Monday, May 25, 2009

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Come On Eileen," by Dexys Midnight Runners

Kevin Rowland was a hairdresser in late 1970s London, trying to break into the music biz, when he formed his first band, Lucy and the Lovers, supposedly influenced by Roxy Music. They released a single, which didn't go anywhere, so Rowland broke up that band and started a punk group called the Killjoys, which cut a few singles and even appeared on the BBC's legendary Peel Sessions.

Rowland used his hairdressing skills to give the other dudes punk dos, but they still hated him. Band members kept dropping in and out - at one point, a guitarist named Kevin Archer joined up, but Rowland insisted he be called "Al Archer" so there would only be one Kevin in the band. The Killjoys got offered a contract but Rowland rejected it, because it was only for a series of singles, not an album, which pissed off the other members. After 18 months, before they ever put an LP together, the Killjoys broke up.

Rowland then decided that Irish soul was the next big thing, so he and Archer assembled a band complete with a horn section called Dexys [sic] Midnight Runners, named after Dexedrine. Their first single, "Dance Stance," flopped, but the second one, "Geno," a tribute to a soul singer named Geno Washington, went all the way to Number One in the U.K. in May 1980. By the end of the year, they had put out a debut album with the preposterous title Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, but still, everyone quit the band in short order, with the exception of the trombonist.

Rowland soldiered on, assembling an almost entirely new group under the Dexy brand. He also began a practice of rigorous exercise, expecting all the band members to go running together and to do group calisthenics before shows. He also changed their look from what he called "straight out of De Niro's Mean Streets" to hoodies and boxing boots. This incarnation put out a couple of singles in 1981, but before 1982 dawned, Rowland changed direction again.

The new Dexys added a trio of Irish fiddlers and began dressing like down-at-the-heels farmers from somewhere outside Wexford. They released an album called Too-Rye-Ay, and although the first single flopped, the second was "Come On Eileen." Released in the U.S very early in 1983, it became an MTV staple, in large part due to the enormous appeal of "Eileen" (portrayed by the sister of one of the girls in Bananarama), who appeared clad in overalls with nothing underneath. This vision was only partially negated by repeated shots of Rowland's armpits. Legend has it that the drummer, very visible in the daylight parts of the shoot, had been fired by the time they finished the video that night. I believe it.

"Come On Eileen" entered the Top Forty on February 26, 1983, and hit Number One on April 23rd. It stayed there for only a single week, sandwiched between Michael Jackson's twin colossi "Billie Jean" and "Beat It." The followup single was a cover of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said," which was a Top Ten hit in the U.K. but did nothing here. Not only did Dexys never return to the Top Forty here, but apparently they never even made it back to the Hot 100.

Dexys' followup to Too-Rye-Ay, Don't Stand Me Down, didn't come out till 1985, with the band (now down to four members) featured on the album cover in slicked-down hair and business suits. Ever the artiste, Rowland refused to release a single from the album - until it became apparent that the album, which was critically panned, wasn't going to sell anything.

Following that disaster, Rowland went solo. In 1993, he released an album of cover versions, My Beauty ("The Long and Winding Road," "Daydream Believer," etc.; he wanted to include a version of "Thunder Road" reworked with his own lyrics, but Springsteen didn't approve of the rewrite). The cover showed him in a dress, and not just in a dress but a dress pulled down to reveal his scrawny chest and hiked up to reveal a pair of black panties. It allegedly sold fewer than 500 copies. I believe it.

Dexys reunited (with which incarnation of the band, I couldn't tell you) for a tour and a greatest-hits album in 2003. Rowland recently announced he wants to go back in the studio and is looking for a record deal. Aren't we all.

But hey, "Come On Eileen" was really good. Watch out for that disappearing drummer:


Innocent Bystander said...

What an awesome post!

I especially love this line: "Rowland used his hairdressing skills to give the other dudes punk dos, but they still hated him."


Marshall said...

I'm shocked that denim overalls never really caught on.

Anonymous said...

Surprisingly complete account of a group regarded as 'One Hit Wonders' in the USA even though they were far from that in the UK. However I have to disappoint you regarding the drummer - Seb Shelton continued to perform with Dexys for about a year after that video was shot. Nice rumour though!

Anonymous said...