There There My Dear – Dexys Midnight Runners
…you know the only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things…
In the summer of 1980 I had what remained of my tail firmly between my legs and I was licking my wounds. The trip to Latin America with brother Paul had foundered in Mexico where I’d contracted hepatitus B and been rushed back to Coppett’s Wood tropical diseases hospital for a couple of weeks. I was weak as a kitten, couldn’t drink for a year, and had to start thinking about getting a job (over and above my Saturday all-nighter at the Scala coffeebar). Mumtaz, whom I had left to go on a hitch-hiking year off with Paul, had gracefully welcomed me back into her attic flat in Finsbury Park. I was 23 years old.
“Seen quite a bit in my 23 years” sings Kevin Rowland on track 2 of Dexys first LP “Searching For The Young Soul Rebels”, a record which blasted into my ears that summer and blew (almost) everything else out of the water. It had bags of attitude and swagger, it had a manifesto, but most of all it had soul. English white kids from Birmingham playing soul. Legend has it that Kevin Rowland walked into the first rehearsal of Dexys with a box of Stax singles and announced “We’re doing music like this”. But listening to that 1st LP there’s loads more than Stax influences – there’s Jackie Wilson, Motown, the Bar-Kays, Northern Soul. Since I’d spent the previous three years cramming a PhD in soul music (to make up for my teenage pop youth) I was ready to play my part as a disciple of Dexys and spread the word – not that they needed me – the NME and the nation were already enamoured. I’d bought the first single Dance Stance the year before, and helped Geno to get to number one in the spring (B-side: Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache a cover of Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon !!). I think my first Dexys gig was in the National Ballroom in Kilburn, appropriate for their Irish/Celtic roots. But did I see them support The Specials? Is that where I discovered them in fact?? Sometimes I simply cannot remember critical details of these formative years.
They were absolutely brilliant live, real power and passion. Of course I loved the horn section and spent hours playing along with the album on my ancient alto sax. I’d always wanted to be in a horn section – playing chords, harmonies with other brass players. I was particularly fond of “Keep It”. They actually did manage to do that Stax sound – Booker T & the MGs with the Memphis Horns. I’m less convinced that Kevin had the vocal chops of the soul greats, but he certainly committed to it heart and soul, and more importantly he sounded like he meant it.
It’s hard to remember now, how much that mattered in those days, as punk morphed into Two-Tone and battles with the NF, Rock against Racism, and “whose side you were on” felt like your daily bread – those early Thatcher years were full of aggro and passion, maybe it was just me but the times were intense. Live and onstage Kevin demanded attention and respect. Watching him sing “Respect” live was an exercise in faith, he would end up writhing on the floor whooping and squealing and I would feel equal amounts of embarrassment and admiration. He would continue to make a career out of this strange dialectic, even today he stretches what is acceptable in a musical context beyond what is simply cool, out to the edge of reason. But these were early days when he wanted to be a soul singer. And he was a white boy, my age. Christ I wanted to be in that band. Lyrical interlude : “Holed up in white Harlem, your conscience and you…” Those early gigs were a riot. Wilfully antagonistic toward the audience, we were used to it old punks that we were, there was an atmosphere of danger, aggression, risk in the air. But most gigs in those days felt like that. The band were tight as anyone I’ve ever seen. Pete Williams, Al Archer, Big Jimmy Patterson on the trombone. The Teams That Meet In Caffs. They were formed with gang membership in mind, a ready-made pop subculture. That’s just how it used to be. They would go on to have different line-ups, different instruments and their biggest hit as a bunch of raggle-taggle pseudo- Irish punks with ‘Come On Eileen’ and weddings thereafter would never be the same, but for me the first LP is still an astonishing listen. Maybe you should welcome the new soul vision.
As a footnote I have to mention that Kevin Rowland moved to Brighton around the same time as us in the late 90s and we spoke on a number of occasions at parties and so on. He was a gentleman and a scholar, softly-spoken and funny. He moved to Shoreditch around 2005 “because Brighton was getting too cool”.