DEXYS are soaring again with their first album for 27 years and, finds Aidan Smith, band leader Kevin Rowland is trumpeting the friends who helped him make a return
KEVIN Rowland has had some fantastic five-star reviews for the first Dexys album in 27 years but, being in legend one of music’s grouchiest characters, he’s not altogether happy with them. This explains why, for our café rendezvous in London’s Shoreditch, he’s brought along back-up in the considerable form of Big Jim Paterson, his towering trumpeter from Portsoy, Aberdeenshire.
“There’s been too much written about me,” he says, “because this is a band album. I couldn’t have done it, got it this good, without guys like Jim.” Paterson blushes; he’s unused to the spotlight. But if he’s a reluctant co-spokesman he’s thrilled that his boss suppressed his demons sufficiently to muster the troops for One Day I’m Going To Soar. “I’d retired,” says Paterson. “I was hoping we might get back together one day but I wasn’t holding my breath. The trombone had been up in the loft, used as a nest by a family of pigeons.”
Ensemble effort this may be, but Dexys, from the Midnight Runners days onwards, have always been Rowland’s group, and lyrically One Day sounds very much like the concerns of a 58-year-old man, no longer a young soul rebel but still trying to act like one. The album is hilarious when he plays the old roué, but also heartbreaking, such as when he sings: “I now know no romantic situation, no money, success, nothing/Can make me happy.” So is this autobiographical? “Nah,” he snorts. “It’s character, drama.”
Always one for a fashion statement, he’s Mr American Retro Quaysider today, topped off with a Gene Kelly bunnet. He asks to change seats so he can look out into the caff, and his attention is often drawn to a pretty girl. At one point he leaps up, but it’s a pair of baggy breeks he’s coveting, and their wearer (male) is thrilled to be passing on a style tip.
Dexys never ever lacked drama. Before and during the band’s early days, Rowalnd – their Wolverhampton-born leader of Irish stock – was arrested 13 times. He beat up journalists and instead of interviews would pronounce in official statements. They stole their own master tapes and fare-dodged, even on the train to Top of the Pops (where, for a performance of Jackie Wilson Said, Jocky Wilson’s face was famously blown up large).
Rowland confessed to nicking ideas for the Too-Rye-Ay album and what became its overbearing hit Come On Eileen from an ex-bandmate. And they dressed like navvies, yuppies and raggle-taggle gypsies, until finally Rowland, in dress and suspenders, sang Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love Of All at the Reading Festival and was bottled off stage. There seemed to be no comeback from that.
Rowland sighs. “I’m afraid the Dexys myths, fun though they were, got in the way of the music. A quarter of a century on I can’t escape them.” He’s hoping Paterson will do some debunking. “Jim, you never went jogging with us, did you?” he asks, referring to the band’s notorious fitness regimes. “Dodgy knee,” says Paterson, who didn’t adhere to the no-booze-before-shows rule either.
Was Rowland the dictator that he was always painted to be? Rowland may not have found love but he has discovered democracy, and for the first time asked the band to help choose the songs. “I even e-mailed them to friends outwith the business.” But the control freak question really has to be answered by Big Jim.
“Well, every band needs a leader and I always trusted Kevin,” confirms Paterson.
Rowland again: “I never hit you, did I Jim?”
“Actually you did once.” Did Big Jim have to fall into line at Reading and wear a frock?
“I didn’t play that show but, no, I widna have done that,” he adds, his Doric burr undimmed by three decades in the south.
Paterson was working in a porridge factory in 1978 when he spied the Melody Maker small ad for a “new wave soul band” which would change his life. “I only phoned the number because I’d had a few pints. Sober, I wouldn’t have had the courage. I travelled down to Wolverhampton on the overnight train, met the guys in a freezing cold garage and was just blown away by their sound – it was awe-inspiring. I remember thinking how devastated I would have been if I’d failed the audition.”
Rowland says: “There was never any danger of that.” The signing even made the Banffshire Journal.
“The headline was, ‘Loon joins punk band,” laughs Paterson.
Rowland’s biggest drama came after the failure of the Don’t Stand Me Down album – now regarded as a classic although at the time it confused everyone – when he sank into depression and drug addiction. But did one of the biggest stars of the 1980s really become a vagrant?
“Not quite. I lost my flat in West Hampstead and ended up squatting in Willesden. I was never homeless but I was bankrupt, on the dole and a cocaine addict. I wasn’t begging for food but I was a hanger-on, poncing about and asking people for coke. Wasn’t that me, Jim?”
“I was going through a rough patch myself with the booze and we supported each other,” says Paterson. “And music was our salvation.” Some songs survived from that dark time 20 years ago and turn up on the new album which, in typically challenging Rowland style, Dexys have been performing in full before its release – to standing ovations.
Trombone dusted down, Paterson is loving being back in the old routine. “It’s made me feel 30 years younger, even though I might look 70,” he says. “And I enjoy the gigs more now because the next day I can remember everything about them.”
Rowland admits the great comeback almost never happened. “For a long time I was worried I’d muck it up. Everyone asks ‘Why now?’ and I’m afraid the only answer I have is a corny one: the stars just seem to have aligned for us.”
• One Day I’m Going To Soar is out on Monday on BMG. Dexys play the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on 18 September.