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Written by Dexys lead singer Kevin Rowland, trombone player Jim Paterson and guitarist Al Archer, this song was an enormous hit, going to #1 in America, the UK and Australia.
While the song will fit nicely in an '80s music time capsule, it sounded nothing like the other hits of the era. There are no synthesizers on the song, but there is banjo, accordion, fiddle and saxophone. In our interview with Kevin Rowland
, he explained how the song came together:
"We wanted a good rhythm and we found one. Lots of records we liked had that rhythm: 'Concrete and Clay,' 'It's Not Unusual
' by Tom Jones. Lots of records we liked had that 'Bomp ba bomp, bomp ba bomp.' We felt it was a good rhythm. We came up with the chord sequence ourselves and just started singing melodies over it. I remember thinking, 'We're really onto something here.'
I came up with that, 'Too ra loo ra,' and I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is sounding really good.' You get a feeling when you're writing a song. Something happens. And in the end it kind of finished itself."
This song is based on a true story. Eileen was a girl that Kevin Rowland grew up with. Their relationship became romantic when the pair were 13, and according to Rowland, it turned sexual a year or two later.
Rowland was raised Catholic and served as an altar boy in church. Sex was a taboo subject, and considered "dirty" - something that fascinated him. When he wrote this song, Rowland was expressing the feelings of that adolescent enjoying his first sexual relationship and dreaming of being free from the strictures of a buttoned-down society:
You in that dress
My thoughts I confess
Verge on dirty
The song describes the thin line between love and lust.
Dexys Midnight Runners had no American distribution for their first album, which did very well in the UK and contained a #1 hit called "Geno
"Come On Eileen" was their first single issued in US, and was the only American hit for the band - "The Celtic Soul Brothers" was served up as a follow-up single, but petered out at #86. Much of the US success for "Eileen" can be attributed to its video, which got constant airplay on MTV and remains one of the most memorable and beloved clips of the era.
Most videos at the time were slick productions featuring impossibly pretty people in unexpected locations, but Dexys' video was delightfully different, with the overall-clad band acting out the love story on a gritty street. Kevin Rowland doing an earnest jig became a defining image of the early MTV era. When we asked him about shooting it, he told us: "It was one day. We started at 6 in the morning, we finished very late at night. It just kind of worked."
When this hit #1 in the US, it knocked Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean
" off the top spot.
Dexys Midnight Runners released their first album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels
, in 1980. It contained the #1 UK hit "Geno
" and earned the band lots of acclaim in their home country of England.
For their second album Too-Rye-Ay
, the group added fiddles and switched to more of an Irish Folk sound. Kevin Rowland changed out every member except for Jim Paterson and also updated their image, going from a stylish, rustic Italian look to a ragged, unkempt appearance.
This hillbilly theme was a great complement to their new sound and made for a striking visual. Rowland sold the look by appearing in patched-up denim offstage and insisting that it was not an act. When Smash Hits
writer Dave Rimmer broached the subject in 1982, Rowland snapped: "I take deadly serious what I do. It's very important to me to be an individual. I don't care if people laugh. That's what Dexys Midnight Runners is all about: showing your feelings and not giving a damn what other people think."
The song leaves an impression with a group vocal breakdown at the end which is followed by an uptempo fiddle part. This fast section was modeled on the Hebrew wedding song "Hava Nagila
This was the biggest-selling single of 1982 in the United Kingdom.
In the UK, four songs from the album were issued as singles before "Come On Eileen" was released. The second single, "Show Me," reached #16 but the next one ("Liars A to E") failed to chart and "The Celtic Soul Brothers" topped out at #45. Kevin Rowland had become fed up with the British music press, so in lieu of interview, Dexys took out full-page ads in music magazines explaining their new album and why they refused to talk about it.
Determined to send "Eileen" up the charts, Rowland called off the media blackout and granted some interviews for the purpose of promoting the song. These talks were often contentious, with Rowland sometimes abasing journalists and dismissing any questions he didn't deem worthy of an answer. The press served its purpose, as the song was brought to the attention of the public and rocketed up the charts.
Kevin "Al" Archer was a guitarist in the early days of Dexys Midnight Runners. He left the group after their first album. Archer explained why to Mojo magazine July 2009: "Kevin (Rowland) ruled the group with a rod of iron - he wouldn't speak to us personally. After shows we'd be in a room on our own, it became 'hate Kevin Rowland time.' We were in Switzerland, we'd played to 2,000 people, and Kevin and I got on a plane to Luxembourg and the rest got in a van and went to England. That was it. Kevin got me to help form a new group, rehearsing in a freezing industrial unit in Birmingham. He was irritable, treating everyone like they were nobody. I did the (1981 single) "Plan B" demo, Kevin wasn't happy with it. It got too much. We met in the little Nibble caff in Bearwood and I said I was leaving. He never showed any emotion. He got me to go round to Billy (Adams) the new guitarist's house to teach him the new chords. I formed The Blue Ox Babes, and I lent Kevin a tape with three of our songs on including 'What Does Anybody Ever Think About.'"
Shortly afterwards this song became an international hit. Archer was not impressed as Rowland had stolen the build-up of "What Does Anybody Ever Think About" for it and Too-Rye-Aye's whole style and sound was that of The Blue Ox Babes. Rowland later admitted that the sound of Too-Rye-Aye did indeed come from Archer and paid him royalties from the album.
The band's name was inspired by the amphetamine drug Dexedrine, which is commonly known as "Dexys" (Contrary to popular belief, the band's name does not have an apostrophe). The band itself steered away from drinking and drugs, saying nothing should interfere with their dedication to music. (thanks, Beau - Phoenix, AZ)
After this album, group leader Kevin Rowland kept the band going, releasing Don't Stand Me Down in 1985 with a new set of musicians. He started a solo career, but didn't re-form Dexys until the early '00s. Their fourth album, One Day I'm Going to Soar, was finally issued in 2012. "We tried hard to get it done beforehand, but it just wasn't the right time, whether we weren't personally ready or musically ready," Jim Paterson told us. "But then suddenly, it did."
The girl representing Eileen in the video was played by Maire Fahey. The actress' sister Siobhan Fahey was a member of Bananarama ("Cruel Summer
") and Shakespear's Sister ("Stay
The band was building quite a legend at their live shows when this song took off. Rowland would often slow songs down and do vocal improvisations. When he did it during "Eileen," the crowd would sometimes simply sing over him, preferring a bawdy sing-a-long to a quiescent monologue. It should be noted that these interludes were offset by rousing performances, and that reviews of the shows reveal a good time had by all.
Producer Clive Langer recalled to Uncut
magazine August 2007: "We recorded it as James, Van and Me - James Brown, Van Morrison, and Kevin. That was the original chorus, singing about people who influenced him to write the song - like he mentions Johnny Ray. And then he came in one day and said I want to change the lyric completely, it's a working lyric. And we actually liked James, Van and Me! Because we'd been working with it and got used to it."
Kevin Rowland added: "It did give me confidence when I wrote 'Come on Eileen.' But you know, when you write something you get confidence momentarily. Clive didn't think it would be a hit! He told me that! He said it wasn't as good as Celtic Soul Brothers. And my manager didn't think it would be a hit. He said he thought it was trying too hard. The record company wanted to release 'Jackie Wilson
.' But in the studio we got some things right, and we got that right." (thanks, DeeTheWriter - Saint Petersburg, Russia Federation)
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Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes
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