Have You Heard? – (73) Dexy’s Midnight Runners

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As I went through my book “I Was There – A Musical Journey” for, I think, the fifth time, having edited out all the quotes, I was mostly checking for typos and infelicitous grammar. But, as I read the bit about my 50th birthday, waxing lyrical about Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ contribution to the affair, with “Come on Eileen”, I thought, where did  I write about them? And I realised I’d forgotten. Even though they were in the plan.

So Dexy’s, apart from a party reference, aren’t in the book I printed. Clearly that must changed for the final version! So, tonight, I wrote a piece. I so enjoyed writing it, and listening to the crucial music as I did so, that I thought it was something to share. So here is the late – and last – entry into the book…

A last kind of grandiose was mixed up with sixties soul and then a bit of that celtic variety. A band that started off with quite a strong association with Two Tone, even though they didn’t have a reggae or ska sound. But they were from Birmingham and combined the anger at the way things were with a danceability, albeit of a different kind. The band were Dexy’s Midnight Runners and their singer and main man was Kevin Rowland, whose somewhat strangled tones weren’t so different to The Associates’ Billy Mackenzie. Slightly deeper, I guess.

Dexy’s – a reference to a drug which kept you going at those Northern Soul all-nighters, apparently – had two No 1 singles in their early days, both of which were absolute anthems. From their first album in 1980, “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels”, there was “Geno”, a tribute to the 60s and 70s soulman Geno Washington. From the moment it came out, the swaying horns and the chorus caught on big time. A staple for any student disco! From the second album, “Too-Rye-Ay” in 1982, it was “Come on Eileen” that captured hearts – and feet. Dexy’s had, on “Too-Rye-Ay”, introduced a raggle taggle beat, with violins supplementing the brass, and it was simply irresistible. “Come on Eileen” was a song made for celebrations – weddings included. It featured in mine and was right there again when I celebrated my 50th birthday. Read on!

“Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” married a celebration of the sixties soul sound, especially the sound that made it into Northern Soul, with some trenchant observations on life in the early 80s. Not many of Dexy’s songs were fast enough to qualify for the genre of Northern Soul themselves, but “Seven Days Too Long” came pretty close. And maybe the long-winded “Thankfully not Living in Yorkshire it doesn’t Apply”. What didn’t apply, I have no idea. The stand-out songs, other than Geno though, were “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green” and “There, There my Dear”. Both made you want to punch the air when the horns soared in unison. And Kevin’s rolled Rs in “There, There my dear” must have been a tribute to Jackie Wilson in “Reet Petite”. Rousing stuff.

In the “Soul Rebels” period the band were decked out in workmen’s donkey jackets and woolly hats. People’s music. For “Too-Rye-Ay”, just in case we didn’t realise, they’d gone Irish, donned the dungarees. They liked their statements, did Dexy’s – or should I say Kevin Rowland? There was turbulence and upheaval in the band. The only person who stuck it out with Kevin was trombone man, “Big” Jim Paterson. Judging by the name, Kevin didn’t dare chuck him out!

So, dungarees and all, Dexy’s made an album with even more anthems than “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels”. “The Celtic Soul Brothers” opened up “Too-Rye-Ay” with the violins in full flow, a real Irish-inflected dance piece. And did they get away with it? Yes! That was followed by “Let’s Make it Precious”, which took the “Soul Rebel ” formula and made it even better. Throughout the rest of the album, there was a wonderful coming together of the Irish and sixties soul influences. “Old”, “Plan B”, “Until I Believe in my Soul” – these were some of my favourite songs of 1982. Inspiring and anthemic. For that brief moment, Kevin and Dexy’s got it absolutely right. Topped off with “Come on Eileen”, the celebration of celebrations.

And then it all went wrong. Kevin Rowland was a singular character. He didn’t take any crap – and he didn’t like the newspapers. But you know, you have to work with them, if you want a good press. He took them on. Started publishing adverts – in the same press he hated – putting his side of the story. They were entertaining, but all over the place. They didn’t enhance Dexy’s credibility.

It got worse after that. By 1985, Dexy’s were wearing suits for “Don’t Stand Me Down”, and there wasn’t a lot of interest. Kevin went solo, and his nadir was an album called “My Beauty” in 1999 when he put on a dress, hitched it down, showed his suspenders and just looked ridiculous. Maybe Bowie and Marc Bolan – even Prince – could do that sort of thing. Kevin Rowland couldn’t. Loyalists stuck by him; everyone else said thanks very much and moved on. You need to be understanding of what the artists might be going through, but even so…

I wasn’t a loyalist, but I loved those first two albums, and will always regard Dexy’s Midnight Runners as one of the great bands of the early 80s.

If you aren’t familiar with Dexy’s give those first two albums a whirl. They are most definitely worth it!

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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