The New Cue #67 September 20: Kevin Rowland
20 September, 2021
We are happy to have you join us at the dawn of this beautiful September week for the first-part of a special audience with Kevin Rowland of Dexys.
Two weeks ago, Dexys announced to everyone’s great surprise that they’d be performing a full UK tour in September 2022 and that they’d be “reworking their classic album Too Rye Ay as it could have sounded” to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the original album. The album is to be remixed by Rowland, producer Pete Schwier and original violinist Helen O’Hara. Kevin and Helen will join original trombonist Jim Paterson and Sean Read, amongst others, on tour. We were very excited about this. Quite shocked, too: when Ted interviewed Kevin Rowland in 2020 he told him he’d retired from music.
So Ted put on his shoes and strode across East London on the last hot day of the summer, rang the buzzer to Kevin’s flat, climbed aboard the lift and then sat on his balcony gazing upon the marshes, while sipping a glass of cool water as Kevin laid it all out for us. Kevin Rowland is on magnificent form, for the record, as positive about music as we can recall. He was wearing green trousers, a red shirt and looked as sharp as a dandy’s razor.
Part one is today. Part two arrives on Wednesday, but you have to be a subscriber to receive that. A fiver a month and you get two editions a week just for you. Click the button below if so inclined.
Enjoy the edition. If you’d like to listen to some of Kevin Rowland’s music as you read, we’ve made a career-wide playlist for you.
Ted, Niall and Chris
Start The Week With…Kevin Rowland
How are you doing Kevin?
I’m feeling great, man. Feeling really good.
When I interviewed you for Q around 2020’s My Beauty reissue, you said you’d retired from performing and recording. You had some other things you wanted to pursue. What changed your mind?
When was that? February, March 2020?
I had the idea later last year. I was out walking around here. I was thinking that it was coming up to the 40th anniversary of Too Rye Ay, which means nothing to me. But I thought that if we were to go to the label and say ‘for the 40th could we remix it and reissue it?’ that might be interesting. I mentioned it to Tim [Vigon], my manager. He thought they’d go for it. And there was interest from the label, he was right. So the more I thought about it the more I considered I’d actually do shows, too. If we can do this remix, then I’d be up for doing shows. And that’s how it happened.
It’s quite a change of mindset, from no more performance, no more new music – retirement - to a full tour around a remixed reissue.
I just saw it as helping this album, rather than a new thing. To help this along. Because it’s always bugged me that Too Rye Ay didn’t sound right. Always. All the others, when I left the studio I thought that’s as good as we can get it. This one I didn’t. I went to the label at the time and said can we have some more money to mix it, it doesn’t sound right? They said no. So, I just thought it was something I could do between other things, you know? Once you get into something then they take on a life of their own, you become more committed, but that’s how it started. Having said that, what’s happened now, over the last few months… I was with my manager Tim and said, you know what? I quite want to do some music too now.
Yeah. I’ve been writing a bit. Digging out some old things that I wrote ages ago that just needed me to look at again, maybe tweak. And writing some new ones, too.
That will come after Too Ry Ay?
That’s the plan.
That’s fantastic news. Let’s come back to your new stuff later. First, let’s talk Too Rye Ay. How’s the new version going to differ from the original, a record beloved by many?
Sure. Look, it’s not going to be that different. It’s not as if we’re going to put Syndrums all over it or whatever. What I feel is that the performances were all there. The songs were definitely all there. In the studio, it was there. We played well. It was just in the mix, it wasn’t right. It’s so easy to fuck things up in the mix. Really is. I always used to dread it when you’d be recording the track and it’s sounding great. Then they’d say, ‘right let’s mix it’, and they’d pull all the faders down. It sounded so much better before! Used to drive me mad…sorry, what was the question?!
How will the new version of Too Rye Ay differ?
It’ll be more pure. It won’t be radically different but it’ll have a better effect on people when they hear it. They’ll feel it more. It’ll be as it was meant to be. It was a bit compressed. The dynamics didn’t come out enough. It didn’t breath enough. Hopefully it’ll be clearer, louder and not compressed to fuck.
Are you over-dubbing anything or re-recording?
No. We thought about it. There are couple of vocal bits I don’t like anymore, but then I thought we should leave it because it’s a historical thing. It would be wrong. It becomes something else entirely and where do you end with that? And the recording was great. Look, I love [producers] Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. At the same time, they were very much from a pop mindset. When we finished recording and were going to put the tracks in sequence, Clive said ‘put your best three songs first’. I thought, no. I thought they were all good. And we wanted an album that flows. So that’s how they were thinking. It’s just different. It was the era of Radio 1, you know?
And it worked. It was a massive hit album.
Eileen is good. Come On Eileen is really good. It’s great, no doubt about it. It’s one of the closest ones. All In All, too. Jackie Wilson’s good on the album, the single version is dodgy. But some of the others, like Old could’ve been a lot better. Celtic Soul Brothers could’ve been better…
Old’s one of my favourites on the album.
No, it’s a really good track man. It’s a really good song. A great performance. It’s just not there in the sound. And this is not just me being pedantic. Every other album I’ve left the studio thinking that’s as good as we can do, which is all you can ask for. I didn’t have that with Too Rye Ay. I just knew. I didn’t feel good about it.
You’ve got Helen O’Hara back to tour it, too. How does that feel? Too Rye Ay was her first ever recording.
She was new then, but she was a big part of it. It was great because there was a lot of tension in the group, some were leaving. She came in and she was fresh. It’s been great working with her again but we’re still in the early stages, you know? Pete Schwier has been working on the recordings, he’s got them to a place that he feels is really good and now Helen and I are looking at them going ‘OK, what do you think about that? Should we try this…?’
So it’s a work in progress?
Yeah, I mean Pete Schwier’s been working on it for about six weeks. That’s what he’s like, he’s methodical and quite slow. He’s used to it because he did those Elvis albums where they put orchestras on them. I’m not sure how I feel about them, but he did those so he’s used to working with old tapes.
What can we expect from the gigs? I love the imagery on the posters, the colours and clothes.
Do you? Great, great. Thank you. We put so much effort into them. Oh man, for months we’ve been talking about the photos, looking at the shapes, the colours, working with the photographer Sandra [Vijandi]. Really happy with it. We’ve got some more to come in that line, another five or six shots like that.
Where did the idea come from?
I was wondering whether to tell you. It was inspired by the inner sleeve of the second Roxy Music album, For Your Pleasure. It’s gatefold, you open it up and it’s Ferry, Mackay, Eno, the drummer [Paul Thompson], Manzanera and they’re standing in poses with guitars. You know it! That was the original inspiration, but it’s come a long way since then. It would be wrong to say it’s a copy. No way. But that was the original idea of motion and to have our instruments with us.
And the clothes, too, the look has moved on from the last Dexys, no?
Well, the skirt I actually designed in the ‘90s. Around My Beauty time I was wearing those because it has a zip, you can easily have a pee. Around two, three years ago I decided to start wearing them again, so I got a few made. I just thought I’d wear that. The colour-scheme I tried a few different colours, got a friend round to shoot a few and decided on that scheme. There’s two or three looks that we shot as well. I had a bit of red, bit of green – I like those colours. We had a WhatsApp with Sandra, all of us discussing it, Jim and Helen. That’s how we did it. The alternative is just turn up in your clothes that you’re wearing, hope for the best. That’s never been my thing.
What do you think about the original look for Too Rye Ay now?
I think it looks a bit naff. Yeah. It looked good at the time, you have to look at what was going on in the background.
It was on its own in that era.
Definitely. There was nothing like it. Now, isolated from the time, it doesn’t look great for me. But what look does look great? Thirties, ‘40s, 50s looks are great still, some ‘60s. Such a golden period. But, yeah, if you see that Too Rye Ay look against the contemporary background of the time, it looked fresh. I was into it then.
It was a big change from the previous look too.
Yeah. A statement. We were very aware of all that. We’d been talking about it a lot. We almost got as far as Bill wearing a hankie on his head, with the four corners tied up. He wasn’t up for it. Hahaha!
Would you have worn a hankie on your head?
Probably not, probably not. No, but I’d get someone else to. It’s like on Don’t Stand Me Down when I got Bill to say “you weren’t all talking about me, were you?” That’s actually how I think, but I wasn’t going to say that publicly so I gave that line to Bill. Ha!
Jim Paterson [trombone] wrote some of the songs on Too Rye Ay with you, and he played on the album, but he never toured it with you because he’d left the band. Does having him back for this tour provide some closure for you both?
Erm, I don’t know. Not really. I don’t think so. But it wouldn’t be right without Jim, you know. It’s not Dexys without Jim.
Did you feel like that then?
Yeah. Yeah. I did. It was horrible not having Jim around. We had session players basically and they had a session player attitude. And because there were a few of them, the brass section, they kind of dominated – maybe not dominated, but they had a big presence. They had too much influence and that made me want to get away from them.
Jim’s kind of the soul of the band, isn’t he? So it must have been a bit empty without him.
Definitely. He’s even a focal point. Fans love him, always. I remember when we were getting a keyboard player in the early days, Andy Leek, and we’d been doing gigs so Andy came along to see if he liked us. Afterwards I was talking to him and he said, ‘One thing, I think Jim is more of a focal point than you are.’ I was, like, ‘Really? Fucking hell. I better work harder.’ But he is. He’s very charismatic on stage, isn’t he?
He’s still a focal point.
Yeah. But it’s more than that. We spent a long time working on those songs. It means so much to Jim.
What was the schism with Jim like at the time?
I’ll tell you the background. We were broke. There was eight in the band and we were trying to bring string players in as well. We were trying hard to keep everyone together. Not everybody was being paid regularly. The record company looked like they might drop us. The manager was sick of it, he’d been putting his own money in. It was the day that we showed the band Come On Eileen that Jim left. The first draft of it, which was quite different to how it ended up, but we took it to them. The breakdown bit of it, where it goes [sings]“Come On Eileen, too rye ay…”I didn’t have the words at that point so I got some of the guys to sing the tune. The sax player Brian was singing it…and there was a lot of tension. I always felt nervous showing songs to the band. It was really hard. What if they said it was shit? Usual thing. Anyway, he was just being a bit off. He wasn’t into it, I could tell. He had an attitude. He was singing it differently and I said, ‘No, it’s not that.’ He went, ‘I know what it is, but I don’t like it!’ Geordie guy. I just snapped. I shouldn’t have done, but I said to him, ‘If you don’t like it, fuck off!’
Very. Jim said, ‘You can’t talk to him like that. If he’s going, then I’m going.’ And he walked out, just like that. Obviously, there must have been more to it. But that was that.
He just left the band on the spot?
Yeah. He came back and did a Radio 1 show up in Newcastle in ’82. The manager Paul convinced him to do it and Jim said to me, ‘I’m doing this for Paul.’ Oh, alright. You’ll have to talk to Jim about it but he says it’s partly because I was bringing strings in, but the brass was still figuring big. Will you talk to him?
Perhaps as we approach the reissue and tour I can interview both Jim and Helen about Too Rye Ay?
Great idea. I’d be interested to hear what Jim says, actually, because I don’t know what was happening at the time.
[Check out the Radio 1 broadcast of that Newcastle gig. Has a band in turmoil ever sounded more cohesive?:]
Did the success subsequently feel a bit hollow without Jim?
Definitely. Without him, and knowing the sound of the album wasn’t right. Definitely.
Were you able to enjoy the success?
Well, I did. I did. Definitely in the early stages, when Eileen was number one. I was thinking, ‘Fuck, this is great!’ We did some shows late summer which were mad because we had much more of a pop audience. We had fans grabbing us, that kind of thing. It was fun, you know? I quite liked it. I didn’t want Jackie Wilson Said as the second single. In fact, the record label wanted it as the first single. It was only the record plugger who rescued us. A guy called Brad Mizell, who I thank on a regular basis. The A&R guy Roger Ames and I were arguing about it…not arguing. Debating. He said, ‘I’ll go get Brad and Brad will decide’. I thought, well, Brad’s his mate. He’d bound to choose Jackie Wilson Said. But he didn’t.
Yeah. I mean, who knows? Maybe it would’ve been even more successful if Eileen had been the second single? But it wasn’t. It did OK. Anyway, around then I ran into Kid Jenson, the Radio 1 DJ, at Top of the Pops. He’d been playing All In All (This One Last Wild Waltz) on the radio. He said, ‘I think this would be great for the next single.’ I was, ‘Fucking great.’ It was right. I said to Roger, ‘Jenson’s playing All In All. He wants to champion it.’ Roger said, ‘No, that will be the one after. We’re doing Jackie Wilson next’. Someone came up with the stupid idea that because Eileen was string-driven and Jackie Wilson was brass-driven we should overdub the brass with fiddles. That’s the single version. Just didn’t work. And it was the follow-up to the biggest single of the year. A cover, when we had other good stuff on the album.
When I look back now, it’s mad. But the manager also thought it was good idea.
Jackie Wilson Said works really well in the flow of Too Rye Ay.
More? Better than as a stand-alone?
I think so.
I agree. It’s history now, though.
But you are trying to tweak that history.
Well, we are. We are. That’s what we’re doing. We’re re-writing history. I feel like I’m righting a wrong. That’s why I’m so into it. I feel blessed to have this opportunity.
*In Wednesday’s subscriber edition, Kevin reveals more about the Dexys shows planned for 2022, the album that they’re working on now and the secret meaning behind one of Too Rye Ay’s most personal songs. To read that, subscribe below: