Suilven Suilven RIP

24 01 2021

Only a week after the 5th anniversary of David Bowie’s demise, fans of 70s glam rock were saddened by the passing of Sylvain Sylvain, guitarist in the massively influential New York Dolls, the band who scandalised the Big Apple in the early 1970s and bridged the gap between glam and punk.

More locally, island glamb rock fans were also in mourning, following the death the same day of Sylvain’s cousin from Tong… 

Suilven Suilven made his name in the early 70s as rhythm guitarist with the New York Dollags, a band of notorious rock ‘n’ roll degenerates who regularly played the Drill Hall and the YM dressed unapologetically in ladies’ clothes – beannags, flowery aprons and glittery nylon overalls. 

The band were originally called the “New York Dòmhnalls” and were secretly sponsored by Tong property developer Donald Chon Trump, who wanted to make sure nobody back home forgot about him. 

Donald Chon promised the band he’d broker a promotional deal with exclusive Stornoway gentlemen’s outfitters Mackenzie & Macsween, so that they could kit themselves out for free with cool stage threads from proprietor Ailig Mhurchadh Nèill’s cutting edge collection. Due to an administrative error at Trump Tower, however, the deal was struck with the Cailleachswear Department at Nazir Bros’ Church Street boutique instead. 

Determined to make the most of any  freebie that came their way, the band ran riot in Nazir’s, loading up on communion hats, support tights, goot solid tweed skyurts of a modest length and plenty of these wee boots with the zip up the front and the fake fur round the top. Next, they went round to Kenny Froggan’s to get lipstick, but got told to fleek off because they were coves. Undeterred, their next stop was the Crofters’, where they got round the lipstick embargo by purchasing a reasonably priced tin of red sheep marker. From that day on, the “Dòmhnalls” were the “Dollags” and there was no going back.

In the late 60s, before forming the band, Suilven himself had been in the fashion business, running a clothing business with former school pals Billy Ma-shiar and Shonny Thundertakers. Their company made tweed chackets specially tailored for fashion conscious drinkers and poachers in the Keose, Laxay and Balallan area. With extra big pockets for concealing bottles of Cream o’ the Barley or a Salmon or two, “Drouth & Soval’s” fab gear was hugely popular with the stylish 60s mod-about-the-moor. 

But music won out over fashion and the three friends formed the Dollags in 1971. With Suilven on guitar and attitude, Thundertakers on lead guitar and spaced out wistfulness and the exotic “Colombian”(*) Ma-shiar on drums and loom pedal, they were soon joined by David JoeBlacksen on vocals and Arthur ‘Killer’ Kraigdunane on the bass. Jerry Dolansshop later replaced original drummer Billy Ma-shiar, who sadly died of a herring overdose in 1972.

(*) “Born and bred in ‘Colombia’ Place, cove”

The Dollags didn’t get on the telly much due to their being highly controversial (and ruppish), but there was one legendary appearance on BBC Alba’s flagship “serious” rock programme “‘Se Ur Beatha” in 1972. After the Dollags blow everyone away with a scorching performance of “Chet Cove”, uncomprehending soft rock hippie presenter Whispering Bobban Harristweed, turns to camera and from behind his dodgy 70s biology teacher beard, sneers: “Maw-k rock”.

The Dollag’s 1st album ‘New York Dollags’ was produced by Toddsmill Rundgren and packed with classics such as:

  • Percevalsquaretoilet Crisis
  • Freepresbyterianese Baby
  • Fankensteinish
  • Lookin’ For a Keose
  • Lonely Planasker Boy

Despite critical acclaim (someone in the queue for the Ness bus said it was ‘No bad’), it hardly dented the Isles FM album charts.

Their second album, ‘Too Mulch Too Soon’ came out in 1974 and was produced by Shadow Northton. It fared marginally better in the charts, but went on to become a cult classic, beloved by hardcore SY punk bands like The Rong, The Subjects, BWB and Addo.

However, by the mid 70s the Dollags were being overtaken by the aforementioned SY Punk scene which was centred on low-life nightclub APCBFPGB’s, and went into a downward spiral due to their enormous drink and drug intake. In a last-ditch attempt to revive their career, they let themselves be managed by Malcolm Mawclaren. As he would later do with the Seggs Pistols, Mawclaren  sought to boost the band’s profile by stirring up as much controversy as possible, dressing them up in red boiler suits, holding press conferences where they swore allegiance to the communist regime of Point, and having them play before a giant red hammer and tairsgear flag. (While it may have been mere posturing, it was allegedly all done with their sponsor Domhall-Iain’s blessing, so it might have been for real…)

Despite never hitting the big time themselves, the Dollags influenced countless rock groups that followed, such as Alice Crùbag, the Seggs Pistols, Ciste, the Rawblones, Guns ‘N’ Keoses, Hanoi Rubhachs, Motley Crüach, The Damped, and especially 80’s indie legends The RoddySmiths, whose frontman Mawrissey was boss of their fanclub before becoming a world famous geehonk. Indeed it was Mawrissey who organized a reunion show for the band’s’ surviving members in 2004.

This prompted a comeback album in 2005 called ‘One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even The Lewis (Public)’ and a number of appearances at festivals (Sandwick Fank, Carloway Communions and one night down at the pier waiting for the ferry to come in).

Suilven and his bandmates might not have been commercially successful, but they undoubtedly help shaped popular Leodhasach culture (even it was inadvertently just cailleachs’ fashions).