Perfect Sound Forever

Dexys Midnight Runners and Don't Stand Me Down

by Pàdraic Grant
(October 2012)

There are few things more exciting in pop music than artists with a purpose. Bands that begin with a mission, a plan, a desire to make an impact in and beyond the charts are fascinating because they seem to have a vision that places them above the hackery of typical song-writing. David Bowie's constant re-inventions demonstrated a sense of control that (along with his astounding talent) allowed him to straddle the divide between mainstream pop and "serious" art. Manic Street Preachers opened their career with a zealous aim of shaking up the musical and political status quo, using the twin weapons of incendiary left-wing politics and Guns n' Roses-derived hard rock. Their plan was to sell 16 million copies of their debut album worldwide, then finish the band, their life-defining statement made in their early 20's. This didn't happen, but their early interviews and albums burn with a Pistols-like plan of assault on the industry, and are exhilarating reading for that reason. Even when the plan fails, the existence of artists with a strategy is an exciting addition to any scene grown stale. At times ridiculous, and probably bound for failure, but still more interesting than a million aimless mainstream acts.

Dexys Midnight Runners represent the highs and lows of the band-with-a-purpose idea. Perennially changing image like Bowie but with a message based on attacking compromise and inauthenticity, their main instigator was Kevin Rowland. A singer who had paid his dues in the punk scene, he, like many others, felt that scene quickly lost its dynamism and world-changing spirit. Possessing an especially combative personality (exacerbated by an appreciation of Scorsese films like Mean Streets and Raging Bull), he intended to revive the kind of fire that infused 60's soul music. In the same way The Pogues would re-invigorate Irish folk music by lacing it with punk, so Dexys intended to do with soul music. Rowland's ferocious lyrics, aimed at the wrongs he perceived in late 70's Britain, were to be an important component of this idea. Alongside co-founder Kevin Archer, Rowland crafted the band on this line, resulting in the 1979 album Searching For The Young Soul Rebels. That release saw Rowland's wavering, emotional vocals meld with a tight band (the unified brass section a particular highlight). His singing style was perfect for songs like "Burn It Down" (a re-make of their first single "Dance Stance") where social ills like anti-Irish racism were confronted in the bitterest terms; at times, the injustice gets to him, and the lyrics are barely decipherable. Pre-empting the media-baiting methods of bands like the previously-mentioned Manic Street Preachers, this period also saw Rowland cut off all media contact, preferring to place short essays in the advertising sections of the music press.

Following the success of Searching (and its big hit, the bittersweet, celebration-of-soul single "Geno") the majority of the group left, forming other acts like The Bureau and the Blue Ox Babes (the latter featuring Kevin "Al" Archer, co-founder and co-visionary of Dexys Midnight Runners). Rowland remained, recruiting a new band developed around his next concept. The image moved away from Italian-American workers and athletes into a rustic, folky look characterised by wild hair and various combinations of neckerchiefs and dungarees. The new sound was a combination of soul music and Irish folk, a combination mined by Van Morrison previously (an influence signposted by Dexys' cover of "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)"). Controversy would later arise over the originality of this idea: the Blue Ox Babes had a similar sound, with Rowland even poaching their fiddle player (classically-trained Helen Bevinington, her surname changed to "O'Hara" to fit the new theme). It emerged that Archer had let Rowland hear the new style he was developing, something Rowland freely admits. He also maintains that he was already developing a similar idea before he heard Archer's demos. Such murky details aside, taking on such a sound was a risk, and that it was such a success was a combination of Dexys' excellent new compositions. The resulting album, 1982's Too-Rye-Ay, was a commercial triumph, with "Come On Eileen" in particular making a huge Transatlantic impact. Dexys progressed from soul purism to Celtic-tinged soul-pop, but their next album, 1985's Don't Stand Me Down was their biggest stylistic swerve yet.

Many artists have changed their sound drastically between albums (sometimes, in the case of David Bowie for example, that unpredictability was one of the main drawing points) but not in the same way Dexys did here: this was no mere stylistic change. This was a band who had just three years before topped the UK charts and (briefly) broke America with a boisterous, joyfully poppy song, abandoning that commercial goodwill and indulging in their penchant for re-invention. Don't Stand Me Down was to be about Rowland's views on the world, presented in the most conspicuous manner. This was to be achieved in the form of lengthy songs/manifestoes, lacking choruses but incorporating large sections of spoken word and dialogue. The music wasn't exactly confined (indeed the core section of Dexys, including Billy Adams and Helen O'Hara, important collaborators like "Big" Jimmy Patterson and various session musicians showcase an intriguing, functional-but-loose sound) but the focus was definitely on the voice, whether spoken or sang. What did Rowland consider so important that it had to be presented in such a forthright way?

The album was written, recorded and released during one of the most polarised periods in recent British history. Following the Second World War, the two main parties, Conservative and Labour, agreed to a broad "consensus" wherein the country would be governed within the context of Keynesian economics, nationalisation of key utilities and the primacy of the Welfare State and the National Health Service. The 1970's saw this loose agreement begin to crumble as Britain's economic problems increased, leading to an IMF bailout in 1976. In response to that organisation's demands for spending cuts and emphasis on anti-inflation measures (as opposed to the previous idea that full employment was a more important concern), trade unions increased strike activity leading to the "Winter of Discontent" in 1979. During this period, New Right ideologues within the Conservative Party (including Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher) began formulating policies based on monetarist economics; in short, they aimed for the primacy of competition over co-operation. After becoming the Conservative Party leader in 1975, Thatcher led her party to a victory in the 1979 General Election and began putting these ideas into practice. Unleashing the free market on Britain meant privatisation and moving against the trade unions. The latter process led to the 1984 Miners' Strike, which saw strike action, rioting, police brutality and a government-complicit media war against the miners.

Placed in this context, Don't Stand Me Down appears all the more inflammatory. "Kevin Rowland's 13th Time" was dropped as the opening track on the album's original release. Restored with the 2002 "Director's Cut," the song acts as the perfect introduction to the lyrical and musical tone of what is to follow. The "13th time" refers to Rowland's record of thirteen arrests. The autobiographical opening line, "From the youth of waste, a life of mess, it's a surprise I'm able to express myself," showcases the ego that drives the album:

My name is Kevin Rowland,
I'm the leader of the band.
Herein I wish to clarify
Relate and state my plans.
Two of the album's defining motifs are heard for the first time here: the use of spoken word and mockery of the "middle classes." Rowland takes a break from singing and decides some comedy is in order:
I thought a little joke might be a good idea,
Just to sort of, I don't know, kick off proceedings.
You ever hear the one about the middle class idiots
Who sort of spend all their time analysing their own emotions
And writing bullshit poetry that we're supposed to read?
I mean as if we're fucking interested.
Following some sardonic laughter from his band mates and "that's a good one" patting on the back, Rowland is asked if he made the "joke" up. "No, it's a true story. Honestly, I didn't make it up." This snippet is a good indicator of Rowland's demeanour and thematic concerns throughout the album.

The "Rowland Against the World" vibe is best articulated in the original opening track, "The Occasional Flicker," where he lays out a series of rebuttals that could almost be bullet points:

No, I don't want sympathy
I just want somewhere for these sins to go
Compromise is the devil talking
And he spoke to me.

You might say I'm trying to redeem myself
And in a way I think that's true
I'm just trying to chew off more than those people
That bite off more than I do.

You could say that I'm a bitter man
And I will agree, I think that's true
I will remain so until I know more
Than those that know more than I do.

"The Occasional Flicker" of the title refers to the "burning feeling" Rowland mentions in the middle dialogue. The defining message is made clear: a spark of passion, the old spirit that invigorated Dexys from the very beginning, still remained. This is perhaps the central point of the album: beneath every rant and rumination on social issues, Rowland is attempting to erase any self-doubt about the band's purpose. This is starkly presented early in the album, a testament to his honesty and capacity to criticise himself as well as others.

The tone of political invective is especially prominent in the spoken/sang dialogue of Rowland and Billy Adams in "This Is What She's Like." Beginning with a somewhat vacuous discussion (a conversation about a conversation), the dialogue gradually takes the form of a song with Rowland singing lines in response to Adams's spoken prompts. Adams asks "what's she like?" and Rowland spends the rest of the track explaining what she's not like, with the lack of certain traits being presented as a virtue. Rowland explains that these attributes are held by "the English upper classes" and the song acts as a vehicle for attacking this perceived social group:

Well you know how the English upper classes
Are thick and ignorant?
You've seen the scum from Notting Hill and Moseley
They're called the CND?
They describe nice things as "wonderful"
She never would say that,
She's totally different in every way.

You know the newly-wealthy peasants,
With the home bars and the hi-fis?
You know how they use words like "fabulous" and "super"
In every sentence they spit out?
Well I don't really like these scumbags.

Several things stand out from these verses. First is the opposition to a particular style of language; "wonderful," "fabulous" and "super" indicate a certain type of person to Rowland - earlier in the song he criticises those "who use expressions like "tongue-in-cheek." Here the flaw is inauthenticity - their language is represented as a combination of over-the-top positivity and arch self-awareness. Their status as "newly-wealthy peasants" and coveting of material goods marks them out as class traitors, who have jettisoned the previous generation's sense of working class solidarity for the "aspirational lifestyle" - the cult of individual enrichment over collective wealth.

Secondly, the question of who exactly Rowland is railing against in this song and others can be partially ascertained from the areas he mentions, Notting Hill in particular being a classic example of gentrification. Ruth Glass (who first used the term "gentrification") wrote in 1964: "One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle class -upper and lower - and shabby modest mews and cottages have been taken over when their leases expired and have become elegant, expensive residences. The current social status and value of such dwellings are frequently in inverse relation to their size and in any case enormously inflated by comparison with previous levels in their neighbourhoods. Once this process of "gentrification" starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed."

This change of occupants in working class areas, and their replacement by young professionals, is something that Rowland clearly takes issue with. As exemplars of a vacuous lifestyle, the Yuppies and other new occupants also espouse hollow politics; the bizarre attack on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) can perhaps be explained as an attack on the stereotypical "wet liberal," whose commitment to political issues was shallow at best, a part of a lifestyle as opposed to an actual desire to change things.

Shallow leftism is the focus of "One of Those Things," where Rowland describes a conversation with a "so-called socialist" whose lack of opinion on the Irish national question is contrasted with his vigour for revolution in further flung parts of the world (he asks: "How do you feel about Ireland? What do you think about Belfast?" and receives "various replies" including "We're for Sandinista, Cuba's militia, the PLO, MPLA, Afghanistan and Babylon and on and on and on").

In keeping with this focus on authenticity, Don't Stand Me Down also tackles the issue of national identity. This had been a concern of Rowland's since Dexys' first release, "Dance Stance" (retitled "Burn It Down" on Searching, on that track Rowland's ire was directed at those who subscribed to the "stupid Irishman" stereotype but forgot about Ireland's contribution to literature and the arts) but it is given a special significance on Don't Stand Me Down. "My National Pride" (titled "Knowledge of Beauty" originally) documents the attachment Rowland feels to his Irish ancestry, the shame of abandoning it and, most importantly, the joy of its re-discovery. The song is reminiscent of Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" with its "bom bom bom" backing vocals, strings and prominent piano; it is also one of the most beautiful tracks on the album, Rowland's cultural confusion and yearning to belong expressed in the most pained manner, vocally and lyrically:

In my mother's eyes I look and see the story there
It's a knowledge of beauty in these days rare
Go west, go west young man
West of hollow words and all that lies there."

"I've had respect, money and love,
I've denied my beautiful heritage
Gone away from my roots and come back home again
I gave away my individuality
And listened to the "now" generation
When really I'm not one of those
But love has brought me closer to the truth and right now
I couldn't be any closer.

To love your father is a fulfilling thing My national pride is a personal pride.

This strikes a hopeful note, a tale of redemption that sees Rowland temporarily lose his way before a return to authenticity, based on a reappraisal of his heritage and its iron cast values. The obvious objection to "My National Pride" is that it displays an idealistic sensibility, a retreat from modern life and society. When viewed as a standalone work this may be a valid criticism, but placed in the middle of an album steeped in dry, reporter-like realism, along with Rowland's stated dabbling with the contemporary "now" generation," it is clear that Rowland's fidelity to his heritage didn't result in a withdrawal from modern reality, but instead a clash between his personal morality and what he viewed as a world gone wrong. In this case, he doesn't recoil from the fight, he relishes it.

Aside from castigation, nationality and politics, Don't Stand Me Down focuses on the more conventional topic of love. Though addressed obliquely by "This Is What She's Like," it is with the latter part of the album that romance comes under scrutiny. The approach is more optimistic than in previous explorations like Searching's "Love (Part One)," the spoken word track on which Rowland asked "Am I the first to ever question you exist?"

"Reminisce (Part Two)" opens the contemplations on love, with Rowland speaking over a genteel piano backing about his memories of Summer 1969, and specifically about a youthful romance. Brought back to this time by hearing The 5th Dimension's "Wedding Bell Blues," he mentions remembering particular summers by the records released at the time. "The Wedding Bell Blues" and Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leaving On A Jet Plane" happen to define that summer, but two others, Jimmy Ruffin's "I'll Say Forever My Love" and The Kinks' "Lola" define the romance. Rowland preferred the latter as "their song," but "I'll Say Forever My Love" won an unspoken victory, underpinned by Rowland crooning its refrain behind his monologue. Along with "My National Pride," "Reminisce (Part Two)" provides a recourse from the lyrical and musical onslaught of the preceding songs.

"I Love You (Listen to This)" begins with a characteristic Rowland couplet, suspicious of the only emotion he doesn't enjoy surrendering to: "I was thinking of a compromise/When I saw the beauty in your eyes." This attitude led to a reluctance to reciprocate the love shown to him:

You were standing next to me in '82 and '83,
In all that time I barely proved I love you
Well there's nothing wrong but the wrong in me
You were everything you were meant to be.
Casting aside any past cynicism, the song bursts into a hyper-emotional declaration that he, indeed, loves her too (the specifics can be gathered from the song title). While the track isn't lightweight, it is the most emotionally straightforward. As an apology and romantic declaration, it achieves its aims comfortably, one of the lights in a record characterised by greys and blacks.

"The Waltz" closes proceedings by fusing the previous themes into a defiant anthem. Rowland looks back on a nave past:

As if I could not see, believed implicitly
In the tales of this British democracy
How I swooned to the stories of Royal victories
Your books of history were fairy tales.

But never one to doubt
and not first think it out,
I restrained all my doubt,
But I'm working it out.

The final line would work as a reference to the Dexys project in all its form. The venomous lyrics, the strong anti-conformity - maybe this was an open attempt at "working it out," of repudiating the false ideas he had once been hoodwinked by? "The Waltz" works as the ultimate rejection if that is the case, the lyrics growing more epic in tandem with the music:
There's no beauty any more
Now it seems she won't wait any more
Now it seems there's confusion
She won't wait anymore.

Some things don't wait anymore.
Don't stand me down,
For I'll never stop saying your name
Don't stand me down,
For I'll never stop saying your name

Here is a protest
Here is a protest

Those final lines are the perfect conclusion to an album so focused on the wrongs of the world. "The Waltz" can perhaps be most strongly linked with "The Occasional Flicker," sharing its twin moods of self-doubt and self-belief. Kevin Rowland acknowledges his own weaknesses, but doesn't let them sap his spirit. This friction is at the heart of Don't Stand Me Down: the combination of introspective interrogation and external defiance it spawned makes this album one of the most fascinating of the last few decades.

Lyrically fascinating, then. But what does it sound like? The instrumentation is similar to Too-Rye-Ay, the melodies provided by a combination of strings, horns and (prominently) piano, underpinned by a propulsive rhythm section. However, there is little of that album's jauntiness, with the "soul" content being more Philly than Detroit. The majority of the songs are slow ballads, but crafted in a manner different from the previous two albums. Three minute pop songs are discarded in favour of those reaching a rough average of six minutes. "This Is What She's Like" (the longest track at 12:24 minutes) is an extreme statement not only because of its lyrics or its length, but also its structure. It's worth looking at the individual components:

0:00 - 1:12 - Quiet conversation between Rowland and Adams.

1:13 - 2:05 - A cappella vocals.

2:05 - 4:42 -Song begins proper, the question "what's she like?" is the recurring motif.

4:42 - 5:04 - Full band with spoken word, "newly-wealthy peasants" section.

5:04 - 6:00 - Back to full band with singing.

6:00 - 6:49 - Piano interlude, with crooning harmonies.

6:49 - 7:22 - Drums and all kick in, but still crooned vocals.

7:22 - 7:52 - Full band and vocals again, the original song is almost unrecognisable as the song gathers speed.

7:52 - 8:08 - Breakdown, only slightly majestic-sounding strings.

8:08 - End -A fast, trumpet led section. Adams and Rowland continue to amiably chat.

"Progressive" is probably too strong a word to describe Don't Stand Me Down. The songs are longer, and some are divided into clear sections (again, best to avoid the dreaded "suite" description) but the blueprint is always some combination of slow-burning soul, foot-stomping soul, or Van Morrison celtic-soul (there's a pattern there somewhere). The core is still the same soul music that made up Searching and Too-Rye-Ay, but in a mutated form. Not just structurally, but in the arrangements which see the folk influence diluted to an accent, rather than the main focus. Likewise with the brass section; it is there to accompany rather than lead.

One of the most emblematic tracks, "One of Those Things," is largely composed of a looping piano riff (which Rowland later admitted to pilfering from Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London"), the familiar, propelling rhythm section and O'Hara's writhing violin. As the song progresses through several energetic peaks and plodding troughs, wispy organ lines and punchy brass enter the mix before it finishes with something of a frenzy. This saves the song from potential monotony, the emphasis on bass driven groove rather than mechanical repetition. Rowland's "let's rock it on the one, uh!" introduction (a small personal highlight) sets the song in motion and it ploughs on from there. He goes on to express dismay over the monotonous synthesizer dominating the airwaves, while the band delivers a perfect riposte behind him.

Dexys hadn't entirely lost their pop instincts either, as represented by "I Love You (Listen to This)," a song that could have appeared on Searching For The Young Soul Rebels. A tight three minutes of horn-driven cod-Northern Soul (with strings appearing only to augment the main melody as the song closes) the track's DNA is virtually identical to the Dexys of the first (and some of the second) era.

Rowland's unique vocals help add another layer to the music. Instantly recognisable, here they are pushed into overdrive, with entire verses degenerating into the untranscribable. This is by no means a bad thing; Rowland is also adept at dragging words and lines across the meter, generating the kind of vocal energy found not just in soul, but in the raw forms of early R n' B and rockabilly.

The easy narrative would be to present this album as an avant-garde break from Dexys' pop past. However, there are too many links throughout the band's back catalogue for this to be correct, even on this most experimental of albums. In some cases (the use of spoken word, political sloganeering), past elements were simply taken to the extreme. Dexys had never been a straight pop band; in fact they had always defined themselves against the prevailing pop climate in both image and sound. "Come On Eileen" may have been a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, but there was and still is something of a novelty record about it; not in the sense of a silly cash-in record, but in the way its brazen traditionalism stood out against the "new pop" dominating the charts at the time. With Searching and Too-Rye-Ay, Dexys were bona fide pop stars, but it was on their uncompromising terms rather than any conformity to the prevailing sound. Don't Stand Me Down was uncompromising in the same way, but this time, the pop charts didn't rush to embrace the new incarnation, something that still surprises Rowland 27 years on: "Yeah... it bothered me. I thought it was a really great album and I thought the look was great and I still do. All I was doing was just following my intuition, which is what I always do" (source: BBC's The Culture Show, broadcast on March 16th, 2012, seen in video below).

His comments reflect the criticism levelled at the album by some reviewers at the band for its new image of "Ivy League" suits and ties (inspired by the mod scene but scorned as looking like the clothing of a "double-glazing salesman," with Simon Reynolds later describing the band as "looking for all the world like investment bankers in a photo for a corporate prospectus") and for the album itself, characterised by Trouser Press as "a torpid snore that denies entertainment on every level. With titles like "Knowledge of Beauty" and "Reminisce Part Two," the seven lengthy songs with absurd lyrics aim for a literate Van Morrison-like looseness, but end up just falling asleep or apart." In the NME, Sean O'Hagan questioned what exactly Rowland was intending to achieve. Noting a sense of "a certain inspirational bankruptcy" in the band, he wondered why Rowland had pushed his message to the fore: "Throughout the minefield of buried clues and arid word play, there is a musical backdrop which manages to flow along in desperate sympathy with the lyrical indulgence." O'Hagan ended the review by noting the ambition behind the record, but questioning what exactly this passion was in aid of: "Still raving, still raging, he has tied himself, and this exhausted listener, in knots. I'm not even sure if they're worth unravelling and therein lies the problem."

More importantly, Rowland's refusal to release a single sank the album commercially (Don't Stand Me Down reached a peak of 22 in the UK album charts, twenty spots lower than Too-Rye-Ay). and ultimately removed the band from the public consciousness, leaving a record of bold statements unlikely to be heard by the general music fan who took their cue from the radio and Top 40 charts. When an edited single version of "This Is What She's Like" was eventually released, it reached a disastrous #78 in the charts.

Dexys quickly went into freefall. After a brief return to the Top 20 with 1986's "Because of You," the project went into stasis. In 1988, Rowland released The Wanderer, a conventional sounding solo record, before disappearing from the music business. Following bankruptcy and a cocaine addiction, he found himself living a nomadic existence (though he refutes the rumour that he was ever actually homeless). In 1999, he released a cover album, composed of songs he felt had helped him through his addiction. The album, My Beauty, became infamous due to its cover art (Rowland in drag) and a poorly-received festival appearance in the same garb the bizarre and beautiful music within was all but ignored.

Several attempts were made at reforming Dexys before the release of this year's One Day I'm Going To Soar - 17 years after the release of Don't Stand Me Down. "Midnight Runners" has been dropped from the name, ostensibly because it no longer fits the contemporary mood. One Day I'm Going To Soar reflects the "intense emotions" that have always driven Rowland, albeit with a more humorous touch. The songs cover the whole gamut of classic Dexys topics: self-doubt, ambiguous feelings on love and Rowland's confused national identity. Musically, the album carries on from DSMD in its combination of folky strings and soul music. To this familiar sound, Rowland has amped up the campiness, with some songs sounding like pieces of musical theatre; indeed, it almost works as a rock opera, with the "dialogue" elements of DSMD integrated into the overall sound. The recruitment of Madeleine Hyland as a vocalist adds to the conversational model, with the most enjoyable tracks revelling in vocal interplay carried on from, but different in tone from the 1985 model. One Day I'm Going to Soar has a bit more light than DSMD, but Rowland remains the same, ambiguous about love and unsure about himself.

The greatness of "bands-with-a-purpose" is embodied in Dexys Midnight Runners, and particularly in DSMD. The shortfalls, commercial disaster and artistic decline, can be forgotten in one spin of the album. Abstract values like integrity, intensity and passion were always a focus of Dexys (one early tour was titled "The Projected Passion Revue") and such ideas are often dismissed in the music press for their vagueness, or lack of connection to reality. DSMD is those values translated into one album without a scrap of irony. As for being out of touch with reality, this is a record based firmly on the ground, a harsh response to the harsh circumstances in which it was made. Scornful of compromise in form and content, its critical recovery is an encouraging development. Today, otherworldly concepts like "the market" dictate the fates of billions of people, and the continuing crisis of capitalism should spawn responses in the artistic world. This is not to look down on bands that lack "social realism," but an album like DSMD composed of both anxiety and fiery denunciation - would be a fitting reflection of the world as it is now.

More than social issues, however, it is the album's confessional basis that listeners fasten on to. As part of a celebratory piece on Dexys, Everett True once confessed: "I cannot write about Dexys' third album even now: it is too special to me, too moving. Every time I hear it, I still have a tear in my eye." For an album once so neglected, its ability to provoke such responses continues unabated. That's the best thing about albums like Don't Stand Me Down: despite changing circumstances, styles or decades, any work that delves into emotional extremes with such unflinching honesty remains forever relevant.

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