There are three songs I particularly associate with National Service. They are Soft Cell's version of "Tainted Love", Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" and Kevin Rowland & Dexys Midnight Runners' monster hit "Come On, Eileen."
"Tainted Love" reminds me of basic training and "Come On, Eileen" reminds me of the month of October 1982 when I attended a legal officers' training course after receiving my commission as junior officers. "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" reminds me of the early days in Windhoek in 1983 where n I was stationed as military legal officer for about 13 months.
Of these three groups Soft Cell and Culture Club were new to me while I already a history with Dexy's Midnight Runners. Back in 1981, my last year at the Law Faculty of the University of Stellenbosch, the Dexy's debut album Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, was one of two albums that I listened to constantly throughout the year. In Dexy's case, it was just about daily. The other album was Elvis Costello's Get Happy and it is perhaps no coincidence that both these albums hearkened back to music from the Sixties: Stax soul and Motown pop. Although Costellos's album was great it was the kind of record I appreciated on more of an intellectual level whereas Searching For The Young Soul Rebels got me in my gut.
The Dexy's story and the narrative of the road to "Too-Rye Ay" are well known. Kevin Rowland was a control freak with interesting notions about how music should be made, how a band should conduct itself and how press and public relations should work. He hired and fired at will and searched restlessly for a new way to express his intense musical vision. Dexy's Mark I had some hit singles and then ran into a brick wall with "Plan B" and regrouped and reorganised to leave behind the donkey jackets, woolly caps and hold all's of their first look to emerge, after some turbulence, as weird ragamuffin gypsies with a Celtic sound that was intriguingly different to the soul sound with which the band had broken through.
"Come On, Eileen" was all over the radio in South Africa and even Namibia, and is perhaps still the most played Dexy's tune. At the time I got quite sick of hearing this song although I was chuffed that Dexy's, a band I loved, was achieving major international success.
For one reason and another I never bought the record of "Too-Rye-Ay". The version of the album I owned for many years, was a cassette tape album I bought at the record section of Metje & Ziegler department store in Windhoek, principally because it was on sale. Somehow I could not bring myself to buy an album, even by a band I loved, that seemed to be dominated by gypsy fiddle playing and not the brassy soul of the debut. I also suspected that my knowledge of the massive commercial success of this album would spoil it for me, at least conceptually.
Once I did buy the album some of my original reservations seemed to have been justified. The record just was not very much too my taste. I preferred the soul stomping gloriousness of the debut album and the Celtic swing and gypsy fiddling, although tuneful and exciting in its own fashion, seemed to have far less gravitas and meaning than the original Dexy's sound. I did not listen to the cassette all that much.
A couple of years later, and long after its release, I bought the audio cassette version of the commercially disastrous Don't Stand Me Down album. Chris Prior had played a couple of tracks from the record and I had read that it had not been well received by rock critics or the mass pop audience who had bought "Too-Rye-Ay" by the truckload because of the massive success of "Come On, Eileen." When I heard Don't Stand Me Down as a unit of songs I could not understand why this album had not been hailed as an undiluted work of genius for it was, in my opinion, much better and much more engaging collection to tunes than Too-Rye-Ay.
Over the last couple of years I'd bought a remastered single disc CD version of Searching For The Young Soul Rebels and the Projected Passion Revue album of live tracks and singles A and B sides. Mostly recently, on a UK holiday in early 2012, I bought the 30th anniversary version of Searching For The Young Soul Rebels as a 2-CD pack with not only the original album but also a whole bunch of singles, demos and radio sessions. These three collections more or less captured most of the recordings of Dexys marks I and II.
To date I still have not found the CD of Don't Stand Me Down.
On the second last day of September 2012, though, I finally bought the CD of "Too-Rye-Ay" from a charity sales organisation that regularly sets up its second hand book, DVD and CD stall in the Gardens Centre, my local centre.
The front cover photograph of the gypsified Kevin Rowland, looking either despondent or intense whilst playing with a stick between his feet, is still a tad twee for my taste, as was the whole stylised gypsy get up. At around the same time the British band JoBoxers were poncing about in a similar retro street look, although their's was apparently inspired by New York street gang style of the Thirties. The guys in Dexy's just looked stupid in dungarees worn with no shirts and sockless shoes. They were dressing up as much as the New Romantics and in their poverty chic way equally as pretentiously.
The other notable thing was that "Come On, Eileen" is the very last track on the album and not, as would be typical of the hit single, the first track or at least among the first tracks; as if the song had been added as afterthought (perhaps once a single release had turned into a hit) or maybe it is the encore to the main body of songs. A feel good farewell.
I'd heard the original version of "Plan B", released as a single, in late 1981 in a BBC feature broadcast on Radio 5 and had actually recorded the brief version played on the show. The album version is very much different to the single version and not necessarily better, which view was reinforced when I heard the first version again, as part of the bonus material on the Projected Passion Revue album. It just seemed to me that retooling the track along the lines of the Celtic influenced music around it diminished it and definitely did not improve it.
By the time I bought Too-Rye-Ay I was heartily sick of "Come On, Eileen" and opening cut, "The Celtic Soul Brothers", impressed me much more than the hit single did. It was a great album opener, a clarion call for what was to come.
The other immediately accessible track, and this might have been the reason why it was the other hit from the album, is "Jackie Wilson Said", a song by Van Morrison. And for the time being that was it for me. I desperately wanted to like everything that Dexys released yet I just could not get a grip on this album.
That is where thing stood for me until I bought "Too-Rye-Ay" on CD and revisited it
Where I had played Searching For The Young Soul Rebels daily for a year, and plenty more times in the following years, I probably played the cassette version of "Too-Rye-Ay" fewer than ten times.
"The Celtic Soul Brothers" is still impressively exhilarating with exuberant vocals and The Emerald Express's melodic riffing. On reading the lyrics on the insert I also realised that I have hearing the words incorrectly and the enlightenment is, as always, somewhat disillusioning. What I had always heard was more interesting than the correct words.
"Let's Make This Precious" and "Until I Believe In My Soul" were performed on the Projected Passion tour and on the CD of the radio broadcast of a show on that tour, these tunes make sense in the context of the brass driven Dexy's, well before the switch to fiddles and accordion and gypsy swing that change the feel of the tunes and, I suppose, lightens them yet also dims the effect.
Not only did Rowland add violin and accordion and whistle, there is also a vocal chorus to sweeten the sound. The insistent waltz beat of "All In All" is hypnotic and foreshadows the sound of Don't Stand Me Down.
"Jackie Wilson Said" is still a joy to behold. Great tune, great performance and a modern day soul type classic written by one of the masters of the form.
"Old" did not appeal to me when I first heard is, but now I can see how it could have fitted into the debut album, minus the fiddles and banjo, of course, and for this reason I can appreciate it properly second time around. I could read the lyrics but prefer not to do so because Rowland's often unintelligible vocals mean more as a sound and another instrumental voicing than the content of what he might be trying to say. I do not think he is the greatest rock poet ever. It is the performance that counts.
Perhaps it was the commercial failure of "Plan B" that made Rowland rethink the way the song should be performed and led to the new piano and voice introduction, swelling into electronic organ, before the revamped original, but still recognisable, is introduced with added extras such as harmonica and a woman's spoken interjection, and the fiddles. Kevin Rowland does put extra effort into this rendition and one can understand how he would have strained towards extreme passion in his delivery of this song. "Plan B" segues straight into "I'll Show You," which also sounds like a tune that would have easily fitted into the scheme of things on the debut, with glorious trombone solo from Big Jimmy Paterson, Rowland's song writing partner and solo remnant from the earlier incarnations for Dexys. This song is the defiant antithesis to the morose, defeatist moan of "Plan B" and one of the highlights on the record.
The backing vocalists make a strong contribution to "Liars A to E" in counterpoint to Rowland's voice, commenting on and corroborating what he is telling us. The fiddlers actually add some great flavour to the tune with a lengthy workout in the middle that is more than gypsy jollity and actually emphasises the warmth of the performance even if, once again, it does not sound like the happiest of tales.
"Until I Believe In My Soul" has falsetto vocals, female chorus, deliberate rhythm and one of the most electrifying performances on the album. I can see where this tune would have been a showstopper wherever the band played. This time the instrumental interlude is brought to the listener by a jazzy brass band that is almost jokey yet serves to simply give us a breather before Rowland steps back into the spotlight with even more intensity. At the end there is lonesome whistling, lonesome fiddle and Kevin Rowland telling us how he intends punishing his body to purify his soul. Weird, yet compelling.
In this context it is an anti-climax to end the album with the jolly knees up that is "Come On Eileen." Although this song's ostensibly upbeat mood fits in with the opening cut it destroys the mood set by "Until I Believe In My Soul", which has kind of wrung the listener dry. Now you are expected to get up and do a reel, or whatever dance it is one would do to the wild gypsy fiddling. On the other hand, perhaps it is best to leave the projected passion with a sweetener rather than with the gutted remains of your shattered psyche.
Having listened to these tunes again, after such a long interval of not hearing them at all, I am reconsidering my view of "Too-Rye-Ay" as probably being far better than I at first thought it was, as subtle, as intriguing and almost as compelling as Searching For The Young Soul Rebels. The thing is: several days after my last listen to the album, several of the hooks, from tunes like "Celtic Soul Brothers" and "Jackie Wilson Said" and even "Let's Make This Precious", stick in my mind and I find myself humming them at odd moments. If this is not a sign of a great set of tunes I do not know what is. The sprightly, unison horn and fiddle riffs eventually lodge themselves in the subconscious and refuse to go. In a way this is as much of a grower as album as Don't Stand Me Down, with tunes that are far less accessible and more oblique than the crowd pleasers on Too-Rye Ay.
So, say what you will about Kevin Rowland and his wayward musical path; it is indisputable that he pulled off a powerful, indelible hat trick on his first three albums with Dexy's Midnight Runners, changing his sound and attitude each time and each time coming up with a tour de force of immense proportions. This is the music that helps define the Eighties for me. Rowland may not have sold nearly as many records as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince or Bruce Springsteen, but his three album run from Searching for the Young Soul Rebels to Don't Stand Me Down puts him up there in terms of consistent quality, uniqueness of vision and strength of purpose.
I would be highly tempted to select all three of these Dexys albums for my top ten lists of favourite albums of all time. Kevin Rowland was that good.