This Is What She’s Like: Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Unhinged Gem

Dexy's Midnight Runner's Don't Stand Me Down
Stylish!

This Is What She’s Like has bothered us for a while. Most people know Dexy’s Midnight Runners for Come On Eileen in 1982.

But the band was no one hit wonder. And this is arguably Kevin Rowland’s finest moment, which is why we’re celebrating it as the obscure gem it’s become.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Genius of This Is What She’s Like

There it is above, all 12 minutes of the bloody thing. It’s from the September 1985 album Don’t Stand Me Down.

And This Is What She’s Like is the best track of the lot.

It was released as a single in September 1985. The elaborate and lavish (for the time) video was recorded in New York by Jack Hazan on 1st May 1985.

Rowland can be seen running up a nearly deserted Fifth Avenue, which is a striking image. As are the shots of the singer seemingly levitating beyond the city’s skyscrapers.

This Is What She's Like single by Dexy's Midnight Runners

After a conversational intro, the song kicks off at the 2:07 minute mark and proceeds off on one in magnificent fashion.

Listening to it, you can’t help but wonder if the band’s eccentric frontman, Kevin Rowland, is a genius or a lunatic.

Along with the distracting (and pretty unnecessary) half-naked drummer in the official video to the song, the vast set of musicians are kept very busy.

The structure changes tempo on several occasions in what’s a complex, dramatic, and joyous song. It’s almost like a composition.

At the start, Rowland and guitarist Billy Adams have a casual discussion about a girl Rowland likes.

The lyrics are actually about his relationship with band member Helen O’Hara. Rowland admitted he’d fallen for her around the time (and who wouldn’t?!), although we don’t think they ever dated.

But Rowland told The Guardian in 2014:

“This song literally came to me as I was going off to sleep. Those words – ‘What’s she like? Tell me what’s she like’ – and melodies just came. It didn’t sound like anything.”

Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics, as they flow rapidly and form a conversation between Rowland and Adams:

Well, you know the kind of people,
That put creases in their old Levis?
Adams: Sure.
The type that use expressions like tongue in cheek and send up?
Adams: Indeed l do.
I don’t like these kind of people
Adams: No?
May I state here and now,
But I can’t help thinking,
All the time Im thinking of her
Adams: What’s she like?
In time, in time
Let me put it another way
Adams: Please do.
Well, you know how the English upper classes are thick and ignorant,
And not used to being with people?
Adams: That’s true.
You’re familiar with the scum from Notting Hill and Moseley,
The CND?
Adams: Sure
They describe nice things as wonderful,
She never would say that at all,
She is totally different in every way,
She is ah… zah… is ah ah…
Adams: What’s she like?
In time, in time,
Adams: Tell me, what’s she like?
Come again?
Adams: Tell me, what’s she like?
In time… in time,
Well, this is what she’s like,
I would like to express myself.
Adams: Go ahead!

And at that point, Rowland lets rip with one of his astonishing and soaring exclamations. It’s mighty impressive!

So, yes, over the course of the song, Rowland tries to express his feelings.

He grapples with the emoting part—telling Billy what she’s like—until enjoying a breakthrough with everything ending on a frantic and uplifting note.

We think Rowland doesn’t get enough credit for his lyrics, too, as there his use of words is inspired at time.

Oh well I’ll tell you what she’s like,
Given half a chance,
I will make this clear,
Just what she’s like,
I’ll present a picture… of what she’s like,
You will know just a what she’s like,
Listen close, listen close and I will tell, just to tell you, what she’s like,
Listen close now here,
Oh but listen close, my friend, listen close.

And what follows after this is the exhilarating outro, which lasts for several minutes and shows Dexy’s Midnight Runners at their absolute finest. It’s joyous!

It reminds of the type of stuff Can did on the likes of Tago Mago (1971) and Future Days (1973), really just jamming at a propulsive, heart pounding rate.

And, well… what an absolute goddamn masterpiece This Is What She’s Like is.

It’s all over the place, but in a fantastic way. Shifting in and out of concepts with serious panache, taking you on a veritable emotional voyage into the madness of love and life.

We also have to say, the one line in This Is What She’s Like we truly love is:

“Well, you know, the English upper classes are thick and ignorant.”

Rowland has since said he’s not as angry about the upper classes anymore. But in 1985 he sure was miffed about it.

A big chunk of the song is Rowland’s frustrations with people, including the CND. That’s the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament by the way!

Regardless, the song is really quite something.

We think it’s the band’s masterpiece. And Rowland’s genius shines through like nowhere else.

This Is What She’s Like’s Production

There aren’t extensive notes on this, but apparently Rowland began began composing the song in 1983.

The process began with recording himself singing verses of the song, whilst O’Hara added piano to the results.

Although the song seems to be set in New York, sessions actually took place at Mountain Studios, Montreux, in Switzerland. That was in May 1984.

Session musicians were hired due to the more advanced nature of the band’s music.

That’s interesting to note in itself, given Dexy’s always had a much more evident amount of band members to deal with anyway.

With the Swiss sessions not going the way the band wanted, the band returned to London. Then Rowland saw drummer Tim Dancy performing at an Al Green gig. After they sent him their demos, he agreed to sign up for the album.

And, apparently, that was the turning point for the album! Rowland obviously holds him in high regard.

As recently as the summer of 2020 he was on the hunt for Dancy using social media.

Happily, the band reported they found him soon after that. You can see why they’d want him as the guy is bloody brilliant!

He was one of several drummers used on the album, so it’s interesting to note he’s not on the video for This Is What She’s Like.

After he was hired, the band went through the process of layering up sounds that many find analogous to The Beach Boys.

Yet Dexy’s maintained some aspect of the Too-Rye-Ay era, mainly through the use of a brass section.

And after that, including the recording of a 10 minute video set in New York… the band didn’t release it as a single. Only a condensed version.

Rowland expressed regret about that decision in 2003, feeling had the full version been released it had the potential to be a Queen styled Bohemian Rhapsody monster hit.

Don’t Stand Me Down’s Commercial Failure

We had a big Dexy’s Midnight Runner’s phase around 2000. There was even a documentary about the band on British TV.

On that, the brief clips of Tell Me What’s She Like piqued our interest big time. But the Don’t Stand Me Down album wasn’t available anywhere. As if it didn’t exist. How come?

Many music aficionados now consider the album a neglected masterpiece, but it was a total disaster upon release. Sales were poor and reviews middling.

That was partially due to the sudden musical shift (although the band was notorious for that). But also because Rowland refused to publicise the album or release a single from it.

Decades later he acknowledged he was being too much of an obsessive prick about the project. But as a young man, he was famous for his relentless energy and intensity.

Anyway, Dexy’s third album—gone were the choppy pop songs from Too-Rye-Aye (1982). And everyone in the world wanted another Come on Eileen.

Rowland didn’t care. With a new look and heavily reduced line-up (from the Too-Rye-Aye era Rowland had only maintained talented violinist Helen O’Hara), the seven-track album bombed.

The songs are ambitious and much bigger in scope than the band’s previous short pop songs. There’s an impressive musical maturity here, despite the young age of the band members.

For example there are slow-burning, folk music gems such as this.

Rowland had thumped his heart and soul into Don’t Stand Me Down. So its dismal commercial failure was difficult for him to take.

It was enough to end the band. The members called it quits in 1987 and Rowland began a solo career.

Billy Adams has retired from music. Helen O’Hara released a solo album in 1990 called Romanza.

However, Rowland did eventually reform Dexy’s Midnight Runners in 2003. Then again in 2012-2016, with Helen O’Hara briefly rejoining.

And they’ve released two new albums since then—the last in 2016 was Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul.

We’ve not listened to either, but we’re most definitely tempted to upon revisiting Don’t Stand Me Down.

Live Performances of This Is What She’s Like

Rowland reformed Dexy’s Midnight Runners in the 2000s and released new albums, which were well received.

He also toured extensively, which allowed him to revisit some of his more forgotten work. And gave This Is What She’s Like a new lease of life.

It’s a great performance, one that’d certainly be fantastic to have seen live.

But what of now!? Well, more recently he’s been touring with The Kevin Rowland DJ Show. That was in 2019-2020.

We’re not sure what else he’s up to now as he’s quiet on social media, but let’s hope to see him back again soon.

2 comments

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