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Apr 09

DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS – “Come On Eileen”

FT + Popular79 comments • 7,947 views

#506, 7th August 1982

(This entry is an edited version of this piece – it’s my favourite thing I’ve ever written for FT, about possibly my favourite Number One, and I felt I couldn’t improve on it.)

There is pop, and there is popular, and then there’s popular. And there’s also “timeless”. Sometimes when people say that a record is “timeless” – let’s pick on, oh, a Radiohead album – they mean it will be listened to and loved say twenty years from now. What they secretly mean is that it will be listened to in just the same reverent way as now: taste to them is a stock market, and they’re keen to invest emotionally in records which promise steady long-term growth.

You can caricature the pop fan, too – their expenditure is without hope or desire of return, their passions are spent on mayfly records, and this hopelessly compromises their judgement in the eyes of their more sober peers. Particularly if, like me, they’re fool enough to try and write about those records. As I say, though, there’s pop, and popular, and popular – records which fool both the investors and the wastrels, freak mutant pop records which survive the chart that spawned them and then some, which simply keep on getting played. Eternal pop. “Celebration”. “Dancing Queen”. “Come On Eileen”.

“Eileen” is at once a chantalong fiddle-fuelled novelty, an enduring public pop landmark and the biggest hit of a band whose integrity was dearer to them than fame or sales or, well, anything. It is also, of course, partly a pop record about loving pop records, whose beautiful opening lyrics are some of the most evocative I know:

“Poor old Johnnie Ray
Sounded sad upon the radio, broke a million hearts in mono
Made our mothers cry
Sang along, who’ll blame them?”

These rich, sentimental lines don’t come out of nowhere. The intro preceding them is one of pop’s most recognisable – a teasing bass, fiddles playing a riff of chest-tightening joy, and a shout, “C’mon Eileen!”. And more, they don’t come out of nowhere in Dexys’ own career – the relationship of Kevin Rowland’s band to their own and older music was one of their obsessive themes, from the radio static frustration that introduced “Burn It Down”, and the dues-paying of their first No.1 “Geno” right through to “Reminisce” Parts 1 and 2, from the Don’t Stand Me Down album. (The inclusion of “Reminisce Part 2″ on that LP means that one of the best records ever made includes one of the best record reviews ever made too!)

But even in this context “Come On Eileen” still stands alone – a perfect marriage of subject and effect, a song about the public impact of pop that has soundtracked surely tens of thousands of kisses, heart-skips and tears. I find it tireless, moving, almost awe-inspiring, and its survival and popularity only adds to that awe. The first time I ever DJed, when we had to lie to the promoter that we weren’t going to put on any 80s music it was so unpopular, I played it three times and the walls swam in sweat.

Personally I like it best at the end of its parent album, Too-Rye-Ay, where it comes as a marvellous release at the end of a party full of joy, passion and strife. But it works almost anywhere – next to Frankie and Spandau on an eighties comp, or next to Abba and Kool on a party CD. But at the same time, like all public pop, its spotlit life has taken a toll – it’s rarely praised by Dexys’ fans, who would prefer their (very special) band not to be defined by this one record. Some of them find the chest-beating Irishness of “Eileen” hard to take, preferring to dance to the more soulful horn-led Dexys incarnation, or the more light-footed fiddle tracks of the parent album. Others point to “Keep It”, or the third album, and prefer Dexys as a window into Kevin Rowland’s wracked, funny, honest and inspirational soul – not an aspect of the band “Come On Eileen” does much in truth to showcase.

The song these people hear, maybe, is crass – even kitsch. Its finale, slowing the tune down to a stomp before speeding it back up to a frenzied conga-style throwdown, must seem like one populist move too far. And I’ll go further with my speculation. I’d guess that the immense public affection in which “Come On Eileen” is held cheapens the song for them too. In some tiresome snobby way, because the people who like it might also like Russ Abbot’s “Atmosphere”? Not exactly. Responding to “Come On Eileen” is embarrassing in the same way kissing in public might be, because when everyone knows a song it becomes hard to see the magic in it, and loving Dexys’ is so much to do with that fierce individual magic.

I’ll try to explain that point of view better, and why it’s misguided. Dexys as a band if they’re ‘about’ anything are about the intensity and directness with which music and you communicate. This communication mostly starts as a private thing – Kevin Rowland talked on his records about his own, very personal, experiences with music and then made records which could speak in that same way to different listeners in a different world. For many people they did – which is why “Come On Eileen” sticks out because people like it without needing to buy into or even know about Rowland’s vision of what music can be and do. But really “Come On Eileen” is his masterstroke – because by content and context it’s the song where he and his band most explicitly say that this private communication is not enough.

Content: the first verse of “Come On Eileen”, recorded 23 years after Johnny Ray stopped having hits (and six years after Johnny Rotten started), kicks rock’s generation and gender neuroses off the pitch – Rowland is celebrating what his mother listened to. It talks like other Dexys’ songs do about the private lightning that listening to music can call down, and then it says that this lightning was striking a million other people at once.

Context: and while all this is happening people are dancing together and singing along and stamping their boozy feet, just as they have done for twenty years. “Come On Eileen” – like other public pop songs – is not just a freakish taste-proof survivor of its era, but is timeless in all the ways U2 fans might dream of and physically immediate too. It asks and answers a question – what, after all, is the point of pop?

To talk about pop the way the investors do – to say that these records are valuable, and that these are less so – is to see pop as a kind of linguaphone course in Taste. A rich and enjoyable course to be sure, one that takes a lifetime, but still a process of learning. To talk about pop the way the wastrels do is to see pop as a journey without a map – a drift, along which you stumble on remarkable beauties, which thrill you and maybe change you but which you always pass by. The way almost all of us see pop is a mixture of both, maybe.

And what does “Come On Eileen” say? To me, it says that whether you look at pop as a guided tour or a mapless adventure is not important – what matters are the people you’re travelling with. Our private pop affairs, in other words, are meaningless unless we try and talk about them – and this seems to me the truest, perhaps the only, reason for pop criticism. If the radio broke your heart in mono, it maybe broke other people’s too, and if you can find those other people you can play that song and other songs, and you can dance.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    pink champale on 20 Apr 2009 #

    that’s thanks Mark and Kat, btw (for some reason the edit button never works for me…)

  2. 52
    James K. on 20 Apr 2009 #

    The American cable network VH1 recently selected this as the greatest one-hit wonder of the 1980s, ignoring their other British hits.

    The song is certainly one where the lyrics are mostly incomprehensible, but people adore the song anyway. I knew the song started off “Poor old Johnnie Ray” but neither knew nor particularly cared why he was mentioned and what the next lines were. Now that I know, however, it enchances my enjoyment; “broke a million hearts in mono” is a great line.

    Johnnie Ray is also mentioned in the opening couplet of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” These two songs have saved him from oblivion more than any of his own songs, none of which I could name.

  3. 53
    James K. on 20 Apr 2009 #

    P.S. Having mostly only seen the video version (albeit many times), I didn’t know the radio version lacked the fiddle intro. I couldn’t imagine the song without it.

  4. 54
    LondonLee on 21 Apr 2009 #

    Madness and Soft Cell often crop on those VH1 One Hit Wonder shows too.

  5. 55
    Tom on 21 Apr 2009 #

    Johnnie Ray’s immortality is sealed in my book for having the awesome nickname the NABOB OF SOB.

  6. 56
    wildheartedoutsider on 21 Apr 2009 #

    Nice appraisal – in particular the efforts to put the song back into its original context which I think is the greatest difficulty with a song Rowland himself admits became “bigger than the group”.

    If I may try to add some additional bits of context:

    Re #41: “The problem, I think, is that COE sets out so desperately to be loved by all and sundry” – It seems to me that this comment underlines how hard it is to think about “Come On Eileen” NOW without be tainted by the knowledge of what it has BECOME. I don’t think ANY song with lyrics like “These people round here wear beaten-down eyes sunk in smoke-dried faces, they’re so resigned to what their fates is.” is taking the ‘easy route to pop success’. Like many other Dexys songs, it IS actually quite a challenging listen – except unlike many other Dexys songs it has 27 years of over-exposure and wedding discos to help us forget that!

    Another aspect which is hard to remember now is that a group playing acoustic instruments and wearing scruffy clothes was not an ‘obvious formula for success’ at the height of the synth-drenched, New-Romantic styled early-80s. As somebody else observed “Come On Eileen” was the follow-up to the similarly fiddle-fueled, folk-flavoured “Celtic Soul Brothers” single which had just sunk without a trace. What I’m trying to say here is that it’s easy with hindsight to say that “Come On Eileen” was a sure-fire hit – because it ended up being such a BIG hit!

    A couple of points about the intro – the boom-ba-boom bass line was another musical reference to bygone years as it consciously borrowed the rhythm from Unit 4 + 2′s “Concrete And Clay” (which Rowland later covered) and the version with the additional fiddle intro can be found on U.S. reissues of “Too-Rye-Ay”.

    One more contextual aspect I can’t let go unmentioned in a conversation about “Come On Eileen” (especially at the moment) – the inspiration behind Rowland’s folk-flavoured sound (and even the break-down and build up section of “Come On Eileen”) was later revealed as having been Dexys co-founder Kevin ‘Al’ Archer. As Rowland stated in 1993 “After Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, when he left we were both experimenting with strings. I wasn’t getting what I wanted; he found it and I stole it… As a result he disbanded his group. Dexys had taken his sound and succeeded with it.” The great news on this particular score is that Archer’s group, the Blue Ox Babes, which did indeed provide the blue-print for the Come On Eileen sound AND visual image will finally have their long-lost 80s album released on Cherry Red Records on May 18th!!!

  7. 57
    Tom on 21 Apr 2009 #

    Thanks wildheartedoutsider – some great context there, really should have spotted the Concrete And Clay steal!

  8. 58
    ace inhibitor on 22 Apr 2009 #

    coming late to this, but as its not been mentioned:

    Lex at 4 – “The kind of song which stumbles drunkenly over to you and yells “why aren’t you HAVING FUN?” ” – reminded me of COE’s appearance in an episode of Spaced: Brian the socially inept artist is having a dream flashback to 1983 and some horrible 6th form or student disco, everyone dressed in Dexys dungarees and dancing to the build-and-release finale, singing along, getting more and more excited, only Brian standing stock still, wanting to join in but not knowing how to, until the music builds to such a pitch that he finally flails one arm and spills the pint of the meathead next to him. They look at each other; Brian gets punched in the face, wakes up, groans.

    Later in the episode, in the present day (early 90s?) brian is dragged to a club night, and the same thing happens: the housey techno build-and-release finally gets him moving and he spills the (same) meathead’s pint. They look at each other; only because this is the loved up 90s and everyone’s on one, the meathead hugs him and they carry on dancing….

    This clearly says more about youth culture than any other 1/2 hour brit sitcom ever. One of the things it suggests is COE as an ancestor to almost every house track (though personally I think that house music slow build-and-release thing was invented by the Mekons’ ‘Where Were You?’ in 78).

  9. 59
    Erithian on 22 Apr 2009 #

    No, how about Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich’s “Bend It” from ’66, which in turn appropriates “Zorba’s Dance”? Either of those could have led to pint-spilling (or indeed plate-smashing) events.

  10. 60
    will on 22 Apr 2009 #
  11. 61
    will on 22 Apr 2009 #

    Whoops double post..

    Re 58: I love that episode of Spaced! It features quite possibly the best representation of the ecstasy experience ever seen on British TV.

    As for COE, Tom’s superb essay is almost enough to change my mind about it. Alas, I just think some records lose their lustre through over-exposure. Dancing Queen is another and there are many more examples that are still under bunny-embargo. I loved Come On Eileen at the time, cheered it up the charts and Dexys Mk Two still has to be one of British pop’s most stunning reinventions. But I’d still much rather listen to Let’s Make This Precious or Let’s Get This Straight than this.

  12. 62
    lonepilgrim on 22 Apr 2009 #

    I’m coming late to this having just returned from exile due to computer problems. I liked this at the time and have grown to love it more. Having read Billy’s post at #20 I bought the CD at Fopp for £3 and I’ve enjoying catching up with the album.
    I think it’s inclusivity is a great thing – the hallmark of the best pop music. What’s not been mentioned was that the Irish tinker image was not a sure fire signifier of the craic at the time. Growing up in Birmingham Kevin Rowland would have been acutely aware of how strong anti-Irish sentiment could be – nevertheless he celebrates the culture unashamedly and the songs success is all the sweeter for it.

  13. 63
    Snif on 23 Apr 2009 #

    According to Wikipedia, “Eileen” in the film clip is played by Maire Fahey, sister of Siobhan, but I coulda sworn that it was her sister Niamh… Smash Hits wouldn’t have lied to me, would it?

    Can never hear this song without recalling losing my job at the time when the office was raided by the Federal Police.

  14. 64
    Steve Mannion on 23 Apr 2009 #

    re ectasy experiences on TV. Ah how soon we forget Loved Up. And, er, Tinseltown.

  15. 65
    Mark M on 23 Apr 2009 #

    Rave Morse!*

    *Yeah, OK, it was some ‘new drug’ being taken, but still…

  16. 66
    Billy Smart on 25 Apr 2009 #

    NMEWatch: 26 June 1982. Single of the week from Danny Baker;

    ‘Come On Eileen’ is good enough to give them another number one record. It’s spry and merry cobbled together from fine plucked mandolins, sawn fiddles and tack piano and still retains that ‘Geno’-style northern soul refrain for the chorus. Actually, recommended though it is, I don’t know if I like it too much. Their past dealings tinge all their work with a through thought worthiness that I don’t care for in records, and the gypsy feeling to the package makes me think that they’ve been digging into early ’70s Van Morrisson chic a little too studiously. But I hate tooing and froing. So lets leave it that here is the liveliest and freshest sound on British 45 this week. Folky rather than funky. Why does that last sentence worry me?

    Also reviewed;

    Paul McCartney – Take It Away
    Culture Club – I’m Afraid Of Me
    Imagination – Music & Lights
    Bananarama – Shy Boy
    Donna Summer – Love Is In Control
    Hayzi Fantayzee – John Wayne Is Big Leggy
    Chas & Dave – Margate

  17. 67
    Tommy Mack on 25 Apr 2009 #

    Re: 65. The E cypher in Morse was called Seraphim and the Episose was called Cherubim and Seraphim!

    I’m a little bit ashamed of remembering that…

  18. 68
    Alan on 25 Apr 2009 #

    Directed by Danny Boyle!

  19. 69
    lonepilgrim on 27 Apr 2009 #

    it seemed inevitable that Come on Eileen would feature when the second episode of the new series of Ashes to Ashes was trailed as featuring gypsies – but to have Gene Hunt come out and say it to a mother giving birth so that the baby ends up being called Eileen was weak.
    It’s telling how little there is in the series to signify the 80s beyond occasional references to the Falklands and a few songs from the era.

  20. 70
    AndyPandy on 28 Apr 2009 #

    Re Pilgrim at 69: the lack of 80s signifiers is an interesting point -
    possibly due to the fact that some minor fashion changes/changes in car design apart (and the lack of mobiles/computers etc) theres very little difference visually between the 80s and now over 25 years later.
    I doubt that could be said for similar duration periods before the 80s.

  21. 71
    Conrad on 28 Apr 2009 #

    69, 70 it might also reflect the a paucity of ideas and woefully simplistic writing that passes for drama on bbc1. Ashes to Ashes is particularly wretched fare.

    66, thanks for taking the time to type these out Billy. DB always entertaining, and usually pretty much OTM, at this point

  22. 72
    wildheartedoutsider on 28 Apr 2009 #

    Smash Hits’ review of the single rather underlined the point that it wasn’t an obvious ‘smash-hit’ to everyone at the time: ‘Trading in his track suit for a pair of dungarees, our Kevin has re-discovered his Irish roots, and there’s no escaping the fact. The number kickstarts on a sprightly Irish fiddle and then builds in their usual breathless and burley way. If Kev could only inject a mite more humour into his delivery, this would be a great song.’

  23. 73
    Andrew Farrell on 28 Apr 2009 #

    The Boys are Back in Town is more what people think Born To Run (or Born in the USA!) sounds like to people who’ve never heard it. Pure boorish braggadocio, like this song, which Lex sums up my feelings on entirely.

    COE doesn’t have any lyrics, of course, it’s all an urban myth…

  24. 74
    Erithian on 17 Aug 2009 #

    Channel 4 Top 100 Watch: “Come On Eileen” is 48th in the list of the UK’s best-selling singles of all time. Tucked in between Shaggy and Tom Jones, which you wouldn’t wish on anybody.

  25. 75
    Tooncgull on 21 Oct 2009 #

    Great song – Cmon, if you love music and rhythm, if your soul stirs to dance at all, if your heart is not closed off – in short, if you are alive – how can you NOT give this a 10 ?

    The ONLY possible reason I can understand is that it has since become a bit of a standard, and therefore is ripe for a backlash of ennui and boredom… but on its own merits? Its a Ten.

  26. 76
    john c on 31 Aug 2012 #

    I live in the USA, and had never heard of Dexys Midnight Runners when this single showed up with other new singles at our university’s radio station.

    I played it the first time out of curiosity, having only auditioned it/pre-listened to it once.

    And I loved it. Yes, I knew who Johnny Ray was. And it’s a sexy song for dancing — not the usual style of disco/club dancing, but for dancing none the less. At the time I was most struck with the line that ends “we are far too young & clever.” That made me feel very odd, as I was feeling neither young nor clever in those days, though I was only 22.

    (Pretty stupid of me.)

    Eventually, the song has become something of a odd joke among many people — maybe because of the video — I’m surprised at how many of my contemporaries, now in their 50s, say they don’t like it.

    Maybe they are just embarassed about how much they enjoyed it when they were 20 or 22 or 25.

    I still like it, but I’ve always found the rest of the whole Dexys thing to be much too ponderous and (forgive me) pretentious to really enjoy. Maybe that’s why this is the Dexys song I like the most.

  27. 77
    Billy Hicks on 9 Dec 2013 #

    This is one of those songs that, due to not being born for another six years, I’m sadly one of the few in my generation to actually know it. I first heard it in early 2001 and fell in love with it, confusing the hell out of my fellow Year 7s the next day by singing it whenever I could.

    Sadly this is still the case now, as when this played in a club I was in last night, a guy about my age shouted “What the f*** is this?!”. Thankfully there were enough to actually know the song to sing along too. Maybe I’d dislike it had I been around in the 80s when it was probably played to death, but for me Tom’s review of this is dead on – a deserved 10 and one of the best tracks of the decade.

  28. 78
    hectorthebat on 27 Oct 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 101
    NBC-10 (USA) – The 30 Best Songs of the 80s (2006)
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 80s (2011) 87
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 290
    Freaky Trigger (UK) – Top 100 Songs of All Time (2005) 66
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 41
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 253
    Neil McCormick, The Telegraph (UK) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2009) 96
    Q (UK) – 50 Greatest British Tracks (2005) 23
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 885
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Wanadoo (UK) – The 20 Best Songs of the 80s
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 12
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 40
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 434
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 29
    Sounds (UK) – Singles of the Year 2

  29. 79
    mapman132 on 31 Oct 2014 #

    Great writeup, Tom! I feel like I’ve got a much greater appreciation of this song now. For one thing I never knew who Johnnie Ray was before, despite him being mentioned in not one, but two, Hot 100 #1′s. Apparently he also hit #1 himself on Billboard’s pre-Hot 100 charts with “Cry” back in 1952. Have to check that out. Anyway I would’ve given this 8 or 9 on my own, but you’ve convinced me to bump it up to TEN.

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