In the same way that some people only know The Undertones for “Teenage Kicks”, some poor souls are only aware of Dexys Midnight Runners for “Come On Eileen”. Although that is a decent enough song, Dexys were so much more than “these people round here”. This was a proper band with soul, passion and integrity, who two years before “Eileen” had released one of the greatest albums of all time: Searching for the Young Soul Rebels.
The summer of 1980 was a restless time in the music world. Punk was dead, Ian Curtis had killed himself … and depressingly The Rolling Stones and Queen once again topped the album charts. In this fractured post-punk world, the release of Dexys’ majestic debut album caused a sensation. Fierce, raging and passionate, the record perfectly married the anger of new wave with the emotion of soul music.
Emerging from the ashes of punk band, The Killjoys, Dexys Midnight Runners were formed by Kevin Rowland and Kevin (Al) Archer, who named the band after the stimulant Dexedrine, a popular drug on the Northern Soul scene, which enabled the fans to dance all night. Now a fully-fledged soul outfit, the band resembled no other group of the time, dressing in donkey jackets and black woolly hats with a look straight out of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” – New York dockers via Birmingham.
"I'm a soul man"
The original Dexys line-up was eight strong, featuring a superb three-piece horn section, but this was unmistakably Kevin Rowland’s band. Abrasive and single-minded, Rowland was an arrogant eccentric whose (soul) vision was austere and certain. He was full of contradictions, yet he had an enormous capacity for pure feeling in his songs, searching for the truth in his re-definition of soul. His vocals were often unconventional, but nobody could deny that he meant every single word.
Rowland’s passion and commitment was powerfully supported by the Midnight Runners, whose intensity of performance belied the complexity of the musical arrangements. The vibrant horn sound was pushed to the front and was delivered with the clarity and assurance of the Stax originals. They may have presented themselves as the bank robbers of soul, but boy were they smart criminals, as they sledgehammered their way into your heart.
As the notes on the album’s sleeve announced, “the firm was complete, now for the caper.” They had the vision, they had the look, they had the songs and at one infamous moment they even had the master tapes of the album, which they stole from the record label to re-negotiate their deal.
The album’s opening track “Burn It Down” is an electrifying statement of the utmost self-belief. First, you hear the sound of someone flipping through radio stations, hearing snippets of Deep Purple, The Sex Pistols and The Specials before Rowland dismisses the other music, sneering “For God’s sake, burn it down.” The soaring brass hooks you while the band name-checks a lengthy list of Ireland’s literary giants in an attack on those who demean the Irish, before the final blunt statement of “Shut your fucking mouth until you know the truth.”
The theme of Irish identity and nationalism runs through all of Dexys’ albums. Indeed, the cover of Searching for the Young Soul Rebels features a photograph of a Belfast Catholic boy carrying his belongings after being forced from his home in the sectarian clearances of 1969. The half-Irish Rowland emphasised his background even more on Dexys other two albums with Too-Rye-Ay’s hybrid of soul and Celtic folk and Don’t Stand Me Down’s lyrics (“My National Pride”). Like Morrissey many years later with “Irish Blood, English Heart”, Rowland wore his Irish roots on his sleeve (notes).
Gloriously contradictory, Dexys followed the certainty of the titanic opening track with the exact opposite on “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green”, where Rowland’s quavering voice recounts the torments of his 23 years, as he wonders how he’s ever going to dig himself out of his rut.
The album also features Dexys’ first number one, the inspirational anthem “Geno”, which paid homage to soul singer Geno Washington, while at the same time suggesting that he should step aside for the young pretenders, like Rowland. This song was the first to make use of the gang chants that featured in many later tracks.
"The Last Gang in Town"
Wry song titles (“Thankfully Not Living in Yorkshire It Doesn’t Apply”, complete with falsetto, and “The Teams that Met in Caffs”, a fantastic instrumental) give a taste of the band’s playfulness, but the lyrics demand that the album be listened to with respect. Two little-known tracks “I Couldn’t Help if I Tried” and “I’m Just Looking” speak of Rowland’s anguish: “Holed up in white Harlem/Your conscience and you/You might need sympathy/But that’s not what I’d tell you” and “You gave me your ace card/I gave you my time/In a day of confusion/I said I’d stash it with mine.”
Musically, the group may have been at their strongest on their cover of “Seven Days Too Long”. Dexys actually introduced a number of classics to their younger audience, as their live set included blistering versions of Otis Redding’s “Respect”, Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said” and “Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache”.
The album finishes with the genius of “There, There, My Dear”, a ferocious cry to all wannabe hipsters. Again showing-off Rowland’s library of great authors, not many writers can get away with naming Søren Kierkegaard and Frank Sinatra in the same song. This was a brilliant, angry single in the form of a letter. Though it had no clear chorus, it contained numerous lyrical gems: “If you’re so anti-fashion/Why not wear flares/Instead of dressing down all the same”, “You know the only way to change things/Is to shoot men who arrange things”, and “I’d listen to your records/But your logic’s far too lame/And I’d only waste three valuable minutes of my life/On your insincerity.”
“There, There, My Dear” is also possibly the best example of Dexys’ ability to re-invent and transform their own songs, as it was later re-worked with a slower tempo, replacing the familiar brass riffs with a smouldering, emotional build-up to a powerful climax with the band chanting “Stop” and “Go” throughout. This version was broadcast to great acclaim on Channel 4’s The Tube, when Rowland introduced it in his own inimitable style, “This used to go like that, but then one day something happened, as it so often does, and now it goes like this …”
"Introducing the Celtic Soul Brothers"
Dexys Midnight Runners were an original, contrary and difficult band who enjoyed a difficult relationship with the critics, not helped by Rowland’s policy of not speaking to the music press, preferring instead to take out ads to explain the band’s (dance) stance in a series of essays.
Their constant re-invention with the frequent changes in sound, personnel and wardrobe (from Celtic Soul Brothers to Brooks Brothers) also confused the public, but the band influenced many artists, ranging from Adam Ant, who showed his appreciation of Rowland’s work in “Goody Two Shoes” (“when they saw you kneeling/crying words that you mean/opening their eyeballs, eyeballs/pretending that you’re Al Green, Al Green”), to The Proclaimers, who thanked Rowland for his “help and friendship” on “Sunshine on Leith”.
In all these tortuous twists, Kevin Rowland remains a musical genius, the abiding enigma of his generation. On this album, he implored us to “welcome the new soul version.” And you know what ? I bloody well did.