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Breakfast at Bluesville 

Holly Golightly gives rock revivalism a snarly new face

Wednesday, Jun 20 2001
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair swept back into office a couple of weeks ago, English garage rock goddess Holly Golightly was not among the voters at the polls. Instead, she was here in the Bay Area, working on her next record and getting ready for an upcoming gig. Ms. Golightly, it seems, recently adopted San Francisco as her home away from home; she now performs here with greater regularity than she does in her native London.

During her decampment, Golightly is staying with a friend in a modest railroad flat above an S.F. nightclub. While the blaring of local bands doesn't seem to bother the music veteran, she does confess that the volume makes it hard to have guests. Sure enough, when the night's opening act unleashes its first Ozzy-inspired power chords, the china on the shelves begins to rattle and vibrate -- along with the furniture, the floorboards, the kitchen table, and even the clock on the wall.

Golightly smiles, shrugs helplessly, and puts on her most proper Sussex accent.

"Would you like another cup of tea?" she laughs. "Or maybe we should move to the front room?"

In this country, Golightly's profile is as shaky as her friend's apartment. In fact, the only coverage she's received has been the very occasional altweekly review or fanzine article. Since she's a bit reclusive -- preferring the studio to the promotional grind -- she isn't the type of artist who gets widespread attention. Which is a tragedy, considering that Golightly is presently one of the world's most striking and innovative rock revivalists.

Golightly's career is inextricably tied to garage rock impresario Billy Childish, one of Britain's most revered DIY entrepreneurs. For nearly 25 years Childish has mixed mod style with '60s primal sounds and '70s punk attitude, releasing nearly 100 albums under a bewildering assortment of band names and side projects, including the Pop Rivets, the Milkshakes, and Thee Mighty Caesars.

Early on, Childish concocted the Delmonas, an all-girl trio that acted as an auxiliary to Thee Mighty Caesars. When the Caesars morphed into Thee Headcoats in 1989, the Delmonas adopted the doppelgänger title, Thee Headcoatees. It was here, when Childish was casting about for more members of this new backup group, that Holly Golightly entered the picture.

Golightly had been part of Childish's "Medway scene" for several years, initially as a teenage fan of the Milkshakes and later as girlfriend to longtime Childish stalwart Bruce Brand. She was also friends with one of the original Delmonas, Ludella Black, and sang with her on a few occasions -- mostly as a way to pass a Friday night.

"One day, Bruce rang and said that he had this new band with Billy going," Golightly recalls. "It was just a three-piece, and they were going to do their first show, and did I want to go?" The show turned into an audition of sorts, and soon she was onstage instead of in the audience.

Golightly and the other women adopted mischievous stage names to accompany the group's retro image, with ex-Delmona Black joining Belgian expatriate Kyra LaRubia and drummer "Bongo" Debbie. Holly's pseudonym was predetermined by her mother, who had named her after the tragic-but-stylish would-be socialite in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

After initially singing backup for Thee Headcoats, the quartet took on a life of its own. In 1991 Thee Headcoatees released their first album, Girlsville, which became a landmark effort in the garage rock scene. Live, Thee Headcoatees stirred up their fans as only a girl group could, dressing in matching go-go outfits or horse-riding gear, and, in a clever switch, using Thee Headcoats as their backup band.

Hitting the scene several years before the riot grrls or kitschy popsters such as April March, Thee Headcoatees occupied a unique spot in the continuum of female rockers. Although the vibe of the band was brash and playful, its mockingly come-hither, femme-fatale lyrics placed it halfway between the enlightened punk crowd and backlashy teen-teases like the Donnas. For her part Golightly finds the issue of feminist presentation to be a moot point: She saw Thee Headcoatees as a killer rock band that happened to be fronted by four women with divergent tastes.

"Ludella is really, really into the girl groups, that's her big thing. I'm mostly into old blues and R&B, proper dancing music and old soul, and then Kyra is into a whole line of other stuff," she says. "It was a load of mates just getting up and playing."

A few wags dismissed Thee Headcoatees as simply another venue for Childish to express his prodigious muse. Considering that he selected the majority of the band's repertoire and sculpted the rough-hewn barrage of the records, the critics may have had a point.

Golightly's eyes roll as she gingerly discusses Childish's anti-pop Svengali image. "I am really grateful and I feel very lucky that I've had the opportunities that I've had and I understand how much on Billy's shirttails they are. But having said that, I think everybody has a wall of talent around them. Billy obviously makes a lot of things happen; he's very organized and works really fucking hard. But other people in the band worked hard, too."

As Golightly gradually gained confidence, she began recording a string of solo singles for small labels such as Sympathy for the Music Industry, Super Electro, and Vinyl Japan. But even as her assurance in the recording studio grew, Golightly was hesitant to perform by herself.

"It actually took me quite a lot of doing to be able to get up and play live. When there's four of you, you've got somebody to hide behind. And to sing on your own without people to reinforce you -- I hadn't done that before." Eventually it became a necessity, as the Medway scene frayed at the edges and DJ culture crowded live bands out of the London club scene. Finally, in spring 2000, both Thee Headcoats and Thee Headcoatees disbanded.

While she recognizes that Thee Headcoatees' girl-group image made it a marketable act, it also imposed limitations, particularly in how the band was perceived.

"In every picture you see of Thee Headcoatees, we're all smiling together. What was fun about being in a band of girls is that you got to dress up and put makeup on together. You know -- doing stuff that only a gang of girls can do. When you're doing it on your own, you don't allocate quite as much time for that aspect -- you just sort of get up and do it. But if you go out purposely to form an all-girl or an all-guy band, I think you're sort of missing the point. You've just got to find the best people for the job."

Clearly, this lesson wasn't lost on Golightly, who drew on the prodigious talent of the Medway players to realize her solo blend of electric blues, old-school skiffle, and tongue-in-cheek rock. Whereas Billy Childish dragooned crack musicians to play brutally simple, rhythm-based rave-ups, Golightly tilts toward the melodic end of R&B. Her first album, 1995's The Good Things, was a sprawling set with a distinctly goofy, carefree air, while the following, more aggressive EP, The Main Attraction, added a sleeker, slide guitar-heavy mix of R&B, spy jazz, and Beatles-era Merseybeat. The short album, which has just been rereleased on Damaged Goods, elicited comparisons to the Rolling Stones' 1968 classic Beggar's Banquet, a parallel that Golightly finds amusing.

"Everybody says that! But when we were doing it, that was the furthest thing from our mind. We wanted it to sound like New Orleans funeral music ... and country!"

Fans who marvel at the richness of her albums may be surprised to find that Golightly herself is not -- by her own self-deprecating account -- a particularly skilled musician.

"I've been lucky having a load of people around me who are like a wall of talent that I can exploit," she explains. "I have an idea for something, and it doesn't always work out because I am technically retarded when it comes to playing guitar. So I am reliant on other people playing something that I hum to them -- where I want them to play it, with what kind of feeling. I am really difficult to work with in lots of ways, because I'm very specific about what I want, except I can't do it myself."

True to the Medway ethos, Golightly has been wildly prolific, producing six albums in the last four years -- each one revealing her blossoming appreciation for American roots music. Over time, she has covered pre-rock bluesmen like Johnny Shines, Willie Dixon, and Ike Turner; folk-era '60s chestnuts such as "Sally Goes Round the Roses" and Lee Hazelwood's "Sand"; numerous Northern Soul oldies; and even a snarly version of Bill Withers' folk-soul classic, "Use Me."

For listeners originally drawn to her fiery work with Thee Headcoatees, Golightly's newfound stylistic breadth may make her solo work less immediate, as she readily admits.

"I don't have massive appeal to the garage rock crowd [anymore]. There's a different sort of energy in what I do: It's much more lazy, and I don't have a specific look or a specific sound, so it doesn't fit into their criteria." Still, even though Golightly doesn't dress rockabilly, wear goth makeup, or sport torn T-shirts and jeans, she's undeniably a pop-rock revivalist at the top of her form.

Terrence Ryan, a longtime local fan who founded his Majestic Twelve label last year in order to put out Golightly's Live in America album, agrees. "Holly has a whole fan base that's outside of the garage rock crowd: young girls who view her as a role model, a lot of people who had absolutely no idea who Thee Headcoatees were, an indie rock following -- as well as a garage rock following. Her live shows now are a good fusion of those groups. Going from Thee Headcoatees into her solo work, she's grown quite a bit. It isn't just three-chord rock anymore; there's more intricate musicianship."

Ryan finds the chance to see Golightly live on a regular basis particularly thrilling. "She's got an amazing personality that comes across onstage -- she's a very pure and heartfelt person, and you can hear that coming through in her music."

Now, if we can just get her to stay ....

About The Author

Lawrence Kay


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