Fuck off Eileen, everything you know is wrong. Dexy’s Midnight Runners were no one-hit wonders, and their final album, the commercial failure Don’t Stand Me Down, is actually their best.
Kevin Rowland formed Dexy’s in Birmingham, England, in 1978. Their debut single “Dance Stance” (1979), was both a heartfelt protest against anti-Irish discrimination and a boast about the achievements of Irish writers such as Wilde, Behan and Shaw. It revealed a man burning with a passionate sense of mission. The band’s debut album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels (1980), begins with a Pink Floyd device. A radio is being tuned; static yields first to the Sex Pistols, then to the Specials, and then Kevin Rowland’s voice cutting in, sneering, inciting, invoking his band: “For God’s sake, burn it down”. What follows is an incendiary blur of Northern Soul, punk attitude and an unwavering pop sensibility that climaxes with the conclusion (in “There, There My Dear”) that “the only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things”. At the end of the punk blaze, at the beginning of a new decade, Rowland lit a fresh fire, offered a new soul vision.
The follow-up, Too-Rye-Ay (1982), was recorded with a dramatically different lineup. The new sound incorporated the fiddles of the Emerald Express, and the Mean Streets soul posse had become the raggle-taggle gypsy soul brothers (and sister). The album yielded four hit singles, including the worldwide smash “Come On Eileen”. And then the ride began again. The cycle was clear: Rowland would build something up, something great. And then he would destroy it. Forcing people out of his band, changing direction, changing sound at will, always searching for his grail. Many in the Western World considered Too-Rye-Ay a landmark album, a classic. To Rowland, “it was rubbish. It wasn’t leading anywhere. I could make money, so what? I have to have self respect.”
Don’t Stand Me Down (1985) was the third and last Dexy’s album. Released to mixed reviews, it sank almost without trace. Perhaps the latest Dexy’s rebrand — poker stares and clean-cut business suits — went a step too far? Perhaps the refusal to release a single or to market the album was just a little too arrogant? Perhaps Don’t Stand Me Down was just a little too difficult for an audience raised on “Come On Eileen”? Probably, all of the above.
The album opens with “The Occasional Flicker”. After a prolonged pause of barely audible background noise, then: “No, I don’t want sympathy … compromise is the devil talking … I was right the first time.” Vincent Crane (of Atomic Rooster fame) lays down a boogie-woogie piano. Big-beat drums pound. Horns do their thing. And then the world changes. Rowland slips from a confession that yes, he is a bitter man trying to redeem himself, into a sudden, shocking spoken comment: “It kind of reminds me of that burning feeling I used to get”.
Spoken-word pieces had always formed part of the Dexy’s canon, but this abrupt change mid-song is utterly new, as is the downright comic treatment given to his “burning feeling”, a self-mocking reference to his many famous prior protestations of “inner fires” and “burning”. Rowland’s voice comes from one speaker; guitarist Billy Adams speaks from the other. And while the band blazes on, the pair discuss … Kevin Rowland’s digestion. “Are you sure it’s not heartburn?” This double act continues throughout Don’t Stand Me Down. Twenty years on, I’m still not sure why it’s there or what it all means. But I know I love it. Every last mumbled remark and bad joke.
“This Is What She’s Like” is the pinnacle of Kevin Rowland’s achievement, his Ninth Symphony, his “Ode to Joy”. Twelve and a half minutes long, it soars with a breath-taking beauty. The most immaculate parts of “Come On Eileen” on their very best day couldn’t get into “This Is What She’s Like”. The song is that good. And yet it begins with another mundane and poorly recorded conversation, a chat between two dullards that runs for almost 90 seconds before Rowland finally concedes and tries to tell Billy Adams what she’s like. But Rowland has always had a problem describing things, so he starts by telling us all the things she isn’t.
As the music peaks repeatedly, we learn that Rowland’s muse is not the sort of girl to iron creases in her jeans or use expressions like tongue-in-cheek. And she has nothing in common with the ignorant English upper classes, the CND scum, or the newly wealthy peasants who put all their possessions on parade.
Kevin: The Italians have a word for it.
Billy: What word’s that?
Kevin: A thunderbolt or something.
Billy: What, you mean the Italian word for thunderbolt?
Kevin: Yeah, something like that. I don’t speak Italian myself, you understand.
Kevin: But I knew a man who did.
It’s as if Brian Wilson stopped “God Only Knows” halfway through to tell a shrink joke, and made it work. In the end, it’s left to his wordless careening vocals and music to describes Kevin Rowland’s beauty. She must have been glorious.
“Knowledge of Beauty” is an exploration of Irish pride that echoes all the way back to “Dance Stance”. “One of Those Things” is Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves Of London” in drag, a complaint-rock classic in two parts. The first dissects music radio and concludes that it all sounds the same. The second analyses the dinner-party socialist intellectuals of the world and their attitudes towards Northern Ireland, concluding that they all sound the same too. The conclusion is clear: Political attitudes towards Ireland were as trite and empty as the pop music of the day.
“Reminisce Part Two” is a short spoken-word piece underpinned by a melancholic tune that slowly evolves into both “Lola” and Jimmy Ruffin’s “I’ll Say Forever My Love”. Surging horns, a pounding beat and declamatory vocals make “Listen To This” a throwback to the early Dexy’s singles. It’s a rousing pop song, and yet it doesn’t quite fit here because Rowland has moved so far beyond merely rousing pop.
Throughout his career, Kevin Rowland has been a minefield of magnificent contradictions. As soon as you thought you understood him, he changed. And no sooner had you caught up with him again, then he disappeared and dared you to find him. But through it all, beneath the anger and the controversies, beyond his Irish identity, he was inspired by a desire to create beautiful things. The extreme passion in his work came from this vision of the beauty he was trying to express. On Don’t Stand Me Down, Kevin Rowland came closest to giving his impossible dream form, a funny, flawed work of absolute protest against the mundane and the average.