Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Commonly viewed as one of the best one-hit wonders of the 80’s, Dexys Midnight Runners were actually one of the most important bands in the UK at the start of the decade. While they achieved early success in their home market, the band struggled keeping a steady lineup, constantly shifting their members, sound and even their look. But in 1982, Dexys Midnight Runners diverse sonic explorations had come together to create a sound unlike any of their peers – a fusion of Soul and celtic folk, with a punk attitude. Their massive hit “Come on Eileen” catapulted them into international success, even knocking Michael Jackson from his steady perch at the top of the charts in 1983. “Come on Eileen” challenged every expectation for a number one hit, containing three key changes, hidden meters and drastic tempo changes (not to mention a celtic fiddle introduction and an acapella folk song ending), and in doing so, created a brilliant track of infectious hooks and dynamic motion.
Dexys Midnight Runners was founded in 1978 in Birmingham England by Kevin Rowland and Kevin “Al” Archer after the breakup of their punk band – The Killjoys. Moving away from punk, the pair began immersing themselves in vintage Soul music and were heavily influenced by a movement in northern England called Northern Soul. This movement emerged out of Mod culture, as referenced in the band’s name (“dexys” refers to Dexedrine – a drug favored by Northern Soul fans for its ability to keep them energized and dancing all night). Like its Mod roots, Northern Soul expressed a fascination with Motown and American Black popular music, especially from the mid-sixties.
This is reflected in the band’s first hit, “Geno,” an homage to an American Soul musician – Geno Washington – who was stationed in England with the US Airforce in the early sixties. “Geno” was the band’s first #1 single in the UK, released 4 months before the band’s debut album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels (1980). The album was also successful in the UK, peaking at number four. However, it wasn’t until 1982, with “Come on Eileen,” that the band was able to break into the American market,
“Come on Eileen” and the band’s second album, Too-Rye-Ay (1982), marks a drastic shift in Dexys Midnight Runners’ sound and style. This was largely led by the leadership of Kevin Rowland, who was the band’s primary songwriter. Rowland grew up in Wednesdfield, Wolverhampton England to Irish Catholic parents, spending ages 1-4 in Ireland before returning to England again for the rest of his upbringing. Rowland credits his Irish Catholic childhood having influenced much of his songwriting and artistic expression: “I was always trying to get a bit of Irish into our music. My parents were Irish and the Troubles were still going on in Northern Ireland when we were writing the song. In ’81, you couldn’t really talk to people about what was happening in Belfast. A lot of English people didn’t want to know, so I snuck in some Irish flavor.”
The Irish influence can be found as early as the band’s first single, “Dance Stance,” which criticizes anti-Irish bias by referencing great literary figures (Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien, Laurence Sterne, Sean O’Casey and Brendan Behan) from the country’s history. Their debut album even showcased a photo of a young Catholic boy in Belfast. The boy is pictured carrying all of his possessions during the social and political unrest in Northern Ireland of the time. Rowland explained: “I wanted a picture of unrest. It could have been from anywhere but I was secretly glad that it was from Ireland.”
With “Come on Eileen” and the rest of the band’s second album, Rowland took this Irish influence even further, blending Celtic strings and themes, with Soul’s smoothness and brass. The first single to be released from this second album was called “The Celtic Soul Brothers,” referring to Rowland’s Irish background and the Scottish heritage of the band’s trombone player, “Big Jim” Patterson. The band even changed its look to match the new sound. The ear-rings, coalman’s jerkins, feathered berets and scarves of the band’s first years were exchanged for denim overalls and peasant skirts and shawls.
The album’s title Too-Rye-Ay draws its name from a common Irish lyric. Rowland said he remembered hearing the line growing up: “‘Too-ra-loo-rye-ay’ that I sing throughout is just an Irish thing thrown in. I heard it growing up, when my parents had friends over to sing on Saturday nights after returning from the pub.” Most listeners were probably familiar with the phrase through a 1913 Tin pan alley song by Irish-American composer James Royce Shannon – Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby). The song was recorded by a wide range of performers across the 20th century including Bing Crosby (1944) and Van Morrison with the Band (1976). Besides the album’s title, the phrase also repeatedly appears in the lyrics for “Come On Eileen.”
More generally, the album changed the band’s sound by bringing in a Celtic-sounding string ensemble alongside the brass. “Come On Eileen” was released with several, slightly different edits but the original single, famously opens with Helen O’Hara’s violin line playing a traditional Irish melody, commonly known through Thomas Moore’s song “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.” Further clarifying the reference, Rowland sings Moore’s lyrics and the melody as a postlude to “Come On Eileen.”
The main lyrics to “Come On Eileen” were also intended to make a point about young desire in conflict with Rowland’s Irish Catholic upbringing. Like any song that uses a direct name, fans have tried to figure out whether there really was an Eileen. Rowland’s interviews over the years have given conflicting responses. More recently, he explained that the song imagines the figure of Eileen as a composite of many of his past experiences:
“For years I told everyone that Eileen was my childhood girlfriend. In fact she was composite, to make a point about Catholic repression. On the Projected Passion Revue tour in 81 there was this girl interviewing us and she was going on about the spiritual nature of this music and I’m thinking to myself: “Right, but that’s not what I’m feeling at this moment …” She was really good looking, and I was reminded of being a teenager, surrounded by Irish Catholic girls you couldn’t touch, but at the same time with these overpowering feelings of lust which you’re not supposed to have.”
“Come On Eileen” developed out a different song that the band had been performing in their live shows called “Yes, Lets.” Rowland credits it as a “rough draft” of “Come On Eileen.” To rework the track, the band first focused on the rhythm, taking their inspiration from Unit 4+2’s “Concrete and Clay” and Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual.” Both songs have a similar underlying pulse, which they incorporated into “Come on Eileen” They also pulled some of the lyrics (but changed the melody) from “Yes, Let’s,” including the opening line of the verse (“Poor Johnny Ray sounded so sad upon the radio”). For the song’s new chorus, they first wrote the lyrics as: “James, Stan and me / have this arrangement, you see / And they’re gonna help me / up from now.” However, these lyrics didn’t last long. After hearing his sister singing along to Squeeze’s “Labelled with Love” while she was washing dishes in the kitchen, Rowland misheard the lyrics “I, me and myself” as “Eileen and Myself.” Inspired, he began singing “Come on Eileen” instead of “James Stan and Me” as a temporary, filler lyric for the chorus. The band soon realized the line was a strong hook and reworked all of the lyrics and the song’s title to center around it.
While “Come on Eileen” cleverly weaves diverse influences, it is also quite remarkable for the way it brings together different tempi, keys and individual sounding sections. The song begins with the strings playing the tune to “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” in a Celtic-folk style. Then suddenly it breaks into a strong pulse and infectious groove in F major. The groove then pivots to C major for the verse and again to D major for the chorus (repeating these modulations on the second verse and chorus). After the second chorus, it stays in D major, but it completely changes the song’s tempo, slowly accelerating over a march-like feel.
Rhythmically, the band sneaks in several other interesting elements, including a bar of 2/4 right at the key change between verse and chorus, as well as two bars of a stripped down pulse at the end of the first chorus. The song is constantly changing and shifting – keeping listeners on their toes. It finally ends with Rowland’s a capella voice, singing Moore’s “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.
The sound that came together for “Come On, Eileen” was completely different from anything else at the time – in part due to the band’s completely unique instrumentation. While founding member Kevin Archer had quit the band after their first album, Rowland credits him with inspiring the new sound. Archer’s new band, The Blue Ox Babes, recorded their first tracks with classical violinist Helen Bevington. When Rowland heard them, he wanted to incorporate some of what they were doing into Dexys’ new album. He even recruited Bevington, giving her the stage name of Helen O’Hara.
They also brought in Steve Brennan on violin, and Kevin “Billy” Adams on banjo, in addition to guitar. Adam’s jangly banjo sound makes the whole track pop against the warmth of the band’s warm brass and Rowland’s creamy voice. The brass section was led by “Big Jim Paterson” on trombone, Brian Maurice on saxophone and Paul Speare on flute, saxophone and tin whistle. The song’s infectious groove was carried by Seb Shelton on drums, alongside Giorgio Kilkenny and Steve Wynne on bass. Further enriching the song’s sonic color, Mickey Billingham brings in organ, piano, and accordion. All of these individual talents are brought together in a deliciously eclectic mix of timbres and sounds across the song’s constantly changing structure.
“Come on Eileen” and the Too-rye-ay album was recorded at Genetic Studios in Streatley. The studio was still quite new, started in 1980 by Martin Rushent and Alan Winstanley (the latter of whom co-produced Dexy Midnight Runner’s Too-Rye-Ay album). Rushent and Winstantley had built Genetic Studios out of the barn in the back of Rushent’s home. The studio’s first big success was the Human League’s Dare album in 1981. After that – they upgraded the studio with a Solid State desk – which Dexys Midnight Runners would have used when they came in to record in early 1982.
The Too-Rye-Ay album was produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley who were quickly gaining a reputation as a production duo. Langer reflected: “People became aware of us as a team because of the first Madness album and we consolidated it quite quickly with lots of other things. But it wasn’t until we did the Dexy’s album Too‑Rye‑Ay that we started calling ourselves a partnership and telling record labels that we came as a package.”
“Come On Eileen” was released as a single on June 25, 1982, about a month before the Too-Rye-Ay album. The song topped the charts internationally, including the US, UK, Australia, Belgium, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and Switzerland. It hit number two in Canada and was in the top ten throughout Europe. It won the Best British Single award at the 1983 Brit Awards.
Dexys Midnight Runners had been popular and already achieved their first number one in the UK with “Geno”, but this was the track that broke them into the US Market, even knocking Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” from the number one spot. The song’s singular sound was all their own, and it took the US by storm. Its music video received constant airplay on MTV at its release, further showcasing the band to the US Market.
“Come On Eileen” was a massive hit in 1982, but the band did not survive the decade. They broke up in 1987 and did not record again until 2003. Despite the band’s early success in the UK, Dexys Midnight Runners is often viewed as a “one-hit-wonder” because “Come on Eileen” was the band’s only US success. However, the track was one of the decade’s biggest triumphs – a song which captivated audiences and fellow musicians. VH1 has since named it number one on their list of 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the 80s, and number eighteen on their list of 100 Greatest Songs of the 80s. In a poll for ITV, the British public voted “Come on Eileen” number 6 for their favorite 1980s number one song. In eschewing the synthesizer in favor of strings and brass, Dexy Midnight Runners separated their sound from the rest of their peers and created a hook-filled, pop classic which sounds as fresh today as it did in 1982.
Watch the video to learn more about Dexys Midnight Runners and their hit song “Come On Eileen”!