Dexys Midnight Runners (currently officially Dexys, their former nickname, styled without an apostrophe) are an English pop band with soul influences, who achieved their major success in the early to mid-1980s. They are best known in the UK for their songs “Come On Eileen” and “Geno“, both of which peaked at No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart, as well as six other top-20 singles.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dexys went through numerous personnel changes over the course of three albums and 13 singles, with only singer/songwriter/co-founder Kevin Rowland remaining in the band through all of the transitions and only Rowland and “Big” Jim Paterson (trombone) appearing on all of the albums. By 1985, the band consisted only of Rowland and long-standing members Helen O’Hara (violin) and Billy Adams (guitar). The band broke up in 1987, with Rowland becoming a solo artist. After two failed restart attempts, Dexys was reformed by Rowland in 2003 with new members, as well as a few returning members from the band’s original lineup (known as Dexys Mark I). Dexys released their fourth album in 2012 and a fifth followed in 2016.
Dexys Midnight Runners were founded in 1978 in Birmingham, England by Kevin Rowland (vocals, guitar, at the time using the pseudonym Carlo Rolan) and Kevin “Al” Archer(vocals, guitar). Both had been in the short-lived punk band the Killjoys. Rowland had previously written a Northern soul-style song that the two of them sang, “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green”, which became the first Dexys “song”. The band’s name was derived from Dexedrine, a brand of dextroamphetamine used as a recreational drug among Northern soul fans to give them energy to dance all night. While recruiting members for the new band, Rowland noted that “Anyone joining Dexys had to give up their job and rehearse all day long. . . . We had nothing to lose and felt that what we were doing was everything.” “Big” Jim Paterson (trombone), Geoff “JB” Blythe (saxophone, previously of Geno Washington‘s Ram Jam Band), Steve “Babyface” Spooner (alto saxophone), Pete Saunders (keyboard), Pete Williams (bass) and John Jay (drums) formed the first line-up of the band, which began playing live at the end of 1978.
By the middle of 1979, Bobby “Jnr” Ward had replaced Jay on drums. Clash manager Bernard Rhodes then signed them and sent them into the studio to record a Rowland-penned single, “Burn It Down”, which Rhodes renamed to “Dance Stance“.
In response to Rhodes’ criticism of Rowland’s singing style, Rowland developed a “more emotional” sound, influenced by General Johnson of the Holland–Dozier–Holland band Chairmen of the Board, as well as the theatricality of Bryan Ferry.
After a series of dates opening for The Specials, who wore suits on stage to create an image, Rowland decided that his new band needed its own distinct look. Borrowing from an outfit that Paterson had worn to rehearsals, Dexys subsequently dressed in donkey jackets or leather coats and woolly hats, a look described as “straight out of De Niro‘s Mean Streets“. Rowland said of the band’s sound and look in January 1980: “we didn’t want to become part of anyone else’s movement. We’d rather be our own movement”. A unified image became very important to the group, with Rowland commenting “We wanted to be a group that looked like something … a formed group, a project, not just random.”
“Dance Stance”, which Rhodes produced, was released on the independent Oddball Records, which Rhodes owned, and which was distributed by EMI. Although it was named “single of the week” by Sounds, it stalled at number 40 in the British charts, which EMI and Rowland believed was due to Rhodes’ poor production. Rowland said, “We learned that early on, that the wrong producer can totally screw your record up.” As a result, Dexys fired Rhodes and signed directly to EMI, and EMI immediately put Pete Wingfield in charge of their production. Both Saunders and Ward left the band, to be replaced by Andy Leek (keyboards) and Andy “Stoker” Growcott (drums).
Building on the unexpected success of “Dance Stance” (aka “Burn It Down”), Dexys’ next single, “Geno” – about Geno Washington – became a British Number One in 1980. It featured the band’s “Late Night Feelings” imprint on the single, which became a trademark of the band’s records on EMI. Rowland wrote about Washington as he had seen one of his performances aged 11 with his brother. The success of the song prompted Washington to make a return to live performance, but it also prompted the departure of Leek, who said he didn’t want to be famous. Pete Saunders returned to the band temporarily, replacing Leek, to record their debut album.
Dexys’ debut LP, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, which featured “Geno”, was released in July 1980. The label of the album also included the band’s “Late Night Feelings” imprint, and the album’s sleeve featured a photograph of a Belfast Catholic boy carrying his belongings after moving from his home during the Troubles; the Irish-descended Rowland explained that “I wanted a picture of unrest. It could have been from anywhere but I was secretly glad that it was from Ireland.” Of the album’s title, Rowland said “I don’t know … I just liked the sound of it, really.” Of the songs on the album, only two (“Geno” and “There, There, My Dear”) were written by Rowland (lyrics) and Archer (music) together; producer Pete Wingfield hadn’t liked Rowland’s lyrics on their third co-composition (“Keep It”) and had instead turned those lyrics into a separate song (“Love Part One”); Blythe wrote new lyrics for the version of “Keep It” on the album. The same month, Rowland imposed a press embargo on the band; instead, Dexys would take out ads in the music papers explaining the band’s position on various issues. This was a response to some less than complimentary opinions from some music press writers; for example, the NME‘s Mark Cordery accused the band of “emotional fascism” and described their music as a perversion of soul music with “no tenderness, no sex, no wit, no laughter”.
After the album, Saunders was replaced by Mick Talbot (ex-The Merton Parkas) on keyboards. “There, There, My Dear” became the band’s second top-10 single. However, after a couple months of touring, Rowland insisted on writing new lyrics to Archer’s music for “Keep It” for release as the band’s next single, despite EMI’s objections. The single, called “Keep It Part Two (Inferiority Part One)”, was a failure, and five of the band members then quit, angered over continual personality problems with Rowland, as well as Rowland’s policy of not speaking to the music press. Archer and Paterson both remained with Rowland at first, but then Archer also decided to leave, which reduced Dexys to just Rowland and Paterson, whom Rowland referred to as “the Celtic soul brothers” (in reference to Paterson’s Scottish background and Rowland’s Irish background).
Rowland and Paterson first chose to write several new songs, so that Dexys could move forward from the split. They then brought in an old friend of theirs, Kevin “Billy” Adams(guitar/banjo), along with Seb Shelton (drums, formerly of Secret Affair), Mickey Billingham (keyboard), Brian Maurice Brummitt (who dropped his last name for his stage name “Brian Maurice”, alto saxophone), Paul Speare (tenor saxophone) and Steve Wynne (bass). This new lineup also adopted a new look that included hooded tops, boxing boots, and pony tails. Along with the new image, Rowland brought in a fitness regime, which included working out together and running as a group, Rowland commenting “The togetherness of running along together just gets … that fighting spirit going”. The group would also take part in group exercise sessions before performances, and drinking before shows was strictly forbidden.
By the time the new band’s first single “Plan B”, produced by Alan Shacklock instead of Wingfield, was released in March 1981, the band’s management had discovered that EMI had failed to pick up a mandatory contract option, so Dexys were technically no longer under contract. They asked, without success, that EMI not release the single; without promotion, the single flopped. Later in March 1981, an ad appeared in which Rowland stated that the previous members of the band had “hatched a plot to throw Kevin out and still carry on under the same name”. It also cited Rowland’s suggestion that “they might learn new instruments” as a reason for their displeasure. The ad announced that Dexys had been working on a new live venture, “The Midnight Runners Projected Passion Revue”.
In April, Dexys prevailed to win their release from EMI, although without the financial support of a label, they were unable to mount the spring tour that had planned and had to settle for playing only five dates, including one recorded by BBC Radio 1. In June they signed by Mercury Records, where Dexys remained until their 1987 breakup. Dexys’ first single for Mercury, “Show Me”, produced by Tony Visconti. was released in July 1981 and reached No. 16 in the UK. The label switch was followed by a session for Richard Skinner‘s BBC Radio 1 show in which the band previewed tracks that would be reworked later on Too-Rye-Ay. Wynne was sacked by the group at this point, to be replaced by Mick Gallick (whom Rowland gave the stage name “Giorgio Kilkenny”) on bass. Music journalist Paolo Hewitt commented about this version of Dexys: “Dexys wouldn’t make a record unless they thought it was great. And they wouldn’t play a gig unless they thought they were gonna be great.”
Around this time, Archer played Rowland demos of Archer’s new group, The Blue Ox Babes, which featured, in Rowland’s words, “a Tamla-style beat with violins”. The violins had been played by a Birmingham School of Music classical violin student named Helen Bevington. Rowland’s first idea was to get the horn players to also play strings, as he had discussed in the March interview (with Speare on viola, which he already played, and string novices Paterson and Maurice on cello), and the horn players (with session musician support) contributed strings to the third single with the new lineup, “Liars A to E”, produced by Neil Kernon, which was released in October 1981. In November, the group played a three-night stand at The Old Vic in London, with the horn section again doubling on strings. The Old Vic shows attracted unexpectedly rave reviews in the press, although these concerts were not recorded. Rowland said of these shows, “Those three nights at the Old Vic were all I wanted to say in ’81.”
Dexys’ 1981 recordings, including all three singles (both A-sides and B-sides) as well as the tracks from the two BBC Radio 1 appearances, were released by Dexys on CD in 2007 as The Projected Passion Revue.
As Dexys prepared to record their first album for Mercury, Rowland decided that he needed more proficient string players to achieve the sound he envisioned. He sent Speare to invite Bevington to join Dexys, which she agreed to do, and Rowland gave her the Irish-sounding stage name of Helen O’Hara. Rowland also asked her to recruit two other violinists; she brought fellow students Steve Shaw and Roger Huckle, whom Rowland renamed as Steve Brennan and Roger MacDuff, and Rowland named the violin section “The Emerald Express”. However, the need to rearrange all the songs for both strings and horns left the brass section of Paterson and Maurice (and to a lesser extent Speare) feeling that their role in the band had diminished. Thus, just prior to the recording sessions, Paterson and Maurice quit. Rowland was able to persuade them to remain in Dexys long enough to record the next album . Shortly thereafter, Speare also joined their planned departure.
This fractured line-up recorded Too-Rye-Ay in early 1982 with producers Rowland, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. The album featured a hybrid of soul and Celtic folk, similar to Archer’s new direction. All of the post-breakup singles and the Projected Passion Revue material were re-arranged and re-recorded with the new lineup. The new sound was accompanied by the band’s third new look, with the band attired in dungarees, scarves, leather waistcoats, and what was described as “a generally scruffy right-off-the-farm look”, or “a raggle-taggle mixture of gypsy, rural Irish and Steinbeck Okie“. Rowland jokingly said of the new image: “These are my best clothes. Again it just feels right for the music. Everybody else is dressing up sort of straight-laced and pretty down-to-earth and we come in wearing these and it’s like, y’know here we are, a bit of hoedowning is even possible”.
The first single, “The Celtic Soul Brothers” (cowritten by Rowland and Paterson with Mickey Billingham), which was released before the album, only reached number 45 on the UK charts. After the failure of this single, O’Hara said that the band believed that they immediately needed a hit single to survive. To help create momentum, the band performed a live BBC Radio 1 concert in Newcastle on 6 June 1982, which was the last appearance of the horn section of Paterson, Maurice, and Speare with Dexys.
Released right after the live appearance, Dexys’ follow-up single, “Come On Eileen” (cowritten by Rowland and Paterson with Billy Adams), became that much-needed hit – a Number One hit in the UK, which also became Dexys’ first single released in the United States (and second in North America, after “Seven Days Too Long”, which was only released in Canada) – where it peaked at #1 in April 1983 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The third UK single from the album , Van Morrison‘s “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)“, also reached the top 5 in the UK singles chart. The band sang this song on the UK comedy The Young Ones. When the band performed this single on the BBC TV music show Top of the Pops, instead of a picture of Jackie Wilson, the American soul singer, the band performed in front of a photo of Jocky Wilson, the Scottish darts player.
The horn section became known as The TKO Horns and continued working with Too-Rye-Ay producers Langer and Winstanley, just as The Bureau and The Blue Ox Babes had continued working with Pete Wingfield. To replace them, Dexys added saxophonist Nick Gatfield and used various session musicians, including Kevin Gilson (saxophone) and Mark Walters and Spike Edney (trombone). Soon thereafter, Billingham also left the band but continued to appear with Dexys on a session basis until the end of the year, when he joined General Public.
With Paterson and Billingham’s departures, the core of Dexys became Rowland, Adams, and O’Hara. In September, touring behind the hit album, Dexys embarked on The Bridgetour. On 10 October 1982, the Dexys performance at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London was recorded by Steve Barron and then released on videodisk and videocassette (and later DVD) as an edited 9-song set also entitled The Bridge.
Rowland, Adams and O’Hara jointly wrote the band’s next single, “Let’s Get This Straight (From the Start)” (with O’Hara also contributing piano on the recording along with Billingham). At the start of 1983, Robert “Bob” Noble replaced Billingham on keyboards and Kilkenny was replaced by John “Rhino” Edwards on bass. Dexys finally toured the U.S. in 1983 and continued to tour through that summer. However, the major success of Too-Rye-Ay became an issue for Rowland, who said in 1999 that “I was fairly comfortable being the outsider knocking on the door[, but] once the door opened and I stepped inside, I was completely lost” and that he went into “complete self-destruct mode.” Rowland and O’Hara also began a personal relationship during the U.S. tour; in Rowland’s words, he was “obsessed with her but not enjoying the band.”
Although Dexys began preparing material for a new album in late 1983, once the touring stopped, the band was reduced to a nucleus of Rowland, Adams, O’Hara and Gatfield. Recording and mixing the new album took almost two years and spread across Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S; at various times, Tom Dowd, Jimmy Miller, and John Porterwere attached as producers. Some seasoned performers, ex-Dexys members, and session musicians made up the rest of the band, including Vincent Crane (ex-Atomic Rooster) on piano, Julian Littman on mandolin, Tim Dancy (who had been Al Green‘s drummer) on drums, Tommy Evans on steel guitar, and former Dexys members “Big” Jim Paterson on trombone, Robert Noble on organ and synthesizer, and John “Rhino” Edwards on bass. Near the end of these sessions, Rowland and O’Hara’s personal relationship broke up, although they continued to work together.
Finally, in September 1985, Dexys released its first new album in three years, Don’t Stand Me Down. Production was originally credited to Alan Winstanley and Rowland, although later reissues have included Adams and O’Hara as producers as well. The four remaining members were pictured on the album cover in the band’s fourth new look, an Ivy League, Brooks-Brothers look, wearing ties and pin-striped suits (except for O’Hara, who wore a grey women’s business suit), and with neatly combed hair. Rowland described Dexys’ new look as “so clean and simple; it’s a much more adult approach now”.
In an interview with HitQuarters Gatfield later described the recording process as “very long and painful”, and he left the group after a short tour of France and the UK. The album’s most controversial feature was its use of conversational dialogue in the songs; Rowland said, “The idea of a conversation in a song is interesting to me.” Commenting on this, O’Hara said that “we had to keep going ahead with what we believed” despite the length of time that the production took.
Most contemporaneous reviewers strongly disliked this latest incarnation of Dexys, comparing the new look to “double glazing salesmen” and condemning the album as “a mess” and “truly awful”. Only a few reviewers were supportive; for example, writing in the Melody Maker, Colin Irwin described it as “quite the most challenging, absorbing, moving, uplifting and ultimately triumphant album of the year”.
Rowland at first refused to issue any singles from the album, comparing Dexys to bands like Led Zeppelin that never released singles. By the time a 3-minute edit of the 12-minute “This Is What She’s Like” was released, it was too late to save the album from commercial failure, and the “Coming to Town” tour that followed the album was played before “half-empty theaters”.
Rowland said, “I felt that we couldn’t do anything better than [Don’t Stand Me Down]. It took so much out of me, but the record company threw the towel in. I think they wanted to teach me a lesson.”
In the aftermath, Rowland started to have issues with drug abuse. However, Dexys returned to the U.K. charts in late 1986 with the single “Because Of You”, again written by and featuring the nucleus of Rowland, O’Hara and Adams (and which was used as the theme tune to a British sitcom, Brush Strokes). Dexys, which at this point just consisted of that trio, finally disbanded in early 1987.
Rowland became a solo singer with the release of 1988’s poorly received album, The Wanderer. Rowland then suffered from financial problems, drug addiction and issues with depression, leading to him being “a bankrupt” by 1991 despite his ongoing royalties. However, Dexys returned to the charts that year with the greatest-hits TV compilation The Very Best of Dexys Midnight Runners, which featured a number of songs that had never been released on CD, reached #12 on the charts, and was certified “Gold”. Consequently, Rowland “spent most of my time in rehab” in 1993 and 1994. As part of that, Rowland made plans to reform Dexys together with Big Jim Paterson and Billy Adams, although these plans resulted in little more than a solitary TV performance in 1993. Rowland then went on the dole; as he put it in 1999, “Insanity is no fun, mate. People try to romanticize the idea of the suffering artist. At my lowest ebbs there was no romance to it at all.”
After more treatment, Rowland returned once more as a solo performer and signed to Creation Records, although, in his words, “every other record label advised [Creation] against it because I was trouble.” In 1997, he released his first project on Creation: a remastered and reprocessed version of Don’t Stand Me Down with extensive liner notes, revised credits and titles, and two extra songs, which helped contribute to a significant reversal of opinion with regard to the album, which was now increasingly being re-evaluated and recognized as an unfairly overlooked masterwork.
Following this, in 1999 Rowland released a new solo album of interpretations of “classic” songs called My Beauty, which received virtually no publicity or radio airplay and sold poorly but attracted attention for Rowland’s cross-dressing cover attire. Rowland limited his pre-release publicity for the album to one interview, and he “auditioned” potential interviewers before selecting Jon Wilde. However, the negative reaction to My Beauty and the demise of Creation Records shortly after its release meant that Rowland’s planned follow-up album, which would have featured Dexys performing new material, was never made. The failure caused Rowland more problems; in his own words from 2003, “Four years ago, I was nuts.” Later, in March 2010, Rowland said that signing to Creation was “definitely a mistake”.