Songwriter Interviews

Dexys (Kevin Rowland and Jim Paterson)

by Greg Prato

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How do you follow an enormous global hit that comes unexpectedly? It's a question that many a pop music artist has pondered over the years, including Dexys Midnight Runners (or as they go nowadays, as simply "Dexys"). In 1982, their feel-good hit, "Come On Eileen," was the top-selling single in the UK and also hit #1 in America, Ireland and Australia. Its American success was due in part to a burgeoning MTV, who put the now-classic video in hot rotation.

Originally formed in Birmingham, England in 1978, the band - which has been fronted by singer Kevin Rowland since the beginning - scored a pair of UK Top Ten albums straightaway, with 1980's Searching for the Young Soul Rebels and 1982's Too-Rye-Ay, the album that contained "Eileen." Dexys managed to successfully merge Celtic folk with new wave, pop, and soul sounds. However, the band couldn't keep it together much longer, splitting after their 1985 follow-up Don't Stand Me Down failed to replicate its predecessors' success. Reuniting in 2003, it wasn't until 2012 that the group released their fourth album, One Day I'm Going to Soar.

Rowland and another original member, trombonist Jim Paterson, chatted with us about this long-in-the-making album, how the songwriting works in the band, and how they came up with "Eileen."
Songfacts (Greg Prato): Let's start off by talking about the new Dexys album, One Day I'm Going to Soar. I guess the most obvious question is how come this is the first album in nearly three decades for the band?

Jim Paterson: Just to be honest, it wasn't ready, we weren't ready. 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. It just... didn't happen. But then suddenly, it did. Everything came into place and everything happened all at once, really.

Kevin Rowland: We just weren't ready. I know it sounds ridiculous. It's a helluva long time. But we just weren't.

I was aware of the legacy of the first three albums. I felt we did really achieve something there, and it wasn't really appreciated at the time. But by the '90s, people reappraised that. We started to get really good notices and people would be coming up to me in the street, talking about Don't Stand Me Down.

I don't know about you Jim, I think subconsciously I was aware that we needed to do something that was at least as good as that. And deep down, I don't think I really felt that we could until now.

Jim: Yeah.

Songfacts: I noticed that the album came out in 2012 in England, but not until 2013 in America. Why did it take a year for it to come out in the States?

Kevin: You got me.

Jim: Good question.

Kevin: Good question. And one I don't know the answer to. I really don't know. I think we were talking about playing live over there and there was somebody who was going to sort that out. It was in other people's hands. We weren't really involved in that side of things.

Songfacts: I understand. Let's talk about the band's songwriting. How would you say that the band approaches songwriting?

Jim: Given how Kevin writes the lyrics, that's a foregone conclusion. And that's always been the case and that's why it's always worked: because it's a personal thing.

Especially on this LP, it's been a narrative and it's always been coming from Kevin. Musically, it's been a collaboration with four or five different people, mostly Kevin and I, both of us. Not in the last LP, but the one before that and this one. So, it's been quite a lot of different people altogether.

Kevin: Yeah. And, how do we approach it? Well, we're quite methodical about it, ain't we, Jim?

Jim: Oh, yeah. It's an art and it's a skill, so you've got to learn these things. You've got to listen and take ideas from other people, I suppose.

Kevin: What we normally do is start with a good chord sequence and a good rhythm. Let's find a really good rhythm, a drum beat, and let's find a really good chord sequence. We'll put those two things together that are working, and then we start singing melodies over the top. Then we listen back and see what we got.

I always write the lyrics separately. I'll go away and write them around what I'm hearing in the track. Something might inspire me, might evoke a certain feeling in me and I'll go away and write the lyric. Or quite often, as I did with a song I've written recently, I just go through my lyric book. I've got a lyric book with a few lyrics in it, and I'll think, "Oh, this ought to fit." That's how we do it.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Jim: Simon & Garfunkel, I love their songs.

Kevin: Burt Bacharach for me is a great one.

Jim: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Kevin: I think he's one of the greatest. But we don't love songwriters - we love records. For instance, one of my favorite records of all time is "I Say A Little Prayer." It's a Burt Bacharach song produced I think by Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd is it? [Dowd and Mardin are listed as arrangers; Jerry Wexler credited as producer.] And sung by Aretha Franklin. [Americans know the song from Dionne Warwick's version, but Aretha had the hit with it in the UK.] You've got it all going on there. You've got a great song. But it does all start with a song. I think Van is a great songwriter, Van Morrison. I think Dylan is a great songwriter.

Jim: Carole King.

Kevin: Yeah, Carole King. I think Bryan Ferry in early Roxy Music was a great songwriter then.

Jim: Yeah. I mean, the whole teams of songwriters, as well.

Kevin: Oh, yeah.

Songfacts: I'd like to get your memories of writing and recording certain songs. You have a song called "She Got A Wiggle" on the new album. How did that come about?

Kevin: That was a mistake, that chorus. Wasn't it Jim?

Jim: It probably was, yeah. I can't remember exactly…

Kevin: We wrote it in my flat in West Hampstead, in London.

Jim: Oh, all right. Okay. I remember it now, yeah. So was it a mistake?

Kevin: Well, we were trying to operate some kind of program on this machine thing, the keyboard, and it did something different on the chorus than what we wanted it to do. And we liked it.

Jim: There you go - it was divine intervention.

Kevin: We kept it. It was a happy accident.

Jim: Yeah, exactly.

Kevin: Me and Jim were going to clubs in London in '88, '89. Acid house clubs, and they had this kind of ethereal vibe to them. It was in the early days of house music, and we wanted to capture that, but on this more of a slowed down groove.

And the song was written about somebody who I was in lust with.

In America, Dexys are ensconced as one-hit-wonders, but with good company: overachieving Brits in this category include Thomas Dolby, Soft Cell, Big Country and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Dexys only other chart entry in the US was "The Celtic Soul Brothers," which peaked at #86 two months after "Come On Eileen" topped the chart. Like all of their output, the song fared much better in their homeland, making #20 in the UK.
Songfacts: And then backing up a little bit, what do you remember about the recording of "Celtic Soul Brothers"?

Kevin: Wow.

Jim: "Celtic Soul Brothers." Well, we were both going through an emotional time there, about the same, is it. It's not as patriotic as it sounds, really. I can't remember what the lyrics say, to be honest.

Kevin: Well, one of the things I remember about it is that we wanted a good rhythm, so we got that. And we were a little bit influenced by a Bacharach song at the beginning. Which was [humming and ] "To walk along with me..." "Always Something There to Remind Me." I think it was Burt Bacharach and Hal David who wrote that.

Songfacts: I remember that song.

Kevin: We liked the phrase, so we used that [singing], "Introducing"... but we changed it and [singing], "And the Celtic Soul Brothers." So we did that with the melody. And the song was about the band, me and Jim, really, the Celtic soul brothers. Jim's Scottish, I'm Irish.

Songfacts: I just looked it up. It was Bacharach and David who wrote that song.

Kevin: Yeah, I thought it was. That's a great song. We often do that. We put a song on and we say, "We want to write something as good as this." We might use one phrase, but it's not really nicked because the chords are different, so the harmony's different. The harmony of the melody over the chord.

Songfacts: And what do you remember about the writing and recording of "Come On Eileen."

Kevin: Right. The writing... again, we wanted a really good, jaunty rhythm. We felt under pressure. We really needed to write a song that would make the record company take us seriously, because the single before, which was "The Celtic Soul Brothers," hadn't done well.

We wrote those around the same time, really, "Celtic Soul Brothers" and "Come On Eileen." 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.

Then they had the breakdown and speed-up section. My friend, Kevin Archer [the band's guitarist for their first album], he had that in a song that he'd written, which I heard. His was a different melody. A different melody and a different rhythm, and different lyrics. But it was a speed-down, a breakdown, and a speed-up, like "Hava Nagila." Do you know "Hava Nagila"?

Songfacts: Yes. I know that song.

Kevin: Yeah. That kind of thing.

Songfacts: And what do you remember about the filming of that song's video?

Kevin: It was one day. We started at 6 in the morning, we finished very late at night. It just kind of worked.

Jim: Yeah. I wasn't on it, so I couldn't say.

Kevin: You weren't on that video, were you?

Jim: No, I wasn't. I was "on standby." I wasn't there.

The group's first album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, produced the #1 UK hit "Geno" and lots of creative differences. By their next album, only Kevin and Jim remained from the original assemblage. There was another purge for the third album, with Jim leaving and Kevin recording with an entirely new set of musicians.
Songfacts: Jim, from what I understand you played on the album but you didn't appear in the video or anything after the album came out, is that what happened?

Jim: Yeah, I kind of left. It wasn't acrimonious, it was just I left in a rush, without thinking things too clearly.

Kevin: They were quite hard times, really. We were working too hard. Well, not too hard, but we worked very hard, didn't we, Jim? We were practicing all day and then writing every night.

Jim: Yeah. Luckily, we were young enough and fit enough to do it mentally and physically, which is good. It is tiring work. You've got a lot of responsibilities, like photographs and all that stuff that goes with it. Just tired.

Songfacts: Looking back at the success after the Too Rye Ay album, is there anything that you would change?

Kevin: Well, I never think about that, Greg. I try not to look back. But I would have slowed down the promotion thing. I'd also have got Jim back in the band. I'd have gone around to see Jim and said, "Jim, we've got a session trombone player and we need you, mate." Because what happened is Jim had left, a couple of other guys had left, and we had Seb [Shelton, drums] and Billy [Adams, guitar] and they were great, and Helen [O'Hara, fiddle]. But half the band was session players and it just wasn't the same.It was ironic that we'd had all that success, but the year before we were probably better when Jim and I and a couple of others were in the band. It didn't mean as much.

But what would I have done differently? I'd have tried to enjoy it more. I'd have done a lot of things differently. I would definitely have gone around to see Jim. But I never think about that stuff anymore. We were young, you know.

Jim: I think it was meant to happen. It was a long wait, but we finally got there, I suppose.

Kevin: We've done it now, man. We're happy with the album we've done. It's all right, really.

Jim: looking forward to conquering the USA there. North, South America, Europe, Asia, everyone needs to see this show, so we're looking forward to it all.

Two years after the band's 1986 split, Kevin's solo debut, The Wanderer, was issued. Its three singles - "Walk Away," "Tonight," and "Young Man" - had little impact on the UK charts (the second single reached the highest: #81). In 1999, Rowland tried the solo route again, with the release of an all-covers album, My Beauty, which also didn't do well commercially - although the video for "Concrete and Clay" was certainly an attention grabber. But everything has fallen back into place musically for Rowland and his old Dexys mates upon first listen of One Day I'm Going to Soar, which has been extremely well-received in the UK, reaching #13 on the charts (and keep in mind, it had been a whopping 27 years since their last studio release).
Songfacts: Kevin, do you think that the My Beauty album cover and the "Concrete and Clay" video were both misunderstood, looking back?

Kevin: I don't know how they were understood or not, really. You know, I thought they were pretty good.

I did what I felt was right. How people perceive it is out of my control. It's 15 years ago now, so it's hard for me to even remember it, but it wasn't a pleasant time. Doing the album was good and doing the video was good, but the reaction to it I did take personally - it did affect me, did hurt me. I don't think I really want to say any more than that. I don't want to dwell on it. We've just put out an album now we're really happy with.

Songfacts: The last question I have is how do you think One Day I'm Going to Soar compares to previous Dexys albums?

Kevin: You know what, I don't know if I can do that. I'm not sure if I'm the best placed person to do that, Greg. Maybe you are. You know what I mean? We just made it. I just made an album from my heart, like we always do. And Jim did. We wrote those songs from our hearts and we play them to the best of our ability and we feel we're really happy with it. It turned out probably better than I'd hoped for. It was worth the wait, it was all leading to this. So how it compares to the others, I don't think that's my job, really. I'm too close to it to even think about that, really. And the others, man, that was someone else. That was like 25, 26, 27 years ago. Someone else, then, really.

It could have been three years after, Greg, it'd be different. But it's like a first album.

February 2, 2014.
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Comments: 1

  • JimboAlways liked old Kev since the day he gave his phone number out live on a national radio station. Maverick only half describes him.
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