Thursday, July 29, 2010

Doll By Doll: Gypsy Blood; Lew Lewis

The Secret Museum
Michael Mooney & Jim Webb

Doll By Doll

“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-fueled 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 its moment in time.

Roundly ignored upon release (the album was un-issued in the U.S.), the failure of “Gypsy Blood” signaled the coming musical backslide—Spandau Ballet were just around the corner—that the English record buying public willingly accepted. 30 years later, it still stands alone, reflective of a time when music took chances and changed lives.
Michael Mooney

“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 U.K. 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 that 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.
-Jim Webb

Lew Lewis & The Perfect Day

On Friday July 14, 1979, I was a 20-year-old American living in Holland Park, London, and working full time at a restaurant called BJ’s Roast Beef on Fulham Road near Chelsea. I was in the middle of a six-month visit to England; no definite plans, just soaking up as much of the British culture as possible (including the beer), before returning home. There was a lot of great music in London that summer; it was hard to choose who to see on any given night. From where I lived it was about a 15 minute walk to one of the main music clubs in West Kensington called The Nashville, a famous pub that from 1976 to 1980 had a lot of bands play there like The Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello. A co-worker had mentioned earlier that we had to see a guy called Lew Lewis that evening, so we met up around six o’clock and started walking toward the venue. We were still too young to have any real problems in the world; whatever we made each week at our jobs we happily spent all of by the next Friday. There were no bills or mortgage payments to fret about, no responsibilities. Looking back, I’m surprised we didn’t float away, we had so little worries to tie us down. As we got closer to the pub, a young man on a bicycle went past us; my friend Keith said, “Hey, that’s Lew Lewis.”

Canvey Island is about 30 miles east of London, a mostly working class area in Essex that is known to music fans as the home of Pub Rock legend Dr. Feelgood. Pub Rock was a back-to-basics approach to music that had its peak around 1973–75 in the U.K., and in part was a reaction to Glam Rock (David Bowie, T. Rex) and some of the pretentious excesses found in huge bands like Pink Floyd and Yes. Most of the Country-Rock influenced pub bands never had a lot of mass appeal, but groups like Eddie & The Hot Rods and Dr. Feelgood drew bigger crowds with their high energy live shows, helping clear the decks for the coming Punk/New Wave explosion. Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, Declan McManus (Elvis Costello), and Graham Parker are some of the names that served time in the pubs before finding a bigger audience in the late ’70s.

Lew Lewis was a harmonica playing maniac from Canvey Island who became an early member of Eddie & The Hot Rods in 1973. He ultimately tried to make it with his own band, scuffling around before signing with Stiff Records, which released his only album, titled “Save the Wail,” in 1979. I saw him twice that summer of ’79 and I can still picture him soaking his harmonicas in a pint glass and then flipping them wildly above his head as the band played ferociously behind him. He would spin around in mid song several times before sticking his hand out and pulling the harp out of the air to his mouth, quickly blowing some intense solos without missing a beat. He wasn’t a great singer and his record label had a hard time marketing a young, white Chicago Blues style harmonica player. This was the era when New Wave bands ruled with skinny ties and Power Pop’s jingle reverberated all around the world. Lew disappeared for a while and in 1987 made some minor headlines when he was sentenced to seven years in prison for holding up a post office with a fake gun. He’s had a number of illness and addiction issues throughout the last 15 years, but recently was still trying to get a new band together. He might’ve been just a bit player in the 1973–1985 U.K. music scene, but it’s people like Lew Lewis that add the unpredictable excitement that makes great rock music possible.

Music has so much to offer us as listeners. There is the pure enjoyment of organized sound and rhythms, as well as getting into the history of a given style of music and hearing the reflection of the era from which it came. We all have certain songs that, when we hear them, magically transport us back in time. They might take you back to your wedding, or a graduation day from school; they can be a powerful reminder of any period in your life. I’ve been happily married for 28 years and now have three beautiful daughters, but when I hear the music of Lew Lewis, it’s July of 1979 again. I’m single and 20 years old, walking down the Cromwell Road in West Kensington, London. I don’t have a care in the world.
-Jim Webb

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