Amateurs of Life & Death by Dogger
It was ’96, I was 16 and going to the ICA for the first time. A devoted Strangelove fan, I had managed to hook up with 29 year old Kirsty, her friend and her husband Richard, who was very kindly driving us down to the gig and back. As an innocent I was astonished by what I found: doric columns, Buckingham Palace, red tarmac – this was certainly more interesting than going down the Charlotte.
Inside the venue, we went to the front of the stage as the support band went through their last few songs. There were about twelve of them up there, including three girls playing violins and a shaven headed singer shaking a percussive egg, all contributing to a glorious cacophony. It was a sublime moment, devastatingly sublime.
My companions, anticipating the headliners, hadn’t paid attention, but I was enamoured enough to offer them all the money I had in my pockets (£2) for one of their cassettes. When I got back to school, I searched for them on the internet and found nothing. I checked back periodically and heard vague rumours mentioning that one of Dogger was playing with Anthony Reynolds on the Jacques album. Then nothing.
This is Easy Listening, Michaelangelo, Blue Light – the three songs on that cassette have faithfully accompanied me through 8 years of life’s highs and lows, featuring on almost all the compilation tapes I made for myself and others. Melancholic yet melodic, full of sweeping arrangements, they were great.
Generically, Dogger were part of a group of romantic bands – Strangelove, Cousteau, Jack, and Elcka spring to mind – who were defined against Britpop without ever escaping it. Retrospectively, such bands seemed doomed from the beginning, their pre-defined career arc as romantic outsiders is to be either accepted or ignored, both of which are ruinous for their art.
I never lost hope of one day hearing more Dogger songs and last year (after my details had been passed on by Anthony Reynolds), I received the following message:
Just got an email from Anthony (Reynolds) with an attached mail from your good self asking kind questions about my band, Dogger. Story is/was, we fought the good fight until about ’98 when, bogged down with industry indifference etc…etc…, we chucked in the towel. You’re right, I did some live work with Jacques & Jack, also tour managed until their untimely demise. Still have quite a few unreleased tracks kicking around, can forward you some if you wish. Simon Phipps, who also ended up in Jack after we split, is still working on his own stuff I believe, the violinists joined tindersticks, I do the odd acoustic thing but not that often, not too sure about the others….
A year later, after numerous upheavals in both of our lives, I finally got my mitts on “Amateurs of Life and Death” a compilation of all the Dogger demos.
My first reaction was disappointment. This is Easy Listening, the song that had seduced me in 96, had been re-recorded with a smoother, watered down, more upbeat version than the original. The original had a dark Gothic heart of a middle-eight that repeated the lines “She flies like a bird and I wish that were mine” to a scratchy violin backdrop. This had been replaced with the unbearably positive cliches “Brothers and sisters listen to me, I’ve got something to say, you’ve got something to be, switch off your mind and have a good time, it’s all right. It’s all right.” Where once there were hammond organs and slight off-key pianos, there was now a wall of jangly guitar. The song had changed meaning. It was like it had been gangraped by Menswe@r. Where once there had been negative capability, there was now a straight satire on bland music. I asked Doug about this tension between the upbeat and downbeat, he replied:
Easy listening version on CD was a revamp with Donald Ross Skinner at the helm […] Know what you mean about up & down stuff : Never found a comfortable balance between the two […] I think in retrospect I’m most happy with the darker lyrical content set off against almost wrong but not quite instruments.
It’s true, this attempt to find a compromise between dark and light is never comfortable. The upbeat songs, like Spanish Fly and Serotonin Smile are, to my ears, aesthetic catastrophes. They resemble a dog wearing human clothes: briefly amusing, but ultimately tragic and embarrassing. It’s almost as uncomfortable as Strangelove’s unbearably upbeat final album.
Redemption arrives in the shape of Port of Call, a piano-led ballad, full of neat, miserabilist couplets. It is very lightly done. In contrast, Red Admiral and Fish, Blood & Bone are both fantastically gloomy, building up from sparse arrangements to an intense climax.
Towards the end of the CD (and, I assume, the end of their time) songs like Musing/Handsome & Brutal (siamese tracks which clock in at 10 minutes 48 seconds) and the Brightly Burning Star (7 minutes) point to the brave new world of post-rock, the genre that was to take over the hearts of earnest young men all over the world. Alas, after fighting against indifference for long enough, Dogger called it a day and went off to do whatever it is musicians do when they stop playing.
No matter how obscurely, Dogger’s songs – especially those three immortal tracks on the demo tape – still burn bright. Always interesting, even when they go astray, Dogger deserve to be listened to, reminding one that in a world obsessed with the next big thing, it sometimes pays to do some archiving.