As Dexys Midnight Runners reveal they are working on a new album, M revisits a conversation with Kevin Rowland, uncovering the secrets behind one of their most enduring songs, Come On Eileen.
Oddly enough, the song was inspired by a Swedish television presenter, not ‘Eileen’, or Ireland or any of the things people tend to assume. Back in 1981 I was interviewed for Swedish television by a very attractive lady who asked me a series of increasingly intellectual questions about the spiritual nature of Dexy’s lyrics (none of which I could really answer) and while she was talking extremely seriously, all I could think about was, well, how attractive she was.
…it’s about feeling sexual but not being able to do anything about it
That’s what the song is about really, feeling sexual but not being able to do anything about it. I guess it stems from being brought up in an Irish Catholic community; we were always told that sex was bad, more than that – that it didn’t exist! Nobody talked about it; we weren’t even supposed to think about it. But of course we did….
When the song was written we were really struggling as a band. Although the first Dexy’s album (Searching for the Young Soul Rebels) had been released the previous year, it hadn’t done as well as it should have. We were living in Birmingham, in debt from touring and generally feeling disheartened. The band and the record label were both beginning to lose interest, but I knew that this song would work.
The writing started as a collaborative process. Jim Paterson began by working out the chord structure and I tried various melodies over the top; our normal, tried and tested way of working. Until I became, shall we say, a little obsessed. This was back in the days before sophisticated studios but I was determined to get it absolutely right. I’d think of the key I wanted the song to be in, get the band to play that, and then get them to play it over and over again in every key I could think of. I’d take the tapes home and listen to them until I found the one I thought was perfect and present the rest of the band with my decision the next day. Jim left the band over this song actually, he couldn’t handle how obsessed I’d become. And I sacked our saxophone player the same day for expressing doubts over whether it’d work; the song had come to mean so much to me.
However, by the time the song was finished my confidence in it had really been knocked, and when the record label said they didn’t want to release it I didn’t put up much of a fight. It was actually a radio plugger who persuaded them that it would make a great single in the end. So it was released, and crawled into the charts on the strength of a couple of radio plays a week. It eventually made number 33. Then in a huge turn of fortune it suddenly flew to number 9, and then to number 1 where it stayed for four weeks! It became the biggest selling single of 1982 and even went to number one in America. Not bad for a song that nearly split up the band, sent me to the verge of mania, and then almost wasn’t released. I always knew it was a good one!