Saturday, July 28, 2007

Dexy's Midnight Runners-Don't Stand Me Down, 1985


Kevin Rowland, the singer and principal songwriter behind Dexy’s Midnight Runners, seemed a man fraught with contradictions that on the group’s third and final album—Don’t Stand Me Down—came bubbling to the fore. Rowland, an ethnic Irishman born and raised in Birmingham, England who named his band for a psycho-stimulant, while at the same time alienated band members with a temperance policy that banned drink and drugs, dressed up in opulent Brooks Brothers attire while promoting an album that seethed with an almost pathological hatred for the British upper class. Contradictions though, are often the fuel of bright and brilliant progress.

Don’t Stand Me Down is a sprawling epic; a mass of half-thoughts and a tangle of reminisces, regret, and long whispery dialogues; it is a tour de force of minimal pop, Memphis soul, Irish folk, and political rabble rousing. It is a treatise on love, the artifice of memory, and the burning, fleeting flame of youth as it moves hurriedly toward being forever extinguished. It is spectacular in its messiness, its pugnaciousness, its maturity, and its failure to make a commercial dent; and on that last count it is a famous and incomprehensibly brilliant flop.

Like many a commercial failure, Don’t Stand Me Down, has a muddled and chaotic past. After having conquered the UK and America—“Come on Eileen” shot to number one in the spring of 1983 giving Americans a brief respite between “Billy Jean” and “Beat It” as Billboard Hot 100 singles—with the rollicking Irish folk-pop mega seller Too-Rye-Aye, the group was poised to stay atop the commercial tidal wave. But Rowland’s brash sense of perfectionism coupled with crippling self-doubt caused the recording of the follow-up to drag on for years. It was not until the end of 1985 that Don’t Stand Me Down was finally released and to make matters worse, Rowland refused to release a single.

A desertion by short sighted pop fans perhaps confused by yet another image make-over, critical savagery, and Rowland’s initial refusal to promote the record, together with ultra-expensive recording sessions—the album was recorded in Montreaux, London, Reading, Hertfordshire, and New York with a host of session musicians—rendered Don’t Stand Me Down the Cleopatra of records. Fans are meant to be like sheep herded from one musical pen to the next, but why critics failed to grasp the brilliance of the record is a mystery.

The opener, “Kevin Rowland’s 13th Time,” apparently about Rowland being arrested for the thirteenth time, sets the acidulous tone with Rowland holding court and telling “jokes”—“You ever hear the one about the um, the middle class idiots who sorta spend all their time analyzing their own emotions, and writin’ bullshit poetry you know, that we’re supposed to read? (Laughter) I mean, as if we’re fuckin’ interested.” Rowland peppers the album with like-minded conversational jabs and asides meant to skewer the British upper classes, which seem to stem from an almost militant Pro-Irish sentiment and a masked sense of self-recrimination.

The record though is almost like a beautiful box filled with ornate straw that protects a perfect pop epic, which lolls lovingly almost decadently in the womb-like middle. This chill-inducing epic, called “This is What She’s Like” clocks in at nearly twelve and a half minutes with its many leitmotifs, codas, and bridges; it is a confluence of Memphis horns, Irish-folk banjos and fiddles, nods to British Music Hall,love-worship, and clear-eyed pop.

Abandoning the usual rhetorical nature of the pop song, “This is What She’s Like” is essentially a protracted and sometimes maddeningly frustrating conversation in which Rowland tries explaining to his constant foil, banjo/guitar player Billy Adams what she is like by what she is not. For example: “You’re familiar with the scum from Notting Hill and Moseley, The C.N.D.? Sure. They describe nice things as wonderful. She never would say that, she’s totally different in every way.” Like most of the songs on the album, it is thick with the aforementioned class warfare.

There is also a rather interesting—some may say troubling—aspect of Don’t Stand Me Down, which is a penchant the band shows for aping influences. The most famous example of this is a song called “One of Those Things,” in which a copyright case by the late Warren Zevon was successfully prosecuted against Rowland and the group for its uncomfortable closeness to Mr. Zevon’s 1978 hit “Werewolves of London.” Also, the song “My National Pride,” a lilting, contryesque song replete with pedal steel reminds me in the beginning of Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely,” before being accented with grafted bum bum bum's lifted straight from Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love.” Finally on Rowland’s defiantly upbeat yet mournful ode to his youth “Reminisce (Part 2)” he name checks the 5th Dimensions’ “Wedding Bell Blues” and the Kinks’ “Lola” before singing the refrain from Jimmy Ruffin’s “I’ll Say Forever My Love.” In a way Rowland sometimes turns the record into a jigsaw puzzle of workable and explicit influences.

Don’t Stand me Down is an uncompromising document that some would say depicts a band at their most arrogant and bombastic. It certainly marked the beginning of the end for the band as a whole and a cocaine-fueled downward spiral for Rowland. The record has taken on a mythic status in which critics have hailed it as a “lost classic” or a “buried treasure.” It has been re-issued twice, once by Alan McGee’s Creation label; and then later on EMI, Rowland was enlisted to re-cut it, in which he remastered the record, added the opener, “Kevin Rowland’ Thirteenth Time,” and changed the name of “Knowledge of Beauty” to “My National Pride,” and “Listen to This” to “I Love You (Listen to This).”

The album is oftentimes wantonly self-indulgent and in places overlong. It is written in a piquant hand that is sometimes unnecessarily cruel. The barbs are so full of redundant venom though that it seems as if they reflect Rowland’s own sense of self-loathing than his hatred for others. It is like the boy whose mean streak is meant to mask a crippling sense of self-doubt; and in that way, Rowland’s cruelty is endearing. But really, Don't Stand me Down conveys a brilliance and a hardness that goes beyond conventional ideologies. Rowland's burning, zealot-like agenda makesa kind of sense wrapped in his pure-pop smarts and his feeling for confrontation.

On his last Dexy's Midnight Runners album, Kevin Rowland seems almost out of his mind with love and hate, yet still perfectly in tune and totally engaged with his most treasured influences making Don't Stand me Down one of the most beautifully off-kilter pop albums to emerge in the last thirty years.



Blogger Big clash said...

I'm from Brazil.
The Dexy's is very nice.

6:25 AM  

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