Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
Dum Dum Girls’ End of Daze EP came out this week — a state-of-the-band report from Dee Dee Dum Dum and her collaborators, including a few songs recorded at the sessions for last year’s Only in Dreams album. Here’s an acoustic performance of its opening track, “Mine Tonight,” from a few months ago, played by a two-woman lineup.
Most of Dum Dum Girls’ records have included at least one cover — they’ve done songs by the Smiths, the Rolling Stones, the Misfits and others. The cover on End of Daze, though, is a much less well-known song: it’s a dreamy version of “Trees and Flowers,” by the Scottish band Strawberry Switchblade.
Strawberry Switchblade, after a never-completed fanzine that Orange Juice’s singer Edwyn Collins had worked on. (Orange Juice’s flexidisc recording of “Felicity,” below, was intended to be included in the first issue.)
Their debut single, released in mid-1983, was their version of “Trees and Flowers,” a cleverly contrarian guitar-pop tune. (When Bryson sang “I hate the trees and I hate the flowers,” it wasn’t quite a joke: she wrote the song about her experience of agoraphobia.)
They were already well-connected: “Trees and Flowers” came out on a label run by Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen, and their backup band included Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame and members of Madness.
After “Trees and Flowers,” Strawberry Switchblade signed up with a major label, reinvented themselves as a full-on new wave act, and indulged in their mutual polka-dot obsession even more than before. When they resurfaced in late 1984, their next single was “Since Yesterday,” a Top 5 hit in the U.K. — the terrific video (directed by Tim Pope) didn’t hurt.
Pope modified their visual iconography just a bit for their next clip, 1985’s “Let Her Go”:
When that failed to follow “Since Yesterday” up the charts, they tried a slower song as their next single, “Who Knows What Love Is” — although a few brief appearances of the “Since Yesterday” dots in its video only underscored the way they were trying hard not to be one-hit wonders.
Around that time, Strawberry Switchblade also turned up in a few very strange contexts, like David Bedford’s recording of Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Rigel 9,” in which they provided the sound of an alien funeral procession.
By the late 1985, the band tried another tack. As the Dum Dum Girls would do a few decades later, they recorded a cover of an unlikely inspiration from the other side of the Atlantic: an uptempo, synth-pop arrangement of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” (Here’s Parton performing her original version, from 1973.)
Like their previous few singles, Strawberry Switchblade’s “Jolene” stiffed in the U.K. (and made not even a ripple in the U.S.), but by then they were a big deal in Japan, where this TV performance was filmed. (The later Japanese “Gothic Lolita” fashion trend had a lot in common with the way McDowall and Bryson had dressed early in their career.)
The band fell apart around the end of 1985, and two final singles appeared only in Japan; the last one, 1986’s “I Can Feel,” was apparently recorded by McDowall without Bryson.
Bryson more or less withdrew from performing after the end of Strawberry Switchblade, and returned to visual art, which she’d studied before the band became a big deal; she’s a painter now. McDowall, on the other hand, dove into a very different musical scene: an overlapping circle of experimental folk and industrial groups including Current 93, Psychic TV, Coil, Death In June and Nurse With Wound, with all of whom she’s sung at one time or another. Here’s a video of her performing “Song for Douglas” with Current 93 in 1996.
Over the past couple of decades, McDowall’s occasionally continued to supplement her own songwriting with covers of her inspirations. In 1993, McDowall and Boyd Rice made an album of covers under the name Spell, including this version of Bobby Sherman’s “Free Now to Roam.” It’s not hard to imagine something similar in Dum Dum Girls’ future.