Dexy's Midnight Runners
Dexy’s Midnight Runners
Best known in the United States for their pop hit "Come on Eileen," Dexy's Midnight Runners were much more than just a one-hit wonder in their native United Kingdom. One of the biggest bands in Britain in the 1980s, the group mixed Celtic folk sounds and blue-eyed soul into its own brand of pop music. Led by the maverick singer-songwriter Kevin Rowland, the band altered its wardrobe with almost every album, evolving from a scruffy gypsy look to a slicked-back, Ivy League image. Rowland's controlling style led to many changes in the group's personnel and contributed eventually to the band's unraveling in the mid-1980s. A 2003 reunification and comeback tour arrived on the heels of Let's Make This Precious, a greatest-hits collection released that same year.
Dexy's Midnight Runners were founded in 1978 by Rowland and Kevin "Al" Archer, both former members of a Birmingham, England punk band called the Killjoys. Moving away from punk, Rowland and Archer sought a soulful sound for their new group, which they named after the drug Dexedrine, a trendy stimulant in the British Northern soul scene. Despite its name, the band promoted a strictly drug-free image and even banned alcohol at concerts. Rowland, who had grown up partly in England and partly in his family's native Ireland, infused the group's music with the Northern soul flavor popular in the British Midlands, and later with Celtic folk rhythms as well.
The group's personnel went through a few changes before settling in with Big Jim Paterson on trombone, Geoff Blythe on tenor sax, Steve "Babyface" Spooner on alto sax, and Mick Talbot on keyboards. While the image of Dexy's Midnight Runners would change several times over the course of the band's heyday, the musicians first adopted a wardrobe reminiscent of New York City dockworkers, borrowing their look from the Robert DeNiro film Mean Streets. The group's first single, 1979's "Dance Stance" (or "Burn It Down"), with lyrics that railed against anti-Irish prejudices, had little impact on the contemporary music scene. However, a follow-up single, "Geno"—an homage to American soul crooner Geno Washington—soared to the top of the British charts a year later.
"Geno" graced the band's debut LP, Searching for the Young Rebels, which catapulted Dexy's Midnight Runners to fame in the United Kingdom in 1980. Listeners appreciated the record's brassy, soulful sound—a hybrid of Memphis and West Midlands soul—and identified with song lyrics about alienation. The group's third single, "There There My Dear," charted in the British top ten, though a follow-up, "Keep It, Part Two," did not fare as well.
Internal conflicts led to several alterations in the band's lineup; feeling that Rowland was too controlling, some members jumped ship for other ventures. Founding member Al Archer left the band to start the Blue Ox Babes, while others left to join the Bureau. Only Big Jim Paterson stuck by Rowland; the pair went on to enlist Kevin "Billy" Adams on guitar and banjo, Mickey Bill-ingham on keyboards, Brian Maurice on alto sax, Paul Speare on tenor sax, and Giorgio Kilkenny on bass. The band traded in its record label, too, leaving EMI for Mercury and releasing a top 20 hit, "Show Me," in 1981.
A follow-up single, "Liars A to E," met with less enthusiasm, prompting Rowland to look for another source of inspiration. He found it in Archer's new band, the Blue Ox Babes, making off with not only their sound but also their violinist, Helen O'Hara. The violin became a signature sound for Dexy's Midnight Runners, which went on to acquire two more players of that instrument, Steve Brennan and Roger MacDuff.
In 1982 Dexy's Midnight Runners released Too-RyeAy, a successful sophomore album that introduced a new Celtic folk flavor to the band's repertoire. The album's first single, "The Celtic Soulbrothers," met with a tepid response. It was the follow-up single, "Come On Eileen," that really caused a sensation at home and abroad. The song sailed to number one on both the British and American charts, and the group's new wardrobe, favoring a ragtag gypsy look, pervaded the music-video scene for months to come.
For the Record . . .
Members include Billy Adams (born Kevin Adams; joined group, c. 1980), banjo, guitar; Al Archer (born Kevin Archer; left group, c. 1980), vocals, guitar; Mickey Billingham (group member 1980-82), keyboards; Steve Brennan (group member 1980-82), violin; Geoff Blythe (left group, c. 1980), saxophone; Andy Growcott (left group, c. 1980), drums; Giorgio Kilkenny (group member 1980-82), bass; Helen O'Hara (joined group, c. 1980), violin; Jim Paterson , trombone; Kevin Rowland , vocals, guitar, song-writer; Peter Saunders , organ; Seb Shelton (group member 1980-82), drums; Paul Speare (group member 1980-82), saxophone; Steve Spooner (left group, c. 1980), saxophone; Mick Talbot (left group, c. 1980), keyboards; Pete Williams (left group, c. 1980), bass; Steve Wynn , bass.
Group formed in Birmingham, England, 1978; released "Geno," first hit single, 1979; released debut LP, Searching for the Young Rebels, 1980; released TooRye-Ay, 1982; hit single "Come On Eileen" reached No. 1 on U.S. and British charts, 1983; released Don't Stand Me Down, 1985; disbanded, mid-1980s; issued several greatest-hits collections, 1990s; released Let's Make This Precious, a greatest-hits album, 2003; reunited for comeback tour, 2003.
Awards: Q Award, Classic Songwriters, 2003.
Addresses: Record company— EMI Records, 43 Brook Green, London W6 7EF, England.
Rowland and his fellow band members profited enormously from the smash success of "Come On Eileen," but the singer later voiced mixed feelings about the song's mainstream acceptance. "Dexy's was a musical group that had hit singles, but we weren't a 'pop' group," Rowland told Simon Price of the Independent. "Having those two number ones ['Come On Eileen' and 'Geno'] is something I'm grateful for in some ways—I'm not ashamed of them, thanks for the money and all that—but it distorted the reality." The spotlight was not always a comfortable place to be for Rowland, either. "I loved celebrity for a couple of weeks, but I felt a fraud," the singer told Ian Bickerton of the Observer. "I felt I had to act. I felt ugly and exposed…. My self-esteem was so low I felt unworthy of everything."
After Too-Rye-Ay the group went through yet another overhaul of personnel, with the loss of keyboardist Billingham and the band's entire horn section. In 1985, the group came out with Don't Stand Me Down, which fared poorly—perhaps because Rowland chose to present the album as a whole and not release any singles. In the wake of the failed third album, the group disbanded.
Rowland briefly pursued a solo career, debuting his new country- and lounge-pop sound with The Wanderer in 1988, but the album flopped. Two disappointments in a row left the singer slipping into financial and emotional turmoil. Despite his former band's straitlaced image, Rowland turned to drugs. "From late '87 onwards, any money I did get went on cocaine," he told Price of the Independent. Rowland's downward spiral led to bankruptcy and eventual homelessness. Pulling himself out of his rut, he found refuge in meditation and briefly joined a religious sect called the Brahma Kumaris. It wasn't until he sought treatment for substance dependency that Rowland began to rebound.
At first, the newly clean singer-songwriter shied away from music. But by 1996 he was ready to stage a comeback, signing with Creation Records and releasing a solo LP, My Beauty three years later. A collection of cover songs, the album failed to sell. Rowland did, however, attract attention with his new look; a poster campaign found him donning a royal blue dress, lipstick, and pearls. The press mocked him, but Rowland took pride in his fashion statement. "I wasn't a tranny," the singer told Price of the Independent. "It wasn't a gay thing. It was a confrontational thing. I wanted to shock a little bit. It did mess with people's heads a bit. It challenged them."
Meanwhile, Rowland had another comeback idea up his sleeve. In 2003 he released a Dexy's Midnight Runners greatest-hits collection, Let's Make This Precious, and gathered together a few former band members, including Mick Talbot and Pete Williams, for a comeback tour. The group not only aimed to attract a nostalgic crowd but also sought to speak to the present moment. "It won't be some old blokes trying to recapture their youth," Rowland told John Mulvey of the London Times just before the fall of 2003 tour. "It'll be some old blokes trying to do something that relates to now."
Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, EMI, 1980; rereleased, Mercury, 2002.
Too-Rye-Ay, Mercury, 1982; rereleased, Universal, 2002. Geno, EMI, 1983.
Don't Stand Me Down, EMI, 1985.
Greatest Hits, Alex, 1991.
The Very Best of Dexy's Midnight Runners, Mercury, 1991.
Because of You, Alex, 1993.
The Best of Dexy's Midnight Runners, Mercury, 1994.
1980-1982: The Radio 1 Sessions, Strange Fruit, 1995.
BBC Radio 1 Concert (live), Griffin Music, 1995.
It Was Like This, EMI, 1996.
Don't Stand Me Down: The Director's Cut (Bonus DVD), EMI, 2002.
Let's Make This Precious: The Best Of Dexy's Midnight Runners, EMI, 2003.
Guardian (London, England), September 13, 2000, p. 17; September 19, 2003, p. 12.
Independent (London, England), April 5, 2002, p. 15; October 17, 2003, p. 16.
Observer (London, England), August 15, 1999, p. 10.
Times (London, England), September 20, 2003, p. 21.
"Dexy's Midnight Runners," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 20, 2004).
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