You may wonder why I’ve chosen to review a work by an all-female band that most people outside of the U.K. have never heard of and whose records never made the charts.
I assure you I am in full possession of my faculties. I abandoned sticky, sweaty Nice for the 65F/18C weather in County Cork, Ireland, thereby avoiding having my brain fried by the sickening heat on the not-so-romantic-anymore French Riviera. The cool temperatures here are similar to the temperatures I grew up with in pre-global-warming San Francisco: great leather weather.
In short, I’m getting laid every night, satisfying my hyperactive libido and leaving my mind perfectly clear to make rational decisions.
So, let me assure you that I have very good reasons for doing a Dolly Mixture review—three of them, in fact:
- A nice person asked me to check out their work and while I liked what I heard, I explained to the nice person that I was having trouble gathering sufficient, credible information on the band to do them justice. In response, the nice person sent me some links that helped fill in some of the many blanks in their trajectory (they aren’t called “Our Great Lost Girl Group” for nothing).
- I’m here to write about the history of popular music and part of that history involves artists who weren’t all that popular as measured by record sales but had more talent than many artists who raked in oodles of cash. I’m still pissed off that many of the promising indie bands I reviewed in the early days of this blog never caught on with the public while overrated bands like U2 continued to fill arenas all over the world. Dolly Mixture deserved better.
- What sealed the deal was one little factoid I found in the info the nice person sent me: “While still in their teens, they were supported at a London venue by a little-known outfit called U2.”
For one brief shining moment in music history, all was right with the world.
So let’s talk Dolly Mixture. The band was formed in Cambridge in the late 70s by three teenage girls: bassist and lead vocalist Debsey Wykes, guitarist and vocalist Rachel Bor (who is also an accomplished cellist) and drummer Hester Smith.
The band took its name from the popular British confection shown above, a major contributor to the tooth decay pandemic of yesteryear that earned Brits the stereotype “people with bad teeth.” The sales pitch on the Barratt website gives some clues as to the nature of the band’s music (hints italicized): “Indulge in the delightful combination of fruity flavors with Barratt Dolly Mixture. This colorful and classic treat has been enjoyed for generations and remains a firm favorite . . . With its vibrant colors and unique shapes, it is perfect for sharing with family and friends or as a sweet treat for yourself. Whether you’re looking for a nostalgic treat or simply love the taste of fruity candies, Barratt Dolly Mixture is sure to satisfy your cravings.”
Although they didn’t get it completely right, the candy company came closer to accurately describing Dolly Mixture’s music than most of the critics of the time.
When they hit the scene, they were labeled as a punk or post-punk band. Well . . . some of their songs give you the impression that they were kinda sorta a punk band in the way the early Undertones were a punk band, offering generally short, upbeat, melodic songs about teenage kicks and teenage troubles. Critics compared them to the Slits because there weren’t many all-girl bands around back then and the male critics of the era didn’t take them all that seriously. To my ears, Dolly Mixture’s music had little in common with the more avant-garde Slits and they never displayed their tits on an album cover.
Some have claimed Dolly Mixture influenced the Riot Grrll movement, but their only connection to third-wave feminist punk was the DIY methodology they employed for this particular album. There is nothing in their sound that gives you the slightest hint of a connection to Bikini Kill and their ilk, and their feminist leanings on this album are limited to two songs where they dis girls who spend all their time and energy trying to get boys to like them, one very insightful song about how traditional motherhood is not for every woman and a brilliant piece on how young girls of the era felt they were between a rock and a hard place when it came to choosing between feminism and tradition. Dolly Mixture was acutely sensitive to the challenges facing young women, but they have no songs that deal with Riot Grrll themes such as rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, racism, and patriarchy.
Others say they were a throwback band. Well, kinda sorta . . . again. The Shangri-Las were one of their favorites, and in an interview on Legendary Indie Nerd Bible, Debsey Wykes admitted that “we definitely started with the 60s thing and just got obsessed with anything that sounded like 60s music.” That particular obsession was also shared by their frequent touring partners the Undertones, and one could say that the early repertoire of both bands consisted of “60s-influenced melodic punk rock.” Of all the labels attached to Dolly Mixture, “throwback band” was the classic two-edged sword, for while that perception led to their signing with a major label, it also allowed the music business to pigeonhole them into what Andy Partridge might have described as a “teeny-weeny sub-ghetto” of the music scene.
Here’s how things went uphill and downhill fast. Dolly Mixture’s live performances of semi-retro music helped them build an enthusiastic following, which in turn led to a couple of John Peel sessions and some interest from major labels. Alas, when Dolly Mixture signed with Chrysalis, they learned that their take on 60s music wasn’t exactly what the label had in mind. They wanted to record their own songs; Chrysalis wanted to market them as throwbacks and forced them to record the Shirelles hit “Baby, It’s You” in classic girl group style. Even worse, they took one of their originals (“New Look Baby”) and “remodeled” the arrangement so that it sounded like something Annette Funicello could have sung in one of those silly beach movies. As noted on the John Peel Wiki, the signing proved to be one step forward and two steps back:
They thought that with a John Peel session in the bag they had really made it. A single for Chrysalis followed the next year. John Peel reviewed it on Radio 1’s Roundtable. He wasn’t complementary and Dolly Mixture agreed—the record company had advised them to be poppier than they wished. It was produced by Bay City Roller’s Eric Faulkner! Peel didn’t like the B side either which was a cover of Shirelles/Bacharach tune “Baby Its You”. Peel advised them to stick to recording their own material.
Peel’s advice didn’t mean dick to Chrysalis, who dropped Dolly Mixture after the single flopped. Lucky for them, Dolly Mixture had a fallback—they had toured with the Jam, and Paul Weller liked them enough to let them record a couple of singles and an EP on his fledgling Respond label. Weller (who was going through a lot of changes himself at the time) soon lost interest, leaving Dolly Mixture without a recording contract. Though they appeared as backing vocalists on a few of Captain Sensible’s hits, they still had dreams of making it on their own.
Now back at square one, they did what every band does when trying to attract a label: play lots of gigs and make demos. In Dolly Mixture’s case, they made a double album of twenty-seven demos, pressed a thousand copies, released the album on their own label and waited for someone in the industry to notice. When that wait proved fruitless, they shifted gears, waved bye-bye to guitar rock and released an EP on a minor label largely filled with instrumental compositions for cello and piano. Still tagged as a “throwback girl group,” no one paid attention to the EP, and Dolly Mixture folded up their tent.
Even after the re-release of Demonstration Tapes in 1995, critics continued to pigeonhole the band and listen to their work through the “throwback” lens. Here’s the review from Greg Adams at AllMusic:
Dolly Mixture was like a female version of the Undertones, creating catchy and concise punk-pop gems (emphasis on “pop”) that made them a flavor of the week in England in the late ’70s. They released only four commercial singles but recorded a pile of demos that the band self-released as a double album in 1983 after mismanagement had halted their forward momentum. Demonstration Tapes is a 1995 CD reissue of that double album, packing 27 lost girl group classics onto one disc. So many of these songs are simply amazing that it’s hard to pick favorites, but “Will He Kiss Me Tonight” has “hit” written all over it. The sound quality is a little muffled, but all the charm and pure-pop songcraft manages to shine through. Dolly Mixture could have been as big as the Go-Gos, and Demonstration Tapes is the proof.
Note that the one song he mentioned was the most girl-group thing they ever did except for “Baby It’s You” (they even ripped off the phrase “Tonight’s the night” from the Shirelles). His fetish with that one song allowed him to label all the songs on the album as “girl group classics.” He certainly paid no attention whatsoever to the complex chord structures and deeper lyrics on several of the tracks, for he would have noticed that despite their bumpy ride through the music industry, the girls had continued to grow as musicians and songwriters.
In keeping with the album’s title, Demonstration Tapes would be considered “demo quality” by audiophiles and professional engineers. With one exception, the effort was self-produced and cleaned up a bit with professional mastering. The lyrics to their earlier songs are generally unremarkable but fit nicely with the melodic music, similar to the Beatles’ lyrics during their moptop phase. The girls harmonize well, and though their harmonies don’t rise to Beatles or Beach Boys levels, they’re always pleasant and well-timed. Debsey Wykes isn’t going to wow you with American Idol overkill but her understated approach, tone and timbre give her voice a certain quality that draws your attention. The sound produced by the basic setup of guitar, bass and drums varies from surf to Invasion to slightly edgy girl group with a punkish twist, held together by the tight rhythm section of Rachel Bor and Hester Smith. And though they took their name from a popular confection, Dolly Mixture wasn’t all sweetness and light, and certainly didn’t deserve the genre label that the critics finally agreed on: “twee pop.” The literal meaning of twee is “excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental,” a definition better suited to Andy Williams than Dolly Mixture.
With the proviso that the songs are demo-quality, there are only a few weak tracks on Demonstration Tapes. Because the ladies were thoughtful enough to present the tracks in compositional order, future historians (comme moi!) can assess Dolly Mixture’s development over time. It’s very clear that the first two sets of songs covering 1979-1980 and 1980-1981 are more “female version of the Undertones” and the last two sets from 1981-1982 and 1982-1983 generally consist of more sophisticated compositions with complex chord patterns and rhythms. Nearly all of those later songs have good bones, but I get the sense that if Dolly Mixture had been given the opportunity to work with top-flight arrangers and producers, the songs would have more clearly demonstrated their growing musical talent and lifted them out of the girl group death trap. There is no doubt in my mind that Dolly Mixture was a band with significant untapped potential.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda = Dolly Mixture’s epitaph.
Instead of taking you on a tour through all twenty-seven tracks, I’m going to limit my review to a chosen array of songs that reveal Dolly Mixture’s development from a delightfully melodic rock band with punk leanings to a trio that wrote and performed highly sophisticated pop songs with meaningful lyrics—without losing their gift for melody and harmony. I’ll also comment on a couple of rare “failed experiments.”
1979 – 1980
“Dream Come True”: Armed only with rhythm guitar, bass, drums and fabulous voices, the ladies show off their propulsive power in this punk-speed piece that lasts all of ninety-five seconds. The speed may be punk but the vibe is more like British Invasion—joyful, melodic and harmonic, a tune designed to lift the spirits of teens dying to escape the parental nest. It’s a great introduction to Dolly Mixture and I imagine that it would have been a killer show opener.
“Ernie Ball”: I don’t think this is one of their best compositions, but I included it for two reasons. First and foremost, Heather holds nothing back in her drum attack (hey, that rhymes!), powering the song forward with rolls on the toms that sound like Bev Bevan on amphetamines. Secondly, “Ernie Ball” is the only song I know of devoted to raising public awareness of a constant source of stress that eventually affects every guitar picker on the planet: losing your favorite pick.
I assume that most American guitar players lose their picks because they forget to take them out of their pants pockets before washing (Hi, Dad!) and after they’ve gone through the dryer, end up as bubbly bits of plastic clogging the lint trap. In Europe, where clothes dryers are somewhat rare, Dolly Mixture suggests that many picks wind up in the gutter, either due to women fumbling for their car keys or guys scratching their perpetually itchy balls.
“How Come You’re Such a Hit with the Boys, Jane?”: This is one of two songs where Dolly Mixture goes after evil bitches, and though I like the guitar and rhythms on “Miss Candy Twist,” I have to recuse myself from judging its merits because the bitch in question is “A blonde black leather fan.” Though I realize I can be quite intimidating when clad in a leather top and thigh-high black leather boots, I resent the bitch tag because I’m also a very nice person who gives to charities and adores cute little puppies and bunny rabbits.
It sounds like the girls had a lot of fun playing this high-speed romp full of sharply punctuated guitar chords and a perfectly executed array of vocals that include harmonies, call-and-response, Sleater-Kinney-like sub-narrative melodies and wonderfully snotty spoken-word bits. And though there’s more than a faint hint of resentment concerning Jane’s studied cool, her “courtesy cigarette,” and her “little girl’s voice” that combine to make her quite the boy magnet, the opprobrium thrown her way is not entirely petty or unwarranted:
How come you’re a hit with the boys, Jane?
You know you put the rest of the girls to shame
Is it the way that you put all the other girls down?
(She’s a hit with boys, hit with the boys)
Make no mistake, she’ll spread it around
(She’s a hit with boys, hit with the boys)
What a cunt. Let her fucking have it!
“Side Street Walker”: Though there are aspects of Dolly Mixture’s music that activate nostalgic yearnings for one’s salad days, what is often overlooked in their explorations of youthful inexperience is that they don’t always view those alleged good times through the gauzy haze of Happy Days. They remind us of the boredom teens experience when mom and dad insist on early-to-bed-early-to-rise and the simple truth that we did a lot of silly shit when we were teens.
The narrative of “Side Street Walker” is about that silly shit. Boy and Girl have a platonic relationship and like to hang out with each other. Boy finds a new Squeeze. Squeeze is the possessive type who doesn’t want anyone near Boy, especially Girl. Squeeze gets fucking nasty; Boy sides with Squeeze, choosing the possibility of getting laid over friendship. Girl goes into mourning over those lost “halcyon days”:
She used to spit at me but you
Just laughed like it was a game
As time went by, I realized
She came first in every way
You say that you don’t want to lose
The love that you have found
But why should I be forced to hide
Out of sight ’til she’s not around?
I know my way down the side streets now (Na na na na na)
Away from the places that you walk
I know my way down the side streets now (Na na na na na)
And I can’t see you walk or watch you talk
The music to this piece is ab-fucking-fab, driven by Heather’s nimble drum work and Rachel’s throbbing bass. The highly memorable melody is enhanced by jangly guitar chords and arpeggios reminiscent of the British Invasion. I love the fade where the girls take things down a notch in a modified chorus, then come back rocking to the chorus proper, adding layered vocals to ramp up the intensity. I listen to “Side Street Walker” and wonder how the hell any record company dweeb with a set of functioning ears could have passed on signing this band to a long-term contract.
“Understanding”: This is where things really get interesting.
We’re now at track 17, and by this point in the listening process, I assumed that the lyrics would be iffy at best and that it was better to concentrate on the music and musicianship. My initial reaction to the music of “Understanding” can be summarized in three pithy words: what the fuck?
The piece begins with a simple and completely disarming chord arpeggio from D to G and back again. Okay, no sweat. The first two lines feature a slight alteration with two bars of D to Gmaj7. Easy peasy. The third line shifts to a C to F maj7 pattern that resolves to . . . E major? Huh? The barely perceptible change to A major makes you think, “Oh, okay, the song is in D major and A major is the classic resolution chord.” But no, the next pattern is C major to F major and I’m sitting here with Dad’s guitar wondering “What is the fucking key to this song?” when out of the blue they go to an E major to B minor pattern that ends on . . . an F minor chord (?!#@) and I can feel my little blonde brain getting ready to explode . . . but instead of attempting a very awkward resolution back to D major, they use the F minor as a transition to C major, a not entirely unheard-of move. It finally hits me that the song is in two different keys, but what’s amazing is how Debsey’s melody flows over those keys like a mountain stream. My guess is that the classically-trained Rachel had a lot to do with the composition, but who knows? The Beatles often hit on what they called “weird chords” that worked like charms and none of them were classically trained. All I know is that “Understanding” is a sophisticated and beautiful composition that you wouldn’t expect from a “twee pop” band.
After a cigarette and a stiff shot of scotch, I was ready to tackle the lyrics. To say that they exceeded my expectations would be an understatement to end all understatements. What we have here is a well-crafted, true-to-life story of a mother who firmly believed that it was her duty to be a “good wife,” as narrated by her very perceptive daughter. The first two verses set the stage by comparing and contrasting the slavery inflicted on the housewife and the unlimited freedom granted to the man:
Her mum was everything good
She’d clean and she’d cook
She would stay home
‘Cause she felt that she should
She saw her father take pride
He would stand by her side
Do things he had done
When he had been young
Yes, he’s proud of her devotion to drudgery because it allows him to hook up with broads who will gladly wet his whistle. The daughter sees what her mother refuses to see and makes a promise to herself that she will live a life that matters:
Someday, I’ll find out someway
To shout to someone
I’m really someone
Listen to me
She said that someday
I’ll find out someway
To shout to someone
I’m really someone
Believe in me
The inevitable collapse is described in stark, simple language:
One day she noticed her mum
At home all alone
Her head in her hands
She could not understand
She had worked all her whole life
To be a good wife
Now her husband had gone
Leaving her on her own
Seeing her mum broken inspires the daughter to repeat her vow, leading to what will hopefully be a much happier ending for her:
Now she knew what was wrong
And when she left home
She tried to become
A real someone
I know that most first-world countries have (often grudgingly) accepted the truth that women are human beings with dreams beyond the kitchen and the kids but listening to this song made me think of the women in Afghanistan who have lost all their freedom due to a religiously-sanctioned patriarchy. A UN study on the situation reported that “All over the country, women report feeling invisible, isolated, suffocated, living in prison-like conditions.”
Mum wasn’t even aware she was a prisoner; I’m glad the daughter figured it out before it was too late.
“Never Mind Sundays”: I’ve never been religious, thank god, and never gave a shit about American football, but even if had no access to a calendar, never heard church bells ringing and never heard my dad yelling at the television because a bad call went against the 49ers, I’ve always known when it was Sunday. Sundays just feel different than any other day of the week—somewhere between melancholy and gloomy. I felt that way even before I joined the workforce and caught the dreaded disease known as the Sunday Scaries.
That uneasiness is brilliantly captured in the music and lyrics of “Never Mind Sundays.”Another set of tricky chords and key changes await us once the descending ukelele-friendly chords give way to Rachel’s exquisite transitional bass line. Though the chords in the verse (Bm-E/Bm-E/Gmaj7/D6/Gmaj7/D6/C/A don’t seem to add up to D major, that’s where the resolution leads us. That delightful little musical roundabout shifts to Bb major in the bridge, with D#dim7 serving as the tension chord resolving to G minor. Despite all the changes, the melody is exceptionally strong, one that sticks in your head for days. The chord progressions are indeed very clever, but more importantly, they reflect the essence of the Sunday mood—a disquieting discomfort resulting from sheer boredom, the dread of going back to work or having to pretend to enjoy the traditional Sunday dinner with your massively dysfunctional family. The lyrics do not specifically identify the event or circumstances that created the ennui, but they sure capture the mood:
I’ve got this restless feeling
Silence doesn’t lie
We’ve got this helpless feeling
Keeping us inside
Sun greets your smile
But only for a while
Never mind Sundays
It’s a blind day
Put it in your pocket and prepare to step away
And I love the way the girls crafted a musical exclamation point by gradually slowing the tempo during the fade . . . a sluggish, dreary ending suited to the dreariest day of the week.
“Wave Away”: This is an exceptionally strong composition that begins with arpeggiated guitar foreshadowing the music in the exceedingly memorable chorus, where the girls mess with rhythms and keys to create an exciting build in support of the equally memorable lyrics. The verses also feature several unusual but fitting chord changes, with major seventh chords dominating the proceedings. I usually hear major sevenths as “wimp chords” that convey a certain mushiness, but Dolly Mixture cured me of that bias by combining major sevenths with more definite chords to build a compelling musical statement. Debsey negotiates the complex but fundamentally beautiful melody with ease and Rachel delivers a gorgeous (and rare for Dolly Mixture) guitar solo while double-tracking her rhythm guitar parts. In keeping with their growing interest in expanding their sound, Debsey appears on piano, though due to the demo-level recording quality, the piano is somewhat muddy in the mix until the closing notes.
The song’s meaning centers around the definition of “wave away,” which according to Oxford is “to not accept something because you do not think it is necessary or important.” In this case, “waving away” is about young women downplaying the possibility of exploring the world and choosing to stay at home instead. Some of the other songs on the album reference this predicament, from the opening lines in “Dream Come True” (“My mother told me I should stay at home/I have no life of my own”) to the repeated opening lines of “Treasure Hunt” (“I don’t know where to go”) and most clearly in the example of the mother in “Understanding” (“She would stay home/’Cause she felt that she should”). In these still early days of feminism, many young women felt torn between tradition and the urge to get the hell out, experience the world outside and make a life for themselves.
I’m aware of before
Standing here I am sure
That many girls have watched and waved away to the sea
If not to the sea
Then to the rail
Search and fail
Why they are still willing to go
The conundrum is best expressed in the lines “If the world has moved on/To which do they belong?” and Debsey notes with palpable dismay in the song’s chorus that many girls choose stuckness:
As time goes by
Time turns around again
It turns around
And here we are again still
Left behind and going nowhere
Left behind and going nowhere
Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, Dolly Mixture wound up left behind.
“Grass Is Greener”: Dolly Mixture may have been expanding their musical reach in their later years, but you can tell from Rachel’s opening barrage of crunchy power chords and Hester’s energetic fills that they hadn’t forgotten how to rock ‘n’ roll. And they certainly hadn’t lost their ability to harmonize, as demonstrated by the spot-on backing vocals and extended scat harmonies that take the place usually filled by a guitar solo. Debsey uses her impressive range and ability to immerse herself in a character to deliver one of her strongest vocals on the album.
As the lyrics seem to completely contradict the message of “Wave Away,” it’s important to note that Debsey has taken on the role of a girl who seems to be choosing stuckness, but there’s more than enough sarcasm in her voice and in the lyrics to argue that she’s really saying that it’s stupid to believe that the grass isn’t greener on the other side:
What more could I expect
To be happy with second best
Half-wishing I was somewhere else
When fortune found me sitting behind the fence
Just how lucky a girl could be
The grass is springing out from underneath
Until the cows come home
I’ll be watching how green it grows
I read that the band members laughed a lot during performances, and I’m sure they laughed a lot when creating and playing this song.
The last two tracks reveal what happens when a band desires to expand its range and lacks the resources to pull it off. Compared to their other late-stage songs, “Remember This” is pretty light fare, something you’d expect from The Fifth Dimension but not Dolly Mixture. Even worse, they brought in Captain Sensible to produce the song, a guy whose only qualifications were that he’d used the girls as background singers and had begun what would become a long-term relationship with Rachel Bor. The mix is terrible, especially in its failure to blend the lead and background vocals, and Rachel’s cello is ill-suited for such a lightweight song. I have no idea why they chose this song as the only single from the album, especially when they had a dozen other tracks more likely to re-energize the fan base. By contrast, the piano-cello duet on “Whistling in the Dark” came out just fine but the attempt to enhance the piece with background whistling exposed the band as production amateurs.
Those two flops do not change my fervent belief that Dolly Mixture deserved better and still does. Information about the band on the web remains insultingly spotty—web lyrics are filled with glaring errors or nonexistent; a documentary that I wanted to watch is generally unavailable, limited to special showings in faraway places; and the “official website” contains no information about the band’s history. I’m amazed that despite the obvious compositional talent they displayed on Demonstration Tapes, few artists have covered their music. There’s more than enough evidence on Demonstration Tapes to prove that Dolly Mixture was a very talented group that could have could have been the U.K.’s answer to the Go-Gos had they caught a few breaks.
Coulda . . . woulda . . . definitely shoulda.