I’ve always had so many questions about this band’s name. Who or what is Dexy? Does he/she/they/it join in the running or do they just oversee the runners? Why do they run at midnight? Why don’t they have an apostrophe?
Having done some research, I now know that the truth. ‘Dexy’ is not a person but a chemical stimulant – Dexedrine - which was doing the rounds on Northern Soul dancefloors when the group got together. Dexedrine gave those taking it huge amounts of energy and so the ‘midnight runners’ bit of the name came from the ability to dance all night. Not quite as romantic as my vision of dedicated night time joggers and no word on the missing punctuation, either.
Originally from Birmingham, Dexys Midnight Runners came from the bones of The Killjoys: an earlier, one record (Johnny Won’t Get to Heaven) band which featured vocalist Kevin Rowland. When The Killjoys broke up in 1978 Rowland, and fellow member Kevin ‘Al’ Archer reformed as Dexys, drafting in six other musicians to complete their line-up.
Rowland, Archer, ‘Big’ Jim Paterson on the trombone, Geoff ‘JB’ Blythe on the saxophone, John Jay (drums), Steve ‘Babyface’ Spooner (alto sax), Pete Williams (bass) and Pete Saunders on keyboard began playing to live audiences in 1978. The following year saw Jay being replaced by Bobby ‘Jnr’ Ward as well as Dexys signing up with Clash manager Bernard Rhodes.
Under Rhodes’s supervision they went into the studio to record their first song, Dance Stance and went on to open for ska band The Specials. Influenced by the sharp suits worn by the latter, Rowland created a look for Dexys which was described as ‘straight out of De Niro’s Mean Streets’. The outfits consisted of woolly hats and either donkey jackets or leather coats. You say Mean Streets, I say bin men.
Rhodes put Dance Stance out on his own indie record label, Oddball Records and it was named ‘Single of the Week’ by Sounds magazine. It only reached number 40 in the UK charts, however and this was put down to poor production. Rhodes was dismissed and Dexys signed with EMI, who had distributed Dance Stance for Oddball and who assigned Pete Wingfield to producing all future songs. (Wingfield also produced The Proclaimers hit ‘I’m Gonna Be [500 Miles]’.)
Pete Saunders and Bobby Ward also left the band around this time and were replaced with Andy Leek and Andy ‘Stoker’ Growcott.
Dexys’ next single, Geno (about U.S. R&B singer Geno Washington, whose Ram Jam Band had also included Geoff Blythe) was the group’s first hit. It got to number one in the UK in 1980 but the success of this led to newbie Leek realising he wasn’t cut out for fame and resigning from the band. Pete Saunders was drafted back in to help the band out while they recorded their first album but was then replaced by Mick Talbot.
Searching for the Young Soul Rebels was released in July 1980. According to Rowland the name didn’t mean anything in particular, he just ‘liked the sound of it’. It wasn’t a hit with many music critics and this led to Roland telling the band that they weren’t allowed to speak to journalists. He put out advertisements in the music press if they wanted to make public statements.
The next single, There, There My Dear also made the top 10 but the third, Keep It Part Two failed to chart. This, plus the tension caused by the press embargo, led to disagreements within the band and the majority of the musicians left. Only Rowland and Paterson remained.
Writing new songs, the second, smaller, generation of Dexys Midnight Runners moved on. They brought in Kevin ‘Billy’ Adams (guitar and banjo), Seb Shelton (drums), Mickey Billingham (keyboard), Brian Maurice (alto sax), Paul Speare (tenor sax) and Steve Wynne (bass). The new line up brought with it a new image: boxing boots, hooded tops and pony tails. Mmmm.
Things still didn’t run smoothly, however. Contractual issues with EMI led to the next single, Plan B, being released without promotion in 1981 and, consequently, being unsuccessful. After this, Dexys were left without a record label and had to cancel their planned spring tour; they did, however, play five live dates, with one being recorded by BBC Radio 1.
In July of ’81 they were signed by Mercury Records. Their first release under that label was Show Me, which reached number 16 in the UK in the same month. Bass player Wynne was then let go and replaced by Giorgio Kilkenny (his real name was Mick Gallick but Rowland gave him the Kilkenny stage name). The band introduced a new string and horn sound for new single Liars A to E in October and the next month played The Old Vic, London, for three nights. These were extremely well received by the press.
Dexys started to plan their first Mercury supported album. They brought in Helen Bevington, a music student who played the violin (Rowland again renamed her as Helen O’Hara), who brought with her violinists Steve Shaw (renamed to Brennan) and Roger Huckle (McDuff). Feeling that they were being squeezed out of the group, Paterson and Maurice quit (although Rowland persuaded them to stay for the recording of the album) and Speare left shortly after that.
Album Too-Rye-Ay was released in 1982, a mix of Celtic folk (hence all the Irish sounding name changes) and soul and in keeping, the band underwent a change of identity again. Dungarees, leather waistcoats, hats and scarves were adorned: the look that most people now identify with Dexys Midnight Runners. Too-Rye-Ay went platinum in the UK.
First single, The Celtic Soul Brothers only reached number 45 but it was the second, Come on Eileen, that the band remain famous for. It hit number one here in 1982 and was their first song to be released in the U.S. It also got covered by 4-4-2 and renamed as Come On England during the England football team’s usual disappointing performance in the 2004 Euros.
Jackie Wilson Said, their third release from Too-Rye-Ay and cover of a Van Morrison song, went down in comedy legend when they performed on Top of the Pops in 1983. Whoever was responsible for stage preparation was obviously having an off day as, instead of a picture of the American soul singer Jackie Wilson, hanging proudly behind the band was a large photo of Scottish darts whizz, Jocky Wilson.
Dexys never had a straight-forward run; there continued to be complicated line-up changes and internal conflict within the band but their latest reincarnation is still around today. A third album, Don’t Stand Me Down, followed in 1985, reaching number 22 in the UK. The fourth, One Day I’m Going to Soar, came much later, in 2012 and by then the Midnight Runners had been dropped and the band reinvented as, simply, Dexys.
In 2016 Let the Record Show: Dexy’s Do Irish and Country Soul (I do love a name that tells you exactly what you’re getting) got to number 10 in the UK. The band remains with Warner Music.