A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.
The Song: “Come On Eileen”
from the 1982 album “Too-Rye-Ay” by Dexys Midnight Runners
reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart
As a person who’s been in literature for a few years, I’ve come up against all kinds of poems and songs. One of the most frequent types of work I’ve seen is the carpe diem work — the kind that implores the listener to seize the day, to do something that makes the most of their time. Of course, that something usually turns out to be sex — the writers are just desperately horny, so obviously procreation is the best use of them and their partner’s time. Usually I’m indifferent to such things: the novelty has kind of worn off after hearing endless songs gushing about it, and some of these songs don’t really try to appeal to the emotions either, so they come out sounding empty and unrealistic. “Come On Eileen”, the Celtic-sounding 1982 hit from English band Dexys Midnight Runners, is also at its core a carpe diem song about sex. But saying that it’s mainly about copulation sells it short, does the song a huge injustice. Because “Come On Eileen” is simply one of the best, most exuberant and joyful records I’ve ever had the fortune to hear.
(And before anyone asks, yes I just did a short story on the song. It’s that good, I can’t be bothered to wait for a bit of distance.)
There are a million ways you can cut into “Come On Eileen”. You can, for instance, take as the starting point Dexys’ origins in “Northern soul”, where British youth got down to obscure American soul records and created a whole subculture that Dexys and “Come On Eileen” drew from. Or you could talk about how Dexys Midnight Runners’ broke away from the music scene: where everyone was doing angry punk rock, they went into blue-eyed soul instead; where new wave music meant synths and drum machines elsewhere, Dexys went and added violins and horns, which set them apart and gave them character. But no, those aren’t what I’m after in this discussion.
Instead, let’s talk about joy. Kevin Rowland has a very convoluted approach to it in this song, but it delivers spectacularly. From the moment the thump of the bass replaces the fiddle solo of Irish folk song “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms”, Rowland shifts the gears higher and higher — the fiddle solo turns into a steady beat, into a background melody, and finally into a frantic mix of sound and strings, it’s always when you least expect it, always with a turn that catches you unawares. That results in a smile on your face, one that only gets bigger and bigger as it sweeps your mood along with it: the one-two beat of the bass at the beginning gets your blood pumping, prepares you for something higher, and then delivers in showing what that high can be like. When the first words of the song come along — that joyous shout of “come on, Eileen!” — it’s a terrific release, the realization of what’s coming dawning on you. It’s that rush of first discovery that empowers the song to take over your senses: the joy, the euphoria, it’s all there in the first 40 seconds. But that’s only the intro: what’s even more impressive about “Come On Eileen” is how it manages to maintain and even surpass that high for the next three and a half minutes: having come out with guns a-blazing, it shifts, twists, and changes so frequently that you keep on discovering new highs, and that journey of discovery is at the heart of the song, is key to giving you the ride of your life, even as you follow it through so many confusing key changes and tempos.
I’ve avoided the lyrics so far, but this is the point where just describing melody will get us nowhere: part of the wonder about this song is in how it manages to blend lyricism beautifully into the melody, the words describing exactly what the tune is making us feel. And yes, this is not an easy task: Kevin Rowland’s vocals are terrible. He might say that it’s an affectionate aping of some old Northern soul singer, but to me he sounds like the worst actor in the whole world, commanded to cry and now taking it way over-the-top. (No wonder it’s so beloved by people who are seeking to liven up a party — it’s meant to be sung as if you’re tired and emotional.) But there’s still a certain charm to Rowland’s cry-singing, and when you look up the lyrics, you discover how they really complement each other in voicing out that anguish, singing about that joy.
That joy manifests itself through another prism too: the prism of nostalgia. Now, I don’t consider myself as having listened to enough records to get a grip of nostalgia’s place in pop music, but I do think that whenever nostalgia comes into play, it always tends to be this agent of inaction. Think Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days”: you have people talking about how great they used to be, or how they witnessed great things. Reminiscence is therefore the objective, and nothing more: no action is taken, no action needs to be taken. It’s just a way to escape to the past, but the prospect of a return to reality is never far off.
But Dexys don’t use nostalgia as a way of escape: they look at that nostalgia and critique the hell out of it. They talk about fifties wailer Johnnie Ray in the lyrics, and then write him off as something of their parents’ era: “our mothers cried/ Sang along, who’d blame them?”. Kevin Rowland knows that it’s just a fact that everyone’s stuck in this nostalgic period: “these people round here/ Wear beaten-down eyes sunk in smoke-dried faces/ So resigned to what their fate is”. Nostalgia, then, is a symbol of paralysis in the world of Dexys, a force to oppose against for those who are “far too young and clever”. After all, it’s his own nostalgia about that period, that memory of Eileen as the little girl rather than the “grownup” young (and, I’m assuming, beautiful) woman that’s infecting Rowland’s thoughts with Catholic guilt, that offsets his hormonal impulses in the first place.
But wait: there’s more nuance to it than it seems. Cause even as Kevin Rowland looks on Johnnie Ray and all he represents with disapproval, even as he tries to get out of it, there’s a begrudging appreciation of one aspect of the past. Because he recognizes the charm of Johnnie Ray, he finds in them his ability to drive a call to action: to sing along, to feel what Ray seemed to be feeling, that was heaven for their mothers. So he envies them: in his come-on to Eileen he cries “we can sing just like our fathers!” A crescendo follows, Kevin Rowland’s voice grows louder, and suddenly it lifts up into a completely different song. The nostalgia and the reflections on growing up resolve themselves into an explosion of discovery that happens in real-time, the realization of the fact turning into heat that in turn becomes a call to action, to take off everything right there and then. You can taste the excitement in that line and feel the pulse quickening in that line: it’s the taste of opportunity, the discovery of a whole new world that can be all yours.
Make no mistake, this is a real struggle that the singer’s feeling — that sudden stop, breakdown and acceleration that the bridge/final section is so famous for is such a wonderful demonstration of the fact. He pushes some of that reluctance onto Eileen: “come on Eileen, these things they are real/ And I know how you feel”, but the million-dollar question here is how he feels himself. His words are unintelligible, particular through all the cry-singing (I’m still not sure if the last bit I quoted is the actual lyric), but that awkwardness and that anguish is beautiful: trying to get the words out, the jumbled mess of trying to convince yourself that “things round here have changed”, and that includes Eileen. And through all that, you have the backing band, steadily upping the ante with their chanting, steadily turning up the dial on just how confused the singer is.
So it’s such a joyful thing to hear the violins fly like they’ve lost all control, to hear that breathless drum beat, and to hear that final shout of “Come on Eileen!”. It’s the decisive point of the whole song, the point where happiness overwhelms doubt, where one sense of nostalgia overwhelms another, where catharsis and ecstasy are finally found. It’s like when the two leads have finally got together at the end of the romcom, and are going for a big damn kiss: so intense and breathless, it sweeps you off your feet. (Dexys must have realized this: on the music video, it comes just at the moment Kevin Rowland catches up to Maire Fahey and catches her from behind, and though the whole thing is unexpected, perhaps even a little sinister, you have GOT to admit that it’s a brilliant complementary catharsis.) Even if the struggle continues to be real (he’s still shy about it, has to “confess” that his thoughts are dirty) — it’s the one high that sticks, the last in a series that follows us to the end of the song and provides us with closure.
When I wrote about “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, way back in my first piece, I talked about how it fully encapsulated the feelings of bliss, about how you were willing to stop the world just to hear a teenager talk. “Come On Eileen” deals with joy too, but here the pain of growing up is much more acute, much more visible: just as Eileen has grown, so too does the singer need to realize that he’s grown, too; and instead of shutting out the world just so that the two of them can be together, here the crowd makes its presence felt through the backing singers. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” tries to turn melancholia into longing, “Come On Eileen” tells us how that point’s already passed, how we are older and wiser despite our efforts to be “young and clever”. Everything is so much more complicated in “Come On Eileen”, and yet Dexys manage to pull off high after high in the song: hooking up our feelings to Kevin Rowland’s, dragging us through the realizations that he too is going through, letting us feel their full weight. It believes in all those things: the struggle of guilt, the astonishment of persuasion, the exuberance of discovery, and it embraces those feelings head-on with a sincerity that just bowls you over and leaves you breathless, leaves you almost transcendantly happy. In the end, of course, it’s all for one purpose: the carpe diem of “let’s get it on”. But what a seduction.