Before they struck US paydirt with "Come On, Eileen," Kevin Rowland's Dexy's Midnight Runners were the UK's speed-fueled evangelists for "projected passion." Phil Sutcliffe's Sounds encounter from January 1980 provides the lowdown on Birmingham's finest——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
By the time I'd reached the counter, I'd forgotten it. "What was it again?" I called over to the Dexy's tables. They said, "Five teas and two coffees. Two teas with three sugars, one with two and one with one, one coffee with three and one with none." Of course.
The proprietor of the Appollonia caff in the middle of Birmingham poured the teas and gave me the sugar-bowl. "I could run a pipeline to that table," he said. "Pour it straight down their trumpets."
I told him sorry, the trumpet was one instrument they didn't play.
"That's bad. You can't have a good band without a trumpet."
Chewing this over, I took the beverages back to the tables and passed on the warning about their musical future. They took it remarkably well. "Don't pay him any attention." "His wife plays the trumpet, and he wants to get her a job," said JB, horn arranger extraordinaire.
In fact, on a day's acquaintance I came away with the impression that Brummie caff society more or less revolves around Dexy's Midnight Runners.
They're certainly a catch for any maitre d' greasy spoon. There's a lot of them and they don't like the look of an empty cup. They hang about a lot and make any establishment look like a cheery home-from-home to the passer-by on dog day afternoons when business is generally slack.
Across the aisle their manager Dave Corke, clad in blue jeans and silk-lapelled black DJ, was examining his coffee with magnifying glass proffered for no reason by the chimpanzee-like old man opposite him. "Best cup of coffee in Birmingham," he concluded quaffed it and got up to leave us to our own devices for a few hours.
"If we aren't here we'll be there," he was told. Of course.
As we checked each other out a little my main problem was simply remembering the names, picking the distinctive details from their homogenous look of smartness scoring itself.
Big Jim Patterson is the tall skinhead who plays trombone and wears mirror shades on stage, a Scot slipping whisky in to his tea from a half-bottle. He comes on like a bruiser and the band use that menace in him to test out newcomers but his temperament if more what you'd expect from the music college student he once was.
Al Archer: guitar and red woolly hat.
Pete Williams: bass and white wobbly hat.
JB: tenor sax and rather older than the boyish 21 they average.
Kevin Rowland: vocals, guitar, a lot of the writing, and a very pointed person — chin, eyes, perhaps his whole character.
Growk: drums, new, cropped, laughing a lot and definitely not related to Kelly Grocutt of ELO.
Steve Spooner: alto sax.
Andee Leekke: new keyboardist and fairly quiet otherwise (or at least on Wednesday).
They were working up a story around the theme of how poor they were to see if me and Mike Laye would bite. I'll bite almost anything (Freud has a lot to answer for). "At first we couldn't afford mikes so Kevin had to sing into the pick-ups of his guitar!"
Pete: "That's how he got such a loud voice."
I went out to the bog (no door, no seat, no plumbing) and was standing there chuckling about life's vicissitudes and not achieving much else when a bloke came out and caught me at it. He started chortling too: "Oi'ad the same trooble last night — ite points oi ad and could oi get eet started? Poomp eet opp and down, wring eet out, wheestle to eet, roon the taps. Nothing. Yeow feel a roight pillock, don't yeow?"
Be they ever so humble or ever so posh, it's amazing how many good encounters with rock bands start in bogs up and down the land. It was going to be a salty day with a salty band.
"Back in '68 in a sweaty club/Before Jimmy's machine and the rocksteady rub/On a night when flowers didn't suit my shoes/After a week of flunkin' and bunkin' school/The lowest head in the crowd that night/Just practicing steps and keeping gout of fights/That man took the stage his towel swingin' high/This man was my bombers, my dexy's my high."
The words from 'Geno', the band's tribute to 'Geno' Washington. When I'd seen Dexy's at the Marquee the previous weekend just the announcement of it had the audience chanting his name though I'd lay odds that not one of them had ever seen him. While the old hero's weary body treks the cabaret and airbase circuit Dexy's are making myth of the spirit hitting them from his mid-'60s records. The song is their next single.
The gig made me realise that for a band whose single has just caused quite a stir at their record company (EMI who release Dexy's own Oddball Productions) by rising as high as 78 Dexy's have already got a lot going for them. Such as 550 people on a Sunday night. Such as very distinctive music.
If you were born up to about '55, you find familiarity in their classic covers — 'Tearing Down The Walls Of Heartache,' 'Hold On, I'm Coming,' 'Respect,' 'Big Time Operator' — even if, like me, you can't exactly place who did all the originals any more (respectively, Johnny Johnson And The Bandwagon, Sam & Dave, Aretha Franklin and Zoot Money, it turns out). You like it anyway because it's old and it's new. A mixture of care and coarse attack, respect without reverence, roaralong and feel good.
And then their own songs are so completely different that to me it's really difficult to see that their love for the Stax/Atlantic catalogue has actually much influenced the creative process.
Take the single 'Dance Stance'/'I'm Just Looking.' Ah yes, a brazen brass riff — but does that really sound like the Memphis Horns or near offer? Not at all. Nothing slick about it, nothing "musically". More like a bunch of blokes shouting in the street. Bring it down to a technical approach and what you find is that they are playing very unorthodox harmonies.
There's the same roughness in the vocals. Kevin is a one-off finding new recesses in his vocal chords all the time without a hint of imitating the black American giants. He's alternatively pinched and nasal then full-throated bellowing... and listen to that beyond-the-subconscious whisper he uses on 'I'm Just Looking', the sort of thing you'd expect from a bleak-wave act who say 'angst', 'weltschmerz' or 'paranoia' at least every third sentence.
What Dexy's Midnight Runners say often is "soul". They never say "Are you having a goodtime?" They play fiercely and they say only what they mean: "Despite this cold exterior our hearts are really full of soul." "There's a lot more people starting to feel the soul power now." "This must be the definitive cover version." "If you still haven't heard of Zoot Money, consider this an education." They're not exactly shrinking violets but nobody took this as arrogance either.
Without a hint of the poser about them they were the most dynamic photographic subjects I've seen outside of fashion parade. Purposefully they led us through a half-mile of rubble-strewn disused railways runnel with Mike flashing so to speak, to give us the odd clue about where the floor might be.
Then, when they were faced with the camera there was no embarrassment, cringing and wondering where to put themselves. Dexy's Midnight Runners the band, the gang, know who they are in any circumstance. The sang James Brown's 'Sex Machine', they chanted 'Gee-noh!', they danced, threw rocks... what they didn't do was pause to look over their shoulder to see if anyone was pointing the finger and saying they were making twats of themselves. They are very self-contained and strong.
The session closed with interesting revelations about woolly-hat chic. Al lost his when he fell off a small precipice in the tunnel so we had to go to a shop and buy him a new one. He was most particular that the bobble should be cut off and after some haggling he got his way. "Cutting the bobble off is the acid test," he explained "I bought a hat the other week which just fell apart, unravelled itself. You have been warned.
"Academic inspiration you gave me none/Ah but you were Michael the lover, the fighter that won/And look at me now looking down at you/No Iam not bein' flash, it's what I'm built to do."
It was a different caff, La Cantina, the "soul café" with a record playing instead of a jukebox, and Dexy's were amazed because I didn't know what dexies were. Dexedrine. A stimulant. Ah. But what are "midnight runners", then? What dexies make you do. Oh. I mention this in case among Sounds' vast readership there might possibly be someone else as unhip as me who also hadn't understood.
The from-square-one phase of the interview, insofar as I caught it through Millie Jackson at full volume, revealed that Dexy's played their first gig in December '78 after being brought together by Kev and Kev... pardon me? 'Al is 'Kev'," said Kev. "It's an in-joke."
Finding nowhere for nobodies to play they set about getting there won youth club circuit going. The payphone at the Appollonia yielded about a dozen dates and they were just about off the ground. They even struck lucky in a sense because a teenage gang scene was just growing up in Birmingham at the time and, playing the clubs they did, they found themselves adopted by almost all of them.
That must have been against the odds because the essence of the gangs is territory in every sense. Kev mentioned the Zoomers (mods from Brierley Hill), the Imitation Boys (gays from Hall Green), and Romantics (mixed girls and boys with bright clothers, walking sticks and a repertoire of their own songs). Growk said he was a member of the Swan 41 based on a pub in Wolverhampton (the '41' is the number of members — supernumeraries join the waiting-list as if it was a gentleman's club in Knightsbridge).
They said they'd leave it to the sociologists to explain why the gangs started but Kev thought it might be because travel had become so expensive that people were more restricted to their home areas and had decided to make something positive out of it.
It didn't have much to do with violence or crime, they reckoned. The members acted pretty much as they had before. For one gang organised into a shoplifting ring there'd be another who just met up to go dancing.
As if to prove the point the owner of the "soul café" came over the show me a photo of the local gang, the Bearwood, gathered outside his door for a day trip to Blackpool (Brewer's Dram are realpolitik?)
"The gangs have a fierce pride in themselves," said Kev, "but for a laugh we advertised one of our gigs as a gang meeting. They all came and they looked at each other but there was no trouble. I think the gangs are good."
The Dexy's gang comes from all over the Black Country, plus Kev from London and Jim from Scotland, so their territory hasn't got any parish boundaries, but it is clearly defined by their soul-puritan zeal. By rules even.
"We hate to call them that but..."
Such as no drink, drugs or other digressions on the night of a gig. Absolutely none — except for Jim, who must have a half-bottle of whisky, no more, in the two hours immediately before they go on and another waiting for him on stage. Kev: "He's an alcoholic and he has to have it. But any more than that and he'd flake out. He's worth the trouble. He's a great trombone player and a good friend. Anyway he tolerates us too."
Such as never paying train fares. All eight do the Brum-to-London run for now as a matter of course, though I'm sworn to secrecy on their methods, but they did consider it a triumph when they got 100 miles sought of Paris and back should fall through Dexy's could clean up with a slim volume on the art and craft of "bunking".
The rigour and the vigour is there beyond the rules too, in their music. They all gave up their jobs a year ago because they agreed Dexy's had to be 100 per cent. They refuse easy money and easy exposure offered by constant requests to use their brass section from they say, luminaries ranging from the Specials through Glenn Matlock to Robert Plant. Kev: "We won't hear of it. We will never do sessions and nobody else is going to get that Dexy's sound."
You can suss another skein of myth-making hereabouts I expect. It has to be admitted that they are hypercritical of other bands who have changed direction, mod to ska or whatever, then found success. Their line was that this automatically made you insincere, a turncoat, no question that it could possibly be experiment and search for your true self. In his intolerance Kevin drew a veil over his own past involvement with the Killjoys an early thrash outfit who themselves fell apart in a confusion of different styles in '78.
Well, I'd sooner take the positive side of what they express negatively — like sculptors they are cracking Dexy's identify out of blank rock and the past is so much broken stone they don't need.
The single is ample evidence that they are getting clear. Sam and Dave never sang about this sort of thing.
Kev: "'Dance Stance' I wrote because Irish jokes made me sick. A lot of people believe all that stuff. I'm sure the BBC or Lew Grade would stop it but they won't. Anyway that's what the lists of great Irish authors are in it for to show the other side. At least I felt a better lot when I'd written it.
"I'm Just Looking comes from when I worked in a warehouse. The pay and conditions were terrible and I organised a union there and everyone agreed to go out on strike one afternoon. Then when the time came and I went round they all backed down. Suddenly they were saying their crap jobs were good jobs. I grew up working-class and I'd been a socialist. The song is more or less saying I've given up on that... well, not entirely."
Mike reminded me that Corkie would be waiting for us at New Street by now. So finally "Why 'Geno'?"
Kev: "He was the greatest soul singer that ever lived, apart from James Brown. I know he blew it, played the cabaret circuit and pissed everyone off but he's criminally underrated, especially the band he had about '65. The fire and emotion he performed with, total conviction... it's that strength and aggression we try to put in."
We caught a bus down to the stations, they bunked their trains home and Mike and I, with legit tickets, missed ours.
© Phil Sutcliffe, 1980
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