1982: Kevin Rowland & Dexys Midnight Runners / Too-Rye-Ay
by J A Gray
Towards the end of 1981, Dad bought a video cassette recorder. It was right in the middle of the format war between VHS and Betamax, and Dad knew nothing about technology, so, sensibly, he asked around. He must have asked the wrong people – he bought a Betamax machine. Actually, to be fair, many people regarded Betamax as the superior format in terms of quality, but one look at the shelves in the video rental shops told you what the bottom line was – the number of VHS titles was already dwarfing those for Betamax.* Before the decade was out we found ourselves the proud owners of an obsolete piece of junk, and a full library of things we’d taped from the telly but would never be able to watch again.
Included in that mighty drawer full of Betamax tapes were several that I’d filled with pop music. There was still so little of it on TV in those days, that any appearance or promo video by a band you liked, or even half-liked, was well worth preserving. Dexys Midnight Runners seemed to crop up every few minutes on those tapes. 1982 was the year they made their biggest commercial splash, and they were everywhere. There was Kevin Rowland, his bare arms high above his head, hands clasped together, demonstrating some dance of his own invention that made him appear to be sniffing his own armpits. Then there was that famous appearance on Top Of The Pops when they were promoting their version of Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile) in front of a video screen image of Jocky Wilson. Rumour had it that the band were victims of some idiot researcher, who was either too young, or too hard of hearing, to know the difference between the names of the R&B legend, and a darts player. More recent rumour has it that the jest was intentional and that Rowland always had a better sense of humour than we tended to credit him with. He always seemed to take himself so seriously. Even when wearing dungarees.
Kevin Rowland had been fronting Dexys Midnight Runners since 1978. They’d started out dressing up in suits, but the style-conscious Rowland had hit upon the idea of really making the band stand out from the crowd. By the following year the entire seven-piece band was wearing donkey jackets, leather coats and wool caps. They looked more like a street gang than a pop group. It was this line-up of the band that scored big with the song Geno. I remember seeing them on Top Of The Pops looking tough and foreboding. Geno was a great single – an unstoppable, stomping, upbeat, brass-driven salute to the power of music. Dexys played soul with punk energy. They made most of their contemporaries sound trite, weedy and pointless.
Their first album, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, came out around this time. Listening to Marcus’s copy of it, and again I think the first time I heard it was when we were over at Glo’s house, the first thing I had to grapple with was Rowland’s voice. I had never been deaf to the singular charms of a peculiar voice, the kind of performer who gets called a “non-singer”. In fact I’d barely noticed that people like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed or Tom Verlaine couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket – I’d been too busy being swept away by their talents as songwriters and creators of a certain style or mood. I either liked a record or I didn’t, and yes, some of the records I liked had people with funny voices singing on them. But even coming from that point of view, I’ve always found Rowland’s singing style hard to love. His yelping delivery sounds like a man whose shower is running alternatively too hot and too cold.** Not only that, but there’s someone else in the cubicle with him stamping repeatedly on his toes. In the wrong setting, such a voice may prove to be a little too fingernails-on-a-blackboard, but in the context of the Dexys soulful brew, Rowland just about gets away with it.
The following year proved to be a period of upheaval for Dexys. Most of the Soul Rebels line-up quit, frustrated by Rowland’s increasingly dictatorial behaviour. Their replacements found themselves in a band now dressing in gym workout kit, with Rowland leading them on cross-country runs. Such asceticism extended to drugs and alcohol being banned in the ranks. This incarnation of the band didn’t get to make an album, although a later CD, The Projected Passion Revue, compiles the singles they put out, plus a concert and a studio session, both originally aired on BBC Radio One. A quick perusal of the track listing reveals that most of the songs which were to comprise Too-Rye-Ay were already being played, although not quite in the form that most of us first got to hear them. We had to wait for three vital pieces of the puzzle to fall into place before Rowland was ready to deliver the second Dexys album.
The first was a new musical texture. Rowland brought in three fiddle players, dubbing them The Emerald Express, to give the music a more Celtic flavour. In truth, he stole the idea (and one of the actual fiddlers) from ex-Dexy Kevin Archer. Archer had been Dexys’ second-in-command right up until his departure in early 1981. When he left the group, Archer formed The Blue Ox Babes and made some demo recordings. Rowland liked what he heard so much that he lured Helen O’Hara away from The Blue Ox Babes and integrated Archer’s new sound into Dexys.*** Initially the fiddles would play alongside the horn section, and, for me, the recordings which used this arrangement are the ones which came out sounding the best. The horns gave the songs an anthemic power, whereas the fiddles gave them a romantic yearning. The horns sounded urban and put you in mind of classic 1960s soul music, but the fiddles sounded rural and more akin to folk music, and Irish folk music in particular. The two elements in combination gave the music a more complex soundscape and a richer emotional range. Bringing in the fiddles also meant that Rowland could now more fully explore his Irish roots. All of which points to a key influence – Van Morrison. Morrison, a Belfast man, had also combined horns and strings in his Caledonian Soul Orchestra (and heard to best effect on the live album It’s Too Late To Stop Now), wrote about his days in Ireland extensively, and had often covered soul classics during his concerts. Too-Rye-Ay wore its love for Morrison on its sleeve (even literally, by including Dexys’ cover of his song Jackie Wilson Said in its track listing).
The second was another style change. Out went the tracksuits and sweatbands, and in came those now-legendary dungarees and unkempt locks. Rowland’s seeming determination to have the band adopt a dramatically different wardrobe every twelve months was tremendously entertaining. He sidestepped any whiff of showbiz posturing, first by downplaying the new look with a deadpan assertion that these were the only kind of clothes he wore (as if the previous incarnations of the band had never happened), but also by choosing a look that was the absolute antithesis of contemporary pop group fashion. By 1982, both the new romantic movement and the electronic pop acts were beginning to take over the charts. There were lots of men in suits and skinny ties, with carefully sculpted hairstyles that before long would be well on their way towards mullet territory. Even the groups that were more inclined to raid the dressing-up box, always looked pristine and well-scrubbed. It was almost refreshing to see a band who had apparently slept out on the street all night and that wouldn’t know what an ironing board was if they saw one. It’s easy to laugh now at the raggle-taggle gypsy-chic of the Too-Rye-Ay-era Dexys (hell, it was easy enough to laugh at it in 1982!), but in my eyes it was something of masterstroke. For one thing, there was no chance of you confusing Dexys with any other group. And for another, they were also delivering a mighty two-fingered gesture at the scene around them. As always, Dexys stood apart.
The third was a song that was almost guaranteed to take Dexys back to the top of the charts. Come On, Eileen was one of the last songs to be written for Too-Rye-Ay. Here, the fiddles took the centre stage and left the horns standing in the wings. The folk trappings were further bolstered with a prominent banjo. The resulting sound was wildly exuberant, playful and brimming with joy. It was great fun, it was sexy (the entire lyric consisted of a desperate plea to get young Eileen between the sheets), it was spectacularly played and perfectly arranged, and utterly unlike anything else in the British charts at the time. Down the years it’s been played at countless student discos, weddings and other social gatherings, and never once has it sounded tired (though the dancing usually leaves much to be desired). It fully deserves its place as one of the all-time classic 45s of that or any other era.
Dexys could have stuck any old tripe on an album that included Come On, Eileen and still have sold thousands of copies, but as it is Too-Rye-Ay was no one-trick pony. The album opens with The Celtic Soul Brothers. It was the album’s first single, and it got nowhere. I’m still scratching my head over that one, because it’s as catchy and punchy as anything else in their catalogue. It was the obvious choice as the lead-off track, establishing as it does the band’s new identity: “Introducing the Celtic Soul Brothers/Featuring the strong devoted”.
The second song is my personal favourite on the album; Let’s Make This Precious. Like The Celtic Soul Brothers, it dated from the previous year, before the band were joined by The Emerald Express, but the marriage of brass and fiddle here is so outstanding that any earlier version of the song now appears under-dressed. The brass rasps out the song’s signature motif during the chorus, while the fiddles dance around them playing a counter-melody.
The man responsible for the majority of the musical arrangements on Too-Rye-Ay was trombonist “Big” Jim Paterson. Paterson had been there since the band’s earliest days, and stayed loyal to Rowland through all the upheavals and line-up changes. Rowland must have sensed that he had even more to give than just his trombone playing, because by 1981 he had become his main songwriting partner. Rowland and Paterson co-wrote all of the original songs on Too-Rye-Ay (occasionally with a third outside credit). Sadly though, and even before the album reached the shops, Paterson had left Dexys, taking the other brass players with him. They felt that the fiddles were encroaching too much on their territory. Paterson’s absence would be keenly felt – Let’s Get This Straight (From the Start), the Dexys single immediately post-dating Too-Rye-Ay, was tuneful enough, but sounded limp and weak. Rowland would have to have a major rethink before he was properly able to forge ahead without Paterson’s talents.**** Let’s Make This Precious, though, is proof positive that there was not only room for both brass and strings, but that the group’s sound was positively enhanced by their combination.
The first vinyl side of the LP also included two slower and gentler songs, All In All (This One Last Wild Waltz) and Old, which offered not only a change of pace, but gave the album a greater emotional depth. These songs were placed either side of Jackie Wilson Said, the record’s second-biggest hit single. Side Two saw the band stretch out a bit more as they revisited staples from the 1981-vintage band, including the singles Plan B, and Liars A To E. There was also I’ll Show You, a superb answer song to their other 1981 single, Show Me. All these tracks flow into each other with no pauses for breath between the songs. The segue from Plan B into I’ll Show You is particularly inspired – the reprise of the refrain at the end of the former was recorded as the intro of the latter. It works brilliantly because there’s not even a join to spot. This mini-suite of songs culminates in the extended Until I Believe In My Soul, which finds Rowland testifying over a musical backdrop that veers between soul and free-form jazz. It might have made the ideal album-closer, but instead it’s Come On, Eileen which sends us on our way. Thereby the album’s most sprawling and least commercial song (Until I Believe In My Soul) is followed by its polar opposite. The effect is akin to being allowed outside to play in the sunshine after listening to a particularly intense sermon.
When fans and critics appraise Dexys, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels is usually singled out for the most plaudits. Others single out Don’t Stand Me Down, their uncompromising third album, as being their misunderstood masterpiece. There doesn’t seem to be nearly as much love for Too-Rye-Ay. Maybe the purists grew tired of it because the singles from it had so much exposure, and, for a while there, the band became the property of the masses. I certainly can’t agree that those other records had better songs. I enjoy all three records for their very different strengths and qualities, but Too-Rye-Ay is my personal favourite.
Many years later I got to know Steve Brennan, one of the fiddle players from that line-up of the band. It took a while for the penny to drop, because he was introduced to me as Steve Shaw. Brennan wasn’t his real surname – Rowland had bestowed it upon him to make him sound more Irish (the fact that Shaw was also the name of one of Ireland’s most famous playwrights apparently didn’t cut the mustard, despite Rowland having name-checked him on Dexys’ debut single, Dance Stance). Steve was a quiet and fairly shy man, though he had a playful sense of humour. I told him I’d been a fan of his work with Dexys, but he was usually loath to talk about the old days. Maybe they had left the odd scar or two. He did, however, tell an amusing story about the band inexplicably playing at a working men’s club around the time of Come On, Eileen taking off. The surroundings were already more down-to-earth than a successful chart band were used to, but the real kicker came when they were interrupted half-way through the gig by the club’s MC, who, having suggested that Rowland stand to one side while he used his microphone, informed the audience that it was time for the weekly “meat draw”. Only after various pork chops and joints of beef had been passed out to the lucky winners was the band permitted to resume. After that, performing on Top Of The Pops in front of a picture of Jocky Wilson was a breeze.
* It could have been worse – Dad’s friend Bill chose the now-forgotten third option, the Phillips 2000. The recognition dawned on him that he’d made a woeful error before he’d even taken it out of its box. It sat there in the middle of his living room, taunting him, with two or three blank tapes sitting by its side, which he was forced to use over and over, due to the format’s catastrophic plummet from favour.
** Rowland’s signature yelps and “brrrr”s were clearly inspired by not only Jackie Wilson himself, but also General Norman Johnson from The Chairmen Of The Board.
*** Rowland later expressed remorse, not only for stealing Archer’s sound, but also for not giving him due credit at the time.
**** The third Dexys album, Don’t Stand Me Down, was also noticeably lacking Paterson’s gift for strong tunes and tight arrangements, but hit singles were the farthest thing from Rowland’s mind at that time, and Don’t Stand Me Down, although it is an often difficult and willfully obtuse record, succeeds on its own terms.
N.B. Too-Rye-Ay is currently available, in remastered form, as a ‘Deluxe Edition’ double CD pack with many bonus tracks, including a contemporaneous live show as broadcast on the BBC. Unfortunately, the first batch of this release included a serious mastering glitch on The Celtic Soul Brothers. I don’t know if this has yet been corrected for a second pressing. However, an older, single-disc remaster, with a differing selection of bonus tracks, is also still available.
My other nominations for 1982 albums of merit:
Richard & Linda Thompson / Shoot Out The Lights
The Psychedelic Furs / Forever Now
XTC / English Settlement
Bruce Springsteen / Nebraska
Lou Reed / The Blue Mask
The Clash / Combat Rock
UB40 / UB44