Dana Gillespie: ‘What Memories We Make’

❉ Dana’s MainMan recordings are a real treat and the results are here for all to enjoy.

Long awaited by her faithful fan base and weapons grade Bowiephiles alike, this complete collection of singer and actor Dana Gillespie’s ‘MainMan’ recordings is a real treat. As you’d expect from Cherry Red, it’s a gorgeously presented, abundantly illustrated and annotated, value for money package, compiled with the full involvement of the artist herself.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Dana Gillespie could be said to be well at home here on We Are Cult; her acting career is cult with a capital C, including appearances in Hammer’s The Lost Continent and Amicus’ The Land That Time Forgot, and as a vampish Muse to maverick filmmakers Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg in Mahler (1974) and Bad Timing (1980) respectively!

On stage she appeared in rock musicals Catch A Soul and Jesus Christ Superstar, for the latter she originated the role of Mary Magdalene in its original London run.

Her recording career encompasses early, collectable folk recordings for Pye and Decca, a credible run of raunchy blues albums and thirteen Bahjan albums sung in Sanskrit… and a spell as David Bowie’s label-mate on RCA Records, which this collection focuses on.

At the time this part of the story begins, in spring 1971, Bowie was sitting out the expiry date of his contract with Philips/Mercury and building up a bulging portfolio of material while his new manager Tony DeFries began courting the ‘big three’ record labels (CBS/Epic, EMI/Capitol, RCA/Victor) with the wealth of songs that began pouring from Bowie’s keyboard and out of Radio Luxembourg and Trident Studios.

17th May 1971: David Bowie with Dana Gillespie. (Photo; Michael Stroud/Express/Getty Images)

Freshly minted from a new music publishing deal with Chrysalis on the strength of this new songbook (“All of a sudden, all these great songs suddenly started appearing”, recalled Chrysalis’ Bob Grace), DeFries pressed up a white label LP which contained five songs by Bowie on one side, and five by Gillespie, then being developed by Bowie and DeFries (who was romantically involved with Gillespie for awhile) as Trilby to their Svengali.

“I went to the States for a while, and when I got home, David said to me, ‘I’ve met this guy who I think is a really good agent/manager, you should meet him’. So that’s how I met Tony DeFries. I was taken up to this office in Regent Street, and there was this guy with a ton of woolly hair on his head, like a Jewish Afro… I instantly loved him. He was honest, bright, warm and really great to be around.

“(Tony) asked me to get out of my old contract and said that he would look after me if I wanted. As I so adored him, it seemed like the best idea. So I willingly put my life, my time, my music and everything into his hands, a move which I don’t ever regret…”

The white label – known to fans by its unique catalogue ‘number’ BOWPROMO – was successful in garnering Bowie a record deal with RCA Records, and became a near-mythical, highly desirable Bowie rarity, boasting alternative mixes and takes of songs that would appear on Hunky Dory & Ziggy Stardust and outtake Bombers; the Bowie ‘side’ eventually surfacing unofficially online in the new millennium then receiving a Record Store Day release in 2017, sourced from a needle-drop of a pressing once owned by Gillespie herself.

Cherry Red’s What Memories We Make presents as its opening gambit the Gillespie side of this highly-prized platter – previously only available on the attractively presented 2015 bootleg Make Way For The Rock And Rollers – in remarkable audio fidelity considering the source material, with a minimum of background hum. Its five tracks can be more profitably discussed in the context of Gillespie’s more fully-fledged recordings as a RCA/MainMan artist, which comprise the bulk of this jam-packed double CD complete with a cover photo by Gered Mankowitz.

Ultimately, DeFries’ dreams of a MainMan empire failed to be fully realised, with Bowie’s career taking up more and more of the company’s attention, and the dissolute, profligate behaviour of the company and its employees running it into the ground and virtually bankrupting Bowie, who was literally MainMan’s cash cow, although there’s no denying that DeFries succeeded where his previous managers Les Conn, Ralph Horton and Ken Pitt failed in making Bowie a superstar.

“Everyone was trying to find themselves during that period… DeFries always said if you are treated like a star, you become a star. Well, it worked with Bowie because he sold lots of records, but my albums never really sold as well as his did.”

Outwith Bowie, MainMan’s only signings would be Iggy and the Stooges (with gave the world Raw Power and MainMan a massive heroin bill), lead Spider Mick Ronson who recorded two fine albums for RCA, and Dana Gillespie.  (A pet project of Bowie’s, an album by his lover Ava Cherry, would not surface until 1994, and Jayne County’s MainMan demos are still languishing in a vault somewhere.)

“By this time I was already hanging out quite a lot with David and Ronno and Angie”, she recalls. “(Jesus Christ) Superstar came in the middle of it all, which was great because suddenly I was making good money. So I did Superstar for a year and a quarter and made the album Weren’t Born A Man at the same time.”

In the US, Dana was marketed as a ‘lesbian outrage’

At the time, press attention in the music mags and tabloids tended to focus on Gillespie’s undeniably impressive looks and sex appeal, but Gillespie’s two long players, 1973’s Weren’t Born A Man and 1974’s Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle, are impressive in their own right and the results are here for all to enjoy, lovingly curated by Cherry Red.

Unlike her stablemate Mick Ronson’s near-contemporaneous Slaughter on 10th Avenue, Bowie’s fingerprints are barely discernable on Weren’t Born A Man – its his collaborators who make the more recognisable contributions, chiefly Ronson’s string arrangements and the distinctive piano flourishes of Rick Wakeman (as per Hunky Dory), and its baroque chamber-pop vibe is a signature hallmark of Trident Studio’s recognisable sound, as overeseen by one of its finest technicians and engineers, Roy Thomas Baker’s sideman Robin Cable.

Gillespie acquits herself well on this album, showing herself as a songwriter with serious chops (no surprise, given some of these songs had been incubating for two years, and she’d been in the biz since her teens) and a strong vocalist whose assiduous delivery matches up to her image as a sexually strident, sensually feminine siren, equally at home belting out a rocker or singing wistfully of regret and yearning, such as on the sublime What Memories We Make, gifted with a delicate arrangement by Robert Kirby.   In truth, Gillespie has more to offer on the forlorn ballads, which tap into her folk music background. Her more sassy, raunchy side would find greater expression on Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.

Gillespie’s cover of agit-prop power group Third World War’s Stardom Road offers a well-worn take on the clichés of the pursuit of fame and glory and the sacrifices made along the way, and was suitably camp to be covered by Marc Almond as the title track of his 2007 covers album; opener Mother Don’t Be Frightened hails from those 1971 Trident sessions complete with a Hunky Dory-era Bowie/Ronno arrangement & production and opulent Rick Wakeman piano embellishments, being effectively a more ‘adult’ rewrite of Bowie’s own Right On Mother.

“That song was sort of an open letter to my mother”, reveals Dana. “I’d just taken some LSD, and I woke up the following morning and wrote the song. I was always very close to my parents, but they were very well-to-do, aristocratic people, and I was going off into a very dark, distant world that was completely alien to them. I didn’t want them to be alarmed.”

You can enjoy the original BOWPROMO mix here, prior to being gussied up with a fresh mix and more instruments on the album proper.

The fatalistic Backed A Loser was, at one time in Bowie fandom, alleged to be penned by Bowie himself, but it’s unlikely he would have overlooked the chance to add to his publishing credits at this time, although the chorus’ chords amusingly echo T Rex’s Buick Mackane, albeit taken at a mogadon pace.

There’s no doubt, of course, about the authorshup of Gillespie’s take on Andy Warhol; indeed, Bowie originally composed the tribute to the artist as a vehicle for Dana, as he explains on the BBC Radio 1 ‘In Concert’ from 1971 prior to La Gillespie belting it out against Ronson’s visceral guitar. Dana’s take on Andy Warhol will probably surprise ears familiar with Bowie’s all-acoustic rendition with its ‘recorded in the bathroom’ ambience, with Dana’s inscrutable vocal delivery in stark contrast to Bowie’s “oh by jingo” campy histrionics.

In conversation with David Wells, in this album’s booklet, Dana reveals:

“I often wondered why he thought it was suitable for me, because it was so completely abstract – very different to my own songwriting. I was always uncomfortable with the song, to be honest. And I had no interest in Warhol – I certainly didn’t want a painting of a tin of soup hanging on my wall… Anyway, I recorded it with the band that became The Spiders, with Mick Ronson on lead guitar. But Bowie decided he liked the song, and he then recorded his own version for Hunky Dory.”

This compilation boasts no less than THREE – count ‘em! – alternate versions of this much loved Bowie singalong: Alongside the album version, with Ronson’s guitar forthright in the mix, there’s the 1971 BOWPROMO recording, essentially the same arrangement, a rougher mix with a gentler vocal, the campfire handclaps lower in the mix, and the strident Ronsonics taking a backstep to Bowie’s immediately identifiable twelve string strumming, the incongruous French horns (Trevor Bolder?) and a nervy, insistent, stabbing, string arrangement that sounds like Eleanor Rigby having a panic attack and seems (to these ears) to effectively emulate Warhol’s nervy, neurotic nature behind the “oh gee” public persona.

Tucked away on the end of Disc 2, and of the most interest to Bowiephiles, is the song’s original, previously unreleased demo, taken at a slower pace, with some cautious bass guitar fingerpicking, not unlike the version Bowie would perform on his 1972 tour. Bowie makes a barely audible vocal cameo towards the fade of this recording, provided for this release by Tristan Penna.

“It’s really quite good”, Dana concedes in the sleeve notes. “I’ve always liked demos as they often capture something that can sometimes get lost or changed in the finished production…”

Weren’t Born A Man is rounded off by two tracks, Lavender Hill and Never Knew, which briefly surfaced in 1994 on the Dana Gillespie compilation Andy Warhol, from the brief window when Carlton P Sandercock  had the keys to the MainMan vault. It’s nice to have them again, in context. BOWPROMO escapee Lavender Hill (no relation to Ray Davies’ Kinks song of the same name) is a delicate cameo of a song, whose piano backing by Wakeman and distinctive Ronson arrangement, betrays its Hunky Dory-era origins.

Gillespie’s second RCA album, Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle, has much less to offer the hardcore Bowie completist, seeing Dana escape the shadow of the main man to explore a sound that would become more profitable to her as a solo performer, and a million years from glam rock and chamber pop: Raunchy blues.

Of the album title, Dana recalls: “A lot of people thought that I chose that title because I felt in the shadow of Bowie, which wasn’t true. I always knew that DeFries had more time to spend on Bowie than me because Bowie was much more ready than I was. In fact, I used that title because it was an old Bessie Smith song, and I’d always liked the lyrics…”

The title track is knee-deep in sassiness and attitude, with a gusty vocal complemented by muscular horns, ringing R&B guitar and swamp bass, as Dana first flexes her vocal style on a new approach that would become her signature style over the subsequent decades, a ‘honky woman’ channelling the like of Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington, rocking everywhere from Reno Sweeney’s and Ronnie Scott’s to the island of Mustique, where for many years Gillespie hosted blues festivals.

Pack Your Bags is in the raucous style of the album track, blues-rock at its most effervescent and feisty, with Dana in fine fettle, while Really Love The Man was Second Fiddle’s sole single, and harks back to Weren’t Born A Man’s ballads, albeit with a Stax/Atlantic vibe. This direction aligns it with the album’s sonic values, and sympatico with the downtime vibe of Dusty Springfield’s underrated soul-blues album Cameo, complete with pumping Clavinet keys and parping sax, crossbred with Elvis’ recently reappraised Stax recordings. It’s a good fit for Dana’s sultry, saloon bar queen persona on this album.

Don’t Mind Me takes this persona further, with a Nashville/Memphis via West Coast languor, and could be equally at home on any of the Fleetwood Mac albums from the post-Green, pre-Buckingham Nicks period (from this writer, this is a compliment).

The dirty blues of No Tail To Wag  and the blistering mission statement Get Your Rocks Off, the slinky, funky Wanderlust and the swamp blues of No Tail To Wag point the way forwards to Dana’s successful reinvention as a bold as brass, risqué Madame of the blues, which can be explored on numerous albums beyond the scope of this compilation.

As to the more bluesy, blowsy style of belting Second Fiddle exhibited, Dana states:

“My voice was getting stronger through singing in so many stage shows over the last two or three years. So I was sounding huskier, and I was getting closer to being able to sing blues. Also, at that time we were listening to the likes of Little Feat and J. J. Cale, so that had an effect on our sound.”

In this context, Second Fiddle’s penultimate track, Never Knew feels anachronistic, being more of a piece with those introspective ballads of the previous album, although the presence of a 1972 version (an outtake from Weren’t Born A Man, previously heard on 1994’s Andy Warhol) allows the listener to make a side-by-side comparison, the latter version’s downhome bluesiness in contrast to the earlier take’s soft-focus balladry and expansive arrangement in the widescreen AOR production style of Paul Williams, Richard Perry and Albert Hammond. It’s a measure of how Gillespie changed her musical focus and direction in the space of three short years and two albums.

And the band played on…  “DeFries encouraged me to put a band together while in the States, and so when David wasn’t working, I would often use Earl Slick and Mike Kamen (the musical director on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour) because they were on the MainMan payroll and needed to be used. By this time I had got my own apartment, which had been the MainMan offices but had been turned into an apartment for me to use on 58th Street in between Second and Third. We took over the place from Leee Childers and Wayne County, and I lived there for quite a long time.”

Who knows how that fabled third RCA album could have turned out had she not parted ways with Bowie, DeFries and the MainMan empire? The second disc’s five tracks from an October 1973 session suggest that she would have followed the blues-raunch vibe that became a comfortable fit for her persona, finessed with some chicken-scratch funk, if Going Crazy With the Blues, the sax-heavy Man Size Blues and the funktastic Stoke The Engine are any indication. And she’s never looked back since.

In Ken Russell’s ‘Mahler’ Dana appeared as Anna von Mildenburg, Mahler’s mistress.

Britain’s shores are littered with blue-eyed, white soul singers with plenty of sugar in their bowl, and Dana Gillespie may well be its most underrated exponent, and while in the eyes of Bowie fandom her reputation may be in the shadow of her former boyf and sometime conspirator/collaborator, this handsome collection from Cherry Red ably demonstrates that she has always had talent to burn, an unmistakeable voice that’s impossible to not be seduced by, and enough ballsy attitude to take out a rugby team.

With a massively accomplished CV of albums and live performances, Dana’s still going strong at the suitably fruity age of 69, and What Memories We Make is a fitting gateway to her talent and sheer force of personality and Cherry Red Records have assembled this highly desirable collection with a fine set of liner notes, liberally illustrated with an array of rare and unseen photographs from the MainMan era.


❉ ‘Dana Gillespie – What Memories We Make – The Complete MainMan Recordings 1971-1974’ (CDBRED745) is released by Cherry Red Records, 29 March 2019. RRP £11.99. Featuring a plush Digipak with lengthy sleeve-notes by David Wells and a 24-page booklet

❉ James Gent is a writer, graphic designer, digital marketing professional, social media manager, and editor of We Are Cult. He has contributed to a number of magazines, websites and books including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die. Acknowledgements to Martin Ruddock for proof-reading and editing this article, and making suggestions.

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