Monday, October 11, 2010

An Illustrated Guide To... Dexys Midnight Runners

As usual, Ben Parker AKA Superman Revenge Squad nails it.

Or, more directly:

Lisa: You beat Dexy's Midnight Runners.
Homer: Well, you haven't heard the last of them!

On some level - that level where you don't just think of Come On Eileen, ie THE RIGHT LEVEL - it seems odd that in America Dexys Midnight Runners are on the same level as... maybe not Joe Dolce, but certainly M/A/R/R/S or Fern Kinney. Come On Eileen was so overpowering a fluke hit, so much now the part of wedding party singalong and shopping mall retro muzak, named the biggest one hit wonder of the 80s by VH1, that most (but not all) attempts at suggesting they might have done other stuff that people on this side of the pond liked is on a LOL-look-at-this-pretension-know-your-place level at best. Or, just ignore it (or, as we see on that link, make out it was a novelty record all along - "the Dexy’s Midnight Runners story is the more common story: here today and gone tomorrow. That story holds true for Right Said Fred with “I’m Too Sexy,” Sir Mix-A-Lot with “Baby Got Back,” Toni Basil with “Mickey”. Hmm, maybe that not-Dolce assumption was wrong)

But of course they aren't defined by one song. Or at least Kevin Rowland's remarkable, impassioned vision isn't, nay, couldn't be. His puritanical streak and belief in purity of soul was one thing, its channelling into a unique post-punk approach to hard hitting Stax revues, socio-political statements and divergences across the borders of what he grew up with and what he wanted to project regardless of fashion status quite another.

A second generation Irish immigrant born in Wolverhampton in 1953, Rowland was by his own admission a teenage tearaway. Arrested thirteen times, once for attacking a group of men with an iron bar, he was forced by his older brother into learning an instrument to calm him down. Briefly forming a cabaret band with his brother called New Blood, running off his dream of becoming a singer after seeing Billy Fury on television, he ended up in Lucy & The Lovers, running off the art school/post-pub rock end of the Roxy Music bandwagon, while working as a hairdresser. Intrigued by the possibilities of the nascent punk movement that band mutated, with plenty of lineup changes, into the Killjoys. One recent overview claims they "made the Ramones look like the Osmonds" with their speed of playing, and toured widely to mostly acclaim. Putting out a 7", Johnny Won't Get To Heaven, on Raw records in July 1977, they put some tracks down for an album and did a Peel session before a change in line-up and approach after Rowland became bored of punk's stagnation. The new Killjoys were more about rock'n'roll and power-pop, Kevin instigating the marathon rehearsal sessions he'd come to make his own. A second Peel set followed, but Rowland's leadership tendencies were causing rows within the band; Kevin Archer, five years Rowland's junior, arrived in place of the then guitarist, but only on the understanding that he change his first name to Al as there couldn't be two Kevins in the group. Kevin for his part is open about his idea to "get signed by a major label in the Killjoys, then get as successful as possible, then split up and form the band that I wanted to form". Finding interest dwindling and members rebelling, the Killjoys dragged to an end in June 1978.

At the start of 1978 Rowland, occasionally calling himself Carlo Rolan, and Archer sat down and planned out a new band, one reflecting Rowland's love of soul as well as the energy of punk, a form nobody else was doing. The name came from dexedrine, a type of amphetamine popular on the Northern Soul scene that enabled its users to dance all night. Having gone through a good number of candidates after initially placing local press adverts in July, by the first single the rest of the lineup was settled as Rolan (as credited on sleeve) on vocals, Archer on rhythm guitar, Pete Williams (bass), Pete Saunders (keys), Bobby 'Junior' Ward (drums), Geoff 'JB' Blythe (tenor sax), Steve 'Babyface' Spooner (alto sax) and Big Jim Paterson (trombone). It was this lineup, starting as a covers band and eventually working in owland/Archer originals, that Rowland imbued with his evangelical fervour, using abandoned warehouses for rehearsals, instigating abstinence, operating vigorous training regimes and dodging train and bus fares, so as to create a tight outfit up for the rigours of touring and the toughening up of the soul sound, and maybe partly to replace the amphetamine rush and resultant quality of manic self-belief. The gang mentality was heightened by the woolly hats and donkey jackets, influenced by Mean Streets and

The Deer Hunter, that the anti-style conscious Rowland brought in, believing that as a gang a group had to "look like something". Their live reputation quickly preceded them once they'd debuted at the start of 1979. That first single was released on small indie Oddball Records, run by idiosyncratic Clash manager Bernie Rhodes, who was briefly their manager and suggested Rowland find a more original of singing, which led to his adapting the distinctive bark of Detroit soul hitmakers Chairmen Of The Board's General Norman Johnson. Released in October 1979 and, after a spell supporting the Specials and The Selecter on the 2-Tone tour, tipping into the top 40 at its lowest rung at the start of 1980, it turned out to be a diatribe about Irish jokes. The band dodged the fare on the way to the Top Of The Pops studios.

That, and the lengthy tie-in tour (the Proclaimers were reputedly inspired to go into music after seeing them at St Andrews University in February 1980), was enough to pique EMI's interest, to whom the band signed an album deal, Andy Grocott taking over on drums and Andy Leek on organ. The first single was a tribute of sorts to Geno Washington, whose high-octane rhythm and blues sets with the Ram Jam Band (who JB had been a member of) had made him a cult in the UK Northern Soul circuit. Rowland had seen him aged eleven (although the opening line refers to a gig four years later), and while lauding his inspiration warned in the lyric that one day "just look at me as I'm looking down on you're all over, your song is so tame/You fed me, you bred me, I'll remember your name". Released in March, by the end of April it was number one.

Washington was reputedly inspired to return to the stage after its success. Leek wasn't, leaving as Saunders returned for the album sessions. Produced by soul specialist Pete Wingfield, it was briefly held up when Rowland decided the most direct way of renegotiating their deal with EMI would be to steal the master tapes and hold them to ransom. Worked, too. It was preceded by the nearly two month long Intense Emotion Review tour and the number 7 single There There My Dear - a cutting attack on a sceptical hipster (nobody in particular, Kevin averred, but he did cite Howard Devoto as the type in one interview) failing to "welcome the new soul vision". On Searching For The Young Soul Rebels' liner notes a footnote would be appended: "P.S. Old clothes do not make a tortured artist."

Searching For The Young Soul Rebels - which is out in expanded form a week today, which is why we're doing this now - never got above number 6, but would go on to be named among Channel 4's poll of the hundred greatest albums of all time. With a cover shot of a Belfast Catholic boy carrying his belongings after being forced from his home in the 1969 Northern Ireland sectarian riots that sparked off the Troubles, it began by cutting down the Pistols and Specials and presented Rowland as the authentic soul voice of the ambitious, driven working class, a sound and view for people to believe in.

It's just that Rowland by now wasn't so sure that so many should be. Having announced he would no longer be giving interviews and would only be communicating through press adverts, sleeve notes and fan club, and with Mick Talbot taking over the keys the flagrantly uncommercial Keep It Part Two (Inferiority Part One) was recorded for a single that failed to chart. The entire band bar Archer and Paterson promptly walked out, forming the not dissimilar The Bureau, whose singles and album failed to chart in the UK. For his part Rowland claimed in a press advert that they had "hatched a plot to throw Kevin out and still carry on under the same name".

A new line-up was formed by the three remaining members, involving former Secret Affair drummer Seb Shelton, bassist Steve Wynne, keyboardist Micky Billingham and sax duo Brian Maurice and Paul Speare. No sooner had they been on the Christmas TOTP for Geno then Archer left to form The Blue Ox Babes, moulding the soul approach with traditional Celtic folk and Arabic influences. Billy Adams replaced him on guitar.

The new line-up had a new look - hooded tops, boxing boots and ponytails - a new workout regime - cross-country running a speciality - and a new single in Plan B, apparently against the band's wishes. When that flopped, they discovered a loophole in the EMI contract that enabled them to leave the label. Phonogram/Mercury picked them up for the storming Show Me, restoring some commercial pride by reaching number 16.

Audiences were introduced to the band through The Projected Passion Revue tour, in seated halls and with a burning desire and discipline at its heart, best expressed in three memorable shows at London's Old Vic in November. That was preceded by slow burner single Liars A To E, which did nothing chart-wise. Giorgio Kilkenny came in on bass, but the most notable change came in the brass section learning and playing viola and cello. Rowland has since called this the best incarnation of Dexys; commercially available now is a collection of all they recorded and a BBC live recording.

The Blue Ox Babes were meanwhile demoing around an Archer discovery, violinist Helen Bevington. Alongside the rootsy music they were formulating a rootsy, dressed down, gypsy-styled image. Archer played Rowland the demos, of which he was very keen. So keen, in fact, that during that band's downtime he 'borrowed' Bevington, changed her name to Helen O'Hara and, along with friends Steve Shaw and Roger Huckle (now known as Steve Brennan and Roger MacDuff respectively), introduced a 'heart of the Celtic Soul' vision based around soul-fuelled Celtic folk and a dungarees, neckerchiefs and raggle-taggle look reflecting rural Irish gypsy origins (Rowland: "everybody else is dressing up sort of straight-laced and we come in wearing these"). Suddenly, nobody would touch the Blue Ox Babes as they were seen as Dexys soundalikes. They split in 1983, and after turning down an offer from Rowland to rejoin Archer broke down and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The band reformed at Rowland's instigation and with several ex-Dexys members in 1985 and released an album in 1988.

With the new Dexys string section trading as The Emerald Express, adopting a whole new sound proved too much for Paterson, Speare and Maurice, who left the permanent band due to diminished responsibility but stayed on as session players, eventually adding a member and swapping another out grouping together as the TKO Horns, regular session men of the mid-80s. The first Emerald Express single, The Celtic Soul Brothers, mapped out the sound but just missed the top 40; like first time around, at the second time of asking they hit the bullseye.

Fiddlers with a foot up on the monitors! That's the way to do it.

Rowland, openly, hadn't made for good star quality, but he still hoped to make a big splash whatever he did. As he said at the time of the era, "it was an actual plan that had to be modified along the way. I’d resigned myself to the fact that if Eileen wasn’t a hit then I was in trouble, so it wasn’t quite as cool as that. It was getting a bit desperate." It worked - loosely inspired by A Man Like Me by Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, it became the best selling single of 1982 in Britain with four weeks at number one, topped the Billboard list for one week eight months later in April 1983 (being the filling between two Michael Jackson hits) and won the Best British Single award at the following year's Brits. Julien Temple's video, filmed in Kennington and starring Siobhan Fahey of Bananarama's sister, cemented the image and one-off nature of the hit, as much here as over there, forever in the early days of MTV.

The climb proved so slow that album Too-Rye-Ay, produced by the none more 80s team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (though they say they had little production input, and Rowland now thinks it a letdown), had been out for six weeks by the time the single went top - in fact Too-Rye-Ay spent its own first six weeks in the top three without ever knocking the Kids From Fame album off the summit. Somewhere in the midst of it all, Giorgio Kilkenny was replaced on bass by Johnny Edwards, while a whole new horn section came in for the accompanying The Bridge tour.

Provocative as ever - plenty have wondered whether the "pretending that you're Al Green" line in Adam Ant's Goody Two Shoes is a dig, an affectionate reference (he was a vocal fan of Dexys) or neither - when finally giving the NME an interview Rowland had strenuously denied any Van Morrison influence on the new look. Slightly odd, then, that the next single was a cover of Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile), reaching number 5 in October. (Morrison had recorded a monologue intended for the album coda, but it was eventually cut.) You all know the story with this performance, and despite what the caption says all parties swear it was deliberate, OK?

The slight return to emotive brassy soul Let's Get This Straight (From The Start) also sneaked into the top 20 before the end of 1982, helped by a notable performance on The Tube; Micky Billingham left to join General Public, leaving a four-strong core. Another top 20 hit, a reissue of The Celtic Soul Brothers in April 1983, eked out while the band spent the first half of 1983 touring, generally in America. By the start of 1984 Dexys were reduced to a core of Rowland, Adams, O'Hara and saxophonist Nick Gatfield. That year all sorts of people came and went over at least three recording sessions, not least an entire re-recording with a new drummer. Clearly they were up to something.

That something was released in September 1985. Don't Stand Me Down came with a new besuited Brooks Brothers Ivy League-influenced look and, initially, no singles, Rowland decreeing it to be a body of work rather than something tracks could be plucked from. Even when it was suggested a single might help he offered the rollercoaster of emotiveness This Is What She's Like, twelve and a half minutes long.

Don't Stand Me Down has been painted as a commercial disaster - it did still chart at 22, but hung around for 40 fewer weeks in the top 75 than Too-Rye-Ay had. During the accompanying tour, Rowland would be 'arrested' by a uniformed policeman for 'burning'. It was that kind of outlook, firing off politicised polemic at all classes and his media opponents (who gleefully stuck the boot in when sales slumped), engaging in offhand Beckettian dialogues with second in command Billy Adams, most famously the lengthy duologue that opens This Is What She's Like. "The words don't quite fit the songs but they read better this way" said the sleevenote. It had all the hallmarks of the lost classic it's become.

And that was about it. An offcut from those sessions, Because Of You, was used for the theme for handyman sitcom Brush Strokes and went top 20 at the end of 1986. Rowland decided to go solo, but neither much overlooked and never reissued album The Wanderer or its three singles go top 75. Rowland co-wrote a song for Adam Ant's 1990 comeback album and, while a Very Best Of went to number 12 in 1991, recorded demos sporadically during the 1990s, performing two with Adams, Paterson and others on Jonathan Ross' Saturday Zoo in March 1993 amid reports of a full comeback. In a corresponding interview Rowland went public with remorseful credit to Kevin/Al Archer for inaugurating the sound he'd "stolen" for Too-Rye-Ay, later admitting the falling out was his biggest regret.

It never came about. Rowland spent the first half of the decade, and the end of the 80s, battling cocaine addiction, lost his house and was made bankrupt in 1994 amid stories of his living in a squad and joining a religious cult. Cleaning up with eight months in rehab, in 1997 he signed to Creation Records, Alan McGee a long time fan who that year reissued Don't Stand Me Down to belated acclaim. My Beauty eventually came out in October 1999. A covers album, it still garnered a good number of rave reviews, but of far more note to them was the infamous cross-dressing, skirt-lifting cover. A three song set, with two lingerie-clad dancers, at the Reading Festival didn't help matters. As much as McGee recently claimed it's shifted 20,000 worldwide, the best estimate anyone can come up with for UK sales is 700. Creation went under three months later, wrecking chances of two new Dexys albums that also formed part of the contract; Rowland now calls the signing "a mistake".

Since then it's been fits and starts. Kevin grew a waxed moustache. Then he started dressing as a country gent. A new incarnation toured in autumn 2003, featuring the only other original member involved Pete Williams as joint lead vocalist and a look based on Brighton Rock and Italian gangsters, and a corresponding best of, Let's Make This Precious, featured two decent new songs, one of which had been performed on Saturday Zoo. Some people re-recorded Come On Eileen as Come On England for a Euro 2004 anthem that reached number two. In June 2005, Rowland announced that Dexys were back in the studio. As he would again in February 2007, a Myspace account launched with a new demo. Later that year he contributed to the Motown Made To Measure handpicked compilation series. DJ sets filled his time. Interviewed in March, he said he was ready to actually get in the studio and make the thing with some ex-colleagues. Whatever sort of coda this is to the story, it's already one overflown with something powerful and insolently special.

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