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The best of happy endings: the rediscovery of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild

Two generations after their record sank without a trace, Donnie and Joe Emerson’s music has finally found the teenagers it was written for.

The artwork for Donnie and Joe Emerson's “Dreamin’ Wild”

Last year, a book called Enjoy The Experience was published which highlighted the world of private pressings, albums which were often little more than vanity pressings, that flourished in the pre-CD era. Records were expensive things to record and produce back then – you had to be driven, you had to really believe in your vision to make it worth all the effort. Many private pressings were made with the highest hopes; one such was Donnie and Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild from 1979. Their parents, who believed totally in their sons’ musical ability, took out a second mortgage on the farm and invested $100,000 in building a recording studio and cutting the album. With sickening predictability, copies gathered dust, and the family had to sell most of their 1,600 acre farm in Fruitwood, Washington to cover their losses. Joe helped out with the family business, while Donnie briefly attempted a solo career in Los Angeles before returning home, bruised and beaten, his wild dreams now hidden away in a bedroom drawer.

Jump forward to 2008, when a record collector called Jack Fleischer discovered a copy of Dreamin’ Wild, with its distinctive cover featuring the brothers in home-made white jump suits, in a Spokane thrift store. He loved it, shared his love on the internet, and the album became an underground sensation. The highlights were long atmospheric pieces, seemingly recorded in a summer dust-storm; one track, “Baby”, was covered by Ariel Pink and the album was reissued in 2012 by Light In The Attic to much acclaim. Pitchfork described it as a “a godlike symphony to teenhood”, while the New York Times flew out to the Emerson family farm where both boys, mother and father were still located.

So what had happened after Dreamin’ Wild? The Emersons had just kept writing and recording and, more than three decades on, we have Still Dreamin’ Wild (with a rotten title, but lovely artwork), the pick of their Fruitwood recordings from 1979 to 1981, all previously unreleased. We now know they bought a drum machine and stepped gleefully into the American new wave era. Later, Donnie had a short stint in LA, trying to get an industry break, but otherwise the Emersons’ career – if you could call it that – seems to have added up to little more than selling their own cassettes and CDs door-to-door.

The lost-in-the-rain feel of the debut is replaced on Still Dreamin’ Wild by a clean streamlined synth backing. Anyone expecting more extended weird-outs like “Give Me The Chance” may be disappointed on first listen but this album is adorable, and somehow timely. The tremulous vocals are still there, always giving an impression of melancholy, no matter how upbeat the lyric, as is the circular, repetitive nature of their songwriting (try out “Since You Been With Me”). On the whole it’s far stronger melodically than Dreamin’ Wild, and suggests – which, hand on heart, I couldn’t say on the strength of the first album – that they were unlucky not to score a hit or two.

I’m assuming Rick Springfield and Hall & Oates were on heavy rotation on the radio in Fruitwood while these songs were coming together. I’m also reminded of the Searchers’ two late-bloom albums for Sire. On the whole, this is synth-driven powerpop, exemplified by the 1980-moderne “Stand By Love” (“with a click of the switch she’s on stand-by”). The production on the terrific “Don’t Fight” is reminiscent of Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks”, while the primitive rumble of “Big Money” sounds like the Emersons were maybe the only people who appreciated Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk first time around.

“One True Love” sounds like a Christopher Cross demo, sure enough, but melodically and sonically – in its airy, clipped way – it takes no great leap to imagine it playing today on 6Music, or even on Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 show. In the sleevenotes, Donnie Emerson describes the song as “the city as imagined from the farm”. It’s hard to imagine just how isolated the brothers were from the Burbank of Christopher Cross, or even how different theirs was to a regular suburban upbringing – Donnie had never even been on a bus at the time he wrote these songs. It was all one step removed, coming from a place where a kiss at a stop light, or even a simple bus ride, sounded impossibly romantic.

Like the strangest and most individual privately pressed albums, Still Dreamin’ Wild has an irrepressible self-confidence. In most cases this is due the artist having some unshakeable religious belief, or sheer mental blindness – few of the musicians could have written a Top 40 hit. In the case of the Emersons, though, they clearly had the ability, and knew it. Their naivety may be what gives their music its lightness of touch, but the same naivety meant few people outside of Washington State ever heard them until recently. Their rediscovery means they are now playing shows to appreciative crowds, mostly the teens and twenty-somethings that the songs were originally written for – only two generations later. It’s the best of happy endings.

Still Dreamin’ Wild is available from Light in the Attic on CD, LP, and limited edition blue vinyl LP with a bonus 7”

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”