Dexys, Known for 'Come On Eileen,' Give Success Another Shot in the U.S. (Q&A)
The band formerly known as the Midnight Runners hopes to move beyond one-hit wonder status in the U.S. with "One Day I'm Going to Soar."
Many artists find the price they pay for a long career and a devoted following is a reluctance -- on the part of the audience -- to pay attention to any fresh material.
British band Dexys (formerly known as the Midnight Runners, since consigned to history) takes a different approach. Every night on their U.K. tour that began in 2012, the band played their new album, One Day I’m Going to Soar, in its entirety. Audiences don’t seem to mind the onslaught of unfamiliar songs. In fact, they’re thrilled that new Dexys songs actually exist. One Day I’m Going to Soar is only the group’s fourth album in a three-decade career, and it’s the follow-up to a record that was released 27 years earlier.
The notion that Dexys exist beyond a sole novelty hit is likely baffling to the majority of Americans, who know them only as an '80s video band dressed in dungarees, playing fiddles and plucking banjos. But there was a lot more to them before, and after, “Come On Eileen.” On Tuesday, Dexys released One Day I'm Going to Soar in the U.S.
Dexys Midnight Runners was initially a reaction against what British singer Kevin Rowland saw as the dreariness of punk. “Going to gigs in the punk days, dressed in the same clothes, driving for hours on a hot day and then you get to the gig and you wear the same clothes that you set the gear up in, I just felt horrible and dirty and grotty. This wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Rowland tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Rowland’s escape plan from punk was Dexys Midnight Runners, a Stax-style soul revue band with a brass-heavy sound that marked them out as different from their guitar or synth-based contemporaries. Dexys didn’t just sound different, they looked different, sporting wooly hats, heavy black coats and kit bags patterned after New York stevedores. And, for a soul band with a stomping backbeat and a horn section, they were very, very serious. The band’s debut single, “Dance Stance,” was an impassioned rebut by Rowland to the proliferation of Irish jokes then prevalent in Britain. The song’s chorus is a list of Irish literary figures: “Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw ...”
The group’s major label debut single, 1980’s “Geno,” a tribute to American singer Geno Washington (who fronted the sort of big soul band on which Dexys was modeled), shot to number one in the U.K. The intense and volatile Rowland reacted poorly to fame and to the humorless way he was portrayed in the British music press. His response was to stop doing interviews, instead taking out paid advertisements in the music papers in which he discussed his various philosophies. Even if this did not radically alter the way he was portrayed, the same writers who ridiculed him fell over themselves to hurl praise at Dexys' debut album, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, which is still hailed by The Guardian, NME and the BBC as one of the greatest records of all time.
1982 saw the band change musical emphasis from horns to strings and, visually, from heavy black clothing to denims and sandals. The resulting album, Too-Rye-Ay, and single, “Come On Eileen,” were far too widely accepted for Rowland's liking. “It was just too much for me. I couldn’t sleep at night. I didn’t want to do anything that would repeat that experience.”
The third Dexys album, 1985’s Don’t Stand Me Down, took care of that problem. Over time, the record has amassed a large and appreciative cult following. But it divided critics -- the 12-minutes opener, “This Is What She Likes”, kicks off with a meandering three-minute conversation about local cafes and ended the group as a U.K commercial force.
Against all the odds, the long missing-in-action Rowland was able to not only put together a new lineup of Dexys, but write the warm, wistful and emotional love songs that make up One Day I’m Going to Soar.
He -- along with sole surviving original band member, Scottish trombonist “Big” Jim Paterson -- spoke to THR about the long gap between albums, big suits, curries and the mixed blessing that is their one and only big U.S. hit.
THR: You’re not that keen to talk about “Come on Eileen.”
Rowland: It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a really good song and we’re glad that it has been successful, but we’re known in America as one-hit wonders by most people, and that’s not something I’m happy about. I know it’s better than being a no-hit wonder, but over here [in the U.K] we’re known for a whole lot more. There’s quite a few people who know about our albums and what we’re really about and who follow us now. We’ve had a great response to this album and, God willing, that’s going to change things in America. But who knows?
THR: It’s been 27 years between albums. What took so long?
Rowland: We got a bit sidetracked. I had a cocaine addiction for a few years. It’s very time-consuming and, in the end, I had a problem that called for social rehab and that knocked the shit out of me for quite a long time. We did some Dexys shows in 2003 and we thought about a new album, but I didn’t know what kind of album. What style it was going to be? Was it going to be an electronic album? The time didn’t seem to be right. Nothing worked until three years ago when everything just fell into place.
THR: What changed?
Rowland: If I knew I’d bottle it. We re-appraised all the songs. We had a few studios booked. We had a few false starts. There was this one time, we’d actually booked a studio and I realized I wasn’t in a position to do it. I had a few physical things wrong with me -- nothing terrible, but quite a few of them. So I went over to India, this Ayurvedic hospital and I stayed there for five weeks. It was hardcore. They gave you a bucket. Three meals a days, curry every meal. You get up at six every morning. That really helped. I felt fortified. So I came back and we got on with it.
THR: There are a lot of love songs on this record and they go from fairly upbeat, such as “She’s Got That Wiggle” to fairly self-lacerating like “Incapable of Love.” The last song on the album, “It’s Okay John Joe” is a monologue about a guy accepting his solitary fate in the world. Is it hard to summon up the emotion to do a song like that justice?
Rowland: “It’s Okay John Joe” was actually an email to somebody. I was writing “I do believe in love but I don’t know anything about it” and I thought, this is quite an interesting point of view, I can use it. I had to get in the right mood. I would bring in photographs, items of clothing, things that I learned when I did a method acting course in the '90s at the Strasberg school. I didn’t become an actor -- I felt it was a lifetime’s work, but I found it useful and still do. When we play live, we play the whole album and after these shows I find it incredibly hard to be around people.
Paterson: When he does “John Joe,” I find it very hard to watch him performing that because it just breaks my heart. It’s so emotional and personal.
THR: You’ve sported many different looks over the years. This time round looks a little bit '40s? The big suits, the caps and the flowery shirts.
Rowland: I wouldn’t put a name on it. It’s kind of a mixture. We’ve taken ideas form the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s. We’ve mixed them up. I’d call it retro-inspired, rather than retro. I love the look. I’m really into it. That’s the fun part, dressing up. I dress like this all the time, it’s not just a stage thing. I’ve been dressing like this since 2003. Big suits. It’s a very cool look for guys of our age. You can have a look, but you’re not trying to be fashionable, you’re not trying to be young. It’s a man’s look.
THR: Will there be another Dexys album in your lifetime?
Paterson: I intend to live to 127, so it will be in my lifetime.
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