This is real punk rock

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The legendary Kevin Rowland of Dexys (Midnight Runners) has lived a life that’ll make a brilliant movie one day. From the brass-driven sounds and Mean Streets chic of the early band to the Van Morrison-inspired folk soul and global success of the 80s and on to the criminally under-rated all-time classic political soul album, Don’t Stand Me Down, Dexys have always been a magical blend of music, fashion and subversive ideas. Driven by Rowland’s restless energy and relentless philosophical searching they’ve scaled amazing heights and hit terrifying lows, creating intensely passionate music and experiences along the way that have changed many fans’ lives, mine included.

1985’s Don’t Stand Me Down, a stone cold masterpiece, was a commercial failure, sabotaged in many ways by Rowland himself. “Maybe I just wasn’t ready for success,” he later wrote. Sadly, this heralded the start of a lost era for him. Although outwardly confident, he’d always been plagued by insecurity, paranoia and fear. The commercial success of Come On Eileen had masked it for a while; the failure of what he saw as his greatest creative achievement exacerbated it. For a decade he absolutely lost the plot, becoming hopelessly addicted to cocaine to the point where he was doing eight or nine grammes a day. He went bankrupt and lost his house, going from bedsits to drug treatment centres. Reflecting on this period later on, he’s said that every time he thought he’d hit rock bottom a trap door opened and he realized there was further to fall. “I didn’t want to live. I really wanted to die,” he said.

The lost period appeared to be over when Alan McGhee of Creation Records persuaded Kevin to sign to his label and record an album. That album ended up being My Beauty, a collection of cover versions of songs that had helped Kevin through the lowest points in his life. The strangely uplifting sound of a soul singer rising from terrifying drug psychosis, it included heart-breakingly beautiful treatments of The Greatest Love of All, Can’t Tell The Bottom From The Top, You’ll Neber Walk Alone and Thunder Road (sadly deleted from the eventual release when The Boss refused to sign off Rowland’s lyric changes). However, tragically, the beauty of the music was lost beneath the controversy surrounding Kevin’s new look. A long-time admirer of the soft materials and looser fit of women’s fashion, Kevin had designed a range of “men’s dresses” for himself. He appeared on the cover of the album in the dress, underwear, suspenders, pearl necklace and lipstick combo you see above.

Rather than ‘Welcome back, Kevin’ the story became ‘druggy lunatic turns transvestite’. Sunk by its cover image, the album was rumoured to have sold less than 500 copies and Kevin was booed and pelted with bottles of urine at the Reading Festival. But, as Adam Ant once famously sang, “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of.” And Kevin, unbowed, stood by the look. “I’m very proud of it,” he said. “I think I look beautiful…just like my music comes from the soul, these clothes are about my soul…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.”

Contrary to the small-minded mocking and provincial attitude towards My Beauty, to me the music, look and performances felt – and still feel – like the ultimate punk rock statement. Not ‘punk’ in the tired sense of daft haircuts and Special Brew, but of a singular, bracingly confrontational creative vision. An idea conceived and executed – for better or worse – with absolute lack of compromise and spectacular purity.

As Patti Smith described it on Radio 4 last year, “Punk rock is a frame of mind. I think of Mozart as punk rock. I think of Rimbaud as punk rock. Those laurels don’t really belong to anybody.” For me, that means Eric Cantona kung fu kicking a racist idiot. Beethoven continuing to compose long after he went deaf. Ali daring to take on the ‘unbeatable’ George Foreman. Bob Dylan plugging in his electric guitar to the fury of the folkheads at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. That’s what My Beauty was. Kevin Rowland doing it his way. The bold, brave and frighteningly honest cry of catharsis of a true artist.

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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

2 Responses to This is real punk rock

  1. DeeDee says:

    I have just stumbled across this post and I think your writing is brilliant. I especially love your description of ‘true punk’, a philosophy I too have espoused for sometime especially when the punk label is stuck on someone or something. True Punk is like Buddhism. Being true to yourself to the core…to fly your own freak flag. Dig it. Thanks.

  2. antmelder says:

    Thanks DeeDee. I always thought the best articulation/example of ‘punk’ was De Niro’s character Michael in The Deerhunter when he has the argument with Stan about Stan forgetting his hunting boots. “This…is…this.” Complete and utter refusal to compromise.

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