Thursday, 16 May 2013

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 5 Searching for the Young Soul Rebels/Don't Stand me Down

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 5 
Searching for the Young Soul Rebels/Don't Stand Me Down - Dexy's Midnight Runners

I struggled for a while to choose between Searching for the Young Soul Rebels and Don't Stand Me Down. Why struggle, I thought. There's room on this horse for two.

The way that Dexy's moved between styles, musical and sartorial, on their first three albums means that they almost seem like different bands anyway. Were these changes driven by a passion for renewal or were they simply lurches? No band has displayed the tension between an intensely passionate focus and a kind of wild vulnerability more than Dexy's, or more to the point singer and (lightning) conductor Kevin Rowland.

Kevin's first musical agglomerate were The Killjoys, who released one single, the blistering speed punk anthem Johnny Won't Get to Heaven, in which Kevin looks up at Mr Rotten, disparages him ("what's this bullshit anarchy?") and thinks "It could be me." Looking up, and down, at heroes will be one of the central elements of a few Dexy's songs (more to follow).

The Killjoys didn't really express Kevin's musical leanings and with another ex-Killjoy Kevin Archer he immersed himself in Northern Soul and after auditioning half the population of Birmingham they formed Dexy's Midnight Runners. Through intense rehearsals and shared shoplifting sorties and apparel a gang mentality was fostered and a sound was developed which was startlingly different to almost everything else around at the time. Confrontational one minute and confessional the next Dexy's packed a brass knuckled punch and unleashed their sound on the single Dance Stance, an attack on anti-Irish racism in the UK. (I've linked to Youtube as EMI won't allow me to embed the video) The single was to resurface, re-recorded and renamed Burn it Down as the opening track on Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. There it would be prefaced by some radio static, as the radio half tunes in to Deep Purple, Sex Pistols and The Specials, Kevin asks Jimmy to "Burn it down." No cows are sacred.

But before the album came Dexy's second single, Geno, which spent two weeks at No 1, raising expectations for their debut album. In many ways it covered the same ground as Johnny Won't Get to Heaven, with Kevin remembering how inspirational Geno Washington was but also noting that the tables have turned. "It could be me" has turned to "And now just look at me as I'm looking down on you / No I'm not being flash, it's what I'm built to do." I love the way the song seems to arise out of the chanting of the crowd at a live gig, taking us right back in the sweaty clubs in which Kevin saw Geno.

Further shenanigans involving the band stealing the master tape in order to get a fair share of royalties from EMI conspired to make this a near mythical record and the great thing is that all those raised expectations and more besides were met.

It starts with a great cover photo, which the initiated know is of young Catholics leaving their homes in Belfast because of the fear of what internment might mean to them. It also works as an image of chaos and uncertainty, of movement.

Searching for the Young Soul Rebels is, as the title suggests, a soul record with Kevin baring his soul and pushing his voice to, and beyond the limit of its expressiveness. Staccato, propulsive brass (trombone and saxophones) interject forcefully into the music, which is full of adrenaline rush moments, slowing down and speeding up at will, startling images, control and abandon...

 I just read a review which castigated it for not having the tenderness that the reviewer sees as central to soul. This sounds a bit prescriptive to me and though the album can seem driven by unease and its bedfellow hostility it is also filled with vulnerability, honesty and to these ears, tenderness.

My favourite track is I'm Just Looking, which opens with Kevin wetly whispering to a figure who, it turns out, is a "penthouse celebrity." Once again Kevin is seeing fame as a trip on the wheel of fortune. He suggests that the "celebrity" is falling apart. "Holed up in white harlem, your conscience and you, you might need sympathy but that's not what I'd tell you." Instead he feeds the anxiety "people are saying you're losing your feel." It contains one of my favourite couplets "You're walking on marble, it's scorching your feet / How can the small town big shot boy get enough to eat."

There is not much more to be said about this album other than it is a classic.

Dexy's next album included the massive hit Come on, Eileen, a song which became bigger than the band. In fact it is one of those songs that has entered the common subconscious and, I guess, still delivers the royalties.  I love it and enjoy the album that it is on, Too-Rye-Ay but it never seemed quite as urgent and compelling as Searching for the Young Soul Rebels or as adventurous and stimulating as their third album, Don't Stand Me Down.

It was one of the most startling deconstructions of a career that I've ever seen. From Top of the Pops to nowhere and all it took was a change of clothes. Moving from gypsy chic to a preppie look seemed to distance Dexy's from the audience before anyone even listened to the record. That reflexive desire to confront everyone had now reached it's apogee, with Kevin challenging peoples ideas of cool (again) while making music that marched to his own beat.

There had been elements of theatricality in Dexy's music from the start but it exploded across this record with Kevin and other band members seeming having casual conversations from which the songs emerge and back into which they can also retreat. But as with all Dexy's, the driving impetus is the effort to catch passion on the hoof, to express yearning and love while reflecting the detritus of life into which these slices of beauty cut.

There are a few versions of this. I have the vinyl and the 2002 'Director's Cut" CD version which, strangely, is worth much more than the original version on Amazon, with frankly crazy prices.  The twelve minute plus opus, This is What She's Like is the keystone track on the album, channelling Van Morrison's celtic soul and even The Beach Boys while sounding like nobody and being a natural outgrowth of the first two albums.

It is followed by the beautiful My National Pride (titled Knowledge of Beauty on the original version as Kevin played down it's emphasis on his Irish roots). It sounds both timeless and yet like no-one else. It emphasises Kevin's ability to go out on an emotional limb, and make it his own.

Another highlight in an album full of highlights is Reminisce (Part Two) (Part One is an earlier b-side which pre-empts the style of Don't Stand me Down) in which a memory is recalled which is intimately about the connection between  music and memory and in which the vocals break into the remembered song which formed a central part in a love affair. Brief, beautiful and affecting.

A stunning album which goes far beyond words for me.

(Don't Stand Me Down is not on Spotify)


  1. Love don't stand me down and one of the bravest records i own . It is a shame the focus of reviews seemed to be more on the fashion than the music.
    it is a record that is difficult to describe . Ive only got the dir cut as i didn't get it on release , put off i think by the all emvompassing negativity in the press, and the fact i was only a greatest hits kind of. The last one whilst not as powerful is still miles better than most other stuff out there

    1. I got it at the time but it took a while before I 'got' it. I had a friend who evangelised for it from the off, and there were a couple of good reviews.

  2. I remember the thrill and chaos of 'Geno' on Top of the Tops. Even as a youngster I remember thinking: 'I hope that someone's locked the changing rooms'. No one's shoes would have been safe...
    The ghost of Van was everywhere in those days...
    I know nothing of Don't Stand Me Down other than its cult status.
    Must investigate; thanks Seamus!

    1. The mix of spoken word and songs fixated with capturing moments in life reminds me of someone Trevor. Sure you haven't listened. I think you'd appreciate it.

  3. Wow, what a day! Friends of Rachel Worth has High Land, Hard Rain, then I come over here and you've got Dexys. In my view, all four Dexys albums are must haves. Personally, I would rank them in order by age but give a special accommodation to One Day I'm Going to Soar. What a miracle. I'm going to say the same thing to you that I said to FORW: If this is your No. 5, I can't wait to see your Top 4.

    This is completely uncalled for, but I can't resist. It may be my all-time find. Last year I stumbled upon a sealed vinyl copy of Don't Stand Me Down for $12. I nearly fainted. I have goosebumps just typing the words.

  4. Great choice Seamus! It is a great album and one of my all time favs! Funnily enough Helen and Declan sent me a copy this week of Kevin Rowland's 1999 solo album 'My Beauty' which has a very disturbing cover


    If you are not familiar with it there is a great version of Whitney Houston's song "the greatest love of all". He puts new meaning into the lyrics which I would never have got from Ms Houston. Cheers!

    1. Yes, I have "My Beauty". i think it gives Kevin a good run at having the two most commercially disastrous album covers of all time. Although I have just found that it wasn't as bad a seller as rumour had it. It was supposed to have sold only 500 or so but Wikipedia says this is not true and it sold 20,000.
      I really like his version of "I Can't Tell the Bottom from the Top". It was also supposed to have a version of "Thunder Road" but Bruce didn't approve of the lyrics being changed but some pre-release copies have it on them (not mine). It's out there on the net though.

  5. So where does "Come on Eileen" fit into the grand scheme of things? Was it their novelty record? Were the dungarees a joke? I used to wear dungarees in France and my students would say: "Oh look, here comes Dexys" That song was the plague of the dance-floors in Limerick in the 80s. I still have my copy.

    1. I never wore the dungarees but I still get a tingle from those opening lines - "Poor old Johnny Ray.."