Back in ’79 in a sweaty club…. well, a youth club disco in Somerset actually, is where I first fell for the mighty sound of Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
Amazingly this May, a whopping 33 years after our first encounter, will be the only time I have seen the band live. Back in 1999 I did see Kevin Rowland, the band’s leader, performing solo material in a fetching summer dress and a pair of patent leather of Mary Janes. But it just didn’t feel right.
Dexy’s arrival came at a time of musical flux. Punk had given way to new wave. Young dandies calling themselves New Romantics were buying up the cosmetics counter at Boots and rap had just scored its first UK hit courtesy of the Sugar Hill Gang.
But, like many others, I had tuned in to a different beat – The Jam’s angular anthems, Two Tone’s irresistible mix of ska and punk and the Who’s film Quadrophenia had helped to kick start a mod revival. The heady smell of two-stroke and chrome polish hung sweetly in the air.
From amid the blur of loafers, braces, tonic suits and pork pie titfers emerged eight purposeful young men wearing donkey jackets and woolly beanie hats. Dexy’s Midnight Runners may have looked like a bunch of irate dockers but their non-nonsense anti-image showed a band serious about their music.
Dexy’s first single ‘Dance Stance’, with its gritty brassy soul and impassioned heart-rending yelps from pencil-moustached frontman Kevin Rowland, slotted the band in nicely alongside the Tamla Motown and northern soul sounds favoured by the mods. But their attitude set them apart.
For Mr Rowland was a very serious man indeed. Some would say downright grumpy. He required utter commitment from his band. Later he would make them all work out and go jogging together.
Roland insisted that each member learnt a different instrument. He refused to speak to the press and instead would take out adverts in the music magazines stating the band’s position.
In 1980, Mr Sourpuss and his band kidnapped the completed master tapes of their debut album ’Searching for the Young Soul Rebels’ in order to negotiate a better deal with their label EMI.
To the Dexy’s fan, these jinks and capers added to the myth, making Rowland seem cool, intense and above the mundane music business, the charts and the latest trends. Here was a man serious about his art. To others, Rowland was an egotistical berk. These days with hindsight, I suspect he was a bit of both.
There was a humorous side to Dexy’s too. The banter between Rowland and guitarist Billy Adams on 1985’s ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’. The band playing their single ‘Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)’, a cover of the Van Morrison tune on Top of The Pops before a photo of late, great, hippo-faced Scottish darts player Jocky Wilson.
While following Dexy’s was a pleasure, the intense nature of being in the band along with Rowland’s difficult personality meant that the line-up changed as many times as the band’s image.
Donkey jackets gave way to boxer boots and ponytails, which in turn were replaced by raggle taggle dungarees and scarves for 1982’s folky ‘Too-Rye-Ay’ album and the Ivy League suits and the slick Mad Men haircuts of ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’.
But the Dexy’s image has never been a strong point. It was easy to enjoy the pop genius of ‘Come On Eileen’ without wanting to nip to Debenhams for some dungarees. The music is another matter. It’s always been excellent, Rowland constantly striving to get the best out of himself and whoever is in his band at the time. As Rowland once said: “I OWN records that have the power to make me cry. Records to BE by or with – truly precious possessions. It is the ambition of the Midnight Runners to make records of this value…”
Rowland stuck to his quality control promise until the band split in 1986. His first solo album however, 1988’s ‘The Wanderer’, saw standards sink without a trace. To say it was poorly received was an understatement.
Plagued by financial and drug problems Roland disappeared. He and Dexy’s were sorely missed throughout the 1990s.
It was during these wilderness years that I saw Rowland up close for the first time. It was one summer at the Lambeth Country Show in Brockwell Park, south London. I was sitting cross-legged on the grass watching some band or other when I felt a presence behind me. It was Rowland, dressed in a chavvy red tracksuit. I smiled and said, “alright Kevin”. He scowled and tutted, muttered angrily and wandered off into the crowd. Ah my hero!
Things got worse. After a few failed attempts at reuniting Dexy’s Rowland surfaced in 1999 with his new solo album and a very different image. My Beauty’ was an album of cover versions such as ‘The Greatest Love of All’, Daydream Believer’, ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.
On paper, it could have been good. Dexy’s had done some fine cover versions – ‘Breaking Down The Walls of Heartache’, Jackie Wilson Said’, ‘Seven Days’ Too Long’ and ‘The Way You Look Tonight’. But it was terrible. I, like many other people, wanted it to be great. But it wasn’t. Bruce Springsteen knew it wasn’t good. The Boss refused to let Rowland include a rendition of ‘Thunder Road’ on the album.
On the cover of the album, before a pink screen, stands a defiant Rowland in make-up staring straight at the camera, a string of pearls around his neck. The crushed velvet evening dress he’s wearing has fallen from his shoulders to reveal a bare chest, his hands are pulling the bottom of the dress up to reveal stocking tops and black knickers.
Was it a brave move, a form of self-expression? Or a shrewd one guaranteed to get press coverage, to get people talking? Was it one huge joke concocted by Rowland’s lesser known hilarious alter ego? Perhaps, as Rowland admitted to the Guardian in 2003 “I was nuts”.
Whatever the reason, at the time Rowland said: “I am not dressing up as a woman … I’m wearing men’s dresses … It’s not a gay thing … It’s me as a man expressing my soft sexy side.”
To me the image, as always, mattered not. The fact that the music on ‘My Beauty’ was poor however, was a great disappointment. A showcase for the album at the Scala in King’s Cross was underwhelming. The crowds at the Reading Festival in 1999 booed and bottled Rowland as he took to the stage to sing Whitney Houston’s ’The Greatest Love of All’, wearing a white dress that opened to reveal stockings.
All that is in the past. Dexy’s reformed in 2003 dropping Midnight Runners from their name. Their fourth album, ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar’ comes out in June. These days they’re dressed in 1940s America suits and spats.
And I’ll be there at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in May to finally see Dexy’s. It has been a long wait. And there have been ups and downs along the way. Seldom has the prospect of a gig proved so exciting.
Previews of some of the songs from the new album have been promising. And, if past experience is anything to go by, Rowland must have learnt that while he is a passionate, creative talent, his clear vision and his incredible voice needs an equally talented band with them to come up with the goods. Mushy old sod.