Album Review: Dexys Midnight Runners “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” (1980)


Searching for the Young Soul Rebels was the 1980 debut album by Birmingham pop-soul band Dexys Midnight Runners. Dexys Midnight Runners, or Dexys for short, on first glance was quite an interesting group and not really a typical 80s band. For starters, they only released three albums during the first half of the decade before separating and then returning again in 2003. Secondly, they played an unusually quirky variant of soul music which in itself was quite unusual for the time in a period dominated by synth pop and new wave acts. And finally, their original eight-year existence included a revolving door of musicians coming and going like flies in what was seemingly a real-life Spinal Tap situation. On paper, their line-up appears like that of a philharmonic orchestra with the band’s overall membership during this time aside from constant feature and bandleader singer-songwriter Kevin Rowland coming to a grand total of thirty-seven members in eight years. Although the lifespan of a Dexys member wasn’t long, especially if you were a trumpeter or saxophonist, the constant line-up changes didn’t prevent them from making quality music and in particular a smashing debut album.

Searching for the Young Soul Rebels would be one of the more distinctive sounding albums of the 80s, a sound which I would describe as pop-soul. This sound is centered on a full horn section which forms the base of most of the tracks on the album and drives these songs along at full tilt. The soulfulness of the horns and organ combine nicely with the pop-punk aggression in Kevin Rowland’s vocals and the backing rhythm section which gives the overall album an intense edge much like that of punk rock. Rowland is clearly the creative force in the band, hence his survival while others have perished, and it is his slightly camp extravagant pop vocals which amazingly fit right in with this massive horn sound. His voice is not your typical soothing soul voice full of range and power think Aretha, think Otis, his style is more quirky and playful and certainly not conventional in a soul sense, which in many respects is the perfect fit for the bands quite extravagant and may I say loud sound. This combination just shouldn’t work, a kind of British brass band horn sound with soul undertones and a quirky pop singer, but it does somehow and it works very well. One influence that can definitely be heard on here is that of Northern soul – a music and dance movement that came out of the north of England in the late-60s, and although this movement isn’t directly aligned to the Dexys, it does share the soul influence of Stax and Motown and an overall ethos that involves producing music that you can dance to.

Throughout the album, the music tends to stick to an up-tempo horn-driven Motown style of pop-soul with songs like “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green” and “Seven Days Too Long”, the pop song on the album with a very catchy chorus. The band also indulge in what sounds like reggae on “Geno” especially with its bass line and horn parts, a great song which to me even sounds like a precursor to the likes of New Zealand’s own Fat Freddy’s Drop and the Black Seeds. Although most of the tracks have an up-tempo feel, there are occasional moments which contain a more downbeat jazz soul vibe, notably during “I’m Just Looking” and “Keep It”. These songs do a good job in just breaking up the intensity of the horn-infused dance tracks and allow the listener to sit and take a breather for a moment, that is if they have been up and dancing as expected.

Searching for the Young Soul Rebels although not a big hit was very well received by critics and many still consider it to be one of the best debut albums of all time. Allmusic described Rowland as having “the unexpected but perfect voice to capture a time and moment in the UK, the return of soul to English rock music at the dawn of Thatcherism”, heavy praise indeed. This sort of sentiment I feel fits perfectly with this album as it was unusual to see a band playing this kind of music, not to mention it was their own personal take on soul and not just a copy of music which had for a while till that point gone out of fashion in England. This album to me is a very interesting and distinctive album and stands apart from other albums of the time as a musical avenue of quirkiness and eccentricity within what was a growing conservatism in the music industry. I can think of only people like Ian Dury who were doing things of a similar ilk at the time in the UK, in an industry which in the past was full of eccentric songwriters such as Lennon, Davies, Bowie, and Mercury.  Although it wasn’t a revolutionary album musically and didn’t contribute to any musical movement as such, it achieved what it set out at the time and that was to bring soul back to British music and attract new young soul rebels to welcome in the new soul vision as Rowland boldly proclaims on the albums closing track “There, There, My Dear”. In a decade full of inconsistent returns album wise, this one stands out as one of the best, proving also that there was a lot more musically to this thirty-seven strong band than just Eileen (referring to their hit single “Come on Eileen”).

– Sam

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