Friday 20 October 2017

Music: The Young Soul Rebel who grew up

Irish Blood, English Heart: Kevin Rowland (centre) of Dexys Midnight Runners.
Irish Blood, English Heart: Kevin Rowland (centre) of Dexys Midnight Runners.
John Meagher

John Meagher

Irish Blood English Heart is, of course, the title of a Morrissey song. It is also the name of an unashamedly academic and highly engaging book by Sean Campbell - subtitled Second Generation Irish Musicians in England - that was published a few years ago.

Media studies lecturer Campbell - who is himself an Englishman of Irish parentage - focused on the three of the most significant English bands of the 1980s who all felt a very strong connection with Ireland through family: the Smiths, the Pogues and Dexys Midnight Runners. The first two have been so mythologised and their backgrounds dissected so thoroughly that there isn't much new left to be said, although Campbell, to be fair, tells their stories compellingly.

But the book really is worth the purchase for the Dexys stuff, in particular the demons that drove a young Kevin Rowland, the band's hyper-literate frontman who is in the news again thanks to a new Dexys album.

Today, with Irish people of all hues moving to Britain and making a often making a fine life for themselves there, it's easy to forget that up to comparatively recently, we were seen as pariahs by many on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Emigrants forced out of Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s often endured horrendous racism, something also experienced by many of the second-generation Irish, too. It was, let's not forget, an era when the IRA terrorised Britain and ordinary Irish men and women with no links to the violence suffered the brunt of the abuse.

Think of the huge sales of Paddy jokes books and the enormous popularity of 'comedians' like Bernard Manning, whose hackneyed routine was largely built around hatred of the Irish. It was a time, too, for a great deal of anti-Irish bigotry in the media, as typified by the words of columnist Julie Burchill. In such a climate, one wouldn't have blamed the offspring of Irish parents from accentuating their Britishness - and many did.

Yet, Rowland, born in Wolverhampton, and with a strong Black Country accent, refused to put his head below the parapet. Dexys Midnight Runners' debut single, 'Dance Stance' (later re-recorded as 'Burn it Down'), was written to refute an insidious notion, all too common in the UK of the 1970s, that being Irish and 'thick' were one and the same.

In the song, Rowland name-checks several celebrated Irish authors - among them George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Brendan Behan - and then urges the (UK) listener to "shut your f***ing mouth 'til you know the truth". It's the opening track on their extraordinary 1980 debut album In Search of the Young Soul Rebels, and it was a statement of intent that marked Rowland out as a spectacular new talent.

The album's success was greatly helped by 'Geno', a UK number one, whose sound and lyrics harked back to the Northern Soul movement that swept British culture in the late 1960s. The song itself was a (slightly jaundiced) tribute to the American soul singer Gino Washington, who had been one of the big stars of the scene.

The album's cover offered a sense of the injustices Irish people endured - for those who bothered to investigate. The photo, bathed in a green tint, shows a 13-year-old Catholic boy clutching his belongings in a Belfast street: his family had been made homeless following a sectarian attack.

Rowland took such pride in his Irishness that he once physically attacked a journalist who questioned his ethnicity. He also talked about meeting with Sinn Féin representatives in the early 1980s - an era where party members were considered such pariahs that they were subjected to a broadcasting ban both here and in the UK. And, yet, he never made disparaging remarks about the country of his birth.

Campbell suggests that musicians like Rowland were fired by a sense of duality. And, he argues, their creativity was heightened by a feeling of not being fully Irish or English - but rather a state of limbo in between.

Now, Rowland has returned with his band's fifth album, Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul. It's the second Dexys album in three years, following their reforming after the lengthy hiatus that came in the wake of the commercial failure of 1985's Don't Stand Me Down.

As the title hints, this is an album, in part, that sees Rowland reinterpreting traditional Irish standards. His take on 'Carrickfergus' lays the emotion on strong, although some will feel that it's typical of the album's dip into melodrama and sentimentality.

"They're not sentimental to me," he told the London-based, Irish-born arts critic Sean O'Hagan last week. "I'm the son of a builder. I'm not the son of an intellectual, and the kind of people who find songs like these sentimental are usually intellectual types, people who aren't in touch with themselves. I first heard those songs sung by my uncles and aunts, unaccompanied, and they sang them beautifully and I responded to them in a purely intuitive way. To me, they're just beautiful songs and I sang them as best I could."

Rowland wanted to make this album for years and toyed with following up the massive-selling Too Ay-Ray [which featured the chart-topping 'Come On Eileen'] with such a covers collection.

"I was going to Mayo a lot back then, getting into roots a lot," he told O'Hagan. "I was exploring Irish culture and going to Derry and Belfast to try to understand what was going on there, too. My idea then was to do a whole album called Irish but, as time went on, I just thought I'd really like to do 'You Wear It Well' and 'Both Sides Now'."

The former, a Rob Stewart song, and the latter, one of Joni Mitchell's best-loved compositions, sound especially fine in Rowland's hands. He's still got it, you know.

Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul will be released on Friday

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