Jun 182024

First LoveDana Gillespie… Now, where do I know that name from…

If you cast your mind back (or possibly your father’s), you’ll remember the name, possibly even the album cover, with which Gillespie is arguably best known. That 1974 album, Weren’t Born A Man, which given her Bowie association, immediately had folk wondering whether she were, despite her pneumatic sleeve appearance. Remember, this was around the same time Amanda Lear was allowing the myth around she being born male to permeate, let alone all the claims Bowie fostered around his sexuality. Well, Gillespie wasn’t born a man, and her relationship with Bowie was understandably under wraps: they were teens at its inception, and remained friends and lovers for the next decade. Bowie’s song “Andy Warhol” was written for her, she including it on that album, it produced by Bowie and Mick Ronson. She also sang backing vocals on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. However, this was insufficient to have her then gain much personal chart traction.

In the intervening decades, blues has been Gillespie’s musical vehicle of choice. She’s recorded a huge stash of albums on a plethora of labels, with greater appeal to audiences of mainland Europe. She has also set up a still-running Blues Festival on the exclusive Caribbean island of Mustique, now nearing its 30th birthday. Her latest album First Love is, in part, a deliberate trip back in time, and reflects her own personal tastes, as well as those of her production team, two old friends, Tris Penna, the Abbey Road studios production and A&R man, and Marc Almond, of “Tainted Love” fame. All but one of the songs are covers, the artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Morrissey and Lana Del Rey.

First Love opens with a mordant take on “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” transforming the Green Day song into a torch song triumphant. Sure, we all knew the melody classic and strong, but did even Billie Joe Armstrong sense the possibility of stretching it this far? Gillespie sounds purringly experienced and potent, with piano and a ghostly (mellotronic?) choir building the excess with aplomb. “Spent the Day in Bed” then takes Morrisey’s maudlin aspiration and runs it through a Golden Brown Stranglers channel, with surprisingly effective results. The inspiration already there, now it is overt. Matt Gest, Gillespie’s musical director and keyboards man, has already earnt his wedge, and we’re only two songs in. Yes, it gets a bit overwrought, as guitars howl in, but overwrought feels all part the MO.

Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” has never sounded so Weimar Republic, oozing with an Isherwood charm that even the song’s author couldn’t (or didn’t) conjure up. With Almond adding a vocal, arch even by his standards, it is seedy and threatening in equal degree, the la-las quite disturbingly empty. And stunning. As you are still absorbing that, a single repeated piano note ushers in a convincing “Not Dark Yet.” Bob Dylan was already pushing 60 by the time he wrote it, and this version again confirms the need for an older voice to carry it with sufficient conviction. Gillespie has a voice that is full of mid-register pathos, thus perfect for the job.

“Brewer Street Blues” picks up on the vibe of inner-city living; London, this time, rather than Berlin, although the musical setting of clarinet and piano suggests a kindred spirit of squalor. Almond’s original was cleaner sounding, something seldom said around the singer, at least in spirit. And, if we have to cross the ocean, for Lana Del Rey’s Los Angeles, and her “Gods and Monsters,” there is the same sense of proud defiance in the face of disappointment. All pretty masterful, really. (Mistressful?) Innocence less lost, more never gained. Has Del Rey ever been interpreted so accurately? Or, maybe, knowingly?

It is in deference to Rod Stewart that Gillespie’s version of “In a Broken Dream” is clearly indebted, her voice a memory, in pitch and tone, of the glory that Stewart’s once was. A slower and more elegant version, as the drums come in, one forgives the original singers fall from critical, if not pecuniary, grace. The strings, faux or otherwise, are terrific: who needs a scuzzy guitar solo?

Drummer Evan Jenkins strikes straight in for “Can You Hear Me,” First Love‘s essential homage to Bowie, he never revealing to whom the song was ever about. The song first emerged in 1974 sessions as “Take It In Right”; Bowie then re-recorded it for the initially unreleased The Gouster set, before gifting the song to Lulu. (Her version remains a much sought after nugget, and one, sadly, I couldn’t find.) It then emerged as one of the standout tracks on Young Americans. Gillespie has used the earliest version as her template, raising some thoughts that it were she he had had in mind. Jenkins and Gest’s piano form the basis of the arrangement, and Gillespie sounds at her tenderest, the lyrics leaving little doubt as to what the “It” might refer to. I should add that Dom Stockbridge does now show, for this song, the worth of an electric guitar.

I wonder if, in the basis of this album, Jake Bugg may get some reevaluation? His song “Simple As This” is different from most the songs here, a lighter and pacier affair, strummed acoustic and ice-rink organ applying a slight rockabilly feel, not dissimilar to his original. Sticking with acoustic strumming, “First Love, Last Love” is a Gillespie original, and thus not really our remit here, but it is a decent enough song, fitting in with the general mood, as well as giving just the right moment to comment on Harry Whitty’s melodic bass runs.

The last track nearly didn’t happen at all, apparently, a last-minute studio decision, there being a half hour or so to spare. You’d think “Dreams” has had every iota of content covered out of it, and, it is true, Gillespie adds little, other than slowing it more than most, her voice lower and croakier than elsewhere. In fact, likely much as Ms. Nicks herself might sound, had she kept better care. It isn’t the best track here, but it is valid for all that, a satisfying end to an overall surprisingly good album. In fact, from this site’s perspective, First Love is one of this year’s best.

First Love tracklisting:

1. Boulevard of Broken Dreams(Green Day cover)
2. Spent The Day In Bed (Morrissey cover)
3. Dance Me To The End of Love (Leonard Cohen cover)
4. Not Dark Yet (Bob Dylan cover)
5. Brewer Street Blues (Marc Almond cover)
6. Gods And Monsters (Lana Del Rey cover)
7. In A Broken Dream (Python Lee Jackson cover)
8. Can You Hear Me (David Bowie)
9. Simple As This (Jake Bugg)
10. First Love, Last Love (Dana Gillespie original)
11. Dreams Fleetwood Mac cover)

Cover Me is now on Patreon! If you love cover songs, we hope you will consider supporting us there with a small monthly subscription. There are a bunch of exclusive perks only for patrons: playlists, newsletters, downloads, discussions, polls - hell, tell us what song you would like to hear covered and we will make it happen. Learn more at Patreon.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>