Story of the song: This Wheel’s on Fire by Julie Driscoll

·2 min read
Mod’s first lady: Driscoll circa 1968  (Getty)
Mod’s first lady: Driscoll circa 1968 (Getty)

Julie Driscoll, Mod's first lady, was a shimmering muse in a space-age hairstyle and vinyl-black eyeliner. In 1965 she was working for Giorgio Gomelsky, who managed The Yardbirds, opening the post, typing up letters and trying to keep her fledgling singing career going. She met Brian Auger, a jazz and blues organist, when he was called in to play on one of her early singles. Auger was impressed, and Driscoll leapt at the invitation to join his R&B assembly, Steampacket, which also featured a lean young vocalist named Rod Stewart.

When the packet ran out of steam, Auger and his bassist and drummer became the Trinity, and Driscoll their frontwoman. In early 1968, Gomelsky played Auger and Driscoll a tape of some unreleased songs by Bob Dylan. Manfred Mann had already bagged “Mighty Quinn”, but “This Wheel's on Fire” was up for grabs.

The song has its origins in the fabled Basement Tapes, which Dylan recorded in 1967 with The Band in the cellar of a pink clapboard house they'd rented in upstate New York. Dylan brought in some lyrics, for which The Band's Rick Danko found a soaring melody. “This wheel's on fire / Rolling down the road / Best notify my next of kin / This wheel shall explode!” The lines may be Dylan coming to terms with his near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, which kept him from the public eye for more than a year.

Driscoll and Trinity's definitive cover was released in the spring of 1968 and made the top five. “We went through the star trip and people's heads went through the ozone,” Auger said. Meanwhile, in January of the same year, The Band had cut a phased version, for their debut album, Music From Big Pink.

Dylan's original didn't officially make it up from the basement until Columbia released the much-bootlegged tapes in 1975. By then Driscoll and Trinity were a fading pop memory and “This Wheel’s on Fire” little more than a Sixties curio.

By the Nineties it was precisely this quality that attracted not only a cover from Siouxsie and the Banshees, but also the comedian Jennifer Saunders, who was writing a new BBC sitcom with a Sixties retro-feel, Absolutely Fabulous. The wheel turned full spin and Driscoll was coaxed back into the studio to rerecord the song as the show's theme.

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