Apr 09


FT + Popular83 comments • 13,823 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. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 33
    Billy Smart on 17 Apr 2009 #

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

  4. 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).

  5. 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’…?

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 45
    LondonLee on 19 Apr 2009 #

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

  16. 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.

  17. 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…

  18. 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.

  19. 49
    wichitalineman on 20 Apr 2009 #

    Motorcycle Emptiness is the Welsh Ding-A-Dong.

  20. 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.

  21. 51
    pink champale on 20 Apr 2009 #

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

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 54
    LondonLee on 21 Apr 2009 #

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

  25. 55
    Tom on 21 Apr 2009 #

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

  26. 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!!!

  27. 57
    Tom on 21 Apr 2009 #

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

  28. 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).

  29. 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.

  30. 60
    will on 22 Apr 2009 #
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