Don’t Stand Me Down by Dexy’s Midnight Runners

1985

In this post, I compare myself to one of the richest men on the planet and one of the most original musicians of all time. It’s not a competition, but I think that in this three-person race, I get a bronze medal.

I was Head of Maths in four schools for a total of 29 years but in that time, I don’t think I ever had a truly original idea. I was very good at organising; I listened to my colleagues and always backed them up; I completed things that I started and I was a good communicator but I don’t think I ever displayed much vision or creativity; my powers of innovation and inspiration were limited. I was quite good at taking other people’s ideas and developing them; I hope I gave them full credit. I think people enjoyed working in my departments but not because I gave them a creative inspiration. Because of this, I am in awe of truly original thinkers.

Tony Hsieh was born in Illinois in 1973. After graduating from Harvard with a computer science degree, he started a company called LinkExchange which delivered advertising on web pages. The company had been started with some friends and, for a time, they loved going to work, working seven days a week, enjoying each other’s company and sharing a vision for the future. However, as the company grew, more people were employed and not everyone shared his vision. He needed to tell people what to do and he wasn’t comfortable with that. Suddenly, work became difficult and occasionally unpleasant. When Microsoft offered $265 million for the company, he sold it. His next venture was an online shoe company called Zappos. He regarded the new company as an opportunity to put his vision into practice and create a workplace which every employee would love. There was no hierarchy in Zappos: everyone had equal status and all ideas were welcomed. Newly appointed workers found a carnival atmosphere of parades, all-you-can-eat buffets, impromptu head-shaving challenges and a constant bombarded with candy. Typical interview questions included “On a scale of 1-10, how weird are you”, “What’s your favourite swear word?” or “What’s your theme music, when you enter a room?”. At the end of the hiring process, Tony Hsieh would offer each applicant $2000 not to take the job. His strategy was successful and in 2009, Amazon bought the company for $1.2 billion. He remained as chairman of Zappos until he resigned in August 2020. Three months later, he sadly died in a house fire. Tony Hsieh was an original thinker, he created an impressive legacy and he developed an environment in which people loved working. Everyone was equal.

Kevin Rowland was also an original thinker; he created an impressive legacy but I’m not sure that he developed an environment in which people loved working. The musicians that he worked with had to follow his vision or else they left the band.

“Too-Rye-Ay” had been a hugely successful album and “Come On Eileen” was the best selling single of 1982. The follow up album album took nearly three years to make. “I think I felt that enjoying the success of “Come On Eileen” was going to make me feel alright but it didn’t”.

Helen Bevington was given the stage name Helen O’Hara when she joined Dexy’s Midnight Runners for “Too-Rye-Aye”. She and Kevin Rowland began a relationship that would end a few months before the release of “Don’t Stand Me Down”. Her view on Kevin Rowland is “He could never write to order. He does what he wants to do and I think that’s the sign of a great artist.” Before recording the album, Kevin Rowland and Helen O’Hara travelled to Ireland. “. He was born in Wolverhampton but moved to live in his parents’ birthplace, County Mayo, between the ages of one and four. After the release of “Too-Rye-Ay”, Kevin Rowland had become interested in Irish politics. He started going to socialist bookshops in Birmingham and meeting Irish Republicans. Around this time, the IRA bombing campaigns were particularly successful in causing death to mainland Britain. Sinn Fein representatives contacted him and invited him to Belfast. Kevin Rowland was not a supporter of violence but he did want to raise the public’s consciousness about Irish political issues. “The important thing about Ireland at that point in this country is, you couldn’t really say anything about it.”

Kevin Rowland was determined that the album would be recorded live, without overdubs. He brought in Tom Dowd to produce the album. He had produced work by hundreds of artists including Ray Charles, The Eagles, Dusty Springfield, Otis Redding and Charlie Mingus amongst others but when he suggested re-recording individual parts, they parted company. The Rolling Stones’ producer, Jimmy Miller left after just one song. John Porter, producer of the first Smiths’ album, lasted just one day. They finally reverted to asking Alan Winstanley, who had produced “Too-Rye-Ay” to engineer the album whilst the band themselves produced it.

At this time, a number of the musicians working on the album left, unable to fit into Kevin Rowland’s vision and method of working. They settled on drummer Tim Dancy, after seeing him play in Al Green’s band. Eleven musicians play on the album although the three key members of the band were Kevin Rowland, Billy Adam and Helen O’Hara. The cover photo of the original album shows Jim Paterson but he was omitted from the re-releases. The image change from dungarees to Ivy League was dramatic. In one interview, Kevin Rowland was asked why he had changed “from country-hick to a double glazing look“, to which he replied “just nice clothes“.

The Occasional Flicker

There’s a great groove on this song which is punctuated by maniacal horn playing, frenzied organ and prominent drumming. Lyrically, the song starts with an acknowledgement that he is not going to compromise and, if he has in the past, he hopes for redemption. One of the significant aspects of this album is the humour that accompanies the strong emotions. When he sings about redemption, he starts to complain about a burning feeling that he gets at which point, guitarist Billy Adams interjects with “Yeah?” A spoken conversation follows: Kevin: “You know that, you know the little problem I used to get” Billy: “What problem?“. Kevin: “You know the problem“. Billy: “Are you still getting trouble with that?” Kevin: “Yeah, not all the time or anything“. Billy: “Like it was?“. Kevin: “Yeah, sometimes.” Billy: “Are you sure it’s not heartburn?” Kevin: “Heartburn, no it’s not a bit like heartburn, it’s nothing like that.” Kevin Rowland then breaks into song about his burning feeling before another 90 seconds of improvised grooving brings the song to a close.

This Is What She’s Like

Another conversation between Kevin Rowland and Billy Adams opens this song. Billy Adams walks into a room and asks Kevin Rowland what he was talking about. He then asks Kevin Rowland over and over again what “she” is like. The answers given are quite obtuse at first as he explains what she is not like. He sings about how he hates people who put creases in their old Levi’s and “she” is nothing like them. She is also nothing like the thick, ignorant English upper classes. She isn’t like the scumbags with their home bars and hi-fis or people who use the words ‘fabulous’ or ‘super’ in every sentence. More conversation follows. Billy: “Well how did all this happen?” Kevin: “Just all at once really“. Billy: “Yeah?“. Kevin: “Just all at once. The Italians, I believe the Italians have a word for it.” Kevin: “What word, what is it?” Kevin: “I don’t really know, a thunderbolt or something“. Billy: “What, you mean the Italian word for thunderbolt?” Kevin: “Yeah, something like that. I don’t speak Italian myself you understand.” Billy: “No?” Kevin: “No. But I knew a man who did.” In the end, he does explain what she’s like through the music that plays in the last four minutes. We are treated to another magnificent explosion of sound, beautifully mixed together in which the horns, the piano, drumming and the wordless vocals detonate into a kaleidoscope of sound which describes what she’s like more accurately than any words could.

The spoken word element was inspired by “Rave On By John Donne” by Van Morrison. When Kevin Rowland played this song to his manager, he was told that he could lose everything. He replied “What have I got that I want to keep?“. This was the first song that was written for the album.

Kevin Rowland wrote this song about Helen O’Hara and he wanted this twelve minute song to be a single but a change in the managing director vetoed this. He decided not to release any single at all. “I thought this album was good. Everyone’s going to hear it and like it”. He later acknowledged that this was a mistake. The video contains less than half the song.

My National Pride (formerly known as “Knowledge Of Beauty”)

This is a beautiful song and Kevin Rowland croons the song in the style that he would later use on “My Beauty”. It starts quietly but the intensity increases as the band kick in. Helen O’Hara’s fiddle playing is especially beautiful. Kevin Rowland said “The song is about heritage and roots and knowing where one is coming from.” Typically honest, forthright and holding nothing back, the lyrics describe the emigration of many Irish people and how he should take strength from “the wisdom and warmth of my past generations.” The song was renamed, “My National Pride” in a 1997 re-release. “I didn’t have the courage to title it, “My National Pride”, when it came out because I didn’t believe in myself and that I had the right to be Irish. I was kind of scared”.

One Of Those Things

Side Two starts with this very up-tempo song which includes another amusing conversation between Kevin Rowland and Billy Adams. The first verse discusses how Kevin Rowland was listening to a Radio One programme hosted by “Sid Jenkins” (a pun on Kid Jensen who had always been a big fan of the band). Kevin: “There was just one problem.” Billy: “What was that?” At which point Kevin Rowland bellows out “It all sounded the same.” The second verse draws an analogy between listening to Radio One and listening to “so called socialists” discussing “Sandinista, Cuba’s militia, The PLO, M.P.L.A, Afghanistan and Babylon.” Kevin Rowland asked them what they thought about Belfast and although “their replies were various, they all sounded the same.” As with every song on the album, the playing of the band is extraordinary and Kevin Rowland’s voice is congested with heartfelt emotion.

Reminisce (Part Two)

“Reminisce (Part One)” was the B side to “The Celtic Soul Brothers” and included the classic line “Ken Livingstone’s a folk hero.” Part Two, included here, is probably better, sadder and more reflective. It’s completely spoken and Billy Adams is nowhere to be heard. Kevin Rowland is reminiscing about a lost love and how certain songs soundtrack memories. “We decided we should adopt a song, a song that was current. She wanted “I’ll Say Forever, My Love” by Jimmy Ruffin, I wanted it to be “Lola” by The Kinks. We seemed to hear those two records everywhere we went.” Towards the end of the song, he starts crooning “I’ll Stay Forever” and the heartbreak is profoundly feverish. Marvellous.

I Love You (Listen To This)

Kevin Rowland refused to release a single from this album but this clearly would have been a multi-million selling hit, if he hadn’t been quite so stubborn. Lyrically, he is full of regret that he never showed his love towards Helen O’Hara. he sings ” You were standing next to me in ’82 and ’83. In all that time, I barely proved I loved you. Well there’s nothing wrong but the wrong in me. You were everything you were meant to be”. In an interview in 2012, she said “To me this song is dark because when the song came out, our relationship was over. Is it (how he feels) now? Is it then?” The band gave a great performance of this song on “The Wogan Show”. Kevin Rowland is extremely exuberant and Helen O’Hara’s fiddle playing is thrilling.

The Waltz

Originally titled “Elizabeth Wimpole & Kathleen Ni Houlihan”, this slow finale to the album reflects Kevin Rowland’s feelings about Ireland. “I felt I was a long way from Ireland and I wanted to get back”. The first line of the album concerns his inability to compromise and the last song of the album confirms his vision, steadfastness and uncompromising beliefs with lines such as “I believed implicitly in the tales of the British democracy. How I swooned to the stories of Royal victories, but the books of history were fairy tale stories”

The reviews for the album were terrible. “Chartered accountants play music for chartered accountants“; “Fans of this album could meet in a phone box“; “A torpid snore that denies entertainment on every level“. In recent years, the critical reaction has completely U-turned. In 2004, The Observer has named it one of the 100 greatest British albums of all time.

Soon after the album was released, I went to see Dexy’s Midnight Runners at The Dominion in Tottenham Court Road. I went by myself and had a seat at one end of the front row. When the band played “The Occasional Flicker”, a guy dressed as a policeman walked on stage and interviewed Kevin Rowland for a few minutes before the band exploded into an electrifying full band blowout. After the concert, I hung around the stage door and got to speak with my hero. After telling him how much I enjoyed the concert, I told him that it was a great album and the critics’ views couldn’t change that. I can still recall his 1000 yard stare as he listened intently to me. This stare was also evident when he was interviewed by Richard Skinner on “Whistle Test” in which he said many memorable things but my favourite is “The first thing we do, as with any record, is to make it to our own specifications, so that we’re happy with it.” There you have it. He has a vision, a concept, an anticipation of pure joy which he pursues, despite the personal or financial cost to himself.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners did not release another album for 27 years. Having previously banned the band from drinking before going on stage, Kevin Rowland succumbed to drug addiction and only sporadically released albums: the incredible “One Day I’m Going To Soar” in 2012 and “Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul” in 2016.There have also been two solo albums, “The Wanderer” in 1988 and the wonderful “My Beauty” in 1999. There’s talk of a reworking of “Too-Rye-Ay” called “Too-Rye-Ay As It Could Have Sounded”, to be released next year.

The album was recorded in a number of different studios, with a large number of musicians and the personal toll it took on Kevin Rowland threatened to destroy him. The process of creating a masterpiece meant that the joyful nature of the music belied the difficulties and unhappiness of the musicians involved. Whereas Tony Hsieh was determined that everyone was happy working with him and sharing ideas, Kevin Rowland ensured that his vision was imposed on others regardless of the emotional damage.

In an interview in 2012, he said “‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ is completely intuitive, I’m just doing exactly what I think it should be like and how it should sound. I’m just doing what’s in my heart.” He was asked whether it was worth the anxiety and the darkness and the heartache. He hesitated and finally replied “I think it is but I don’t think I’d want to do another one“.

Kevin Rowland is a genius. He has a strong creative force which takes him to places no one else can contemplate. It has brought him incredible artistic success. Let’s hope it has also brought him happiness.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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