You’ll have noticed a mild internet buzz these last few months about the re-emergence of a 1980s institution, the drip-feed renaissance of a Black Country visionary. That Wolverhampton wizard is Kevin Rowland, and if you’re not old enough to say ‘Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)’ was the first single you bought (that’s me), you might wonder why men and women of a certain age and certain penchant for a contrary yelping soulboy are getting so het up about live dates, a new album – ‘One Day I’m Going To Soar’, their first for 27 years – and two minutes of opening track ‘Now’ on YouTube. Well, here are five reasons.
Well, you know the kind of people who put creases in their old Levis? Dexys were totally different in every way. Back when they were Midnight Runners too, Rowland took their image (and everything else, let’s face it) terribly seriously, choosing a particular look for each incarnation of the band – and there were plenty of incarnations. So, when they appeared on the scene in 1980 Dexys were all Mean Streets chic in donkey jackets and snug dockers’ hats. A year on, the albumless Mk II rocked the secondary school PE look with ball-hugging shorts, trim t-shirts and appalling ponytails. The ascetic weirdness of it all was enough to make you grow your hair out, give up shaving and sport a ratty pair of dungarees. Oddly, that’s just what Dexys did to million-selling acclaim in 1982 before reacting again and returning in 1985 as sharp-suited Ivy League precipitators of the Wall Street Crash. They bowed out in 1986, with Rowland taking to the Top Of The Pops stage for ‘Because Of You’ dressed as some kind of circus spiv.
After that – notwithstanding Rowland’s solo albums as, respectively, yet another spiv and a cross-dressing mainstay of your future nightmares – Dexys only snuck out twice more; once in 1993 on Jonathan Ross’s Saturday Zoo as Rowland debuted an alarming pair of suede cowboy chaps and a Kirk Hammett “do”, and a decade later for some awesome live dates with Rowland working the Kilburn Al Capone. What next? The publicity shots suggest Dexys are taking tips from Curtis Mayfield. Superfly as per.
There’s always a side to Dexys – whether encouraging peak physical fitness or proving the sartorial benefits of pairing a Tam O’Shanter with a collar-tickling mullet – and there’s usually a bit of literature to match. Back in 1980, this meant buying up space in the music press to “express themselves” when journalists failed them. “We came together as people because we had a lot in common,” one Record Mirror ‘advert’ declared in August 1980. “Frustration, intense emotion, confusion, but most of all a new soul vision.” The manifesto even took a moment to plead for calm at their gigs – “Please try and understand that soul can’t exist amid rowdy celebrations in the way that rock and roll can.” So what’s the big idea this time? ‘One Day I’m Going To Soar’ suggests unfulfilled ambition. They’re still searching for something then.
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It’s possible Rowland has mellowed over the years and is no longer prone to James Brownian displays of musician torture, but if he’s anything like as clear-eyed as he was in the 80s then you can be sure original members Pete Williams, Big Jim Paterson and (former Style Councillor) Mick Talbot are being put through their paces once again. Pity Talbot. No sooner did he escape Captain Kev and his madcap schemes than he found himself having his ear stroked by Paul Weller in The Style Council’s ‘Long Hot Summer’ video. He knows an unpredictable frontman when he sees one and understands when to sidle off quietly. Rowland’s probably a bit old now to insist everyone dodges the fare on the train, but don’t put it past him to run off with the album master tapes sometime between now and June. EMI are still reeling from that stunt 32 years ago. And other stuff, I suppose.
Rowland has sinned. Quite apart from jumping trains, he’s admitted to nabbing the Too-Rye-Ay fiddle-dee-dee sound from former colleague Kevin ‘Al’ Archer’s Blue Ox Babes (before improving on it, to be fair) and when Creation re-released 1985’s ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ in 1996 he used the sleevenotes for a full-blown confessional. “I’m amazed and quite embarrassed at my arrogance when I hear this,” he wrote of ‘One Of Those Things’. “I stole the riff totally from Warren Zevon’s ‘Werewolves Of London’ after hearing it on the radio.” He also found time to give a belated credit to Steve Wynn on ‘My National Pride’, “unfairly” omitted originally. This time around expect Kev to beg forgiveness for inspiring Frankie And The Heartstrings.
Of course, the music. From Northern Soul to Celtic Soul to the projected passion of a blend of the two, Dexys (Midnight Runners) were always mavericks, apart from the herd, but brilliant enough to bag two No.1 singles whatever the prevailing wind. No one’s expecting them to enjoy the same chart impact now – but what a fresh breeze it would be. The new tracks beginning to surface show considerable promise. Two minutes of ‘Now’ on YouTube switch from reflective to propulsive and sneak previewed songs ‘Lost’ and ‘Nowhere Is Home’ showcase first confessional Kev and then Stax-groove-fuelled Kev. Each song sounds meaty and – as ever – like they mean it. One day they’re going to soar? Maybe today.