Cherry Pop #6: Pop Eyes by Danielle Dax
Against the early 80s backdrop of equally creative, independent female musicians (think Siouxsie, Grace Jones, Toyah even) Danielle Dax still seemed a little 'out there', yet her work typified that brief window when the avant-garde made a genuine play for the airwaves. In the latest installment of our series of articles on debut albums, Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar steps back in time to re-visit Dax's still powerful 'Pop Eyes'.
It all goes back to Kate Bush.
In 1983, I was inspired to put out a fanzine on Bush, with the jokey title For the Love of Kate. Bush was far from being the kind of household name in the US that she was in the UK (and that’s still the case today) so the zine generated a fair amount of excitement, and soon I was corresponding with Kate fans around the country. One of them sent me a cassette of favorite songs: Bryan Ferry ('Bittersweet'), Godley & Creme ('I Pity Inanimate Objects'), King Crimson ('Satori in Tangier') and a song by someone I’d never heard of, 'The Wheeled Wagon' by Danielle Dax.
I didn’t like it at all. It was noisy, clattering, and jarring with some weird high and wailey voice singing about — what, exactly? “The Wheeled Wagon wore a wooden skin … bad thing up and stole my very favourite bits.” What was that supposed to mean?
But the rest of the music on the tape was unfamiliar to me too, so I kept playing and playing it, and gradually it began to seep in until my very favourite track on the tape was 'The Wheeled Wagon'. But who was Danielle Dax?
I must’ve learned by then the song came from the 1983 album Pop Eyes, because when I happened to find a copy of the album in the import bin at Tower Records I didn’t hesitate to snap it up. It was the original edition of the album, with a particularly gruesome cover, a hideous mosaic of a face, put together from pictures taken from medical journals — bad patches of skin, distorted eyes, grimacing teeth. I later learned it was deemed so disturbing record distributors wouldn’t carry it, necessitating the album’s repackaging. Dax had previously played with free-form post-punks Lemon Kittens and she was taking their 'anything goes' ethos into her solo career.
The sleeve identified the artwork as being from Dax’s 'Meat Harvest' series. So Dax was an artist, too. In addition to writing all the songs on the album. And playing all the instruments (the sleeve credits her with playing guitars, drums, keyboards, banjo, bass, flute, tenor and soprano sax, trumpet, tapes, drones, TR808, and “assorted percussion and toys and voices”). And producing the record to boot. Was there ever more of a solo album?
And that music... I’d never heard anything like it. Very stark, very spare. Harsh. Mysterious. Listen to the layered approach in the opening song, 'Bed Caves': after four pulses, a tribal pounding of drums and a fuzzy guitar line kick in, followed by a rumbling keyboard part, another guitar, and finally Dax’s voice on top, singing a simple verse of 15 words, punctuated by a xylophone:
Today’s not the same as before
Starting with a clean slate
Promises of new rewards
Repeat. And that’s it. It’s an uplifting sentiment on the surface, but there’s enough of an edge to the music to make you think something more is going on beneath the surface. The sound was sinister, but somehow gleeful — gleeful, but somehow sinister. The words of the songs were cryptic, the meaning were elusive, which added to the mystery, though Dax did drop clues about her music in interviews. The bouncy bouncy 'Here Come the Harvest Buns' depicted women “clipped in rows / they’re dominoes” waiting for their abortions. The lively 'The Shamemen' was originally inspired by the turmoil in the Middle East, “all the bickering that’s constantly going on in those countries ... [and] how pathetic it all is,” as she told weekly music paper Sounds, but also came to encompass “conquest. The kind of conquest in a party or disco situation — the macho image crap that people go through which is all so pointless.”
The album does have pretty, more subdued numbers. 'Everyone Squeaks Gently' offers some sweet solace, as does the delicate 'Numb Companions', despite the whispers of discontent in the latter number (such as in the line “And had yet to taste the bitterness of restraint”). There’s a great live clip of Dax performing the song in Japan in 1987, and an even better clip of 'Tower of Lies' from the same show, the song rocking hard than it does on the record. Two instrumentals flesh out the running time: 'The Stone Guest,' driven by an insistent guitar riff, and 'Kernow', synth-based with a little sax, flute, and a couple of Dax wailings, that could’ve been the basis for an awesome remixed extended dance track.
It all comes to a close with 'Cutting the Last Sheaf', which is undeniably creepy. Oh, it starts out with some light tinkling chimes all right, but then Dax’s crackly vocal comes in, sounding like it’s being beamed in from another dimension, solemnly intoning “Shame about the fool….” and you do pity whatever she has in store for them. Some ancient sounding plucked instrument provides another haunting element and the song fades into the distance, leaving you decidedly unsettled.
Pop Eyes was the only album Dax released where she did virtually everything on it. She went on to have a moderately successful career on the alternative circuit yet while later albums might’ve sounded more polished, there’s an unvarnished purity about this record that keeps me as captivated as the first time I heard it. Now an artist and interior designer, Dax continues down her own artistic path, the template for which was laid down over 30 years ago with this remarkable record.
Gillian G. Gaar has continued to proselytize about Danielle Dax's music since those far-off days of the 1980s (her favorite Dax song is 'Sleep Has No Property'). She fulfilled a dream last year by seeing Kate Bush perform — twice! She writes regularly about music and entertainment and is the author of several books, including 'Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana' (Jawbone Books).