On first listen, Dexys Midnight Runners’ 1980 debut Searching for the Young Soul Rebels is an album brimming with rapture. On ensuing listens—and when Dexys leader Kevin Rowland’s history of depression is taken into account—the album’s dark undercurrent stands in bold contrast with the barely contained horn section. An idiosyncrasy upon its initial release, the album has a timelessness few of Rowland’s peers have managed to replicate. Searching for the Young Soul Rebels is less a re-issue of kitschy “Hey? Remember those crazy ‘80s?” fare and more a reminder of just how much uplift and introspection one can fit into a three-and-a-half minute song.
If the overarching brassiness of Searching for the Young Soul Rebels hasn’t spelled it out, this is one ballsy album. Any release that begins with a radio dial being shifted, the likes of the Specials and the Sex Pistols being skipped over before the band leader mutters disgustedly, “Burn it down!” is going to have a considerable list of gripes to bestow upon the listener. Amid some free and easy horns, Rowland lays out his discontent via vocal stylings so indecipherable the explicitness of said discontent can only be ascertained after a good three or four listens. No matter what’s being said, the buoyancy of the backing band assures this is pop music; it’s just of the variety that requires active listening.
Second track “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green” upholds this balance of darkness and light. The brass and rhythm sections create a slight ska vibe as Rowland sings, “I’ve been manic depressive and spent a few tears”, yet an underlying hope, coaxed out by those effervescent horns, courses through the song. However, by the album’s fourth track, “I’m Just Looking”, the album’s darker tone becomes bluntly obvious. Horns persist to the point of appearing aggressive, the whole track drenched in a bluesy, almost accusatory feel.
From this point on, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels toggles between slightly more downbeat and introspective cuts and frenzied soul workouts. A definite highlight is Northern Soul cover “Seven Days Too Long”, which—in Rowland’s hands—comes across as a more vulnerable version of the Jam. It is little surprise that certain tracks on Searching for the Young Soul Rebels sound almost like precursors to Jam leader Paul Weller’s the Style Council; Weller’s Style Council cohort, Mick Talbot, played keyboards in this early incarnation of Dexys Midnight Runners.
“Thankfully Not Living In Yorkshire, It Doesn’t Apply” is another highlight, a fast-paced tune with a vocal delivery from Rowland that illustrates the manic side of that allusive manic depression. Rowland virtually babbles the lyrics, but that Searching for the Young Soul Rebels was released around the time of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe’s arrest could indicate the song has an underlying cultural significance. Or, as with “Burn It Down,” the song may just concern certain prejudices the Irish-bred Rowland had been facing at the time. As “Burn It Down” so succinctly puts before railing off a list of Irish intellectuals, “Shut your fucking mouth ‘til you know the truth.”
The 30th anniversary reissue of Searching For The Young Soul Rebels is padded out with obligatory session takes and demos, most notable being a jubilant take on the excellent soul classic “Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache”, originally by Johnny Johnson & the Bandwagon. Yet the album needs little in the way of extras to emphasize its value. A few months prior to Searching for the Young Soul Rebels’ original release, Elvis Costello put out Get Happy!!, another album with a pervasive soul feel. That Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, a debut album, is on par with one of Costello’s best speaks volumes of the former’s greatness. Influx of bonus tracks or no, Dexys’ Midnight Runners debut is an album for the ages.