Dexys, the band who confound you with their strangeness – and then their brilliance

Dexys Midnight Runners

Should you be surprised that the new Dexys video – for their cover version of the Friends of Distinction’s 1969 hit Grazing in the Grass – features Kevin Rowland dancing around London Fields in turn-ups Edward VII would have been proud of, surrounded by young women in vintage dress while his band magnificently ham it up for backing vocals? Perhaps.

But only if you know nothing of Dexys.

If there’s one thing you can safely predict about what Rowland and his band might do next, it’s that you won’t be able to predict it. This year’s Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul is evidence of that – a record that features several songs that are neither Irish nor country (such as, well, Grazing in the Grass, not to mention Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now), and a record of cover versions that stands besides a press release in which Rowland boldly stated: “These songs aren’t cover versions, they’re personal interpretations.”

Rowland has a long history of sidestepping expectations to forge his own path. Dexys’ 1980 debut, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, was contrary before they had much of a reputation to contradict. With its emphasis on musicianship and a respect for soul heritage, it challenged stereotypes of what a punk-influenced band should do. The follow-up, 1982’s Too-Rye-Ay, was a complete reinvention. The group’s brass entourage was forced to learn fiddles to replicate a Celtic soul sound similar to that found on Let the Record Show, while the band’s uniform switched from the style of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets to denim dungarees and neckerchiefs. Don’t Stand Me Down, released in 1985, was an even more extreme switch: the band now sported smart Ivy League-inspired suits for a series of lengthy pieces, often spoken word, that explored Irish identity, teenage romance and the drab conformity of pop culture. (“It all sounded the same,” runs the chorus of One of Those Things.)

This last point seems especially pertinent. Dexys have never been a band you could throw that insult at. Isn’t this what we should demand from our artists? That they constantly surprise and delight us, risk confusing and upsetting us, occasionally make us cringe when they get it wrong, and then force us to applaud when we realise what they were getting at all along? Certainly that was the case for me and Rowland’s 1999 solo album My Beauty, which seemed a bizarre move. Rowland, who appeared on the sleeve in stockings and a pearl necklace, performed a series of cover versions of songs by Whitney Houston and the Monkees. He was suffering from mental distress at the time, but he managed to pour this into the music as honestly as he knew how. It was only after going through a similarly unstable period myself that I truly began to hear where he was coming from. I realised that these weren’t cover versions at all – they were personal interpretations.

For all his unpredictability, Rowland would never be so crass as to do these things simply to provoke a reaction. As he told me in 2012: “Riling people is boring. Punks were doing that 30 years ago, there’s no point in me doing it.” Neither is he simply setting out to be surreal or wacky. He doesn’t confound for the sake of it. There will not be a Dexys album about Star Trek performed by the band dressed as Peppa Pig. Whatever they do, it will always fit somehow into the wider Dexys vision, which undertakes each artistic step with utmost seriousness.

Last month, I covered Glastonbury for the Guardian’s live blog. The headliners were Adele and Coldplay. Their music was familiar and comforting – hardly stuff to set the pulse racing, but oddly apt during a period of post-Brexit instability. What two artists could possibly embody the “it all sounded the same” culture more than Adele and Coldplay? When Chris Martin speaks of taking their sound into adventurous new arenas, it usually means they’ve added in a gentle disco beat somewhere. With Coldplay, you know exactly what their next five albums will sound like. Of course, you can argue that every artist has a place in music, but let there always be one for a band like Dexys. They set out to please nobody and serve nothing but their own distinct artistic vision – and by doing so, keep their fans constantly on their toes.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Tim Jonze, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 5th July 2016 12.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010