Back in ’68 in a sweaty club…
The evocative opening line of ‘Geno’, Dexys Midnight Runners’ tribute to Geno Washington, which hit number one in 1980. For me the equivalent would be Back in ’81 at the Old Vic Theatre, which doesn’t sound anything like as cool, but it was when I witnessed one of the great gigs of my life, Dexys Midnight Runners’ Projected Passion Revue.
Like many things involving Kevin Rowland and Dexys, it was born out of chaos. There were disputes with record companies, uncertainty over the band’s musical direction, and band members coming and going with mind-boggling rapidity. This may have been connected with Rowland’s insistence on a new fitness regime for the band, which involved them exercising together and a ban on pre-show drinking and drug taking. All a bit ironic for a band named after a type of amphetamine, but Kev was never one for consistency.
All this madness briefly coalesced into three nights of magic at the Old Vic. Dexys were no longer a pretend soul band, but they hadn’t yet evolved into the raggle-taggle gypsies of the ‘Too-Rye-Ay’ era. Instead they were a bit of both, bringing together the horns of the old band with the strings of the new. And at the front stood Kevin, the visionary, the only one who could see how all this could be made to work. He bristled with passion and defiance and, for the most part, carried the audience with him. In the rare moments when anyone showed signs of not sharing his vision he confronted them.
“Fuck off back to the bar!” I remember him telling one heckler, who had shouted out during one of the quieter passages. This was ironic as, in keeping with the band’s new commitment to clean living, the bars had all been closed for the evening.
Before the Projected Passion Revue could be captured on record it all fell apart again, and by the time of their next album the horns had gone and they were a dungaree-clad distortion of an Irish folk band. ‘Come On Eileen’ gave them a huge hit single but these days it has the status of a novelty record, about as representative of Dexys as ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ is of Jeff Beck. Kev seemed to know this because, rather than continuing to milk a winning formula, he reinvented the band again, re-emerging in 1985 with ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’.
It was a classic that nobody liked. The young soul rebel look had been cool, the Celtic soul brother look had been clever, but the young urban professional look was just off-putting. And the music was equally disorientating, long slow-building songs interspersed with stilted dialogue between Kevin and his latest sidekick Billy Adams. The fact that the songs often developed into something wonderful was largely overlooked at the time.
Dexys fell apart, and so did Kevin. Drug and financial problems led to rehab and bankruptcy. There were several failed comebacks, some with Dexys, some on his own. The most notorious was the 1999 covers album ‘My Beauty’, which he promoted at the Reading Festival wearing a short white dress and red lipstick. He stood defiant in the face of a hostile audience, continuing to perform as the crowd hurled bottles at the stage.
A lesser man would have sunk into the obscurity that goes hand in hand with the misery of mental illness and addiction, but the amazing part of Kevin’s story is that he came back. In 2012 Dexys released ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar’. On songs such as ‘Lost’ and ‘Nowhere is Home’ he confronted his demons and, on ‘It’s O.K., John Joe’, finally seemed to reach some sort of peace with himself. Mick Talbot’s arrangements were often uplifting, and the duets with M.J. Hyland introduced a welcome element of humour.
In September 2012 I headed off with Indie Dad Paul to see the latest incarnation of Dexys play at the Theatre Royal in Brighton. They played ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar’ in its entirety and a few older songs, including a terrific version of ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’ and a reflective, revamped ‘Come on Eileen’. The audience’s applause at the end was heartfelt, and so was Kevin’s reaction. He was humble and appreciative but also vindicated, a man who had journeyed to the dark side and back. It was a great gig because, like that show at the Old Vic back in ’81, it felt like it mattered. A vulnerable genius had put himself on the line and emerged triumphant.
Kevin is a restless soul. Mick Talbot and the rest of the 2012 incarnation of Dexys have gone and been replaced by a new band for a new album: ‘Let the Record Show: Dexys do Irish and Country’. The album is a mix of Irish standards and other songs that Kev just happens to like. “It doesn’t really make sense, but it makes perfect sense to me,” he told Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie. And so he goes on, pursuing his singular vision.