There’s a scene in Be Sharps episode of The Simpsons where Homer and the guys receive a Grammy. While being congratulated by the rest of the Simpsons on the phone a toddling Lisa notes that the Be Sharps beat out Dexy’s Midnight Runners for Outstanding Soul, Spoken Word, or Barbershop Album of the Year. Homer replies: “Well, you haven’t heard the last of them.”
It’s a good joke at the expense of Dexy’s because, except for the ubiquity of ‘Come on Eileen’ on eighties compilations, Americans could be forgiven for thinking Dexy’s Midnight Runners were nothing more than another novelty one hit wonder. But it would be terribly unkind to think this. Obviously they were a long way from Chic or Donna Summer but if the rustle of reeds and the strangled croon of Kevin Rowland don’t sound much like Stax or Mowtown or Philadelphia International it doesn’t matter because there is so much heart in the songs that even if it isn’t soul, it believes it is.
I have a large, and growing, soft spot for Dexy’s. To my mind there weren’t many better albums than Searching for Young Soul Rebels on either side of the Atlantic during the eighties. It’s cramped and fussy and sounds as if everyone at the pub is in the studio but I think this is its great charm. When the chant starts up in the intro to ‘Geno’ I get a little goosebumpy, it’s a gesture aimed at including us in the crowd, in the act of homage and respect. Searching for Young Soul Rebels is full of these gestures, thoughtful and wry, just bursting with love for music and manic with its own cleverness.
It’s not an album that has much comfort though, indeed one critic wrote that the album had “no tenderness, no sex, no wit, no laughter” and that’s pretty much on the money. It’s an album about unrest, disturbance, and resentment. Those qualities align pretty effectively with a sense of soul being a music of resistance and solidarity, not so much about being sexy and hot on the dance floor. And because of, rather than despite, this Searching for Young Soul Rebels has a wonderful wan intensity.
The other two Dexy’s albums, 1982’s Too-Rye-Ay and 1985’s Don’t Stand Me Down, aren’t like this at all. “Come on Eileen” represents a strange amalgam of gypsy-ish, dungaree wearing, Steinbeck-on-the-Lagan tones and the rest of Too-Rye-Ay is just as straightforward. The folky thing was never quite ironic but it feels like a space is preserved for that, they just never got around to filling it in.
Looking back it can be hard to figure out how it worked at all but it does, it is a dark novelette of brash and awkward figures attempting to find safety, and a hope for comfort. It would be fair to say that, “Come on Eileen” aside, it hasn’t aged all that well, perhaps because it’s a lot poppier.
Don’t Stand Me Down is more so but also sharper, its covering of suits and swoon is simply a critique of the self same. It looks and sounds a good deal more produced than the other two and sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. Like it smooth and melted chocolate rich? Like it with a touch of fantasy and fanaticism? Like both? If the answer is a nervous maybe then you’re right because there are moments when Kevin Rowland’s genius seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but then there are moments when you think he’s an unintelligible nutter.
After that the Dexy’s were no more, with Kevin Rowland releasing some regrettable solo works. But now, after all these years, I am informed that not only have we not heard the last of Dexy’s Midnight Runners but a new album will be released in June, in just a few days in fact.
I can’t wait.