In defence of the dungareed.

Being, as I am, in my early thirties and blessed with a wide and varied circle of friends, over the past few years I’ve been to a LOT of weddings.

I’m in no way complaining about this, I’ve enjoyed every single one – the ceremonies are always moving, the catching up with old friends is always warming, the food is always… roast vegetable tart (I think wedding caterers hate vegetarians a lot) and, having so many musically inclined friends, the band is always fantastic. But there is one part of the proceedings I dread.

The disco.

Being a non-drinker and a terrible dancer, it just always feels like a self-conscious end to a wonderful day. This doesn’t always stop me, I should add. But – being the sober one and a keen observer of the naffness of humankind – it always provides a fascinating look into our species. I’ll stop on this track before I veer into Peter Kay style ‘you know ‘ow yer uncle dances at t’ wedding?’ observations. I do hate Peter Kay.

One thing I have observed, without fail, at the disco section of every wedding is worth talking about, however. At some point during the evening, between Dancing Queen by  Abba,  A-B-C by The Jackson Five and Twst and Shout there’ll be a couple of seconds of silence followed by a brief solo fiddle intro punctuated by a bass/drum ‘dun duh-duh dun duh-duh’ which heralds the arrival of Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners. Every child of the eighties, no matter how exhausted, smiles and emits a weary groan before piling on to the dancefloor for the song practically designed to be not danceable to.

Some try to stomp along to the ‘dun duh-duh’s only to get quickly knackered as the drum beat changes to a single repetetive snare. Others raise their hands in the air floating around to the piano melody but as each chorus kicks in, it becomes a bit rowdy for that. People tend to settle for forming small circles and kind of walking in and out of it whilst loudly singing along and realising that the only words they actually know aside from some form of ‘tulu-rye-ay’ are those in the songs title. Halfway through, the song shifts in tempo and goes all slow so the walking backwards and forwards gets a bit boring and even those just trying to clap along get confused as the tempo is slowly increasing until it hits the ‘du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du’ bit that pushes it back up to full speed and some people kind of run on the spot whilst others punch the air or jump up and down because that’s the most exciting part. It’s a bastard of a song, really. But the one undeniable truth is that it gets everyone on the dancefloor despite being hugely problematic. People love it. They want to honour it with dance.

But when was the last time you heard someone say ‘Dexys – they were a great band’?

Dexys. They were a great band.

One of my earliest TV memories was seeing them perform their first single on Top of the pops.  I assume it was this performance…

watching it now, I’m still struck by the things that struck me then – how damn many of them there are on stage and how intense the lead singer Kevin Rowland was. I think it was the first performance I had ever seen where the lead singer didn’t look like he was having a great time. Despite the song being a sing-a-long brassfest.

Plenty of singers don’t look like they’re having fun but that’s usually affectation – it’s not always cool to look like you’re having fun. In fact, it’s rather cool to look like not only are you not having fun but it actually pains you to get the words out. That’s not how Kevin looked. He looked grumpy.

Looking at him there, donkey-jacketed and fierce, he seems the least likely person to resurface two years later in dungarees and pom-pom hat.

A couple of years ago, I read a book about the band. It was pretty badly written but the story was fantastic. Kevin Rowland was just one of those rare people driven by a vision and compulsion to create something new and coherent at any cost. His band borderline hated him. He ruled with an iron fist and was, essentially, the band himself as anyone who went toe-to-toe to him was out. Kevin Archer – his co-creative force was out after one album – probably in no small part due to Kevin Rowland forcing him to change his name to ‘Al’ because having two people called Kevin in the band didn’t fit his vision. Rowland’s rehearsal regime was almost military during that first ‘Young Soul Rebels’ period where he attempted to kickstart a unique contemporary twist on Northern Soul. By the time of their second album, those still left in the band were expected to exercise and run together daily and not drink on gig nights.

Legend has it that when Rowland reinvented the band to the ragamuffin Irish immigrant dungaree urchin gang that would burn itself as the defining image of the band into the world’s consciousness, he gave his brass section 3 weeks to learn to play violins or they were out.

Obviously, it looks ridiculous now. Out of context and out of time. A white afro-haired man in cut-off dungarees whining for his love like a dog on heat on a street corner in the middle of the night. I think it’s the lack of context which has killed a genuinely original soul. I recently bought the special edition of the ‘Eileen’ album – Too-Rye-Ay. The second disc – a live recording of one of the shows from this era – contextualises them as a band which could have kicked off a genre. ‘Celtic soul brothers’ kind of says it all. It’s the music of the children of Irish immigrants discovering American soul music and amphetamines. Fiddles and horns. Folk and soul. Energy and reflection. Earnestness and bandstanding.

What a shame everybody bought the single instead of the album.

For my money, the superior song on the album is actually ‘(let’s make this) Precious’ – a rousing shouted, spat and spoken manifesto about how to produce music of worth.

‘First bare your hearts and cleanse your souls’

Come on Eileen itself is a better song than just the catchy dancefloor filler it appears at first to be.  He sings almost defiantly for his words not to be heard but it’s a story of children of immigrants fighting to not be as down-at-heel and broken as their parents both spiritually and economically. When was the last time a hit pop song in the last ten or fifteen years dealt with such subject matter?

I found this live performance on youtube and this is my main reason for writing this blog. I just think it’s a stunning performance and when not constrained by the three minute tv slot, the song actually opens up into something interesting. Rowland’s performance blows me away. This is a man who actually really doesn’t have a very good singing voice at all but refuses to be held back by a lack of technique. His passion and vision and intent are so focussed, he can’t be restrained by such a petty detail.

I absolutely recommend the album and the chance to turn a ‘guilty pleasure’ into a bonafide respect.

If you remain unconvinced, you’re welcome to your ignorance but no matter how much you try to take the piss, you’ll never do it as well as this…

Published in: on July 9, 2009 at 1:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

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