Dana Gillespie – What Memories We Make
Released 29th March 2019
Subtitled “The Complete MainMan Recordings 1971-1974”, this 2CD set features everything Dana Gillespie recorded whilst under the wing of Tony Defries’ management company, including five tracks from a rare promo album that was shared with another Mainman artist David Bowie…….Ian Canty hears a stunning talent who may not have been helped that much by a close association with the future Ziggy Stardust……
Being a one-time junior water skiing champion of Britain probably marks Dana Gillespie out from most acts that got caught up in the early 70s Glam shuffle. As a teenager in the mid-60s she moved away from water sports and more towards music, where her patronage of the hip London clubs lead to her meeting up with David Jones, singer with the Mannish Boys and soon to be Bowie. Taking up the performing bug, she hit the Folk clubs with what she self-deprecatingly terms “my guitar and three chords”. Evidently a real talent, a linkup with Donovan’s management resulted in three singles for the Pye label that were more Pop-inclined. Her strong voice caught the attention of Decca and this relationship yielded a couple of late 60s albums with debut Foolish Seasons released on Decca’s London off-shoot and featuring the future Led Zep duo of John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page.
The second album Box Of Surprises emerged on the parent label a year later in 1969 and showed Dana moving towards a more Blues-orientated direction, which was really far more where her heart lay in truth (the recent London Social Degree collection on the reactivated Revola label contains both LPs). Concurrently with her recording activities she also pursued an acting career with parts on stage and screen. It was whilst being treading the boards in Catch My Soul, Rock & Roll impresario Jack Good’s update of Othello, that she came onto Bowie’s radar again. The re-establishing of the friendship ultimately led to the link up with Tony Defries’ MainMan brand of which DB was already a part of.
Performing Bowie’s Andy Warhol song on a BBC In Concert led to Gillespie recording the song with the nascent Spiders From Mars (though Dana herself had zero interest in the Pop Artist). From there the next step was a promotional album with David Bowie on one side and Dana on the flip, which saw the light of day in the summer of 1971. Dana’s five tracks make up the first section of What Memories We make and they exhibit a whole heap of promise. The headline cut here was that recorded version of Andy Warhol, which is given an excellent outing with Dana’s crystal-clear voice and the fresh sweep of musical energy thoroughly beguiling. Lavender Hill displays a crucial element to her talent, the sheer unhurried skill with which she treats the lyric is a joy to behold.
Gillespie would re-record three of the songs for her full length debut album Weren’t Born A Man, released almost three years later in March 1974. Her theatre work was in part to blame for the delay, she was starring in the hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar and worked on the album in any spare time she had left. Bowie’s involvement was also cut down as he had became a massive star in the meantime, causing his mooted role as producer had to be abandoned. Mick Ronson was due to step into the fray, but other than the re-recordings credited on Mick and Dave, Dana herself and Robin Cable produced the album.
It was a complete masterstroke to commence the LP with the two-part Stardom Road, originally written for the band Third World War by their vocalist/guitarist Terry Stamp. Dana squeezes every ounce of emotion out of the song’s lyric without overdoing it, a winning combination of balance and pure vocal talent is deployed. The song’s lyric about the seediness of the music industry’s machinations fit Gillespie down to the ground, having clearly been through the Swinging 60s mill. Also the musical palette is tip top, switching from downbeat orchestral flourishes to full-blown Rock grandstanding in the separate parts of the song. Though barely out of her early 20s, she puts the perfect touches on the world-weary resignation of Backed A Loser, almost a sequel to Stardom Road and the dance Glam hustle of Dizzy Heights really captures the funky joy of that scene.
The second half of the album was strong as well. The re-cut of Mother Don’t Be Frightened is brooding and dramatic and the title track struts with a cocky confidence born of a natural performer. The two final tunes Eternal Showman and All Gone provide an emotionally touching and beautiful ending to the album. Weren’t Born A Man was a triumph, but didn’t sell, with Dana’s relocation to the US probably being part of the problem. This left the record out on its own with no personal appearances or live dates to promote it. It appears that MainMan also may have wanted to push Dana as the female equivalent of Bowie, but she was too much her own person to be a mere shadow. She was quite a different entity and perhaps that was maybe a little difficult for Glam fans used to the glitzy thump and grind to understand that.
This disc finishes with two alternate takes of Lavender Hill and Never Knew and a single recorded under the name Libido on the Mooncrest label. This was a collaboration of Gillespie with guitarist Mick Liber (who played on Third World War’s LP and first exposed Dana to Stardom Road) and the two tracks recorded, Hold On To Your Fire and a different version of Weren’t Born A Man were full-bodied rockers and very pleasing too.
Dana Gillespie was back with her second album of the year entitled Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle at the other end of 1974, which begins disc 2 here. Though only 10 months had passed since her debut stylistically there was a big change. She followed her heart and as a result this LP was much more earthy and Blues/Funk/Soul orientated, but what it had in common with the previous LP was this another fine piece of work. The dalliance with Glam seemed a thing of the past and free to explore musically, she came up with another quite bewitching brew.
A rockin’ title track and the gorgeous ballad Really Love The Man get things going in an assertive fashion of someone who now truly had discovered their true direction. There’s a beautiful build up with some fine guitar work on Don’t Mind Me, this one kind of harks back to the previous album a bit in its mournful drift. Close harmony vocals approaching Gospel mark out the rhythmic and danceable Pack Your Bags and Get Your Rocks Off packs the kind of power of the best of 70s Rolling Stones. The juxtaposition of raw, rootsy music and Dana’s lucid vocal phrasing works very well indeed.
There’s some great sax throughout and this is particularly noticeable on the downright Funky No Tail To Wag. Wanderlust is sultry and moving and Getting Through To Me is blessed with some true R&B hammer. She closes this album with a new recording of Never Knew which dated from the Bowie days – in this form now a more Blues jam sort of thing musically, but the undertow of the song’s sad story of regret is a fitting ending to a record crammed full of feeling and wildly alive.
Next on this disc is LP outtake Man Sized Job which would have slipped right onto the album without any problems, real Soul with some quality horns and of course vocals. This one and the five tracks taped in October 1974 are previously unreleased. All show Dana had found her true musical voice in R&B, with the raw Do The Spin and the James Brown-style jam of Stoke The Engine being great stuff indeed. Goin’ Crazy With The Blues reached even further back to almost like Dixieland Jazz, but it is a dreamy, drowsy winner. All of which boded well for a possible third LP, but sadly never saw the light of day due to problems with MainMan, Gillespie cutting her ties with them soon after this session.
The final track of the collection is the original demo of Andy Warhol which is simpler instrumentally with no strings or adornments and a little shaky fidelity-wise, but it still works well as Dana confidently puts her individual stamp on the song.
Dana Gillespie went on to record many albums in a Blues mode after breaking loose from MainMan, where she was caught in the crossfire between Bowie and Defries’ falling out. But as What Memories We Make ably demonstrates is what a top talent she was at the time and how it is near-criminal that she didn’t achieve mainstream success. Weren’t Born A Man is a terrific album, full of guts, flair and raw emotion, with Dana’s peerless voice in full cry and Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle is a more than credible follow-up. It is good to have the 1971 promo tracks, the Libido single and the unreleased demos, which help to give a fuller picture of a talent blossoming. With some great sleeve notes and input from Dana herself, this is an excellent compilation of her work in the mid-70s and still sounds wonderful today.
Dana Gillespie’s official website is here
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here