Apr 09


FT + Popular83 comments • 13,240 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.



  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.

  31. 31
    Erithian on 17 Apr 2009 #

    A great analysis even by your standards, Tom, although it has to be said that any analysis of the lyrics – what was it, a pop record about loving pop records? – has to be tempered by the fact that for every hundred fans hearing this, very few would be able to hear that message coming out of it (Rowland’s diction again!). What they would get is a fantastic rush of music to dance to, blending soul and Celtic influences in an irresistible message to the feet. If you’ve ever been downstairs in a fairly rickety old pub while they’re playing this to an enthusiastic audience upstairs, you’ll know just what that message is… and it’s not good for the ceiling.

    I suspect many of you used to tape records off the radio, and got so used to the sequence in which you’d taped them that another song starts in your brain at the end of a track you’ve recorded. For me, “COE” always segues into Yazoo’s “Don’t Go” for that same reason.

  32. 32
    wichita lineman on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Wonderful write-up, Tom.

    The most mangled Dexys lyric has to be There There My Dear, which is incomprehensible (a shame, because it’s one of his best) without a lyric sheet – no wonder Kevin R sounds literally out of breath by the time he gets to the “You see, Robin…” sermonette.

    Re 20: via the fitness regime/hoodie look – no album to keep it company but it’s where “I’ll punish my body until I believe in my soul” came from. Too fast to write, too fast to work, just burn burn burn!

    As for COE, it seemed slight to me at the time, after the previous year’s Liars A to E and Plan B; their initial pet label was called Late Night Feelings, their tour had been the Intense Emotions Revue, and this didn’t fit either of those weighty tags. But I was far too young and clever, and had never danced with a girl in my arms who could make me feel as light-headed as KR does here.

    It’s as end-to-end hookfilled as Dancing Queen, no fat, and the lyric is a whole movie, flashbacks and all; the opening line is maybe my favourite in all pop. Still, I’d make it a 9 as I can’t help feeling I’d like it more with a different arrangement – imagine a brass line replacing the weedy mandolin part between first chorus and second verse. That’s a HOOK, dammit, so play it like one!

    Re 5: A pedant writes… wouldn’t this be the Irish Born To Run? Which makes me wonder what the British one might be… we won’t get a chance to muse over it on a Bruce S thread (which is a pity, Kevin R being a fan and all).

  33. 33
    Billy Smart on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Hold onto your hat, Wichita – We’ll briefly be hearing from Bruce in 1985!

  34. 34
    wichita lineman on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Oops! Forgot about those catch-all entries. Can’t wait to hear people’s thoughts on Huey Lewis! (soz, bunny).

  35. 35
    AndyPandy on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Good point made by Lee at 20 as just because a record has been played to death in the wedding/pop-orientated nightclub situation doesn’t mean you neve want to hear it again. And although ‘Dancing Queen’ is equally ubiquitous and I’m probably on the verge of not wanting to hear it at this moment it retains the indefinable quality of that never lets it become just background music.
    But that aside I’ve never liked this record (I much prefer ‘Geno’)too many memories of people drunkenly holding hands and dancing in circles in eighties nightclubs to a song which aside from the occasional lyric takes all its better points from generic Irish folk music.Bit like ‘Don’t You Want Me’ for me in that I look on the song that they’re known for most by general public as one of their low points.

    And if we weren’t talking about 2 groups who’d already built up credit with the music cogniscenti (especially in the Human League’s case), who hadn’t already released loads of genuinely good music and who didn’t so obviously in those in the know’s eyes so obviously ‘know the score’ how much would trite ‘obvious tune’ stuff like these two really differ from ‘Seven Tears’…?

  36. 36
    intothefireuk on 17 Apr 2009 #

    I too have found tracking down the violin intro version somewhat difficult. I believe it was peculiar to the 7″ and is not usually the version included on compilations. Over-familiarity does make it hard to objective about it. I never fathomed the lyrics and therefore my feelings about it were purely based on the emotional push of KR’s delivery and the enthusiastic clout of the music itself. Always a great song to throw yourself around to on the dance floor and likewise to play when DJing. What I’ve never done is sat down and analysed it and I don’t see any great reason to do that now. A great party song – I’ll leave it at that.

  37. 37
    koganbot on 17 Apr 2009 #

    The video starts with the fiddle.

    I think Lex would like Johnny Ray: on the border between r&b and over-the-top Italian.

  38. 38
    Alan on 17 Apr 2009 #

    HAVE YOUR SAY. AN experimental new Popular feature for all you logged in users.

    Underneath Tom’s score you should see a ‘You say’ strip with the chance to click on the score 1–10 that you’d give the song. It remembers your vote, and (as it stands) you can change it whenever you like and as often. The average user score (not including Tom’s) is also shown.

    Oops – I’ll fix it to round to one decimal place in the morning!

  39. 39
    Mark M on 18 Apr 2009 #

    Re 19: Had a look at the video and decided it must be London, and apparently it is – Brook Drive near the Elephant. The bit by the shop, with the Victorian terraces, could be anywhere, but where the kids are leaning out the the window they’re in some of those earlier dark brick terraces that I think are Georgian (but I could be totally wrong), and that lurch between styles feels like London to me.

  40. 40
    katstevens on 18 Apr 2009 #

    You’re right Mark – if you look on Google Street View at the corner of Brook Drive and Sullivan Road, facing South-West, you can see the old corner shop they were standing outside.

  41. 41
    peter goodlaws on 18 Apr 2009 #

    Magnificent write-up, Tom, but I do not share your hero worship of this, I’m afraid. Mob-handed Dexys irritated the hell out of me on this track, whereas I had enjoyed “Geno” two years earlier. The problem, I think, is that COE sets out so desperately to be loved by all and sundry, which is impossible to do, and we are inevitably left with a train wreck with no survivors. Rowland’s delivery is much to blame, his shrill, whiny squawks verging on the comical as he hacks his way hopelessly through the undergrowth with nothing but his bare hands. The fiddles attempt to offer him succour but I fear poor Kevin is already doomed. And God only knows what the rest of the Midnight Runners were supposed to be doing. I’m sure He does. But I fucking don’t!

  42. 42
    Tracer Hand on 18 Apr 2009 #

    As a young child in Knoxville Tennessee I was aware of this when it was on the radio. It was a big song even there.

    Why has no one mentioned the fact they’re all wearing OVERALLS in the video? It was very impressive to me at the time.

  43. 43
    David Belbin on 19 Apr 2009 #

    I was a huge Dexy’s fan. I met Kevin once when they were at their (to me) peak, doing the Projected Passion Revue, a small, polite guy. A fantastic live band. I was pissed off when, the following year, many of the PP songs were celticed up for Too-Rye-Aye but this firmly belongs to Dexy’s mark two (if an early horn arrangement exists, I’d love to hear it, though) and is, I think, a better record than ‘Geno’ (Dexy’s mark one’s least representative track). I’ll happily dance to it at a wedding or suchlike, but would never play it out of choice anymore. It remains too ubiquitous. Dexy’s best record is, I firmly believe, the closing track on Young Soul Rebels, ‘There There My Dear’ which, again, crams in too many words and insulted me then as it does now when he sings ‘I can’t believe you really like Frank Sinatra’. It’s at once a great put down record, a love song and one of the most celebratory dance stompers I know – a feature of every home party tape I’ve ever made, even if I’m the only one who dances to it (I never am). And, if memory serves, it only got to no. 17.

  44. 44
    fivelongdays on 19 Apr 2009 #

    Whether I’d give this 10, 9,8 or 7 is totally irrelevant in the face of this review – the original piece is one of my favourite bits of music criticism EVER.

    Wichita Lineman at 32 – I dunno, Birmingham seems pretty British to me. Still, I’d always argued “Motorcycle Emptiness” by the Manics is the British “Born to Run”, so, erm, there.

  45. 45
    LondonLee on 19 Apr 2009 #

    Re: 42. No one has mentioned Overalls because they’re called Dungarees in the UK.

  46. 46
    wichita lineman on 19 Apr 2009 #

    Re 43: I always interpreted “I don’t believe you really like Frank Sinatra” as a poke at the “swing” trendies Lord Sukrat mentioned in a recent Adam Ant thread. I’d guess Kev R was rather fond of Frank.

    Re 44: well, of course, but given Kev R’s heritage etcet, fiddles, “Eileen”, etcet, not exactly pure Brummie sound (which would be… Paranoid? 10538 Overture? Save A Prayer?), I’m sure you follow.

  47. 47
    fivelongdays on 20 Apr 2009 #

    Good call – can we compromise and call it the Anglo-Irish Born to Run? If we are talking yer actual Irish equivalent, I think ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ has strong, strong claims…

  48. 48
    rosie on 20 Apr 2009 #

    Call Wolverhampton Birmingham and you could get into a lot of trouble.

    And if COE is the Irish Born To Run then I suppose BTR could be the Dutch COE.

  49. 49
    wichitalineman on 20 Apr 2009 #

    Motorcycle Emptiness is the Welsh Ding-A-Dong.

  50. 50
    pink champale on 20 Apr 2009 #

    thanks. yes, i thought it did look like london, but somehow like a film set of london not the real thing. who’d have known there was more to the elephant than the aylesbury estate (which has its own music video history of course); those fantastic posters on the tube advertising the metropolitan tabernacle; the nme cover featuring carter posing in front of the newly-pink shopping centre; and hours of misery waiting for the 176? shame it’s all about to be turned into an exciting mixed-use development.

  51. 51
    pink champale on 20 Apr 2009 #

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

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 54
    LondonLee on 21 Apr 2009 #

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

  55. 55
    Tom on 21 Apr 2009 #

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

  56. 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!!!

  57. 57
    Tom on 21 Apr 2009 #

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

  58. 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).

  59. 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.

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

  62. 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.

  63. 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.

  64. 64
    Steve Mannion on 23 Apr 2009 #

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

  65. 65
    Mark M on 23 Apr 2009 #

    Rave Morse!*

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

  66. 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

  67. 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…

  68. 68
    Alan on 25 Apr 2009 #

    Directed by Danny Boyle!

  69. 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.

  70. 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.

  71. 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

  72. 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.’

  73. 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…

  74. 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.

  75. 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.

  76. 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.

  77. 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.

  78. 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

  79. 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.

  80. 80
    Larry on 6 Dec 2014 #

    Part of evaluating a song after three decades is how has it aged, indeed how has it changed. For me “Eileen” hasn’t held up the way “Dancing Queen” or “Geno” has. I would give it 6.

  81. 81
    iconoclast on 7 Dec 2014 #

    To me, though, it still sounds as good now as it did then: 8 on a bad day, but today’s not a bad day, so NINE.

  82. 82
    GLC on 21 Sep 2015 #

    I have a weird relationship with this song. Having to listen to it too many times at one job means that when it starts, I feel annoyed, but by the time it finishes I’m on board. 2+8 divided by 2 = 5.

  83. 83
    Jesse Rifkin on 25 Oct 2015 #

    Of all the posts on this website, this is my favorite one. It gives me such joy to know that a song can give somebody ELSE such joy. That goes for any song, not just “Come On Eileen,” although it’s especially apparent here. Especially somebody who’s as tough to please as you, a reviewer who gives such terrible ratings to classics like “Imagine” and “Vincent” and “Hey Jude.”

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