Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Rowland's Runners Turn Celtic Soul Brothers

Formed in Birmingham during 1978, Dexys Midnight Runners was an ensemble of musicians that was under the uncompromising control of singer/guitarist Kevin Rowland. Their early street gang image was directly inspired by Robert De Niro’s street hustler character from the classic Martin Scorsese film ‘Mean Streets’. Legend has it that the band took the whole ‘street hustler’ image too literally in their early days, going on shop lifting jaunts to make ends meet. Dexys’ early line-up also featured ‘Big’ Jimmy Paterson (trombone), Steve ‘Babyface’ Spooner (alto saxophone), Geoff ‘JB’ Blythe (tenor saxophone), Mick Talbot (organ), Pete Williams (bass), Kevin ‘Al’ Archer (guitar) and Andy ‘Stoker’ Growcott (drums). Both Rowland and Archer had played together in the 70s punk band the Killjoys. Both Talbot and Growcott weren’t in the very first Dexys’ line-up but were soon recruited to replace Pete Saunders and Bobby Junior respectively.

Dexys Midnight Runners, named after the stimulant drug Dexedrine, came under the guidance of Clash manager Bernie Rhodes who arranged the group’s first recording deal with EMI. The lyrically hard hitting ‘Dance Stance’ was a solid debut hit reaching #40 in the U.K. in early 1980. Their follow up single ‘Geno’ would launch Dexys into the pop stratosphere. Kevin Rowland wrote the song as a tribute to one of his heroes Geno Washington, leader of the 60s U.K. soul outfit the Ram Jam Band, and it was a showcase for Dexys brass driven ‘Northern soul’ sound. ‘Geno’ sat atop the British charts for two weeks in May 1980, and also reached #44 in Australia. Around the same time session work had been completed on Dexys’ debut album ‘Searching For The Young Soul Rebels’ (UK#6), after which Rowland took possession of the master tapes from producer Pete Wingfield, refusing to return them to EMI until such time as a better recording deal had been struck. It wouldn’t be the last time Rowland would pull that kind of control stunt. The album also yielded the UK#7 hit ‘There There My Dear’, and incidentally Andy Leek is also credited with playing organ on some of the album tracks (see earlier post).

Having been tumultuous since day one, during 1981 the relationship between Rowland and the British press hit a low point when Rowland organised several full page rock journal and newspaper ads lambasting the music press. Rowland then proceeded to sack every band member bar Jim Paterson, though in truth most of the band was fed up with Rowland‘s antics. Those members of the band that were dispensed with soon put together a new group called the Bureau, and scored a UK/OZ top 20 hit in 1981 with ‘Only For Sheep’ (see earlier post). Guitarist/banjoist Kevin ’Billy’ Adams, drummer Seb Shelton, keyboardist Mickey Billingham, saxophonists Brian Maurice and Paul Speare and bassist Giorgio Kilkenny were all recruited to the fold. Like clearing the decks of a ship, Rowland then set about radically redefining the band’s sound and image. Gone was the ‘street hustler’ image and the Stax Records inspired horn section. Rowland’s first misguided attempt at rock metamorphosis saw Dexy’s re-emerge with a new almost puritanical mindset. The band wore ponytails, track suits and soccer boots, jogging to rehearsals and declaring alcohol prohibited at their gigs.

Unsurprisingly they didn’t manage to win over too many new fans in the rock fraternity, though did maintain some presence on the U.K. music charts during 1981 with the top singles ‘Plan B’ (#58) and ‘Show Me’ (#16). Rowland summarily dispensed with the whole pop-puritan thing and unveiled another incarnation of Dexys in 1982. The group now resembled a group of dishevelled urban gypsies, replete with scruffy overalls, sandals and bandanas. Dexys Midnight Runners had also managed to hook up a musical caravan of fiddlers known as the Emerald Express, featuring Helen O‘Hara, Steve Brennan and Roger MacDuff.

The next single was officially credited to Dexys Midnight Runners & The Emerald Express. ‘The Celtic Soul Brothers’ (my favourite Dexys track) was released in early 1982 and reached #45 in the U.K., though it would be reissued later in 1982 and perform markedly better, peaking at #20 and also spending a few weeks inside the U.S. charts (#86) a few months later. In the interim the group(s) would experience their biggest hit single and finally break into the U.S. market.

After a break of two years Dexys’ second album was finally unveiled in mid 1982. ‘Too-Rye-Ay’ discarded the group’s previously emblematic brass section, in its place employing acoustic strings, around a catchy fusion of pop-folk-soul or ‘Celtic’ soul, though Rowland’s very personal and reflective lyrics remained a constant. The marquee track from the album ‘Too-Rye-Ay’, ‘Come On Eileen’ was a global #1, hitting top spot in Britain in August 1982 (4 weeks), then Australia in October 1982 (5 weeks) and its world tour of chart summits was completed in April 1983 when it sat atop the U.S. charts for a week. It was also the biggest selling single in Britain for 1982. Lyrically inspired by one of Rowland’s childhood sweethearts, the song also reflected Rowland’s unabashed passion for Celtic influenced folk music aligned with a strong pop-rock sensibility. Rowland had such a strong commitment to the song that he openly admitted to the press that he had promised himself that he would give up music altogether if ‘Come On Eileen’ wasn’t a hit.

‘Too-Rye-Ay’ almost matched the chart feats of ‘Come On Eileen’, peaking at #2 in both Britain and Australia during 1982 and #14 in the U.S. The album realised one more major hit over the course of its strong run in the charts. ‘Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)’ (UK#5/OZ#67) was originally by Van Morrison, but suited the new Dexys style perfectly. By this time long term member Paterson and the rest of the horn section had left, along with keyboardist Billingham, squeezed out by the group’s new direction. ‘Let’s Get This Straight (From The Start)’ was a newly recorded slower tempo song that peaked at #17 in the U.K. late in 1982 and was credited to Kevin Rowland & Dexys Midnight Runners.

Kevin Rowland and his Dexys Midnight Runners (now just O’Hara and Adams) kept a low profile over the next couple of years, before re-emerging in late 1985 with the album ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ (UK#22), by now original member Jim Paterson having rejoined to supplement the sound on the albums more soul based tracks. Ever the chameleon, this time Rowland presented the group as a four piece outfit, portrayed on the album cover in formal suit attire. But the group’s fortunes were also changing, and not for the better, the album failing to produce a single hit - mainly because Rowland initially refused to allow any singles to be released. Dexys Midnight Runners managed one last hit single in 1986, with the folk ballad ‘Because Of You’ (UK#13), featured on the British TV comedy ‘Brush Strokes’.

Rowland finally dispensed with the Dexys name altogether and released his debut solo album in 1988 with ‘The Wanderer’, which wandered into areas as obtuse as lounge-pop and sold poorly. The first half of the 90s was a dark period for Rowland, battling depression and drug addiction. A cross dressing Rowland emerged with an album of cover material in 1999 titled ‘My Beauty’, which attracted more attention due to the eccentricities of Rowland that the music. In 2003 Rowland assembled a revamped Dexys line-up for a tour in support of a newly compiled greatest hits package, which included two newly recorded songs ‘Manhood’ and ‘My Life In England’.

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