Craig Austin reviews Dexys: Nowhere is Home, a documentary about the eponymous band’s residency at the Duke of York Theatre.
‘Compromise is the devil talking’
The pathway of pop has always been littered with the remnants of compromise. In this, the music industry can conceivably claim to rival even the perpetually prostituted world of politics. Whether it is a dejected Graham Coxon at the wheel of a wayward milk float in the inane Benny Hill-aping ‘Country House’ video or Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson gormlessly gurning his way through the desolate self-denigrating void of Graham Norton ignominy, the process rarely deviates from its well-rehearsed script; its primary protagonists gratefully complicit in the exchange of their hitherto unencumbered artistic vision for a handful of capitalism’s magic beans. A perpetual parade of dead-eyed marionettes cavorting to the Faustian tune of their corporate paymasters and the ceaseless rhythm of their own cold-blooded ambition. A lumpen sloth of Russian bears compelled to dance upon the industry’s blistering hot plate until their collective spirit is ultimately broken, playing out the predetermined rules of the game. Hating themselves.
‘It’s an easy thing to be in a shit band,’ muses the splendidly unique Kevin Rowland, ‘there are plenty of them.’ It is the type of comment guaranteed to raise a knowing smile, yet, as the foundation of the unremittingly single-minded ‘new soul vision’ that Rowland has consistently seared into the hearts and minds of his numerous band-mates, it tells you everything you need to know about the ruthlessly defiant separatism that has both propelled and encumbered the singer in equal measures. ‘It meant everything to me,’ he ponders ruefully upon the ethos of Dexys (née Midnight Runners), ‘it probably meant too much, but there it is.’
As the leader of one of pop music’s most gloriously incongruous bands Rowland has consistently trodden the fine line between genius and dissident for almost thirty five years, his remarkable back-catalogue thrilling, confounding, and often alienating his audience in equal measures. That lyric about the devil talking? It’s his of course, and precedes the equally telling revelation ‘and he spoke to me’. Kevin Rowland may no longer be his own worst enemy, but he remains his own fiercest critic; a man in thrall to the ‘new’, his focus resolutely ahead, the comfortable compromise of the cash-drenched retro circuit an anathema. Dexys Midnight Runners are dead. His band is called Dexys. They do not play ’80s revival festivals. You will not find them trotting out ‘Come on Eileen’ on Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway.
The singer’s assiduous quest to achieve artistic perfection is most recently captured in Heavenly Films’ latest production, Nowhere is Home, an inspirational and gorgeously empathetic document of the band’s remarkable nine-night residency at London’s historic Duke of York’s Theatre in the Spring of 2013. Ostensibly in support of the critically lauded One Day I’m Going to Soar album – the first new Dexys album in twenty seven-years – it exists as far away from the traditional concert film as you could possibly imagine. On the protracted gestation of the album itself, Rowland, interviewed onscreen alongside his long-time collaborator trombonist ‘Big’ Jim Paterson, is suitably strident in his rejection of the perception of ‘wasted time’, his refusal to deliver a sub-standard offering at the heart of this elongated adjournment: ‘I wasn’t just sat around flicking playing cards into a top hat, y’know.’
The film’s core essence is a truly theatrical one, the evolving dramatic narrative of the album layered lovingly upon an emotive and often painfully reflective chronicle of the band itself, the series of candid interviews with Rowland and Paterson seamlessly intercut with the up-close and emotionally expressive stagecraft of the most recent incarnation of their band. A line-up that at last feels utterly definitive. Its co-directors Paul Kelly and the recently BAFTA-ordained Welshman Kieran Evans (reunited for the first time since their acclaimed film Finisterre ten years ago) present the band’s artistic vision via a striking visual style. The total absence of audience shots drawing the eye towards camera-captured intricacies – possibly lost on even those fortunate enough to have witnessed these performances in the flesh; the raw emotion of the show’s primary players; the emotional investment of their craft; the borderline forensic attention to detail. Kelly and Evans succeed in projecting the sheer idiosyncratic beauty of Dexys, the unique nature of which remains a master-class in outsider art. When Rowland closes the show with the band’s finest song, the epic 12-minute long ‘This Is What She’s Like’ he reminds us all that only he could create a love song so utterly impeachable that it can accommodate a line about ‘how the English upper classes are thick and ignorant’ and still make it sound irrefutably tender.
‘Some people like to think of him as difficult,’ Kieran Evans reflects when we speak a few days after the film’s premiere at the National Film Theatre, ‘but to me he’s one of the most amazing artists I’ve ever met. Dexys is his life and he has such a focused vision about everything to do with the band. He lives and breathes it. Just to watch him prepare for the show each night was quite incredible. His attention to detail shines through at every turn, it’s quite amazing.’
Yet ironically, it would seem that the filming of the shows themselves was one of the few things that Kevin Rowland did not demand total control of: ‘He was very focused on the show’s presentation and how he performed on the night but when it came to the film itself he gave myself and Paul a completely free rein to present it how we thought it needed to be presented. He was incredibly encouraging.’ I put it to Evans that the decision to avoid direct shots of the audience could be perceived to be Rowland’s challenge to both him and Kelly to step into that space.
‘Yeah, that was very much it. In the first discussions with Kevin we talked about how our favourite concert films are the ones where you just see the band. When we talked to him about what we found inspiring we talked about (Talking Heads’) Stop Making Sense. I loved the way that that was how they chose to present themselves, to reveal themselves. What was particularly great for me about those Dexys shows was that you didn’t see many people raising up their iPhones to record it either. Which was a relief. There’s not a lot of footage on the internet as a consequence, and it helps with the impact of the film. We decided that we wanted to film it much like the National Theatre does. We dispensed with the obligatory shots of musicians, of drums, and made it all about Kevin and Madeleine’s performance.’
Madeleine Hyland, the band’s current co-vocalist and Rowland’s romantic foil throughout the narrative of the show, is a crucial component of both the album and film’s success and Evans found her presence, and her combination and interaction with Rowland particularly captivating: ‘When you see their performances up close it’s just so intense, they were truly living and breathing it, you couldn’t keep your eyes off it.’ Likewise there is a mid-song almost West Side Story-style nightclub fight scene that proves to be one of the highlights of the show.
Evans laughs, ‘Yeah! At first we thought that could easily look really corny but when you watch that through a camera lens and view the intensity of it you just think bloody hell! I’ve met a few people who’ve had altercations with Kevin and they’d be the first to say that he’s a tough lad, that guy. When you think about how he once stole the master-tapes of “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” from EMI it’s pretty clear he’s not someone you’d want to mess about. But what’s really fascinating is his ability to truly reflect upon some of that stuff, there’s a certain poignancy to it all. But what I was always taken with about the whole Dexys story was that here was a man who was so single-minded about what he wanted to achieve and that he would do anything to get it. Including beating up people from the record company!’
The interviews with Rowland and Paterson lasted for almost four hours in totality and were filmed at the Rivoli Ballroom in Brockley, South London. Evans explains that this was an attempt to maintain a consistent ‘music hall’ feel to the piece. It’s an effective tool, and one that works in perfect harmony with the stage-door depiction of Dexys fans in their varying degrees of peacock plumage. I ask whether this was a means of depicting the sense of outsider culture that the band tends to resonate.
‘It was a “Kevin” idea, and we really liked it. Even though we deliberately chose not to shoot the audience during the show itself we were so taken with the kind of people who were turning up, the kind of people who had really made a concerted effort to dress up. And that’s what Kevin was trying to get across. Like Kevin himself, a Dexys fan really makes an effort, and lives and breathes the Dexys vision. Some of those people we met were quite incredible people, they really looked the part.’
It is a connection that can be directly made with Manic Street Preachers, a band whom Evans’ collaborates with on a frequent basis, an equally driven collection of Celtic firebrands. ‘Yeah, that belief in a person, that belief in a band, that they will carry you through your most challenging moments. They both still hold true to the core beliefs that they held when they first started out as a band. They’ve both still got it and they haven’t shirked from those responsibilities. It’s something that holds true within each band’s fan-base and it’s why they both remain so dedicated.’
The choice of the film’s set-list remains equally rooted in the pursuit of purity, the refusal to become a ‘heritage act’. Evans explains, ‘We were talking about the choice of tracks and we deliberately looked to keep a couple of songs out, the likes of “Geno” for instance, because we wanted to present he band in a way that musically fitted with One Day I’m Gong to Soar and the themes that he was touching on within that album. We made song decisions based not on what had been a hit, but what would work thematically, as part of a body of work. It was difficult shooing some nights just to keep it together. Some of those songs are just so fucking brilliant that you just have to hold tight.
‘It’s hard y’know. When we were listening back to the mixes and you listened to some of those lines and heard some of the enunciation it made you realize quite how razor-sharp they are. Just totally cutting. He keeps his working class values really close to his heart, they’re precious to him and I love it when that comes out in the music. “This Is What She’s Like” is such a brave song to make and it really resonates with me. Nobody was doing anything like it at the time, it’s like some kind of rock and soul opera and then you listen to the kind of things that people like Elbow do now – the lush strings the orchestration, that heavy beat – and you realise that it was Dexys who set the template for all of that. The sound of the records, the sound of the performances are so strong, it’s pristine.’
As a fellow Celt, not least one of equal parts Welsh and Irish blood, I wonder if that link to the filmmaker’s heritage appeals from both an artistic and personal perspective. ‘Yes, definitely, Kevin’s got Irish parentage, as have I. And we spoke a lot about my Welsh parentage, something that has formed my general outlook on life. Kieran Evans – the clue’s in the name. It’s the same thing I love about collaborating with Paul Kelly too. We share that same Celtic firebrand gene. When we’re working together we instinctively know what the other one’s doing. And you can only get that from a shared worldview, a shared opinion, one informed by our Celtic tiger-ness!’
‘I was a no-hoper,’ Kevin Rowland somberly asserts during the opening scenes of Nowhere is Home, ‘prison was a real possibility for me. And when this opportunity presented itself, I wasn’t going to screw it up.’ ‘I’ve bled for Dexys,’ he adds, someway towards the end of the film, ‘quite a few times.’ And at that, a forty-something man sat near to me at the film’s premiere, immediately gets out of his seat to applaud. He stands alone for what seems like an age, fresh tears tumbling down his cheeks, a big fat smile smeared across his face. This is precisely the kind of visceral effect that Kevin Rowland can have upon a certain section of his fellow men. That deadbeat no-hoper? This is what he has created. This is what he’s like.
Illustration by Dean Lewis