TIME TO STAND UP
"Don't Stand Me Down" by Dexy's Midnight Runners, their album release in 1986, has long been considered shorthand for career suicide in the record industry. Nobody liked it, nobody bought it, nobody went to the tour that supported it. The band broke up.
Three years earlier they topped the charts all over the world as squadrons of dance floor drunks grabbed each other around the shoulders and sang 'Too-Rye-Ay' as if they were attending a Central European wedding.
So I pulled out a rather fetching deep burgundy vinyl copy and decided to try again. Not least because the critics now consider it a lost classic and one of the 1001 records you must hear before you die.
Is this a platter now serving up humble pie?
At the time, even the vaguely positive reviews called the record 'challenging' and it certainly is that. But then that is an accurate refection of the band's figurehead leader, Kevin Rowland who had always been driven by a sense of vision for his band and their output. Their visual styling was always intended to represent a gang and inevitably one of outsiders. His sheer obstinacy was angel and devil in all of his creative outputs as he seemed always determined to provide albums of the very highest quality.
In the earliest incarnation of the band (the "On The Waterfront" garb for "Geno"), he was very clear about this gang mentality. He insisted that all band members quit their jobs, signed on for benefit, gave up pre-gig alcohol and rehearsed from 9 to 5. It made their performance sharp and their sound tough but ultimately the atmosphere within the band increasingly irritable particularly towards their leader, Rowland.
At this point, hacked off in the extreme and despite the success of "Searching For The Young Soul Rebels", most of the band quit to form a band called The Bureau and his co-writer, Kevin Archer also left to join Blue Ox Babes. It is in this slight that I believe the downfall of "Don't Stand Me Down" four years later begins because Rowland's unfailing mission for a new soul vision became overtaken by a desire to get one over on his old bandmates.
Another line-up change and subsequent fallout, a new look as 40s boxers, some failed singles and a new record label led in 1982, to the release of one of the most well-known, beloved and best-selling singles of all time, "Come On Eileen" and its album, "Too-Rye-Aye".
Everything about this era of Dexys is aimed full tilt at success. The reinvention of their sound into a hybrid Celtic Soul, reminiscent of Van Morrison's "Into the Music", and their striking visual presentation as rag-tag dungaree-ed gypsies captivated audiences the world over. Band members even had to change their names to sound more Irish - again the gang mentality. The album was littered with hooks, melodies and sounded like nothing else in the synthesiser dominated charts. For two years, they toured the world as the album's success went on to great things.
And there had been no chart action for either of his former bandmates projects.
It could not have turned out any better for Rowland except he now had an outfit that appealed to the pop kids with a set of tunes he now hated playing and he had diverted from his original 'new soul vision'.
Success proved a blessing and a curse. He had the power to go and create just about whatever he wanted - and he set out to do just that with "Don't Stand Me Down". Now he could get his project back on track - no more pop, no more deceitful bandmates, no more interference.
Famous producers came and went including Jimmy Miller and Tom Dowd. The recording went on for months at great expense. The record suffered countless delays - the final one over a dispute over the colour used on the cover - the deep burgundy was very meaningful it would seem.
The band's image which had always been so important to them also underwent radical change. Rowland wanted almost a non-image - Business-like, Preppy, Besuited - a long way from the Celtic Soul Brothers of previous memory. One reviewer said they looked like double-glazing salesmen and they did. They certainly didn't look like Young Soul Rebels anymore.
All very post-modern and clever but it certainly put the browsing 80s music audience off, used to flash bang wallop with plenty of hairgel and eyeliner, whatever the genre you tended to prefer. You certainly needed to look the part and the Dexy's Midnight Runners of 1985 studiously tried not to.
Interestingly, the 2002 reissue of the album as the Director's Cut has a complete different look with three of the band in bright colourful 50s style plaid. The cover could at least have appeared more enticing on the racks rather than a flyer for a Bromsgrove Estate Agents. They certainly look like pop-stars.
We haven't even put the stylus on the record yet and it seems we're not feeling positive.
So when you play the album, your first impression is a lot of talking. Rowland seemed to think that there was merit in conversation as a lyrical medium - he had put a similar poetry piece in "Love Pt 1" on the band's first album. A whole track called "Reminisce Part II" rambles on about his time with an old girlfriend and the songs they used to listen to; while the start of the extremely long "This Is What She's Like" is peppered with conversation but begins with a very downbeat and paranoid chat between Rowland and guitarist, Billy Adams. In all of this I am reminded a little of fellow Brummie, Graeme Edge's poetic contributions to the Moody Blues.
In fact, much of Rowland's writing feels like stream of consciousness even in the more vocal pieces; not unlike the old 'Dear Robin' letter in the wonderful "There There My Dear" from 1980. The opener "The Occasional Flicker" throws us straight away into the inner workings of Rowland's anxious yet alert mind and this music conversation continues throughout with moments of glittering brightness and thoughtful darkness together with what feels a lot of grey.
And whilst Dexys were aways a strong singles band, there were no real singles on it apart from a largely ignored edit of the 12 minute mini-opera "This Is What She's Like". No wonder it was termed challenging because there is so much to attempt to chew and it is not in the customary bite-size portions of most mid-80s pop albums.
"This Is What She's Like" is, in fact, as good a place to start as any in trying to rehabilitate the record because it is very much its centrepiece and is a real rollercoaster ride between, conversation, poetry, horn stabs, string sequences, different pacings - all bound within what feels more like an old-style Dexys soul stomper but only when it gets going. It manages to be personal and political, introspective and expansive, snarling and adoring whilst musically it feels like a distillation of everything Dexys have ever done up to that point welded together with Rowland's undoubted passion.
It was never a single in any time length (you get the full thing here - so bear with it).
"One Of Those Things" might have been however, borrowing a sample of Warren Zevon's piano loop from "Werewolves Of London" long before Kid Rock committed his later heinous musical crime in "All Summer Long". In the initial release, they didn't own up to the "loan" of the riff which seems a musically unprincipled act from someone so used to ensuring his principles were given a regular airing. Its main problem is that its first chorus largely savaged the playlist of the largest UK radio broadcaster whilst the second decided to take on the thorny issue of socialism and Northern Ireland, which in 1985 were not considered comfortable listening.
Again, its heartfelt and meaningful but filled with too much scorn to seriously consider any likelihood of support. As one of their contemporaries would go on to say "Hang The DJ".
"Knowledge Of Beauty" which was renamed "My Nation's Pride" for the reissue and "The Waltz" seem to borrow also from the Van Morrison playbook with the Celtic strings of Helen O'Hara punctuating Rowland's most plaintive vocal performances on the album. The tracks though are perhaps too long and therefore ramble a little - which makes an interesting comparison with the contemporaneous "Fisherman's Blues" from the Waterboys which managed to be much much tighter. It is another album that is looked at far more fondly now than it was at the time. But they again are infused with belief and care especially in their delightful instrumental codas.
Rowland had used Vincent Crane on keyboards who was formerly with Atomic Rooster and Tim Dance who had been playing with Al Green to add even more authentic impact to a sound that already had more tough grooves than most other chart competitors.
And there, tucked away towards the end of side 2 is the missing link for me. "I Love You (Listen To This)" is the single that never was and feels like the nexus point for all of Dexys influences themes and stylings. For me it feels like the the place where the young soul rebels should ultimately come to congregate. It has verve, bounce and crashes along. It does not feel bound by its need to be important or the limits of any agenda other than to create a great soul single. The Style Council would probably have killed for this much authenticity.
So, the critics were partly right because "Don't Stand Me Down" is challenging and it is uncompromising. The wilful behaviour of the band's leader and his egocentricity were undoubtedly major contributors to the record's abject commercial failure. They waited too long to release a follow-up and the band looked and sounded unrecognisable from their previous iterations so their fanbase simply sauntered off. It would lead to the demise of the band and some especially dark times for Kevin Rowland in the coming years.
With the benefit of time and a blog to express myself, I would suggest that the album is also an advertisement for the LP format, itself. You really need to sit down and listen to it from beginning to end undistracted and then listen to it all over again. It is complex but filled with all sorts of flourishes that only Dexys could add that make each listen more enjoyable.
The record is infused with passion - Rowland's passion - a passion to get back on track; a passion to distance himself from his previous incarnation and a passion still to show his critics and erstwhile bandmates that he knew what he was the ultimate bandleader. Whilst that might manifest itself in over-elaboration and self-indulgence, the record has a lot to enjoy. But the record-buying public were not wrong, it simply tries too hard to be magnificent, to battle too many demons, to be considered essential and all of this contributes to its ultimate failure.
But it's a truly magnificent failure.
Click HERE to give it a listen and see if you agree.