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ALBUM REVIEW: DEXYS- ‘Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul’ (2016)

Let the record show that Dexys do Irish and country soul… and do it well too!

Dexys

For those of you not in the know Dexys is the name now used by the band once known as Dexys Midnight Runners who during the 1980’s were quite possibly one of the most popular English pop bands going, having a string of worldwide number one hits, most famously ‘Come On Eileen’ and ‘Geno’. Formed around the West Midlands of England they were together for the years 1978–1986 before reforming in 2003 and shortening their name to Dexys. Their first incarnation produced three classic albums- Searching for the Young Soul Rebels in 1980, Too-Rye-Ay in 1982 and Don’t Stand Me Down in 1985, while their last album as Dexys was called One Day I’m Going to Soar and was released in 2012 and despite the massive 27 year “break” was hailed by fans and critics alike as an outright classic. Two of the things the band became famous for was the never ending line up changes and also musical direction. Formed by Kevin Rowland he has been the only constant throughout the years and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that he is the main visionary and driving force behind the band.

Dexys2

Rowland began his musical career in the short lived but popular (to me anyroad) punk rock band The Killjoys who were one of the first original punk bands around the Midlands but in 1978 he wrote a soul song called ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’, which went on to become the first Dexy’s song. They got the band name from the nickname of Dexedrine which was popular as a recreational drug among Northern Soul fans at the time which gave you the ability to dance all night hence the midnight runners! Image has always been important to Rowland and he decreed the band buck the trend for the sharp suits that were popular in the ska scene at the time and band dressed in donkey jackets and wooly hats. A look described as

“straight out of De Niro’s Mean Streets”

The music was impeccable and played to absolute perfection and their debut album catapulted them into stardom. The album cover featured a photograph of a young northern Irish Catholic boy carrying his belongings after having had his home attacked during anti-Catholic riots in Belfast. When talking about the photo Kevin said

“I wanted a feeling of unrest. The photo could of been from anywhere but I was secretly glad it was Ireland”
The lad on the cover was working at the Royal Mail, Belfast, at the time of the album release. Kevin Rowland himself though born in Wolverhampton has always been extremely proud of his Irish roots. His parents came from Crossmolina in Co. Mayo and landed in post war England at a time when work was non-existent in Ireland and hundreds of Irish were leaving home. The cities of England became huge ghettos for the Irish and their children and with the war waging in the north of Ireland and occasionally spilling onto English streets Irish people enforced a code of silence. No outright show of support for the republican movement was shown while at home, in the pubs and churches and anywhere Irish people gathered they shared the songs and stories of home. For many of those second generation born here they couldn’t wait to get away from the Irishness of their parents but for some it was embraced and held dear and Kevin Rowland was one of the latter.

Dexys 3With Searching for the Young Soul Rebels soaring high in the charts suddenly, angered over continual personality problems with Rowland, five of the band members then quit leading to the second incarnation of Dexys Midnight Runners. With just Kevin and the Scots descended ‘Big’ Jim Paterson left they nicknamed themselves the ‘Celtic soul rebels’ and they set about recruiting a bunch of fiddle players that he called the ‘Emerald Express’. Out went the donkey jackets and a new look was adopted that included hooded tops, boxing boots, and long hair but just as quickly a new image was seized upon and leather waistcoats and dungarees were the order of the day. It was described as

“a raggle-taggle mixture of gypsy, rural Irish and Steinbeck Okie”

The first single of the second album was the title song ‘The Celtic Soul Brothers’ and the whole album was a mix of soul and celtic folk that again captured the public’s imagination and provided the band with their biggest hit ‘Come On Eileen’. Again though band politics were at play and again band members were to leave citing Kevin as the reason. On the release of  Don’t Stand Me Down in 1985 only Kevin remained of that first line up and this time wearing ties and pin-striped suits the album though popular with fans did not please their record company and eventually in 1987 with the band down to just three members, Kevin Rowland, Helen O’Hara and Kevin ‘Billy’ Adams, and with Rowland and O’Hara’s relationship ended and drug issues appearing the band finally disbanded in 1987.

Dexys4Kevin Rowland left the band and despite issues with depression as well as well publicised financial problems( including a spell on the dole) and drug addiction he released several solo albums though none were particularly well received he stayed well within the media glare remaining a well known public figure, though mainly for his perceived eccentricities like appearing on the cover of his solo album ‘My Beauty’ in women’s underwear! Reforming the band in 2003 Dexys Midnight Runners began to play and tour occasionally but it wasn’t till 2011 and with the band’s name now shortened to Dexys that they began to record new material leading to the release of their fourth and equally brilliant One Day I’m Going to Soar album.

Thus leading us on to here and on St Patrick’s Day this year Dexys announced they were to release an album of Irish songs. It’s an album which Kevin had always wanted to make saying

“We had the idea to do this album in 1984 or 1985. It was to be called Irish and was to feature songs like ‘Carrickfergus’, ‘Curragh of Kildare’ and ‘Women Of Ireland. Dexys broke up not too long afterwards, so it didn’t happen”

Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul features twelve songs and while only half are in fact Irish songs several more evoke ‘Irishness’ in some way and all showcase Kevin’s amazing voice which here is as strong as it has been in decades. This fine album begins with ‘Women Of Ireland’ and slow beautiful fiddle leads onto harmonica and the unmistakable Dexys sound shines through. The song originally titled ‘Mná na h-Éireann’ was written by Irish folk legend Seán Ó Riada (1931–1971) and though performed as a instrumental here does in fact have words. A truly beautiful version that is a great way to start proceedings. And as you will see from the video once again they have gone through a image change and one thing you can’t accuse them off is being sartorially challenged!!

Next up, and to add the country soul of the album title, is The Bee Gees ‘To Love Somebody’. Now for those of you not familiar with The Bee Gees body of work I can guarantee you actually know a lot more than you think. Dexys version begins with some sweeping strings before Kevin’s voice comes out loud and proud and I have to say surprisingly strong and powerful. Not straying far from the tune of the original it is the voice that carries it and carries it well. Another famous song follows in ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’. Written in 1933 by American composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Otto Harbach it has been covered numerous times but again here Dexys give it their treatment. The sweeping strings are back and a wonderful way to record this wonderful song. It builds up but never loses that swirling sound and again Kevin carries the song through and by now we getting an idea of how the album works. We are back in Ireland next for ‘The Curragh Of Kildare’ which starts with a wee spoken poem before Kevin’s soulful voice is joined by female vocals and the two of them work fantastically off each other.

“The winter it has passed
And the summer’s come at last
The small birds are singing in the trees
And their little hearts are glad
Ah, but mine is very sad
Since my true love is far away from me”

The original was written by Scotland’s poet laureate Robbie Burns.It tells the story of a young Scottish woman whose lover is away soldiering for the Queen in the Curragh of Kildare.

We stay in Ireland next with the Nanna’s favourite ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’. While I would have preferred some more less known covers their is no denying that Dexys have certainly stamped their brand onto these songs and it must be said this is a song I heard as a very young child so brings back some very happy memories for me and I suppose many of us. Though one of the most popular traditional Irish music ballads it was in fact written by an American of German descent, Thomas Paine Westendorf,  for his wife. Rod Stewart’s ‘You Wear It Well’ is next up for the Dexys treatment and although it didn’t ring any bells I soon realised I know it well (it pops up in the movie version of Porridge!). The only song here I feel that doesn’t stand up to the original but in saying that it still works it’s just that Celtic supporter Rod’s version is the best possible by a country mile. Find it on YouTube here and marvel at the Bhoys amazing voice. Word is it that Johnny Cash on wanting to write a song about his Irish roots stuck a pin in a map of Ireland and filled in the gaps around it. ’40 Shades Of Green’ was the result and provided Johnny with one of his biggest hits. Here Dexys play it straight and only the introduction of a trumpet in parts shows the Dexys influence. In all the review’s I have seen of this album so far it is ‘How Do I Live’ they has stood out for most reviewers and though not my favourite is a great version of Lee Ann Rimes country rock ballad from 1998. The only song here I did not know before so maybe that explains my indifference to it while the rest of the album fills me with warm memories and feelings of family and home this, while a strong version, leaves me a bit cold. ‘Grazing In The Grass’ was an instrumental composed by Philemon Hou and first released as a single in 1968 and the following year with words by The Friends of Distinction. By far the most upbeat track here it sticks closely to the soulful original. We are back with Kevin’s roots again with the important Irish ballad ‘The Town I Loved So Well’. Harp accompanies piano and Kevin’s wondrous voice on this personal lament about the war in the north of Ireland, specifically in Derry city, a republican stronghold. Written by Phil Coulter about his childhood in Derry the song begins by telling of the simple life he grew up with till he emigrated and then returned finding how his hometown had become a major British army outpost and become plagued with violence.

“Now the music’s gone but they carry on
For their spirit’s been bruised, never broken
They will not forget but their hearts are set
On tomorrow and peace once again
For what’s done is done and what’s won is won
And what’s lost is lost and gone forever
I can only pray for a bright brand-new day
In the town I loved so well”

Recorded by many Irish music legends Kevin Rowland can now be added to the list and Phil Coulter while being one of the most important singer-songwriters in Irish history had this to say about The Town I Loved So Well’,

“Derry has a great tradition of music and a very proud history being one of the oldest cities in the country. In recent years it’s suffered more than its fair share of pain and heartache, but there’s something special about the place and the people that has helped them overcome the worst of times. Of all the songs I’ve written, this is the one I’d like to be remembered for. It’s my story but it’s also the story of Derry, the town I loved so well”

Another upbeat classic follows with a brilliant take on Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’. Kevin’s voice is again let off the leash and allowed to flourish and the result is again fantastic.

Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish And Country Soul ends with ‘Carrickfergus’, another classic Irish folk song. Long one of Kevin’s favourite songs and he’s been performing it for years but finally gets it down on record here for the first time. Named after the town of Carrickfergus in County Antrim in the north of Ireland Kevin’s version lasts near six and a half minutes and epic seems hardly the word to describe it. While the origins of the song are unclear  it has been traced to an Irish language song, ‘Do bhí bean uasal’ which is attributed to the poet Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna, who died in 1745. Recorded by acts as diverse as The Dubliners, Bryan Ferry and Van Morrison this is as good as it gets. Aye your right, quite possibly the best version I have ever heard. A song I have heard a thousand times but never really listened to. Kevin imparts a passion, sadness and sorrow like no other into this version. The feeling of remorse, the lost years is tangible, you can really sympathise with the narrator for the loss of his love (Ireland, as opposed to a partner?).

The first thought that pops into your head when hearing that a band you love have recorded a covers album is one of disappointment. Disappointment that they may have run out of ideas. Well that may or may not be true (I sense not) and here the choice of songs may not be as wild and as full of abandon as you’d expect them to be you can feel Kevin Rowland’s commitment to the songs in every breath he takes. He injects every track with his trademark intensity and what it may lack in originality, is more than made up for by his passionate and heartfelt voice. Growing up this side of the Irish sea we didn’t have many idols to admire. Many ‘famous’ people came from the same backgrounds as us but felt it better for their careers to gloss over it and don’t make a scene. Well Kevin has never stopped making a scene and here he, and Dexys, are right back on track.  He wears his heart on his sleeve and the passion for his ancestral homeland is infectious. A truly amazing album and not just for Dexys fans either.

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BOOK REVIEW: IRISH BLOOD, ENGLISH HEART: SECOND GENERATION IRISH MUSICIANS IN ENGLAND

By Donal Fallon

Irish blood, English heart: second generation Irish musicians in EnglandSeán Campbell(Cork University Press, €39)ISBN 9781859184615

Irish blood, English heart: second generation Irish musicians in England by Seán Campbell (Cork University Press, €39)ISBN 9781859184615

In the recent excellent ‘Why Pamper Life’s Complexities? Essays on the Smiths’, co-edited by Seán Campbell and sociologist Colin Coulter, a recurring theme was the Irish heritage at the heart of the upbringing of members of the band. Those familiar with the politics and ideology of the band’s much-worshipped front man, Morrissey, were undoubtedly not surprised by a letter from the singer which appeared in Hot Press magazine just prior to the recent royal visit to Ireland. ‘The queen also has the power to give back the six counties to the Irish people, allowing Ireland to be a nation once again’, he wrote, in a letter that lambasted the institution of monarchy. He is one of many English-born musicians of Irish lineage to do so. Who could forget the reaction to Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s respective singles on ‘the Irish question’? It is fitting that Seán Campbell’s most recent work, Irish blood, English heart, should take its title from a song of Morrissey’s. When he opened that song with the words ‘Irish blood, English heart, this I’m made of’, he perfectly captured the dual identity of many in Britain. As Campbell notes in his prologue to the work, the book’s title serves to ‘invoke the dilemma faced by second-generation Irish people, many of whom locate themselves as “half-and-half”’.

One finds a generation who felt neither British nor Irish, unsurprising in the political and social context of the period under examination, which is 1980s Britain. Johnny Marr of the Smith is quoted as saying, ‘I feel absolutely nothing when I see the Union Jack, except repulsion . . . and I don’t feel Irish either. I’m Mancunian-Irish.’ The work focuses on three musical acts, analysing three very distinct styles, personas and backgrounds: the Smiths of Manchester; Kevin Rowland’s Dexy’s Midnight Runners from the Midlands; and the infamous London-Irish punks, the Pogues. Other high-profile figures of Irish lineage are mentioned, such as John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten. As an examination of British society in the period, the work provides excellent sociological insight into how the children of Irish migrants saw themselves fitting into, or not fitting into, British life. Shane MacGowan of the Pogues was of the belief that the second-generation Irish of late 1970s London had been ‘split down the middle, really heavily’, with one set of youngsters unashamedly Irish in outlook and culture, while others merely wanted to fit in to the native youth culture. Questions are raised around issues of assimilation or lack thereof, and it is clear that an overwhelming sense of ‘in-betweenness’ existed. As Campbell notes, terms and labels like ‘plastic Paddy’ became derisive allusions to the ‘perceived inauthenticity’ of the second-generation Irish. The second generation knew that they were very different from their parents and the native Irish. One of the strong points of Campbell’s work is his multidisciplinary approach and sources, and in a 1987 social geography essay on the Irish in London he finds a quote which perhaps best sums up the mentality of this second generation, alien to both the English and Irish: ‘Of course we know and enjoy Ireland, but London is our home, our city. We can’t recreate a lost Ireland in the middle of 1980s London.’ The book brings political events of the period into context wonderfully, showing the emergence of strong anti-Irish feeling among sections of British society in response to the rise of paramilitary activity in Britain and Northern Ireland. As Philip Chevron of the Pogues would note, ‘the only politics that counted in the London-Irish scene were the politics of being Irish in a place that was innately racist towards the Irish’. Following campaigns from red-top tabloids, and the implementation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in the wake of the Birmingham bombing, for a period it appeared that the Irish community as a whole was seen as suspect. As one critic noted of Kevin Rowland’s attempts to ‘reconcile himself with his Irish roots’ on the band’s classic ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ record, such out-and-out assertions of Irish pride or patriotism were ‘perceived in England as tantamount to wearing a balaclava and carrying a machine gun’.

Campbell has made great use of the archives of many influential music magazines, like Uncut, NME, Hot Press, Q, Melody Maker and other publications to the fore of youth and musical subculture in the UK and Ireland. It is within the pages of a much less mainstream publication, Sinn Féin’s An Phoblacht, that Campbell unearths a gem in the form of that publication’s praise for the Smiths: ‘With names like that who could doubt their antecedents?’ For a band often considered quintessentially British by many musical critics, Johnny Marr’s claim that ‘The IRA wanted to get up and make some speeches before we went on’ during a tour of the North is a surreal insight into how their anti-establishment ethos was viewed by some republicans at home. Migrant experience and feelings of alienation come to the fore in this work, a highly valuable study of the Irish diaspora and the often forgotten ‘second generation’ in England. The book makes a strong and welcome contribution to cultural history and popular musical history, of course, but it triumphs within the field of Irish studies. It is perhaps a quote from Q magazine’s ‘100 Greatest British Albums’ special in 2000 that best captured the unusual nature of the Irish community. Including the Pogues among those featured, Q noted that ‘being white of skin and Western European of culture, Britain’s Irish are the invisible immigrants’. When confronted by Melody Maker in 1985 on his Irish ethnicity, in response to the interviewer’s noting that ‘you were born in England’, Kevin Rowland retorted that ‘just because you were born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse’. Irish blood, English heart is a study of just some of the talented young musicians who emerged out of Britain’s largest migrant community yet lacked a clear sense of identity themselves. This sense of alienation and ‘in-betweenness’ was to prove central to the work, and appeal, of these great musicians.

Donal Fallon is one of the editors of the great blog ‘Come Here To Me’, a blog of Dublin life and culture. Literally tons to read so don’t delay and get your ass over to the site now. I cannot stress that enough, alright… http://comeheretome.com/.

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