This article originally appeared in Q414.
In 1999, newly-clean from drugs, Kevin Rowland released a revelatory covers album, My Beauty. But embattled by a furore over its sleeve, then defeated by his label’s demise, the Dexys leader withdrew injured from the fray. Now, with its long-awaited reissue imminent, Rowland tells Ted Kessler the story of its genesis and its aftermath.
It was the early 1990s and Kevin Rowland knew he had a serious problem with cocaine. He was battling that addiction when he hopped in a car and headed towards the West Country, hoping to find some space from it, along with the other personal and financial ghouls that had increasingly stalked him since his band Dexys Midnight Runners’ masterpiece third album in 1985, Don’t Stand Me Down.
As he drove down the motorway, he stuck on a cassette that he had by the dashboard. The tape was called Soul 1977, a compilation of old gold from that year. The original Greatest Love Of All by George Benson came on and Rowland nearly swerved off the road.
“I’d never heard it before,” he recalls. “Well, I had but I hadn’t really acknowledged it.”
Something about the song, the words, were speaking directly to him in his long moment of crisis. “I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadow, if I fail, if I succeed, at least I’ll live as I believe”: that struck a chord. In Dexys, as a highly determined, single-minded young man, he’d always been sure to stay true to himself, which meant that compared to other hopeful new groups he stood apart. There had never been compromise shown by him in any respect, no quarter offered, as promised by the strident chorus of Dexys’ very first single Dance Stance in 1979, where he’d demanded that listeners “shut your mouth till you know the truth.” And while that spirit had given him an edge few contemporaries could match, it had also isolated him from even his collaborators at times. He felt alone.
The main line from the Greatest Love chorus also hit home hard. Learning to love himself really would be the greatest love of all because, at that moment, he didn’t. “It really had an effect on me,” he says now. “I found myself in tears listening to it.”
Nevertheless, he drove on to the West Country. He was still a long way from beating his addiction and the road stretched ahead.
“A couple of years later I got into recovery,” he says. “Cocaine addiction seemed like the last stop on a long line of all kind of craziness.”
When he finally stopped after five years of heavy drug abuse in August 1993, he had to look at his life in a new light. He’d never done that before. “Then it was like, ‘Fuck. What the hell has been going on?’ I was confused for quite a long time. I was pretty crazy for a couple of years, really.”
He started going to rehab, more than one rehab in fact, and looking back now, though he realises he needed some heavy-duty work, the treatment was hardcore. “People would be attacking each other in these groups,” he remembers. “You know. Fucking hell. I was in a position where nobody had said anything to me or attacked me in any way for a long time.”
Rowland had grown up street-wise and tough in Wolverhampton. The son of a builder, he’d had to adapt to new surroundings at the key age of 11, when he moved to the London suburb of Harrow, leaving school at 15. He’d been arrested 13 times before founding his band, as commemorated in the great lost Dexys song, Kevin Rowland’s 13th Time, including being pinched for attacking a group of men outside a pub with an iron bar. The band’s early success didn’t temper his street instincts: he beat journalists up who’d offended him and took back the masters of his band’s debut album mob-handed from EMI’s offices. He could handle himself. But he couldn’t handle rehab. It knocked him off-balance.
To find some equilibrium he began to chart a way back using music as a guide, listening to it for the first time in a long while. Surprisingly, what he found himself attracted to was music that he’d ignored before, standards that had always been on in the background of his life but that he’d never really tuned into.
“All these tracks just started to come back to me one at a time,” he says. “I started to listen to them, like Reflections Of My Life, Greatest Love, songs that just seemed to make more sense to me than anything else that was going on in my life, or what the rehab people were saying. When I heard It’s Getting Better, I just kept playing that Mama Cass version over and over again. These songs were really important, for some reason.”
As these old standards materialised before him in a new light, so did a calling. He hadn’t made a record since 1988, a solo album called The Wanderer, and he’d had no real desire to make any music while lost in drugs and depression, but now he had a vision.
“It became obvious to me that this was my next move,” he says. “This is what you’ve got do. Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I wanted to do music. I didn’t know. Ah, this is what you need to do. You need to record these songs.” He pauses. “And then I thought, well, how?”
It is 3 March, 2020. Kevin Rowland opens the door to his light, modern flat overlooking the River Lea in East London with a swish of his baggy strides. He is 66 years old and in stylishly fine fettle, a gracious host who could pass for a good 10 years younger. “I feel OK, man, I feel OK,” he confirms. It is a couple of weeks before Britain enters lockdown and Covid-19 is a constant theme on all broadcasts, but Rowland isn’t worried. “I’m not even thinking about it,” he says, with a chuckle, “really, it’s not on my mind.”
What is on his mind is My Beauty, the collection of cover versions that appeared to him as such a vital mission in the aftermath of his recovery around 1997, and which will be reissued in September after being out-of-print for decades. In a long career often characterised, despite his success and influence, by self-sabotage and being misunderstood in equal doses, My Beauty towers over all his other work for being misinterpreted, as well as being a monument to his wilful individuality. Released at the peak of lad culture in 1999, people fixated upon its sleeve: Kevin Rowland in a dress, made-up, lifting his hem to reveal his underwear. It overshadowed everything. The mockery from the press, from his own label Creation even, was overwhelming.
It was deeply unfair, too. My Beauty was the sound of Rowland back in the room after a long absence, telling his life story in a series of gloriously reworked standards. A covers collection that reinvented the genre by linking disparate songs together in one narrative, it deserved better. It meant more.
“Talking about it now isn’t easy,” he admits. “Even though these are other people’s songs, it couldn’t be more personal. At the time I thought, ‘Well, how do I make these my own?’ So that’s exactly what I feel I did, I tried to tell my own story with these songs.”
Once he was in that frame of mind, the songs appeared subliminally to him. “They chose themselves,” he agrees. “It’s Getting Better, for example, I can’t remember how I heard it, maybe on the radio, these were mostly songs that I had barely noticed at the time. That’s the weirdest thing. They weren’t my favourite songs. If you’d asked me for my favourite 12 songs, I wouldn’t have picked these.”
The narrative thread that linked them also became clear to him. The Greatest Love became a conversation with himself via his mother; the majestic strut of Rag Doll was Rowland as a youngster, carefree and proud; Labelled With Love (I’ll Stay With My Dreams), Squeeze’s song about a crumbling alcoholic was tweaked to being about cocaine addiction; You’ll Never Walk Alone became his own personal salvation… he’d walked through that storm.
“When I stopped taking drugs properly and had a look at where my life had gone, it was a chance to face myself. Really face myself. There was no fantasy. Part of it was making that album.”
It wasn’t, he stresses, a case of just hiring some good players and handing them a list of songs to bang out. He and his long-term colleague from Dexys, trombonist “Big” Jim Paterson, who co-produced My Beauty, spent months arranging the songs, rehearsing Rowland’s vocals in his Brighton home, then demoing everything until they were good enough to pass on to musicians to record. “In many ways, even though it has Kevin Rowland on the cover, it feels like it is a Dexys album because Jim’s so present,” he says. He’d signed to Creation after a bidding war for the demos, because they were the label of the era, and he’d promised to make a Dexys album at some point. But he’d told label head Alan McGee that first he had to make this solo album. “Perhaps because it was so personal. Or perhaps because Bryan Ferry did his covers albums as solo records, not as Roxy Music. I don’t know.”
He started it in 1997 and it came out two years later. He felt OK throughout this period.
“Listen, I’ve always been neurotic. And I still can be, don’t get me wrong,” he clarifies. “I think I was alright. There was the story that I was picked up from the scrapheap and it wasn’t true, mate. I was getting my life together. I was out of bankruptcy. I was bankrupt from ’91 to ’94, by the government.”
This sounds very stressful.
“It was a bit. I wasn’t allowed a bank account. Any royalties went to them. Tough period. But I’m glad that they kept the royalties because all the creditors got paid back in full.”
After two years of working on the album, he took the record to McGee and Creation. McGee loved it, but suggested that it wouldn’t make it on to Radio 1, a crucial ingredient for having a hit record then. But that was OK, Kevin Rowland could be a Radio 2 artist, said McGee. Then Rowland showed McGee the shot he wanted for the cover of My Beauty.
“He absolutely loved it,” says Rowland now, with a shake of the head. “That’s the thing. He loved it. Obviously, he’s a marketing man. He looked at the photo and said, ‘This puts you in Radio 1 land. This makes you relevant.’ He understood the potential of it. But as time went on, attitudes changed. You know, ‘Why are we even doing this crazy project?’ That was what one of Creation’s marketing managers said to McGee, though I don’t know why he told me.”
The press reaction stung him. “Nobody was talking about the music. It was insane. Times have changed. The sleeve wouldn’t be judged that way now, it would be the people saying that stuff now who’d be judged as reactionary. Whatever.”
He shrugs, but it stings still. “I know I’m not in a position to judge. I’ve abused journalists, with our adverts, and I’ve hit one or two. So, I’m not in a position to take the moral high ground here. But I think it would be received differently now.”
What particularly bothered him was the widely shared idea that it was a cry for help. As with all of Kevin Rowland’s many famous looks, it was simply a style thing. He’s a stylist. It’s always about the look.
The idea came to him in 1995, when eating in a Thai restaurant in Covent Garden.
“The waiter was wearing a sarong,” he remembers. “As I’ve always been with looks, I just thought, ‘Wow. That looks really good.’ This was two years before David Beckham wore one. Nobody was wearing them. ‘Fucking hell,’ I thought. ‘That look was great.’”
He had a friend coming back from Thailand so he asked him to bring one. “It must have been in the air because the guys at Duffer, which was a cool shop at the time, one of them started wearing one. Style ideas always are just in the air and if you don’t pick it, someone else will. Same with music.”
He wore sandals with the sarong and one day looking down at his feet, he thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to paint my toenails.’ “People around me were going, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’
“And then I had an intuitive thought to get a dress made and it just felt like the most natural thing in the world.”
Before he even started recording My Beauty, he had a photo shoot with “my friend Marie-Therese. I can’t remember who said lift up the dress, but I just did it and she went, ‘Great, like it’. Looking back, it might have been better without doing that, without pulling it up. But there’s always a part of me that goes, ‘Fuck it’. That just wants to hit them over the head, and enjoys that. So that’s what I did.”
Perhaps there’s also a part of him that, when he’s hitting people over the head, knows that in the end he’s the one who gets clobbered. Because the reaction to both the sleeve and the album sent him spiralling again.
As the abuse and mockery of My Beauty rained down upon him, Kevin Rowland retired to his bed. “I took it to heart, really,” he says quietly. “I did. I shouldn’t have done, but I did. Yeah. I did actually. Towards the end of it I just felt really ill and my appendix went. Coincidence? I don’t know. But I was just in pain inside. I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this any more.’”
It hurt that the sleeve had completely overshadowed the album, which he was so proud of and that meant so much to him. And that it had been so ridiculed when its existence was such a symbolic victory, to him at least. That look signified rebirth.
“In 1995, two years into my recovery, I was starting to feel really good,” he recalls. “And I thought, ‘What am I into?’ For me, everything was new. I hated that I had history. I wanted to wipe it clean. My Beauty was a new record for me. It was a new life. I wish it had really been like that.”
Shortly after My Beauty came out and before Rowland had a chance to release a second single from it, the one he felt would connect it beyond the music press, Greatest Love, McGee called and said that Creation was closing down. Don’t worry, he said. He’d pay him compensation. “I didn’t want compensation,” says Rowland, sadly. “I wanted the record out.”
For many years he couldn’t listen to My Beauty, it hurt to do so. But others did. Every now and then, people would get in touch with Rowland to tell him how much it means to them.
“Billy Adams, who used to be in our band [Dexys] had been on holiday in India and he said to me, ‘I’ve had this great experience.’ I said, ‘What happened Bill?’ ‘I was on a train listening to your album and Reflections Of My Life came on and I was in floods of tears. I couldn’t stop.’” Kevin Rowland looks to the window. “Fucking hell. You know?”
In 2012, when Rowland brought back Dexys for an album, One Day I’m Going To Soar, he also booked in nine shows at The Duke Of York Theatre in London, which turned out to be some of the best of his career. Another brilliant tour followed the year after. My Beauty has never been played live…
“Funnily enough, when we played in Stockholm some guy shouted out ‘Whitney Houston!’ My manager suggested some shows, but in truth I don’t want to do music any more. Not for the time being anyway. I have other things I want to do.”
That’s a blow. “Well, thank you. I don’t know. It’s not a big announcement. I don’t want to be the Kevin Rowland figure really. That’s not a massively popular thing in itself, I know, but in my head it was something.”
It feels odd, as a life-long fan, sitting in Kevin Rowland’s living room, reminding him that he was in fact something massive to so many people. That he had platinum-selling albums, reinventing his sound each time, from the soulful fury and desperation of Dexys’ landmark debut Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, through the sing-a-long Celtic mysticism of Too-Rye-Aye and the deep, conversational funk of Don’t Stand Me Down. That he scored massive Number 1 hits with Geno and Come On Eileen and was amongst the most revered singers and lyricists of his generation. He changed the way people dressed.
“Ah, well,” he chuckles softly. “I’ve been lucky. That’s not false modesty. I’ve got a good appraisal of things at the moment. Sometimes I’ve been way too egotistical. It’s been a big problem for me. It’s very easily seduced, my ego. At other times, I’ve been the other extreme. Two sides of the same coin. But I’m reasonably balanced now. I do feel lucky…”
He considers one way in which he’s been lucky. “Kevin Archer [Dexys’ original guitarist]. If I hadn’t met him I don’t think you’d have even heard of me. He wrote the music for Geno. He didn’t write the songs for the second album, but his sound inspired it. I’ve worked with good people. Jim’s been amazing.”
That’s the nature of music, of course. It’s collaborative. Everyone has to work with someone.
“They do,” he concedes. “Bowie worked with great people.”
He pauses, deciding what he can and cannot say. “I just don’t want to run out of time. I’m 66 years old. I feel in a bit of a rut. Dexys are in a bit of a rut… maybe not a rut. The work exists. I was so happy with One Day I’m Going To Soar. Happy with the last album [2016’s Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish Country And Soul], liked my singing on it…”
And the accompanying shows were amazing, he agrees, re-imagining old songs in a way respectful of the source material, but shaded by the journey that’s been experienced since. It was a reinvention of the live experience, one that relied not upon pyrotechnics, but mastery of story-telling.
“Oh, the best we’ve ever done. It’s what we always wanted to do live, incorporating conversations. We first tried in ’85. Ah man, they were great. Couldn’t have gone better. But… to make that financially viable, it’s not easy. It’s really not. I don’t want to do just vanity projects.”
Slowly, we edge towards what Kevin Rowland has up his sleeve. “Well, I spent the last 12 months working with someone on clothes, design. It didn’t work out in the end, personality-wise. The other thing…”
Drink of water. Look to the window. “The weird thing is the timing of My Beauty coming around again now. Without wishing to sound corny, self-love is important. The Greatest Love Of All, you know. Someone like me, who is quite destructive or egotistical, that doesn’t come naturally. If I don’t work at that I can be the opposite. This is pure coincidence, but I’m interested again in expressing the feminine side. That might manifest itself in something that I do.”
One firm nod of the head. “Do you know what I mean?”
A cliff-hanger. The unpredictable, un-put-down-able story of “lucky” Kevin Rowland has one more twist in its tail.
For a two-hour Dexys Midnight Runners/Dexys playlist, compiled by Ted Kessler, on Spotify, click here.