Apr 09


FT + Popular83 comments • 13,354 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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  1. 1
    rosie on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Ah yes, Dexy’s other number one!

    I’ve explained in my comment to Geno the really big reason why that, and not this, is my Big One so I won’t repeat myself here. I also have a personal preference for those dirty, bluesy horns that can still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up to the jolly hibernicism of Eileen.

    All the same, I won’t take away from it. For me, for whom the noisy, sweaty confined spaces of the average club night would be hell on earth, it remains the one of the quintessential sounds of conference Saturday nights, something whose ebuyllient energy can get even me on a dancefloor given a sufficient intake of gin. At the same time, it’s the sound of that last glorious summer before my great fall and subsequent recovery into something like common sense. It’s also the final beginning of the end of my pop life. Retirement beckons, but not quite yet.

    For it’s timelessness, but also for still not coming close to Good Vibrations or Grapevine, 8 from me.

    EDIT: An old sixties hack notes ruefully that we’ve now had more 10s from three years of the 80s than from the whole of pop’s glory decade!

  2. 2
    Tom on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Wouldn’t surprise me if it beats the 60s on 1/10s too though!

  3. 3
    Matt DC on 17 Apr 2009 #

    I have never liked Come On Eileen but this piece really makes me wish I did.

  4. 4
    Lex on 17 Apr 2009 #

    I am beginning to feel like a curmudgeon hating on all of these obviously (and bafflingly) beloved songs, but I went back to Youtube this and I still hate it. It’s your dad dancing at a tortuous family wedding made into a song. Or – shudder – at an office party. The kind of song which stumbles drunkenly over to you and yells “why aren’t you HAVING FUN?” in your face, even when you were having fun. The chorus lurches really unpleasantly. And – I feel we have been here before – his VOICE, aargh, excruciating! When did this straining, strangulating style of ‘singing’ start? It’s still going on nowadays…

    Tom’s piece is v great though! I am in two minds about “public pop”: when it’s great (‘Umbrella’, ‘Into The Groove’) it’s really great but when it’s a song I dislike (this) it’s even worse than your common-or-garden bad songs which everyone forgets.

  5. 5
    Tom on 17 Apr 2009 #

    I listened to this last night to decide whether I could add anything to the 2002 piece and the best I could come up with was “It’s the British Born To Run”. So there you go.

    #4 Yes public pop isn’t always a good thing obviously and there’s plenty of examples still to come of when it isn’t, though the one that leaps into my mind – “Angels” – never got to #1.

  6. 6
    Alan on 17 Apr 2009 #

    incidental anecdote from a work colleague who knows one of the credited co-writers: that co-writer gets a few 10s of 1000s of pounds a year for this song. GOOD

  7. 7

    “When did this straining, strangulating style of ’singing’ start?” — with johnny ray? that’s what the song sort of claims: but i imagine it’s a lot older than this… however i can’t think of earlier recorded examples at the moment, unless you count some of the country yodellers (or indeed the alpine yodellers)

  8. 8
    Billy Smart on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Perhaps the ideal way to listen to Eileen is at the end of the album. You really feel as though you’ve earned the pleasure, and the sense of release is astonishing! I often think that the equivalent song (in that it runs the risk of seeming a bit over-familiar until you hear it as a climax of a wonderful album) is ‘Don’t You Want Me?’

    Lex’s image of the wedding disco dad is quite a telling one I think – there’s an inclusivity about the sucess of the song which makes it the enemy of hipsters. As I get older I start to think that any record that can make unfamiliar dancers dance is generally a good thing. It’s also, with its whirlpool-like shifts in tempo, not a very easy record to dance to! But if you’re in a crowd of a few friend its fun to improvise some reels around it – it’s more fun to participate in listening to this song than playing it or dancing to it alone.

    Also, thematically, this is surely a great song about really fancying someone and declaring those feelings, the exuberance and tentativeness of which really acurately replicates the sensation (“My thoughts – I confess…”). The tremendous emotion invested invested in the “Come ON!” particularly rings true to me, and suggests that the feeling has been harboured for too long.

  9. 9
    misschillydisco on 17 Apr 2009 #

    #4 kevin rowland is a singer who isn’t great at singing. he can make you wince at times, but he is great at putting emotion across. that’s what i like about him. there are 100s of ‘technically good’ singers out there – tony hadley, for example – but i’d take kevin every time.

    i like this song – not as much as geno (like #1). i am a dexy’s fan but i find ‘don’t stand me down’ a bit tough to listen to. i prefer the first two albums – there’s a joy and a toughness about them that you just don’t get nowadays.

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 17 Apr 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: Dexy’s Midnight Runners performed ‘Come On Eileen’ on Top Of The Pops on three occasions. The Christmas edition I’ll document when we get to the end of the year, but these were the first two;

    15 July 1982. Also in the studio that week were; Hot Chocolate, Cliff Richard, Yazoo, David Essex and Leo Sayer. Peter Powell was the host.

    29 July 1982. Also in the studio that week were; Hot Chocolate, Cliff Richard, Elkie Brooks, the Firm and David Essex. Mike Read was the host.

  11. 11
    Stevie T on 17 Apr 2009 #

    I interviewed various folks involved in Too-Ry-Aye last year, and was amused/amazed to hear Clive Langer say that this song was originally titled “James, Van and Me” – ie James Brown, Van Morrison and Kevin. Crucial conceptual shift from DadSoul to MumPop there! (Interview accompanied this album review.)

  12. 12
    pink champale on 17 Apr 2009 #

    wonderful write up and a wonderful record. for all that i think tom’s right about dexys, and this record in particular, being all about talking about – and delivering – pop as a public force, the large majority of the lyrics, the odd ‘we are far too young and clever’ moment of clarity aside, are pretty much incomprehensible, even by kevin’s standards. the opening lines i learned because they were featured in a ‘here’s the lyric, what’s the song?’ quiz in Q at some point in the late eighties and i’ve picked up various bits and bobs since from studying the screen intently whenever i’ve seen anyone doing a karaoke turn*, but he really doesn’t make it easy. for all that kevin wanted to make big public statements, maybe there was a part of him that also wanted to keep it to himself, or make it so only the hardcore who could work out what he was going on about – *deserved* to know as he might have thought.

    *i concede that, what with the internet and all that, there might be a more direct means of obtaining this information.

  13. 13
    Stevie T on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Re: Kevin’s singing style, I hear a lot of Bryan Ferry in there! And an early proto-Dexys were apparently kinda glam. This was confirmed for me by Kevin Eldon’s two big train sketches:

  14. 14
    Tom on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Yeah, Kevin is trying to cram a lot of words in – and not always succeeding (the “resigned to what their fate is” bit in particularly is totally garbled). I can only invoke Frank K’s Boney Joan rule when it comes to explaining why it adds to this song’s thrill-power for me but irritates me on “A Town Called Malice” (similarly about mums!)

  15. 15
    Matthew H on 17 Apr 2009 #

    My favourite No.1 as well – and beautifully put, Tom. If I may be so bold, here’s my own less elegant assessment, written a few years back when I was clearly angrier about its wedding disco staple status. Now I say, take it how you wish.

  16. 16
    Martin Skidmore on 17 Apr 2009 #

    If you’d asked me to guess a record that you’d give 10 to before this started, this would have been my choice. (I suspect this would have been a fairly unanimous pick.)

    This is a great review. I love the record a little less than you do (9 rather than 10), but I wouldn’t argue with what you say about it.

  17. 17
    rosie on 17 Apr 2009 #

    As for danceability, in the wider-open spaces of the more traditional dancefloor it’s a fabulous track for lerocing to and provides a wonderful opportunity for competition routines. Especially that final accelerando.

  18. 18
    Brian on 17 Apr 2009 #

    A wonderful write-up and if I wasn’t at work right now, I would have this song playing loud on repeat a few times. Even more than this, it’s an excellent defense of pop music and pop criticism as well.

    In America, most people only know Dexys from this song and the video – people LOVE it, but it’s almost exclusively relegated to “one hit wonder” status. Still, the way people instinctively respond to this song makes it timeless, and ultimately (along with the recommendation of others) that made me seek out more of their catalog.

  19. 19
    pink champale on 17 Apr 2009 #

    that reminds me, does anyone know where the (great) video was filmed? it somehow looks like everywhere and nowhere in britain.

  20. 20
    LondonLee on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Lovely review Tom, and as was said above, makes me wish I liked it more. Well, actually I do like it but its wedding disco status does make that hard, not in any snobby way just through over-familiarity and always hearing it next to cheesier fare (like Russ Abbott as you said), it doesn’t quite survive that the way ‘Dancing Queen’ does.

    Though I do have a wonderful memory of it being played at a beach bar in Spain when I was on holiday, my mates and I started doing the hands behind your back stomping feet dance (we were drunk) and all these young Spaniards joined in with us. That night I also had to explain to a Spanish girl I was, erm, hanging out with what ‘Relax’ was about. “Cuando quieres orgasmo” was the best translation I could come up with.

    It was a bit of a shock at the time how Dexy’s switched from donkey jackets and soul to dungarees and fiddles. Probably a more radical change than the one Bowie pulled with ‘Young Americans’

  21. 21
    Stevie T on 17 Apr 2009 #

    (Has a post of mine after #12 got lost in some moderation dungeon?)

  22. 22
    SteveM on 17 Apr 2009 #

    I’d probably hate this if I didn’t have the same kind of memories of it I do with ‘Prince Charming’ or had somehow never come across it before the age of 16. Seems bad now but I heard and danced to this at so many friend’s birthday parties and sports club discos in the early 90s (along with ‘Jump Around’, ‘Out Of Space’ and other usual suspects). By the time I went to college my feelings were quite the opposite and I never wanted to hear it again – in fact it was probably things like Tom’s piece and a general popist rehabiltation I went through at the start of the 00s that re-warmed me to it.

    Running theme with me here but many childhood faves of the 80s never had to endure that process by virtue of being ‘too cool’ (Jackson, Madonna and Prince hits for example – dunno if that makes them ‘more classic’ or not). ‘Come On Eileen’ never seemed ‘cool’ but seemed to operate on a level where that was irrelevant, for many of us transcending taste. That’s boo hiss ‘guilty pleasure’ territory but I guess that’s how we felt about it 10 years and more after. There weren’t many records I felt that way about as I was seldom ashamed of liking the 80s stuff I did. Now I’m far more ashamed of some of the “alternative” stuff I liked as a moody teenager – a lot of which doesn’t have the excuse of having been overplayed. I would say this just seems like too well made a song to worry about that now, but I still don’t expect to ever dance to it again!

  23. 23
    Tom on 17 Apr 2009 #

    #21 – yes, how odd – your first comment with two links got through, your second didn’t.

  24. 24
    Conrad on 17 Apr 2009 #

    A fantastic piece.
    And a record deserving of it.

    A couple of observations

    -This came off the back of a run of flops, the latest of which – “Celtic Soul Brothers” – sounded like a sure fire hit. So, when it failed to chart it looked as though the new Dexys were doomed. As a fan, I was therefore thrilled when this broke into the Top 40 after a few agonising weeks where it looked like it wasn’t going to make it.
    As soon as you heard it in the context of The Top 40 rundown it sounded huge. It was obvious it was going to Number One.

    -The intro. The original version as played on the radio was preceded by the plaintive melody of a lone fiddle. I have never been able to trace this version since.

  25. 25
    Tom on 17 Apr 2009 #

    The lone fiddle version is the album edit isn’t it? I think the single version cuts it off. Anyway I have the “lone fiddle” version on my MP3 player so it must be on my hard drive – I will track it down!

  26. 26
    SteveM on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Maybe I should add that another factor in me liking this again came from hearing Audio Shrapnel drop the acapella of Public Enemy ‘Bring The Noise’ over COE on XFM’s The Remix show during the height of the 2002 mash-up craze and I just burst out laughing.

  27. 27
    Mark M on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Re 20: I’ve never been a wedding where it even seemed distantly possible that Russ Abbott was going to be played, and I have been to weddings where Sonic Youth (boo!) were played. Does this mean I have no connection with the people?

  28. 28
    Matthew H on 17 Apr 2009 #

    #24 The lone fiddle is on the 7″. I think I’ve got three copies – you know, just to be sure.

  29. 29
    Conrad on 17 Apr 2009 #

    25/28 Yes, I thought it must be the 7″ but I’m sure it hasn’t made it to CD, either on Too-Rye-Ay, or the various Dexy’s compilations

    If you could email me an mp3 Tom, that would be much appreciated

  30. 30
    JonnyB on 17 Apr 2009 #

    We did this at a party when I was in a covers band. We weren’t just a bad covers band, we were the worst covers band in Billericay. Anyway, we didn’t have a banjo, so I played the mandolin, and this was way before the Internet so we had to get the words from listening to the record over and over again, which didn’t really help as let’s face it – you can’t make out what they are. Because I am a very bad mandolin player, we had to put it in a key even higher than the original. Oh yes, and there was no pianist.

    I can’t recall it being a success.

    I’ve got the mournful solo fiddle introduction one somewhere, but it’s that dum, da-dum; dum da-dum on the bass that gets me. It’s just like the piano run at the start of Dancing Queen, or the bassline to Staying Alive – one microsecond of hearing it and you’re up and ready to go. Unless you are too cool.

    Great track, although the chorus seems ever so slightly not quite right with the verses to me – as though it came from a different song. But I love it.

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