Even by the standards of London punk in the mid-70s, Doll By Doll were a uniquely abrasive band – feared, loathed and, by a few, fiercely loved. In a time and place when Sid Vicious could find acceptance, Doll By Doll and their four albums of Celtic New Wave hard rock – all psychiatric damage, mystical theories and violent romance – were strikingly unsuccessful.
Jackie Leven was no callow youth when he formed Doll By Doll. Born in 1950, he lived rough across late-60s Europe after fleeing a gang in his Fife hometown. In 1967 he encountered guitarist Joe Shaw, drummer David MacIntosh and bassist Robin Spreafico squatting Dorset farms.
Two years on, the singer found space for them in a Maida Vale (London) squat, where neighbours included “badly damaged Scottish guys, prostitutes and petty thieves”. This environment forged Doll By Doll.
Their shows were designed to confront and disturb, inspired by the works of 1930s Theatre Of Cruelty subversive Antonin Artaud and rebel psychiatrist RD Laing. Crowds were small and walk-outs were almost encouraged. “We genuinely had demons,” Leven recalls. “And we had an audience who could take it. At the same time, there were people thinking ‘if I don’t get away from this band right now, I might go insane’. When we got offstage we’d be shaking”.
Doll By Doll signed to Warner-affiliated label Automatic, and Anarchy In The UK producer Bill Price was assigned to their brutally direct 1978 debut, Remember. Released with great fanfare and expense, it was largely loathed.
The band members’ disquieting natures were a factor. “We were unusual guys,” Leven concedes. “We all had serious unresolved edges. We didn’t go out to offend but something we were doing was offensive. The guys were always getting in serious trouble, in terms of aggression. There was a power of personality we enjoyed exerting”.
Undaunted, Doll By Doll reconvened the following year for Gypsy Blood, now seen as their masterpiece. Leven’s own half-Romany background and a new lyrical reach strengthened a psychologically brooding piece of Celtic pop. Automatic were thrilled, only to find that their American bosses had no intention of a US release, for this or almost all the label’s lavishly financed roster. In the UK, the record bombed “terrifyingly” anyway.
Even fellow bands loathed Doll By Doll. They freaked out Devo, who kicked them off their tour. At the Hammersmith Odeon finale of an oppressive 1980 trek supporting new Automatic labelmates Hawkwind, a huge backstage battle with the latter’s roadies saw label executives beaten up. Doll By Doll were sacked.
Their attempt to record a hit single nearly worked, but Magnet provided the band with a new enemy: label boss Michael Levy (who went on to infamy as the New Labour financier under investigation as ‘Lord Cashpoint’). “I’ve met a lot of bastards in my life, but he really enjoyed hurting people,” Leven ruefully recalls. “We were ready to kill each other”.
Leven ditched his band mates and made one final effort as Doll By Doll – Grand Passion (1982) – but it was all too late.
The real end came when a street attack in 1983 left his larynx crushed. Unable to sing, his label dropped him and he became a long-term junkie. His extraordinary return in the 90s as a mature singer-songwriter is another story altogether.