'Close Up' is a series of public events featuring musicians, writers, artists and actors in-conversation with Dave Haslam. The esteemed guest on 11th March 2010 was the ex-frontman of Dexy's Midnight Runners, Kevin Rowland. The event took place at the Green Room in front of a sell-out audience, and it was wonderful to have Kevin there, he was somewhat nervous but he was also honest and inspiring, and wonderfully dressed...
Kevin I wanted to talk about what you're up to now and what Keven Rowland in 2010 is doing, are you writing, what are you up to?
I'm getting ready to record an album, to make a record; the songs have been written for a long time and I've written some new ones, co written with a various people that I've been involved with over the last few years but there's been a lot of hold ups and admittedly it's taken longer than it should but we're just talking about booking the studios to start recording a Dexy's album.
What's a day in the life of KR? Do you live in London?
I live in East London
Do you do a lot of shopping?
Not that much, here we go, I know what's coming next (laughs).
Do you go around vintage shops looking for cool clothes and wonderful shoes?
Sometimes; not cool clothes, interesting clothes
Since the Dexy's 2003 tour have you picked up a label, are you looking for a deal?
We're just doing it ourselves right now, that's what we're doing, we're sorting it ourselves. We know exactly what we want to do; we've had loads of time to plan it
When you say "we", have you got the gang together, is it a unit, people you've worked with before?
The nucleus, yeah, Mick Talbot's involved, Pete Williams, Neil Hubbards and a couple of others
Some of the bands that emerged at the time, bands like ABC who do these big nostalgia tours, would you do them, have you been offered them?
Definitely not, well it's tempting obviously, I can see why they do it and good luck to anyone who does those things but I wouldn't be interested in doing them because I'm not interested in "remember me" and going back and "we're just like we were" because we're not and I'm completely different and that has to be reflected in what I'm doing.
The 2003 tour was a long time ago now but I think we just about got the balance right. It wasn't the greatest hits show; obviously you can't mess with memories too much, but I think we changed them around enough to make them relevant now, to us certainly, and it seems the audience too. We could have played more after that but there would be no point - it went well, there were good reviews - there would be no point playing those old songs, no matter how much you change them around, and reinterpret them we change the lyrics and the melodies and the arrangements. You can only do that for so long without a new record. It really is about the new record, it's about doing that and once we've done that I want to play new shows, I really do but we're going to get that record done first.
Before you got that tour together in 2003 was the My Beauty album on Creation; was that meant to be part of a trilogy?
It was. We were planning two Dexy's albums, we got signed on that basis but I said to Alan McGee before we do that I'd really like to do this record of cover versions of songs that I really like that mean a lot to me at this time. And he said "Yeah, great idea" so we did that and that took I think two years and it came out. And then three months later Creation went down and that was the end of that one. Good record...
One of the issues around that record when the press photos and the album cover came out and you played at Reading was that you were wearing a dress; people reacted in a very savage way to that. Was that something that you'd imagine they would do?
Not all people did, some did, and I don't know where to begin with that one really. I can't answer their thinking; I don't know what their thinking is. I mean what's the big deal? Of all the things to get worked up about, the things that they get worked up about, a dress, an item of clothing. It's amazing really but it did obviously hit a nerve.
But what was your thinking when you decided you were going to put on a dress?
Basically I always liked clothes and I've always liked looking for new ideas. About 1995 I bought a sarong, two years before David Beckham (laughs), and wore it and it was great, and it looked good and then I bought a leather kilt, it was kind of a Roman look, it was really good. So in 1995 I was developing all that and it was progressing.
So what were you working towards?
Nothing, I liked that look and I liked the sarong. I can understand that some people were a bit shocked; I was quite pleased about that really because Dexy's had a phoney macho image which wasn't that much about us so I think it did freak some people given the history. I'd been away a long time and moved on, gone somewhere else completely; the fact that people hadn't seen me, they didn't see any of the stages of development, they just saw that. I think that was it really.
I'm guessing you're not the kind of person that regrets stuff...
Well, I am, but I don't regret that; I've got much more important things to regret than that!
OK! (laughs). So what are your regrets?
I regret hurting Kevin Archer who was in my band, I regret that. Other personal regrets, you know (pause).
Were you in a musical family? Where did your music interests come from?
I think I was in a musical family, although no-one played instruments, though as time went on my older brother Pete was playing bass and guitar. My mum was definitely musical, a lovely singer even though she wasn't playing an instrument. The only reason they didn't probably play instruments because they didn't have time you know, Irish immigrants working really hard
At what point did you become the person who was into music enough to decided that this was the arena you wanted to make a life in, what triggered that?
I was really interested in it from a really young age, 6 or 7 at primary school. When I was in secondary school I became less confident inwardly and I didn't think I would be able to do it and the environment I was in, it was not even an option to consider and I believed that it wouldn't be possible. My dad, who's a big influence on me, he couldn't see that as any kind of viable future. I put it to the back of my mind, then my older brother Pete - who is 6 years older than me, and like a mentor to me and more like a father to me as my dad worked long hours - Pete was in a band and I hadn't learnt how to play a guitar properly, I could only play a couple of chords, but the guitarist in Pete's band gave him six months notice and Pete said I could play in the band if I learnt all the songs in that time. That was my incentive.
In that period when you'd grown into a teenager you moved around a lot, you were born in Wolverhampton, you then moved to Ireland, then back to Wolverhampton then on to North West London. Did you feel unsettled at that point in your life? By the time you were at secondary school you were the only Black Country accent in a cockney school. Did they understand what you were saying?
That was a very strange experience. They kinda understood and a couple of things became catch phrases. When I started there I had a broad accent; if I could have learnt cockney quicker I would have, it was merciless. It was '64 and the General Election was about to take place and we had a drama class, I never even knew what drama was! A posh, arty teacher asked us who we'd be voting for and I said "I'd be voting Labour", she was quite charmed and said "That's lovely, and now say what your name is and where you come from" and I said the only way I knew how (adopts broad black country accent) "My name is Kevin Rowland and I come from Wolverhampton" and they all descended into uproar and it became a catch phrase with kids coming up to me in useless accents. It wasn't easy that...
But when you started Lucy and the Lovers you were back in the Midlands?
I grew up there and my formative years were in North West London - Harrow, Wembley - until I was about 19 and then I did a year in Liverpool, then I went to Birmingham where my brother was. After Pete's band I formed Lucy and the Lovers.
Was it your band; is every band that you've been in "your" band?
I don't think it really was, that one, no; I tried to make it my band but it wasn't really working out. I don't think they've all been my bands, although I suppose they have in a way. I'm certainly a lot better with people than on my own. I need to work with people. I have to have the vision, I can't seem to follow any one else's vision; it's hard enough trying to follow my own!
You were quite a flamboyant dresser in Lucy & the Lovers, I didn't see the band, but I believe there was pink satin going on, well it was the mid 70's...
Well, it was just before Punk. I don't know if you know a band called Deaf School? They were a big influence on us, they were a great group; I'm surprised they weren't more successful, they deserved to be. It was sort of in between that Roxy Music and punk thing really.
Then it was the Killjoys; that was 'proper' punk?
I don't think it was proper punk, it wasn't great punk really. Lucy and the Lovers was an interesting idea; before we'd even heard punk we had bits of song that were quite fast and there was a lots of energy in it and there happened, coincidentally, to be lots of swearing in our lyrics as there was in a lot of punk records. Punk just kinda happened while we were getting the band ready and so by the time we started to do gigs there were punks in the audience. They were accepting of the faster songs but not the slower ones, so we just kind of morphed into the Killjoys...
When The Killjoys split and you and Kevin Archer formed Dexy's; was your idea from the start to bring the soul music in and bring it to the fore?
By mid '78 there were still people jumping on the punk band wagon and there was post punk but it was a very idiosyncratic thing to do, that; no one else was doing that. Where did the idea come from?
I don't know where a lot of my ideas come from; I do know it was earlier than that when I was still in the Killjoys and I was really thinking this is going nowhere, we've got to find our own thing but I didn't know what that was. Everyone just seemed to like these punk songs so I thought let's just be punks but I very quickly learnt that I can't follow someone else's thing but I didn't know what my own thing was so we were trying to get as far as we could with the Killjoys, but that was a ridiculous plan. What became really obvious was that there wasn't that much emotion in music at that time, there was anger or softer-anger or pity-anger there wasn't too much else. To me it seemed a glaringly obvious thing, like a bolt from the blue that it was a really good thing to do.
They did me a favour by leaving, those guys, the other three leaving me and Kevin Archer to it. It was the day of the gig and we had a record company coming to see us, I thought "Oh God"; we were still slaving under the idea that we were might do well but I'm sure we never would have done, we'd be just third division punks really. I was upset for a while but now I could do what I really wanted to do...
Were you a soul music fan at that time, were you going to soul nights?
It was something that never left me, I'd always liked it, I'd grown up listening to it, loads of black music. It spoke to me from the off in the 60s; Tamla, Stax and even stuff before that when I was really young. I was in clubs '73, '74, '75 hearing all that funk.
Your vocal style is brilliant and memorable, did that come naturally or was it part of the Dexy's vision that you were going to sing in a certain way?
I thought it was important to have a vocal style and before long we got involved with Bernard Rhodes, who used to manage the Clash. He said "I don't think your vocal style sounds very original". We'd done some demos and he thought that the band were good but didn't like my vocals. I was really annoyed at first but when I went away and thought about it, I realized he was right so I started to think what could I do differently and I came up with the idea of putting that 'crying' voice on, for want of a better word.
To get across the emotion?
Initially just to find a style; I was mad on Roxy Music, and Bryan Ferry had the best voice, when I heard that I thought "Where did that come from?". I was trying a few things; I was definitely influenced by General Johnson of Chairman of the Board. I went round to Jim Patterson's, the trombone player, and asked him what he thought and we changed the keys to suit the vocals more.
In terms of the first Dexy's look, the Italian Docker, no-one else was jumping on that band wagon, you were unique in how you presented yourselves. Was it something you were conscious of, wanting to look like a complete package?
Definitely, we saw that the look was part of it. Roxy were like that, they looked great and we were into that from the off.
The donkey jackets and the hats, where did that come from?
Jim Patterson was at a rehearsal one cold day when we were rehearsing in a squat. We used to find old warehouses and break in, take the gear and set up and practice. Jim had a dark polo neck on and a woolly hat; it was freezing and he was playing his trombone, you could see his breath and I remember thinking what a great look it was. Before we had that look we were more flamboyant. The Specials were local and came to our gigs, they invited us on their tour and we had to find something that their audience were accepting of but that wouldn't be the same as them.
In terms of that Birmingham, Coventry scene, I had a conversation with Lesley Woods from the Au Pairs, she remembered a party in Moseley and she said that the look that you had and the way that you were was intimidating and felt like you were in a gang. There was a party that you and she were at and it all kicked off, and doors were off the hinges, usual sort of a late '70s party. A ring was stolen and everyone thought it was one of Dexy's; she phoned you up and you said you'd see what you could find out. You found the ring and you went around to see her and you sat down and had a three hour conversation about violence. Is that a true story?
It's something like that (laughs). She came around to mine, I was shocked, we didn't know those people, they were from the other side of town; Moseley, middle classy, studenty, CND, different kind of thing to us completely. We did want that separate thing, we didn't want to be like them, they went to each other's gigs. I was quite surprised, she came around unannounced with another guy, she was going on to me (middle classy, studenty, CND voice) "What is this Dexy's against the world thing Kevin, what is it?" and I said (laughs) "I dunno".
I think she found it quite intriguing that you'd gone from someone that she thought was quite intimidating to someone who actually would sit down and talk about stuff.
I don't think I had a lot of choice with her (laughs)! She must have pricked my conscience because she was coming at us from a different angle. Most of those other lot would see that we were a bit hostile so they'd be hostile. I think I felt guilty; it was easy with all that bravado, you know when you're that age. We liked that the fact that everyone hated us in Birmingham, we wanted that and enjoyed that reputation, it was a little bit silly and she had a point.
In those early days with the first single and right through your career you've talked about Irish identity, has your view of that and being an Irish person living in England changed as you've got older?
Oh man it's changed loads of times; I think this is true of immigrant children generally where they go though a stage where they rebel against it, which I probably did as a kid, or embrace it, possibly because the Irish were so under siege. A lot of Irish people that I come into contact with are "everything Irish is great, everybody Irish is great and everything English is shit" which I bought when I was younger 9 or 10, but by the time I was a teenager and I got a kicking off some bouncers, who all happened to be Irish, I knew that wasn't the case so I resisted that. But then when I was in my twenties it hit me that the Troubles were going on, that you couldn't really say much about Ireland, people didn't want to hear about it really. In Birmingham as well, they'd had the pub bombings in '74, Irish jokes were everywhere on telly etc. I knew then that that perception around was equally untrue, I knew that deeply and I felt forced to say something, I just couldn't not say anything. I was hearing stupid people say that Irish people were thick, people that couldn't barely string a sentence together...
In the introduction this evening before you came on I mentioned that as a 17 year old it was fantastic to have a band that made you jump around but to make you think as well and 'Burn It Down' that's a prime example of that. But I want us to talk about 'Geno', Geno Washington being the inspiration. When it reached number one and you were on 'Top of the Pops' did you feel like a star at that point and was it a good thing.
I never did feel like a star. I was always uptight about something and uncomfortable and not very good. It was a surprise; initially as it was going up the chart I felt it and pretty quickly I didn't. I remember the drummer Stoker saying (Brummie accent) "You're a star Kev". I felt weighed down by it, the pressure. It's terrible I should have enjoyed it but I didn't; I was thinking about what we should do all the time, I wasn't able to run with it.
In the brilliant song 'Young Man' which comes later in your career, it's obviously you addressing yourself as that young person. Was part of the point of the song that you should have enjoyed what you do and not taken it so seriously?
It was, absolutely; the last line is "I wish someone said that to me". I was reaching an age, maybe 35; I was maybe starting to get a perspective on how I'd been. My brother had a son, John, who was growing up and I dedicated it to him, I suppose he was the nearest young person to me.