Jan 02

A Million Hearts

FT/9 comments • 14,923 views

Everlasting Pop and Dexys Midnight Runners

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 U2 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”.

These records live on in public – at office parties, cheap discos, wedding receptions – and endure a strange existence known by everyone and loved by no-one. Well, no-one who would usually express an opinion on the matter. The investors simply block out the fact that these frivolities have survived so effortlessly – it undermines their hunch that it’s the worthwhile records which last. The wastrels like the songs more, perhaps, but even so would usually rather hear something new.

Which leaves of course the silent majority who occasionally buy a record and like these good-value party tunes a great deal, but they exist below popcrit’s waterline, an unpredictable primal force as likely to embrace Afroman as Abba. The gap between the public pop classic and even the roughest ‘novelty record’ is terribly thin, because novelty records also rely on their social value to the extent of any other of pop’s virtues. A joke is no good, after all, if you have nobody to tell it to: a chant of “Heyyyyyy Baby!” is absurd if sung alone.

“Dancing Queen” or “Celebration” are not, quite, novelty records as we’d commonly understand them. But they still emphasise the social simply by dint of being about the social – “Dancing Queen” is a fairytale of a girl’s love of music and dance, and the perfect live-the-dream soundtrack to that fairytale. “Celebration” practises what it preaches in similar style. Unlike more credible dance music, there’s nothing initiatory here, no scene to be hip to – and there’s no focus on dancing for its own sake, either.

And what about “Come On Eileen”, that most vexing and unclassifiable of records? It’s 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
    Marcello Carlin on 5 Feb 2008 #

    I think the key thing with the examples you mentioned is that they were all conceived by artists who “meant it” – Frida famously burst into tears when her husband played her the finished backing track to “Dancing Queen.” It’s the same with Kool and Dexy’s and all the others – it works for everyone from Gloria Gaynor to Lieutenant Pigeon. I’m not sure where things like “Agadoo” fit into that scenario, however.

    Whereas Russ Abbot’s “Atmosphere” for instance has not survived, largely because the artist himself hates the record so much that he bought back the rights and has stubbornly refused to allow its reissue.

    A very key reason for “Come On Eileen”‘s success is that it could be directly connected to Dexy’s previous number one through the tactic of deliberate retrolinkage, i.e. the Johnnie Ray recollection works on the equivalent level to the Geno Washington one – a clink in the keyhole of non-obvious nostalgia, including the teenage 2-Tone/Mod types of 1980 like myself who were too young to experience Geno at his peak (I’ve heard the live albums but still feel I’m missing a vital element). So there was a hook for uncommitted/floating record buyers to hang onto; it was catchy on the “Geno” level but its arrangement and set-up varied enough not to make it sound like Geno 2, and although the handclap-provoking accelerando is used in “Geno” the architecture in “Eileen” is more clearly delineated and it was fairly clear that it was going to bag the bigger audience – even though it plays more than anything as a prequel to “Geno.”

    Too-Rye-Ay devastated me at the time, even if a purist part of me (ha!) wished that the Projected Passion line-up had recorded it, and “Eileen” comes as the most substantial of emotional releases at the end…he’s dealt with his pantechnicon of emotional baggage, come out the other side and now he can love and live again. Hence the internal dialogues of “Until I Believe In My Soul,” “I’ll Show You” etc. are vital because the release of “Eileen” wouldn’t have been possible without this semi-privacy; nonetheless, the fact that people can enjoy the song alone without necessarily knowing the back story speaks volumes for the volume and skill with which Rowland communicates this release.

    One of the major lessons I’ve learned from my six or so years of public music writing is that when your heart has been smashed, seemingly beyond repair, if only you can find it in yourself to drag yourself back to the radio, remember where the “ON” switch is and which way to push or turn it – or to your stereo, or whichever – and use the power it generates to regenerate yourself in the hope that your talking about this music and how it relates to yourself will help “those other people” to find you – and for me, eventually, one person was all it took – then the songs can be played and the new dance can begin.

  2. 2
    Billy Smart on 5 Feb 2008 #

    Aw, Marcello! You’re a sweet man, for all of your immense knowledge and critical acumen.

    Tom is right about how 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?’

  3. 3
    Tom on 5 Feb 2008 #

    I can’t remember the last time I heard “Agadoo” so it’s quite possible that its lack of ‘meaning it’ has told against it! (Though I think Black Lace were probably pretty committed to getting the party started).

  4. 4
    John on 22 Apr 2009 #

    where can i listen to Reminisce (part 2) from Dexy’s don’t stand me down album? hope you can help as i can’t find it anywhere. Thanks.

  5. 5
    Adam on 23 Apr 2009 #

    Here –
    Reminisce Part 2 mp3

  6. 6
    Adam on 23 Apr 2009 #

    Also I love that link between this and ‘don’t you want me’.

    I shunned the whole ‘Too-Rye-Aye’ album for years without really thinking about why although, as a good thing, it means I’ve been able to enjoy it almost as new again recently – one of my favourite private daydreams is the idea that I’m performing side two, I can feel the concert going on as I listen to it, knowing what a fantastic encore number I’m building up to and how everyone will go home happy.

  7. 7
    John on 21 Sep 2009 #

    I’ve not been able to access the link for Reminisce part two, is there any chance you can try it again, thanks.

  8. 8
    the pinefox on 30 Dec 2010 #

    I meant to read this article 8 years ago and have just done it. There is a story of pop time passing for you.

    I have to admire this article in some ways: it’s well written and thoughtful, as Ewing’s writing often is. It makes arguments and moves forward with thoughts. It does these things better than most pop writers do.

    I don’t like the article’s casual, unnecessary swipes at U2, who have also made records that many people have loved.

    re the Dexy’s 45, I think that Ewing implies that lots of people are into the record’s lyrical sentiment, which I think is false as I think most people (including me), despite having heard it many times, don’t really know the words or what they’re about. Even less do we know what ‘Kevin Rowland’s project’ or whatever was about. So I think Ewing is somewhat conflating the feeling of ordinary people and specialist Dexy’s fans like himself.

    He probably doesn’t mean to do this, because he is certainly able to see the difference between the two. His whole opening gambit about ‘public records’ etc pretty much implies it – and is a good argument, and a good way to categorize this 45. I think if Ewing does imply this it’s just because he has got swept along by the need to make an interesting argument. This seems to be a problem that sometimes arises in Ewing’s articles but in some way it’s more of a positive than a problem, because at least he manages to make the arguments.

    Or maybe I am wrong about the problem and have slightly misrepresented the article and it is even better than I have said.

  9. 9
    Gareth Parker on 27 Aug 2021 #

    Listening to Come on Eileen at this very moment on the radio. Still remains a great record in my view, 9/10.

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