Come On Eileen
July 28th, 2012
Todd plays "Come On Eileen" on the piano
DEXY'S MIDNIGHT RUNNERS - COME ON EILEEN
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd: The whole idea behind this series is that I'm gonna take acts that have this label that implied dated, crappy, insignificant music, and then explain how they were actually legitimate artists. And if that's my mission, well...oh boy, we've got a doozy today.
- Video for "Come On Eileen"
- Dexy's Midnight Runners: Come on, Eileen
Todd (VO): Dexy's Midnight Runners are just about the theoretically perfect ideal of the one-hit wonder band. I mean, they've got everything you want—one beloved, well-remembered hit single; an image-defining music video; a terrible name; and best of all, they're a British New Wave band from the 80s.
Todd: Like, believe me, I could keep the series going for, like, ten years just on 80s New Wave bands alone.
Todd (VO): Now, to be fair, "Come On Eileen" isn't exactly a ridiculous novelty song, and I did know they had some critical acclaim. Even so, I was not prepared for how much love and respect there is for Dexy's. Like, for example, this [cover of...] published biography you can buy on Amazon, or [Guardian web page featuring...] this poll in a British newspaper where average music fans argue passionately over which was the best of their three albums, [covers of the three albums] all of which represented a radical shift in tone and image as Dexy's evolved.
Todd: What I'm saying is the dorks bouncing around in blue jumpers are probably about the most legit band I will ever cover on this series, no joke.
Todd (VO): Now, I think I'm a pretty informed guy, as far as music goes, but to understand this band, I had to look up and understand all their influences and musical references. I mean, damn, guy, I had a serious music nerdery upgrade doing this episode.
Todd: Get ready to take notes, 'cause we're about to get educational up in here.
Before the fame
Todd: Okay, let's answer everyone's first question—who the hell is Dexy? [Cover of their greatest hit album entitled Let's Make This Precious] What the hell kind of name is Dexy anyway? [Single cover] Is that guy Dexy? The answer is...no one is Dexy. Turns out in England, Dexy was the street name for [picture of two pills] amphetamines, which probably makes "Midnight Runners" a reference to junkies running around high on speed. That's right, their name basically means [picture of band labeled with...] meth-heads.
[Cut to NBC's classic "The More You Know" ad closer]
Yes, Dexedrine was a popular drug in the [sticker for...] Northern Soul scene. What the hell is that? Well, okay.
- Footage of British dance party
Todd (VO): Apparently, in the north of England around the late 60s and 70s, the kids basically went nuts over dancing to these obscure American soul records that were never hits anywhere. I'm talking about songs that came out, like, a decade earlier from bands and singers that [covers of The Flirtations -"Nothing But a Heartache", Darrell Banks Is Here!, Frank Wilson - "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)] neither you, nor I have ever, ever heard of, but for some reason, they were a [switching to British accent] damn big deal in [shots of...] Manchester, Lancashire, or wherever.
Todd: Which brings us to [footage of interview] this one kid from Birmingham with Irish parents, name of Kevin Rowland.
- Single cover of Kevin Rowland & Dexy's Midnight Runners - "Let's Get This Straight (From the Start)" & "Old". The song is "Don't Stand Me Down"
- Kevin: My name is Kevin Rowland
- I'm the leader of the band
Todd (VO): Rowland had been in [footage from punk show] the punk scene for a while, got sick of that, and decided he wanted to get a bunch of people together and try to do this soul thing. Also, he was kind of a serious control freak. He made the band totally straight edge, which...yeah, I know, [back to "Meth-heads" picture of band] the name, I don't get it either. And he also made them all wear the same outfit. Yes, that's right, he made them all dress like...
Todd: ...New York City dockworkers.
- Clip of "There, There My Dear"
- Kevin: You're always so happy
Todd (VO): [a la Terry Malloy] They could've been contenders. You should've been looking out for them, Charlie.
And here's the thing. They were a success—in England, at least—almost immediately. And who could be surprised?
Todd: After all, who better to emulate this genre of music...
- Clip of Wilson Pickett performing "In the Midnight Hour"
- Wilson: That can really love me so in the midnight hour
Todd: ...than a guy who sounded like this?
- Performance of "There, There My Dear"
- Kevin: [incomprehensible] ...though you'd never see in a million years
Todd (VO): Evidently, in the UK, this incomprehensible yelp was a perfectly acceptable form of soul-singing, because Dexy's had a #1 single before they even had a finished album.
- Video for "Geno"
Todd (VO): This song is called "Geno", and in the UK, this is their other big hit.
- Kevin: Academic inspiration, you gave me none
Todd (VO): Now they do have other minor hits too, but Dexy's is kind of a two-hit wonder over there. This song is a tribute to [album cover of Geno's Back!] Geno Washington. Again, Dexy's Midnight Runners were inspired by really obscure soul records that were only popular in the UK well after the fact, so I've never even heard of this guy Geno, but from what I can tell, he seems like a pretty cool guy. Yeah, I guess this stuff was a little too British to cross over here. Remember, MTV didn't even exist yet. Personally, I prefer the [cover of Searching for the Young Soul Rebels] rest of that album over "Geno". As far as I can tell, they've got a lot in common with [Madness concert] the British ska scene at the time, like Madness and Specials. 1980 was a much better year for music in England than America, I'll tell you that much.
- Clip of The Captain & Tennille - "Do That to Me One More Time"
- Toni Tennille: Do that to me one more time
- Once is never enough
Todd (VO): Well, now that they were already the next big thing in the UK, Rowland decided to mix things up for the second album. [Clip of "Let's Make This Precious"] Another wardrobe change, in this case a bunch of scarves and blue overalls and...it's kind of a weird combination of [pictures of...] gypsy, dust bowl farmer, and who knows what the fuck. They put out their second album Too-Rye-Ay in 1982, and it was an eclectic mix of soul music and Celtic folk. [Clip of "Celtic Soul Bros"] And there were more fiddles and less horns now, and the entire horn section quit in protest, although they did still work on the album. Honestly, it's really good, and it ends with a mammoth showstopper of an album closer.
Todd: Let's take a look at that, shall we?
The big hit
- Clip from Show Biz Bugs
- Bugs Bunny: [at xylophone] Now, with your kind indulgence, I'll play "Those Endearing Young Charms".
- [Video for "Come On Eileen" begins, with "Those Endearing Young Charms" played on violin]
Todd: Sorry, I just can't hear the intro to this song without expecting Daffy Duck to blow up. [In the above clip, Daffy plays the song and, when he hits that note, it explodes] Ha! But I digress.
Todd (VO): This was obviously one of the most-played songs of 1983, and to this day, is still humongous. One of the most beloved songs of the decade, maybe not quite "Jessie's Girl" or "Don't Stop Believing" level, but really high up there.
- Dexy's: Come on Eileen
- Oh, I swear what he means
Todd (VO): It not only brought them their second #1 hit in the UK, it broke them into America and [newspaper clipping showing the Top Five for April 23, 1983] wrestled the top spot away from Michael Jackson for a week. And after all, who could dislike a song with such amazing lyrics as this?
- Dexy's: Poor old Johnnie Ray
- Sounded sad upon the radio (Shada na na do do)
- But he moved a million hearts in mono (Na na na something something)
Todd (VO): Okay, the lyrics are not why this song got so big. In fact, the song has been so long a staple of the Big 80s marathons that you kind of forget how little it sounds like [album cover of The Very Best of Kajagoogoo & Limahl] any of its contemporaries. The British folk influences, the complete lack of synthesizers, Kevin Rowland's weird, incomprehensible squawk.
- Dexy's: But not us (no not ever)
Todd (VO): But despite that, it was huge. Just a wonderfully catchy, powerfully energetic song. It's got a great hook, some killer key changes, and a big, crowd-pleasing outro.
- Dexy's: [Todd claps along while lip-syncing] Come on Eileen, too-rye-aye
- Come on Eileen, too-rye-aye
Todd (VO): Really, I totally get why it got so big. And yet, I don't think I ever really liked this song myself until I actually found out what it was about.
Todd: I've only ever been able to make out the first line and little bits of the chorus.
Todd (VO): Until I wrote this episode, I had no idea who Eileen is or why she should come on. Somehow, "too-lye-too-rye-ay" makes as much sense as anything else in this song. What is he saying here?
- Kevin: So grown
Todd (VO): And who the hell is Johnnie Ray, who I do recognize from another 80s song.
- Clip of Billy Joel - "We Didn't Start the Fire"
- Billy Joel: Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
Todd (VO): But not much else.
Todd: Well, let me answer this now. If you wanna know why she's supposed to come on, here it is.
Todd (VO): Johnnie Ray is a crooner from the early 50s, and Kevin Rowland is listening to him and imagining how exciting he must've sounded to his parents in those bright, shining happy days at the end of the war, and why shouldn't we be able to feel like that, damn it?
- Dexy's: And we can sing just like our fathers
Todd: Come on, Eileen, let's blow this crumbum little town full of beaten down, dead-eyed people and go live a life of romance and adventure.
- Kevin: These people round here
- Dexy's: With their beat down eyes
- Sunk in smoke dried faces
- So resigned to what their fate is
- Kevin: But not us
Todd: Yes. "Come On Eileen" is the British-Irish folk version of "Born to Run".
- Performance of Bruce Springsteen - "Born to Run"
- Bruce: 'Cause tramps like us
- Baby, we were born to run
- Dexy's: Come on Eileen
Todd (VO): It also helps if you know how shitty England's economy was in 1982, especially in Dexy's hometown of Birmingham, so you'd think they'd only make depressing music. But instead, "Come On Eileen" is...it's full of joy and hope. This song just makes people feel glad to be alive.
- Kevin: At this moment, you mean everything
Todd: Now let's talk about how they screwed it up.
The failed follow-up
- Video for "Jackie Wilson Said"
Todd (VO): Okay, their next single after "Eileen" was a cover of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said".
- Kevin: Jackie Wilson said, "It was great news to see...
Todd (VO): It's a pretty fitting choice for a cover. Long before Kevin Rowland thought of it, Van Morrison had been mixing soul music and Celtic folk with completely unintelligible vocals for years.
- Clip of Van Morrison performing the original song
- Van Morrison: [running lyrics together] ..."Reet-Petite"
- Kinda love you got
- Knock me off my feet
- Let it all hang out
- Oh, let it all hang out.
Todd (VO): Actually, wow. Are they related? The resemblance is uncanny. The song was even about one of Dexy's favorite subjects—[album cover of The Greatest Hits of Jackie Wilson] a great R&B singer from decades earlier who you should totally listen to. Honestly, it's kind of too perfect. It was another hit for them in the UK; not here, though. Honestly, I don't know why this wasn't a hit in America, but if I had to guess, maybe this cover was just too obvious. Like, [poster of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in...] Tim Burton making his own version of Alice in Wonderland, too obvious.
Todd: But that's not the failed follow-up I wanted to talk about here.
- Dexy's Midnight Runners performing "Listen to This"
- Kevin: I was thinking of a compromise
Todd (VO): The third album brought [album cover of Don't Stand Me Down] another wardrobe change, (BORING) this one the worst. Christ, even Spandau Ballet had more style than that. But that wasn't the problem. The problem is that Dexy's came up with a...difficult album, with songs ranging from five to twelve minutes long, and...
Todd: ...Rowland refused to release a single because it had to be understood as an album statement. You know, like he was fronting Pink Floyd or something.
- Video for "This Is What She's Like"
Todd (VO): It was ambitious, is what I'm saying. And as it turns out, [album cover of...] Don't Stand Me Down is sort of their [cover of Weezer's...] Pinkerton. By that, I mean everyone who's heard this album absolutely loves it.
Todd: Now. But at the time,...
Todd (VO): ...critics hated it, and the public refused to touch it. Dexy's Midnight Runners was not supposed to make artsy albums with 12-minute songs. The record label forced them to release a single eventually, but at that point, the record had already tanked.
Todd: And yet nowadays, people call it a masterpiece. My copy of The Mojo Collection: The Greatest Albums of All Time calls this "the most challenging and passionate work of Rowland's tempestuous career." Um...challenging, definitely. I just don't think the world was ready to hear Kevin Rowland rambling for seven minutes over the beat to "Werewolves of London".
- Performance of "One of Those Things"
- Kevin: It occurred to me to switch on the radio
- I wanted to hear some music
- So I turned it on, it was Radio One
- Sid Jenkins on the air
Todd: I guess it's a better use of "Werewolves of London" than what Kid Rock did.
- Clip of Kid Rock - "All Summer Long"
- Kid Rock: It was 1989, my thoughts were short, my hair was long
- Caught somewhere between a boy and man
- Video for "This Is What She's Like"
- Kevin: Whoa...
Todd (VO): Honestly, I don't think I get this album. It's a little over my head, I guess. But most people nowadays say it's an underrated, five-star classic, so that's nice. Didn't do the band much good at the time, though. When the album flopped, the band broke up and went their separate ways. And that's pretty much why you don't know anything else about them except their ridiculous name.
- Kevin: Tell you what she's like
Anything else of note?
Todd: Dexy's broke up in 1986. Kevin Rowland's story for the next fifteen years or so is a mess of failed solo albums, drug addiction, and cross-dressing.
- Video for "Concrete and Clay"
- Kevin: You, to me, are sweet as roses in the morning
- You, to me, are soft as summer in that dawning love we share
Todd (VO): I guess that's one way to spice up a boring covers album. Did I mention drugs? [Dexy's Midnight Runners performing "Free"] After trying and failing to reunite for many, many years, Dexy's finally put out another album in 2012, and it actually got decent reviews and they're still going now, so don't feel too bad for them.
Did they deserve better?
Todd: Um, yes. The answer to that is yes, I hope I made that clear.
- Dexy's: Come on Eileen
Todd (VO): They were just such a strikingly different band from much of the rest of the 80s. I daresay that the entire decade would've been a lot different, and probably for the better, if Dexy's had managed to notch a few more hits in this country. Most 80s music was so slick and polished, and Dexy's were defiantly unslick, even as they wrote some intensely catchy music. Now, I fully recognize that "Come On Eileen" is just a silly, feel-good 80s sing-along. But God damn, it's a good one.
Todd: So, too-lye-roo-lye-ay. We're gonna hum this tune forever.
- Kevin: Well, they're dirty
- Come on Eileen
Closing tag song: Save Ferris - "Come On Eileen"
"Come On Eileen" is owned by Mercury Records
This video is owned by me