In March of 1983, there were two particularly sweet sounds that captured my attention: überprospect Darryl Strawberry making contact in St. Petersburg and Dexys Midnight Runners making beautiful music with “Come On Eileen”.
We would have to wait until May 6 for Darryl to go into medium rotation at Shea Stadium. By then, Dexys Midnight Runners had already been to the mountaintop in Billboard, posting the most popular song in America in late April, breaking for a week the sequin-gloved grip Michael Jackson was keeping on No. 1 that spring.
Darryl would stick around for quite a while following his callup. Dexys would be gone by summer, seemingly forgotten by December. Their hear-today/”who?”-tomorrow plight was best summed up by the entity that sums up everything best — The Simpsons, specifically the Barber Shop Quartet episode from 1993.
HOMER: Lisa, did you see the Grammys?
LISA: You beat Dexys Midnight Runners!
HOMER: Well, you haven’t heard the last of them!
Poor old Dexys Midnight Runners. Sounded spry upon the radio, they moved a million miles into obscurity soon thereafter.
My introduction to “Come On Eileen” came through a most unlikely source. It was early March, spring break. I was visiting the folks at their condominium in Hallandale, a place I sincerely referred to as Condo Hell. In between moaning by phone to Suzan how much of a mistake I made agreeing to spend an entire week here while our mother was projecting this or that anxiety onto me, we veered off onto the subject of music, an unlikely one for her. The only reason my sister knew from Top 40 in those days was she listened to WNBC those four hours a day when Howard Stern was becoming a sensation. It was so early in the Howard phenomenon that he was still forced to play records. And one of them, Suzan told me, was a “disco version” of “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra” or however many Loo-Ras she gave it. I doubted that by 1983 anybody was doing disco versions of anything; she was probably thinking of how some smart producer remade “If They Could See Me Now” and “Tangerine” when she was in college.
About five minutes after I got off the phone, I heard what I believed was this souped-up Irish lullabye. I got the name and the artist straight and fell for it instantly. As my sophomore year at college wound down, all activity would cease so I could listen to “Come On Eileen” and its cheery, kitchen-sink approach. It had all kinds of exotic tones to it. Did I hear bagpipes? Flutes? Fiddles? Jugs? Damned if I knew. It just made me happy. Kevin Rowland, the lead singer and co-writer with Jimmy Patterson and Kevin Adams, conducted a four-minute Irish festival, a parade marching through my radio every time it came on.
The words? Also damned if I knew. Of all my Top 10 songs, this one more than any hooked me without me familiarizing myself with the lyrics very much. Or hardly at all. I got the one line with the name of the song: “Come On Eileen!” I got that cold. No problem. The rest, as Kevin Dillon said in “Heaven Help Us” when directed to explain the Holy Trinity — it was his homework and he hadn’t done it — was a total mystery that cannot be understood.
At least not by me.
Johnny Ray was mentioned, I figured that out. I read the words in Newsday in May, and I retained Johnny Ray. I knew there had been a singer Johnny Ray, but I retained Johnny Ray because he was the Pirates’ second baseman at the time. “Poor old Johnny Ray”? Johnny Ray had given Steve Sax a run for his money in the ’82 Rookie of the Year race. Must not have been about that Johnny Ray.
Apparently there was a not-so-hidden subtext to my No. 4 Song of All-Time.
The subetext concerned sex.
Sex with Eileen.
Ya don’t say.
I feel silly not picking up on that, but not surprised. In college, I took an English class in which the professor read us a very short story and asked us to identify what the author was alluding to when he described a great upward struggle of some sort. I thought it had something to do with preventing nuclear war and our ultimate destruction. Actually, it was about sperm swimming toward an egg. He wrote “you’re distressingly pure” on my paper. Truth be told, I mostly wasn’t listening to what he was reading, but I was probably a few games behind in the sophistication column when I was 20.
A big part of the 90% or so of “Come On Eileen” I literally didn’t understand was Rowland confessing to Eileen that his thoughts “verge on dirty”. You know when I figured that out? When I Googled the lyrics last week to write about how much I loved “Come On Eileen”. Think about it, me the 5,000-words-RDA writer and I’ve spent almost a quarter-century charmed by a song that I’ve never known what exactly was going on in.
What can I tell ya? It didn’t stop me in 1983. It doesn’t really matter to me in 2007. I was pretty sure I heard the word “dirty” in there somewhere, but I assumed it had something to do with how grimy they all looked in the video.
Yup. Distressingly pure.
Y’know, I loved so many things about music from the time I was 9 that I guess I never listened to it the way others did. I loved the melody and the uplifting spirit and the carnival atmosphere of a song like this as well as the chance to make lists in which I could include it as one of my favorites. It never occurred to me that there were those who saw music as an avenue for enhancing their chances for getting laid. I thought it was curious that all the nightspots in Tampa seemed to be located in the lobbies of Travelodges and such. A friend had to point out to me that people like the idea of going dancing and then already being in a motel, because…you know.
Sadly, I had to think about it for a minute.
Music was always such a private matter for me. I found it hard to imagine that I would want to go to dance to it. I wanted to listen to it and I wanted to rank it numerically. I was enamored of the notion that I liked songs that were officially popular, but it never seemed to translate to my own popularity and that wasn’t what I was going for anyway…just as I wasn’t going for the opposite of that. People who read my reflections on my Top 500, the nice ones, seem to give me more credit than I deserve for marching to my own drummer. They tell me they admire my courage in stating my own tastes no matter what the crowd thought or thinks.
To this day I still don’t get that interpretation. I liked all these songs that were played on the radio, usually on highly rated radio stations. The ones I loved were counted down once a week and were often the last song played on those shows. I liked what I liked, sure, but I liked what was big. Or I didn’t not like what wasn’t big.
This is the other thing I didn’t get about music, that people who professed to love it cultivated reasons to not like certain segments of it, no questions asked. I understood not liking a particular song or not having much enthusiasm for a particular artist or not really favoring a particular genre, but only until I heard something about that particular song that I liked, or something from that particular artist that moved me in some way or something in that particular genre that beat what I had experienced within it before. Otherwise I’d just be missing out.
For example, I’ve never considered myself a country music fan. Much of it is a gigantic turnoff to me. But intermittently since I was a kid, I’ve been exposed to country music and every now and again a country song appeals to me. I probably have dozens more country CDs in my collection than I would guess. The same for standards. The same for jazz. The same for — and 30 years on, I can’t believe it’s a word that still verges on dirty in some quarters — disco. I mean, what the fudge? It’s all music, right?
Hey, I even like so-called mainstream/classic rock even though I sort of despise everything about it. No, I don’t mean the sex or the drugs (in addition to getting laid, people also like music for getting high, I’m told) or any reason anybody would censor any of it. I’m referring to the attitude surrounding it, the attitude that surrounded it when I was growing up and predominated when I started college, almost right up to the moment I discovered “Come On Eileen”.
You know what one of my biggest disappointments in high school was? I was in a play whose opening night was so close that we were required to come in on a Sunday morning and rehearse. There were some kids with a radio (it might have been known as a boom box by then) and I was excited. Sunday morning meant Casey Kasem to me. Oh goody, I thought, we’re going to hear AT40!
Except of course not. These were cool kids who were listening to the rock station, WPLJ. Figured. They were blasting a Who song from several years earlier. Didn’t sound like a long-distance dedication.
That was the moment I realized I was, for the most part, alone as a music lover…which seemed odd since I was about to turn 16 which is when you’re on schedule to be in with the in crowd. But I was just never there. The in thing, at least in the white suburban circles in which I nominally traveled, was the rock station, either ‘PLJ or ‘NEW. It was the Who, whom I had nothing against per se, but didn’t really care about enough to plaster their logo on my denim jacket (I didn’t have a denim jacket either). It was the Stones, not just “Angie” or “Miss You,” but the ability to drone endlessly about seeing them at the Coliseum and the Garden and in Philly and continually repeat the lyrics to “Let It Bleed” (drugs may have played a role for some of my classmates there). It was the Grateful Dead, whom I have to admit I always confused with Black Sabbath, not based on content but probably because I must have seen their names in the same magazine once.
It wasn’t that those groups that turned me off. It was their fans. It was the joylessness that these peers of mine seemed to exude in being avid aficionados of their favorite music. It was such serious business. It was sold that way. I may not have been thrilled by the teeny-bopper stylings of a 99X or a WABC, but at least it felt like somebody was having fun. Listening to WPLJ or WNEW-FM was an absolute chore. Every disc jockey, allegedly carrying forward the spirit of Woodstock, was condescending, smug and cliquish. I felt like I had to take an admissions exam just to hear “Revolution” by the Beatles. Again, I can’t stress enough, I liked lots of the music those rock stations played, I just couldn’t get through the “we’re so cool” barrier.
And believe me, when it came to music, I never had anybody tell me that one day, I’d be cool.
Then “Come On Eileen” came along.
And “She Blinded Me With Science” came along.
And “Mexican Radio” came along.
And “Der Kommissar” came along.
They came along by way of MTV and then through Q-105, Tampa Bay’s contemporary hits flamethrower (the station I listened to in college), and to Y-100, its counterpart in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market (the station I listened to during spring break). The MTV component of the equation was new — and virtually unexperienced by me, not having cable until 1985 — but snappy hit songs on snappy hit radio stations was old hat. If I didn’t know anything more than some new acts called Dexys Midnight Runners and Thomas Dolby and Wall of Voodoo and After The Fire were getting airplay, I might not have noticed anything unusual.
But something was delightfully amiss. Those songs, and dozens of others by the spring of 1983, represented something more, something I needed to be clued into by my friend Joel Lugo the previous summer. That was the summer of ’82, the summer New York had a new rock radio station, WAPP. The Apple. It was their commercial-free summer. As long as they didn’t play commercials, they got ratings. So we were listening one day in one of our cars when Joel complained “WAPP doesn’t play any New Music.” What are you talking about, I asked. They play “Hurt So Good” by John Cougar and “Caught Up In You” by 38 Special plenty.
No, Joel said. That’s not what I mean.
Joel introduced me to the concept of New Music, as it was being played on WLIR out of Garden City. I thought ‘LIR was just another dopey rock station, but apparently it had evolved during my freshman year at USF. It was now the station that Dared to be Different when that meant playing Stray Cats records a few months before — as Screamer of the Week — the Top 40 stations picked up on it. In hits-challenged New York, when WABC had switched to talk and WPIX was “nothing but love songs” and WNBC dreadfully dull in the twenty hours a day not occupied by Howard Stern, anything that even attempted to be different sounded promising.
I didn’t hang around long enough to dig on ‘LIR (which could also be a little condescending, smug and cliquish), but I got the idea. Driving back to school in late August of ’82 was a different aural experience that driving away from it four months earlier. All the way down I-95, I was peppered with Men at Work and Flock of Seagulls and…it probably doesn’t sound very daring, but for 1982, it was wild enough. I mean, gosh, I had a roommate who was impressed that I knew who Stray Cats were.
By the spring of ’83, MTV has made itself and New Music felt. The effect was dramatic. The previously obscure Duran Duran had its first major hit with “Hungry Like The Wolf”. Adam Ant had broken through with “Goody Two Shoes”. Toni Basil’s “Mickey” went to No. 1 and not as a novelty. Culture Club’s lead singer, a chap named Boy George, was considered safe for your sons and daughters. The hacky local DJ who hosted our dorm’s Halloween dance promised first prize in the costume contest will be “a trip for two to London to see the Clash,” and then cued up “Rock The Casbah”. Two months earlier, my hipster roommate lamented that nobody besides him and me knew from the Clash, who weren’t exactly new. Gosh now everyone, even in Tampa, knew from Massapequa’s own Stray Cats. Pop music was positively bubbly as 1982 turned to 1983.
And rock music? That’s the thing. All that stuff, and all the stuff from the spring of ’83 — led by Dexys Midnight Runners as much as anybody — had infiltrated the rock stations in Tampa Bay. I said I want a “Revolution”? I was getting one. Led Zeppelin was grounded. Lynyrd Skynyrd was in partial retreat. Whereas Men At Work were, to co-opt the joke from Footloose, merely construction guys as late as the middle of 1982, they were now at the heart of AOR formats from coast-to-coast. Even my namesake, Prince, rolled onto rock stations with “Little Red Corvette”.
In other words, for the first time in my musical life, I was the cool one! The music I liked was taking over the rock stations, the most offputting outlets on the dial! Frequencies that called themselves 95-YNF (say it in a real deep voice) and 98 Rock were playing…they were playing “Come On Eileen”!
I’d won! I’d won! And I did it without firing a shot.
I was just being me, y’know? I wasn’t trying to exclude anybody. I wasn’t looking down my nose at any other kinds of music. I wasn’t all “AC/DC Sucks” or anything. I didn’t think AC/DC sucked. I judged nothing to suck as a class, only on an individual case-by-case basis. My musical choices were merit-based. And somehow, the zeitgeist found merit in what I liked.
I didn’t even know Dexys Midnight Runners was what you’d call a rock group when I first heard “Come On Eileen”. Or a New Music act. I still have zero idea what they or it had to do with the groups whose classification they fell under. I just knew they were singing something about somebody named Eileen and it was influenza-catchy. It could have been the disco version of “Toora-Loora…” like my sister thought. It didn’t matter. It never mattered.
Except to those who make the decisions on what’s cool. Naturally, that couldn’t be me for too long.
“Come On Eileen” and its ilk wouldn’t last on album-oriented rock radio. The forces of Zep were entrenched again by the fall of ’83. YNF put the hammer down (say it in a real deep voice). 98 Rock became Z-98, around the same time New York got Z-100 and ‘PLJ became Power 95. The rock stations couldn’t exist for long as the musical paradise I fancied them in the spring of ’83. It was either purge all that New Music and get your Molly Hatchet on or give up altogether and go Top 40. I find it amusing that “album rock,” the self-proclaimed heir to the throne of “rock ‘n’ roll,” simply couldn’t handle being inclusive. They imploded or they switched, but they just couldn’t stand to be home to a little Wall of Voodoo, a little After The Fire, a little Dexys Midnight Runners, even a little Who.
Or make anybody named Prince feel at home.
As Scandal featuring Patty Smyth so succinctly put it that magical spring, I had to tell my accidental coolness “Goodbye To You”. There would more New Music, even if the term faded from use. There would be more songs I would love, if none quite as much in the 1980s as I loved “Come On Eileen”. But once Casey Kasem completed his hits-of-the-year countdown for ’83, I could feel something more than a bunch of records had ended.
Maybe it was simply the difference between being 20 and turning 21, but I never enjoyed a specific year of music the same way again. It had been exciting to turn on the radio in 1983 and hear Dexys Midnight Runners. It had been thrilling. I fancied it as my own British Invasion, akin to what I imagined it was like to have discovered the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five all around you in early 1964. But even though many of the songs I fell for were from the U.K., it wasn’t really a particular sound I was into. It was that feeling that I had stumbled into being the cool one. It didn’t last much longer than the four minutes it took Kevin Rowland to share with Eileen all his dirty thoughts, but my thoughts, I confess, are that I rather got off on it.
Next Friday: A detour on the road to September.