Freitag, 17. November 2023

Northern Soul


You see, Robin, I've been searching for the young soul rebels, I've been searching everywhere, and I can't find them anywhere, where have you hidden them?

It started with Schaulandt where I used to stop by on Fridays on my way from work in the late 1980s in order to find affordable vinyl for my rather limited salary. These were usually already slightly dated albums, published for little money on the "Fame" label. And that's how I ended up buying something rather accidentally which, as it turned out later - honestly! - was the best album of all time.

Music day. #DexysMidnightRunners #dexys #soulmusic

The cover caught my attention. It had everything: drama, tragedy, but also departure. Singer and band leader Kevin Rowland had been looking for an image showing turmoil. And that's exactly what this photo from 1971 was: a 13-year-old Catholic boy driven from his home in Belfast by riots. Consequently, the best album of all time now also had the best cover of all time. Well, that's how I see it, but Rowland, not exactly known for being exceedingly modest will perhaps not be completely disagree with this view, should he ever get to read this.


Searching for the young Soul Rebels

The masterpiece was released in 1980, and its genesis, like the result, had been full of drama. Dexys Midnight Runners had already existed for a few years and achieved some reputation for their live performances. The central figure was singer-songwriter and band leader Kevin Rowland who after having assembled the collective through a casting process, then lead it in a dictatorial manner. Rowland had a vision, of both musical and visual nature, in which elements of pop, punk rock and Northern Soul met and melted. Driven by Rowland's pedantic attention to every detail, the band consisting of 9 musicians including three horns went on to rehearse 9 hours a day, and members were supposed to adhere to a detailed code of conduct. According to the freshly signed contract with EMI the musicians would receive only 6% as royalties, and just before the studio work was completed Rowland issued an ultimatum to the record company: more money, or the band would steal the recordings. This is what the band eventually did - in an unnoticed moment, the musicians, loaded with the tapes, chased through the studio and threw everything into a getaway car - and literally got away with this. Only after EMI finally agreed to an increase to (still rather modest) 9%, the material was returned and could be released.

The result was magnificent, and it justified all the drama, pedantry and Rowland's dictatorial management. "Geno", a tribute to soul singer Geno Washington, became an international hit, topping many charts for weeks. But the real work of art was the album as a whole, its intensity, its suspense and its stylistic originality, which earned it a well-deserved entry in the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Of course, before admiring the cover at Schaulandt, I had already known the hit single "Geno", which I liked at the time, but which hadn't immediately made me a fan of the band. Well, in 1980 I had still been a little too young to really understand the class of this song alone. In fact, it was the best cover of all time mentioned above that stuck with me, so that I came home relieved at 9 Deutschmark 90 with a flat plastic bag in my hand. A little later, listening to the first notes, I knew that I had done everything right:

we all came out to Montreux

now I got a reason, now I got a reason, now I got a reason and I'm still waiting, now I got a reason, now I got a reason

working for the rat race, you're no friend of mine, you plan your con...

Jimmy (yeah!)
Al (yeah!)
For God's sake, burn it down.

Whooosh. Shut it You don't understand it / Shut it That's not the way I planned it / Shut your fucking mouth 'til you know the truth. Can you even say a word after this, let alone sing, without perhaps spoiling everything in the end? You can, at least if your name is Kevin Rowland.

The album continues with a little more soul in Tell me when my light turns green, before passing on to the three-track-long finale of side 1 (yes, there is such a thing on vinyl): The Teams That Meet in Caffs, the only instrumental track on the album, followed by something like a blues, somewhat - not unintentionally, I'm sure - quoting Blood Sweat & Tears in the aprupt way the horn section comes in each time after don't let it show:

Youre looking to win it, but not taking it in...

People are saying, youre losing your feel / Pretend you dont hear / Holed up in white Harlem, your conscience and you  /You might need sympathy but thats not what Id tell you / Your winning day was long ago / Dont let it show.

And here it was decided. For now and ever, all the world's playlists can and will succeed this by only one thing:

Es passt zur Einzigartigkeit dieses Albums und auch zu dieser Band, dass danach nie wieder etwas vergleichbares kam. Rowland beschloss nach einigen wenig schmeichelhaften Artikeln in der Musikpresse einen Boykott: keine Interviews, nicht einmal Anzeigen durften noch geschaltet werden. Es folgten Konflikte innerhalb des Kollektivs, woraufhin einige Musiker ausstiegen. Nur wenige Monate nach Veröffentlichung des Albums waren "Dexys Mark I" bereits Geschichte. Es folgten weitere Inkarnationen in jeweils neu zusammengestellten Besetzungen, mit denen sich auch der Stil der Band änderte. Bei dem nächsten großen Hit der Band, Come on, Eileen, dominierte musikalisch eine Violine und optisch eine Art New-Romantic-Vagabunden-Look - keine Spur mehr von der Fusion aus Northern Soul und Punk. Aber eigentlich war das auch gut so, denn nach diesem Meisterwerk konnte alles, was eine Fortsetzung sein wollte, nur in einer Enttäuschung enden.

Unsurprisingly, considering this album's - and the band's - uniqueness, nothing comparable ever came after it. Following some unflattering articles in the music press, Rowland responded by a boycott: no interviews, not even adverts were allowed to be placed. Then came conflicts within the collective, leading to some members leaving it. Just a few months after the album's release, "Dexys Mark I" were already history. Further incarnations followed, each time with a new line-up, along with changes to the musical style. The band's next big hit, Come on, Eileen, was dominated by a violin and visually by a kind of New Romantic vagabond look - nothing left of the fusion of Northern soul and punk. But wasn't that even a good thing? Because, after this masterpiece, anything trying to just continue could only end in disappointment.

But back to the album. We skip some great tracks on side 2 before listening to an actual letter at the very end. The addressee is Robin, a (fictional) musician who has betrayed the true ideals. For Rowland, Robi symbolises dishonesty in the music scene: 

Dear Robin, I would explain but you'd never see in a million years.
Well, you've made your rules, but we don't know that game, perhaps I'd listen to your records but your logic's far too lame and I'd only waste three valuable minutes of my life with your insincerity.

P.S. Old clothes do not make a tortured artist.

P.S.: Some of the songs from the album can be heard in this beautiful recording from a concert in Sweden in 1980, where you get to understand a little why the band had such a reputation for live concerts:

This article has been translated from German language. It was first published in the Freitag Community, later in this very blog: Northern Soul.


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