The Secret Museum
Jim Webb & Michael Mooney
Doll By Doll: Gypsy Blood
(Automatic Records LP, 1979; Rhino Records CD, 2007)
"I see the bars of your prison when you cry"
Released in the early morning of the Thatcher era, Gypsy Blood is a towering monument to the failure of Punk. Working loosely within the Classic Rock idiom, on this recording (their second LP, following the speed-fuelled sonic claustrophobia of Remember- a relentless, dualistic masterpiece of horror and beauty) Doll By Doll blended elements of pub-rock, doo-wop, folk, country, psychedelia, gospel, early-60s pop melodrama, and the Velvet Underground, added their own unique guitar ferocity (albeit tempered here) and a late-70s dynamic production sheen (think Born To Run or Bat Out Of Hell). The result is a singular work of breathtaking magnificence, capped by the sweeping power of Jackie Leven's vocals.
This record simply sounds like no other. From the 1-2 radio-friendly punch of Teenage Lightning and the title track, through the majestic Stripshow, The Human Face and Highland Rain, and finally the unsettled and unsettling Endgame and When A Man Dies, Doll By Doll achieve that rarest of aims: absolute timelessness. The album could have been recorded in 1969, or last week. That it evokes a Britain (and Europe) about to disappear forever is the only clue to Gypsy Blood's moment in time.
Roundly ignored upon release (the album was un-issued in the US), Gypsy Blood's failure signaled the coming musical backslide- Spandau Ballet were just around the corner- that the English record buying public willingly accepted. Nearly 30 years later, it still stands alone, reflective of a time when music took chances and changed lives.
"The Devil of Dreams is Black"
Why is this record so different and important that you should immediately pop round the local shop to order a copy? If I rave about how brilliant Gypsy Blood is, I risk becoming just another fanatic trumpeting his favorite group. But there is truly something special about Doll By Doll, a UK rock band from the late 70s/early 80s led by singer, guitarist and main writer Jackie Leven. Two guitars, bass and drums were the basic components, playing in a straightforward rock style that we’ve all heard before. They are musically tight as a group and play with passion. The magic for me, however, lies in two things which elevate this band from hundreds of others who suddenly appeared on the late 70s scene.
Jackie Leven’s vocals are unique, and will have you on the edge of your seat with the passage of each song, wondering where he will soar to next. I won’t compare him to Roy Orbison, or other celestial-voiced wonders, because, while he has taken on many influences (as Gypsies do), what comes out of his mouth is ALL Leven ALL the time. Jackie’s range is unbelievable, and he has the gift of a classic saloon singer for putting across real depth and emotion.
The other aspect of this band that is so enjoyable to me is the subject matter. These are no run-of-the-mill tunes about whiskey, women, or life on the road. Leven writes from an idiosyncratic perspective that makes his lyrics so much more interesting than anyone else’s. He will walk that lonely street and, by the time he reaches the next corner, you will feel that his world and yours are one. Stripshow is one of the most powerful songs I have ever heard in over 40 years of listening to music. On The Human Face, Jackie sings about knowing why Jesus wept (for the next 30 years he’ll continue to unravel that particular mystery in his solo career). You may at times find yourself close to weeping, too, at the beauty of this music.
Jackie's like an insomniac bus driver, cruising the late-night streets. His passengers are the tired, the hurt and the truth seekers. He lets you know you're not alone, and the common bonds we all share of joy and despair are illuminated by him in a way that reminds us of the beauty of everyday life. No matter how you're feeling when you get on his bus, by the time you arrive at your stop, life has become a more interesting ride.
1979 brought us a lot of great new music, but, in my opinion, Gypsy Blood battles The Clash's London Calling for best LP honors. I vote for Gypsy Blood. Get this CD if you like rock music that has power and intensity yet travels down a different path. You will not be disappointed.
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