A huge in-depth interview with Dexys' frontman from 1999
Let’s Make This Precious.
With Dexys’ triumphant return to recording and performing in 2012, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on the life and times of Kevin Rowland and to revisit the one major interview he granted to promote his 1999 solo album My Beauty.
Like a full force gale Dexys arrived in 1979 with a nucleus of Rowland, trombonist Big Jim Patterson and guitarist Kevin “Al” Archer. Archer was renamed as Rowland would never allow more than one Kevin in the band. The same fate would later meet another of Rowland’s great foils, Kevin “Billy” Adams.
Dexys’ first impact was fierce, intense and brutally immediate. The music, the image, the attitude – it was all there, as though they’d come out of the womb fully formed. They seemed to possess the intellectual weight of Bob Dylan, the artistic purity of Van Morrison, the revolutionary spirit of The Clash and the soulfulness of the best Stax music. They were, it has to be said, one hell of a band. Those who loved them loved them with a passion that was occasionally blind but refused to be diminished. To discover Dexys was to embark on a journey.
In many ways the musical landscape of the early 80s resembled the dry season of the early 60s, the drab bit between the Big Bang of Little Richard and the arrival of the Beatles. Back in 1980, with punk having come and gone and post-punk fast disappearing up its own fundament, it was virtually a straight choice between the suicidal gloom of Joy Division and the frills and fancies of the New Romantics. No choice at all, really.
Then Dexys came swaggering in, shaking things up, and they really were something to believe in. They were smash-and-grab artists, natural subversives, profound misfits, messy beat angels, wild-hearted outsiders to a man.
Kevin Rowland was the most wild-hearted of them all. Intense emotion, that was his thing, and highly infectious it was too. At a time of post-punk conformity, when playing it safe and preening with ironic detachment was the order of the day, Dexys did things differently.
Pronouncing rock’n’roll dead, they dressed like New York dockers in dilapidated donkey jackets and woolly hats – the first of many bewildering image changes. Next up, there were the ponytails, hooded sweatshirts and brawler’s boots that made them look like members of a shady Sicilian boxing club. After that came the Too-Rye-Ay look: denim dungarees, Romany threads, soul-searching expressions. Then, to accompany their Don’t Stand Me Down album, clean-cut Ivy League clobber.
Don’t Stand Me Down was intended to be Rowland’s magnum opus, his ultimate statement of soulful intent. It turned out to be a dramatic commercial failure and hastened the band’s demise, followed by Rowland’s hectic descent into a cold, soundless abyss of poverty, drug-addiction and rank depression.
What kind of mark did Dexys leave in the sand? Well, quite simply, a collection of songs that continue to amaze and inspire to this day. From the fervid call-to-arms that was 1980′s Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, through the deep-thinking Celtic swing of 1982′s Too-Rye-Ay, to the sprawling genius that was 1985′s Don’t Stand Me Down, Dexys aimed to outperform themselves every time. Like a shark, they had a fatal need to move forward. In 1988 Rowland returned with The Wanderer, a collection of countrified songs that were ill-served by the album’s production. In 1993, he raised hopes of a full-scale Dexys comeback after reuniting with Big Jimmy Patterson but, after a couple of TV appearances, they went their separate ways once more.
Rumours of Kevin’s return came and went through the 90s. Most Dexys devotees, myself included, started to doubt whether Rowland would ever record or play live again.
Then, in the late summer of 1999, I received a call from the Creation Records press department. Not only had Kevin signed to the label, he’d recorded an entire album of songs, highly personal and often very harrowing reinterpretations of songs made famous by Whitney Houston (The Greatest Love Of All), Unit 4&2 (Concrete And Clay), The Marmalade (Reflections Of My Life) and others. Rowland had consented to do one interview to publicize the release of what was intended at the time to be the first in a loosely-connected trilogy of albums for Creation.
This being Kevin Rowland, setting up an interview was never going to be a straightforward affair. To ensure that he was interviewed by a journalist who “got” the new album and the accompanying “look”, Rowland would conduct a series of auditions.
So it was that one Thursday evening, I got the nod from Creation. Kevin was ready to meet at his flat in Brighton. I needed to get across town fast. There would be a test, I was informed. All the other journalistic candidates had failed this test. If I passed the test, the interview was mine. “What kind of test?” They couldn’t tell me.
I turned up at Kevin’s flat on one of Brighton’s more desirable Georgian squares. He played me a selection of songs from the new album and I told him I thought they were terrific, that he’d never sounded in better voice. But that wasn’t the test.
Kevin handed me an A4 envelope and pointedly left the room. I opened the envelope to find four photographs that unveiled his new “look”. A dress, lingerie, heavy make-up. Not what I was expecting but, then, I had no earthly idea what to expect.
Kevin walked into the room and looked at me quizzically. “What do you think then?”
“Well,” I replied, “it gives me the horn.”
Kevin thought about this long and hard, staring at me intently. After what seemed like an eternity he shrugged and said, “OK, you’ve got the job. We’ll do the interview on Sunday.”
More complications. Kevin insisted that he would only do the interview if he were situated close to water. Fine. No problem. We both live by the sea in Brighton. We’ll find a quiet café on the beach.
“I don’t want that much water,” Kevin snapped, as though that should have been obvious. “I was thinking more along the lines of a river.”
Finally we agreed to meet in a restaurant overlooking The Thames the following Sunday.
The day arrives. We meet at the restaurant, sit down and order some food. Kevin is far from comfortable.
“One thing before we begin,” he says. “Eye contact. We’re not doing any of that.”
Nothing is ever straightforward when you’re dealing with Kevin Rowland.
I suggest we sit side by side so we don’t have to look at each other. Kevin quickly agrees.
Fifteen minutes go by and we seem to be making some headway. Then he announces that something’s wrong, very wrong.
“I can’t relax. I’m not inspired. I can’t think straight. We’re not close enough to the river.”
OK. No problem. We’ll make our way to the river, find a rock to sit on, and continue.
All well and good. Except for the fact that between us and the river stands a 25-foot concrete bank. And there’s no easy way down. After some deep contemplation, Kevin suggests, maybe half-jokingly, that I take a run at it. Well, why not? If Kevin Rowland suggests you take a running jump at a steep, rain-washed concrete slope, you do it without thinking. Even if you’re decked out in your favourite, newly-purchased Hugo Boss suit.
The jump is spectacularly unsuccessful. Halfway down the slope I lose my balance and perform a double somersault. It’s a bumpy, face-forward ride down and, at the bottom, my forehead cracks loudly against jagged rock. En route, my £800 suit is ripped to shreds and splattered with mud. As if this wasn’t enough, the entire calamity has been witnessed by the clientele of the restaurant who, as one, stand and applaud at the restaurant windows, as if this was the funniest thing that had ever happened in the entire history of the civilised world.
So there I stand, best suit ruined, blood pouring from all manner of places, a bruise on my head the size of a Jaffa orange, having the rise taken out of me by a crowd of Sunday afternoon revellers.
Kevin, seemingly bucked up by the whole experience, suggests we adjourn to another restaurant to talk. And so we do. And once he starts talking, he talks without pause for the next three-and-a-half hours, talking with unprecedented frankness about his brilliant career and his rollercoaster life. “I really need to get all this out,” he says. And he does.
JW: Do you remember the first time it occurred to you that you wanted to be a singer?
KR: It must have been when I was about eight. I remember seeing Billy Fury on the TV show Thank Your Lucky Stars. He looked great, sounded great. I remember thinking, “I want to be like him.” At primary school most of the kids weren’t into music. But I’d find maybe one other kid who was interested. There’d be these magazines that printed the lyrics of songs. So me and the other kid would find a quiet corner in the schoolyard and sing these songs. I was keen. If a teacher asked if anyone wanted to sing a song I’d be up there.
When I hit my teenage years, I lost sight of the idea of singing, being a pop star. I suppose it felt too far-fetched, the idea that anything like that could happen to me. All I was thinking was that I needed to get out of school as soon as I could, because I didn’t like it. I left school in 1969, at fifteen, with the vague idea that I could be a carpenter or something. But I had no qualifications.
JW: Did you feel completely directionless through your teenage years?
KR: I did, yeah. I had a difficult childhood and then my teenage years came along and I got into a lot of trouble. I was up in court on various charges four times before I was fifteen. Mostly small-time stuff, taking and driving away, that kind of thing. It wasn’t on the level of mucking about. It wasn’t mischief. I was getting into trouble with the police because I was going through a very dark time in my life. I spent a lot of time wandering around on my own. I’d go to the West End, looking to rob money from somewhere. At fourteen or fifteen I’d mitch off school and go to strip clubs in Soho. At that age I should have been at school. I should have been having a sexual experience with a girl my own age, not prostitutes. I’d be walking around the West End with my pockets full of money I’d stolen, trying to buy friendships. It was very lonely and obsessive. I was a compulsive vandal. I’d go into a cinema on my own and start ripping the seats up. Or I’d go into a tube train and start smashing it up. I’d have probably become a rent boy. I was approached in one of the Soho amusement arcades and I almost went along with it. But it was 3.30 in the afternoon and I was afraid of getting home late and it coming out that I wasn’t going to school.
After leaving school the next few years of my life were chaos. There was a lot of drinking and a lot of fighting. I worked as a hairdresser for a while, then I got a job as a sales rep. But I’d get out of control and I’d either up in a police cell, crash a car, or I’d get my face smashed in. If I hadn’t got into groups I’d have been in serious trouble. I was on a suspended sentence when Dexys started. I couldn’t understand why these things would happen to me. It didn’t occur to me to cut down on the drinking. I was a total loser. But I kept charging through. I figured that, so long as I had a car to drive and some nice clothes to wear, that everything would be OK.
JW: How did you get round to joining groups?
KR: I’d always loved music but I had problems learning to play guitar. I was just too uptight about it. Just before punk happened my brother had this social club group. Their guitarist was leaving and I was told I could join the band if I learned the chords to all the songs within six months. That was a great incentive for me. Suddenly I had a positive interest in my life. That band didn’t last. So, in 1976, I put an advert in the local paper and that led to Lucy & The Lovers, who were influenced by Roxy Music and Deaf School. That band evolved to The Killjoys.
JW: This would have been mid-1977?
KR: Round about then. It was the height of punk. Or maybe punk had already passed its peak. Either way, punk was exciting. It meant that everyone had a chance and, suddenly, there were loads of venues you could play. It felt like year zero. By the time The Killjoys put out their first single, Johnny Won’t Get To Heaven, it was too late. There were so many punk bands out there and, by that time, it looked like we were jumping on the bandwagon. Like every other band at the time we dropped the slow songs and speeded up the fast ones. Compared to Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Banshees, we were definite second or even third division. But we were just too late. If I’d have been in London rather than Birmingham when punk kicked off, it might have been different. I wish we’d ignored punk and just got on with what we were doing, instead of trying to join the gang. I’ve never been comfortable being part of a gang. On the rare occasions that I join one, I never stick around for long.
Johnny Won’t Go To Heaven did OK for a single. But it was clear that we weren’t going to make it, so it was time to move on. After punk there was a brief period when power pop was getting some attention so I gave that a try. I was desperate, basically.
I was trying to figure out which direction to move in next and one day it came to me: soul music. Nobody was making soulful music at that time. Nobody was dancing. The Killjoys still had management. We could still get gigs. At least we could still get third on the bill at The Music Machine. My plan was to stick with The Killjoys and, as soon as we got a real name for ourselves, I’d split the band up and form the soul group that was in my head. We got to the point where we had a bit of a soul sheen and we did these choreographed dance moves on stage. I started wearing a big frilly shirt and jodhpurs. We were throwing in a few 50s songs. Of course, just when I felt we were getting somewhere, the band revolted. Which, looking back, was fair enough, because I wasn’t allowing the musicians to express themselves.
JW: Did you consciously set out to change your vocal style around that time?
KR: I did in a way. At the start of Dexys we were involved with Bernard Rhodes who’d managed The Clash. We’d done a demo tape that included early versions of Tell Me When My Light Turns Green and I’m Just Looking. Rhodes liked the songs but wasn’t too keen on my singing. That really pissed me off at first, then I realised he had a point so I thought about it and made some changes. When we started recording again, my voice had a sort of “crying” quality to it and that made it sound more emotional. I was aiming at a similar sound to General Johnson who sang with Chairmen Of The Board.
JW: How much scheming and plotting went into the idea of the first Dexys?
KR: Hardly any, to be honest. It might have looked like we arrived with it all carefully worked out. But, like most things, it was more of an accident. I had a feeling we were going to make it and that’s what I told the group, but I had no real way of knowing.
JW: From the start, it seemed like clothes were crucially important to you.
KR: Yeah. I’d always been seriously into clothes. In ’75 I was listening Bowie and Roxy Music, along with loads of soul stuff. I was seriously into clothes so I’d be wearing GI shirts, baggy trousers and brogues. I’d go to discos with my mates and some of the girls wouldn’t dance with us because they assumed we were squaddies. The other blokes were wearing Oxford bags and platform shoes but I was already out of that phase. By the time fashion hit the high street, I was on to something else.
When Dexys first formed, we all had a different look. Big Jimmy dressed as a mod. I had my hair weaved a bit like Stevie Wonder at that time. Except I had it criss-crossed in strands across my face like a veil. I also wore heavy make-up and a bright pink satin suit. I knew that kind of fashion was going to come through because it was already on the street. It did come through with the New Romantic thing a couple of years later.
Then The Specials started happening and they were wearing suits. They asked us to support them on their tour. We’d played with them a couple of times before and, maybe because of the way we looked, their audience didn’t take us seriously. I realised that, if we were going to do the tour, I had to find a look that the audience would get. If we didn’t get the look right, we’d get laughed off stage.
Around that time Jimmy walked into the rehearsal room wearing a woolly hat and a polo-neck sweater. It was so cold that you could see his breath in the air. He started playing the trombone and it hit me that this was a great look. So we got the clothes and took on this look. Maybe we looked like a gang who had attitude. But it wasn’t an intentionally hard image.
JW: As a debut single, Dance Stance sounded like a real statement of intent. There’s a lot of attitude on that record.
KR: It had a kind of punk energy to it that made it stand apart from everything else that was going on at the time. We were serious and we wanted to be taken seriously as contenders.
JW: Around that time you remarked that rock’n’roll was a spent force. Did you believe that to be true?
KR: Well, it sounded good at the time. I was into the idea of year zero. We’d had punk, it felt like the time was right for something different. What we were trying to do was definitely different. Our attitude was that all that stuff had gone and Dexys were here now. Punk had done a similar thing in rejecting what had gone before. I might have convinced myself that rock’n’roll was dead.
JW: From the chorus of Dance Stance (AKA Burn It Down), one might assume that you were a big reader.
KR: I was never a big reader. I’ve only three or read four books in my whole life, one of which was Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. I’d picked up a biography of Behan and never got round to reading it. But I did read the inside leaf where the author mentioned all these other Irish writers like Laurence Sterne, Sean O’Casey and George Bernard Shaw. It occurred to me that name-checking those writers in a song was a bold idea so I went with it. I never did get round to reading any of those authors. I gave James Joyce’s Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man a try, but I couldn’t get into it. When we retitled the song for the album, I nicked the title from a Streetwalkers song called Burn It Down. It just struck me as a great title.
JW: Dance Stance made the top 40 and Searching For The Young Soul Rebels made No. 6. How surprised were you that Dexys were a success?
KR: I was amazed, quite frankly. What we were doing was not a sure-fire bet. I remember doing Top Of The Pops for the first time with Dance Stance. I watched the show religiously as a kid. How was I going to deal with being on the show? I thought I was going to freak. I was miming to the recording and I suddenly thought there were ten million people watching. My jaw tensed up. You can see it happen on the recording. That was that start of it. I quickly got a reputation for being miserable and difficult, and I was. I was so uptight a lot of the time. Or I was scared. When I get scared I have a tendency to get angry.
JW: Surely there was some joy when Geno made Number One and you realised you’d made it?
KR: It was the opposite. I just couldn’t handle it. I felt way out of my depth and it wasn’t any fun at all. I got very serious about every detail. I was overwhelmed by this feeling that I was going to get found out, that people would see that I wasn’t capable of writing songs. When I did manage to write a song, it felt like a miracle. I felt that Kevin Archer was a much better songwriter than me, even though I’d co-written the most successful ones (Geno and There There My Dear) with him.
We were living the pop dream. We’d got together in a garage, decided on a name, written the songs, got to Number One. And it felt completely hollow. Maybe the others were handling it OK. But I freaked out and became even more controlling. I was controlling everything and everybody. Inevitably the band got fed up and left, Kevin Archer included.
I was ruling that band with an iron fist. I ran it as a dictatorship. At the time I probably convinced myself that it was a benevolent dictatorship. Like most dictators I persuaded myself that it was all for the common good. Eventually, of course, the musicians rebelled and left. I wonder what it would have been like if I’d just relaxed and let go. But I made it so that there were so many hoops to jump through. I made it impossible for everyone, myself included.
JW: There were a lot of stories about Dexys from that time that became part of music business folklore. Was it true that you once leapt off stage during one of the early Dexys shows and punched somebody out because they were talking during one of the songs?
KR: I didn’t leap off the stage. I hit him from the stage. It wasn’t that he was talking. He was making these weird noises during the quiet bits of the songs. So, yeah, I chinned him.
JW: Following one interview with Melody Maker, you were rumoured to have physically attacked the journalist Barry McIIheney in Soho Square. What’s your recollection of that?
KR: It did happen, yeah. I’m not proud of it. It was wrong of me. He didn’t deserve to be thumped. I’m not even sure why I did it. It might have come out of a misunderstanding we had during an interview. I felt he was attacking the group. Again, I was a frightened little boy trying to be macho.
JW: Is it true that you insisted on early morning six mile runs for the entire band?
KR: (laughs) We did a few runs, maybe just a couple, and only once at the crack of dawn. I’ve always been great at starting things and not following them through. Part of the thinking with the six mile runs is that I was desperate to avoid drink and drugs after my teens and early twenties when I’d had quite an unmanageable life. That’s why I banned the group from drinking and taking drugs. I even tried to ban the audience at one point. That was all about my fear of alcoholism and drug addiction. At that time I was successfully avoiding drink and drugs. I knew that, if I had one drink or if I took one drug, then I’d be on a massive binge. I found out during The Killjoys days that, if I started drinking at 5pm, I’d be completely pissed when it came to do the show. So it was all or nothing for me. Instead of becoming an alcoholic at that time, I became a complete workaholic.
JW: What was the story behind you stealing the master tapes of the first album in an attempt to renegotiate your contract?
KR: Maybe it sounded to some people like a good caper. But it was stupid. I was sabotaging my career, basically. We were never going win the battle with the record company because they held all the power. At the time I realized that things like that became talking points and I liked it. These incidents became a part of the Dexys legend. What I really wanted was for the music to be legendary.
JW: Before the release of the first Dexys album time you called a halt to press interviews and, instead, resorted to full-page adverts in the forms of essays. What was the thinking behind that?
KR: More self-sabotage, basically. I just wanted to fight everybody and the adverts were a part of that. I think I was considered a bit of an oddball, a bit of a joke by the music business. I was certainly seen as a loose cannon. I had this me-against-the-world mentality. The more success we got, the more entrenched I got in that way of thinking. My world was getting smaller and smaller. I’d backed myself into a corner.
I might have given the impression that I hated the press and wanted nothing to do with them. But the truth is that I was obsessed with the press and what they had to say about me. The early reviews and interviews had mostly been positive. What the essays were really about is that I feared a huge backlash. I was getting my retaliation in first. But, as with everything else, it backfired on me massively. It gave us this cult following but it trapped us in many ways. I doubt we could have become any bigger. I wasn’t emotionally stable enough to deal with the success I had. I couldn’t have dealt with any more of it. Looking back I was very good at losing the Dexys audience, another self-destructive trait.
JW: If I was to tell you that Too-Rye-Ay was my favourite album of the 80s, how would you respond?
KR: As I listen to you saying it, I’m wincing inside. It’s painful to hear something like that. Some of Too-Rye-Ay is good, including Come On Eileen. But I was so unhappy throughout that whole period and I would never want to go through all that again. It was a very painful time for me. It’s sad to look back on because I hardly enjoyed any of it.
My feeling is that, overall, Too-Rye-Ay wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been. The production didn’t really work. Half the group, including Big Jimmy, were leaving so it was a very strange time. We had five session musicians who weren’t going to be told what to do. All in all, it wasn’t as good a band as the one before. I was aware of that. I find it hard to listen to Too-Rye-Ay. Maybe because it was successful. Success has always been the scariest thing for me. I’ve always been too afraid to take it on. Failure I was familiar with. I could deal with failure but I could never deal with success.
Having said all that, there was a part of me that really wanted success around the time of Too-Rye-Ay. I was fed up with the cult audience we had. I wanted proper mainstream success. When we got that success with Come On Eileen, I remember seeing Boy George in Kettners restaurant in Soho. By that point I’d stopped wearing group outfits because I was so fed up with strangers coming up to me in the street. There was George wearing the same gear he’d have worn on Top Of The Pops, talking to all these little girls and signing autographs. I slipped out round the back and ran. After that I stayed in the house for a year. I just couldn’t handle the attention that came with having hit records. I dreaded being approached in the street. I was terrified that they’d go away thinking I was a complete fraud. It wasn’t the people that were the problem, it was me. And I didn’t know how to say no. So I’d try to be nice to people, then I’d start getting annoyed when they didn’t go away, so I’d explode. I didn’t want to be unpleasant to people. I was too eager to please if anything. When Come On Eileen was in the charts, I got into this taxi and the driver recognised me. He said, “Come back with me to the cab office – you can meet all the girls.” So I did and it was excruciatingly awkward for me. One time I got onto a bus and the driver recognised me as I got on. So he stopped the bus and came to talk to me. I was signing autographs for everybody on the bus. I just wanted to get away as fast as possible. I could never get comfortable in the role of local celebrity.
JW: Wasn’t there any part of the pop star life that you enjoyed?
KR: It was exciting at first, when records were going up the chart and getting to Number One. When Jackie Wilson didn’t get to Number One, that felt like a big failure. I was insecure but I wanted to keep it going. I was fairly comfortable being the outsider knocking on the door. Once the door opened and I stepped inside, I was completely lost.
I didn’t feel good enough to be a successful pop star. I felt ugly and worthless. People were telling me we were making great records but I felt that we’d managed to make great records despite my failings. I couldn’t stand the pressure of writing new songs because I had no belief in my abilities. Creatively I felt completely exhausted. It’s all there in the lyrics to Keep It (Part 2), “You’re feeling a loss but you’re not fit to make it/You offered so much but you’re frightened to take it.” That’s exactly how I felt. It was so fucking lonely being me. When I wasn’t working flat out I was completely lost. I didn’t have any friends. I had nobody. To be in a successful group, that had been my dream. Now I had it and it felt like it was all going wrong. I had no-one to talk to so I kept it all in. I was afraid that, if I showed anyone I had a weakness, they were going to jump on it. That was part of my downfall.
Being a successful group wasn’t enough. There was a whole other agenda. I was trying to right all these wrongs. It might have been fun to watch, mate. But I’ll tell you what, it was no fun being me. You wouldn’t have wanted to be inside my head.
You can tell me it was inspirational but I need to say this. I was acting the rebel and acting the outsider. I was living out a lot of people’s fantasies for them, fighting their battles too. I’m no longer prepared to do that. I don’t want to be that rebellious outsider any more. I just want to be me. It’s an impossible job and it made my life impossible. I didn’t realise it back then but I was in complete self-destruct mode.
JW: Were there moments when you felt like you wanted to walk away from it all?
KR: All the time. But I was also incredibly driven. When the musicians walked away and finished the first Dexys off, the relief on my part was enormous because I didn’t have to deal with it any more. Then I was driven to get a new group together. The drive was to prove to everybody that I wasn’t a complete piece of shit. I believed in what I was doing but it was so fucking painful to deal with. Can you hear that? It really hurt being me. No amount of fame, no amount of hit singles was going to fix that.
JW: You had your detractors in the press, for sure. Julie Burchill was particularly scathing about your music. But in certain quarters you were hailed as a visionary. I seem to remember you being compared to William Blake on one occasion. Did any of that mean anything to you?
KR: I loved all of that, even though I had no idea who William Blake was. I had a very pompous view of myself and my aspirations but that can be very crippling. After writing stuff that I knew was good, I felt a terrible pressure to come up with something better. Whenever I was working on a song I’d always be thinking, “What will people make of that?” In the late 80s it got to a point where I’d write a line and I’d get the face of a journalist in my mind, usually someone who’d written positive stuff about Dexys, and I’d think, “Will he think this line is shit?”
JW: Do you have any idea how many copies Too-Rye-Ay sold?
KR: Haven’t got a clue. I am intrigued. I’ve tried to get sales figures off the record label but they seem unable to give me any figures. They told me they don’t calculate figures like that. They do them year by year. So I said, “Why don’t you just add them up?” (laughs) I never did get an answer. I know it sold more than a million in its first year.
JW: In 1993 you gave an interview to Q Magazine where you admitted to “stealing” the idea for Come On Eileen from Kevin Archer…
KR: Hmm, that got very complicated. “Stealing” was putting it far too strongly. At the time I was totally fucked-up and I’d convinced myself that the only good ideas I’d ever had were other people’s ideas. For years I felt like a fraud, a total no-talent. After the Q interview the newspapers picked up on it and suddenly it was “Kevin Rowland nicked his friend’s song.” But I didn’t nick it off Kevin. I wrote that song with the help of Jim and Billy. Where Kevin came into it is that, back in 1981 or early ’82, he’d played me a demo tape where he had a couple of violins and a Motown-style piano on one of the songs. I was influenced by it, but only in terms of the style of music. None of his lyrics or melodies were nicked.
JW: Why the three year gap between Too-Rye-Ay and Don’t Stand Me Down?
KR: In ’83, Come On Eileen made Number One in the USA chart and we did a big tour over there. I was starting to feel like a product. It was all very machine-like. Straight after the tour it was like, “Go off and write some more hit singles.” That seemed like the hardest thing in the world at that point. Jim was no longer a part of it. I was all on my own.
I’d returned to Birmingham and I was very, very unhappy. I had a load of money and I’d never felt more miserable in my life. I bought a flat, new furniture, a video recorder that had just come out. I was angry towards everyone at the record company. I took a perverse delight in being uncooperative. Again, I just wanted to sabotage everything.
JW: A lot of people seemed confused by your image for Don’t Stand Me Down, as though unsure whether you were serious or taking the piss.
KR: I was entirely serious. I liked the idea that it went against everything that was considered to be fashionable at the time. What people didn’t understand is that it was a mod thing. In the 60s the original mods wore Ivy League clothes. I was really into the look and I was very serious about it. I was wearing Brooks Brothers clothes myself in the 60s. I just went for a look I loved. There was no piss-taking involved at all.
JW: The reaction to the album itself was decidedly mixed and it only reached number 22 in the chart. Did you expect it to be another hit?
KR: Definitely, yeah. In my mind it was a very commercial album. But it flopped, obviously. Fourteen years on and everyone is telling me that it’s my masterpiece. That means a lot to me. That album means so much more to me than all the others. I put my heart and soul into those songs. I can be very critical of all my Dexys work but I’m less critical about Don’t Stand Me Down than anything else. I know it’s one of those albums that means as much to some people as Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or Roxy’s Stranded mean to me. That’s amazing to me.
Would it have been any different if Don’t Stand Me Down had been released on the back of a hit single? Maybe. But I refused to release a single before it came out. That decision really backfired. I remember thinking that bands like Led Zeppelin never released singles and it worked for them. But it didn’t work for us.
When we came to tour Don’t Stand Me Down, we were playing to half empty theatres and that hurt a lot. When a group is successful it acquires an aura around it. Another kind of aura surrounds a group when it’s no longer successful. It felt like we were being laughed at and that nothing we were doing could go right. I stopped performing after that. The stage fright was overwhelming. I’d feel so afraid on stage that I couldn’t move my legs. We did some nights at The Dominion Theatre in London and people were heckling and I took that very personally. It hurt a lot. I felt so exposed, completely unprotected. I’d made this album that I completely believed in and hardly anyone wanted to know.
Secretly I was relieved about that. I breathed a sigh of relief when the album flopped. I’d had enough. Things were getting very hairy for me. I was carrying so much on my shoulders.
JW: Is this when your problems with drugs began again?
KR: Around 1985 and 1986 I was mostly avoiding alcohol and drugs. If I did touch them I’d go on a binge, then get straight again. I’d broken up with Helen (O’Hara) and I was a mess. Things were really starting to fall apart. Things got really bad in 1988, around the time that my solo album, The Wanderer, came out. I felt I’d stopped functioning as a working musician. All my confidence was gone. I was burned out from my addiction to work. Any defences I’d ever had were now gone. I’d been a massive control freak in Dexys but I didn’t have that any more. When I look back, there were a lot of different addictions. My addiction to work on its own was life-threatening. Being a workaholic, I suppose that’s what led me back into the drug thing. There was such a vacuum in my life and I’ve got a massively addictive nature. I suppose I always knew that I would end up as a major drug addict or alcoholic.
In the same way that I needed drink or drugs, I needed my music career. It was never about relaxing, having fun, enjoying being successful. It was about, “I’ve got to have it.” The whole thing was desperate. That’s exactly what I was like taking drugs. I was on a mission, just like I was with Dexys. With drugs and with Dexys I was trying to fill this huge hole. Nothingness.
With Dexys and with drugs, I had my honeymoon periods. When I started doing ecstacy and cocaine in the late 80s, I had great times, great sex. The acid house thing was great when it started. Ecstacy freed me up. Suddenly I realized I could talk to people. It made me realize how much burden I was carrying.
JW: How quickly did it become apparent to you that your coke addiction was going to cause major problems in your life?
KR: Right from the start I was aware that the way I used the drug wasn’t social, it wasn’t about going out and having a good time. The people I was hanging around with would be happy doing a few lines and enjoying themselves. I’d be sitting there thinking, “I want more. Where can I get some more?” I became completely obsessed with it. Very quickly I became hopelessly addicted to it, four grams a night easily. Cocaine can be a very nasty drug. It was nasty for me.
When I got back into doing drugs I still had a flat. Then I started getting heavily into cocaine and other drugs. I’ve tried every drug that I’ve heard of. I’ve tried them all but coke was the one that I was really obsessed with. I never had a problem with heroin. I used it a few times but it wasn’t my thing. It was lovely but I was always thinking, “Where’s the cocaine?” Even with heroin, I’d spend all night with my head in the toilet and I’d still be asking where the next one was coming from.
JW: Around this time, did any of your friends step in and attempt to persuade you to sort yourself out, get straight?
KR: I didn’t really have any friends. When I started doing a lot of drugs people seemed happy to have me around them as I was a face they recognized, but I quickly became a liability. I thought I’d be having meaningful relationships with people but I was argumentative and anyone who disagreed with me I’d drive them out of my life. I had a girlfriend at the time and I drove her away. She cried buckets. She couldn’t have possibly cried any more.
Most of the time I’d be doing coke on my own, maybe eight or nine grams a night. Coke came before everything and everybody. I was abusive in all my relationships with people. If anyone tried to pull me up on my behaviour I’d immediately cut them off, so my world got smaller and smaller. Everyone left me in the end. They had to. I ended up in a bed on my own, still living in this squat with the curtains always drawn. I used to get into bed with my cocaine, empty a bottle, smoke cigarettes and I’d pull up the covers. That’s the only time I ever felt safe. It was all about getting away from everything.
JW: I imagine the comedowns were hellish by this stage?
KR: Fucking awful. The whole week would be a hellish comedown. I was living a life of degradation and I was full of self-loathing. That became normality for me and, in a way, it was comfortable. Horrible but comfortable. Success had never been comfortable for me.
JW: Presumably, having had many hit records, you’d have been receiving regular royalty cheques?
KR: I’d been in the position of having some money but that changed in 1988 when I realized there was very little left in the pot and, on top of that, a big tax bill arrived. By 1989 it got to the point where there were no more cheques from the record company. I started signing on so all I had was my giro money. I’d spend it on cocaine, snort it all at once and the rest of the week was absolute misery. I had no money left over for food. Baliffs would turn up and I’d have to pretend to be somebody else. By 1991, I was a bankrupt.
I tried to hide what was going on from everyone else. I was still playing at being a big shot even though I had holes in my clothes at that point. I’d go out for the night and hang out with people, hoping they would give me drugs. If that failed I’d go around begging for drugs. I felt like an old man the whole time. I didn’t want to live. I really wanted to die.
JW: Did you ever seriously consider taking your own life?
KR: I just didn’t have the courage to take that step. But I couldn’t see any way that my life could get better. I wasn’t going to do myself in but there were many times that I wished I could just die. During that time I joined this religious cult, Brahma Kumaris. I started meditating every morning with them at 6am which helped me stay clean for a bit. Then I moved into a bedsit in Harlesden, with no bath but two rings on the stove, that was a big step up for me.
JW: How hard did you try to get clean?
KR: I tried everything to get off drugs, every method going, including a lot of self-help groups. Then I heard about this treatment centre. I actually ended up going to two centres, a primary one and a secondary one. I lived in that secondary one for six months.
Through 1993 and 1994 I spent most of my time in rehab. I was a nightmare in there. I’d be threatening people in those places. If people were afraid of me, it gave me a sense of power. I got the reputation of being a bully and that hurt me because I’d always thought of myself as someone who would stick up for the little guy, someone who fought oppression. In rehab I was aware that I was scaring people, intimidating people, and I realized I’d always been doing that.
People would recognize me and want to talk about Dexys which was the last thing I wanted to be reminded of. I was aware how far I’d fallen and how much I’d lost. I felt like such a failure. I stopped believing that I could turn my life around. I was approaching forty and thought my life was pretty much over. There was no way home for me. It was all just driving me insane and, to me, that’s not a price worth paying for making music. Anyone who says differently has obviously never gone through what I’ve gone through. Insanity is no fun, mate. People try to romanticize the idea of the suffering artist. At my lowest ebbs there was no romance to it at all.
JW: Given that you were a fairly well-known name, it’s astonishing that none of this found its way into the press.
KR: All through that time I was worried that my situation would become news. I’d be signing on at the dole office and, occasionally, I’d get a nod of recognition but nobody really said much. I’d be dead arrogant too. They’d ask me what kind of wages I was looking for and I’d say £500 a week which would have been a fortune to me at that time. I was lost, completely lost.
JW: Was there any interest from record labels before Creation stepped in?
KR: At one time Go! Discs, Rough Trade and Heavenly wanted to sign me. But I’d sabotage it every time by getting into arguments with people. As usual I convinced myself that everybody else was the problem, not me. I was barking fucking mad but, because I was a pop singer or whatever, people would indulge me and put up with all kinds of bad behaviour from me. When Alan McGee signed me to Creation, every other record label advised him against it because I was trouble. The music business had completely written me off at that point.
JW: What was the thinking behind the new image for My Beauty?
KR: “Image” isn’t the right word. This isn’t my new image. I’m just being myself. If I’m not able to be myself, then I’m going to die, that’s how it feels right now. If I was to appear on the cover of this new album wearing a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt, I’d be denying a big part of myself. I’m just not prepared to do that. I denied myself for years. I was a very frightened man, always trying to second guess what people expected of me. I abandoned the real me and that led me to some very dark places. For years I had no idea who I was. Everything about me was a defence. I can’t afford to let that happen again now that I’m just starting to find out who I am. When I find something that’s me, I’m grabbing it.
JW: What comes into your mind when you look at the cover of My Beauty?
KR: I’m very proud of it. I think I look beautiful.
Since giving up drugs I feel I’ve been given a second chance and I’m just following my path really. The way I look on the cover is a big part of that. The outfit I’m wearing on the cover, that look came to me as I was drifting off to sleep one night. I realised I wanted to wear a dress or a skirt. I’ve been dressing like this for four years now. I started wearing these outfits a year after I came out of rehab. At that time I had no idea I was going to make another record.
In the summer of ’95 I started wearing sarongs. I went to a Sri Lankan café and the waiter was wearing one. He looked great. So I got myself one and I looked great. People loved the way I looked in it with a pair of sandals. Women, especially, loved the way I looked. They thought I looked sexy. I had my toenails and fingernails painted red. I felt brave wearing it on the street.
JW: Does it concern you that people might question your sexuality?
KR: I don’t see why it should. I’m not a transvestite, clearly. A transvestite wants to look like a woman. A transvestite will usually wear a wig, false breasts and make-up. I don’t want to look like a woman. All I’m saying is that I want to wear a dress because I want to express my soft, sexy side. It feels right, it feels good to me. This is what I need to do. I don’t think I look gay. I designed these clothes myself and I designed them for a man. Instead of wearing two legs and a zip, I’m wearing a material that hangs loosely off me. It’s much more comfortable not to have my bollocks closed in. Surely it makes more sense for a man to wear a skirt than a woman. It makes more sense for a man to wear trousers. My dress is a man’s dress. I hope people understand that. Because I don’t feel I need to justify it.
JW: Is this “look” more important to you than any of the previous looks you’ve had?
KR: Oh yeah. This is much more important for me. Just like my music comes from the soul, these clothes are about my soul. The early Dexys looks were very masculine I suppose. The softer side of me was always there but I chose to negate it, hide it and abandon it. I would sometimes scorn others for expressing their softer sides. I was like a scared little boy, terrified, so out of my depth in the music business. I wouldn’t talk to other musicians about things, not even my own band. I was scared of being found out. I always had this feeling that there was something flawed in me. Right back to when I was young, I always had a feeling that something was wrong with me. I always felt bad inside. Becoming a musician was my attempt to prove that I wasn’t bad, that I could be somebody. Because I’d been a real loser, the classic black sheep. That’s what my career was about, my attempt to prove to people that I wasn’t a complete piece of shit. Even when I had some success I still felt like a fraud. When we started having hits I feared that there was more people who would find me out, so I had to act tough to hide the fact that I felt very vulnerable.
You could say that I’m from the street. I grew up in quite a tough area. But I wasn’t a hard man at all. I was bullied quite badly at school.
JW: How did you choose the songs for My Beauty?
KR: It was entirely on the basis that these were the ones that made me cry when I was at my lowest ebb in those treatment centres. Long And Winding Road was the first, followed by Reflections Of My Life. Where the lyrics didn’t suit my own experience I would change them. The songs I chose for this album, they were all showing me the way forward. They were all like little clues for me.
I was familiar with all the songs on this album but I’d never paid any close attention to them. At a crisis point in my life these just happened to be the songs that spoke to me. They reminded me of times in my life when I possessed some kind of innocence, a feeling I lost long, long ago. It was hearing these songs that made me realise how far I’d come, how fucked up I really was. These songs reminded me of home in a way. I just wanted to get back home, or to someplace where I felt safe. These songs are what I needed to do.
JW: Did you feel that you could express those feelings better through cover versions?
KR: (angrily) They’re not cover versions. Not to me. They’re a lot more than covers. The way I’ve got inside these songs, it feels like I’ve written every one of them. Whenever I came across a lyric that I couldn’t identify with, I’d change it. Put together, these songs are telling my story. From beginning to end it’s a straight narrative about my life. It starts with The Greatest Love Of All which is about reaching a crisis point, having to realise that, and understanding that learning to love myself is the way forward, otherwise I’ll die. If My Beauty was a film, The Greatest Love would be the big opening scene. Then the film would trail right back to an earlier time where the story properly begins. Rag Doll and Concrete And Clay go right back to my childhood. Then the songs proceed to tell the story up to Labelled With Love (I’ll Stay With My Dreams) which revisits the crisis point. The later songs on the album offer a glimpse of hope.
JW: Did you approach the recording of My Beauty with trepidation?
KR: It was like starting all over again so, yeah, I was nervous about it. Alan McGee said to me recently that, when he gave me the advance to make this album, he didn’t know if he was ever going to get the record. He knew about my problems with drugs and things like that. He knew how unstable I was and he felt there was a chance I would crack up before I made any music. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it. I was shocked and pretty offended when he said that because I thought of myself as this great artist. But as soon as I started recording Creation trusted me completely to just get on with it. They didn’t refuse me anything.
I had a lot of help with this record, especially from Pete Schwier who effectively engineered and co-produced it. Big Jim started producing it with me but he walked out halfway. As usual I was being a tyrant about everything and Jim got fed up. I’d get very paranoid in the studio, accusing him or changing things behind my back. After Jim left I had to take more responsibility in the studio as I no longer had him to hide behind.
I also had a great singing teacher in Mark Meylan who really helped me get inside the songs and made me understand what I was trying to say, which gave the songs more meaning. I’d been to a couple of lessons with someone before Don’t Stand Me Down but I’d never stuck with anyone. I was smoking like a chimney back in those days so there wasn’t much point in me taking lessons. I was so closed down when I went to Mark that it was over a year before I trusted him. He’d be giving me these lessons but I didn’t know if I wanted to be there. I kept telling myself that he was from a different background, that there’s no way he’d know what I’m trying to do. That doesn’t mean that I’m comfortable with my singing voice. I’ve always found it an effort to sing. I’m always insecure about singing.
Recording some of the songs on my Beauty I completely froze. I couldn’t get the words out. So I had to get my singing teacher down.
JW: What are your commercial expectations for My Beauty?
KR: This album is massively important to me for reasons far more important than commercial considerations. The fact that I could do it at all is an achievement in itself. If it sells a million, I promise to buy you a new suit (laughs).
JW: Any final thoughts?
KW: A couple of years ago I went back to my old school in Wolverhampton and wandered around, remembering being a kid and just wanting to grow up and be a pop star. I thought about how fucked up my life became and how I didn’t want to go back to that fucked-up place. From this point I don’t want it to be this big complicated thing like it became with Dexys. I don’t want to change the world. I just want to be a really good singer. I don’t think it’s too late for me. I hope not. I feel far better equipped to deal with it all now. It still scares the shit out of me. That’s why I’m taking it one step at a time. I’m still finding out who I am.
(A heavily abbreviated version of this interview was published in 1999. Long since presumed lost, the tapes recently turned up in a cardboard box in a friend’s loft. For the first time in public, the above is the mostly unexpurgated version of Kevin Rowland’s My Beauty interview. Before the publication of the original interview, Kevin contacted me to ask if I handful of quotes about his personal life could remain off the record. Out of respect, those same quotes have been omitted from the above transcript. )
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