Kevin Rowland was born to Irish parents in Wolverhampton, England. He left school at age 15, working in a couple of bands — the arty Lucy & the Lovers and the punkish Killjoys — before staking out a new musical direction with friend and bandmate Kevin “Al” Archer. Fusing a love of the Northern Soul movement with Rowland’s Celtic roots and their shared punk DIY ethic, they built a new band in 1978. They took the name Dexys from dexedrine, a drug of choice in the Northern Soul scene at the time and adding Midnight Runners to emphasize the power it gives to dance all night. Rowland adopted a distinctive “crying” vocal style inspired by a number of his influences. Building a big sound with a large brass section and the keyboard stylings of Mick Talbot (later of the Style Council) they recorded a debut album. Rowland had clear marketing ideas, and dressed the band in gear inspired by the movie Mean Streets to emphasize their working class roots. Their second single, Geno, a tribute to American-born British Soul star Geno Washington, went to #1 in the UK.
Within a year, however, the band disintegrated, with most members frustrated by Rowland’s tight control of every aspect of the music and promotion. He and trombone player Big Jimmy Paterson, the only remaining members, built a new group with a new look (hoodies, boxing boots, and ponytails), managing a couple of singles before breaking with their label and regrouping again. Building a Celtic-styled blue-eyed soul, Rowland added three fiddlers (known as the Emerald Express) and retooled the band’s image yet again, creating an overalls-clad Gypsy pastiche.
||Dexys Midnight Runners
|| July 1982
||Clive Langer, Alan Winstanley and Kevin Rowland
[U.S. Hot 100]
- The Celtic Soul Brothers [#86]
- Let’s Make This Precious
- All In All (This One Last Wild Waltz)
- Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)
- Plan B
- I’ll Show You
- Liars A to E
- Until I Believe In My Soul
- Come On Eileen [#1]
Whatever the visuals, the new musical direction was magical. Clearly influenced by Van Morrison’s early solo work, Rowland built a very distinct post-punk sound that was nothing like anything else on the airwaves. With a big brass backdrop, smart keyboards (now by Mickey Billingham who later joined General Public) and the folky energy of the fiddles, Rowland and his bandmates crafted a stunning, joyous album.
The Celtic Soul Brothers is a clear statement of purpose, a very direct introduction of their new sound. It’s also an amazing, infectious dance number, showcasing all the aspects of the tight musical group and featuring a wonderful, clear Rowland vocal. Few albums start with such a direct self reference, and few of those manage to make that a successful song. The third iteration of Dexys blasts onto the airwaves with unique, welcoming sounds.
With Let’s Make This Precious, they continue the formula with a twist, pledging their devotion to serving their fans with the purest music they can muster. It makes for a smart one-two punch, building on the fun sound without being repetitive. Smartly, they drop the referential business for All In All, a sadly funny look at romantic complications. Using a dancer with two left feet as a metaphor for the awkwardness of courtship, Rowland calls out for tenderness in a touching, clever song.
Making the connection explicit, the next track is a wonderful cover of Van Morrison’s classic minor hit Jackie Wilson Said. Cleverly paying homage to two influences in one track, the band make the most of their one cover, respecting Van the Man while making the song their own. Side one wraps up with a different kind of tribute. Old is a lament for the treatment of elders in modern society. The subject could be overly saccharine, but Rowland invests real emotion in his vocals, and the lyrical theme ties in so well with the respect for musical history that permeates the album that the effect is quite moving.
Side two opens with another ode to the suffering, Plan B. A wish for better days and pledge of support to a friend in need, it’s a nice bit of sequencing that picks up on Old and personalizes it. There’s also a nice reference to Bill Withers, continuing the thread of musical history that ties the tracks together. Plan B segues into I’ll Show You, once more generalizing the theme of need and support. Dedicated to Otis Redding, it’s a look at the ways that people suffer, both large and small, and a demand that we celebrate and support one another. The pair work well together, mirroring the musical message of the album’s opening tracks with a paired social theme.
Liars A to E is a biting rebuke of gossip. Rowland was famously averse to giving interviews, preferring to create his own messages and present them as ads and editorials in the music press. His distrust of the media and dislike of pettiness merge into a song that is at once scathing and uplifting. The fiddles swirl rather than saw, creating a nice backdrop for the message and one of the album’s highlights. Until I Believe In My Soul is a look at growing up and the disappointments that come with experience. It’s a well-built track with an overall uplift, but it runs a bit long and feels somewhat repetitive, creating the closest thing to a dull moment on the album.
Things wrap up brilliantly however, with the band’s second UK #1 and only real US hit. Come On Eileen is a perfect pop song, a joyous celebration of lust and romance. The balance of brass and fiddle is the best on the album, and the percussion bounces along with glee, showing off everything Dexys has to offer in a glorious burst of enthusiasm. Rowland’s vocals are also at their best as he murmurs, pleads, demands, and cajoles. It’s a testament to the infectious power of the song that it broke Michael Jackson’s run at the top of the Hot 100, sneaking in one week between Billie Jean and Beat It at #1.
Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, the band’s debut, is a decent bit of punk-soul that tries too hard. Rowland’s intense control of the band and mercurial sense of sound and style kept the band in flux, and they never really capitalized on either round of success.A third disc featuring only two of the Too-Rye-Ay Dexys (clad in business suits this time) took almost two years to surface and featured a sort of cerebral soul that was musically sound but emotionally distant. Since then, Rowland has had a sporadic solo career and reconvened a couple of Dexys cohorts, but the magic has ebbed away.
For the course of ten tracks, however, the third incarnation of Dexys Midnight Runners presented a stunning album that had real magic. Blending the diverse musical threads that inspired him, Kevin Rowland crafted something unique, touching, and fun. While it held together, the band — all twelve or so of them — found inspiration in working together and created a special moment in the midst of bland country cross-overs, video age new wave, and urban pop dance grooves. Too-Rye-Ay was something wonderful that stood apart in its day, and its lasting power is a delight to hear more than 30 years later.