MY INSPIRATION: Kristian Atkinson on Dexys’ Kevin Rowland | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Ahead of Kevin Rowland’s DJ set at Newcastle’s Boiler Shop on Sunday 1st April, Great Northern Soul Food’s DJ and promoter Kristian Atkinson tells us more about his love of the man and the band…

Like many, my introduction to Kevin Rowland was through his band’s most famous song – Dexys Midnight Runners’ 1983 classic Come On Eileen is a skillful display of brilliant songwriting with a heated soulful feel and maximalist musical craftsmanship in an era of aesthetically cold and minimalist synth pop. The sheer impassioned soul of the man made the record stand out in its own time, even to the ears of this pre-teen pop fan. 

However it wasn’t just Rowland’s soulful vocal and the passionate sound of the music that made the record stand out, as anyone who ever saw the video for the song will remember. I found my first glimpse of Kevin and his band striking to say the least, here in the summer of 1982 when the pop scene was bound up in the decade’s defining aesthetics of excess – bigger, faster, shinier, slicker, “more more more”, as mainstream pop in this year was caught between the New Romantic era (80-82) and the stylistic Reagan-ism that would consume pop from this point until the end of the decade, when finally it was thankfully killed off by the arrival of Acid House and then Grunge going into the 90s.

This very ‘1980s’ desire in fashion, music, art and business to distance itself from anything that signaled the caring, sharing downhome earthiness, realness and soulfulness of the 60s and 70s was helped largely by MTV – think displays of money, speed, power, greed and technological advancement.  The defining pop image of this era was Duran Duran sat upon a yacht dressed in expensive super slick Anthony Price suits, hanging out with supermodels in blazing sunshine and sailing straight in line with Reaganomics. Contrast this with the video for Come On Eileen and the difference is staggering – Kevin and co dressed unfashionably but undeniably looking incredible, like some raggle taggle gypsy gang with fiddles and dirt and back streets and everything that pop at that point was not. Even down to the tatty knitted jumpers full of holes, Kevin and co looked scruffy but it was obviously a very stylish and considered kind of scruffy (this was grunge a decade too soon, proving that Kevin was always ahead of his time) and it was wholly fascinating, while the look most definitely said something about reality rather than pop fantasy in the midst of Thatcherism. The effect of both video and song was immediate and the nation took the record to its heart – as it became the biggest selling single of 1982.

justly acknowledged as a true iconoclast of our culture while still making fabulous life affirming records and still touring a live band that is a force to reckoned with

However this was to prove a double-edged sword and as the song became a wedding disco staple for the next 20 years, its brilliance somehow (with the curse of over familiarity) became unjustly tainted with the whiff of cheese and naffness in the minds of many. Personally though, the look and sound of Rowland himself resonated with me more than the actual song, and when my mam bought the accompanying album, To-Rye-Aye, I found myself further drawn to Kevin Rowland’s unique talent and persona.

It sounds like hyperbole, but even with no exposure to any of his other work it was obvious that this man was some kind of force of nature within the UK music scene, maybe even global – the single and album both reached number one in the US charts at a time when an artist had to sell serious amounts of records to do so.  Unlike Culture Club, Duran Duran or Wham, Dexys could not shake off ‘the hit’ (which became something of an albatross) enough to sustain a successful career as a big group. Some of this was down to Kevin’s refusal to play ball with an exploitative music industry and never allowing himself to be pushed into jumping through hoops like a performing seal for the money and exposure. While the fact that despite the huge global number one ‘pop hit’, as an artist he had more in common with the likes of Paul Weller, Shane McGowan or Morrissey (than any of the aforementioned pop groups), this meant that he fell between the cracks of perception in the minds of the fickle public when they could not figure out how to pigeonhole him. 

Over the years that followed as Dexys became seemingly more unfashionable (and strangely marred with a one hit wonder tag even though they had many hits, including a previous number one single with the sterling post-punk/soul crossover Geno) my fascination with Kevin and his music grew deeper, I bought the previous album Searching For The Young Soul Rebels with which I became obsessed for about a decade (and this was the album which introduced me indirectly to Northern Soul via the cover version of Northern stomper Seven Days Are Too long), I bought the following album, Don’t Stand Me Down, whose genius still gets freshly unlocked with each new listen all these years later.

What became clear over the years was that Kevin Rowland, despite the hits, was an unsung hero of British style and music, undeniably ‘mod’ in his approach to staying modern through reinvention, much like David Bowie but without the household recognition. Just take a look at all of the different stylish looks that Kevin has created and manifest over the decades and the imagery is precise and prescient to say the least. From the early On The Waterfront tough New York docker and ‘Mean Streets’ looks (a very contemporary hipster look in 2018); to the ‘determined to win at all cost’ sports team look of the pre Eileen era (pre-empting the sportswear revolution); through to the crisp, pin sharp but preppy look of the Don’t Stand Me Down era (pre-empting the preppy explosion of Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren in the 90s) and on to his much maligned trans look (which saw him wearing a short silk dress and stockings on stage and being booed regularly at live appearances such as Glastonbury) in the less enlightened times of the mid 90s, when the UK’s music fans went into meltdown over a bloke wearing a dress, homophobia and fear of difference still very much in the nation’s air.

Today Kevin is still forging ahead and championing great style, though he’s settled into a classic vintage look that he has really made his own. What is lovely to see is that after many years of being ignored he is finally getting the respect that he deserves for sticking to his own guns as a valuable source and exponent of both British style and homegrown soulful music (in its many forms from post-punk to Irish folk and beyond). 

Now justly acknowledged as a true iconoclast of our culture while still making fabulous life affirming records and still touring a live band that is a force to reckoned with. It feels great to have stuck with Kevin as a fan for all these years (many in the wilderness) and to have him now fully embraced in this way. I know my partner in Great Northern Soul Food Andrew Hutchinson feels exactly the same way having come to Kevin’s music independently in his own formative years.

So it’s with honor and pride that we are able to present the one and only Kevin Rowland and his outstanding DJ show at the beautiful Boiler Shop venue. One of the most fascinating things about Kevin and his music is his great unwavering belief in the power of music (not just his own) to move people in ways that are impossible with any other forms of art. His deep love and appreciation for the positive, transformative music of other artists (remember he had separate hit records dedicated to soul singers Geno Washington and Jackie Wilson) is something that has always come through in his own cathartic, almost religious music and performance. With this very much in mind it is going to be exciting indeed to listen and dance to his musical selections cutting across soul, funk, disco and discerning pop.

Kevin Rowland sings and DJs with his acclaimed DJ show at Boiler Shop, Newcastle on Sunday 1st April 2018. Support from Liverpool soul artist Jalen N’Gonda, plus Great Northern Soul Food DJs playing soul and funk with a selection of top street food from Perissia, The Little Fishy and Jimmy Mac’s Soul Food Kitchen available on site.

Tickets cost £8, available here.


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