by Kevin Burton
Do you remember what song knocked Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” out of the top spot on the chart in 1983?
If you said it was Jackson’s next release “Beat It,” that’s a good guess. That’s how hot he was that year.
But the answer is “Come On Eileen,” by Dexys Midnight Runners. It’s amazing any song could interrupt Michael Jackson in 1983, even briefly. Billie Jean was on top for seven weeks, Come On Eileen for just one, before Beat It was on top for three weeks.
I remember a college friend saying, “Man you love that song.” I did and still do.
More than that though, I got the song. Now it’s my all-time favorite.
Come On Eileen is a song by a British band with a Celtic sound and look. But the song is marinated in American soul music as was the man who put it together.
Kevin Rowland, the driving force behind Dexys Midnight Runners, hailed from Birmingham, England, but he was heavily into American soul. The Dexys sound that started in 1978 was more Memphis than Birmingham.
“The sound itself had a Stax Records Van Morrison-influenced soul sound, heavy on horns,” reads the Billboard Book of Number One Hits.
“It was radical to do what we did in 1978,” Rowland told Jack Magazine. “We looked back into the sixties and reinterpreted it.”
Live audiences didn’t always know where the band was coming from with covers like Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming.” But Rowland knew.
Rowland was so heavy handed as a band leader that two iterations of Midnight Runners left the band. Rowland recruited new players going from horns to fiddles as the dominant sound. He gave the group new looks too, going from street gang, to athletic to Irish vagabonds.
But even when the fiddles came in, the Stax feel stayed. You had what is often considered a country instrument played with rhythm and blues sensibilities. I think the repeated “too-ra-loo-ra, too-ra-loo-rye-ay” lyric even borrows from folk traditions.
You could call it a musical gumbo that few bands could pull off. It’s different enough, with violins, banjos and accordions that you have to take notice. It just jumped out of the radio.
Rowland, a former candidate for the priesthood according to the Billboard book, had his biggest hit with a nearly five-minute plea for sex. But was it also theft?
A 19-minute video produced by the New British Canon details several elements of the song which seem to come directly from other sources.
The video mentions that the melody on the chorus of Come On Eileen probably came from a song by Jimmy James and the Vagabonds called “A Man Like Me.” I think Rowland took that song and put it on warp speed to come up with his megahit.
The “dump da dump” intro we had already heard on “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones among other songs.
The bridge is notable for the way it starts slow then gathers steam, exploding back up into the hook. The video indicated Rowland got that idea from a demo he got from former band mate and co-writer Kevin Archer.
Archer told The Daily Mail, “It was my music there was no mistaking it. To be fair he wrote the words to the music. But it was the tune that was so distinctive and made it a success. That tune was mine.”
Rowland put great importance into his lyrics but few lead singers ever garbled the words more than he did. This was probably the Van Morrison influence. You can also listen to the vocal delivery of Chairmen of the Board front man General Johnson on “Give Me Just A Little More Time,” compare Rowland’s approach and know there was some influence there.
One could conclude Rowland assembled a sleek musical car by stealing parts from all over town.
Just where that line between influence and theft lies, I can’t say. I will say Rowland knew what to do with the musical elements that came to him. And he stitched together a classic that hit number one in England, the USA and is my all-time favorite.