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2 July 2024

The young prole rebels of Dexys Midnight Runners

Denied an audience with frontman Kevin Rowland, the author Nige Tassell asks the band’s army of musicians to tell its story.

By Kate Mossman

One starts this book at the back, like a Japanese novel, because the author has tracked down all 24 living members of Dexys Midnight Runners, leaving their frontman, Kevin Rowland, to the end. Rowland is the lieutenant of the donkey-jacketed punk-soul army, who wrote his own full-page ads for their albums in the music press in a protest against music journalists’ “academic insincerity”. He sang songs about anti-Irish racism, and styled his band like the kind of people who might be seen heckling Neil Kinnock at a Labour Party conference. By the late Nineties, he was posing on the cover of his solo album, My Beauty, in fishnet stockings – and today, at Dexys gigs, he sings complicated psychodramas on stage, done up a little like Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice.

In Nige Tassell’s book, we encounter Rowland at the Bath Forum in September 2023, aged 70, with turn-ups to his shins. We follow a middle-aged fan, Andy, who has a tattoo of Rowland’s face on his chest like Alan Partridge’s “mentalist”. Andy finally meets Rowland backstage before the gig – but Tassell doesn’t. Rowland, now living alone in Hackney, won’t grant him an interview for this exhaustive labour of love because – the old chestnut – he is saving the material for his memoirs.

Tassell is one of rock’s mega-geeks: his previous book Whatever Happened to the C86 Kids? traced the fortunes of all 22 indie guitar bands featured on a cassette given away with the NME in 1986, and his Field of Dreams is a history of Wembley Stadium told through 100 matches. Tassell loves the ordinary guy, the jobbing musician in service of his band. And, in the absence of Rowland, his book becomes an evocative space for Dexys’ forgotten players: Jim Paterson (trombone) up in the Highlands now, nursing his ill wife; Steve Spooner (alto sax) delivering Roskilly’s ice cream in Cornwall, as he has done for 20 years; and Geoff Blythe, who, before his Dexys days, played with the American singer Geno Washington, subject of Dexys’ first number one. Their story is timeless: the auditions from ads in the local papers, the appalling royalty deals, the pull of cocaine and drink, the quiet years that followed.

Dexys Midnight Runners were formed in 1978 in Birmingham by two Kevins, Rowland and Archer, former punks who became fascinated by the idea of a folk and roots revival. Archer left the band in 1981 to form a new group with strings – but Rowland nicked the idea, and Archer’s fiddle player Helen O’Hara, and Dexys had a second number one with “Come On Eileen”, the sound and feel of which, Rowland conceded years later, actually came from his departed bandmate. Archer was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1985: he moved to Hamburg where “there was nothing, not even a record shop, connected with Dexys”, and his health quickly recovered. But when his royalties dropped from 50 to 5 per cent, Archer began hearing the voices in his head again – not just the devil’s, but Kevin Rowland’s, saying “I never give up…”. These fascinating details of the relationship at the heart of the band come from secondary sources, because Kevin Archer wouldn’t talk to Tassell either!

Instead, Searching For Dexys is the story of the worker musicians, the gang who Pete Williams remembers shoplifting with their woolly hats and hold-alls, “looking really quite menacing”. They were extremely musical, with the discipline of a military band. “Those blowsy, arrogant horns are blowing the landscape clean,” wrote Danny Baker in the NME, reviewing their debut album, “constructing and urging where everyone else is just leaning on their shovels.” Shortly after the success of “Geno”, the band discover that only the two Kevins and Geoff Blythe are signed to EMI – and in an Ealing Comedy-style heist, initiated by a well-placed cough from Steve Spooner, they steal the masters of their second album from the studio and run away with them in a van, using the loot as collateral for a better record deal.

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This is a tale told by ordinary, hard-working folk, and because of that, no one intimately involved with Rowland will say much to Nige Tassell about him – not even Helen O’Hara, with whom he had a relationship, and who became the subject of his 12-minute opus “This Is What She’s Like” (it could have been their “Bohemian Rhapsody”, he later said). Maybe more will, indeed, be revealed by his memoirs, begun ten years ago, now in their second edit, and not set for release any time soon.

Searching for Dexys Midnight Runners
Nige Tassell
Nine Eight Books, 352pp, £22

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[See also: Francis Bacon’s vile bodies]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain