The school holidays were six weeks long. I was in my dead grandmother’s house in Athens, bored out of my mind while my older brother – homesick and in love with wedge-haired rouge-streaked Caroline Fellowes – played The Doors‘ 13 compilation on a single-speaker tape recorder over and over again. For all of that, I was relieved to be bored; relieved to be away from my pipe-smoking form teacher Mr Newton, who looked like Lech Walesa, ran the chess club and sought to alleviate the tedium by picking on pubescent halfwits like me.
It was all a bit shit, to be honest, but it would have been shitter had it not been for Eddie Holmes. Eddie was the toughest kid in the year. Self-doubt literally wasn’t in his vocabulary. The morning after his first wank, he proudly marched into the playground and told us that he’d “spunked up.” Then he proceeded to ask every single other boy in our class if they too had spunked up. Everyone said yes, except for me. At 13, I was already becoming unbearably supercilious. Within a year, I’d be writing Doors lyrics all over my exercise books and feeling superior because of it. Boys like Eddie normally bullied boys like me, but for some reason Eddie liked me. In fact, Eddie was the only person in my class who liked me. Maybe he’d seen one too many BBC childrens series in which the handy alpha male had a nerdy friend called Brains, and together they formed a ying-yang shield of invincibility. Maybe he just needed a Goose for his Maverick.
Whatever our differences, one thing Eddie and I did have in common was that we were both Dexys Midnight Runners fans – him a little more than me, if truth be told. He continued to buy their singles even when they didn’t chart. A year had elapsed since Dexys’ last hit. In modern pop terms, that’s practically the space between breakfast and lunch, but for most of my classmates in July 1982, Dexys were over a long time ago. Except that, during the course of month that I had spent in Greece, Dexys were anything but over. In the space of four weeks, they’d put out a record and that record had climbed to number one. Not just that, but this Dexys looked nothing like the Dexys of Geno or the Dexys of Show Me.
Consciously or not, Come On Eileen deployed off the same trick that, two years previously, Madness had pulled off with Baggy Trousers. Down to the Crombies and Harringtons, the Doc Martens and the drainpipes, Suggs and his mates looked like most of the boys in my class. We saw our day-to-day lives in the words of that song and, vicariously, felt a sense of yearning for something that was still ongoing. If Baggy Trousers described what was happening in the classroom, Come On Eileen described what was happening in our interior world: the desperate quest for some sort of encounter that might circumvent the awkwardness of courtship. The need to stop being a person that hadn’t done it and to start being someone who had. And, as with the cast of Baggy Trousers, Eileen was to all intents and purposes, a figment of Kevin Rowland’s imagination. Eileen was his first love. A teenage crush idealised by the passage of time. By the time Come On Eileen hit the top spot, Kevin was going steady with Dexys’ violinist Helen O’Hara. But my friends and I all had our Eileens – crushes that we were too scared to even tell each other about. Between the Dexys song and the Madness song, our collective world had been gift-wrapped and presented back to us. And that’s how, in the summer of 1982, we already found ourselves nostalgic for a version of what we were going through there and then.
But I couldn’t just go out and buy Too Rye-Ay. Not on my pocket money. Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile) appeared, and that was barely less a force of nature than Eileen. Dexys were on TV a lot, and every time you saw Kevin, you felt that there was a pop star you could believe in. My brother returned from town one Saturday afternoon and told me that he saw Kevin and Helen on an escalator that – for the fact that they were dressed in their ripped dungarees – could have come right out of a TV screen. In December, something like the opposite happened. Dexys Midnight Runners appeared on fledgling Channel 4 music show The Tube and reeled me in, out of my empty front room, out of Acocks Green, out of pre-adolescent uncertainties and into something, to quote another Dexys song, “pure and precious”
In the four months since Come On Eileen hit number one, Dexys’ ascent was ratified by their Tube performance. Even The Jam’s final live TV appearance with Beat Surrender warranted a lower billing. Kevin Rowland was intensely competitive, but he was also the product of a catholic upbringing, with all feelings of unworthiness that brings. Both of those traits seemed evident in their Tube performance. Dexys had 20 minutes to do whatever they wanted and, like Queen at Live Aid, these 20 minutes radiated a supercharged urgency that set them apart from all their contemporaries. Whatever self-doubt afflicted Kevin at this time, none of it extended to the music. Dexys had been touring since the summer. The chemistry between the players is palpable, not just in the playing, but in the sly smiles and playful glances exchanged between Helen O’Hara, Billy Adams and Steve Brennan.
For all of that, the first two songs, Let’s Get This Straight (From The Start) and Celtic Soul Brothers offer no indication of what’s about to follow. “This used to go like that, but then one day something happened as it so often does. And now it goes like this.” Like what, exactly? A single note repeated on a bass string – a noise which instantly commands your attention – and then, “Ro-Ro-Ro-RO-BIN!” Two years previously, There There My Dear sailed into the top ten in Geno’s slipstream, an amphetamine-charged evisceration of Kevin’s greatest bete-noir: the left-leaning dilettante whose cold correctness arouses suspicion in a singer simply can’t understand people like that. But, by December 1982, There There My Dear was less about the person addressed in the line, “I don’t believe/You really liked Sinatra,” more an existential address from the man asking the question.
In the seconds that follow the Sinatra line – in the tidal rush of horns and thermal upswell of hammond that fill the available space – you begin to apprehend the measure of Dexys’ commitment. This is just a brief interlude before the next verse, but it’s worth dwelling on. Last year, when making a documentary about Dexys’ 1985 album Don’t Stand Me Down, I met the saxophonist on the right. As Chairman of Sony Music, Nick Gatfield is one of the most senior executives in the British music industry. He seems ambivalent about his time in the band, in particular the tortuous period between 1982 and 1985 – but he’s not ambivalent here. No-one is. Kevin Rowland could barely string a few chords together on a guitar, so why did he attract such devotion from his fellow musicians? Why did Helen O’Hara jettison a promising career as a classical violinist to help realise his musical vision? Was it just the promise of mere session work that would have persuaded venerable American backing singer Jimmy Thomas to don dungarees and weigh in on backing vocals? The answer reveals itself from about three-and-a-half minutes – when everything but the rhythm section drops out, Kevin sinks to his knees and delivers four minutes which effectively place him within touching distance of Sam & Dave, Van Morrison, Otis Redding – the singers who clearly shaped his earliest notions about what it was to be a great frontman. Thomas, sometime sideman to Ike Turner, looks just as lost in the moment as everyone else.
Six minutes and forty-four seconds. A wordless scream. Alternating cries of “STOP!” and “GO!” on every bar. And suddenly, the band are watching Kevin as intently as I am, in a Birmingham sitting room, on the other side of a cathode ray. No-one knows what’s coming next. No-one could ever guess what could ever come next. “At this point, I do some press-ups”, declares Kevin. And off he goes, not for the last time in his career, merging the sublime and the ridiculous in ways that no-one else would dare. In a song that defies its subject to forget his inhibitions, to show some passion, the a performance that demands the same of you. And no more so at this point. Aged 13, self-conscious in all sorts of ways, I sat stock still watching Kevin Rowland cradling an imaginary baby, seemingly in a dream-state, apologising for some imagined “joke.”
From that moment on – with Plan B and Let’s Make This Precious still to play – Dexys Midnight Runners ruled my world. I unwrapped Too Rye-Ay on Christmas morning, wandered into the posh room where we kept the hi-fi and plugged in the chunky headphones. I pretty much I stayed there until 1983. Sixteen years later, I met Kevin Rowland and told him so. He remembered that week for different reasons. All his friends assumed that now he was a pop star, he must have had loads of invitations to swanky New Year’s get-togethers. As a result, none of them thought to ask him what he was doing. Kevin Rowland, frontman of Britain’s biggest-selling pop group at that moment in time, spent the evening alone in his house. Two very different lives in the same city, both of them changed forever by Too Rye-Ay.