A look at the unlikely relationships between Dexys Midnight Runners and the world of comedy...


"I thought a little joke might be a good idea ...just to sort of, I dunno, kick off the proceedings, as it were, you know. What do you think? Good idea?

Does anybody know one?

Yeah, you ever hear the one about the... you know, the middle-class idiots who sort of spend all their time analysing their own emotions and writing bullshit poetry, you know, that we're supposed to read. I mean, as if we're fucking interested. 

Ha! Ha! That's a good one!

You like that one?

Where did you hear that one? Did you make it up yourself? 

No, that's a true story that one. No honestly, it's true, I didn't make it up."

With the possible exception of Morrissey, few musical artists' names have been quite so synonymous with the word "serious" as the famously frowning Midnight Runners. And yet this is the same group which recruited comedians to compere their live shows, supplied the theme tune for BBC sit-com, "Brush Strokes" and played a prank on prime-time TV so silly that many still believe it must have been a mistake by the Top Of The Pops production team. So how did a band rumoured to be lacking in humour (even Rowland himself admitted on one of his records that "Happy-Go-Lucky was NOT his middle name") end up with so many comical connections?


The decision to book stand-up comedian Keith Allen as a support act for one of their earliest live tours created what must have seemed an unlikely pairing to the audiences back in 1980 as Dexys had already earned a reputation for being straight-faced and stroppy in the extreme. A tour title like "The Intense Emotion Review" didn't exactly promise a lot of laughter and Rowland's apparent anger and antagonistic attitude towards audiences seemed to confirm Dexys' well-documented lack of humour. Every publicity shot published in the press at the time reinforced this stereo-type, depicting Dexys Midnight Runners as sullen and unsmiling - to the extent that, even now, seeing a photo of band-members having a laugh (such as the one at the top of this page) seems inherently incongruous. However, early appearances on kids TV shows like "Tiswas" and "Magpie" compounded the Dexys comedy conundrum, being at the same time both deadly serious and undeniably funny. And yet, the only people laughing at the time were the ones laughing AT Dexys who didn't understand the band's sense of humour. Rowland hardly helped matters when he told an interviewer: "People will always laugh at Dexys. That's fine. But I know that what I'm doing is totally honest. I believe in myself. I will pin my soul up on the wall and let people read it. They can laugh, they can cry, it's up to them. I really don't mind,"


When the new line-up of Dexys Midnight Runners drew up plans for their 1981 tour, "The Projected Passion Revue", they decided it should be a mixture of music, dance and humour, enlisting the talents of Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson (known collectively as "The Outer Limits") to provide the comedy element. The band's association with Nigel Planer continued in May of that year when they appeared on BBC2 "Alternative Comedy" show "Boom Boom Out Go The Lights" which also featured Rik Mayall and Alexei Sayle. This, in turn, inspired the comedians involved to create the parody "Pop-Up Toasters" by "Alexei's Midnight Runners", featuring a four-piece kazoo section! The following year Dexys made another guest appearance alongside the same comedy cast on anarchic BBC sit-com, "The Young Ones". The song which they performed on that show, a cover of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)" would also feature in Dexys' most notorious comedy escapade - an appearance on "Top Of The Pops" in October 1982.


Scheduled to perform a song which the band often referred to affectionately as "Jocky Wilson Said" - an irreverent reference to the Scottish darts player then at the peak of his popularity - Dexys instructed the show's production team to display a picture of Jocky Wilson on one of the big screens in the studio. This "in-joke" was lost on virtually everyone who watched the show, including Radio One D.J. Mike Read who later expressed his outrage that the "Top Of The Pops" producers had made such an embarrassing mistake by featuring a photo of the darts player instead of the song's actual subject, soul legend Jackie Wilson! The fact that nobody stopped to consider that this might have been a deliberate joke perpetrated by the band themselves speaks volumes about the public perception of Dexys. As guitarist Billy Adams later observed: "We were perceived as such a serious band few people expected us to have a sense of humour... people would rather believe it was a mistake than think we might be having a laugh." Perhaps inevitably for these self-proclaimed "wild-hearted outsiders" the Dexys brand of humour has often seemed rather insular and overtly obscure: They referred to Van Morrison as "Stan"; welcomed the audience at a show in a Newcastle marquee to the "In-a-tent Emotion Review"; and renamed Kid Jensen as "Sid Jenkins" (to give just a few examples.) This is very much the humour of the "in-joke" where most of the amusement is derived - by those "in the know" - from the fact that most other people don't get the joke.

This "anti-humour" was taken to its extreme with the material written for the L.P. "Don't Stand Me Down". Half way through "Kevin Rowland's 13th Time" (originally envisaged as the album's opening number) Rowland interrupts his own impassioned spleen-venting with the immortal line "Yeah, I thought a little joke might be a good idea..." The fact that the "joke" turns out not to be a joke but, in fact, a "true story" is, of course, the joke! This wilfully perverse humour permeates much of the album - as do the dead-pan dialogues, punctuated by long, awkward pauses, which reviewers at the time likened variously to Harold Pinter or "Alas Smith & Jones."

"Are you sure it's not heart-burn?" Billy Adams enquires earnestly as Kevin Rowland delivers a searing self-confessional about his "burning" on "The Occasional Flicker". The song's comedy potential was explored yet further during live performances as a policeman interviewed Rowland about reports of "churning" ("...you mean like in a dairy?") and "learning" ("like in a school?") before grasping the fact that this was a matter of a "burning" nature. Again audiences were pretty bemused by these exchanges and it's fair to say that many of them didn't "get it" - or indeed the album.


The humour which lurks and lingers just below the surface of "Don't Stand Me Down" is most evident in the album's centre-piece "This Is What She's Like". From its under-stated and slightly uncomfortable conversational opening between Rowland and Adams to its paranoid ponderings, "...you weren't talking about ME, were you?" - all neatly worked into the unlikely premise of using a love song to take side swipes at people-types who have incurred Rowland's wrath - the song achieves a level of absurdity rarely attempted on any record before or since. The fact that Dexys actually pulled it off, creating a recording now generally recognised by critics as a classic, is testament to the quality of the music underpinning it and the strength and subtlety of the performances. 

"I don't speak Italian myself, you understand" explains Rowland after concluding that Italians have a word for the feelings he's spent the last ten minutes of "This Is What She's Like" trying to express. "...but I knew a man who DID."

So there you have it... Dexys Midnight Runners - a band regarded by many as miserable gits who have somehow still managed to incorporate more comedy (albeit a very stylised and individual brand of comedy) into their work than most artists ever achieve. The fact that they have succeeded in do so whilst still creating works of genuine emotional depth and musical integrity is an anomaly beyond the grasp of most music fans. Many listeners will never hear the humour hiding within Dexys Midnight Runners' work ("I've been searching for the young soul rebels... I can't find them anywhere... where have you hidden them?") but perhaps that's the whole point of the joke.