The blast of radio static that greets the opening salvo of Dexys Midnight Runners‘ album Searching For The Young Soul Rebels is pertinent. The intermittent zoning in and out between interference and Deep Purple, The Sex Pistols and The Specials is at once a powerful euphemism not only for the changing landscape of the decade that preceded the album, but also for the unsettled times in which it was released in.
A new government was trying to combat inflation running at over 20%, Britain was in a recession and social unrest was running high, culminating in the – amongst others – Brixton and Toxteth riots during 1981’s ‘summer of hate’. The Midlands, meanwhile, was fast becoming a hotbed of talent with The Beat, The Specials and Dexys Midnight Runners all emerging from the Birmingham and Coventry area.
Thirty years on, the record still sounds startlingly fresh and it’s hard to imagine what it must have sounded like in 1980 – a year, lest we forget, when the safe, conservative sounds of Dire Straits‘ Making Movies could also be found in the album charts. Granted, it’s hard to describe Searching For The Young Soul Rebels as having an original sound; it’s more than a little indebted to the Stax back catalogue and the Northern Soul movement. But what isn’t in doubt is the devastating effectiveness with which these influences are deployed.
Burn It Down is Kevin Rowland’s riposte to the ‘thick paddy’ stereotype (Rowland being of Irish descent), listing a number of literary greats such as Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan to illustrate his point. It demonstrates that, for all of Dexys’ parping horns, there’s a sense of real grit and determination in the songs they created, a view perpetuated by the lyrics of Tell Me When My Light Turns Green, which talks of a manic depressive who’s shed a few tears, who’s been losing and boozing. Sunshine and rainbows it most certainly isn’t.
But of course, there’s always Geno to lighten the mood. Kevin Rowland wears his soul influences on his sleeve, not only by the use of Stax sound, but also via his tribute to Geno Washington and a great night out in 1968. As the band themselves have commented, this thank-you ultimately became bigger than the band themselves (a feat later repeated by Come On Eileen). Rowland has intoned that Geno’s success happened so quickly that he never really had an opportunity to enjoy it.
I Couldn’t Help If I Tried’s tale of a duplicitous strike arranger is both a perfect encapsulation of the troubled times the record was born into, and a premonition of the miners’ strike to come. There There My Dear closes the original album with a series of quotable pithy put-downs such as “if you’re so anti-fashion, why not wear flares” and “I don’t believe you really like Frank Sinatra”, bookending the album with a heavy dose of Rowland railing against all he deems wrong with the world.
Such was the band’s belief in the record that they took the master tapes hostage in an (ultimately successful) bid to get a better deal from the record company. This entailed, according to those involved, an operation of SAS specification, a police chase, and hiding the tapes at Rowland’s parents’ house. Far from being an ill-judged folly, this record, even now, demonstrates how well placed this belief was.
The expanded 30th Anniversary Edition version throws together the usual collection of alternative versions (Dance Stance being a re-named single mix of Burn It Down), session tracks and b-sides. An inspired cover of Northern Soul staple Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache again shows where Dexys’ raison d’etre gets its influences, while an early version of Plan B (later to appear on Too-Rye-Aye) is a fascinating document of how the band’s sound evolved over time. Things like BBC sessions, as usual, offer a snapshot of a moment in a band’s history but are ultimately inessential, and one for the completists.
What this album demonstrates is how times have changed in terms of chart-music personalities. The early 1980s were a time when people were unafraid to do something different, to be unique, and to go their own way. This seems a world away from the generic, fickle, revolving doors of modern stardom strewn across the music charts. The fact this record – which sounds so vibrant and different even now – and indeed Rowland’s vision have endured for 30 years is testament to this. As Britain once again settles down to an uncertain future not a million miles away from the environment into which this record was originally released, there’s not one personality or record out there to offer a comparative shot in the arm to either Rowland or Searching For The Young Soul Rebels. Now, more than ever, he is needed.
The remastered 30th Anniversary Edition of Dexys Midnight Runners’ album Searching For The Young Soul Rebels is out now through EMI.