Forget Eileen: Ted Leo On The Unsung Greatness Of Dexys Midnight Runners

Jan 2, 2020
Originally published on January 14, 2020 12:02 pm

This week, Morning Edition begins a series called One-Hit Wonders / Second-Best Songs. Each segment focuses on a musician or band whose career in the United States is defined by a single monster hit, and explains why their catalog has much more to offer.

In this first installment, veteran indie rocker Ted Leo speaks up for Dexys Midnight Runners, the British group best known for the fiddle-heavy '80s hit "Come On Eileen." Read Leo in his own words below, and hear the radio version at the audio link.


I'm old enough to remember vividly when "Come On Eileen" first became a hit in the U.S. In retrospect, it fits with what I now know to be Dexys' R&B roots. But at the time, you just saw these people dressed in Dickensian street-urchin clothes, doing this kind of fiddle song that had a number of catchy hooks, with a singer, you know, yelping.

That particular record, Too-Rye-Ay, was a bit of an apotheosis of where the band had been moving. Kevin Rowland is a singer of Irish descent, and they had this whole Celtic-soul kind of thing from the punk era, with a little bit of that energy and edge. And I think the pinnacle of this earlier incarnation of Dexys is the song "Geno."

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It was a huge hit in the U.K. and virtually unknown here. It's just a really great, horn section-driven song; I think it's in this song that I started to realize what Kevin Rowland was doing with his warbly, emotive soul yelp — this Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett kind of shout-singing.

Over the years, I've certainly — sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously — also looked to a lot of those same antecedents for vocal cues myself. I do find myself sometimes, especially in live performance, tilting a little too into wildly emotive, over-the-top expression — something that I could probably rein in a little bit. But when one is feeling something, one wants to express it the way one is feeling it.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Dexys Midnight Runners hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts with this song in 1983.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME ON EILEEN")

DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS: (Singing) Come on, Eileen. Oh, I swear - what he means - at this moment, you mean everything.

KING: "Come On Eileen" is still a singalong favorite. You'll hear it in bars and at karaoke. But the band never matched that success again in the United States. It didn't even come close.

We are launching a series today called One-Hit Wonders, Second-Best Songs. And musician Ted Leo is going to make the case that Dexys Midnight Runners have a lot more to offer.

TED LEO: I'm old enough to remember vividly when "Come On Eileen" first became a hit in the U.S. That particular record, "Too-Rye-Ay," was a bit of an apotheosis of where they had been moving. You know, Kevin Rowland, the singer, is of Irish descent. And they had this whole Celtic soul kind of thing from the punk era with a little bit of that energy and edge. And I think the pinnacle of this earlier incarnation of Dexys is the song "Geno."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GENO ")

DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS: (Singing) Back in '68 in a sweaty club - oh, Geno.

LEO: It was a huge hit in the U.K. and virtually unknown here. It's just a really great horn section-driven song about being inspired by a guy who Kevin Rowland just saw dancing in a club back in '68, as he says in the opening line - just being in this moment of dancing and sort of to the exclusion of the rest of the hubbub of the world. Witnessing that was inspiring to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GENO")

DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS: (Singing) But now just look at me as I'm looking down at you. No, I'm not being flash. It's what I'm built to do.

LEO: But I think it's in this song that I started to realize what Kevin Rowland was doing with his, you know, warbly soul yelp. Kevin Rowland has very much this kind of, like, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett shout-singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GENO")

DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS: (Singing) And now you're all over. Your song is so tame - brrrr (ph). You fed me. You bred me. I'll remember your name.

LEO: "Geno" is a song that I've now done decades with, and it still really grabs me and pulls me into its world.

KING: That was Ted Leo talking about the song "Geno" by Dexys Midnight Runners. It's his pick for our series One-Hit Wonders, Second-Best Songs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.