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Loved And Lost: Dolly Mixture

August 15, 2010

Your favourite music often fixes special occasions in the memory, and in time the two merge inseparably. When you especially love the music, and it’s connected to a really big event, you can never again think of one without the other. That’s how it is for me, anyway.

I saw Dolly Mixture many times in London in the early 1980s and bought the few records they released. As so often, I came across them supporting another much-loved band. I’d turned up the Venue in Victoria, London in January 1982, to see Orange Juice. Edwyn Collins was in a foul mood that night, but Dolly Mixture had already lit up the evening with an astonishing set, leaving me on a high that not even the grumpy Postcard janglers could bring down.

I was the token pop freak in the music faculty at King’s College, London University. By day learning about the avant-garde styles of Berio, Boulez and Stockhausen and equally abstruse medieval techniques of Dufay and Dunstable, after hours I was moonlighting as a part-time punk, taking in as much of the rich new music scene as I could. There was plenty, and I was a regular at places like the ICA, the Lyceum and Marquee, enjoying this novel vein of melodic, guitar-fuelled pop which had supplanted the increasingly dead-end punk and its angsty post-punk offspring.

The Venue was my place of choice, partly for the seemingly endless programme of amazing music I saw there, but mainly for its rather seedy ambience. Beyond the entrance hall there was a long, dark passage-way to the auditorium, exciting to walk down as you felt the growing anticipation of seeing a band you loved, and then this wonderful room – a big stage, a bowl-shaped dance floor, and at a higher level behind it tables and chairs.

Dolly Mixture were a fascinating thing. On the face of it a straightforward all-female power-pop trio of guitar, bass and drums, they had a repertoire of simply stunning songs. Reeling them out one after the other I’d alternately long for their sets not to end or wish for them to stop immediately, as they surely couldn’t get any better. The songs positively glistened. All three musicians sang, and their voices, in different ways, were sublime. Fresh, bright melodies, luscious chord sequences, tight, vivid harmonies, and a punky approach to belting out the music. Their ‘look’ was a combination of old-fashioned dresses apparently borrowed from a 1950s church fete and Doc Marten boots, the contrast neatly mirroring the music. Engaging and loveable on stage, they inspired a passionate live following including, sometimes, a devoted skinhead contingent.

The last time I saw them as a London resident was back at the Venue, on 30 March 1982. I was leaving for good the next day, and I’d taken along a friend I worked with in the University bar, to catch them just once more and hook him in as a fan. The band, this time headlining, were better even than two months earlier. Their set was like a greatest must-be-hits package – Never Let It Go, Angel Treads, Never Mind Sundays, a glorious cover of Love Affair’s Rainbow Valley, many many more. It was musical bliss to be there that night.

Between songs I turned to my friend and asked “What do you think, then?” Gazing wistfully at the bass player he simply replied “She is. Absolutely. Gorgeous”. Yes, and the music was pretty damn good as well.

Later that night I lay on the floor in Simon’s room in his hall of residence, the window open to the warm spring air, and we listened to The Teardrop Explodes’ Kilimanjaro and talked till we fell asleep. Down the road was the three-ton lorry I would drive to Stockton-On-Tees the next day to start a new job which would change the rest of my life. The exquisite sense of expectancy, knowing that something special would happen the next time the sun rose, is a feeling I can recall at the flick of a time-switch in my mind. And the music that accompanies it is Dolly Mixture’s.

They never made the step up to the next level of popularity and success, except in a brief cameo role as Captain Sensible’s backing singers. Maybe it was bad luck, maybe lack of management clout. Perhaps it was their laudable refusal, in a still male-run business, to allow blokes to write their songs and play their instruments – which, incredibly, was demanded of them as the price of a decent recording budget and a bigger label to release their records.

I often returned to London for odd days and weekends, and would always seek out Dolly Mixture until they split up in 1984. In the 17 years before moving back permanently I made do with the records and the memories. Everything And More would have worn out if I hadn’t copied it onto cassette. The Demonstration Tapes double album the band released under their own steam showcased their songs perfectly, unspoiled by being tarted up by any big-name producer. They sounded exactly as I remembered them live.

Then in 2010, nearly thirty years after I’d first caught the Dolly bug, things started happening again. There was a three-CD set bringing together their singles, the double album and other bits and pieces. Waiting for its release was a bit like the anticipation of that walk down into the hall at the Venue, now long since closed. And then one Sunday late afternoon this summer I found myself at the Roxy in Borough, south London, for a screening of Paul Kelly’s Take Three Girls.

It’s a beautiful film, ostensibly an affectionate documentary of a cult band, a story told with humour and great perception by the three members. Beneath the surface it is much more: a tale of friendship and how a group fought the odds, and overcame many of them. But most of all it’s a study in regret, of what time does to us, of unfulfilled dreams, and of accepting and getting on with life. I watched the film smiling throughout. I also felt a strange chill as my past came back to me so vividly – places I recognised, scenes I remembered, packed crowds bouncing up and down, the cubby-hole of a dressing room at the Rock Garden, that magical moment when your favourite band comes onto the stage. It was eerie, and for the 45 minutes the film lasted I was somewhere else entirely. For me, it was also somehow about the last thirty years of my life and how this music had remained special to me.

For their many fans Debsey Wykes, Hester Smith and Rachel Bor will most likely always mean just Dolly Mixture – perhaps Birdie too – as if that defined their lives. For the three of them – and this is a wild guess – that time is probably something that happened before other things took over – families, careers, other interests, other music, ‘real life’. Still enormously important, a marvellous memory, but gone for good.

Measured in money and chart positions Dolly Mixture didn’t make it. Nowhere near. But then again…a band still in their teens, playing most nights to people who adored their music, a handful of singles, their name often cited as an influence today, and an audience who would still go a long way to see them.

It’s the kind of failure most bands would give a lot to achieve. Remember This? I couldn’t forget it.

Dolly Mixture 3-CD set

From → Loved And Lost

3 Comments
  1. jennifer permalink

    This was absolutely beautiful.

  2. Dolly Mixture supported my band The Bureau a couple of times around ’81 in Birmingham and Coventry.I remember them playing themes from tv ads in their set “get into orbit”(sugarfree gum) and opal fruits.great band and very lovely people.Cheered me up finding this,well done and Ta.

  3. Dickie permalink

    Fair takes me back!
    I was an avid fan, maybe even friend, even roadie occasionally.
    First saw them opening for The Undertones in a Top Rank in Bristol or Cardiff, but my best memories (among oh so many) would be a Marquee residency – the place packed out, the ceiling dripping, the dressing room a shambles.
    Their songs – especially the later stuff – still bring tears to my eyes, all these years later.

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