Not enough protest songs

Yes, this is a very fine song (and this is a very fine version of it, which I hadn’t seen in 25 years).

You see Robin,
I’ve been searching for the young soul rebels.
I’ve been searching everywhere, I can’t find them anywhere – where have you hidden them?

How we laughed.

The strange thing about “There there, my dear” – and about Searching for the young soul rebels, the album it closes, and about the work of Dexy’s Midnight Runners in all their various incarnations – is that it’s brilliant all the same. It’s embarrassingly earnest in a puppyish teenage way, it’s tiresomely arrogant and pugnacious (also in a puppyish teenage way), and it’s clumsy and awkwardly executed. But it’s brilliant all the same. Searching for the young soul rebels is a wonderful, life-enhancing album – I wouldn’t go quite that far for the other two, although I wouldn’t be without them – and this is a glorious track.

And it’s not just down to that extraordinary Stax sound. The lyrics – if you can find them written down – are… well, they’re embarrassingly earnest and clumsily executed and basically pretty dreadful in several different ways. But they’re brilliant all the same.

Not convinced? Here, because I feel like it, is the annotated “There there, my dear”.

Rrrrr-Robin, hope you don’t mind me writing, it’s just
There’s more than one thing I need to ask you.

After beginning with the old General Johnson trill, Kevin comes in on the wrong beat here – Rob-IN hope YOU don’t MIND – but it’s OK by the end of the first line.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, you’re so anti-fashion – so wear flares
Instead of dressing down all the same

“Why not wear flares?” in the published lyrics. It’s a good question, but I don’t think anyone’s that anti-fashion.

It’s just that looking like that I can express my dissat-
Robin, let me explain,
But you’d never see in a million years

Shame about ‘dissatisfaction’. We’ll see more of Kevin’s ruthless way with line endings later on. Now shush, there’s a good bit coming up.

Keep quoting Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs,
J.G. Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir,
Kerouac, Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie…
And I don’t believe you really like Frank Sinatra.

Seriously, how good is that? The fourth line is one of the all-time great put-downs. (I did once see a copy of Songs for Swinging Lovers lying prominently around in the flat of an irritatingly hip friend, and a Dexy’s poster on the wall. Unfortunately I only thought of the line later.) The other three lines are pretty good, too (Michael Rennie!). A couple of things about that long, ridiculous list are worth noting. One is that, despite the line-cramming that goes on elsewhere, the scansion here is fine; Kevin even has time to fit in a quick ‘brrr!’ between Beauvoir and Kerouac. It obviously wasn’t just dashed off. The other is its odd, self-contradictory quality. Dexy’s first single “Dance stance” uses a similar list as a demonstration of how much they know and you don’t: Never heard about – Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, Edna O’Brien and Lawrence Sterne… (“It’s as if a gang of punks had taken the Irish Academy of Literature hostage and used the Stax headquarters for barricades”, as this site says (I think).) Here, though, Kevin’s reeling off a list of obscure and pretentious references as a way of criticising someone for using obscure and pretentious references. The song’s playful and self-mocking – almost despite itself – at the same time as being deadly serious.

Robin, you’re always so happy, how the hell?
You’re like a dumb, dumb patriot.
You’re supposed to be so angry, why not fight?
Let me benefit from your rage.

“How the hell do you get your inspiration?” in the published lyrics; also “benefit from your right”, which doesn’t make much sense. I was convinced when the song came out that it was addressed to Ian Page of the (relatively) prominent mod revivalists Secret Affair, mainly I think because of this verse. (Apparently it’s addressed to “NME indie bands”, which makes more sense of the Burroughs Ballard ect ect.)

You know the only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things

Ah, Baader-Meinhof chic. Takes me back.

Robin, I’d try and explain
But you’d never see in a million years.
Well, you’ve finished your rules, but we don’t know that game,
Robin, I’d listen to your records but your logic’s far

“Far too lame” in the published lyrics, but since Kevin’s tried to get a whole couplet into the space previously occupied by “Robin let me explain” he’s forced to swallow a couple of words before the next line. Which is:

And I’d only waste three valuable minutes of my life with your insincere

“…with your insincerity” in the published lyrics, but Kevin wisely doesn’t attempt that. So we’ve got “And I’d only waste” instead of “But you’d never see”, and instead of “in a million years” we’ve got… um. Fourteen syllables crammed into five. You’ve got to wonder about the thought process that led to keeping ‘valuable’ in there. And respect it, frankly – he’s the one stuck with singing it.

Then we’re into the spoken section:

You see Robin,
I’ve been searching for the young soul rebels.
I’ve been searching everywhere, I can’t find them anywhere – where have you hidden them?
Maybe you should…
Maybe you should welcome the new soul vision!
Welcome the new soul vision!
Welcome the new soul vision!

Of course, he doesn’t mean that ‘maybe’, any more than Andrew Anthony really thinks he may be wrong, but from Kevin you don’t mind the equivocation so much. The obvious induction is that that’s because Kevin’s talking about a nebulous lifestyle statement involving sixties music and woolly hats, whereas Andrew Anthony is talking about matters of great political moment, but I’m not sure that’s it. They’re both ultimately talking about their own beliefs, and putting their own credibility on the line.

In this sense, protest singers aren’t all that different from columnists and other professional opinionators. All of them take the risk of looking like egotists, eccentrics or both – the compensation is that they can win the audience round anyway if their act is good enough. (‘Good enough’ here can mean persuasive enough, new enough, strong enough. Beyond a certain point it can even mean egotistical enough, or eccentric enough; I think this is the tightrope Martin Amis has just fallen off.) And if it’s not, not.

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20 Comments

  1. smokebelch
    Posted 7 October 2007 at 23:12 | Permalink | Reply

    Ah, wonderful stuff Phil. I’d love to see a similar job on the epic This Is What She’s Like. “Well you know how the English upper classes are thick and ignorant? Yeah, you’ve seen the scum from Notting Hill and Moseley, they call the CND?”

    Now there’s a minefield to pick your way through!

  2. Posted 8 October 2007 at 09:45 | Permalink | Reply

    Had I but world enough and time… What gets me about the lines you’ve just quoted is that they’re sung – and sung to quite a catchy, jaunty melody at that. The next two lines are pretty good too:
    [spoken] “I don’t really like those scumbags”
    [sung] “Let me be clear on that point!”
    You’re clear, Kevin, you’re clear.

  3. smokebelch
    Posted 9 October 2007 at 23:22 | Permalink | Reply

    … and of course, it’s one of the basic necessities of any ground-up revolutionary movement to make sure someone is detailed with drawing up a plan for dealing with the “kind of people that put creases in their old Levis.” The bastards.

  4. Phil
    Posted 9 October 2007 at 23:26 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m horribly tempted to write that post…

  5. Posted 10 October 2007 at 11:59 | Permalink | Reply

    Well I really do like Frank Sinatra.

    I never really got into Dexy’s, but I have string affection as a Bristol City fan that when Bristol Rovers played at Anfield at some cup game, the hosts decided to tribute them with playing their song “Goodnight, Irene” as they ran out. BUt mixed it up and played “Come on Eileen”.

    God I hate gas-heads.

  6. CommonSense
    Posted 22 October 2007 at 10:48 | Permalink | Reply

    Gordon is a Moron? Classic song with new relevance.

  7. Posted 24 October 2007 at 19:41 | Permalink | Reply

    Fantastic post Phil. I read on re-released sleeve notes that KR claimed that he was very involved in a particular left-wing grouping at the time, but I’ve never found out which one.

    My best guess was the RCP (v. soft on Irish republicanism, hence, right up his street), but I’d be interested in any evidence to the contrary?

  8. Posted 24 October 2007 at 19:41 | Permalink | Reply

    PS – exactly *how* many blogs have you got Phil? ;-)

  9. Posted 26 October 2007 at 17:27 | Permalink | Reply

    My best guess was the RCP (v. soft on Irish republicanism)

    In the sense that Paul Calf was soft on Man City, perhaps.

  10. Posted 30 October 2007 at 19:10 | Permalink | Reply

    Dexy’s were actually vastly better than often thought. Even the most commercial stuff, and weirdly they did commercial when the mood took them (or probably more accurately him) had something…

  11. Phil
    Posted 31 October 2007 at 19:45 | Permalink | Reply

    Paulie – these days just the one; I’ve merged the other three into this one.

    About Kevin and the Left I don’t know. There is a song on Don’t stand me down which compares British revolutionary socialist positions on Ireland to the Radio 1 daytime playlist (“They all sounded the same!”), although as so often with Kevin it’s not clear what he’d actually prefer.

  12. Posted 3 November 2007 at 00:11 | Permalink | Reply

    Dexy’s are a vastly under-rated band, and I’m so glad there seems to be a positive reappraisal going on (the recent release of The Projected Passion Revue is very welcome indeed). When I tell people that they’re in my top 10 bands of all time I often get a mystified look followed by “What? The Come On Eileen bloke in the dungarees?”

    This Is What She’s Like will be one of my selections when they eventually get round to inviting me onto Desert Island Discs.

    “I don’t speak Italian you understand………. but I knew a man who did.”

  13. Posted 3 November 2007 at 13:50 | Permalink | Reply

    Pedant’s corner.
    “Gordon is a Moron” is not a song.
    It’s a line in a song called Jilted John.

    I always thought Dexy’s were a bit too art school. Like the Genesis of their day.
    I once threw up at a wedding as Come On Eileen played in the background. I’d probably dance to it now.
    We all sell out eventually.

  14. Patricia
    Posted 6 November 2007 at 03:28 | Permalink | Reply

    I really think you should start posting on your other blog again. I mean, I’m tired of hitting it 40-50 times a day and then finding you keep posting behind my back here. Why, Phil, Why? How could you just pack up and move here. It’s breaking my inter-heart. :( <–That is a frowny face. That’s what you have done to me.
    :( <–That one is just to get my point across.

  15. Posted 6 November 2007 at 19:16 | Permalink | Reply

    I frequently wonder whether it should be “Pedant’s Corner” or “Pedants’ Corner”. What do other pedants think?

  16. Posted 7 November 2007 at 00:15 | Permalink | Reply

    Is it the kind of corner that would appeal to a pedant or the kind of corner where pedants gather? Or is it both, in which case which form takes precedence?

  17. Ste
    Posted 24 January 2011 at 21:27 | Permalink | Reply

    to use a cliché, which you’ll probably burn me down for, it’s easy to criticize. You seem to set out worth the opinion that KR is a little dumb and naive, which in all fairness is probably true but the fact that this important album was written before KR was 23 means that contextualisation is critical. OK so maybe all the lyrics, syntax and rhythm aren’t perfect but so what? SFTYSR is a seminal album and bolsters more tension and catharsis than most of the ‘influential’ punk albums of the period. Take a look at your comments and apply them to another seminal work, ‘What’s Going On’, you really don’t need to change the arguments just a few of the words and you’ll see what I mean. Earnest and honest overlap in some respects but the tension speaks for itself, to criticize this honest, if flawed, outburst of real passion and belief seems churlish and inflammatory.

  18. Posted 24 January 2011 at 21:43 | Permalink | Reply

    If you think I’m criticising Kevin Rowland, I don’t think you’ve understood this post at all.

  19. Dave Lesley
    Posted 21 May 2015 at 23:01 | Permalink | Reply

    God, you’re so good Phil. Trouble is, it’s all shit.

  20. AMB
    Posted 3 August 2016 at 03:10 | Permalink | Reply

    For what it’s worth, he does sing the whole of the “your logic’s far too lame” line but it overlaps with a second vocal that comes in with the following line. I think there may be a couple of other places where this happens too – just to add to the confusion.

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