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Nov 08

DEXY’S MIDNIGHT RUNNERS – “Geno”

FT + Popular75 comments • 6,256 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. 1
    Alan on 6 Nov 2008 #

    SCORES PLZ

  2. 2
    Tom on 6 Nov 2008 #

    Dunno why it hasn’t worked!

  3. 3
    Mark G on 6 Nov 2008 #

    I Saw Geno twice in all, once down the Carribbean Club in Reading, and his song was not tame at all.

    Second time, he was due to play at Gabriels Wharf, a freebie lunchtime open-air thing, but it rained. And yet, he was there anyway, singing a rain blues, effortlessly cool with it.

    Sometimes I think Kevin did Geno a disservice, but then again this boosted his profile anyway.

    Oh, and I give him 8 for this one.

  4. 4
    Conrad on 6 Nov 2008 #

    Did you hear the “Searching For Young Soul Rebels” album Tom? I think “Geno” works better in the context of the album, which from cover art to sleeve notes is still for me one of the greatest debut LPs of all time.

    I was thrilled by this single at the time, and the “Geno, Geno” chants at the start really added to the sense that the record was an event.

    But I can kind of see where you are coming from – it is slower than it sounded to me as a kid – and I get more pleasure from other gems on the album, like “Teams That Meet In Caffs”, “Keep It”, a great cover of “Seen Days Too Long” and the truly fab follow-up single, “There There My Dear”.

    Still, it announced the emergence of an exciting and unqiue act as a chart force, and “Geno” has undeniable soul and verve.

    A solid 8 from me.

    and a pedant notes – date should be May 3.

  5. 5
    rosie on 6 Nov 2008 #

    So here we are, the penultimate single I ever bought, the only one I ever bought for no other reason than because it was number one on a particular day, and one which, so far as I know, remains unplayed to this day.

    Not that I don’t like this for itself. I belong firmly in the camp that says that the other Dexy’s number one was and remains the overplayed and overhyped millstone. I like this because I like its raw, slightly uncouth energy, and I like those horns, and it reminds me of one of the very first gigs I ever went to, which was Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band at the Mid-Herts College, and a memorable occasion that was.

    But yes, the real reason why Geno is enduringly important to me was that it was number one on 3 May 1980, the day Hull FC played Hull Kingston Rovers in the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley, and the day my daughter made her debut at the Hedon Road Maternity Hospital in a ghostly and near-deserted Hull. Perhaps there should be a special pink stork symbol for this – am I the first Populista Parent?

    So, this is the first ‘parent’ number one for me. Bought for the purpose of putting in Karen’s time capsule along with that day’s Guardian, Radio Times, Hull Daily Mail, Hull FC and Hull KR rosettes, and other mementos of the day.

    My scores: 7 or 8 for the record itself. 11 for its personal associations.

  6. 6
    Tom on 6 Nov 2008 #

    Yeah, “Searching” is on balance* my least favourite of the 3 Dexys albums (and “Geno” perhaps my least favourite thing on it) but I still like that album a very great deal. “There There My Dear”, “Burn It Down”, “Keep It”… all terrific.

    *they’re a band where my favourite ‘era’ swings about depending on mood, so sometimes the “Searching” stuff is all that will do.

  7. 7
    peter goodlaws on 6 Nov 2008 #

    This is the first number one I personally recall watching on top of the pops. A stage overcrowded with people doing nothing singing a song about a bloke called Geno who I thought was just some mate of Kevin’s. The problem is that you can’t really sing along to this apart from when he goes “ohhh, Geno”. But then I was only five and so that was always enough excitement for me. I thought this was great and today it holds up for me reasonably well.

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 6 Nov 2008 #

    The irony with Dexys was that at the start they were portrayed, partly by themselves and partly by the music press, as another (particularly intense) example of a band ‘keeping it real’.
    In retrospect they now seem like an exercise in Pop Method acting with Kevin Rowland the De Niro-like changeling. In that respect they have more in common with Glam’s play acting but fueled with a Punk like intensity.
    They also represent a self-consciously retro attitude that I’m always a bit wary of in Pop – however for me Rowland’s shifting persona places the emphasis more on style rather than substance unlike the Mod revival acts (or later bands like Oasis) who get stuck in a rut.
    Having said all that I think I’d give it 7 because I always like a good horn section

  9. 9
    Erithian on 6 Nov 2008 #

    Rosie, fantastic post and much-belated congratulations! (and if you could persuade Karen to post her thoughts on this song as well, so much the better…)

    I did the same when our twins were born – all the papers plus the number one album and single. Number one album was Shania Twain’s “Come On Over”, the single obviously I can’t say (but it’s an “artist” who shares his catchphrase with Barack Obama). I was looking forward to sharing the papers with the boys when they were old enough – the fact that “Portillo’s Gay Sex Experiences” were all over the front pages perhaps postpones that day slightly.

    Anyway, “Geno”, yes definitely the more neglected of their number ones, and few songs, let alone chart-toppers, get across more eloquently the relationship between artist and fan from the fan’s viewpoint. (I love the “academic inspiration, you gave me none” line – and the little drum fill that follows it.) Mind you Kevin Rowland must have just about the worst diction in pop – you know how your parents always complained that you couldn’t make out the words in pop songs? This one (and much of Dexy’s material) I could barely make head nor tail of. I knew who Geno Washington was, so that was a starter for ten, but the rest definitely had to wait for a lyric sheet. I don’t have a problem with its pace – more suited for a kind of martial stomp than jumping up and down (although I do remember one lad at a college disco getting so excited he jumped into everyone around him when it came on). An original sound and subject, and a fond memory.

  10. 10
    rosie on 6 Nov 2008 #

    Erithian @ 9: I can ask but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

    As for Barack – it did occur to me at one time that he had all ready his own riposte to Joe the Plumber but maybe it’s as well that he didn’t need it.

  11. 11
    wichita lineman on 6 Nov 2008 #

    Some splendid posts. I went on a German exchange to Berlin the week this entered the chart at 37. By the time I got home it was no.2 which was a huge shock.

    Dexys had appeared on TOTP with their first single, Dance Stance, which seemed moody, hard to get a handle on, and confused me even more when I heard it was about Kevin Rowland’s dislike of Irish jokes. It was probably the first instance of a song, or a band, referencing names I didn’t know in such an intriguing way. Clearly, there was something deeper and stranger going on here than there was with The Selecter or The Beat. Not long afterwards I read The Girl With Green Eyes and Borstal Boy – which I assume was KR’s intention.

    Anyways. Dance Stance had stalled at 40, so Geno appearing at 37 seemed about right. Again, it was referencing a relatively obscure artist, to 15-yr old me at least (as Sting will in a far clumsier way before too long). This, and the “overhyped” one, never sounded like out-and-out number ones to me – both times it was a pleasant surprise. Their chart positions vary more dramatically than possibly any other major act: following this came There There My Dear (no.7), Keep It Part Two (didn’t chart), Plan B (no.58), Show Me (no.16) and Liars A To E (didn’t chart) before they had their second coming in ’82. Power of the press (Keep It in particular got viciously bad reviews)? The quality of the singles surely didn’t vary THAT dramatically.

    Dexys’ wildhearted outsider thing got me completely, same as The Smiths did later. The time clearly taken over the artwork, the ads, the interviews, all were a massive influence on the way I think. Academic inspiration? I learnt more about books and film through these two groups than anything to do with my formal education.

    As for Geno, well, I prefer the Dexys singles either side of it but would still give it a higher score than Working My Way Back To You – a 7 at least.

    Re 8: Before Dexys and before The Killjoys, Kevin R was in an art rock group whose name escapes me, so yr spot on with the Glam slant. I’d say there was showmanship as well as heartfelt sincerity going on in pretty much everything he did.

    Re 9: Lyrics so garbled that half of them literally wouldn’t fit into the song! Reading the words to There There My Dear and hearing the 45 are quite different experiences.

  12. 12
    AndyPandy on 6 Nov 2008 #

    I saw Geno at a soul weekender at Bognor in about 1986 (60s type soul was never played at such weekenders) but another act cancelled and they put Geno Washington on as a replacement on the Saturday dinnertime.They put him on in the funk room where it would have normally been wall to wall 80s funk and soul and surprisingly they went down a storm complete audience participation and 100% excitement.As was the case at weekenders everyone was already off their heads even at midday but the way he carried a crowd who probably didnt know who the hell he was and cared even less for what theyd have seen as dated music made me realise what Kevin Rowland had experienced almost 20 years before in 1968.
    Coincidentally a few years later when I was on a stag weekend (and this time not on a dance weekender) I saw Edwin Starr play in the same (although this time near deserted and completely uninterested) room of middle aged people and stag parties at the same holiday camp.He tried his hardest but it seemed a sad place for him to end up.

  13. 13
    chap on 6 Nov 2008 #

    This would get a 9 from me. The stompiness of the verses is a big part of what makes the chorus so exhilarating. And then the soaringly harmonised brass after the second chorus lift the song into the realm of the sublime.

  14. 14
    Glue Factory on 6 Nov 2008 #

    Like Too Much Too Young, this is another record I found out about, long after it had reached the top and that I couldn’t believe had actually made it to number 1. Perhaps to each generation, the records of the generation before seem noisy and unpolished in comparison ?

    And re#7, I do think it’s hard to sing along with, but at the trying-to-be-cool indie clubs I went to it was important to appear as if you *could* sing along to this.

  15. 15
    LondonLee on 6 Nov 2008 #

    I know I should like this more than I do but Kevin Rowland’s rather strained General Johnson impersonation really grates on my ears. It’s a great song but the beat is sort of constipated and lumbers along when it should swing more, which is par for the course with white English boys trying to play Northern Soul. I liked ‘There There My Dear’ a lot more, at least that moved enough for me to get past Rowland’s vocal.

    I know Geno Washington was supposed to be a killer live act but his studio records are mostly rubbish. The soul snob in me always thinks that if he was as great as the song suggests then why wasn’t he big in America? What I saying is I think I’d like the song more if it was called ‘Otis’

  16. 16
    pink champale on 7 Nov 2008 #

    i suppose this is the start of all that terrible 80’s real soul worship, but i think it’s doing something rather different. the usual tactic of those records is to genuflect before the soul giant in the hope of getting a bit of reflected glory “i like otis redding, aren’t i soulful?”. whereas here there’s no doubt that the important person is kevin rowland (when wasn’t that the case with dexys?) and that geno only matters because of his role in creating kevin. and more than that kevin then goes on to tell poor geno that he’s all washed up and that kevin is much much better than him!

    re ‘method acting’ #8 Michael Bracewell’s excellent book ‘England is Mine’ makes exacactly this point about dexys.

    also, i have a vague memory of once hearing that the geno washington who was big here in the 60’s wasn’t actually the ‘real’ record-making geno washington. does anyone know about this?

    finally, kevin’s diction (which is particulalry shocking here) seemed to improve markedly over their career and by the time of ‘don’t stand me down’ every word is totally comprehensible. as he’s one of the best lyricists in pop (on dsmd in particular) then this is probably a good thing.

  17. 17
    Tom on 7 Nov 2008 #

    Yeah there are definitely more egregious soul references to come and many more which didn’t get to #1: (personal ‘favourite’: Paul Young’s “Now I Know What Made Otis Blue”). Confession time: despite having listened to this many times I’d never worked the lyrics out enough to realise the double-edgedness of the tribute, which is indeed interesting – a kind of oedipal thing going on given “you bred me”!

  18. 18
    Tom on 7 Nov 2008 #

    (& there’s one quite scathing meta-reference to Kevin R on the way too!)

  19. 19
    Matthew H on 7 Nov 2008 #

    I belong in that other camp, the one that believes both Dexys No.1s are unfettered genius – and I still cite Searching… as my all-time favourite album. That may be knee-jerk more than anything else, but I still play it fairly regularly.

    It may be slow, but I’d say ‘Geno’ swaggers.

  20. 20
    Erithian on 7 Nov 2008 #

    I always heard the line “searching for the young soul rebels” as “searching for the old soul records” – quite appropriate really.

    I remember seeing them doing “Dance Stance” on TOTP and wondering where these dustbinmen had come from – like they were all auditioning to be the next recruit to Village People.

  21. 21
    Conrad on 7 Nov 2008 #

    I love how painstaking, how literal was Kevin’s search for those confounded young soul rebels.

    “Where are they? Where have you hidden them? I can’t find them anywhere?”!

    Re 16 – I think that interpretation on the lyrics for “Geno” is spot on. Kevin’s ‘arrogance’ for want of a better word was always somehow oddly likeable. He came across as humble at the same time.

    A great point about the referencing of iconic soul singers as a way of bestowing soul authenticity. This was especially, ahem, true for mid-80s white boy pop.

    The next step was to then track down said soul legend (or their PR person) and let everyone know how thrilled s/he was by the tribute. I seem to recall Martin Fry doing something along those lines with “When Smokey Sings”.

  22. 22
    Tom on 7 Nov 2008 #

    I’m not quite ready to dismiss the borrowed soulfulness thing as all bad, to be honest, though we’ll have plenty of time to discuss it later. I think it falls into the category of cultural moves that are easy to take the piss out of now but made a lot of sense (and not just business sense) at the time. It certainly wasn’t just mainstream ‘white boy pop’ that fell into line – the NME’s 1985 best albums of all time had Marvin at the top, of course.

  23. 23
    Mark G on 7 Nov 2008 #

    re: Geno Wash.. if you ever see a cheap second hand copy of “Hand clappin, foot stompin, funky butt live” go for it.

  24. 24
    Mark M on 7 Nov 2008 #

    Indeed, it’s hard to explain to anyone who wasn’t around at the time just how powerful the soul lobby became by the mid-80s, for a while gaining a hegemonic position over critics, adland, musicians themselves (a key early example being this song) and large chunks of the punterdom (for the eventual backlash, see Simon Reynolds). A process with which Kevin Rowland, inevitably, had a rather complicated relationship. But as the man says, we’ll be discussing plenty down the line…

  25. 25
    Mark M on 7 Nov 2008 #

    “A great point about the referencing of iconic soul singers as a way of bestowing soul authenticity. This was especially, ahem, true for mid-80s white boy pop.”

    But not only: the Commodores’ Nightshift (a UK number 3, Bunny-fearers), for instance.

  26. 26
    Billy Smart on 7 Nov 2008 #

    Seven year old Billy response: My, this lot look like a fierce bunch! As was often the case, I liked the choruses, particularly the call-and response and chanting elements, but lost interest in the verses, especially as this was a song which I had a particularly vague understanding as to what it was about.

    I love Dexys’ now, but I do think that ‘There Threr My Dear’ is the absolute stand-out single from this album and would prefer that we were talking about that.

    As for how ‘Geno’ works, however, I think that its an extension of the collapsing “bundle!” that Kat heard in ‘Too Much Too Young’. This single heaves and sways like the hemmed-in club crowd that the listener is made to think of right from the start. So, although Tom is right to notice how slow it sounds, it also lurches backwards and forwards in speed; like being part of a crowd at a gig (or on a football terrace), trying to keep your balance, while waves of movement carry you along. This fits with the song’s idea of following a group around, forming meaning in your life through watching musicians, a devotion that often requires a degree of physical discomfort.

  27. 27
    Matthew H on 7 Nov 2008 #

    Re 25 – Neatly, Kev and Dexys covered ‘Nightshift’ when I saw them at the Festival Hall five(?) years ago.

  28. 28
    mike on 7 Nov 2008 #

    I’d never thought of “Geno” as kick-starting the rampant soul-referencing of the early-to-mid 1980s, but it does rather fit the chain of events. It’s strange indeed to look back on that phase, which gripped even the unlikeliest of acts. Orange Juice put out a cover of Al Green’s “L.O.V.E. (Love)”, and a single whose chorus ran “Just like the Four Tops, I can’t help myself”. Scritti Politti had “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)”. The Jam covered “Move On Up”, an early ABC B-side quoted liberally from James Brown, a synth duo covered a Northern Soul tune (SHHH) and Spandau Ballet were “listening to Marvin all night long” (SHHHHHHH). And it became so de rigueur to augment one’s line-up with an authenticity-bestowing trio of hollering soul divas, that even the bloody Undertones did it.

    Like others, I preferred “Dance Stance” and the totally MAGNIFICENT “There There My Dear”, and the choice of a second-tier act like Geno Washington as Rowland’s ultimate soul Godhead seemed perverse indeed. For like many others, Rowland’s mangled diction prevented me from picking up the ambivalence in the lyrics – a misreading that might even have extended to Washington himself.

    (Surfing off the revival in interest, Geno played our university hall of residence in the autumn of 1980, where he was greeted like a hero returning from exile. By the end of the second number, we had been collectively relieved of our illusions.)

    My chief reaction to Rowland’s triumph was astonishment, that another fourth or fifth-tier punk rock also-ran could have struck it so big. I’d bought The Killjoys’ “Johnny Won’t Get To Heaven” three years earlier, as it came out on my local Cambridge record shop’s in-house label, and the only linking factor between “Johnny” and “Geno” was Rowland’s continued incomprehensibility. First Numan had re-invented himself… now it was Rowland’s turn… and it would only be a few months before another miraculous metamorphosis would take place.

    A window of opportunity had opened, and it was anyone’s guess as to who would dive through it next.

  29. 29
    wichita lineman on 7 Nov 2008 #

    Re 25: And this had been going on for a while – there’s William Bell’s Tribute To A King (an Otis redding eulogy) and, though the artist and title escape me, a male tribute to Aretha Franklin from the turn of the 70s. Not forgetting Arthur Conley’s Sweet Soul Music, which was definitely a second-string soul boy going for reflected glory no matter how good it is.

    Re 16: The other guy was called Gino Washington and he recorded a highly rated single called Gino Is A Coward which I’ve never heard. “Geno” copped his name, for reasons unknown.

    Re 28: I still prefer Orange Juice’s L.O.V.E. to Al Green’s, which could be pure nostalgia but I’d like to think not, Edwyn C’s voice being a strangely affecting thing. Yes indeed, everyone was at it, to the point where I don’t recall registering any surprise when Aztec Camera’s Oblivious featured Sweet Inspirations-like bv’s. The Fall were the exception, of course, opening Hex Enduction Hour with the line “Where are the obligatory niggers?”

  30. 30
    Erithian on 7 Nov 2008 #

    another unlikely contender – Billy Bragg’s “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”.

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