Dexys Midnight Runners – ‘Searching For The Young Soul Rebels’

When Searching For The Young Soul Rebels was released in the summer of 1980 the UK singles chart was littered with funk and disco; the golden age of both had had their day, but the likes of Chic, Diana Ross, Gibson Brothers, Detroit Spinners, Brothers Johnson and Odyssey were still hugely popular. Soul, however, was a far more distant memory. Not since the heyday of Motown had authentic soul acts really bothered the Top 40. Funk and disco were hanging in, ska and mod was in the middle of a massive revival and then along came Dexys Midnight Runners, bringing with them a new soul vision.

To me, a 14-year old who was soaking up anything and everything, soul was something I’d just dipped my toe into when Geno stormed to No.1 in early 1980. I loved it, the passion, the image, the brass and in particular Kevin Rowland’s uncomfortable, blue-collar cool. There There My Dear was equally magnetic, teaching me valuable lessons I’d never learn in the classroom.

“If you’re so anti-fashion why not wear flares instead of dressing down all the same”.

Soon (not soon enough) I’d be wearing nothing but second hand clobber. I went to work in a ‘trendy’ menswear emporium, but a few of us only laughed at those who simply, stupidly, blindly followed fashion. It was bands like Dexys who taught me to think for myself.

Searching For The Young Soul Rebels had so much to say, politically, culturally and from its opening minute of radio hiss and snippets of The Sex Pistols, The Specials and Deep Purple I devoured it as if my life depended on it, which at the time it pretty much did. Amongst blaring brass and cool keyboard stabs Rowland’s voice was brilliantly painful; harrowing, pleading, so different from what the charts were (by the time this album had its wicked way with me in 1981) becoming – a synthetic, soulless, new romantic upchuck. Whilst their hit singles were upbeat and immediate the album’s slower tracks are those that really reach the soul; The Teams That Meet In The Caffs, I’m Just Looking, I Couldn’t Help It If I Tried and in particular the brilliantly scornful Keep It.

For me the album was a springboard to soul and all manner of social references, but more than that it was a genuine inspiration and the more I listened the more I felt enlightened. That said, to love it and believe in it as I did was further evidence of not just a love of music, but an appreciation and acceptance of the fact that music was moulding my life, asking me as many questions as it was giving me answers. Soon I would be gorging on soul as part of an unrelenting 60s binge, but for now Dexys Midnight Runners were – much as Geno Washington was to Kevin Rowland – a perfect inspiration.

The Jam – ‘Going Underground’

For my 14th birthday The Jam released Going Underground, and much appreciated it was too. Prior to this No.1 single (straight in at the top spot; no mean feat at the time) I’d dug The Jam, but had yet to become a Weller obsessive. That was about to change. I was looking for inspiration, for excitement and a hero to worship, and like many other impressionable teenagers who sought a role model from their TVs, radios and record players, Paul Weller was that man. A good choice. A very good choice indeed. Paul Weller was a passionate, gobby, working class, mod-obsessed, Beatles-inspired super cool motherfucker.

Prior to Going Underground The Jam’s previous two LPs Setting Sons and All Mod Cons had gone by relatively unnoticed. I was still largely a singles kid, obsessed with Top of the Pops and the Top 40, and Strange Town and Eton Rifles in particular were singles that had already turned me on to The Jam. The financial restraints of a 13 year-old meant albums were few and far between (I probably had a dozen or so, and a bunch of oldies I’d nicked from my dad just to beef up my collection) and it was The Jam’s next album Sound Affects released in late 1980 which was the first of theirs to feel the sweat of my eager mitts. Going Underground was a perfect single; screeching guitars, thumping bass riffs, hammond keys and spat out harmonies, but it was Weller’s passion and cool that won me and thousands of others over.

“You choose your leaders and place your trust
As their lies wash you down and their promises rust
You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns
And the public wants what the public gets
But I don’t get what this society wants
I’m going underground…”

See, kids, our heroes were people we could relate to, speaking for the common man and the kids on the street. They were largely untouched by the corporate system that pukes out most of your modern day ‘idols’. Yes, there were also your watered down pretty boys and girls with nothing to say – some people always care more for style than substance – but in 1980 pop stars weren’t part of the system, instead they sung out against it. Fuck, even UB40 had a political conscience, Signing Off being a brilliant dub-heavy statement of disillusionment. Going Underground cemented The Jam’s position as the biggest band in the UK in 1980. For an awkward sod like Paul Weller to reach such heights was a sign of the times. Shit was happening and Weller told it how it was. Soon, a certain John Lennon would become my obsession, but until they split in ‘82 Weller, Foxton & Buckler were my world.

The Beat – ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’

By 1980 the ‘second wave of ska’ had firmly found its place in the UK charts. Madness, Selector, Bad Manners and The Specials were having major success, and it was The Beat with their debut album I Just Can’t Stop It who cemented my love of the dance craze. By the grand age of 14 I was already checking out the roots of my chart favourites, listening to soul, ska and sixties, fascinated and obsessed as I was by the history and the culture as well as the music.

The band’s first three chart singles were all taken from this stunning LP. Hands Off She’s Mine, Mirror in the Bathroom and Best Friend were all classic singles with the rest of the album littered with covers and blatant nods towards their ska and rocksteady pioneers. As with The Specials, much of The Beat’s own writing was heavily spiced with political and cultural references born out of Thatcher’s Britain. I loved the energy of Click Click and Two Swords as much as the dubby loose-limbed groove of Jackpot and Whine and Grine, and despite some of the overtly political lyrics and cutting social comment this was still most definitely a ‘pop’ album.

It’s with far more than a large dose of dewy-eyed nostalgia that I can listen back to I Just Can’t Stop It, and still love it. Along side other debut albums by The Specials and Madness, I Just Can’t Stop It is the soundtrack to my 15th year. A year of happiness, in no small part due to the sheer energy and excitement of these albums. I remember a constant stream of innocent days full of naive and romantic positivity, and the sheer voyage of musical discovery was already an all-consuming passion.

Quite simply this is an exceptional album, brilliantly of its time and forty years later as socially relevant now as it was then. The lyrics I was devouring as a kid served as my social and political learning, missing as it was at school and at home. Forty years later my views have changed very little. A life well lived not being judged on capital gain, but one’s compassion towards others. That plus a distrust of the elite, questioning how indeed their capital was gained.

“You look like a government minister
Or a high ranking military officer
I don’t think you care
You’re just a big shot, yeah”

– Big Shot

The only down side – the putrid cover of Andy Williams’ Can’t Get Used To Losing You – despite Everett Morton’s perfect mellow ska beat. I didn’t like it then and don’t like it now. Anyway, kids, there’s never a bad time to give your social conscience a jolt, so stream, download or just get this album.

Madness – ‘One Step Beyond’

40 years ago I was a spunky school kid sporting sta-prest and Fred Perrys, carrying an unhealthy obsession with pop and desperately trying to mimic my newly found idols. Madness’ debut album One Step Beyond was made for a boy like me. The brand new 2-Tone label was seen as the second wave of ska; coming off the back of punk it was faster and edgier than in its sixties heyday, and in most cases, due to the social unrest at the time, had a strong political lyrical edge.

One Step Beyond was released on the classic Stiff label but Madness were still a huge part of that early 2-Tone scene. That said, politics seemed to be the last thing on their minds. Unlike most of their ska revival counterparts Madness regularly swayed from the labels’ ska roots, blending rock’n’roll, rockabilly and ‘60s pop into their sound. Lyrically too the subject matter was more diverse, from schoolboy tales of playground antics and first loves to underwear thieves and random cockney patois. The stomping Night Boat To Cairo was my fave, just a glorious ska romp and learning the lyrics to sing along was a must.

As much as anything bands like Madness had a wonderful identity; beyond the tonic suits and loafers this wasn’t musical sophistication, but was something teenagers could instantly and totally relate to. I dived into the deep end consuming the music with a fevered passion of which only a 13 year-old is capable. This was an album way beyond its brilliant singles One Step Beyond, My Girl and The Prince, I could listen to it now and love it almost as much.

One Step Beyond was totally of its time, but nostalgia apart it is still a brilliant debut album. Looking back, I feel lucky to have been thirteen years old in 1979. Not just for The Jam, The Specials, The Selector, The Beat and the iconic 2-Tone scene, but the Top 40 singles chart, Top of the Pops, Smash Hits, Our Price, Cassette Players, now all long gone but I’d take those days over our current instant download culture any day. My love affair with Madness ended with the release of their third album, but Absolutely, and in particular One Step Beyond are iconic, brilliantly British pop masterpieces.