Jul 112023

Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

Kevin Rowland

Under whose radar?, shout all the UK readers, as Dexys frontman and brand identity Kevin Rowland truly struggles hard to stay out the spotlight in his own land. (OK, struggles may be a stretch, he no wallflower in the publicity seeking stakes, as some of his sartorial choices all too brashly display.) His right to crave our attention today is twofold. You may have enjoyed our recent best one-hit-wonders covers of the ’80s extravaganza, here if you missed it, but, his presence came at some price, our US contingent knowing nothing much of him beyond drunken dance floor filler “Come On Eileen.” A fair old transatlantic barney took place around his right, or otherwise, to appear. Here in the UK, Rowland has been suffering for his art for nearly 45 years (voice from the back: So have we! Yes yes, hilarious, go away now), and we have borne witness to much, much more. (To be fair, longtime readers may recall a 2013 In Defense piece that popped up here, and might have alerted you to all of this. Forgive a little duplication.) But time’s old jet plane is still moving, and there is now an announcement of some forthcoming new, an all new album and a tour for the autumn.

Does any of that sound snarky? It shouldn’t, as I have utmost respect for Rowland and his ever-changing moods, even as, on occasion, he has strained both the credulity and the patience of his audience. I think he’s great, and have even the deemed dodgiest of his output proud on my shelves. I had tickets for his cancelled tour of last year, which a Dylanesque motorbike accident put paid to. A pity, as that was his opportunity to present the revisited remastering of his moment of most fame, 1982’s Too-Rye-Ay album, which spawned the song so loved and hated by Eileens everywhere. Unable to fulfil, give or take a book by then fiddle player Helen O’Hara, who had been re-recruited for that tour, he has, as ever, moved on to new climes. I can’t wait, but, until then, catch a handful (and some) of his influences, disguised as just covers. (Believe me, there is no such thing as “just a cover.”)

Dexys Midnight Runners – Hold On, I’m Comin’ (Sam & Dave cover)

From the start it was clear that Rowland was a a soul boy, a Northern Soul boy at that. That peculiar musical movement arose out of the industrial town of England’s North West, centered on the music of black America from, often, a decade before, with all night dance clubs and a fashion sense all of its own. The whole of his band’s first album, Searching For the Young Soul Rebels, was an impassioned paean to the music that begat that scene, with a fair few covers amongst his vivid and off-kilter recreations, all heavy on the horns and Hammond, with Rowland’s distinctive wail using every note available, and a lot that weren’t. This slightly slower version of the Sam & Dave belter didn’t make the album, here in demo form. It made the later expanded versions.

Kevin Rowland & Dexys Midnight Runners – Jackie Wilson Said (Van Morrison cover)

By his second album, the b(r)and was already evolving, the image morphing from precision honed dockhands to ragamuffin gypsy tinkers. The horns were still there, if leavened by a country’n’Irish twang, resplendent with fiddles and banjos, in a union that should never have gelled. If Van Morrison had tried a gentler manifestation of this marriage in his own Celtic soul, then who better could there be to cover, with Rowland and band taking it many steps further. The template is basically the same, but the photocopier had clearly been on the poteen, the outcome way more ragged than Morrison would ever allow himself to be. (Which isn’t to say he didn’t have form….) I know we’ve featured it before, but I never tire of it.

Dexys Midnight Runners – Kathleen Mavourneen (John McCormack cover)

If people think Rowland eccentric now, go witness this, from 1985, an extraordinary rendition of an old American Civil War song, written in 1837, and then a staple of their repertoire, perhaps even confusing his band. Almost sung straight, as a drawing room favorite from the ’50s, the vocal gets progressively more curdled, much as the pedal steel too strays way off script. It is delightfully odd, as Rowland himself was seeming also to be. After their 3rd LP, Don’t Stand Me Down, emerged, the band image now of young fogey, preppy country club types, Rowland effectively killed off the support for the band, so then impenetrable did it seem, any acclaim coming too late and too little. No covers, tho’.

Kevin Rowland – Heartaches By The Number (Harlan Howard cover)

After this fall from grace, Rowland got really strange. He disappeared from view and became somewhat of a recluse, with drugs and mental illness again revealing how poor a combination they generally are. 1988 saw a solo album, The Wanderer, which barely bothered any chart anywhere. Maybe “Kathleen Mavourneen” had been a portent of this, as there was a strong country influence throughout, no brass and more pedal steel, this time from Eric Weissberg. Probably the first time the “Dueling Banjos” man had ever been paired with a drum machine.

Kevin Rowland – Labelled With Love (Squeeze cover)

Further silence followed, this time for a decade. Appearing in a pantie revealing dress proved not the best look to rock for his comeback, however. Premiering this new look for 1999’s My Beauty, an all-covers selection, Rowland then took it further, appearing in character for a disastrous appearance at that year’s Reading Rock festival. He lasted for just 15 minutes in front of the always reliably short attention span of the heavy metal hungry crowd . Remembered more for the artwork, always a frontrunner in those perennial lists of worst cover art, I think it actually a very good record, if leaning a little heavily toward the sentimental end of the axis. My favorite will always be the Bruce cover, “Thunder Road,” here, if you must, and famously initially denied inclusion by the Boss, but is now safely back in for re-released editions. We have showcased it a number of times previously, so the above song is a close second, showing Rowland was listening also to his British peers.

Dexys – Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell cover)

2012 saw the Dexys name revived, albeit abbreviated and minus the Midnight Runners, an album and a tour. New material, a nearly new lineup, with only Pete Williams recalled from the earlier days, along with Big Jim Paterson, whose trombone livened up what made quite a challenging show. Ex-Style Councillor Mick Talbot handled keys and a fair amount the vocals, with Rowland sharing lead vocals, in duet form, with a female singer, Madeleine Hyland. Four years go by and it is all change again, 2016’s reinvention being a further celebration of his Irish roots; whilst he was born in the English Midlands city of Wolverhampton, his parents came from Co. Mayo, in the Republic. Called Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul, Rowland was a adamant that this would not be authentic, necessarily, more their take on the concept. A curious higgeldy piggledy collection of covers, this paired old Irish ballads, like “Carrickfergus,” with more contemporary songs, often with little overt connection to the aul’ country: songs by the Bee Gees and Rod Stewart, anyone? Let alone “Both Sides Now,” as bewildering a version, if not entirely without charm, of Joni outside that of Helena Bonham-Carter’s version. (Look it up!) A bonus disc gets you many of the songs shorn entirely of any backing, Rowland’s idiosyncratic voice in his pure unadulterated glory. One for completists. (I have it…..)

So, what will The Feminine Divide, later this year, reveal? No covers, it seems, but who knows what will pop up on b-sides of singles and bonus discs, or at TV chat show promos. Until then, here’s a final trio of his the mixed bag he has always at his disposal, even if sometimes, just sometimes, less to be liked and more to be admired.

Dexys Midnight Runners – Marguerita Time (Status Quo cover)

The flip of one of the singles released from Don’t Stand Me Down.

Kevin Rowland – Rag Doll (Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons cover)

From the 2020 re-released and expanded My Beauty. Dig the choral vocals!

Kevin Rowland – The More I See You (Chris Montez cover)

From a TV show in 1988.

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