“Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” – Dexys Midnight Runners

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SFTYSRSo, this is the first in a new series of features about hearing great albums for the first time and the impact those albums had on us. To start the series, I’ve picked an album which will be thirty-five years old this year and it’s certainly wearing a lot better than I am. It’s the Dexys Midnight Runners debut album “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels”. It was released on July 11th 1980 and peaked in the UK album charts at Number Six, but that doesn’t tell you anything like the whole story. This is an album that is still revered by thousands of fans and regularly appears in best albums of all time charts. As far as I’m concerned, I’m still happy to pull out my vinyl copy of the album any time, stick it on the SL1200 and listen from start to finish; it’s still a great piece of work and, like all classics, people love it for different reasons, not all of them musical.

So, just let me give you a bit of context here. In October 1979, the final year of freedom before joining the real world was just beginning. The final year of university, a last chance for free gigs and as much DJing as I could wedge in before finally trying to justify four years of a local authority grant. We were just starting to read in the NME about some new bands and styles emerging in London and the West Midlands and coming to terms with the prospect of five years of Thatcher (if only we knew then…). A lot of the new music seemed to have a harder edge; punk had come and gone but it had left behind a feeling that anyone could be in a band. The university circuit was a great place to see bands and I was lucky enough to be at a university that was on the circuit (ok, Dundee, if you must know). It was going to be an interesting year.

During the usual beer and catch-up session with the Ents crew (the PC alternative to trying to seduce freshers) we would talk about music we’d bought between June and October (don’t those holidays seem incredibly long now?) and the bands we’d seen. There weren’t a lot of those if you lived in Mansfield. In October 1980, Phil Madvert (our Ents Committee cartoonist, poet and poster designer) came back from Birmingham all fired up about this new band called Dexys Midnight Runners that were going to be huge; yeah, of course mate, just like City Boy. But Phil was absolutely on the money and we were gracious enough to admit it when we heard “Dance Stance”; this was the real thing.

On February 3rd 1980 (less than a week before their first Top of the Pops appearance) Dexys played at Dundee University Students’ Association. They DJ on the night was incredible- yeah, ok, it was me and I was scared shitless because I’d read all about Kevin’s perfectionism. Anyway, I scraped through and Dexys were stunning; I was already converted before the album was even released. When the album finally came out, I was back in the real world, working for a living and realising how different (and how much harder) it was. Even though three songs from the album had been released as singles (and “Geno” had topped the charts) I couldn’t wait to hear how it had all been put together.

Now, please tell me I’m not the only person who did this; I got back home with album at about 11am on Monday morning, I put the album on the deck, dropped the stylus and heard the very quiet sound of a radio being tuned across the dial (if you’re younger than 45, ask your parents about that) so I turned up the volume until I could hear “Smoke on the Water”, “Holidays in the Sun” and “Rat Race” in succession through the static, and then the brass intro to “Burn It Down” nearly blew the bloody roof off. Wouldn’t have been so bad, but my dad was on nights; I don’t know who was less popular, me or Dexys.

So, “Burn it Down”; well it was the single “Dance Stance” with a different title, a title that made a lot more sense in the context of the album. There are some tracks that are perfect album openers (how about the Manics’ “Slash ‘n’ Burn” from “Generation Terrorists”?) and “Burn It Down” is one of those, from the radio sweeping the airwaves, through Kevin Rowland’s exhortation to Al (Kevin) Archer and Big Jim to ‘burn it down’, to the brass intro on steroids, it’s perfect. The lyrics were about the stupidity of Irish stereotypes, but you could apply to any of the other racial or gender stereotypes prevalent at the time, even in politically correct students’ unions. And into “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green” with its big opening brass riff, powerfully personal lyrics, Kevin Rowland’s falsetto and the soon-to-be characteristic swooping vocals and a nailed-on trombone solo from Jim Patterson. The line ‘I’ve been manic-depressive and I’ve spat a few tears’ seemed odd at the time, but it makes sense now with some historical context. Even now, “The Teams That Meet in Caffs” is one of the most evocative instrumentals in my collection; it’s note-perfect from the acoustic guitar and bass intro through the entry of the Hammond and then the brass section which takes the lead through the track. The brass is relatively simple, tight ensemble playing until the soaring alto sax solo which takes us up to the fade; it’s the perfect soul instrumental.

I’m Just Looking”, pulls you in with a whispered vocal and Hammond intro, before settling into a slow, impassioned, vocal backed by more subtle and delicate brass arrangements with lovely use of dynamics to enhance the power of the song. As for “Geno”, well it had already been a hit when the album came out; it was a rabble-rousing, stomping anthem which acknowledged the influence on Kevin Rowlands of Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, but with the sting in the tail ‘now you’re all over your song is so tame’. It was about the impact that music can have on a purely visceral level (‘Academic inspiration you gave me none’) and it was spot on for its era.

Side Two (force of habit, I’ve got this on CD as well but I always think of it as vinyl) opens with a cover of Chuck Wood’s Northern Soul classic “Seven Days Too Long”, which is faster than the original and uses the brass section more emphatically to punch out the fills. It’s another acknowledgement of the roots of Dexys music and a great cover. “I Couldn’t Help It If I Tried” is slow and powerful, featuring Kevin Rowland’s full range of vocal tricks and the brass section playing chords and arpeggios to build the mood. There’s even a nice trombone solo from Jim. “Thankfully Not Living in Yorkshire it Doesn’t Apply” is a bit of an interesting one; it’s taken at almost breakneck speed, and the vocal in the verses is entirely falsetto. It just about works but I suspect it isn’t most people’s favourite song on the album.

And then we’re into the home straight with “Keep It”. It’s medium-paced and pushed along by the pulse of the Hammond and brass in the choruses. In common with the final song, the lyrics are about an unwillingness to commit, but I’ll come back to that. And just before the climactic closer, there’s a poem, a bloody poem backed with a sax solo. Listening to it now, it seems less odd than it did then; it’s a love poem about the concept of love and the lies it makes people tell each other and themselves and it works really well apart from the pause after ‘won’t’ which disrupts the flow of ‘We all feel something I won’t pretend just for you’. Poetry critics, feel free to disagree with me.

The final track, “There There My Dear” was released as the taster single for the album in July 1980 and, for me, it summed up Dexys. It roared in on a wave of Hammond and horns before the General Johnson vocal trill pulled us in to the first verse; now that’s how to start a song. Lyrically, it’s in the form of a letter to a character who’s trying hard to be fashionable by not making any mistakes but won’t commit to anything worthwhile. At times the words are shoehorned in, but it really doesn’t matter because it’s a majestic noise. When the breakdown comes at just after two minutes, we’re left with bass, drums and quiet brass and Hammond which gradually build up (after finally bringing in the title of the album) to the album’s message – ‘Maybe you should welcome the new soul vision’ before ripping into the final verse and brass fade. You can probably guess what I did next; yep, flip it over and back to the start again.

So, why did this album have such a big impact on me (and thousands of others) at this time? Well, how about the musical reasons? I grew up listening to a lot of different music in the early 70s, but the soundtrack for the shared musical experiences was basically Stax, Atlantic, Motown and Northern Soul, so the Dexys sound was tapping into a vein of nostalgia, but it was much more than that. This wasn’t just some limp tribute band; they had taken the aggression that punk had spawned and combined it with those old soul stylings. The guitar wasn’t the dominant instrument in the line-up (the only time you really hear a guitar stand out on the album is on “The Teams That Meet in Caffs”, and then it’s an acoustic); it’s all about the horns and the Hammond and Kevin’s tortured vocal. And the thing about the horns is that they are LOUD; it was a deliberate production decision which gives a punchier, punkier sound to the songs. The album isn’t one-paced, there’s a lot of dynamic variation and the horns play punchy fills, tight ensembles, counterpoint and even the occasional solo (but not too many of those).

But we all knew it wasn’t just about the music, there was an attitude (the attitude that had terrified me when I had to DJ just before they played), there was a commitment, there was even a bloody manifesto. There was an insistence on dealing with the press and the public on their own terms; the one-page essays in the press to replace interviews and the communiques that arrived as inserts with the singles. They even kidnapped their own master tapes from EMI to secure a better deal. Attitude? And the rest, mate.

And then there’s the image. The Marlon Brando longshoreman look that supposedly came from the way Big Jim was dressed at a really cold rehearsal (Dexys fans please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on that). It wasn’t a look that was designed to sell clothes from your boutique (yes, you, Mr McLaren), it was a look that working class kids could understand and copy without paying a fortune and it made them look unified and menacing; it was the group as a gang. They were portrayed as a group of outsiders, united by a common look and a musical vision; you were never quite sure which side of the law they were on (they talked about bunking the train to London in interviews, while they still did them) and anyone could join their gang.

The timing was right; punk had self-imploded and John Lydon had admitted it over two years before with his “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” question at his final Pistols gig. The Clash had moved on, The Damned had always been a joke, and the rump of the movement was flirting with Nazi iconography and straight-baiting make-up. The epicentre of rebellion had shifted to the West Midlands and it felt more authentic and less stage-managed by the likes of Malcolm McLaren and Bernie Rhodes (although he did feature at the start); it was being led by musicians and it felt so much better because of that.

For me personally, it was a bridge between my teenage years, my student years and the real world that I’d finally dropped into. It was music I loved being made by people that cared and it was intended to be played loud; it’s still a touchstone for judging new albums. That’s how “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” felt and still feels to me.