Beyond 'Eileen,' Ted Leo Lays Out Why Dexys Midnight Runners Are Worth Your Time
He's playing a St. Patrick's Day tribute to the band on Sunday.
Like most Americans, acclaimed indie rocker Ted Leo discovered Dexys Midnight Runners through their 1982 smash "Come On Eileen." And then like most Americans, he promptly forgot about them.
It wasn't until the early '90s, while fronting the mod-punk group Chisel, that Leo took a closer look at Dexys. Chisel was drawing on what Leo calls "primary sources" like The Jam and The Clash, and he was surprised to learn just how neatly Dexys slotted into that lineage of influences.
"The older you get the more people you talk to," says Leo, who'll celebrate St. Patrick's Day by fronting a 10-piece Dexys tribute band this Sunday (March 17) at the Bell House in Brooklyn. "You'd hear these rumors, at least back then, of the fabled 'good Dexys records.' So that became one of those back-of-my-mind things, to always be looking for those records. And they were, in fact, good."
What Leo discovered the deeper he went with Dexys was a group that came out of the British punk scene of the late '70s and developed a fresh sound rooted in '60s R&B. As a music fan, Leo appreciated that combo, and as the son of an Irish mother, he identified with the Celtic flourishes and nods to Irish pride that have always been present in Dexys' music.
It was plenty easy to miss all that while Leo was growing up in New Jersey in the '80s. All anyone knew was "Come On Eileen," a jaunty sing-along so sublimely weird and catchy you figure it's got to be some kind of joke. The song brought strings and banjos to top 40 radio and topped the Billboard Hot 100 for one glorious week in 1983. Much of the success was due to the music video, which features Dexys having a ragamuffin street-corner jamboree in baggy overalls. It was just the kind of cartoonish clip that could make a band's career in the early days of MTV.
After that, Dexys never scored another U.S. hit. They've since been branded with the one-hit-wonder tag and even got dissed in the classic 1993 "Homer's Barbershop Quartet" episode of The Simpsons. Upon learning his group has beaten Dexys for a Grammy, Homer tells Lisa, "Well, you haven't heard the last of them."
But as with many oddly dressed British bands that blew up thanks to MTV, there's more to Dexys than one hit song. When they came on the scene, they played soul music with the same youthful aggression The Specials and their 2 Tone brethren brought to '60s Jamaican ska. The horns on Dexys' stellar 1980 debut album Searching for the Young Soul Rebels are so powerful it feels like "Big" Jim Paterson's trombone is going to punch through the speaker and poke you in the eye.
Cutting through the brassy mix is frontman and mastermind Kevin Rowland, a yowling street poet who always sounds about two seconds from breaking down in tears. This vocal style suited Rowland's songwriting, which often pitted the England-born son of Irish immigrants against the rest of the world. Searching for the Young Soul Rebels finds Rowland tearing down phonies ("There, There My Dear"), questioning the existence of love ("Love Part One"), celebrating his Irish heritage ("Burn It Down"), and wailing passionately about lots of other topics that aren't always clear. Even Ted Leo, who earned an English degree at Notre Dame, has trouble making sense of Rowland's more oblique lyrics.
"More than anything, what comes through is his delivery," says Leo. "He could be singing a grocery list, and the way he's going to deliver it is with conviction. You know what's on his list. You know he really wants it. And he really needs to go get it."
Leo's favorite song on Searching for the Young Soul Rebels is "Geno," Rowland's tribute to '60s-era American soul singer Geno Washington. The song reached No. 1 in the U.K., establishing Dexys as legit superstars a good two years before "Come On Eileen" landed them on American shores.
"'Geno' is something that really never gets old for me," says Leo. "That's a song where you're not entirely sure what he's singing about. It's just the kid who's so deeply into the music, practicing his dance steps. It's one of those love-of-the-rapture-of-music kind of songs. I would say that's one of my favorite songs generally speaking, not just on the album."
By the time Dexys returned with Too-Rye-Ay in 1982, Rowland had a new lineup and a new look. Whereas the band had dressed like rugged longshoremen circa their debut, Rowland marked the band's next chapter by trading knit caps and donkey jackets for the dirty overalls and bandanas that would become their trademark. The outfits matched the album's sound, the mix of old-school R&B and string-laced Celtic music heard on "Celtic Soul Brothers," the Van Morrison cover "Jackie Wilson Said," and of course, "Come On Eileen."
Leo suspects Americans would've received Too-Rye-Ay differently had they heard Dexys' debut first and understood where they were coming from with the vintage R&B. "Without that context in the background of 'Come On Eileen,' it's hard to even understand that [soul music] is what's happening in that song," Leo says. "But that is what's happening in that song. They just added violins and banjo."
And then they changed things up again. Dexys donned yuppie suits and dialed back the energy for 1985's Don't Stand Me Down, a commercial flop that marked the end of the group's initial run. (Rowland reactivated the band in 2003 and has since released two comeback albums.) Leo digs the third album, too, and he's looking forward to performing a song or two during the career-spanning Bell House tribute. He's perhaps less excited about the "costume changes" promised by David Nagler, the Brooklyn composer and multi-instrumentalist who organized the show and tapped Leo to play Rowland.
"I've been busy with a bunch of other stuff," Leo says. "But I guess I've got to get some outfits together."
The Bell House concert might be one of the few St. Patrick's Day bashes around NYC to feature the music of Dexys Midnight Runners. When the Guinness gets flowing this weekend, you're way more likely to hear The Pogues -- who, like Dexys, were technically British, not Irish. For as much as he's come to love Dexys, Leo understands why this is the case.
"The Pogues played much more obviously Irish music," Leo says. "They're thought of as Irish even though they were English. With Dexys, you have to scratch the surface a little to get to the Irish stuff. But it runs deep there once you scratch the surface."
As for whether this Sunday's show will help to change anyone's perception about Dexys, Leo isn't so sure.
"In America, I would say 95 percent of people I know well still don't believe me when I tell them there's more to Dexys than 'Come On Eileen,'" he says. "Hopefully there'll be more than five people in the know on Sunday, and then we can make the point. But anybody who comes to this is probably already on board. It's not something you're going to go to out of curiosity."