In March 1985, Kevin Rowland, lead singer and songwriter of Dexys Midnight Runners was facing total ruin. “Don’t Stand Me Down”, his labour of love and an album he had spent two years of his life writing, recording and mixing, might just have been burned in a fire at the record label’s office in New York, and lost forever. Two years work, and possibly the best album of the eighties might just have gone up in smoke…
This news came just a few weeks after he had failed in an attempt to steal the tape back from the studio he was mixing it in after an unpaid bill meant it was being held to ransom. But both of these incidents were just two of a long line of setbacks in recording the follow up to the three million selling Too-Rye-Ay.
The attempted theft happened, according to record producer Alan Winstanley * when Kevin and the band “allegedly grabbed the tapes, ran through the Electric Lady studio, straight through reception….got to the car, and the chauffeur had gone off for a cup of coffee…the door was locked! A studio employee foiled the getaway.”
And the fire? After the tapes were released they were stored at the record company office in New York. The office below suffered a fire and for a week no one could enter Phonogram’s offices to see whether the tape had survived. We can only imagine Rowland’s state of mind for that week…
The tape survived, as it happens. And although the album that resulted was, by all commercial measures, a failure, it remains an artistic triumph and one of the most important albums of the eighties.
Some 29 years later, I was at a record fair thumbing through some Gerry Rafferty and Linda Ronstadt LPs with gloom in my soul, when my heart leapt. There it was: the purple cover of “Don’t Stand Me Down”. It’s a record rich in beach boy harmonies, a “Blonde On Blonde” vibe and Van Morrison-esque soul which has barely dated since its release in 1985, but which was born out of tremendously difficult circumstances and, as I hinted earlier, on release was almost entirely ignored by the general public.
I should probably pause for breath at this point as you may find yourself in one of three camps:
- Those who know and love “Don’t Stand Me Down”.
- Those who thought Dexys split up after “Come On Eileen”.
- Anyone under the age of (roughly) thirty five, the vast majority of which will never have heard of Dexys Midnight Runners. (This is a strange fact, but one I have tested on many occasions. Whilst most people born in the eighties will generally be aware of Wham, Boy George and Adam Ant, very few in comparison will know Dexys Midnight Runners, despite how huge they were, particularly in the UK).
I told the dealer I bought the record from how pleased I was to find it. “Well, it’s only one of the best albums ever made…” he said, as though this was received wisdom, akin to “The Beatles were a good band” or “never eat yellow snow”. Yet, like many people, this is an album I came to quite late.Embed from Getty Images
Let’s start from the beginning.
In April 1983 “Come On Eileen” reached the top of the Billboard charts, knocking off Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. The album sold millions. Yet whilst band leader Kevin Rowland had experienced success, it left him feeling unfulfilled. His reaction to this feeling was encapsulated in the making of “Don’t Stand Me Down” which began as a vision of Rowland’s socio-political view of Ireland but ended up being a more personal record. After nine months of writing, demos were made in the spring of 1984 featuring a band which included Atomic Rooster keyboardist Vincent Crane and ex-Spider from Mars Mick “Woody” Woodmansey. These songs were recorded, dumped, and re-recorded.
Three weeks in the studio became six months. Two hundred boxes of tape reels revealed the lengths perfectionist Rowland was going to. There were tales of 120 versions of “This Is What She’s Like”. Eight months into recording, only two songs had been completed and the record company were getting a little nervous. Strangely, the turning point appeared to be when Al Green’s drummer Tim Dancy replaced Woodmansey. A flurry of songs were recorded by September 1984 and then Rowland began mixing the album – in New York. This took another two months, the release date was scheduled for spring 1985….
Yet still Kevin Rowland wasn’t happy, and he spent another two weeks mixing the tapes at Electric Lady studio. The record company refused to pay the bills, and Electric Lady reputedly threatened to withhold the master tapes, leading to the incident that began this story.
But what about the music?
It is perhaps the twelve and a half minute suite “This Is What She’s Like” that most separates “Don’t Stand Me Down” from the foot-stomping rag-wearing cartoon version of Dexys that has been the traditional floor-filling staple of every party ever held since 1983. What a tune this is! Two minutes of studio chatter gives way to a killer first phase, which fades to a gorgeous a cappella “Pet Sounds” style harmony, which builds across a killer finale that knocks “Come On Eileen” into a cocked hat.
Listen also to the “Satellite of Love” feel to the reflective “My National Pride”. Or even the absolute outright thievery of the excellent “One of Those Things”, a song which Kevin Rowland belatedly gave Warren Zevon songwriting credit to (it is a terrific song, but a complete lift of the latter’s “Werewolves of London”) saying in the liner notes to a later re-issue he was “embarrassed” he hadn’t credited Zevon before. There’s also the hit-single-that-never-was of “I Love You (Listen To This)”.
Meanwhile the eight minute closing track “The Waltz” might have sat comfortably on “Tupelo Honey” without ever feeling like it had gate-crashed an Ambassador’s reception. This was an album released in 1985, which, to remind ourselves, was also the year of No Jacket Required, Songs From The Big Chair and Wham!’s Make It Big.
Don’t Stand Me Down entered the UK charts at a lowly 22, three years after the release of Too-Rye-Ay. It would take many years before it was recognised as being one of the greatest albums of the eighties.
Here’s a TV clip from 1985 of Listen To This. Check out Rowland’s intensity…
The Director’s Cut edition of this album adds a track or two and can be found on CD with a little searching. It’s worth the effort. Especially after what Kevin Rowland went through to make it…
“Don’t Stand Me Down” is thirty years old next year. Dexys reformed in 2012 and made the excellent album “One Day I’m Going To Soar”.
A new documentary “Nowhere Is Home” about the reformed Dexys is out in May 2014
* Young Soul Rebels: The Dexys Midnight Runners Story by Richard White
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