Thursday, August 15, 2019

Dolly Mixture, Playing Live and The Lost 80s.

In 1978 I went to University. I read English at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where my student experience was extremely atypical. I lived the first year in college but the second and third years I lived out, in non-university accomodation, with my non-student girlfriend, who left home back in Bristol, aged sixteen, to move in with me.

My best friend at college was kicked out of Cambridge University after failing his first year exams, along with several other Maths and Science students. They'd all done about ten times the work I had but at the time I was there it seemed to be almost impossible to fail arts and humanities, so I rolled on, oblivious.

My friend immediately enrolled in a humanities course at Cambridge Technical College or Poly (I forget what it was called then), where he went on to get a First. I divided my time between a very (very) active social life that took full advantage of all the opportunities for hedonism and pop culture both within and without the university and an academic career that I treated exactly as though it were a nine-to-five job.

I have to say it all worked for me. I had a great three years. I'd recommend it to anybody. Didn't get the best degree but in those days a 2.2 was solid and a 2.2 from Cambridge trumped a 2.1 or even a First from many other institutions. Not that I ever used mine for anything.

I mention all this partly because this is still Getting To Know You week in Blaugust (or I think it is - I may have lost track) but mostly because it had a huge affect on my musical journey. Those three years in Cambridge were astonishingly siloed from the outside world. I watched almost no TV at all, rarely listened to the radio and my social circle hardly ever talked about current affairs or politics.

Everything revolved around going to parties, seeing countless movies at the 30+ college film societies and going to see local bands or whoever happened to play the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Also, we started a band, because of course we did.

My friend, Keith, was the instigator, even though he had no musical skills whatsoever. He was the singer. He could not sing but he spent an inordinate amount of time and effort obtaining some pink vinyl leather-look trousers that distracted the audience from his vocal shortcomings.

We played just three gigs. For the first we had to audition. How we passed is beyond me. We were third on the bill at a college event. For that one we had a very good sax player who covered a lot of our infelicities. We played a set of covers including The Jam's "David Watts" and a twenty minute version of Sister Ray. Actualy we got through about twelve minutes before the MC came on and told us we'd overrun our slot.

Our second gig was at a party in a disused  outdoor swimming pool, supporting a band from Oxford. It was a very Cambridge party. There was Pimms. A lot of Pimms. If you've never had Pimms, it tastes like drinking lemonade. It was a hot, summer evening. We all drank plenty of Pimms.

By the end of our set I was extremely drunk. We must have gone down alright because towards the end of their set the headliners invited me to up play. My musical skills did not extend to jamming on songs I'd never heard but I was too drunk to care. Fortunately I discovered when the gig ended that I'd neglected to plug my guitar lead into their amp.

I was drunk but not so drunk as our keyboard player, who was last seen walking into the sunset carrying his electric piano cradled in his arms. We didn't see him for two days, which is how long his hangover lasted.

There was a third gig, I'm fairly sure, but I can't remember it. After that we split up and then reformed without Keith, the singer. The next version, under a new name, only ever played one gig but it was far better.

We played a mix of covers and originals. We had two new members, both of whom could play their instruments. Three of us took turns on lead vocals. I sang my songs and some covers, we had three of our girlfriends on backing vocals and we went down very well. I have the whole gig on tape somewhere and you can actually hear the audience enjoying themselves!

When we weren't rehearsing or playing we went to see other college bands, The Hearthrobs being an early favorite. Then came the fateful day when we went to see The Fall at The Corn Exchange. Opening the show were the band that was to become my all-time favorite: Dolly Mixture.

The Dollies, as we called them, as though we knew them (and we kind of very periferally did, since we ended up at the same parties once in a while) were three girls in their mid-late teens, Rachel, Debsey and Hester. They dressed sixties and sounded seventies, with a punk attitude and drive, a deep glam sensibility and all the tunes and wise, wonderful lyrics you could ever hope to hear.

We saw them every chance we got, which wasn't as many as it might have been since they had a burgeoning career that took them away from Cambridge. When they played, though, every gig was a celebration and a joy. The last time I saw them, a storming homecoming set at The Locomotive, a rock pub, was one of the best gigs I've ever been lucky enough to attend.

In the mid-90s I taught myself HTML (well, really I taught myself how to use Dreamweaver, which did most of the heavy lifting), just so I could put up a tribute website to Dolly Mixture, who at the time seemed to have no web presence whatsoever. I got some great feedback from that, including several bootleg concert tapes and an email from someone out of Slater-Kinney. I have the whole thing backed up on floppy somewhere.

Dolly Mixture released a number of singles and EPs, all of which I now own. Somehow, they never got around to releasing a full album but that didn't matter because in the early 1980s they released a double-album of all of their demos. It was, is and most likely always will be my favorite album.

They eventually broke up but not before they had their fifteen minutes of fame, backing Capt. Sensible on his #1 smash, Happy Talk. Rachel married the Captain and went on to play, briefly, in a band called Fruit Machine, who I not only saw but videoed at a pub gig.

It was in the days before cellphones with cameras and I was using a large, Mini-VHS tape camera. I was so obvious the band could clearly see me filming them from the stage. I felt obligated to go up and explain what I was doing after the set. I had a stilted and somewhat embarassing chat with Rachel, who seemed quite happy to have been recorded without her permission. At least, she didn't demand I hand over the tape.

In one of the stupidest things I have ever done, several years later I taped over most of the recording, filming hedges and gates for another project I had in mind. Only a couple of songs survive from the full set. One day I'll put them on YouTube. I don't believe there's any footage of Fruit Machine online anywhere.

As soon as I finished my finals I returned home and married my girlfriend. I was the ony member of my social and academic circle to attend graduation day as a married man, although within a year several more had joined me. Getting married was the thing to do back then.

Judi and I returned to Bristol, where we lived happily and then less happily for several years before divorcing, very amicably, in the mid-80s. We remained close friends until she moved to Wales and we remain in touch. If you loved someone once you should always love them unless there's good reason not to, that's my take on it.

The early to mid-80s were kind of a wilderness time for music for me. I liked a lot of stuff but I had no real focus. I'd made a whole lot of friends in comic fandom, most of whom lived in London. Visiting them, going to conventions and marts and writing extensively for fanzines took over from music as my focus.

All of those people, however, had eclectic and eccentric tastes in music. We used to play records all night, often on the "one song" rule, where every track was chosen by a different person. We made mix-tapes for each other all the time and swapped them by post and whenever we saw each other. I was introduced to a torrent of new sounds but mostly I didn't follow through, simply revelling in the specific songs people played or taped me and moving on to the next.

The only new musical obsession I collected at the time was Lloyd Cole and The Commotions. Lloyd is one of the best songwriters - specifically lyricists - I have ever heard. I saw him first doing "Perfect Skin" on some TV show and I was sold.

I bought the first Commotions album, "Rattlesnakes",  as soon as it came out and played it, loudly and frequently, for months. I've been buying every album he makes ever since. I love almost all of them although his brief "I'm a RockStar" phase had its dodgy moments.

I went to see Lloyd once. Never again. He is the definition of dull on stage. It was the original Commotions line-up at the peak of their powers and every track sounded exactly like the records. I really hate that but it could still have been okay if Lloyd had any charisma or stage presence. He didn't.

Never mind, some people are born to play live and some only come alive in the studio. In the booth, Lloyd is a god.

I wasn't born to do either but I loved performing back then. When I got back from Cambridge I found the remnants of my old band had kept going, now led by Phil, the younger brother of my best friend Chris, who at that time was still playing drums but who not long after turned evangelist Christian and vanished to the USA, never to be seen again, at least by me.

Phil, who had been the bass player, was now rhythm guitarist and de facto band leader. He was also a budding businessman with the energy and ability to get gigs and publicity. Under him, the band had been playing regularly.

I used the fact that I'd been a founder member to inveigle my way in as backing vocalist and percussionist. I played a stuffed aligator, whose ridged back I stroked with a drumstick. In time I was singing lead on some songs of my own. Then after a while I was singing all of them, most of which had been written by Phil, who wasn't a great singer nor wanted to be one.

Chris left, we renamed the band, we got more gigs. We got quite tight. Everyone could play now. I played a little rhythm guitar but mostly I just sang. The highlight of my musical career came when a girl approached me after a gig and told me I sounded just like Lloyd Cole. The lowlight was when Gerald Langley of The Blue Aeroplanes told Phil the band could go places if we got rid of the singer. He can bloody talk!

Didn't stop me loving The Blue Aeroplanes, though. One of the best live bands I've seen, along with the unfortunately named Spics, who had a fantastic soul-rb roadshow with a punk attitude. Live music in Bristol was amazing in the eighties and I wasn't even aware of the best of it. That was yet to come.

Eventually the band broke up. That was sometime around 1985 I think. I was immediately headhunted by an extremely intense, very thin guy called Mark, who had seen me sing and wanted me to front a band he was putting together.

He wrote most of the songs and played guitar exactly like David Gedge out of The Wedding Present. I like The Wedding Present a lot now but I didn't then. I'd seen them live twice and they were monotone and boring. Still, great guitar sound and Mark could really hit it.

We rehearsed for a solid year. We never played a single gig. Eventually I quit. That was the end of my rock star dream.

Well, almost. Then came C86.


  1. Well this brings back a lot of memories for me. I actually quite enjoyed Captain Sensible's post The Damned output, despite "novelty" songs such as Happy Talk. Tracks such as Gimme a Uniform, It's Hard to Belive I'm Not and Thanks For the Night hold up pretty well.

    Some of the musical foibles and quirks of his songs always reminded me of the band New Musik. Then I found out that Tony Mansfield (from that band) was involved with the production of Women and Captain's First and The Power of Love, Sensible's early solo albums.

    Oh and thanks for referencing The Fall. I spent many a happy hour as a teen listening to them, blaring out tracks like Industrial Estate.

    1. I always had a soft spot for The Captain. I prefer his solo stuff to much of The Damned's output although I also have a soft spot for The Damned.

      One anecdote I wasn't able to work into a post was the time we saw The Damned, very early in their career, 1977 I think, and we were chatting to them before they played, which was what happened back then. We told Rat Scabies we were starting a band and he asked who the drummer was, then he disappeared for a moment and returned with what looked like a brand new crash cymbal, which he gave to our drummer. In retrospect I would bet he nicked it from the main band! Fun times.

      I saw The Fall a bunch of times. Mrs Bhagpuss is a big fan too. They were never less than interesting although they certainly were variable!

  2. Ha! In the mid-90s I also taught myself HTML, just so I could put up a tribute website to a band who at the time seemed to have no web presence whatsoever. In my case, it was Australian goth band Ikon, who later got in touch and adopted my fansite as their official web presence for some years.


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