignant ‘Endgame’ invoking the Devil’s Triangle, then ‘When A Man Dies’, which is Jackie caressing a 1940 work by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova called ‘Portraits’ (which he liked so much he typed it out for me a year or so before it was chosen to end the album).
Every time Gypsy Blood draws to this evocative finish and its last vapour trail has faded into the spangled ether, I never feel anything less than this is the one album I would keep if I had to lose everything else. When reissued in 2007, Paul Du Noyer’s notes described it as “probably the most neglected great rock record of its era”.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormack acclaimed it as “the lost masterpiece of British rock, by the greatest band you’ve never heard of…this lush classic of near-psychotic beauty has everything you could ever want from a rock album…With the grandeur of Dark Side of the Moon, the strangeness of Forever Changes and the bleak beauty of The Bends, it really is as good as any album ever made.”
But in 1979’s time of flashy groups in suits and audiences not concerned with what there is to be learned, Gypsy Blood went the same way as its predecessor and sold little, leaving Doll By Doll gigging and drugging. Jackie really seemed to have had the wind sucked out of his sails for a while. He knew he had made his masterpiece; a major work that could stand next to the greats he so admired, but the band’s age, non-image and an underlying menace that obviously went much deeper than some bawling punk worked against them. The warped optimism that cloaked the band in their first two years dissipated and things could only get darker; for a while, anyway.
In the 2007 reissue liner notes, Jackie reflects, “Doll By Doll was rooted in its own genuine psychic problems – mainly mine – although the other guys had problems too, and our music was about the problematic nature of the world and living in it. We were operating in a world of one. It made a difference that we were that much older and had all had real lives and done things other than dropping out of art college and getting dad to buy us a guitar. The damage that the songs were about was not the sort of damage that you could have experienced in your late teens and early 20s.”
Before this next quote I have to emphasize that, whenever I saw him around then, which was fairly frequently, Jackie was never less than friendly, pleasant and often hilarious company, although his soft Scottish burr and giant frame still exuded a colossal inner strength that, it now transpired, was constantly doing battle with some particularly-resilient inner demons, including manic depression.
“I don’t think I was particularly well mentally,” he later reasoned. “I’m prepared to be quite candid about that now. I took far too many drugs…It made me violent, it made me unpredictable, it made me dangerous. I was a real mess. I had seriously bad things on my mind and I really made the band suffer. I could have done all that better. But I think the band would agree, we probably wouldn’t have been Doll By Doll if that been the case.’
This last remark uncannily predicts Stephen Fry’s superlative 2006 documentary The Secret Life Of the Manic Depressive, in which the usually genial comedic host concludes that, when he asked artists if they could press a button that would bring their bipolar condition back to “normal”, all said they would decline because it would snuff their creative spark (himself included). While the pain and ordeals suffered by bipolar victims is now a major subject of debate and interest, when someone admitted to being manic depressive 40 years ago it meant something dark, unknown and ostracized from public awareness.
In the light of subsequent findings, it can now be seen that Jackie was crediting his bipolarity for Doll By Doll’s schizophrenic extremes of suicidal despair and heart-stopping beauty when he confessed 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. We all had problems and would happily and cheerfully admit it. There was a magicality between the three of us that we had this shared sense of problems and pain. We never actually sat down like a men’s group and said, ‘What the fuck is all this about?’ That would never have occurred to us. Perhaps we did instinctively, by channelling this into what we were doing as a group.”
Talking to Neil McCormack about the failure of Gypsy Blood, Jackie reasoned “The bitterness of the defeat was a true bitterness. But it’s that salting of wounds that, frankly, we all need in our life…It was certainly difficult to see how we were going to make a better record than Gypsy Blood. I remember having the disturbing sense that even if we did, it would make no difference, because something else was wrong and we didn’t know what that was, other than the fact that we were architects of wrongness. We cast ourselves in a set of images which genuinely closed doors for us, like shut the whole castle up, with us standing around outside pissing against the parapets going ‘Come on, ye bastards!’”
Personally, I was horrified and demoralized at how such a monumental album could be ignored, dismissed or abused (if the UK’s self-appointed taste-makers did notice it). This only served to intensify Zigzag’s ongoing championing of Doll By Doll, in many respects the only band that mattered next to the equally-misread Clash. That year I organized a party to celebrate my magazine’s tenth birthday, booking The Venue, putting together a bill including Wayne County, reggae band Merger, my opportunistic former band-mate John Otway and Doll By Doll.
After the frivolity that saw me presenting stuffed toy animals to winners of that year’s readers’ poll – a big giraffe for Siouxsie and squeaky mice for The Clash (even if they were “too shy” to come and get them) – Doll by Doll started the set they’d worked up especially for the party with ‘Stripshow’. They rapidly became pissed off at the star drunks and desperate liggers who carried on gabbling loudly, so methodically turned up the volume in tandem with their rising anger. Having reached deafening levels of intensity by emotional epic ‘Honest Women’, Doll By Doll’s collective emotional dam finally burst on a devastatingly savage ‘Palace Of Love’, which careered and raged until it reached an immense wall of feedback that felt like the floor was cracking apart under pressure from demons pushing up from below and the hordes of hell were raining in. Jo finished the set by demolishing £500 worth of vintage Fender Stratocaster and was pictured in Melody Maker holding its remains; a symbolically kamikaze action that turned out to represent the end of this phase of Doll By Doll.
We lost contact for a few months until I decided it was time Doll By Doll were in Zigzag again, regardless of what was going on. One day in May 1980 I met with Jackie in his new publicist’s office near London Bridge and found him brewing up a plan of action that involved striking concertedly at the illusive jugular of success. The band had understandably parted company with Nick Mobbs after a situation exacerbated “by the fact that Automatic Records were singularly inept at selling records. We could have seen a lot more business because the interest was there and the music was good. We had to work it out by default.”
The failure of their first phase brought Doll By Doll to a soul-baring crossroads that forged a deeper union in their shared mission. Jackie plays me demos for three new songs, recorded “more or less as a challenge to ourselves to see whether or not we could just sit down and write virtually spontaneously.” ‘Body Shy’ bears the hallmarks of a snappy single as its infectious melody rides a Sam Cooke-style dancing beat, and ‘Burning Imitation’ is like a short, sharp shock, almost rushing to its piledriving finish. None of these will make it to the next album but the third song, ‘Main Travelled Roads’, stops me in my tracks. With a melody derived from a traditional Celtic folk ballad, Jackie’s tender lyrics are bathed in autobiographical hue as he reaches back through his troubled past, including leaving his young son and the plight of Doll By Doll (“The last four men were waiting for their call to take the stage/And when the curtains opened they stood like lovers in a cage/The crowd in perfect silence closed their eyes to hide their shame/The dressing rooms are empty and nobody is to blame”). But it’s the last verse that’s taken on the greatest resonance over the years, especially after Jackie passed away in 2011; “I arose and left you sleeping in your silent room/Eternal is the warrior who finds beauty in his wounds.”
‘Main Travelled Roads’ leaves me sitting in rapt stunned silence after it’s finished. With the full power of Doll By Doll behind him, the demo will still eclipse the more keyboard-dominated production that will be released as a single the following year.
Then Jackie starts talking, but first special mention has to be made of the woolly hat he’s sporting, complete with sewn-on teddy bear ears, that spectacularly tops his imposing six-foot-plus frame, battered black donkey jacket and mane of hair. We start with those new songs but, as with any subject today, it’s just a springboard for Jackie’s psyche to explore, expound and explain itself with a rare intelligence and mixture of self-deprecation and grand drama. Of all the many talks we had, that day saw Jackie at his most loquacious, almost willing the band’s next moves to be great.
“Well, (the new songs) continue our move towards a larger audience. We started off by doing something which I think was essential, in the true sense of the word, for anyone that was into music for music’s sake rather than music for fashion’s sake at the time. With Remember and Gypsy Blood we tied up the loose ends for ourselves and, I think, for our audience, both emotionally and technically. Now I think we can award ourselves a larger audience. We’ve done our heavy-duty part. We’ve released two albums which are going to continue to surface for the next 20 years at least for bands that are looking for direction. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve looked to old albums by the Velvet Underground and the Doors, not lifted ideas but lifted the spirit in which they were recorded and grafted it onto what we’ve been doing. I like to think that we’re part of that tradition. Having done that, we’ve really got to start thinking in terms of consolidating our position in what we as a band would consider the more nebulous aspects of the business, like pound notes and dollars.”
Even after only a year or so, Remember seems such a long way off.
“Sure. It’s already settled into that timeless period of albums. It’s a bit like listening to…a Thirteenth Floor Elevators album! You know you like it but your reasons for liking it aren’t entirely logical or rational, there’s just something inescapable about it; the first Velvet Underground album, albums by people like the Fugs, that sort of category. But you pay a price for recording stuff like that; you don’t get away with it. There’s no way we’re gonna get away with what we’ve done. I’ve recently said that one of those things we’d done was create an enormous diversion, and I think that’s true. We’ve captured an awful lot of media attention – and I don’t include yourself and your interest in the band in this – I’m thinking about the kind of hate writing about the band. It’s great how we’ve channelled a lot of people’s kind of morbid obsession with this band. They’ve spent so much time thinking in totally negative terms about this band called Doll by Doll that a lot of things have passed them by that they really haven’t been aware of. It’s difficult to specify what because as an idea it’s something that I’m just kind of aware of myself. But we’ve created a diversion which has allowed a lot of things, a lot of music and a lot of people, which appear to be fairly harmless, to get much more of an audience than they would otherwise have done. We’ve become a foundation of that platform on which rock, as a force, can expect and anticipate itself as a genuine political force within any political arena within the mid-‘80s. That’s always been one of our long-term ambitions and goals. As a band, our private sense of success about that is completely authentic. It’s one of the few things that gives us a lot of happiness at a time when we’re having to work very hard purely to survive.
“In corporate terms we’re now definitely involved in trench warfare. The band’s over being for a minority audience. It’s going to change in the next six months, but within those six months we’re definitely going to have to have the same amount of concentration and application to our job as Alan Minter in his latest fight. “I think what we’ve got out of it so far is what we wanted out of it, which is an internal sense of discipline and a sense of comradeship, which our stage performances had always hinted at but which in reality we’d never actually realised. I’ve never been in a position of work where I’ve so enjoyed the actual application of the band and all the attendant aspect of the band’s projection, like Judy Totton, our publicist, and our management. I’ve never been in that position where I’ve felt such a sense of being a team, it being something which had grown out of self-discipline on everyone’s part, rather than an enforced overall discipline. It’s a good feeling and part and parcel of what we all want out of this, more than just making money. We have really fabulous spontaneous moments of laughter when we’re on tour. We’re in the car and we all just look at each other and there’s just totally magical moments of pure understanding that we’re not only going to survive the slings and arrows but we’re gonna pull through and also make a reasonable living at what we’re doing. I think without blowing our own trumpet, it’s just become more and more apparent to us; if anything just through the force of our fan mail, which is out of all proportion to our record sales. We’re averaging about 600 letters a week now from all over the world – Japan, Iceland, America, Fiji Islands, even Vietnam. The effect we’ve had, just as an entity, is really, really staggering.
“One of the most intriguing things about it is that we’ve become a virtual rock ‘n’ roll household name without there being an actual product. It’s something that intrigues me because I’ve got a really big thing about advertising, how it’s infinitely more important that the actual product. The product’s an excuse for the advert. I think we’re possibly the only organised rock ‘n’ roll response to that concept in as much as everyone knows about us but, in comparison, very few people have heard us. My experience just by talking to people is that nearly everyone has an opinion about Doll by Doll but very few people have actually heard the band.”
I throw in a remark about Doll By Doll’s depressing press image and he’s off again. “Let the fingers do the wanking…it’s interesting when you go to countries where that process isn’t developed because it isn’t our domestic territory. Places like Ireland, Germany, places where we’re doing very well. The only people that are really aware of the greater context in which we’ve been cast by the London media – I’ve really got to refer to them as that. Zigzag of course, is exempt – are a few who ask us if we’ve met Ronny Laing. Basically they’ll be coming along because it’s a rock ‘n’ roll band, they like the posters and we can just tell it doesn’t strike them for a minute that we’re weird, daunting, strange, creepy, depressing, boring, calculated, a hype or anything. They just listen to the music and get off. I think if you listened to those new tapes and no one told you who it was, you’d think it was great. There’s a lot of people who, after then being told it’s Doll by Doll, would go ‘Ohh’ virtually automatically.”
Recent gigs have shown Doll By Doll’s full-pelt inferno still blazing as brightly in live situations.
“Yeah…but I think it would be foolhardy to try and keep reproducing events. I mean, ‘The Palace Of Love’ is an event rather than a song – and a lot of stuff on Remember is eventful rather than musical. I don’t think it’d be right to try and keep that kind of intensity up. I think on Gypsy Blood we just afforded ourselves a greater depth and width of emotion about subjects which were close to our heart. We felt we definitely got something out of our system, collectively, and having got it out, there’s no point in us turning it into cabaret, and getting it out over and over again on record. Live, of course, is a different matter, especially songs like ‘Palace Of Love’ and ‘More Than Human’. Funnily enough, they seem to be the two; we seem to start with ‘More Than Human’ and end with ‘Palace Of Love’. The context of those songs seems to change all the time. They remain timeless, whereas with songs like ‘Sleeping Partners’, I’m quite pleased with the way we recorded it but I don’t want to play it too much live. Firstly, because it’s so demanding as a song that it’s actually impractical to play night after night, and secondly because it’s so demanding emotionally. I’m talking about myself now more than the band. Night after night it’s just too much, it gives me sleepless nights. Songs like that have just become more and more rare within our sets. Plus, I like the stuff on Gypsy Blood, and the new stuff we’re doing.”
I get the impression we’ve just had end of Phase One, and Phase Two is coming up.
“I feel that what we’ve done is discover that as a subversive force all the laws that apply to our position hold true. We didn’t really ever doubt that. You just can’t go around being the artistic equivalent of a terrorist, whether or not you would classify yourself as such or not. One of the things we’ve found playing in this country is the audiences have really loved it. We have very few audiences now who feel negative about what we’re doing, but the hard fact is that we’re not getting through to the sheer amounts of people that we have to in order to be anything other than an esoteric gift to the few. The premise in which we’ve always worked as a band is that we would run into problems we’ve created for ourselves. It’s solving those problems which has led to the quality of insight, rather than type or quantity, which we now possess and makes us feel intrinsically and internally happy to broaden the musical base we’re working from. All of a sudden the songs we’re writing, without there being any conscious change of direction, are obviously commercial. I still don’t feel we appeal to any one market. We’re still not aiming at the one market. What’s going to happen now is we’re going to turn out records that a lot of people will buy and ultimately those people will back-track and pick up on the records they missed and it’ll make absolute sense within the context of the new material.”
I ask about the recent personnel change. “Tony’s a very interesting person. He’s a virtual scholar of Aleister Crowley, and he’s taken a bit of a drubbing since he joined the band, purely because he understands fundamentals of magic and life as a magical process, but only within the confines of someone else’s words. Now he’s coming to terms with the fact that the one thing we do insist upon is that people describe themselves and their situations in their own words. He’s throwing up very vital ideas at exactly the right times. Through his magical understanding of Crowley, he’s reflecting the discipline which is thrown upon himself and now he’s prepared to impose upon us. That, in turn, has made Jo and Dave wake up quite a lot to their own self-importance. I think because I tend to play down my own self-importance…I may often feel like it’s played up but in actual fact I don’t feel like my output has very much to do with me. I feel that I’m very much an amalgam of all the sponsors around me. I think Jo and Dave have finally realized that this band, and it’s future, is as much a result of their efforts and their deepest feelings, as opposed to their surface feelings, as anyone else’s. Suddenly there’s a completely new enthusiasm about putting material together that’s reflected in the new songs.”
This creative upsurge of creativity seems to have come out of the recent business hassles?
“I think it’s pretty good. The band has risen to the occasion and it’s one hell of an occasion to rise to. I really don’t want to end up disassociating myself with Doll By Doll. I can’t think of anything that’s more unhappy or more unnecessary, and I certainly don’t want to die quite yet, but if the band hadn’t had the courage to look to historical precedents and work out their fundamental role at this point, they’d never have had another opportunity. In other words, lately it’s been put-your-heart-on-the-line-or-fuck-off time for everyone, and that’s been my message to everyone I work with. And they’ve all put themselves on the line.
“I think when we re-enter the arena as regards the UK we’ve either got to do it with tremendous force or not at all because, quite frankly, it’s not economically viable and it’s also utterly fucking boring. We’re expected to play out this ridiculous role as a band which we don’t play up, and audiences get pissed off because we’re not utterly cosmetic. They get furious because we don’t conform to the fashionable idea of who we are and it’s very boring. It’s led to us getting more and more spiteful to our audiences and it led to a period where our gigs were extremely savage, virtually murderous affairs in which we just pinned everyone to the wall with slabs of controlled, torturous violence, and that’s not actually the way we feel. But we’d just got to the point where we’d taken enough of the orchestrated media kicking that we were getting, and we turned, to an extent, on the people that supported us. Luckily for us, the people who have been into the band have understood phases that the band’s gone through. The main thing I’ve got to emphasize at this time is we’re just not going away. We really feel we’re on course. We’re really happy with our recorded work, although the actual pressing of Gypsy Blood must be in the top five diabolical pressings of all time. I think the album in its pure recorded state is fabulous, but the pressing is disgusting.
“We’re still the dark horse. It doesn’t surprise us at all that we are but, at the end of the day it comes down to one thing. That is, you can only expect a market to be saturated by non-events for so long. You throw stuff at the public and eventually they throw it back. I think sooner or later the public are gonna throw back what they’ve been getting from the recording industry over the last five years. And all a band like Doll By Doll can do is continue to write from the heart and anticipate that turnabout. I really believe that, in the next couple of years, people are going to become very hard about what they’re prepared to part with money for.
“Someone was talking to me recently and saying Brian Eno has this amazing idea that, in the future, people will buy mood music. They’ll go into supermarkets and look under romance or melancholia, and just buy albums of mood. I just said, ‘Isn’t that what they’re doing already?’ ‘Oh yeah!’ It is; all people are doing is buying moods. That’s what’s going to change. As I’ve said, I really feel at the end of the day music’s got to be useful. In other words, it’s got to do what our music’s done for you, which is it’s made you able to go out and face the world with, to an extent, a new-born inner conviction about yourself and the reasons for the decisions you take and the way they affect the people you personally are gonna reach, and that’s how I feel. The music I listen to has that effect on me…It’s very odd talking to you at the moment, knowing what we’re saying is set against a background of Southwark Cathedral bells and a complete lack and almost fear of identity by all the music which is being issued by the major corporate labels. Look at the albums coming out at the moment – the Tourists, Original Mirrors, all these people. It’s so forgettable.
I’m sure the distance between a band like Doll By Doll and the Pretenders is the distance between Lou Reed when he was in the Velvet Underground and the Monkees. The Velvet Underground couldn’t have got too upset about the Monkees having top 20 hits when they were doing what they were doing, and that’s our position.
“We’re establishing something…that song on Gypsy Blood, ‘When A Man Dies’ by Anna Akhmatova. Akhamatova has never sold at all but she’s also recognized as one of the great Russian poets of all time. Everything she does it utterly fabulous. Jo and I are working on an entire album of material by Akhmatova that I’ve put to music, which we’d like to release in a limited edition on a fairly ethnic label because her poems are staggering. Just how they lend themselves to our musical ideas is frighteningly close, so we’re gonna do things like that. It’s the sort of thing that if Brian Eno did it, it would be considered utterly fantastic. When we do it it’ll probably be considered fairly boring. I’m not very interested in what my peers think of what I’m doing, cos I don’t consider what I’m doing to be of particular interest to the people that are alive and ostensibly a viable market for me during my youth. I do consider the effect I’m gonna have will be long, durable and finally historic. It’s a bit sad in a way because it would be great if people could get behind the ideas which are acceptable at the time, and then totally acceptable once the people who have dealt those ideas have disappeared, either into the grave or into asylums.”
After that night I saw a lot more of Doll By Doll as they carried on gigging, rehearsing, writing new songs and finally signed with Magnet Records, independent home of Darts, Matchbox, Bad Manners and Chris Rea. By the following May we were back at the London Bridge office talking about Doll By Doll, their recently completed third album. Produced by Tom Newman (who had engineered Tubular Bells and lived in Doll By Doll’s Clifton Villas neighbourhood), it was another evocative collection but, if still grounded in the band’s internal lysergic centrifugal force, seemed lighter and more conventionally accessible on first impression. Thankfully, it included ‘Main Travelled Roads’, which was even getting some attention as a single.
“I think we’ve finally got the sound which I would call a Doll By Doll sound,” declares Jackie with a wide smile. “We’ve been privately a lot more desperate over the last couple of years over our inability to produce a record that grasped what we wanted to do. Tom Newman came along and saw what we were trying to do on record and went a lot further than just trying to fit in whatever sound was hip or anything like that. I think he was the big difference. Before he was a bit like the brainy kid at the other end of the village. We just spent a lot of time talking and being as honest as we could with each other. We put most of the actual instrumentation ideas together, the overdubs and arrangements, and Tom took all the sounds we’d accumulated with his advice and transformed them in such a way that it took us quite a while to get it into our heads that we were hearing everything we’d ever wanted to hear from ourselves. It was quite a shock but it was great fun, rather than nerve-wracking. It was exhilarating just to hear it build up. There’s a lot of depth to the album, but if you want to listen to it at the most superficial level it works. They sound like good strong songs but there’s loads in there. I’m still being surprised by the depth of it. It’s still a mystery to me; I’m not surprised if it’s a mystery to other people.”
Housed in a sleeve depicting someone they know waving manically in a field (enhanced by a developing error that makes it look like it’s raining pink snow), the album starts with the unexpected floaty synth intro to ‘Figure It Out’, a pained but stately ballad about a disintegrating relationship, garnished with sparkling luminescent grandeur with a sound like diamonds shining up from a bottomless well. “It’s almost sarcastic,” says Jackie. “When you think so much of someone but tell ‘em to go away, do what you want.” The ensuing ‘Caritas’ is a bit of a surprise, riding delicate Spanish flourishes, reversed guitars and subtle Moroder-style electronic pulse with compressed handclap groove. In my original review I said, “the reverse guitars and echo take it to the Acid Disco” (four years before acid house, which I later thought was a bit spooky). Jackie says it’s “a real down-on-one-knee-throwing-roses song. It’s very sweaty, but good, honest sweat.”
After the sprightly ‘Soon New Life’ (about the imminent arrival of a baby) comes ‘Main Travelled Roads’, now rearranged with sweeping, hymnal keyboards. The guitars still soar like bagpipes, that lovely riff creeps in and Jackie’s vocal still tugs at the tear ducts as it soars and glides like a bird through the valleys.
“We didn’t really record it as a single,” he says before explaining what would later be regarded as one of his key songs. “I decided I wanted to have some kind of idea what the songs are about as it may seem very often like I don’t. ‘Main Travelled Roads’ gave me a real insight. I always thought it was about a woman; ‘I dressed you in the morning for a journey through the past’. Then I suddenly realised one day that it was about this kid I’ve got, Simon, who’s about eight now. I’d left this woman I’d been living with, then she came into a lot of money and came back. Because I wasn’t the legal father she was about to take him back, so that was the ‘journey through the past’. For a couple of years after I’d given up this kid, although I was able to carry on my day-to-day existence, I got a series of images with attached emotions about my own past, and the human race’s future. That’s how the song moves from the particular to the universal. When I wrote those lyrics I got into that particular area of myself and said, ‘It’s time to work this out and pin it down’. It might be a rather trite lyric but it gave me a great sense of personal triumph; just that I was capable of sorting out my own personal confusion through my work and still manage to make it interesting. That was a real turning point. I realised I wasn’t such a bad writer.”
After this tour-de-force the Spanish shuffle of ‘Those In Peril’ seems a bit throwaway but, as Jackie points out, it’s effectively pitting miserable imagery against a feathery backing. “If you heard it on a Doors album it would make a lot of sense. It’s very surreal, quite acidy, but the acceptable side of acid. It’s not a bad trip. It is for the person in the song, but it’s not a bad trip.”
While LSD informed Gypsy Blood’s overall aura, it emerged as having a profound influence on much of the third album, despite the commercial considerations. The Observer had then recently called Doll By Doll “pioneers of the New Psychedelia”, an albatross they immediately distanced themselves from although they never made any secret of the influence LSD had on them, starting with the heady surrealism of the music.
“I don’t know much about those other bands,” says Jackie. “They can say they’re part of a psychedelic thing or whatever they want, but it seems to me they’ve styled themselves that way, towards a supposed market. There’s no reason to pretend we’ve ever done anything else. I’d rather we were called Acid Rock than psychedelic. We take acid and it affects the way the music has come out. That’s it. But you don’t have to take the stuff to listen to it.”
Side one bows out with ‘I Never Saw The Movie’, chugging on a gentle lope with Jackie intertwining himself around a lovely curling melody and the band’s rich vocal harmonies. “It’s a song about when you love a woman but you’ve split up. It’s you who’ve done the splitting up because you feel that’s what’s best for you both. You get on fine and both like each other so it’s a bit of a mystery why it doesn’t work the whole way. There’s an element of tragedy. The woman in the song is actually Wendy Kasabian. We were crazy about each other but we lost the thread somewhere. We both know better than to try and keep it together. She’s great. It’s a very wishful song; you can both feel your love by remembering how good it was, and you never know what might happen in the future.”
Side two crashes in with the album’s heaviest song. Dating back to the band’s earliest days, ‘The Perfect Romance’ captures the thoughts of someone about to slash their wrists in a toilet cubicle; a voice of pure raging despair over heaving slabs of ominous guitars, ending with the blade’s swish. “I pushed a penny in the toilet door, then I quickly stepped inside/ to some graffiti and a greyhound paper and the gentle thought of suicide/ a razor blade would make the perfect bride.” Today Jackie uncharacteristically claims he doesn’t know what inspired the song and lets those lyrics speak for themselves (even if he’d considered them important enough to type them out two years earlier).
After this dense, brooding experience, ‘Fantastic Sensation’ passes like light relief before ‘The Street I Love’ marks the only Jo Shaw song on the album. I remember when Jo had just written it the previous summer. We were sitting on his Clifton Villas balcony one morning gazing on the street below. “The street I love’s got a heartbeat I can feel,” he said and there it is in the song, bolstered by a lovely ‘Spacer’-like melody. ‘Be My Friend’ then re-emphasises the new confidence afoot in Doll By Doll with a simple love song.
“For years, people have talked about potential,” says Jackie. “I think we’ve realised that potential and now we’ll either do it or we won’t. But at least we’ve come clean. To me this is Doll by Doll; finally. I think we either had to put up or shut up. We put up. What I like about this LP is ‘Main Travelled Roads’ is being played on the radio and people I’ve never met are liking it and buying it and they’re gonna do it with the album. The reason they’re doing it is because it works. Full stop. It works without knowing anything about me or the band or what we think. I feel very embarrassed and very stupid that it’s taken me so long to work out that a record should do that. Entertainment isn’t something you give people out of the goodness of your heart. It should be your priority and if you can make a greater sense of human investigation work within an entertaining framework that’s all well and good. The animal has got to be pointing the right way before you start the race. But we did it. We’re not teenagers obsessed with making it. We’re not ingenious either. We’re actually fairly simple people. It never dawned on us that it might be so desirable and attractive to be liked by lots of people. I don’t think we cared as long as they listened to us and it also didn’t dawn on us that if they didn’t like us they wouldn’t listen to us. We became victims of our own bullshit and grew up a lot.”
After the breezy optimism of ‘Up’, the album goes out on a heavyweight acid-fried tear-up called ‘A Bright Green Field’. After the band had recorded the rolling, jangling backing, Jackie did the vocal in one take, his mighty voice soaring, swooping and howling strange lyrics about centaurs and demons: “He’s an angel/He’s a demon/He’s a child in the sane/He’s a new star/He’s a centaur/Commanding a bright green field.”
“I’d had a series of acid trips which were strongly related,” he explains. “In the trip I became a centaur. I had an awareness of being nothing else but a centaur. The things in the chorus are the main components of things I felt about myself in different acid phases, but the heaviest was the centaur one. I don’t care how stupid it sounds. It means at some point the energy that is me was at one time a centaur. I just believe that because the experience was far too strong. I was just living in a world where everyone was a centaur. Take it how you want. It was a memory and it took me back.”
The untamed nature of the track embodies the constant presence of wild nature and extreme elements in Jackie’s songs. This is what he grew up with in the fields of Fifeshire. Jackie mentions the buzz he got from a recent holiday in the Outer Hebrides, having to amuse himself for the first time in years by discovering the amazing surroundings. “I’m interested in things people consider not only untamed but untameable. I’ve got to be. They’re things that, if they could be tamed, we wouldn’t even have the luxury of being able to think in terms of political systems.”
With Doll By Doll Jackie really did think his band had hit the magic formula and commercial success would follow. This was the band’s make-or-break album, but its near-schizophrenic mix of light and darkness still proved too impregnably uncomfortable for the masses. After ‘Main Travelled Roads’ foundered, ‘Caritas’ was amped up for the dance market on 12-inch (complete with a monstrous live recording of ‘An Honest Woman’, the one early track whose elemental peaks could never be caught in a studio; I can still remember a hundred times when the band would stop everything on stage then Jackie would lean forward, close his eyes and send out that opening line; “I walked the fading fields of Fifeshire, with the sadness in my eyes”).
There were more amazing live shows but the realisation dawned on Doll by Doll that the mass success Jackie talked about wasn’t going to happen this time either. By 1983 they had split, leaving Jackie ostensibly a solo artist but briefly keeping the name with new partner Helen Turner, who also sang and played keyboards. It was lovely seeing him so head-over-heels happy in love and shouting it to the world (while continuing to write songs that grabbed the heart and throat) but Grand Passion, the fourth and final Doll By Doll album, also tanked (despite boasting Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour on guitar).
Jackie’s new solo career was nearly silenced when it began by an unprovoked street attack that badly damaged his larynx. He couldn’t speak for over a year, let along sing, and sank into a heroin addiction that was painful to see when I visited him in 1985. He beat it through Chinese acupuncture and psychic healing, and this holistic approach to fighting addiction provided the basis and methodology of The C.O.R.E. Trust, which he set up in a little cottage off Lisson Grove, with Princess Diana as a patron.
Once recovered, Jackie became a roaming troubadour again as he re-embarked on the solo career that flourished prolifically until he succumbed to cancer in November 2011. Jo and Dave went on to play in other bands (the former eventually finding a career in building high-grade studios) and Tony Waite sank into addiction and passed away in 2003. Doll By Doll reformed in 2012, when Jo and Dave convened with old friends to play an event in a Cricklewood pub in tribute to Jackie.
For those few they touched, Doll by Doll remain a resounding timeless memory and the most uniquely special band to come out of the 1970s. While punk and glam are reissued and reanalyzed to dull death, even Doll By Doll’s ten-year-old CDs are now hard to find, although some of their magic survives on Youtube. They were so special and I feel privileged to have known Jackie Leven while experiencing that short time when psychedelic giants stalked the earth.