Dexy’s Midnight Runners - Don’t Stand Me Down
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Out of all the records that feel special to me, to which I feel close, this is the most difficult to recommend. Not because it’s an acquired taste so much as an original voice, a blind leap from the height of fame into the unknown. It’s a difficult record because of its directness, jarring honesty, and shifts from monologues to proper songs. It’s difficult because it’s an unconfident yet brave attempt to reconcile memories and articulate a man’s identity. It’s difficult because it’s a courageous follow-up to a globe-straddling single.
The prophecy of “Come on Eileen”—“I’m going to hum this song forever more”—has, of course, come true. That single—recently selected as the No. 3 one-hit wonder of all-time in VH1’s refreshingly tasteful countdown—virtually swallowed a group that never desired fame. Not that the song doesn’t deserve all of the praise it gets—whether as one-hit wonder (it’s a fiddle-led jaunt that romanticizes a pre-Elvis crooner!) or the Proper Hit of one of post-punk’s greatest bands (it’s a brilliant ode to the hope and the invincibility of youth!).
In the UK, “Come on Eileen” wasn’t the band’s first hit—both the Northern Soul love letter “Geno” and “There, There My Dear,” a vitriolic open letter to a heartless hipster in which Kevin Rowland’s passion overtakes his ability to enunciate—hit the top 10. But “Eileen” spent four weeks at the top of the charts and was the biggest-selling UK single of 1982. More impressively, it reached the top of the Billboard charts as well. Rowland wasn’t pleased with or prepared for the pressure. For a man who approached the band with regimental fanaticism—banning booze and even creating a sort of, erm, Dexy’s boot camp, complete with early-morning runs, so that nothing interfered with its music—this was beyond his micro management.
So when Rowland pulled a third change of image and musical directions in as many albums, the stakes and consequences had changed. Over the course of those three albums, Dexy’s went from playing horn-driven soul and looking like longshoreman (Searching for the Young Soul Rebels) to Celtic music, dungarees, and facial hair (Too-Rye-Ay) to a Brooks Brothers/Ivy League motif and heartfelt ballads (Don’t Stand Me Down). Incredibly, it was the final image that was the most incendiary. Rowland fancied himself a new Mod but in the Thatcher years that sort of Wall Street/yuppie look was derisive. When Rowland adopted the image of laborers, of the “common” man, he was hailed; adopting an image of success—particularly after he himself enjoyed so much of it—was considered pretentious.
Even a cursory listen to the music inside the sleeve, however, should have put to rest any of those fears. Inside the album’s brow-furrowing sleeve is a peculiar collection of songs. At its most reductionst, Don’t Stand Me Down is 40-plus minutes of heartfelt and heartbreaking soul ballads. That sounds straightforward enough, yet this is a challenging record, a probing exploration in to the recesses of Rowland’s soul and mind.
Most difficult music is sonically challenging and, to the less adventurous, unlistenable or impenetrable. It’s typically the unusual musical arrangement that gets an album the “difficult” tag, but this record is part-soul, part-crooner—it’s almost lilting, airy. Instead, it’s a challenging record because it confronts the expectations of pop music. Most “difficult” music is avant-garde, it announces itself as a challenge. The follow-up to “Come On Eileen” really wasn’t expected to feature tracks that veered off into conversations between the singer and his bandmates. And when they do stay on topic, more often that not they’re almost painfully personal monologues, and in those cases it’s the honesty that is so bare that it’s challenging.In a way then, despite always speaking his mind and kicking against the pricks, by revealing more of himself Rowland goes from being an eccentric outsider to a true individual. It’s a theme repeated on each of their albums with increasing lucidity and a more tangible pain. Always an angry young man, what gets his (groan) Irish up this time is a renewed interest in his national identity and the knee-jerk hollowness of the upper-class leftists to which this open-minded nouveau riche with which this pop star should have been palling around.
The anti-hipsterism of “There, There My Dear” (“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”) is revisited on both the album’s weakest track, “One of These Things” and its best, the 12-minute masterpiece “This Is What She’s Like.”
The former is a Warren Zevon-copying tune that skewers the far-sighted socialists whom Rowland thinks should be incensed with England’s early-1980s treatment of Ireland rather than wallowing in the distant comfort of being sanctimonious about “Cuba and the PLO and Afghanistan.” (He also compares their sheep mentality to a Radio One playlist.)
The latter is as indescribable as the titular woman. The song begins with a two-minute conversation between Rowland and paranoid guitarist Billy who has just entered the room and is convinced that people were talking about him, before deciding that they were actually discussing the singer’s new love interest. That’s an inverse of the shock of the album’s first track, “The Occasional Flicker,” which after beginning as a passionate plea (“Compromise is the devil talking”) inexplicably starts into a jaunty conversation between Rowland and one of his band mates.
Billy prods him into explaining “what she’s like” and over heart-tugging strings and horns, he attempts to do so in a few different approaches—most of them by defining precisely what she is not like. This gives Rowland a chance to spit out a few more attacks on “the scum from Notting Hill and Moseley they call the CND.” Rowland goes on a lyrical white riot succinctly labeling these “newly wealthy peasants with...home bars and hi-fis...who parade all their possessions and put fabulous and super in each sentence” “scumbags.”
When it comes time to describe all of the good embodied in this girl, however, he tragically stumbles. Derailed by those “scumbags,” the best Rowland can do to explain “what she’s like” is let the music and his wordless voice do the talking (at one point, he breaks into chest-beating bombast) or claim ignorance. (“I think the Italians have a word for it,” he eventually guesses).
This lack of confidence with his words of praise and love is alluded to in the song’s conversations. Perhaps aware of the disarming nature of honesty, Rowland repeatedly asks permission or prepares the listener by announcing his intention to speak his mind and heart (“May I be clear on this point?” “Can I reminisce?” “Let me put it another way”).
This lack of confidence with his honesty is also evident in his reluctance to even give some songs the titles he hoped. In the 1997 re-release (on Creation) and this year’s re-release that has been rectified. The love letter to his Irish heritage once known as “Knowledge of Beauty“ is now “My National Pride,” a title Rowland once felt would get him lambasted in the media as a cultural tourist. Another track—the should-have-been single—“Listen to This” is now the simple “I Love You (Listen to This).”Rowland’s failure to give that second song its intended title is particularly revealing, because it’s about the inability to adequately express love. In its own quiet way, it’s also a jumping-off point—or at least a parallel—for most of the album’s key themes. “I was thinking of a compromise / When I saw the beauty in your eyes” it begins, a clear reference to “The Occasional Flicker” highlighting his faith in finding comfort in others. On one track, “Reminisce, Pt. 1,” Rowland—torn about his Irish heritage—goes searching for its spirit in the pubs of Dublin. On “Reminisce, Pt. 2” he touchingly recall his original feelings of love and he and his first girlfriend’s attempts to choose “their song.” (“It’s never really acknowledged, but she won” Rowland claims of her choice, “I’ll Say Forever My Love” by David Ruffin. Naturally, they don’t and he breaks up with her.)
All in all, many songs function as conversations with points in Rowland’s life, often the inability to express love except in hindsight—whether it’s for a woman, his homeland, or himself. When Rowland does manage to explain contemporary feelings of love, it’s only in a cover song (“The Way You Look Tonight,” which, along with “Reminisce, Pt. 1” is only included on the album’s second release), not in his own words. Rowland’s failure to explain what “she” or anything else is like can be blamed on erosion of confidence.
Pop songs generally don’t do this. These aren’t confessions, but confusion. Problems aren’t going to be solved. Voicing and airing these fears and attempts to sort identity is only going to confuse the matter with a group of people attempting to tell him who he is. Most confessional music admits suppressed details of a life or announces conclusions. Rowland can’t. His monologues and memories, his conversations, are more direct than truthful. He’s not speaking as an artist, not finding some abstract or metaphorical way to express himself or absolutes, but speaking as an individual. He just happens to be exploring common problems with enough uncommon wisdom that the listener can relate to these very specific moments in and about Rowland’s life.
He didn’t know who he was in the past or at the time. There wasn’t a moment of clarity, only continued confusion and a public airing of his attempts to redraw the map of his life.
Of course the album bombed—partly due to expectations, partly due to its oddities, and partly due to Rowland’s sabotage of its marketing. Dexy’s never made another album, and Rowland slipped into the twin tragedies of self-abuse and obscurity. In his career, Rowland and Dexy’s made courageous moves which endeared them to a loyal legion of fans but every step was a struggle of self-doubt and fear that eventually swallowed him whole. Dexy’s 30 or so songs may have been among the most brutally honest anyone has recorded, but the only one who was brutalized was Rowland.
But may I be clear on this point? To some, this is an inspirational record. Let me put it another way: I can’t recommend this album, I can only cherish it. Listen to this, Kevin: I love you.
By: Scott Plagenhoef
Published on: 2003-09-01