❉ Stephen Porter on Cherry Red’s excellent retrospective of Dollar’s shiny ’80s pop.
“If you’re a latecomer and you’re thinking that was Motorhead, well you’re wrong it was Dollar and ‘Give Me Back My Heart’ – a rather surgical title for a family programme in my view..” – John Peel, Top of the Pops, 1 April 1982, BBCTV.
Not so long ago, a teenage music obsessive* overheard one of my tedious conversations and started grilling me about my life as a music fan and fellow obsessive.
“What – you actually saw Nirvana? Oh, my God; what I would have given to have seen Nirvana…”
His eye muscles went into relapse and a thousand-yard stare took over his face, and I imagined that he imagined himself looking through my eyes of Laura Mars watching Kurt giving the performance of all performances.
He pondered this for a while and then asked me if I had seen David Bowie.
“Of course,” I replied.
“Oh. F@%&. Off!” he said, his eyes becoming almost manga. Now I used to get upset if people told me to eff off, but you know what these crazy young folk are like these days, and the inflection in teenage fan club’s sweary response told me that this was a giant compliment.
“Did you get to see The Doors?”
“Er, they didn’t let toddlers into the Whisky-a-Go-Go.”
“They were a bit before my time,” I told him, without referring back to my moderately-amusing riposte.
“You didn’t see Joy Division, did you?”
“Yes – a couple of times.”
“Oh, you are amazing!” he said.
“How do you work that one out?”
“Seeing all those bands.”
“Well, I only paid some money and then stood there. It’s not as if I was in any of the bands.”
“Yeah, but still….”
It’s an odd form of logic. Gaining kudos from attending something. Like those (millions of) football fans who revel in the idea of referring to their chosen team as ‘we’ and boasting about the achievements of that team as somehow being their own, I was a little non-plussed at this young man’s reverence.
But as a pop fan, I know that logic takes a backseat when it comes to what moves us, and I know that I’ve made pilgrimages through dangerous and remote areas just to see where a band or singer grew up or played an important gig, or just to see some tacky statue or mural because, well, just because.
In the teenager’s mind there was his own hierarchy of the greats. I’d let him down by not getting a glimpse of Jim Morrison when I was a pre-schooler, but I’d Top Trumped by having seen Joy Division.
“Did you see them (Joy Division) at Eric’s?” he asked.
“What was that like?”
“Eric’s was a giant lavatory, but great at the same time.”
“Did you ever go to the Haçienda?”
I nodded like a wise old Jack Hargreaves/Yoda figure.
“Who did you see – The Smiths? Was it the Mondays, The…”
“Probably nobody you’ve heard of…”
I was getting a bit bored with the conversation now and I didn’t want my cool factor to fall off the face of the earth after such good early work.
Yes, I’d been to Liverpool punk club Eric’s many times before it was shut down by the police, but I only went to the Haçienda once. And it wasn’t The Smiths, the ‘Mondays’ or the ‘Roses’.
It was Dollar**.
Now I’ve lived in Manchester on a few occasions, I still regularly commute there for gigs, and – such are the vagaries of British Bastard Rail – I often end up freezing on Piccadilly’s Platform 14 waiting for the last train to Liverpool as the weirdoes, druggies and general odd bods vie to behave in the most outrageous manner possible because of some childhood trauma that warrants gaining everyone’s attention in later life. I’m a regular visitor to Manchester’s smaller venues and an occasional visitor to their slightly larger ones. I never really fancied the Haçienda, though, so back in 1989, it had to be the governors of British pop to bring me out of my shell…
Cherry Red’s excellent Dollar: Greatest Hits double CD retrospective brings it all back for me.
If you’re an ageing pop/charts fan like me, then Dollar are so entrenched in the fabric of our pop lives that it’s difficult to think back to their first incarnation as one third of pop sextet Guys ‘n’ Dolls back in the mid-seventies.
1975 is often seen as the nadir of the seventies pop years. Bloated be-denimed rock bands, endless cover versions and cabaret/light entertainment being forced on ‘the kids’ left slim pickings for the eternal pop fan, and Guys ‘n’ Dolls were certainly part of the problem. Like a thirty-three and a third bigger Brotherhood of Man, G‘n’D had the co-ordinated moves, horror haircuts and beige and ochre duds of the worst cruise liner entertainers or Majorca all-inclusive cabaret ‘turn’. I remember their version of There’s a Whole Lot of Loving making me feel profoundly depressed whilst watching Top of the Pops and yearning for a saviour to deliver us from pop evil.
Singer Dominic Grant sported a bouffanted, Budgie haircut, a chest wig from the BBC props department, and, along with his singing partner Julie Forsyth (Bruce’s daughter – wonder how she got the gig?) , sashayed back and forth with two other couples, making the sort of spew-inducing MOR to form the backdrop for an Abigail’s Party style, er, party. Even the name was a giveaway – the ‘and’ contracted to ‘n’ just screamed chicken-in-a-bastard, and after a couple of years, nascent punk rocker David Van Day decided enough was enough and went solo.
The delicately beautiful Thereza Bazar joined him and they signed to Carrere records. Dollar’s damaged pedigree and their perceived naffness meant that they were never going to be trendy (more later), but the record-buying public of 1978 were a very mixed bag and there was seemingly room for everyone in the charts. If I had to pick the best pop year (and I’m an eternal fan, remember), I’d have to say ’79 was the best – if only for the unbelievable variety of bands and acts producing records that are still in the collective consciousness today – but ’78 was a great year as well.
Not that Dollar’s music could ever enter the pantheon of greats, but their debut single, the quirky Shooting Star was a massive improvement on the ghastly G ‘n’ D’s efforts. Written by Dave Courtney (not the dead hard Cockney villain, alas), the song was the sort of pop fare my young punk rocker self would have shied away from, but I remember listening to an end of year Top 100 Countdown on cheesy local commercial station Radio City on my dad’s enormo-giant-headphones (the cauliflower- sized cups would have put any premier league player’s ‘cans’ to shame I can tell you) and being blown away by the stereo effects as comets and rockets and indeed shooting stars whizzed from ear to ear across my brain.
“What are you listening to?” asked my younger sister.
“It’s the Peel Festive 50. Can’t believe how good Public Image are,” I lied.
Courtney also wrote Dollar’s second top twenty hit Who Were You With in the Moonlight?, a pleasant no-brainer which helps to speed disc one of Greatest Hits on its merry way. It surprised me to find out that the delicate Love’s Got a Hold on Me was written by Van Day and Bazar. From the subsequent fall-outs of the couple – and there have been many – it became clear that Thereza was the songwriter with Van Day garnering song writing credits in much the same way that Elvis insisted on tagging his name on to the hits written by Willie Nelson and a host of others – because he could.
Dollar’s fine run of hit singles continued with their terrible (but terribly popular) version of The Beatles I Wanna Hold Your Hand. The single reached number nine in 1979 and was their biggest hit until the duo’s rejuvenation in 1982.
Tracks five to nine on disc one of Greatest Hits are all misfires and none were hits. The Bazar/Van Day-penned Love Street sounds like it was made up on the spot and, despite its nod to St Mirren FC’s former home, it sounds simultaneously like a bad Eurovision heat failure and Noel Edmonds and co’s ghastly I Just Wanna Be a Winner. Takin’ a Chance on You and the horrifically-titled The Girls Are Out To Get Ya are fillers that aspire to be Abba but fail miserably.
Track 6 Ring Ring (see what I mean about the spectre of Abba’s greatness for the non-rock fraternity?), however is just great. The song is quite a lovely Beach Boys rip-off, with shades – very big shades – of Don’t Worry Baby, and an absolutely killer chorus. I didn’t know this song until the preview disc arrived, but it’s been an earworm of the highest order ever since.
From ’79 – ’82, Dollar were hitless and were heading for the British Legion circuit until a chance meeting with Trevor Horn led to the in-demand producer lending his song writing and production skills to four great hit singles which represented the apex of Dollar’s career, and fixed their position as being something more than a cabaret/sub-Europop pop act your nan and grandad would approve of.
Hand Held in Black and White – the first single from the Horn/Bruce Woolley Dollar-rejuvenation team – fairly bursts from the CD, such is its complete difference to what Dollar had been doing before. The song’s shiny synths, precision drum machine sound and its aural sense of space aligns it with the new pop movement of the early eighties rather than dross of their supposed contemporaries like Bucks Fizz, Tight Fit and The Nolans. This drift towards a kind of art pop did not go unnoticed and the NME picked up on the duo’s more refreshing/electronic elements, with the paper’s foremost intellectual voice Paul Morley being a particular champion of ‘new’ Dollar.
The Abba connection was always there, be it in the striving for non-guitar pop perfection or simply the inclusion of an Abba reference in the often bizarre lyrics; and if anyone can explain…
Inner feelings, written on the wall;
In graffiti, winner takes it all
…could you send me the answer (on a postcard) to the usual address?
Further evidence that Dollar were starting to inhabit that curious hinterland where showbiz pop was evolving into something slightly more interesting can be found in the resolutely upbeat Mirror Mirror (I’m really looking forward to someone writing Classic Star Trek References in Dollar Lyrics). Dollar were now moving away from being bracketed with the likes of Toto Cuelo and Baltimora and were beginning to share common ground with acts such as Kim Wilde – in that they were making interesting pop, but they were not the sort of act you could share with your teenage chums without losing all credibility. That fine balance between art pop and commerciality/credibility suicide worked both ways, of course, and former John Peel bands such as Altered Images and The Human League pushed the pop envelope just too far the other way and became almost laughable before their career reappraisals many years into the future.
But Dollar’s critical plaudits from the musical inkies perhaps only existed in the minds of a few influential writers (Morley would do the same for Kylie Minogue a decade later) and it would take a brave or even foolhardy soul to profess one’s love of David and Thereza in the midst of a plethora of new pop acts who had emerged from punk and new wave and had already garnered their credibility points. Dollar were no Orange Juice, Associates or Depeche Mode, but for a short while the erstwhile flares-and-winged-collared-shirt-and blouse duo were making intelligent shiny new pop for a new eighties Britain.
Their next Trevor Horn-produced hit Give Me Back My Heart starts off with a fairly blatant ‘borrowing’ from 10CC’s I’m Not in Love and is a touching little song about heartbreak with the possible enigma that the singer’s former lover is now dead:
Angels are watching you walk in your sleep
Count the minutes that fly, by the fences you leap
We were always together
Always the same now you’re gone
And is compounded by the (even better) mysterious verse:
As we move towards the centre line, the scene unfolds
The master stands, the seeds of life, the secret dreams
We find the path, the final song, the same regrets
The last goodbye
“What are you doing in there, Stephen?”
“I’m just writing about the more metaphysical aspects of Dollar’s Trevor Horn-years lyrics.”
Dollar’s last hit during this short golden period was the somewhat ostentatious Videotheque, which contains some corkingly pretentious lines (Slowly senses leaving me/Once the two are in 3D), but is spoiled/improved by the following lines – which I am copying verbatim from the little glossy booklet accompanying the CDs:
Ba-ba-bam ba-ba-bam ba-bam-ba-bam-bam
Ba-ba-bam ba-ba-bam ba-bam-ba-bam-bam
Which – if you’ll pardon the language – is a bit shit. Well, a lot shit really, but producer Trevor Horn thought it so ace that he repeated it on S.O.S, a single taken from ABC’s difficult second album Beauty Stab.
This was to be the end of the golden era and the next four Horn-less singles were flops. Give Me Some Kinda of Magic, Two Hearts, We Walked in Love and Haven’t We Said Goodbye Before? are all pleasant enough as you’re (I was) washing the dishes, but just like first time round, they didn’t register.
Eventually, David peed off Thereza so much that there was a parting of the ways in 1983.
But what do you do if you’re Dollar? Thereza’s solo album The Big Kiss was OK – and certainly stylishly packaged – but it flopped, so it was back together again for the frequently warring couple, and in 1988 there was to be one last hurrah with an absolutely splendid, hi-energy cover of Erasure’s O L’Amour, which – if pushed – I prefer to the original.
Dollar’s version was a surprise hit and reached number seven in the UK charts. It would be their last hit, but it was a decent way to (unknowingly) say goodbye. The final three tracks of disc one of Greatest Hits are typical of what happens when an act had its time, and Dollar’s feeble version of The Archies’ 1969 number one Sugar Sugar was evidence of desperation stakes, and the let’s-call-it-a-day-hey-guys? rule of diminishing returns.
Disc 2 consists of twelve re-mixes of various Dollar songs and it’s for die-hards only. You might think that Dollar might not have ‘die-hards’ but believe me, there are DH’s (not [necessarily] dick-heads) for every act imaginable. Lately I’ve been getting David Cassidy-hassle on the comments board of this site from angry fans and I remember staying at a hotel in Buxton and sharing a breakfast room with what seemed like the entire UK fan club of Shakin’ Stevens. Now I carry a torch for any number of obscure bands and acts, and I’d like to think there’s always something faintly magical or obtuse about them, but Shakey? A mate of mine pointed out long ago that he’s never met a modern fan of old school metal who wasn’t anything but kind, funny and self-deprecating, so I was expecting a ‘I know he’s a bit crap but I love him’ from the Shakin’ fans, but no , these people were as thick as pigshit! Boring, boorish and with the conversational sounds and nuances of the Jesse’s Diets man from The Fast Show: ”This week, I am mostly going to be eating This Old House!”
And they hogged the toaster as well, the bastards.
The re-mix disc is fairly perfunctory to say the least. There are one or two nice tracks – especially the re-mixes of what sounded non-descript on the first disc (particularly We Walked in Love and Haven’t We Said Goodbye Before), but mostly they’re just longer versions of the songs with an added, irritating Wavy Ravy Davy thunka-thunka-thunka added drum machine effect. The one ‘original’ song on Disc 2, It Doesn’t Matter is a rather pleasant Basia Trzetrzelewska (that’s easy for me to say) soundalike with an appropriate ‘jazz mix’ to further emphasise the comparisons.
The final track, a PWL mix of the already-terrible Sugar Sugar, sort of spoils the good work of some of the better-quality tracks, but as I say, this is pretty much a niche collection for its intended target audience.
So after the 1987 split, Dollar were no more as a permanent duo. Van Day joined a version of Buck’s Fizz, there was a 2002 Dollar reunion tour and then there was the ignominy of the 2003 ITV reality show Reborn in the USA. If my memory serves me correctly (and I must have reached a nadir in my psychic health to have been watching such tat) neither Bazar nor Van Day came over as particularly appealing characters and Van Day’s astonishing egomania saw him gaslighting/bullying the even more minor popstar Sonia, and Dollar were first in being booted off the programme.
Van Day and Bazar also took part on a 2010 Guys ‘n’ Dolls reunion for Dutch TV, and a particularly cruel media trope was unleashed when it was discovered that David Van Day was selling fast food from a camper van near Brighton pier. I won’t mention the shitty pun (possibly coined by The S*n) to poke fun at Van Day, and to tell the truth I always found it quite admirable that he got off his arse to make ends meet. That need to kick someone when they’re down is a particularly nasty British tabloid trait – and one that seems to infect those who are witness to it.
Further revelations focused on Van Day’s face lifts, his drug use and his (seemingly) ultimate fall from grace when it was discovered that he was singing in old people’s homes – a million miles away from Shooting Star being watched by 17 million viewers on TOTP.
Bazar kept a dignified silence and enjoyed her retirement from public life in her plush Australian home.
The final parting (for now) took place when Van Day invaded Bazar’s manor and took part in the 2008 I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here without informing Bazar.
Thereza’s reaction wasn’t terribly nice, and in an in-no-way-for-money Daily Mail interview she vented her spleen about her former partner’s vanity, drug-taking and song-writing claims: “I really hope he swallows a worm in there and chokes on it,” she said.
Van Day’s publicist replied: “Of course he’s vain. He never denies he had a surgical facelift and, of course, he took cocaine. He doesn’t hide anything. He was a naughty boy and he admits that.” Which sort of makes me like him – well not dislike him so much.
So what are they doing now?
Thereza Bazar left her Australian ‘dream home’, returned to England in 2012 and played a one-off comeback gig just last week…
And up until the end of 2018, you would have found David Van Day doing his best to appear on any celebrity-based TV that his agent could book, but earlier this year the virulently pro-Brexit DVD was elected Conservative councillor for the Essex borough of Thurrock. Well, he wasn’t going to be a socialist firebrand, was he?
“David – you don’t think there’s an irony in your anti-European stance – given the ‘Van’ element of your surname?”
“White VAN man is as British as they come,” quipped the former Dollar, CRASS and Butthole Surfers frontman.
So, what is Dollar’s legacy? Well, minor, obviously, but they achieved a level of fame that means that they are part of the shared fabric and collective pop cultural experience of at least a third of the population (largely due to the limited nature of the ’70s/’80s media and its very few transmission outlets) and that’s quite a decent legacy if you ask me.
If you take away your blinkers, there’s some genuinely good pop music on show on this double disc set, but there’s nothing to really sink into the darker reaches of one’s psyche – the way that genuine otherworldly pop does when crossing the dividing line between entertainment and art. Paul Morley tried to convince us that Dollar were art, but there was always the feeling that this was one man’s iconoclasm writ large, and that Dollar were lucky to have such clever patrons as Morley and Trevor Horn.
Nevertheless, Dollar: Greatest Hits is a not unpleasant – and often very enjoyable – pop experience from a decent mainstream act who enjoyed almost ten years of hits.
A very respectable 6½ on 10.
* On the final leg of the Halifax to Liverpool cross-Pennine trundler train. Things were going swimmingly until he asked me if he could take a photo of my tattoo (“TO SHOW MY GIRLFRIEND” – yeah, sure, George) and when I said ‘no’ our conversation ended abruptly.
** There was an element of smart-arse, ironic retro-cool about this whole trip, but it was nowhere near as genuinely cool as when I wandered into a Rene and Renato P.A. at Liverpool’s extremely grotty ‘She’ nightclub/GUM outpatients’ clinic whilst on a stag night back in 1983. Some people would repress the memory forever, but I’ve been dining out on the experience for 36 years now!
❉ Dollar: ‘Greatest Hits’ 2CD Remastered Collection is released by Cherry Pop (part of Cherry Red Records) on 29 November 2019, RRP £10.95. Order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Stephen Porter has written for Esquire, Backpass and a host of other publications.