Jackie Leven

TrackAlbum
Call Mother A Lonely FieldThe Mystery of Love Is Greater
Than The Mystery Of Death
Gylen GylenThe Mystery of Love Is Greater
Than The Mystery Of Death
Marble City BarForbidden Songs Of The Dying West
Some Ancient Misty MorningForbidden Songs Of The Dying West
PoortounFairy Tales For Hard Men
Empty In Soho SquareNight Lilies
Another Man´s RainOh What A Blow That Phantom Dealt Me
Defending Ancient SpringsDefending Ancient Springs
Single FatherThe Haunted Year - Winter: Munich Blues
Classic Northern DiversionsThe Haunted Year - Winter: Men In Prison
Bonus Track
Slim Slow SliderFor Peace Comes Dropping Slow

Jackie Leven photo 1

 

 

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Jackie Leven playlist

 

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Jackie Leven first came to prominence with the band Doll By Doll which he formed with Jo Shaw, Robin Spreafico and David McIntosh in 1977. During his time with the group, Leven developed a reputation both as a frontman with a formidable stage presence and as a singer of the very highest quality. He also became known as a lyricist who could combine a poetic turn of phrase with a raw honesty – a classic example of this gift was Main Travelled Roads which appeared on the eponymous Doll By Doll album, released in 1981.

Although the band appeared on the music scene when punk and new wave music seemed in the ascendant, they were never really part of either movement.

Their closest link to punk was perhaps the abrasive and anarchic edge they brought to their live shows. Musically, however, Leven’s influences tended more towards soul music, jazz (including Chet Baker and Roland Kirk) and blues (particularly artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sonny Boy Williamson), with occasional traces of bands like the Velvet Underground and psychedelic groups like Quicksilver Messenger Service. He also admired some of the great singer-songwriters who emerged from the Greenwich Village scene in the 1960s, particularly Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin (who was a major influence on his own singing style) and Joni Mitchell.

Doll By Doll’s masterpiece was probably their second album, Gypsy Blood. It contained several of the finest songs Leven wrote for the band, most notably the title track and Highland Rain. Despite the sustained excellence of their work, the group never achieved the commercial success which it deserved. Eventually, this lack of recognition resulted in the band splitting up in 1983.

Shortly after the group’s demise, Leven suffered a serious assault while on his way home from a recording studio in London. The mugging left him with badly broken ribs and with significant damage to his larynx. As a result, he was unable to either speak or sing for two years afterwards. The trauma of this event also led Leven into a period of heroin addiction. He later described this as being “a proper and perhaps appropriate way to deal with the pain” which these events had caused him. Eventually, however, he beat the habit through a combination of acupuncture, talking therapy and reflexology. His interest in what could be termed ‘holistic’ approaches towards the treatment of addiction, led him to found The Core Trust with his then partner, Carol Wolf. The Trust pioneered the use of alternative therapies in the field, including yoga, Chinese medicine and art therapy and dream analysis. It also had a great deal of success in treating addicts and won the support of a number of high-profile patrons including Pete Townshend and Princess Diana. His involvement with the Trust’s work also occupied much of Leven’s time in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Despite some briefly interesting exceptions (particularly the short-lived band, Concrete Bulletproof Invisible, which he formed with the ex-Sex Pistol, Glen Matlock, and a number of former members of Doll By Doll), the next phase of Leven’s musical career really began with the release of his first solo album, The Mystery Of Love Is Greater Than The Mystery Of Death on the Cooking Vinyl label in 1994. This began a relationship with the label which lasted for the remainder of his life. During this time, Leven was so prolific that some of his albums were released under the name of his alter-ego, Sir Vincent Lone.

Although he was writing at a feverish pace during this period, the albums he made remained remarkably consistent in their quality. Mystery set the template for much of this later career, bringing to the fore the soul and blues influences that had underlain his previous work. There was also a gentler more folk-influenced feel to his work than there had been up to that point. By this time, Leven had also become more reconciled to his Scottish heritage and this contributed to the ‘Celtic’ feel which was central to his work from then on. Both it and his subsequent albums also highlight Leven’s superb skills as a guitarist. He had a distinctively intricate and percussive style on the instrument, which really came into its own in his live performances. There too he could also give free rein to his gift as a raconteur and storyteller and his taste for rambling digressions. Over time these became a central part of his performances and gave him the opportunity to show off his natural wit and fondness for banter.

On a more serious level, Jackie Leven’s work from that time on often focused on giving a voice to those who are voiceless in our society – those genuinely marginalised groups like unglamorous addicts and all those people who, for whatever reason, were alienated from the communities in which they lived. He was one of the few songwriters of recent times who managed to write about masculinity without veering into stereotypes or clichés about it. Perhaps through his admiration for the work of authors like Robert Bly (best known for his book “Iron John”), he often sought to unravel the vulnerabilities which lay behind the surface appearance of those who might otherwise be dismissed simply as ‘hard men’. Indeed, he was frequently candid about his own violent tendencies earlier on in his life. What also distinguished his work, was the empathy he displayed towards the characters he described in his songs – however damaged they might appear to be on the surface. As Ian Rankin has put it, Leven often sang “from the point of view of hardened men who … [were] hiding their feelings – and that it would … [have been] much better for them if they didn’t.” In describing their lives, Leven’s hard-edged wit and his often-abrasive style ensured that he could never be accused of sentimentality. Like Ray Davies of the Kinks and Kevin Coyne, he also had the ability to draw deft character sketches which, in the space of a three-to-four-minute song, could carry more weight than did many a short story or novel.

Leven’s keen powers of observation are clearly displayed in the first two lines of Call Mother A Lonely Field, my opening selection from The Mystery Of Love:

Like young Irish men in English bars
The song of home betrays us

While his skill at crafting evocative images shines through lines such as:

The shining dreams of winter skies
the sadness and the burning

What gives the song its extraordinary power however is the combination of his poetic lyrics, the incantatory melody and the remarkable soulfulness of his voice.

By contrast, Gylen Gylen has a hauntingly atmospheric feel. Its name comes from the castle on the island of Kerrera off the west coast of Scotland.

Throughout his life Leven was in his element in bars, where he could swap stories and find material to use in his songs. He also revelled in the chance conversations that occurred there and the windows that these opened into other people’s lives. In Marble City Bar, the next pick, however, the focus is on the ‘out of body experience’/ nervous breakdown which Jackie experienced in the pub of that name in Kilkenny in Ireland.

During his career, there was a kinship between Jackie’s music and that of another great ‘Celtic Soul’ musician, Van Morrison. Indeed, he recorded two of the finest ever cover versions of Morrison’s songs. This one of Slim Slow Slider, where he makes the song his own in a way which ensured it was included as my bonus track, and an almost equally fine one of Madam George.

The next choice, Some Ancient Misty Morning, shows a clear Morrison influence, but it is a strong enough song to carry that comparison.

Poortoun from Leven’s classic 1997 album, Fairy Tales For Hard Men, may be my favourite of his songs. It features not only one of his most beautiful melodies but some of his starkest lyrics. It also displays his ability to find poetry in some of the most unexpected places – a gift which it struck me when researching this piece that he shares with Shane MacGowan of The Pogues.

Both men also share an ability to depict people whose lives have not gone in the way they had planned in an empathetic and non-judgemental way. Empty In Soho Square, the next selection, is a good example of this strain in Leven’s songwriting. It also has one of his most stately melodies.

Of the remaining choices, Another Man’s Rain is a beautifully soulful depiction of a doomed relationship. By contrast, Defending Ancient Springs is a celebration of a return to his roots in Scotland. The song was also influenced by his admiration for Kathleen Raine’s book of the same name which defended the imaginative, visionary and mystical elements in poetry. As noted earlier in the piece, Leven’s songs often worked best in performance. In consequence, my final two choices come from the live compilation, The Haunted Year – Winter, released on Cooking Vinyl in 2008. The first of these, Single Father, is one of Leven’s most hauntingly personal songs (a different but equally compelling live version can be seen here). The second, Classic Northern Diversions is another of Jackie’s brilliant depictions of the fragility that lay behind the façade of the ‘hard men’ he encountered during his lifetime. Like so many of this great artist’s songs, it fuses wit, artistic integrity and a brutal yet empathetic candour.

Since his death in 2011, it also seems that Jackie Leven’s work has begun to find a new and ever more appreciative audience. The recent release of this fine tribute album, The Wanderer, may also help in this process. While this revival of interest in his work may seem overdue, it is also a testament to the continuing relevance and ageless quality of his music.

 

 


‘Straight Outta Caledonia’ is a 10-track compilation, the first ‘greatest hits’, released this year, 2021. It contains three songs from Andrew’s list.

 

 

It’s tough to pin him down. Is it Caledonian soul? Is it in the spirit of people like Van Morrison? Leven was a magpie. He loved playing with people from different traditions. African musicians; Arabian musicians. Give him jazz musicians, he’d play along with them. He was a huge fan of Johnny Cash, and recorded a homage to him. He was a machine for coming up with melodies and lyrics … I don’t know why he is not better known. He had his fans worldwide, but the media in the UK just didn’t take notice. Go somewhere like Norway and people in the music press or the music clubs all know and revere Jackie Leven. Ian Rankin

 

Live, he was intense, mesmerizing. A rich warm voice that could chill, drawing you into the song; dazzling guitar, never for its own sake. Poortown and Jim O’Windygates (both from the outstanding Fairy tales for hard men) could make you weep. An early outing of Classic northern diversions, upstairs in a nondescript Oxford pub, his opening song to an audience of no more than 20 souls, was one of the most exciting things I have ever heard or seen. His comic Rabelaisian between-song tales were not to everyone’s taste but something was necessary to break up the intensity of the songs and usually were funny, not to say righteous. He was a big man in every way, but approachable. I’m glad to have shaken his hand a couple of times. Dave Quayle, Lillabullero

 

In 1981 I bought a single by Doll By Doll, on the strength of a music press review. I’d never heard the band and what I’d read about them was intriguing but sounded a bit outside my comfort zone. But the review promised an epic, sweeping ballad delivered by a rich baritone voice and the single delivered … In 1994 I read that Jackie Leven had returned to the fray with an EP called Songs from the Argyll Cycle. Again, I decided to take a chance on it, unheard. Again I loved it, in fact it’s still one of my favourite recordings. After that came 27 commercial albums and 12 fan-club albums! He gigged constantly, mostly solo, from 1994 till his death in 2011. Norman Lamont, Lamontations

 

There is no air of distant nostalgia about Jackie Leven’s legacy, from his teenage duo Saint Judas in 1969 to Doll By Doll to his solo work of the 90s to the present there is a timeless edge, vivid insights into the human condition, funny and scary and beautiful all at once … Blessed with a rich unique soulful voice and a dazzling percussive guitar technique between some downright filthy stories and the inevitable triple vodkas would come the songs, ballads full of power rather than power ballads, bruised epics of such incredible quality… Kevin Hewick (click here to read Kevin’s full obituary)

 

Jackie Leven photo 2

Jackie Leven (1950-2011)

 

Jackie Leven official website

Jackie Leven Complete Discography (Stuart Briers)

Jackie Leven STV Documentary (YouTube)

I don’t know why Jackie Leven isn’t better known – he should be revered
Ian Rankin (The Guardian 2021)

Cult heroes: Jackie Leven (The Guardian 2015)

Paul Du Noyer on Jackie Leven (The Word, March 2012)

Jackie Leven & Ian Rankin interviewed by Paul Du Noyer (2004)

Jackie Leven talking at Jockstock (Lillabullero 2004)

An Accidental Jackie Leven Video Archive

Full concert March 2004 Crossroads Festival Germany (YT)

Jackie Leven biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs.

TopperPost #995

5 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Nov 19, 2021

    So many great artists who fly under my radar. Thoroughly enjoyed this one. Thanks Andrew.

  2. Merric Davidson
    Nov 19, 2021

    There was a wonderful comment on the official Jackie Leven facebook page a few days ago: “In a sense my life can be divided into two parts. The first part that had never heard of Jackie Leven and the second part which can never forget or be without Jackie Leven.”
    And that’s now me as well. Such a joy to edit Andrew’s post here and to listen to all these great songs from a real master of his art.
    As for the opening track on this playlist, Call Mother A Lonely Field, surely the finest ever song written by a Scotsman. And by god there’s a lot of competition for that accolade. Thanks Andrew for bringing this incredible artist to the site.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Nov 20, 2021

    Merric and David – thanks for the kind words. And yes I would reccomend that a trip to Levenland should be made compulsory for just about everyone.

  4. Dave Stephens
    Nov 29, 2021

    I’ve listened to some of these tracks three times. Jackie certainly had something, but what it was I know not. Guess I should keep on listening. Many, many thanks Andrew, for a very fine introduction. You keep coming up with these artists who I might just have heard of, like Jackie, but don’t actually know anything about. All I can say is, keep on doing it!

  5. Andrew Shields
    Dec 2, 2021

    Thanks for kind words Dave and I do intend to produce a few more rabbits out of the hat on here.
    Also what I think Jackie’s music had above all was a kind of soulfulness which very few others could match – a qualty he shared with a few other ‘Celtic Soul Brothers’ like Van and John Martyn.

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