(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.