One of the many, many legends of rock and roll is about how Dexys stole the master tapes of their classic début album away from EMI and hid them in frontman Kevin Rowland’s parent’s house while holding out for more cash. It’s true, confirmed by many people, including the band and people who worked at the label back in the day. Whether you view this as an act of punk rock rebellion against the bourgeois label or the act of a bratty tantrum throwing “genius”, it’s a great story.
Dexys are another of the U.K. acts that got labelled “one hit wonders” in the American market place because the world centres around what Billboard magazine says. The truth is they put out a string of really interesting albums through the 1980s. And yes, Kevin Rowland’s hiccupping, nasal vocals can be a little much. But this band took Stax horns and added them to the Specials punk ska beats and on this album, created something amazing.
Rowland is a mercurial creature, a temperamental wannabe genius who was prone to tantrums and whining. He would hold his music hostage and get away with it, and band members would drop like flies as his perfectionism would alienate everyone around him (Wikipedia lists 38 former band members). It got results on Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. It’s a nearly flawless pop albums, rich in texture and ideas, at turns sweet and cynical. There are few albums this balanced in tone. And can I just mention again- the horn section?
Whether it’s the joyous arch of “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green”; the revised “Dance Stance” single that became “Burn it Down” on the album that makes one throw their hands in the air with abandon; the thumping classic “Geno”, which is an underrated classic single if there ever was one; the bitter spittle driven “There, There, My Dear” which is Rowland at his most acidic and self-loathing- there is something for every emotion, thought, and moment of your day if you let it take over and consume your mind. It’s a record that requires your undivided attention, lest you dismiss it as being “just pop”. It’s not.
As it is, this album is overshadowed by four minutes that happened a few years later. “Come On Eileen” is one of the greatest singles of all time, without question. But it’s not as good as “Geno” is terms of melody, theme, or structure. The fiddles don’t match the emotional impact of the brass in “Geno”. If you held a gun to my head and asked me which Dexys song was the best, “Geno” or “Eileen”, I’d go with “Geno” every single time. They are my Dexys, after all. Dexys became a victim of circumstance, which often is the case with British bands who are one hit wonders in America. The one song becomes ubiquitous, overshadowing all else. Brits can name other Dexys songs (also winners in my book- their cover of Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said”, and “The Celtic Soul Brothers”, both from Too-Rye-Ay. Yes, it’s the album with “Eileen” on it, ferchrssakes).
When one hit wonder gets thrown about by the media, it’s easy to forget that there are usually albums that those singles are on, and usually the albums have some gems on them. If the band has some other records, before and after, they are usually worth checking out. Often, the best they have to offer is lost to the narrative supported by the music media, occasionally trumpeted by the hipster faction that can be utterly annoying but are often right to look further. If anything, as Simple Minds and Dexys Midnight Runners have anything to say about it, the one hit wonder’s one hit is often a fluke, though a fluke that went right. And if you had any sense at all, you would look deeper, and you would discover the truth.