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Nov 08

DEXY’S MIDNIGHT RUNNERS – “Geno”

FT + Popular75 comments • 5,968 views

#457, 2nd May 1980

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.

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Comments

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  1. 61
    Erithian on 11 Nov 2008 #

    And yet he doesn’t come across as much of a soulboy here:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2004/mar/07/snooker.features

  2. 62
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 11 Nov 2008 #

    i reviewed the first magma show that he promoted, for wire mag in the 80s

    i like the idea that he was a soulboy AND a prog-nerd: good for him

  3. 63
    wichita lineman on 11 Nov 2008 #

    Re 57: I guess both abbreviations bug me. “Listening to Marvin all night long” (sorry, Bunny) is on a par with Bobby Gillespie’s (obviously unintentional) public school, surname-only rule: “McGee, Barrett, Innes”. All rather Unman, Wittering and Zigo.

    As for “Otis”, That’s How It Feels (When You’re In Love) and the Live In Japan version of Love Don’t Love Nobody are intense and tear-wrenching enough to make me come across like a dreadful soul snob, mumbling “What about Otis Clay?”.

    The flip side of this is unromantic first names – Kevin, Phil, Martin. They all crop up, self-referentially, in New Pop classics, bordering on the ironic but totally working. Maybe New Pop died when that “Marvin” reference hit number one. A debate for a later entry, maybe…

    Re 51: Stuart Cosgrove!! Thanks Mike. Anyone remember that programme he did on stabbings, around 93/94? Completely glorified them, and at one point had some shirtless Glaswegian teen slowly turning on a pedestal, showing the world his scars while Suede’s So Young played. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

    Re 58: I wonder if Mick Hucknall uses this line.

  4. 64
    AndyPandy on 11 Nov 2008 #

    I remember his promoting of Magma…thought it might have been because they had some kind of jazzy side to them (if they did). I didn’t know about his interest in prog though it must have been in abeyance in the 80s and 90s. But like 62 says I think more of him now makes him a bit more individual not the typical soulboy from Romford.

  5. 65
    Tom on 12 Nov 2008 #

    Sweet Zeuhl Music

  6. 66
    Mark M on 12 Nov 2008 #

    Re 61: I’m thinking you didn’t get as far as the Robbie Vincent reference?

  7. 67
    intothefireuk on 26 Mar 2009 #

    Geno Geno Geno – I never actually got much further than that – did Kevin really think that much of Geno ? As I couldn’t understand anything else he was actually singing on the record I had no idea but it sounded important to him at least. Great blasts of horn and a reasonable approximation of the Stax soul sound make for a better than average single but number one ?

  8. 68
    MikeMCSG on 16 Jul 2009 #

    Always surprised me that Dance Stance (the better song) scraped to No 40 then this shot to no 1 three months later. Did I miss some epochal TV appearance in the meantime ?

  9. 69
    punctum on 22 Oct 2009 #

    For a band whose avowed ethic was achievement of art through pure, undiluted physical effort – punishment of the body until belief in the soul issues forth, and we’ll return to that presently – Dexy’s music didn’t half make you dance. Their first and best album, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, was the most danceable record of my bedroom’s 1980, its only serious rivals being the Beat’s I Just Can’t Stop It and Costello’s Get Happy!! It was a means for Kevin Rowland to pour out with alternating rations of sweetness and grit all the true boldness and belief which he felt had been systematically filtered out of punk, following his abortive career as frontman of the Killjoys (one great single, 1977’s “Johnny Won’t Go To Heaven”), and resuscitating the spirit of punk by means of the Northern Soul, the Stax and the Motown, and, yes, the Foundations and Geno Washingtons of his then not-too-distant late sixties youth. The sleevenotes to Searching tell the story of how Rowland assembled the musicians as though he were recruiting for the Great Train Robbery, with disaffected rookies and veterans stretching from the far north of Scotland to the inner bowels of Harrow.

    Their music was dynamite; literally in some cases – instead of a thrashing guitar Rowland used his three-strong horn section as his lead instrument, and Searching features some of the finest and strongest horn charts on any British record; they prowl (“I’m Just Looking”), proclaim (“Tell Me When My Light Turns Green”) and burn (“The Teams That Meet In Caffs”); they are Rowland’s living and responding alter ego. The opening “Burn It Down,” an incendiary reworking of their underwhelming (in terms of production and performance) debut single “Dance Stance,” mirrors the green/sepia cover shot of a boy (not the young Rowland), laden down with luggage, being evicted at the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the late ’60s and delivered a flurry of emotional gelignite at the dying British culture of frilly-shirted, tax-avoiding comedians telling jokes about the supposed thickness of the Irish; Rowland needed to go no further than his self-explanatory, defiant chorus: “Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan!/Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw!/Samuel Beckett! Eugene O’Neill! Edna O’Brien and Laurence Sterne,” which Rowland then shuts down with a roar of “SHUT IT!” and finally tops everything with his hissed “Shut your fucking mouth ’til you know the truth.”

    His aim and candour were so sure and proud that he could even make that dreaded trap of having a go at music critics sound like a manifesto for the New (the throbbing “There, There, My Dear,” a top ten single later that summer). And his ambitions were so ambitious that Dexy’s even took on and sometimes beat Northern Soul at its own game; their barnstorming reading of “Seven Days Too Long” arguably betters the Chuck Wood original, and the 150 mph rampage through Johnny Johnson and the Bandwagon’s 1968 top five smash “Breakin’ Down The Walls Of Heartache” to be found on the B-side of the single of “Geno” was an explosion of intent.

    Thus, of course, “Geno” itself which, with its opening audience footstamping and heraldic brass fanfares, sets itself up to displace God, God in this case being Rowland’s childhood hero Geno Washington; like Hendrix and Walker, an American fleeing to Europe and beating the natives at his own game. Never too successful as a recording artist, his live performances were reportedly legendary in terms of vitality and grit; though to the sixteen-year-old Rowland “after a week of bunking and flunking school” he must have seemed like manna in place of the unavailable Cooke or Redding.

    The song struts proudly, like an endless procedural towards the middle of the boxing ring, before the tempo doubles and the band launches into a driving stomp; and it’s here that Rowland lays his claim to a coup – “And now just look at me, I’m looking down on you,” he says with an arrogance that would be so astonishing if he didn’t convince you so firmly that it was justified, “Though I’m not being flash, it’s what…I’m built to do.” The tension releases back into the strut of the second verse, in the second half of which Rowland recognises that, to survive, he must tear down his own idol decisively, “But they never knew like we knew, me and you we’re the same” – shades of Chapman and Lennon there – “And now you’re all over, your song is so tame – BRRRRR!! – you fed me, you bred me, I’ll remember your name.”

    That “BRRRR!!” is the crucial cynosure of the record, just as General Johnson’s similar exclamation is the heart of “Give Me Just A Little More Time” – Rowland doesn’t quite manage to be Johnson or Jackie Wilson; his Harrow/Birmingham vowels happily mangle and merge into their own new language – it could be construed as the crow of the conqueror, or a sudden frisson of fear at the perceived limitations of his own subsequent life (will he end up the same?) – but the song again cheerleads itself into its now celebratory chorus and more staccato horns, finally retreating into the dressing room, the cheers still audible and palpable.

    Geno himself had little choice but to grin and take it; the record was directly responsible for reviving interest in his own music, and he certainly didn’t mind prospering (to a degree) from the feedback. He had to feign feeling flattered. However, the song is so mightily performed, so attuned to the hip and to 1980 hipness, so redolent of 1968 being made to matter again, that one has little choice but to slip its parent album back on and revel in its golden torches and twisted wheels of – yes – a n*w s**l v*s**n.

  10. 70
    Conrad on 22 Oct 2009 #

    Terrific piece MC

  11. 71
    Waldo on 25 Jul 2010 #

    This seems as good a place as any to record the death of Alex Hurricane Higgins, who as reported above, was engaged in the World Snooker Final during the SAS’s fabled storming of the Iranian Embassy at the time “Geno” was number one. As mad as a box of frogs he may have been but no-one could touch him when he was at the top of his game, which sadly he wasn’t in 1980 and he lost to a talented but very pedestrian Cliff Thorburn. Higgins returned to reclaim the Championship two years later but he was soon facing his many demons again, and to be quite frank, it’s remarkable he lasted this long. As great a sportsman as he was as flawed a man (how many of those could we name?), I’m sure we all hope he’s found peace now.

  12. 72
    ciaran 10 on 26 Jul 2010 #

    (71) – Way too young to recall Alex Higgins myself.I was born in 1982 which was the year he won the world title for the second time.

    As an irishman myself i should look upon alex higgins as a hero but i cant say ive ever been a fan.Hitting a reporter and threatening to have a snooker player from his own country shot during the time of the northern ireland troubles does not make him much of a role model im afraid.Personal demons are no excuse for some of his behaviour over the years.Once read aswell that he tried to punch a journalist who was interviewing him some years ago.

    I dont follow snooker but he seemed like the most exciting thing ever to happen the sport at the time.A wasted talent.Some people may look at this before the madness.

    Its unfortunate that most famous northern irish sportsmen have had troubles – Alex Higgins, George Best, Roy carroll, Keith Gillespie.

    Btw i like “geno”.Would be a 7 from me.

  13. 73
    punctum on 27 Jul 2010 #

    When did all this business about being a “role model” (whatever that means) start? Is it yet another hangover of Victoriana?

  14. 74
    hectorthebat on 24 Aug 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    2FM (Ireland) – Top 100 Singles of All Time (2003) 97
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1980s (2008)
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    Mojo (UK) – The Ultimate Jukebox: 100 Singles You Must Own (2003) 93
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 117
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (2002) 21
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 124
    Q (UK) – The 80 Best Records of the 80s (2006) 23
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Uncut (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles from the Post-Punk Era (2001) 62
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 12

  15. 75
    Larry on 23 Nov 2014 #

    I visited England for the first time when ‘Geno’ was #1. I was so thrilled to be watching TOTP for the first time (in those pre-Internet days) that I took still pictures of my friend’s TV screen. I have a special place in my heart for both “Searching” and “Too Rye Ay” and often listen to both to this day. (I regret never having seen Dexys live). #8, great comments on the tricky nature of ‘authenticity’ in music. #26, love that comparison of the song to a swaying crowd.

    ETA: I read Edna O’Brien because Kevin namechecks her in “Burn It Down.”

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