Dexys Midnight Runners - Don’t Stand Me Down - Review
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critics' view

Don't Stand Me Down (1985) was the third and last Dexy's album. Released to mixed reviews, it sank almost without trace. Perhaps the latest Dexy's rebrand — poker stares and clean-cut business suits — went a step too far? Perhaps the refusal to release a single or to market the album was just a little too arrogant? Perhaps Don't Stand Me Down was just a little too difficult for an audience raised on "Come On Eileen"? Probably, all of the above.

The album opens with "The Occasional Flicker". After a prolonged pause of barely audible background noise, then: "No, I don't want sympathy … compromise is the devil talking … I was right the first time." Vincent Crane (of Atomic Rooster fame) lays down a boogie-woogie piano. Big-beat drums pound. Horns do their thing. And then the world changes. Rowland slips from a confession that yes, he is a bitter man trying to redeem himself, into a sudden, shocking spoken comment: "It kind of reminds me of that burning feeling I used to get".

Spoken-word pieces had always formed part of the Dexy's canon, but this abrupt change mid-song is utterly new, as is the downright comic treatment given to his "burning feeling", a self-mocking reference to his many famous prior protestations of "inner fires" and "burning". Rowland's voice comes from one speaker; guitarist Billy Adams speaks from the other. And while the band blazes on, the pair discuss … Kevin Rowland's digestion. "Are you sure it's not heartburn?" This double act continues throughout Don't Stand Me Down. Twenty years on, I'm still not sure why it's there or what it all means. But I know I love it. Every last mumbled remark and bad joke.

This Is What She's Like is the pinnacle of Kevin Rowland's achievement, his Ninth Symphony, his "Ode to Joy". Twelve and a half minutes long, it soars with a breath-taking beauty. The most immaculate parts of "Come On Eileen" on their very best day couldn't get into "This Is What She's Like". The song is that good. And yet it begins with another mundane and poorly recorded conversation, a chat between two dullards that runs for almost 90 seconds before Rowland finally concedes and tries to tell Billy Adams what she's like. But Rowland has always had a problem describing things, so he starts by telling us all the things she isn't.

As the music peaks repeatedly, we learn that Rowland's muse is not the sort of girl to iron creases in her jeans or use expressions like tongue-in-cheek. And she has nothing in common with the ignorant English upper classes, the CND scum, or the newly wealthy peasants who put all their possessions on parade.

Kevin: The Italians have a word for it. Billy: What word's that? Kevin: A thunderbolt or something. Billy: What, you mean the Italian word for thunderbolt? Kevin: Yeah, something like that. I don't speak Italian myself, you understand. Billy: No. Kevin: But I knew a man who did.

It's as if Brian Wilson stopped "God Only Knows" halfway through to tell a shrink joke, and made it work. In the end, it's left to his wordless careening vocals and music to describes Kevin Rowland's beauty. She must have been glorious.

Knowledge of Beauty is an exploration of Irish pride that echoes all the way back to "Dance Stance". "One of Those Things" is Warren Zevon's "Werewolves Of London" in drag, a complaint-rock classic in two parts. The first dissects music radio and concludes that it all sounds the same. The second analyses the dinner-party socialist intellectuals of the world and their attitudes towards Northern Ireland, concluding that they all sound the same too. The conclusion is clear: Political attitudes towards Ireland were as trite and empty as the pop music of the day.

Reminisce Part Two is a short spoken-word piece underpinned by a melancholic tune that slowly evolves into both "Lola" and Jimmy Ruffin's "I'll Say Forever My Love". Surging horns, a pounding beat and declamatory vocals make "Listen To This" a throwback to the early Dexy's singles. It's a rousing pop song, and yet it doesn't quite fit here because Rowland has moved so far beyond merely rousing pop.

Throughout his career, Kevin Rowland has been a minefield of magnificent contradictions. As soon as you thought you understood him, he changed. And no sooner had you caught up with him again, then he disappeared and dared you to find him. But through it all, beneath the anger and the controversies, beyond his Irish identity, he was inspired by a desire to create beautiful things. The extreme passion in his work came from this vision of the beauty he was trying to express. On Don't Stand Me Down, Kevin Rowland came closest to giving his impossible dream form, a funny, flawed work of absolute protest against the mundane and the average.

Dave Thompson
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