The remarkable recordings by the Sixties glamour girl, movie star and rock goddess.
Dana Gillespie is one of those classic Sixties Chicks – the young women who emerged on the music scene in the middle of that decade and spent some time living in the shadow of a more famous and successful paramour or associate, before finally managing to break out on their own. Gillespie has never quite achieved the same reputation as Marianne Faithfull, but then she has never had the same public downfall and rebirth, instead simply ploughing a steady career path as a respected blues singer since her brief stab at pop stardom fizzled. That stab at pop stardom is collected in the collection What Memories We Make: The Complete MainMan Recordings 1971 – 74, a thorough record of the time when she was under the wing of David Bowie‘s manager Tony Defries, and Bowie and Mick Ronson were closely associated with her.
A little back history first: Gillespie, born in 1949, was a posh girl (full name Richenda Antoinette de Winterstein Gillespie) who had been a child sports star, before being seduced by music. By her mid-teens, she was a regular at the Marquee, first as a fan and then as a singer with an acoustic guitar. She was soon performing the sort of wistful folk music that Faithful was also crowbarred into because no one at the time could think what else a teenage girl could sing. Admittedly, she was also friendly with folk singer Donovan at the time, so it probably made sense to read in that direction, given the hippy-drippy sounds of the time. She would record a handful of singles for Pye in 1967, two of which were written by and played on by Donovan and produced by Jimmy Page, before making a couple of albums for Decca that allowed her to explore both rock and pop – her psych-pop album Foolish Seasons, released in 1968, was one of the last outside jobs for Page and John Paul Jones before they unleashed Led Zeppelin onto the world. The follow-up, Box of Surprises, had a rockier feel and pointed the way for her next recordings. She then graduated to the stage in 1970, in the musical Catch My Soul, alongside an intriguing cast that included P.J. Proby and P.P. Arnold.
At the same time, Gillespie was carving out a career as an actress and model. She’d appeared in Hammer‘s Lost Continent and Secrets of a Windmill Girl (later notable titles include Ken Russell‘s Mahler, The People That Time Forgot, Bad Timing, Scrubbers and the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore Hound of the Baskervilles), and was seen – in teasing, almost-but-not-quite nude and lingerie shots – in many a glamour magazine like Parade. Gillespie certainly wasn’t ashamed of exploiting her looks and her sexuality (and why should she be?) and her music career was promoted with the sort of sexualised glamour imagery that might raise eyebrows with the more tiresomely pursed-lipped people today.
Gillespie maintained a friendship with Bowie and signed with MainMan, DeFries’ management company that was handling the future Ziggy Stardust, in 1971. Bowie wrote the song Andy Warhol for her (though he later changed his mind and recorded it himself on his album Hunky Dory), and both he and Mick Ronson played on her version of the song, which first appeared on a 1971 promo album that is split between Gillespie and Bowie, aimed at selling both artists to new record labels (with success – both signed to RCA). Gillespie’s version of the song of this album is a first-rate version – it’s notable that all her versions are better than Bowie’s – but lacks the potent glam rock fury of the later album remix. The rest of the album tracks are Gillespie originals – the opener Mother, Don’t Be Frightened is the standout, a haunting ballad aimed at Gillespie’s own mother who was understandably concerned about her daughter’s involvement in the seedy world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (all of which Gillespie happily admits to dabbling in).
Gillespie’s album Weren’t Born a Man appeared, rather belatedly, in 1974 – perhaps a little too late for her to really take advantage of the Bowie connection. Plans for him to produce the album collapsed as his career went stratospheric, and Mick Ronson initially stepped in; however, the bulk of the LP was produced by Gillespie herself with engineer Robin Cable.
It’s a pretty impressive work – the emphasis is on heavy, bluesy and occasionally prog-flavoured songs that Gillespie’s voice is well suited to – there’s a purity here that is ideal for ballads like All Gone, but her voice has the strength to step up to the heavier moments and then slip back into a vulnerable softness. And the songs themselves are pretty solid, if not all outstanding. The opener Stardom Road Part I and II is a moody, heavily orchestrated and but the album is perhaps a little inconsistent. cynical tale of pop stardom – ironically not written by Gillespie, though it feels like it is exploring all the experiences she’d had in the music industry to date. The second part of the song gets decidedly funkier, with fuzzed-out guitar howling and a vibe that is hard to resist. The funky feel is also there on Dizzy Heights and All Cut Up on You, while the acerbic Backed a Loser and the sexually ambiguous title track are solid, groovy blues rockers.
On the minus side, What Memories We Make is a cheesy Spanish fantasy, complete with panpipes; Gillespie belts it out with a passionate commitment, but it’s a pretty poor song, and it feels out of place here. Perhaps it was a leftover from an earlier time. In any case, either of the outtakes included here – Lavender Hill and Never Knew – would have been better choices (Never Knew eventually ended up, in a different version, on her next album).
The standout track on the album, however, is Andy Warhol, here remixed to emphasise Ronson’s spiralling, twisting guitar solos and with a thundering power and thrust that Bowie’s version is sorely lacking. Of course, by 1974, most people would have dismissed this as a mere cover, unaware that Gillespie’s version is the original recording of the song. bad timing, indeed. There’s also a demo version on the Cherry Red collection, with double-tracked vocals featuring Bowie more prominent on the backing track that is worth a listen.
The first disc of the Cherry Red collection also includes the Libido single Hold on to Your Fire (a decent pop-rock song) and the B-side, which is the first recording of Weren’t Born a Man, which is pretty similar to the album version. Nice, if not essential, additions.
Gillespie’s second album for MainMan/RCA had the biting title Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle – a pointed reference to her relationship to both the management company and their number one star, perhaps (though she denies this was the case). In any case, by this time any musical connection with Bowie was long gone, and Gillespie was out on her own. This is more a blues album, with the title track setting out the stall from the start, and perhaps this was the direction Gillespie felt more comfortable in. As such, it’s perfectly fine – it might actually be a more consistent album than its predecessor, the backing band of top session men sounds solid and her voice is certainly up to the task of this material. But I think it’s a less interesting album. That’s a personal value judgement, of course – but this sort of mid-Seventies blues doesn’t do a great deal for me.
The best moments are those where she explores slightly different sounds, like Don’t Mind Me, where her voice rises a few octaves on a somewhat dreamy, trip number. No Tail to Wag has a slightly sleazy, porn movie score vibe (and I say that as a compliment), and her cover of Dr Hook’s celebration of narcotic and sexual excess, Get My Rocks Off, is suitably unsavoury. But on the whole, the album doesn’t grab me in the way that Weren’t Born a Man did, even if technically and vocally, it is a step forward. That’s not to say that it isn’t a good album in its own right, and fans of blues may well find this the better of the two MainMan LPs.
Things all fell apart soon after this second LP was released. Bowie and Defries had an acrimonious split, and MainMan began to fall apart soon after, leaving Gillespie in a state of limbo. She’d returned from New York to London, only to find herself without a recording contract, while still legally tied to MainMan, who weren’t doing anything. At the time, she was in the middle of work on her third MainMan album, which would never reach the point of an actual recording. The existing five demos from this time – October 1974 – are included on the collection, and see the blues direction continuing, including a cover of Mamie Smith’s Goin’ Crazy with the Blues, and they seem to offer a more mature and interesting approach than on the last album, with pumping numbers like Do the Spin – perhaps this is the sort of music that benefits from minimal production. Certainly, Gillespie’s voice on these songs is impressively powerful – she was no wilting violet on earlier recordings, but here she is really belting it out. However, these tracks would remain unheard until 2019.
Three years of legal wrangling followed, which effectively put Gillespie’s singing career on hold – she kept working with more West End musical appearances and film roles, but it wasn’t until 1981 that she was able to start recording in her own right again. When she did, it was as a fully-fledged blues singer, sometimes as a member of the Mojo Blues Band, and she’s recorded over twenty albums since. She’s also recorded several religious-themed Sanskrit albums, as a follower of Indian guru Sri Sathya Sai Baba. And she organises the annual Mustique Blues Festival. Her acting career came to a halt in 1990, but she still pops up in documentaries, most recently in David Bowie: Finding Fame, made by the BBC.
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