Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Keep On Running

I had thought for a long time that Dexys Midnight Runners had released more albums than they actually have, but, though the band is still going in some form almost thirty years after their formation, only three studio albums have seen the day, the last being 1985's 'Don't Stand Me Down' which was a commercial flop in sharp contrast to the enormous succcess of their previous effort 'Too-Rye-Ay', which was buoyed by the single 'Come On Eileen', which has since become bigger than the band themselves.

The critics also panned 'Don't Stand Me Down' and it is the one Dexys album that I am unfamiliar with, though there are some that believe it is an overlooked masterpiece. By the time it was released however the band were in disarray with much of the original brass section leaving, front-man Kevin Rowland falling out with all and sundry and succumbing to drug problems. The band has lumbered on since, mostly as a de facto solo project for Rowland, without releasing anything and the nadir of Rowland's career came when he was bottled off the stage at the Reading Festival in 1999. For the past ten years a new album has been promised and has never surfaced but there have been some tracks recorded, which can be found on the band's official MySpace page.

Unlike many of their contemporaries, such as Joy Division and Gang of Four, Dexys have not enjoyed any revival of fame through the devotion of a younger generation. If anythng their influence has been the very opposite of 'seminal'. It is true that they were never short of plaudits around the time of the first two albums, 'Searching for the Young Soul Rebels' and 'Too-Rye-Ay', it is strange that those two records, which are as flawless as a band's first two efforts can get, should be so neglected these days. Rowland's errant behaviour over the past twenty years hasn't helped and neither has the fact that 'Come On Eileen', which was the biggest-selling single in the UK in 1982 and also went to number one in the States, has become so ubiquitous as to practically exemplify an entire era, leaving the band behind in its wake. Some people are even unsure whether its a good song such has been its popularity (it is, by the way).

Rowland is one of those first-generation Irish kids who made a big impact in British rock music, such as John Lydon, the Gallagher brothers, Teenage Fanclub, Bobby Gillespie, Elvis Costello and The Smiths (it's interesting how the Irish diaspora in the US has been much less prolific in rock). He even went further than many of them in his mining his ancestry for influences - the song 'Burn It Down' on 'Young Soul Rebels' includes probably the longest rollcall of Irish writers ever in a pop song - and he introduced folk influences to add extra nuances to the band's frantic but polished soul for the second album. Because of all the fiddles and banjos on 'Too-Rye-Ay', the band has often been lumped with the raggle-taggle wave that followed with bands such as The Waterboys and The Levellers. It is however irreducibly a soul record, and even 'Eileen', from the opening reference to Johnny Ray and the brass that takes over from the strings in the second half, is a soul tune in the tradition of the obscure American tunes that gained popularity at the Wigan Casino and the Twisted Wheel in Manchester.

Dexys sprung from the Northern Soul scene, taking their name from Dexedrine, the brand of speed that allowed young mods to dance at the all-nighters, and their first album features a superb cover of one of the classics of the genre, Chuck Wood's 'Seven Days Too Long'. But they had a broader interest in soul too and their second biggest hit was a cover of Van Morrison's 'Jackie Wilson Said', where Van's Belfast whine was replaced and beefed up by Rowland's distinctive Black Country falsetto. Another hit was their tribute to Geno Washington but there are other great nuggets on both albums, some of them with evocative titles such as the plaintive brass-and-moog instrumental 'The Teams That Meet in Caffs' and the infectiously dancey 'Thankfully, Not Living in Yorkshire, It Doesn't Apply.' For a long time I thought that the first, lesser-known album was the better one, but I now think that the band actually improved for the second effort, producing a richer, more ambitious sound, and all ten tracks are superb. There are risks taken, the album's best track 'Plan B' has a slow, piano-vocal lead-in that lasts almost two minutes and Dexys are probably the only soul band ever to cover a Thomas Moore melody ('Believe Me, If All These Endearing Young Charms'). Soul turned into a much slicker, more polite affair in the years that followed, and some of the earlier kineticism is only being regained now with the return of Sharon Jones, Bettye LaVette and the success of Amy Winehouse. The two new Dexys tracks on the MySpace page are creditable, if hardly remarkable, but the album which is due to finally come out this year, should be worth a listen at least. Gang of Four, ESG and The Stooges have all released comeback albums that stand beside their back catalogue. Maybe Kevin Rowland can do the same.


Anonymous said...

Bettye LaVette has been putting her thing down since the sixties and is still 99 degrees hotter than Aretha Franklin. Signed to labels like Calla, ATCO and Motown to her comeback on ANTI, LaVette has amassed quite a cult following in Northern Soul circles and is easily the best thing from Detroit since... ever. Go check this legend out at The American Theater in Hampton this Fri., June 8, and spread the word. Tickets are only $15.30 and you get four decades of music and experience.

seanachie said...

I'll second that, and, among other records, her most recent, 'I've Got My Own Hell to Raise' is a gem.