The insight that took Kevin Rowland from punker to star was that the DIY aesthetic which formed some part of punk’s appeal – the idea that inspiration could and should trump technical ability – could as easily be applied to soul. If soul was a passion that emerged from within, why filter it through technique? Love, belief and respect for the past would surely be enough.
The marvel of Dexy’s Midnight Runners is that in Rowland’s case it was: his voice might be a blunt yawp but the sobbing conviction with which he wields it tends to carry him through. In a way it still boxes him in: the band were always most effective when they were singing about passion and fandom as well as with it – stray from that and he risked running smack into his limitations.
So a lot of Dexy’s work – starting with this surprise second-single hit – is an exploration of what being into music means. Really into music, that is – “you fed me, you bred me, I’ll remember your name”: this goes beyond appreciation into devotion, in turn raising the bar for the group’s own fans. The love many otherwise cynical music heads of a certain age feel for the Runners is surely partly down to the band’s own concern with passionate fanhood – it legitimises adoration, turns it into the only proper response. Even though not everything the group recorded was stellar.
“Geno” itself, for instance. You’ll find a lot of people who feel that Dexy’s had one untouchable chart-topper, and one which is a bit of an overplayed millstone. I agree – except this is the one I don’t like so much. The song feels too bitty for me, held together by those imperious horns which make the chorus so driving but turn the rest of the track into a bit of a tar pit: every time I hear “Geno” I’m shocked at how slow it is, crossing the line between stomp and lumber. Rowland himself is still a fierce presence – albeit an incomprehensible one – and his convert’s zeal over Geno Washington comes over fully. An idiosyncratic number one; a group touched by greatness… but never a personal favourite.