Dexys - The Stool Pigeon
Kevin Rowland is on edge. He knows he should be enjoying his comeback, but it’s not that simple. He’s stressed. Feels rusty. Compares his current state of mind to driving at 200 miles per hour.
Sitting in an old-fashioned Soho café — his tilted baker-boy cap, billowing trousers and two-tone brogues a perfect match for the antique decor — he’s just emerged from the ordeal of making the first Dexys album in 27 years, One Day I’m Going To Soar. “I got cold feet and postponed the sessions — twice,” he says. “I wasn’t ready.”
It wasn’t much easier back when they were known as Dexys Midnight Runners. That’s the other problem: a comeback means facing up to the past, defending mistakes, sidestepping controversies, contesting myths. For years, Rowland dreaded being asked about what he was up to, let alone his implosion in the late-eighties. Reminding him of this produces a cold stare.
“I went through a few years where I didn’t want anything to do with music,” he murmurs, ruffling the salt-and-pepper hairs of his pencil moustache. “I just wanted to get away and not be of part it. Just escape, completely escape my past. I hated people asking me about it. I would give them quite short answers and made it clear I didn’t want to talk about that.”
Rowland remains intensely guarded: repeating the questions, picking them apart with pathological pedantry, hunting for a way out. Mostly, he simply pleads ignorance, answering with “I don’t know” or “What do you think?” 31 times. The revelations he does share are not surrendered lightly but, given that Rowland’s career blew by like a tornado of uncompromising ferocity, hard-won lessons and bad blood, maybe it’s understandable.
Blasting brassy Black Country soul with all the immediacy of punk, Dexys Midnight Runners were radical in style, substance and sentiment. When their second single, ‘Geno’, shot to number one in 1980, the Birmingham-based group dressed as New York dockers, performed as razor-sharp teetotallers and flaunted Celtic pride in an era of Irish denigration.
They were a tribe that bunked trains together, performed group shoplifting expeditions and stole the masters of their debut, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, to renegotiate a better deal with EMI.
Rowland was not to be messed with. Before and during Dexys, he notched up 13 arrests, once for attacking a group of men with an iron bar. His previous group, punk outfit The Killjoys, revolted after their eight-hour practice sessions often erupted in fisticuffs. The military precision only intensified in Dexys.
According to original keyboardist Andy Leek, Rowland would spit on the drummer if he didn’t stick to the beat. He’d lead the band on afternoon swims and evening runs, banning interviews in favour of taking out full-page statements in the press. But Rowland’s stranglehold pushed most of the group away. Eight months after being number one, the frontman had to formulate his next move alone.
“I put a lot of effort into making it look like I knew what I was doing, but I was just going from one thing to another. Our manager said the word ‘career’ to me and I thought, ‘Career? There’s no fucking plan to this.’ A guy in the band said, ‘I’m going to do this for 10 years, then become a producer.’ I mean, what? Each song is a miracle. I’ve no idea how it happens or where the next one’s going to come from.”
A little help came when Kevin Archer, who left Dexys to start his own band The Blue Ox Babes, gave Rowland a tape of his new material: folk-influenced pop driven by three violins and Motown-style piano. Inspired, Rowland poached one of the violinists and adapted the sound for Dexys. He dressed the band as scruffy gypsies in dungarees, rechristened them with Irish names and told the brass section they needed to learn string instruments — quickly.
The resulting album, Too-Rye-Ay, was heralded as a triumph. But as ‘Come On Eileen’ quickly became the biggest-selling single of 1982, Rowland felt unworthy of the success. Suddenly people were relying on him, he couldn’t admit he was struggling and the band disintegrated.
By 1983, it was time for another new start, a new look and a new sound. Rowland spent the next two years developing his experimental magnum opus, Don’t Stand Me Down, determined to achieve perfection. “Whenever I have compromised, those things hurt me so much,” he says of his exacting nature. “There were things on Too-Rye-Ay that I wasn’t happy about which are still painful to me now. I can’t stand to listen to it.”
Asked where the underlying drive for reinvention comes from, Rowland bristles. “I don’t know. I don’t care. I just do it! It’s all intuitive. I’m not interested in repeating meself. Don’t understand that at all. I mean, why would anyone wanna do that? Why? That’s the logical question to me. Why would anyone want to do the same thing again?”
Reminded that many bands play it safe, milking the popularity of their breakthrough album, Rowland reluctantly concedes the point. “I suppose the answer to that is I fear standing still. Perhaps. I don’t know. I’m not goin’ to analyse myself,” he says sharply, “and I wouldn’t do it in an interview.”
Given its lengthier songs, elaborate arrangements and deadpan dialogue, Rowland refused to release a single from Don’t Stand Me Down, believing it should stand alone. But the album, then one of the most expensive ever made, was considered a commercial and critical failure on release. The hiatus hurt ticket sales and the new look — Ivy League haircuts and Brooks Brothers suits — only fuelled the derision.
In retrospect, Rowland feels a better knowledge of art would have helped him cope with the disillusionment. “I don’t think I would have felt so alone,” he says. “I think I would have understood movements more. I didn’t know anything about that kind of stuff. I was uneducated.” He looks away, pausing for 15 seconds. “I think it would have helped me contextualise what I was doing. I could have seen parallels.”
Inspired by ecstasy’s arrival in the late-eighties, the singer began demos for an album of house music, but his truculence sabotaged talks with labels. Then living on the dole (“Her Majesty’s assistance,” as he refers to it), Rowland would “ponce” cocaine until he burned out.
“Do I see it as a waste? Oh yeah, definitely,” he says, drumming on a plastic bottle, voice falling to a mumble. “I couldn’t have done it any differently, that’s all I know. Couldn’t have done it any different.”
“If I could’ve done, I would’ve done. I don’t know why.”
How did he turn it around?
“Seeing a friend of mine, Ollie. He used to be exactly like me. He was a wreck — a bad way. So when he told me about a possible solution, I was interested. I carried on for a while, nearly a year, then one day I just thought, ‘I can’t go on like this.’ I got help.”
Rehabilitation coincided with the re-release of Don’t Stand Me Down — finally hailed as a neglected masterpiece — on Creation Records in 1997. Label boss Alan McGee offered Rowland a three-album contract, claiming money was no object to sign one of his heroes. In an interview with NME in 1999, McGee said the deal felt like giving Rowland his dignity back, a claim the latter rejects.
“I don’t think he was giving me my dignity back. I don’t think it was Alan’s to give me. The thing about it was, I wasn’t on the scrapheap when I met him. He didn’t pick me up from the gutter. Actually, I was on the way up by then. I was starting to get a whole lot better. I had a one-bedroom flat after living in a bedsit for years. I was clean from drugs nearly two years. I was getting myself together. And at the time I signed to Creation, I could have signed for Warner Bros. or Rough Trade. I wasn’t…” he trails off, shaking his head. “I wasn’t that down at that point.”
The return provoked vitriol when My Beauty, a covers album of songs that aided Rowland’s recovery, utilised yet another new look: lingerie. At the 1999 Reading Festival, the sight of Rowland in women’s stockings, frock flapping in the breeze as he sang Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love Of All’ drew a hail of boos and bottles. The album sold 700 copies, contributing to Creation Records’ collapse, and the comeback sputtered out.
Now 58 and sober, Rowland has spent much of the intervening years conceiving the acclaimed new album (co-written and co-produced by former Dexys members Big Jim Paterson and Mick Talbot respectively). But with Rowland rehearsing songs two at a time ad nauseam, polishing them until perfect, even his manager thought it was never going to happen.
“I honestly didn’t know if I could go through anything like Don’t Stand Me Down again,” he says of One Day I’m Going To Soar. “I knew I couldn’t do it in the normal way: get everyone in the studio, record it from start to finish, lovely album, now we mix it. That would mean people asking me, ‘What do you want to do with that guitar line now? Do you want to change that or do you want to go with that?’ And I wouldn’t know.”
For a man who doesn’t like to analyse himself, the new album is a grandiose outing in introspection, pouring pained self-scrutiny into silken soul and kitsch theatricality. It’s the story of a damaged figure (named Kevin) struggling to understand himself through the prism of love.
Despite correlating neatly with Rowland’s life story, he emphatically (but unconvincingly) dismisses any talk of autobiography, ruling the lyrics off-limits. He will admit, however, that the band is something he takes just as seriously as the lyrics — so seriously that he doesn’t know if he can go through it again.
“I’ve got half an idea where I’d like to go now, but I wouldn’t want to do the same thing again. I couldn’t do it! I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I know what would happen: it wouldn’t get finished. It’s the same with this: if it hadn’t worked, if it was half-half, if it sounded shit like some Pro Tools album, I wouldn’t have finished it. Guaranteed. I can’t do that any more than I can go on an eighties package tour. I wouldn’t be able.”
“Bloody hell, mate.”
He grows exasperated, sinking into another pause.
“I can’t think about the next one. I can’t. I can’t think about it. Just the thought of it makes me feel horrible. I’m just glad I got this one fucking done. I think I’m just going to enjoy that for a while.”