Thursday, 24 April 2008

What's She Like?

Alright Bill?
Come in. Where you been?
Oh round and about you know? Nowhere special.
Oh what you been down Bearwood?
Yeah, that's right. I looked in down there.
What the Little Nibble? Yeah, that's it.
Seen anybody down there, any mutual friends or acquaintances or anything down there?
No not really, there was no one about.
No one down there?
There was no one. What were you all talking about when I came in?
What you mean just now?
Yeah, just as I walked in?
Well, you know, just different things really, you know, nothing specific.
No? nothing special?
No central thing no.
You weren't talking about me were you?
About you?
Yeah me.
No, honestly. No, no, I don't know where you got that idea from
Are you sure?
Ah look you know, we talked about different things but we never mentioned you honestly. You don't have to worry about that Bill. Your name wasn't mentioned.
It's alright. I know what you were all talking about
Ah you do?
Yeah. I know.
Yeah, hows that then?
Come on tell me, what's she like?
You know what I mean.
I know what you mean but....

What's She Like? What's She like?

In 1985 Dexys Midnight Runners released their follow up to their best selling album Too Rye Ay. The album was called Don't Stand Me Down. There was no single to introduce the album; front man Kevin Rowland and the band wore suits. Not slick Mod affairs though; these were ones that looked like they worked in a bank. Kevin Rowland talked about how this was their comedy album. In the live shows at the time somebody dressed as a policeman would come on stage and arrest Kevin for 'burning'. Most of the songs were rambling, long affairs.

The centrepiece for the album, a track called 'This Is What She's Like' was nearly 13 minutes long. It's a song about the new love that Kevin Rowland has found, that perhaps he'd kept close to his chest until now. It's also something of a protest song, political with a smallish P.

The conversation above between Kevin and Billy Adams is the first two minutes of the track. It's not quite comedy, but there is something of the Mel Smith/Griff Rhys-Jones about it.
It feels like an ad-lib, something from an amateur dramatics session. You can hear them clearing their throats. There are pauses. In fact most of the record is heavy on the pauses. Adam on his Pretending Life Is Like A Song blog talked about the gap between two of the tracks on the album, Reminisce Pt 2 and I Love You (Listen To This). The gap is almost too short to be a normal section between tracks, it sounds like an intake of breath. After the intro, and another pause, Kevin and Billy sing the following :

Well, you know the kind of people
That put creases in their old Levis? Oh Yeah, Sure
The type that use expressions like tongue in cheek?
Indeed I do...

At this point there is one of those intakes of breath and in crash the band.

I don't like these people No?
May I state here and now,
But I can't help thinking,
All the time I'm thinking of her
What's she like? What's she like?
In time, in time In time, in time,
Well this is what she's like...

Let me put it another way Please do.
Well you know how the English upper classes are thick and ignorant?
That's true
And you've seen the scum from Notting Hill and Moseley
They're called the C.N.D. ? Sure
They describe nice things as wonderful
She never would say that, oh no,
She's totally different in every way
She is she is
There are so many things I like about these verses. Kevin was standing firmly on his own in 1985. Plenty of bands were actively against the rich, the powerful, the upper class. Socialism was on the rise in music. But Kevin was no Paul Weller or Billy Bragg. The C.N.D. was at it's peak at this point and people like Weller and Bragg wouldn't have dared slag them or their supporters.

But obviously Kevin didn't like those kind of people either. And neither the upper classes nor the trendy socialists were anything like 'She'. But what was she like? We still didn't know that and it seemed that Kevin didn't have the words for it....

What's she like? What was that? What's she like?
In time, in time
Tell me, what's she like?
Come again?
Tell me, what's she like?
In time in time
Well, this is what she's like
I would like to express myself
Go ahead

At this point Kevin launches into a wordless vocal part of such passion and fire that it stands up there as my number 1 moment in all music. It's punctuated by Billy saying 'oh what do you mean?' and pretty soon after 'Ah I know what you mean' as it all starts to become clear. And then we get some more conversation...

Bill, you know the newly wealthy peasants
You know the ones with their home bars and you know their hi-fis and all that stuff?
You know how they use words like fabulous and super in every sentence they spit out?
Oh yeah,
Well I don't really like these scumbags You don't? No
May I be clear on this point, oh no.
But everywhere I see their faces appear,
They say questions to me

They say:
What's she like? What's she like?
In time, in time, in time in time
Tell me what's she like, tell me what's she like
Bill, I'm trying, I'm trying to tell you what she's like

We're five minutes in. Kevin is starting to sound frustrated. Words just don't do it. Sometimes what you feel just can't be articulated. Billy and the band just haven't left it alone. They want to know what's she's like. We want to know. The track breaks down to some slow piano, barber shop vocals and then one of those 'oh, here it comes' moments as huge drums clatter in underneath them. Then out of nowhere a tempo change and right then and there it seems that Kevin knows how to get the message across:

Oh well I'll tell you what she's like
Given half a chance
Can I make this clear
what she's like
I'll present a picture of what she's like
You'll be in no doubt as to what she's like
But listen close listen close
And I'll tell you, I'll tell you just what's she's like
You'll be in no doubt as to what she's like
But listen close my friend

Another break down as another section comes in quietly then crashes in with Kevin's '1,2,3,4', music sounding for all the world like the sun coming up. Could be...we've been here along time while Kevin tells his story....

Come on, are you gonna tell us what she's like or not
Oh yeah, I have every intention, every intention.
I'll tell you now, listen, you won't forget this.

Wordless vocals from Kevin, with encouragement from Billy. The track underneath building up, brass and violins and pianos building up the momentum.

Do you get my drift?
Oh yeah, I'm starting to get the picture
Well listen, I can expand on this if you'd like
Yeah, if you would

More of the same, building and building, painting a picture of this perfect woman for whom words aren't enough. And then one of the funniest moments on the album. "I don't speak Italian myself you understand, but I knew a man who did". Like I said not exactly comedy, but great timing, and a certain Goon-ish surrealism.

Well how did all this happen
Just all at once really. Yeah? Just all at once
The Italians have a word for it
What word, what is it?
I don't really know;A thunderbolt or something
What, you mean the Italian word for thunderbolt?
Yeah, something like that
I don't speak Italian myself you understand No
But I knew a man who did.

Then the band hammer home that feeling, that Dexys feeling, driving piano, and drums. And then almost whispered:

Well, that's my story,
The strongest thing I've ever seen

Brass, piano, violin, pound out the wordless melody that Kevin gave us a few minutes earlier away to a fade. At this point I normally put the track back to the start, wishing that instead of nearly 13 minutes long it was three times as long. I had a tape with nothing but this track on one side to save me rewinding it. It doesn't matter that Don't Stand Me Down wasn't a hit. I bought my first copy of it in an Our Price on Oxford Street 6 months after it came out for a £1. There were hundreds of copies. And for a long time I didn't know anybody that owned the album. But everybody that I played it to fell for it in a big way.

Almost strangely, I don't associate this, possibly my favourite love song, with any particular woman. It's perhaps almost too physical, too much about the initial 'what was that?!?!?' feeling. I do know that for me Dexys before this felt like they were practicing, and after this nothing would be good enough again.

This Is What She's Like


Davy H said...

DAMN but you've written what needs to be written about this and DAMN but you got there first and best.

And there shall come a time where they shall proclaim this as thy greatest post.

Big Jimmy?
For God's sake burn it down.

Simon said...

Ah Dexys. When they did that come back a few years ago Jonathon Ross called them the 'Mighty Dexys Midnight Runners'. And so they shall forever be!.

Even if Pete Wylie got to the mighty part....

Simon said...

Oh and by the way, I did mean to say: thanks!

dickvandyke said...

And the Lord did grin.

Adam said...

Brilliant, briliant song.
Brilliant, brilliant album.
Brilliant, brilliant post.

Simon said...

Is that the 'Adam' dropping in to say hello? How you doing?


Sean McA said...

Lordy, that was an enjoyable trek thru' a favourite song of mine.

Well done!

Ian said...

Just read this through while listening to the song for the 26th time this week. If you read slowly, or take occasional breaks, it's a perfect length. So good to know what Kevin's on about, thank you. The full video is up on youtube too.