Song of the day – 102: Dexys Midnight Runners
The following is reprinted from my favourite US newspaper, The Stranger.
I once punched a fellow music critic for telling me how much he liked Dexys.
I’m not proud of myself. It was due to drink more than passion. It was at one of those interminable mid-’90s “grunge” Reading Festivals, late at night, in a hotel bar. We’d both been raving about Dexys’ first album, 1980’s life-changing Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, how it spoke to us–naïve, impassioned youngsters fruitlessly trying to make sense of the adult world–with a clarity and confidence we’d never experienced before (or since). How it was our first introduction to Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, the Foundations–all those ancient soul men. How it was the first time we’d come close to understanding the intricate night-time delights and romance of Dexys’ Irish precursor Van Morrison. How it was an album to die for.
We loved its crystal-bright horn sound, the way it spoke directly to us with words that left no room for doubters, with songs like “There, There, My Dear” (a letter to wannabe hipsters set to music), “Keep It,” and triumphant “Dance Stance.” “I’ve been searching for the young soul rebels,” Kevin Rowland spoke over mellow brass during the middle section to “There, There, My Dear”: “I’ve been searching for them everywhere. I can’t find them anywhere! Where have you hidden them?” We’re here, Kevin! We’re here.
Searching‘s Number One single, “Geno”–a direct shout-out to U.K. ’60s journeyman soul man Geno Washington–was pure inspiration. When Dexys appeared on Top Of The Pops to celebrate their ascent, they were all Mod-sharpness and mirror-bright brass.
It was like being born again.
Kevin Rowland banned alcohol from his shows (he felt it interfered with the purity of his soul vision), sang like a man possessed, and fired and fined band members with a vigor not seen since James Brown. He despised punk, ska, Mod, metal, rock… anything that had gone before. He hated music critics with a passion–going so far as to take out full-page ads in the self-righteous U.K. music press, explaining precisely the depth of his distrust and delineating his own manifesto. Yes, you could say this man was a perfectionist. And an arrogant sonovabitch, to boot.
It was the first time I’d encountered a band who despised love with the same vigor as myself. “They all dedicate lines to you/Thin lines easily seen through/They fuck infatuation and call it love/So they can pretend to feel something I never do/Am I the first to even question you exist?” Kevin spat out on the bitter, remonstrative Searching‘s “Love Part One”–echoing precisely my feelings at the hypocrisy of all the selfish couples I found around me.
I’m quoting from memory: these lines seared themselves onto my brain and pretty much became a mantra to live by.
But I digress. I and my fellow critic were locked in bitter combat, calling on Dexys lines and songs to prove our devotion. I’d quote a line from Searching‘s rampant hate song “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green”–“Seen quite a bit in my 23 years/I’ve been manic depressive and I’ve shed a few tears”–and he’d throw back something from the torched, doomed paean “Old,” or the inspirational “Plan B.” (Both the latter songs came from Dexys’ second album, the violin-led Too Rye Aye, the record which spawned the monster novelty hit “Come On Eileen”–without a doubt, the weakest song Dexys ever recorded.) At every turn, he would match me–love for love, passion for passion. So I punched him. It was the only recourse left to me to prove my devotion.
“Don’t tell me how much you love Dexys Midnight Runners,” I screamed at him, as editors hurried over to separate us. “You have no fucking right! YOU HAVE NO FUCKING RIGHT!”
No, I’m not proud of myself–though I’m sure Kevin would have approved. He was renowned for his volatile temper, especially when it came to journos. For, as he sang on the improvisational, inspirational Don’t Stand Me Down–an album which at the time seemed without precursor, without peer, without precedent–on the opening number, the soul-baring “The Occasional Flicker”: “Compromise is the Devil talking/And he spoke to me/He mentioned something of moving in.”
I cannot write about Dexys’ third album even now: it is too special to me, too moving. Every time I hear it, I still have a tear in my eye–especially during the epic “This Is What She’s Like,” where Kevin uses a three-minute spoken word intro to tear apart the whole rotten crop of London scenesters. When it comes to finally describing the object of his desire, he is absolutely lost for words, his only description being a joyous, preverbal chant. And if you don’t think his “I was thinking of a compromise/When I saw the beauty in your eyes”--from “Listen to This,” simply the greatest love song ever written–isn’t the most poignant line ever written (considering Kevin’s tough-line stance), then you’re reading the wrong fucking hack.
“You didn’t know that all the time I loved you so,” he sang. “I love you. I love you.”