At the end of the 1970s, as punk faded, there were various British bands keen to pay tribute to a musical past. Each paying tribute to the 1960s in their own way, the 2-Tone label gave birth to a second wave of ska music, while The Jam, Dr Feelgood and various other bands paid homage to rhythm & blues and mod scenes. Often gaining fewer accolades, Birmingham’s Dexys Midnight Runners were heavily influenced by soul – particularly of the horn-based variety, as championed by the legendary Stax label. Their first album ‘Searching for the Young Soul Rebels’ captures the original line-up of the band in fabulous form; with plenty of ego and so much to prove.
The album is housed in a sleeve featuring a monochrome photograph of a young boy with his belongings on a Belfast street during the sectarian clearances of 1969. This is not the only time the album pays homage to frontman Kevin Rowland’s Irish heritage: the choruses of the opening track ‘Burn It Down’ (released as a single earlier in a different version, titled ‘Dance Stance’) name-checks various Irish writers. The track’s music may recall sixties soul, but the over-riding vibe is of something much angrier. By the time Rowland orders “shut your fucking mouth till you know the truth” at the end of the second verse, it’s clear that this isn’t always going to be an easy ride. The band, meanwhile, are very tight: while the horns of Big Jim Patterson, Steve Spooner and Geoff Blythe are often the dominant force, Pete Williams’s bass work is punchy and Andy Growcott’s mid-paced drum work does a great job in keeping everything together. ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’ sticks to a similar musical blueprint, but is vocally rather more striking, with Rowland’s distinctive wail drifting into falsetto, while more than ably accompanied by Al Archer adding a second voice. While it doesn’t have the instant punch of ‘Burn It Down’, the band sound confident – Growcott’s drum fills are far more interesting a trombone solo (courtesy of Patterson) is suitably busy.
Driven by Growcott’s drums, ‘Thankfully Not Living In Yorkshire It Doesn’t Apply’ is a breezy workout showcasing a band who’ve honed their skills to perfection. With a tinkling organ very high in the mix on the right hand side and punchy bass, the band bristle their way through three minutes without stopping for breath. While musically it’s a top offering, vocally it’s rather off-kilter, since Rowland tackles most of the number in falsetto. When combined with his favoured affectations, this makes most of the lyrics inaudible. However odd it may appear, his yelping during the chorus sections is somehow rather pleasing, albeit in a perverse way. Written by Kevin Rowland with Geoffrey Blyth and Peter Saunders, ‘I’m Just Looking’ really captures the pain in those old James Brown soul ballads of the early 60s, Rowland ringing every note out of his love it/hate it voice, sounding close to breaking point in places. While it’s a very vocal driven performance, Saunders’s organ drones add to the melancholy air and the horns more than pull their weight, really punching for emphasis wherever required. A similar styled number ‘I Couldn’t Help It If I Tried’ features great performances from everyone involved, but doesn’t work quite as well. Rowland hammers a few of his lines into submission in a manner which occasionally irritates on record, but it’s easy to imagine this could have proved very effective in a live setting.
With regard to the cover of the Chuck Woods number ‘Seven Days Too Long’, Rowland tries his utmost to give the performance a frantic edginess and in places, more than succeeds. As you may expect, the musical delivery is faultless, with the band capturing the energy and spirit of Northern Soul. Their love for the music really shines through. In comparison, ‘Geno’ (a number one hit and certainly the album’s best known number), appears a little slow. Written in tribute to Geno Washington (a man whom Blythe had previously played as sideman), it’s slower pace is possibly better suited to Rowland’s vocal style. Its striking horn motif is likely to wedge itself inside your head after listening, but the vocal arrangements are also spot on, with a call and response between Kevin and Al Archer during the choruses and some well-placed harmonies lurking elsewhere (Rowland almost drowns these out, mind).
Similarly, the album’s other hit, ‘There There My Dear’ makes fantastic use of a horn riff, although it has a much bouncier arrangement overall (one which nods towards Dexys’ future). Lyrically, it’s fabulous: structured as an open letter to “Robin”, Rowland spouts anger and rallies against the bands who name-check philosophers and radical thinkers. The lyric is fudged to extreme levels to make something technically un-lyrical fit the frame of an otherwise accessible soul/pop number, but the fact that Rowland even dared to make this work at all is testament to his often misunderstood genius. The spite and bile here is on a par with ‘Burn It Down’, although the technical brilliance of the one-two punch between music and lyric makes it the better number. The fact that Rowland is able to take such phrases such as as “keep quoting Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs, JG Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir, Kerouac, Kirkegaard, Michael Rennie” and “Perhaps I’d listen to your records but your logic’s far too lame and I’d only waste three valuable minutes of my life with your insincerity” and then make them work within the confines of a hit single should be applauded. Here’s a thought: if bands with pretentions angered him so much back in 1980, one wonders how angry the Manic Street Preachers would make him in the 90s and beyond? Once again, there’s plenty of musical gusto – so much, that perhaps ‘There There My Dear’ deserves to be as well known as ‘Geno’. During ‘Keep It’ Rowland doesn’t quite achieve a pained soulful performance, but his style more than hits the mark here; his emotionally charged shriek counterbalanced in places by softer backing vocals. There’s no chorus here to speak of; we are reliant on musical hooks for big thrills and with a horn sound befitting of Eddie Floyd, of Otis. This is the sound of a band hitting a smooth groove – bringing the 60s into the 1980s as authentically as possible – and succeeding on almost every level.
Aside from the really great material, ‘Soul Rebels’ contains a couple of obvious fillers. The instrumental number ‘The Teams That Meet In Caffs’ gives the horn section time to stretch out, although it’s general tone is rather melancholy; rather than a traditional Stax style workout, there’s something about it which, in places, has the air of a Bill Conti arrangement. Below the horns, the organ work adds various florushes, while the whole thing is held together by the solid rhythm section. During the number’s close, Steve Spooner breaks into an accomplished sax solo, which after a few jarring notes to wake the listener at the start adds a much needed sense of energy. ‘Love Part 1 (Poem)’ borders on self-indulgence, as Rowland spits a short but angry poem over some jazz saxophone work. As a standalone piece, there’s very little need for it here.
The album was a success, peaking at #6 in the UK chart, but the future for the band was decidedly wobbly. Finding Rowland increasingly difficult to work with (among other things, he’d forbidden Dexys to give any kind of interviews to the press), most of the band quit. Rowland gathered together a new bunch of musicians and with them, a new image – they donned hooded tops and boxing boots – Rowland himself appearing with slicked-down hair and a Terry-Thomas moustache. This second line-up never managed to record a full album together, but during 1981, they released an excellent single (‘Plan B’), recorded a session for BBC Radio 1 and played critically acclaimed live shows. [This transitional year is documented on the archive release ‘The Projected Passion Revue’].
By the end of the year the band were augmented by a folk influenced trio The Emerald Express. Their input steered Dexys away from the edgy soul influenced music of their past and further towards a hybrid of folk-pop and soul music. This would herald a new era for the band – one which is undoubtedly their most fondly remembered…
Dexys Midnight Runners have never really had the credit they deserve for their music. This is something which, possibly, has not been helped by Rowland’s inability to be content: constant changes in line-up, image and sound over the course of five years meant that the band never had time to settle into one identity. The soul boys were traded in for rag-tag gypsies, which clearly didn’t always please Rowland either. That line-up, while successful, only recorded one album and by the time Dexys returned with their third disc in 1985, the band and image was almost unrecognisable yet again. While Kevin Rowland’s constant striving for perfection constantly pushed the band forward, it was ultimately their undoing.
If you’re unfamiliar with Dexys beyond a couple of hit singles and only associate them with being dungaree-wearing ragamuffins dancing outside corner shops, then you must check out ‘Searching For The Young Soul Rebels’. If you like things with an angry stance and retro nature, you’ll almost certainly get pulled in by its vibrancy.
[In 2010, ‘Searching For The Young Soul Rebels’ was reissued as a deluxe 2CD set, featuring a bonus disc of period rarities and radio sessions]
December 2010/September 2011