Saturday, 23 April 2011

Dexys Midnight Runners - Let's Get This Straight From The Start (1982/ No. 17/ 9 weeks/ Mercury)

Rat-a-tat-tat! goes the intro, a drum roll. This has always reminded me of the opening credits of Play School, a 1970s programme for pre-school children, a place of calm and safety; "Here's a house (rat-a-tat-tat!) - Open the door!"

There's an odd paradox to the raggle-taggle gypsies middle period of Dexys Midnight Runners. The music is so jovial and fun, but the impulses that lie behind Kevin Rowland's lyrics and singing - and the sense that this is something that he has to put himself through - are profoundly troubled and anxious (the fierce-looking Kevin Rowland looked a bit scary to me as a seven-year old boy). Its the combination of these two factors that make this music so compelling and fascinating.

The music itself isn't something that you register as being rock and roll - You have to be listening to this very carefully to pick out a guitar. In being based around fiddles and pianos you'd be better off calling it rattle and shake. Its also really complex in its melody and tempo, as anybody who has ever attempted dancing to 'Come On Eileen' at a wedding will testify; Hang on, what's going on here? It's changed again! What bit should I move in time to? The challenges that this presents to the dancer means that you always end up extemporising your moves, part of what makes that song so exhilarating and pleasurable to dance to. (Another brilliant thing about that song is that its quaint novelty reputation masks its acutely accurate portrayal of desperate, long-endured lust - "COME ON!")

'Lets Get This Straight From The Start' is cut from the same cloth as Eileen - soaring fiddles, a call-and response structure, Rowland's voice lurching between growl to yelp to falsetto. I couldn't tell you with confidence what he's singing about though. A pop-savvy listener might be initially primed to think of it as being a song dismissing a love rival;

What's that!? What's that!? on the start?
Let's get this straight from the start!
Who's that!? Who's that!? What's his part?
Tell him come back tomorrow and start!

Rowland tellin' the woman to establish how things are between them straight from the start, but the rest of the song doesn't particularly support this reading. Whatever demons and challenges Rowland is facing, they sound oddly personal and uniquely specific to his own experience in this song;

This is somethin' I don't even understand..
Owh! (These people round here have -)
Their own way of thinkin'!
Some of them get an-gry with the things I've heard!
(Watch what you're saying...)
That's NOT what I'm thinkin'!

The call and response vocals are crucial to the effect of this song, sometimes supporting Rowland's view of the world, sometimes acting as wise counsel ("Watch what you're saying..."). He's calling out for two contradictory things in this song; commanding us to get things straight from the start demanding commitment and respect, put also pleading for forgiveness, understanding and atonement;

(You keep saying - )
(You keep saying - )
Go on - TELL ME what I said!
I KNOW what I said! - I said! -
Pardon me! OOH!
Pardon me! OOH!
Pardon me! PLEASE!
Pardon me...
Suggest you come round here singin' -
Let's get this straight from the start!

For what its worth, I think that this is a song about leading a band, the impossibility of both holding an intense personal vision, while trying to realise it through a group of musicians - friends, rivals, and girlfriend - while trying not to become a despot. A song about being Kevin Rowland in 1982, in fact.

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