We caught up with Dexys Midnight Runners’ frontman Kevin Rowland and he spoke with about everything from his childhood to his unstoppable creativity. It was an interview that, as well as being a charming conversation with a British musical legend, it also gave us a peek inside the creative mind of an icon.
“A lot of people your age seem to love Quadrophenia,” Kevin Rowland tells us. “I have a friend who’s about thirty, and it’s one of his favourite films. I liked it, but the thing for me was, growing up in that time, some of the clothes just weren’t right. I grew up in the sixties.”
The singer continues, “I was too young to join the mods, but I watched them and saw what they were doing and wearing. No one had a jacket like the one Sting wears in that film, and Phil Daniels, he’s a very good actor, but some of the clothes he wore weren’t right.” Rowland chuckles, keenly aware that there aren’t many in the world as fixated on fashion as he is. Rowland, for one, knows how to put on a good dress, even if this dress nearly bottled his musical career.
Much like David Bowie, rock’s premier androgyne, Rowland is recognised as much for the outlandish costumes that decorated his body, as he is for the quirky, quavering words that came through his mouth. As was the custom of The Thin White Duke, Rowland’s songcraft has always stemmed from pure, undiluted creativity, just as the Dexys penchant for soul matched Ziggy Stardust’s taste for the genre. But when it comes to the clothes Rowland wore on his fabled, far-reaching My Beauty, Rowland draws a line to the comparison: “The dress has nothing to do with Bowie. Nothing at all. It was just where I was, and I thought I looked good in it!”
Indeed he did, and still does, but it stood at odds with the outfits, colours and postures many of the more successful Britpop acts had worn. More than that, this style matched none of the clothes Rowland and his fellow merry bandmates[Dexys Midnight Runners] had boasted during the florid eighties. That this rockstar-once a handsome, clandestine poet, shrouded by Celtic fatalism and brisk, bohemian clout should return with nothing to his name but a dress (“Men’s dresses with much feminine influence,” Rowland attests), and standards from another decade, left many to query Rowland’s intentions.
These criticisms, nominally reserved for dissenters, tv presenters and music critics, took on a more physical form as the singer found himself more and more vulnerable to aggressive feedback.
“I wasn’t consciously saying anything in the new ‘Rag Doll’ video, but there’s no doubt that times have changed,” Rowland explains. “And, for the better, I think! That’s what the ‘Rag Doll’ video is about. Interestingly, the video says I was bottled at Glastonbury, but it was actually at Reading. Again, that’s another myth. I didn’t want to do gigs, although I probably should have done in hindsight. I asked Alan McGee if he could get me in at V Festival, which was new at the time. He said he probably couldn’t get me there, but he could get me into Reading.”
Rowland continues: “I did three songs to a backing track. It was just me, with the dress on, singing three songs. Some bottles were thrown, but it can’t have been more than six, seven or maybe eight. I was on the third song, and told them that ‘I was singing to the best of my abilities’, and ‘could you stop the next person from throwing at me?’ Everyone cheered, and I finished the song with gusto. The myth has been that I was bottled offstage, but that’s not true.”
Pop legend would indicate that the frontman, now in the throes of middle age, had fallen foul to that most dreaded of midlife crises. Legend, as it has since time eternal, can spin a yarn to whatever way it suits the author’s line of thinking. Rowland, who now bears the Herculean task of dispelling these stories, can attest that much of what you think you know is untrue. “There’s a lot of myths about this album [My Beauty], ” Rowland sighs. ”There’s this myth that’s been going around that Bruce Springsteen refused us to allow the changes. That’s not true. I’d signed with Creation and presented them with the idea of a Dexys album. I said that before we made the Dexys album, I’d like to do this album with all these songs that meant so much to me. That was fine.”
The singer continued, “to make the songs more truthful to me, I had to change some of the lyrics. I hand-wrote Springsteen a letter and put the demo with it. I told the management I wanted him to get this. By the time we were getting to the artwork a year later, I was told they’d never actually sent it to him. So, they said they’d fax him. They got to his publishers, who, like my publishers, said no out of principle. So, we said we’d leave it off the album.”
Things have changed now though thanks to some locational changes, “These days, my management is in America, so this time around we got to contact Bruce Springsteen. I said I really respect the original ‘Thunder Road’, but to bring more of myself into it, I had to make these changes. There was no problem with it. I’ve heard that somewhere online Bruce Springsteen said my version was ‘neat’; but I don’t know how true that is.”
Rowland channelled that innate sense of despondency into some of the most arresting pieces of music that his 40-year career has yet produced. Beneath these dressings (literal and musical), stood a man even more exposed than the valiant, vulnerable half draped figurine who appeared on the album cover. Even now, as it had been for Rowland in adolescence and early adulthood, music proved a searching, soulful faction from which he could present himself properly to the world.
“I remember hearing ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ in a club. I must have been seventeen. It was too fucking right of McCartney to release the song. Lennon was good for that too: ‘…Bloody Sunday’, ‘Luck of the Irish’. In this club, they normally played soul music, which you had to learn how to dance to, if you wanted to dance with a girl. And suddenly ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ comes on at the end of the night. I told my parents about it, because the room erupted. I realised everyone there was like me: second-generation Irish. There were Irish people living all over London back then, in places like Harrow and Wembley. Irish unity, I feel, is closer than it ever was in my lifetime; there’s an enthusiasm from the other 26 counties. I wouldn’t say it was brave to write like we did, but the perception back then was if you disagreed with The Daily Mail or whoever, you were a terrorist! When we did the Don’t Stand Me Down album, I wrote the lyric about Irish people with ‘all the previous wild black curly hair”… Don’t Stand Me Down is probably the best of the eighties albums.”
Ireland further clothed the singer with an identity that was his and his alone. With its jaunty violin echo and resonantly humming foundation, Dexys Midnight Runners yearningly romantic ‘Come On Eileen’— still a showband mainstay nearly forty years after it was initially released—gifted the Irish diaspora their own bona fide Celtic hit.
One of the more closely arranged records that hit the saturated, synth-laden radio stations, ‘Come On Eileen’ offered British listeners the chance to embrace an alternative Ireland that wasn’t fixated on balaclavas, bombs or broken provisions. Those who followed Dexys Midnight Runners more avidly could salute Rowland’s crusade to cherish the literary proletariat (Burn It Down); congratulate the untethered traditions that united the various isles through music (The Celtic Soul Brothers); or journey with the vocalist’s kaleidoscopic memories of a clear, crystalline Mayo (Knowledge of Beauty). Each album based itself on the presence, prescience and portrait of the artist as he was in the 1980s.
By the time he unveiled My Beauty, his first recorded offering in over a decade, Rowland had emerged with a different image, interest and outlook to life, but the commitment he prided so resolutely was as fixed as it had ever been. “I went through a strange time. I entered into recovery from a cocaine addiction in 1993. I’d started in 1990, but it was in 1993 that I fully pulled myself together. The songs that made the album were the soundtrack from that period. Before this, I don’t think any of the songs would have been personal favourites of mine: maybe Concrete and Clay would have been, but none of the others…I was re-discovering myself, and in some ways, I felt like a child again. That’s when I started wearing a sarong because I thought it looked good on me. I was doing what felt truthful and honest, and what I was singing was truthful and honest. You could say that I work intuitively, and I would definitely describe My Beauty as a document of the time. I would approach it differently if I were doing it now. We used some great harmonica on the album. We use it tastefully, sparingly and it just sounds great. The harmonica we used is a chromatic harmonica; it’s the type of harmonica Stevie Wonder plays. It’s the one with a hole on the side.”
Though ultimately the product of influences are far deeper than rock, Rowland’s rise in the music charts coincided with the public’s reignited interest in the genre. As a singer who recognised the vitality of Quadrophenia and The Long Good Friday offered viewers, Rowland approached the material with the tenacity a hardened filmmaker tackles a screenplay. And reader: cover albums do not come finer! “I think it’s more a reinterpretation of the songs,” Rowland says. “To me, cover albums were the albums of the sixties, fifties even. Here in England, they’d find the popular American songs, and record them in that style before the American originals came in. They released them just before the American records arrived, but these covers were very much modelled on the originals. Here, these were songs that I identified with and wanted to do them my way. I know on the first day we put down three tracks. We did ‘The Greatest Love of All’, ‘Rag Doll’ and another one. But we recorded three.”
Surfeited with astonishing vocals, the record veers from the thunderous (‘Concrete and Clay’, ’Daydream Believer’) to the introspective (‘It’s Getting Better’, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’) with dazzling, dramatic insight. Comforted by the smouldering, soothing tones that emanate from the vocalist’s personal record collection, listeners are given the rare opportunity to witness an artist rebuilding any semblance of opinion he once had of himself. In the middle of these cautious, controlled ballads comes ‘Rag Doll’ the album’s jauntiest moment, and a joyful celebration of love at that.
Launching from the piano that punches beneath him, Rowland embarks on a series of scat vocals, eager to flare up at the earliest, earthiest opportunity. And then it happens, as the Dexys frontman lifts up, and lunges into the microphone with a shrill, soulful attack. Latching onto the choralists who close out the shimmering track, Rowland discards any undue notions that might have held him back and delivered the most extraordinary vocal he has yet committed to tape. Then there’s ‘Reflections of My Life’, a sprawling ballad that, to my ears, is every bit the equal of Marmalade’s triumphant original.
“Someone asked me recently why I use so much speaking in my songs. Because it adds to it, it helps make the song better. It’s like adding strings or adding colour. It helps make the song better. I tell you what it’s like… Do you know Pink Floyd’s Dark Side? There’s the Irish guy, who says, ‘I don’t know, I was really drunk at the time’. It’s like that. So on our demo of ‘Reflections of My Life’, we had that spoken line: ‘I know what you mean.’ When we were recording the song, we wanted to add that line in. You know, to make it more universal for everybody. It’s actually the studio engineer who says that line: we convinced him to say it for us!”
“There were people online slagging my version of ‘Reflections of My Life,” Rowland chuckles. “They were saying it wasn’t as good as Marmalade’s version. But then Junior Campbell, who co-wrote the song, said that no, it’s good. He said we were doing something different with it.” Unique in his mantras, meditations and manifestos, Marmalade’s guitarist could not have paid Dexys chief songwriter a greater compliment. ‘The Long and Winding Road’, much as typified The Beatles bassist’s fragmented mind in 1970, provides listeners with an insight into the workings of Rowland’s fiery milieu.
Then there’s ‘The Greatest Love of All’, a recording the vocalist feels is something of a personal triumph: “I first heard ‘The Greatest Love of All’ in 1990. I mean, I must have heard it before, but this was the first time I really listened to it. I don’t know what it was, but it really connected with me. I don’t think it was a conscious artistic choice for it to start the album, but I did make some choices with the lyrics. There’s that line, ‘I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadow”.
Rowland stops to compose himself. “Well, that’s all well and good, but that’s not where I am. When I sing it, I sing [bellows out the line] ‘I decided long ago, I didn’t want to walk in anyone’s shadow’: That’s where I was, and that’s who I was.” Unfortunately, who he was, was not the man his public wanted him to be. As ever with acts of beauty, both the dress and the album were met with disdainful, even violent, reactions. Undeterred, Rowland continued on his musical path, this time with Dexys—as they were now renamed—guiding the limelight. The shows Dexys performed at the beginning of the millennium were brilliant, and their follow up recordings were even better. One Day I’m Going To Soar remains, by some measure, the most astonishing album that was released in 2012 (“Some of the songs were very honest on that album: ‘Nowhere Is Home’ and especially ‘Incapable of Love’”).
Collating a lifetime of influences, Rowland directed a theatre piece that transported listeners from the doldrums of society into the annals of dazzling, dizzying imagination. One Day I’m Going To Soar, Rowland’s most assured work was a deserved critical favourite and helped place the artist in the mercurial, modern-day pantheon of songwriters. (Since conducting this interview, Dexys participated in one of Tim Burgess’ seminal ‘ Listening Parties’ on Twitter. One Day I’m Going To Soar was elected as the album of choice, and the reaction on Twitter, as expected, was infectious.)
With Rowland’s voice authenticated in its rightful place, this soul rebel-who had spent the eighties shouting out praises for the Irish writers ignored by the British populous could return to the Emerald Isle’s songbook with greater purpose. “I had the idea to do an album of Irish songs in the eighties, which we were going to call Irish. Just Irish. I don’t want to say that Don’t Stand Me Down was hard, because Billy, Helen and I had a great time making it, and we’re tremendous friends. But, we were definitely tired after finishing Don’t Stand Me Down, so we needed to take a break from it all. And then, Van Morrison did something similar with Irish Heartbeat. I guess it’s a vanity thing, wanting to be the first to do something, so I thought we should leave it.
“Years later, after we’d done One Day I’m Going To Soar, I thought we should do the Irish album again. We wanted to do something completely different to One Day I’m Going Soar, but by then, I wanted to do other songs as well as Irish songs,” remembers Rowland. “I really like the version we made of ‘Both Sides Now’. We were hoping that it could have been a hit, but it didn’t make the playlists here. The Joni Mitchell original, I think, is still on the radio playlists, and if they have the original, they won’t play the new version. It came out quickly in the studio, though. Tim Cansfield played the guitar part that you hear, and we recorded it as it is. Some songs need a lot of work, but that one came out naturally. You can hear it on Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul.”
Before you do that, you could listen to the offerings Rowland recorded at a time of musical and personal revival. It stands, as any would stand, victorious in the face of great adversity. Any album recorded with the honesty My Beauty exudes was bound to find an audience sooner or later, both for his choice of material, and the commitment he shows to the tracks that spoke so dearly to him. Rowland’s art continues to push musical boundaries, but My Beauty remains one of the singer’s purer works. It is, in a sense, a portrait of the artist as a new man.
“I know from experience with Don’t Stand Me Down that one bad review can ripple through others. We got a lot of good reviews for One Day I’m Going to Soar. The first review, which I think was from Word Magazine, gave us a really bad review, and I hoped the rest wouldn’t follow like that. Luckily, it got a lot of five star reviews. I don’t have a lot of new music planned- there’s some Dexy reissues coming up-but I think there’s a lot of great stuff on My Beauty. ‘The Greatest Love Of All’ has a powerful vocal sound. And it’s a very personal album,which is strange in a way, because I didn’t write any of it [laughs].”
Kevin Rowland ‘My Beauty: Remastered Edition’ out on CD and vinyl 25 September (Reissued by Cherry Red).