Dexys make the comeback of the year
Kevin Rowland brings back a fresh line-up of his legendary band, Dexys Midnight Runners, after a 27-year break.
It’s already being called the comeback of the year. Kevin Rowland – the infamously intense frontman of early-Eighties pop – has convened a fresh line-up of his legendary band, Dexys Midnight Runners, after a 27-year break.
He has chosen to return, not with the customary greatest-hits tour, but with a new album, called One Day I’m Going to Soar, which incorporates the best elements of their three landmark albums from all those years ago.
This month, Rowland, ever the challenging artist, chose to unveil this new work in full at four shows across the UK. Dexys — the name trimmed to reflect the passing of time — received a standing ovation every night, and rightly so. Presented theatrically, with stagy dialogue between Rowland, Pete Williams, his long-serving foil, and a recently hired actress called Madeleine Hyland, the new songs were threaded into a narrative, which is by turns profound, hilarious, and heart-wrenchingly sad.
In the brass, strings and effortlessly groovy drumming inspired by soul music’s golden age, there are echoes of Dexys Midnight Runners’s debut album from 1980, “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels”. In a sequence of five songs midway through, in which Rowland lusts after Hyland’s character, there are shades, too, of their biggest hit, 1982’s “Come On Eileen” — although, now, Rowland ends up dumping his object of desire, claiming to be “incapable of love”.
The conversational approach also harks back to 1985’s album “Don’t Stand Me Down”, which, after a tortuous genesis, flopped drastically, leaving Rowland to spiral downwards into an unsuccessful solo career, and financial ruin. For his last album in 1999, “My Beauty”, Rowland’s look — and every time he has arrived back with a striking new image — was an eyebrow-raising assemblage of dress, posing pouch and lipstick.
At that point, many believed he’d finally gone nuts, but, when I meet him in a café in East London, he is charm personified, if often possessed of a zealot’s passion. Part of Rowland’s appeal has always been that he takes his work seriously, to an almost ludicrous degree. Out of that palpitating earnestness has arisen, at best, music of astonishing, defiant power.
“If you’d asked me, I always would’ve said I was doing a Dexys album — certainly for the last nine or ten years,” he says, with a hint of a smile, as if to suggest that he’s aware how preposterous it is to spend that long making 57 minutes of pop music.
There’s a real sense that “One Day I’m Going to Soar” is the summation of Rowland’s whole existential journey so far.
His trials began early in life. By the time he’d started the band in Birmingham in 1979, aged 26, he’d got involved in petty crime, and would carry a suspended sentence right the way through his early success.
“I wanted to prove myself with Dexys,” he says, “prove that I could be something — that I wasn’t a no-hoper. But you’ve got to be quite solid emotionally to survive in the music business, as a singer, and I wasn’t. I don’t react very well when I’m under pressure. I was very driven — too driven, too determined.”
Rowland famously ruled his various band line-ups like a dictator, and would harangue audiences who nattered during his gigs. Did he hate being famous? “Yes, and by “Don’t Stand Me Down”, I was burnt out. I just didn’t feel I really had any more to give.”
So he retreated from the edge, cut a lightweight pop album in 1988, and promptly disappeared — only to emerge 11 years later, with “My Beauty”, a solo album of cover versions. In between times, he’d got into drugs on the acid house scene and, short of money, he was squatting in Willesden.
“At that stage, I wanted to change my past. I was trying to get away from Dexys. I wished that I’d never done anything in the Eighties. I would’ve liked a clean slate.”
A start nearly came at the end of the Nineties with Alan McGee at Creation Records, who encouraged Rowland’s solo work, but was scuppered when the label dissolved.
“We were about to make a Dexys record, but then Creation went down, and after that whole experience, I was like, let’s leave it. Whenever I tried to do anything, it never worked”.
A carrot was soon dangled in front of him, he says, when he was invited onto an Eighties revival package tour called “Here & Now”. “I went to see a show at Brighton Centre. I looked around, and I just knew it would’ve been so painful to do it, it would’ve hurt me deeply. It would be like admitting that all hope of a creative future is over. You know, if it’s just about money, why don’t I go and work in an estate agent’s.”
Having navigated past that pitfall, he found things slowly starting to fall into place. He started working with Mick Talbot, best known as Paul Weller’s sidekick in the Style Council. He enlisted another old soldier, “Big” Jim Paterson, the trombone player, whose brash playing led the charge on Dexys memorable first hit, “Geno”, but who had since been storing his instrument in the attic, providing a nesting place for a flock of pigeons.
Rowland got back to match fitness with a voice trainer in Brentford named Kim Chandler, who would end up escorting her nervous client to the album’s first recording sessions.
Rowland was clearly building a support network around himself, ready for the big plunge, but he says that he first really faced up to the task two years ago on a health retreat in India.
“It was this ayurvedic place, not a Western pampering thing — hardcore! ‘Basic’ doesn’t adequately describe it. You just had a tiny bed, and a bucket. I had five weeks sitting in this garden, no phone, no internet — so, whatever you’re running from, you have to face it. And I was like, you know what, I really want to make this record.”
From there, he and his team put together the 11 songs on “One Day I’m Going to Soar” The album’s narrative, he says, should be taken as fiction, but appears inseparable from his own life. In the dialogue, he seems to be revealing so much: about the transience of success, his unflagging sexual appetites (during our conversation, he certainly displays a roving eye), his quest for an open relationship, and, as he approaches 60, his solitary life.
There is, indeed, a keen strand of humour about Rowland, which often goes undocumented. When I suggest that his lines remind me of Harold Pinter, he points instead to the 1962 novelty hit by Mike Sarne, called “Come Outside”, which features Wendy Richard, the late EastEnders actress singing comic cockney ripostes such as “You do keep on!” and “Oh, give over!”.
He concludes, though, in all seriousness: “My creativity is pretty sacred to me. It all comes from that pure place within me, or outside of me, or wherever it is — I don’t know where it comes from. It’s not my mind, it’s somewhere else, otherwise I’d be making albums every year!”
There’s that hint of a smile again, before a fully fledged, quietly satisfied grin takes over. “I’m lucky to be inspired lately.”