Thursday, 26 May 2011

Hiss & Shake - Legg's Eleven pt. 8

History works in mysterious ways, and if you refer now to a Dorothy single the chances are the clued-up pop aesthete is going to think you’re referring to a wonderful old Industrial pop curiosity. Once upon a time, however, if you were talking about a Dorothy record it would have been related to a late ‘80s project by Gina Birch and Vicky Aspinall, once of The Raincoats, which seems to have vanished almost completely off the pop radar despite considerable interest in Raincoats related activity.

I recall seeing a couple of Dorothy singles around in a local record shop, unwanted, for ages, with the covers of Gina and Vicky, all glammed up, looking very striking. The singles themselves were not really what I wanted from pop music at the time. This was 1988-ish, and I probably would have been too busy putting together tapes of old Raincoats, Kleenex, Blue Orchids and old soul singles to play at gigs, rummaging in charity shops for abandoned 45s, with the pirate radio stations on at home to provide background noise.

Gina and Vicky in Dorothy (and I somehow always assumed the name was related to Dorothy Parker) were exploring ideas about gloss and sophistication, in a wonderfully ambiguous way. You got the impression they were having a lot of fun, and thoroughly enjoying messing with the minds of people who missed the unique glamour in The Raincoats’ approach. The sound of Dorothy on singles like Loving Feeling was swish pop, recorded with Phil Legg in Robin Millar’s Powerplant studios, in a climate where Madonna and Prince were all-conquering, though the delivery was laced with Ze/Cristina style satire, as shown in the video featuring the pair vogueing and vamping it up which is now available through Gina’s website.

While Taja Sevelle was (and is!) infinitely more appealing than the House of Love and Pixies, I nevertheless didn’t take too much interest in the Paisley Parkish Dorothy singles. Illogically I took against them because of their record label, Blue Guitar, which I hated vehemently. Blue Guitar was one of those major label sponsored ‘faux independent’ labels which were springing up at the time. And Blue Guitar was a Geoff Travis affair set up through Chrysalis. That wasn’t a problem in itself. Far from it. Indeed, at the other end of the decade Chrysalis had a similar thing going with Pre, which had a roster featuring Scars, Manicured Noise, Delta 5, Prince Far I, Gregory Isaacs, and even Little Nell singing about wanting to be a Beauty Queen.

The trouble was Blue Guitar had a roster that relied on the Shop Assistants and Mighty Lemon Drops, two popular but incredibly dreary outfits that filtered out strangeness and benefitted from a trend for lumping all guitar-based pop together in a grimly non-discriminatory way. The Shoppies and Droppies were associated with the one-size fits all approach to promoting the non-discerning Cerne Canning advocated at London’s Bay 63. I hated all that, too. It was no coincidence that Canning re-emerged as the manager of Franz Ferdinand, another outfit that while spectacularly dull shamelessly flirted with intriguing reference points which bore no relation to the FF sound or approach.

Not that I realised at the time, but there was a third Dorothy single that appeared on (another Chrysalis subsidiary) Cooltempo in 1989, and this was a cover of the Supremes’ Reflections. It’s the Dorothy single you are most likely to find mentioned anywhere as it included an excellent Smith & Mighty mix, an early illustration of their Bristol sound, along with Fresh Four’s Wishing On A Star, their own cover of Anyone Who Had A Heart, the first Massive Attack single, and the phenomenal and criminally ignored LP they did with Carlton for London Records who really didn’t get what Smith & Mighty were doing.

Ironically around the time Dorothy were label mates with Adeva on Cooltempo there was increasing interest in their old group The Raincoats as new American rock acts mentioned them, and so began the strange sequence of events that brought Gina back together with Ana da Silva to play again as The Raincoats supporting Nirvana, and recording for a new incarnation of Rough Trade records. Vicky Aspinall chose not to get involved in the reactivated Raincoats, and the sleeve notes she contributed to the reissue of Moving were wise: “It’s hard to find much in common with today’s Riot Grrl – the music sounds so fragile, so unrelated to a conventional approach to song, both in form and content, that it’s hard to see where the line, if there is one, continues into the present day. But in spirit there’s a continuation, perhaps in a desire to do things your own way and not be moulded by others’ expectations.”

There were very practical reasons why Vicky didn’t get involved in The Raincoats’ return. She was at the time very busy with Fresh, the label she ran with (a) Dave Morgan which specialised in club-oriented sounds. Dance music? Grrr, I hate that term. But, yeah, dance music? That made sense, because if you couldn’t dance to The Raincoats you didn’t like pop music. Appropriately the Dennis Bovell mix of The Raincoats’ Animal Rhapsody turned up on the excellent DJ-Kicks mix by Chicken Lips (who had started out as rave posters Bizarre Inc.). Fresh was partly a vehicle for the Lovestation productions Vicky was involved with. And the roster included some familiar names, like (arranger of Dorothy’s Reflections) Noel Watson’s 909 Project and Urge’s Immune To Your Emotions which was written by Phil Legg. Phil also contributed keyboards to Slow Dirty Tears by Gina Birch’s group The Hangovers. The Hangovers’ LP featured the lost Dorothy song Sweetest Pain, from an unreleased LP Gina and Vicky had worked on for Blue Guitar.

Fresh is partly known now for being the place where Richard X got a start, and among the successes the label had in the 1990s was U Sure Do by Strike which featured Matt Cantor who also recorded as Cut And Paste and went on to be part of the Freestylers, the phenomenally successful outfit whose early recordings were on Fresh and its subsidiary Freskanova. Freskanova was set up by Vicky and Dave to promote the more populist breakbeat related releases from the likes of Hal 9000, Agent Sumo, Soul Hooligan and Mad Doctor X. Ironically in many ways Fresh and Freskanova succeeded where many other labels in the past have fallen from grace. And there are, of course, a lot of people out there who are passionate about and protective of the Fresh/Freskanova legacy in the same way people pore over details of Rough Trade/Industrial pasts.

Hiss & Shake - Legg's Eleven pt. 8 - a dub version

History works in mysterious ways, and if you refer now to a Dorothy single the chances are the clued-up pop aesthete is going to think you’re referring to the late ‘80s glossy pop project by Gina Birch and Vicky Aspinall, once of The Raincoats. But there was an earlier Dorothy (whose name I assumed was a reference to the Wizard of Oz) who confessed to liking musique concrete, the Dixiecups and Subway Sect, Sinatra’s Songs For Swinging Lovers, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. and magazines in shrink-wrapped covers.

I would be a liar if I said I heard I Confess by Dorothy when it was first released. I do, however, remember reading about it in a fanzine from Glasgow called Sunset Gun which came out sometime in 1981. I’ve still got a copy. This, oddly given the time and place, was a fanzine that didn’t really feature Glasgow bands (apart from a very early Pastels review which mentions Stephen spitting out the words of Subway Sect’s Don’t Split It with venom). Instead it had articles relating to Belgian pop, Japanese girls, plus the de rigeur send-up of Blitz culture/futurists. And it had a tribute to Rema Rema, which mentioned how drummer Max had “a brief flirtation in the saccharine affairs of bubblegum pop with the schoolgirl wide-eyed innocence and seductive charms of I Confess, an experimental one-off single released under the pseudonym of Dorothy on Throbbing Gristle’s Industrial Records under the watchful eye and nurturing hand of Alex Fergusson.”

The Rema Rema piece was by Mick Parker, who wrote: “But how should success be measured? Should it be gauged by financial fruitfulness hinged on commercial acceptance, or should innovation, musical dexterity and inventive accomplishments merit higher accolades? Look behind the masked smiles and the vacuum closeness of celebrity elitism to the crimped ochre pages of discarded works, cocooned and catalogued in time’s forgotten vaults. Herein are the parallel eclipses to the blind spots of vision and the convenient amnesia of the mind. Overshadowed by the hallowed and pedastalled rock icons, the unique important contributions of such bands as Pearls Before Swine, Nirvana, Slapp Happy, the beautiful frailty of Nick Drake, and more recently This Heat, Doll By Doll, Television, I’m So Hollow, Ludus and Rema Rema remain relatively unsung.”

Mick mentions that the only other article published about Rema Rema had been in (the March 1979 edition of) Zigzag. This was by Kris Needs, which mentions how Max joined the group as drummer after responding to a “no hi-hats” ad, having previously auditioned for Subway Sect. The group refer to a song called Laurence Harvey, which is “a list of people we like, things we like. But it has to be four syllables, or it doesn’t fit. It changes night to night ...” The same issue of Zigzag featured a Robin Banks piece on Vic Godard which contained the memorable passage: “He arrives at my flat dressed as a man on his way to play tennis, and immediately delves through my singles collection, pouncing upon Chris Montez’ Let’s Dance with an exclamation of pure glee. ‘Til 4am we play old Stones, Faces, and Kinks records, talk of Maupassant, Eckersund-Smith and Mickey Mouse, and Vic reveals his ambition is ‘to eat tripe in the house opposite’.”

Mick Parker was someone I vaguely knew. He was a penpal for a while. Colin from Black put us in touch. He was good like that, connecting people with similar tastes. We would send letters. I was 17–ish, and Mick was older. He lived in Deal, down on the Kent coast, but he was in touch with lots of groups, and wrote for various fanzines. One I remember was Vox, a Dublin fanzine, for whom he did some very detailed Felt articles. Morrissey was a contributor, as well, using the pen name Sheridan Whiteside. I recall a Ludus article, from which several phrases later cropped up in The Smiths’ first press releases, like the line about a blend of melody and havoc. I remember Mick doing me a tape of odd pre-punk things, stating that if I liked Tracey Thorn I should listen to Bridget St John.

Mick was a keen photographer as well, and one of his shots was featured on the sleeve of The Fall’s Grotesque. In 1982 he went to Liverpool on holiday, and was kind enough to send me a fantastic photo he took of Pete Wylie looking very mod in a studio, plus some snaps of the Pale Fountains at Plato’s Ballroom, along with one of the luggage labels Nathan McGough had produced as tickets. These are things I still treasure. And I regret losing touch with Mick, though it was my own youthful arrogance that was to blame.

That edition of the Sunset Gun fanzine used photos by Mick for its interview with The Fall where MES has a right go at Scritti, Wah! Heat and Crispy Ambulance. Mark says he’s mainly listening to Dexys and describes a chat he had with their lead singer. There’s another interview with Subway Sect, which again uses Mick’s pics, where Vic Godard seems distinctly unimpressed by Orange Juice, but likes Linx, The Whispers’ It’s A Love Thing, and Making Your Mind Up by Bucks Fizz. I was never sure who was behind the Sunset Gun fanzine. There was later a Glasgow group called Sunset Gun. Now, two things named after the same Dorothy Parker volume of poetry is a huge coincidence. And Sunset Gun featured the Rutkowski Sisters who had previously sung in the curiously country-flavoured incarnation of the Jazzateers that recorded the lost Lee LP for Postcard.

Around the same time Alex Fergusson had created the Dorothy single with Max, he was also the producer for a couple of Postcard singles (Orange Juice’s Blue Boy and the Go-Betweens I Need Two Heads, if I remember rightly). Shortly after that he was briefly reunited with his old partner Mark Perry to come up with the still astonishing Alternative TV LP Strange Kicks, where Alex set Mark’s words in a series of sickly sweet bubblegum or absurdly catchy Racey-style Eurovision singalong settings. The combination was remarkable and irresistible. The potential hits on Strange Kicks included Communicate, which was like Blue Monday a couple of years too early.

The song Commmunicate provided the title for a live compilation LP from the year Leigh Goorney spent as Social Secretary at the Thames Poly in 1984/1985. Leigh had earlier, in 1983, interviewed Mark Perry for a fanzine I helped with, triggering a strange sequence of events where Leigh encouraged Mark to perform again, leading to a new era of Alternative TV (whom Leigh managed for several years) and recordings like the criminally underrated Peep Show, featuring Allison Phillips on drums. Allison had been in other groups, including The Eels who did some great shows at the Thames Poly that year. She also played occasionally with Ut.

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