A memoir by Iain Matthews, one of the music industry’s great survivors. He has been making pitch-perfect records for over fifty years.Read More
Longlisted for the Penderyn Music Book Prize
Helen O’Hara decided she was going to be a violinist at the age of nine. Her violin was her badge of honour. She was brought up on a mix of classical and pop music, but it was pop that ruled her heart. A prodigious talent, she rose through the ranks in youth orchestras, but at seventeen she rebelled, left school and joined a progressive rock band. At twenty-one, she was back in college studying classical violin, where she was headhunted by Dexys Midnight Runners. Declining an offer from the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, she joined Dexys instead. Weeks later ‘Come On Eileen’ was number one in the UK charts.
What’s She Like provides a vivid account of the euphoric experience of recording and touring the album Too-Rye-Ay, and the tumultuous story of the making of Dexys’ masterpiece album, Don’t Stand Me Down. After Dexys disbanded in 1986, Helen started a long working relationship with Tanita Tikaram and recorded two solo instrumental albums, featuring acclaimed pianist Nicky Hopkins, before taking a break from music to raise her family. The break extended for 23 years. Once her two sons had grown, driven by forces almost beyond her control, she dusted down her violin and began the hard journey to once again make music the centre of her life, honouring the commitment she had made to herself aged nine.
Here, in her own words, she finally answers the question posed in the lead song on Don’t Stand Me Down: this is what she’s like.
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What’s She Like is kind, generous, and honest, told by a reliable narrator. Having no myths to preserve, Helen O’Hara has written the book that Dexys aficionados will savour, a warm memoir that cuts through politics and actions, written with a knowledgeable, breezy charm.
An exuberant, joyful account of a classical musical student who suddenly finds herself on Top of the Pops. What’s She Like takes in O’Hara’s time working with Tanita Tikaram and Graham Parker before she walked away from music for more than two decades at the start of the 1990s. But inevitably her relationship with Dexys front man Kevin Rowland –both personal and professional – is at the heart of the book.
It’s not surprising the sixth of seven Bevington children would be a rebel, a musical prodigy whose path to fame as a classical violinist would be waylaid by blues and prog before being terminally derailed by a name change and Come On Eileen. Helen O’Hara turns out to be a gifted writer, too, detailing pop fandom in the 1970s with a fine eye. The painstaking (and painful) creation of the band’s Gesamtkunstwerk, as a German critic refers to the ‘total art work’ that is 1985’s Don’t Stand Me Down, is compellingly recalled.
The Irish Times
Throughout What’s She Like, classically trained and sometime Dexys’ violinist Helen O’Hara, threads of what-might-have-been run alongside a pragmatic mindset. Despite what for many might be the core interest of the book (her time with Dexys) O’Hara tells her own story before and after her time with the group – declining an offer from the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, taking a break from music for almost 25 years. We are pulled back, however, to her pop star years and her relationship with Rowland, which is discreetly handled.
Helen O’Hara has written an insightful, thought-provoking memoir, documenting her journey from Bristol-born music lover who dreamed of playing in a band to chart-topping stardom with Dexys and a rich, fascinating life beyond.
Such a great insight into Dexys, the (very) personal dynamic between Kevin Rowland and Helen O’Hara and what it’s like to become an accidental pop star. The Dexys arc is beautifully told. Recommended!
If you ever put your faith in Dexys, this book will confirm you were right to. Intense, emotional, but never overwritten.
To say that Helen O’Hara is a gifted musician is an understatement. She is an absolute genius. She is blessed with natural talent, she has incredible dedication, openness to new ideas and willingness to go the extra mile to create something great. I’m blessed to have worked with her.
Helen has beautifully captured the journey of determination, discipline, self-belief and talent that create great musicianship. Her choice to be a pop musician over a promising career in classical music leads her on all kinds of adventures including the highs and lows of being in a number one band.
Helen was a key member of a band that changed my life. Dexys redefined music for me – several times. And it’s now a huge honour for me to share a stage with Helen when we play shows. Her story is such an adventure and a must read for anyone who loves music.
In this extract from What's She Like, after recording a demo with the group at Outlaw Studio, Helen is called to rehearse with Dexys for the first time.
The incoming-calls-only phone rang in the entrance hall of my student house. Someone shouted up the stairs that it was for me. It was a message from Dexys Midnight Runners to come along to a rehearsal by myself at a place called Diamond Sound, almost opposite the Top Rank in the city centre.
Dexys had a big rehearsal room in what looked like part of a building site. When I walked in, the mood was serious, silent, and the band looked like a gang, the sort of blokes you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark street by yourself. Some of them had little ponytails and were wearing boxing boots and hooded jackets. It was a very masculine, hard, tough look. There was an odd atmosphere, a bit like when you walk into a room where people have been arguing and then they stop. No one spoke. No one seemed particularly happy either. It was all very intense. Considering that I had been invited to come along to the rehearsal, only Kevin seemed pleased to see me.
Each band member had a fixed position, like on a stage. The group was much bigger than I had expected. Everyone apart from the keyboard player faced forward. Kevin was at the front, in the centre. To his right were two saxophonists – the tall man who came to my practice room and a small man. To Kevin’s left was a smallish, young guitarist and Big Jim, the trombonist. Behind Jim was a keyboard player and at the back were the drummer and bass player.
They waited for Kevin to direct. He was obviously the leader. I thought Jim and the tall saxophonist who had come into my practice room were rather intimidating, but Kevin felt more so – unlike our first meeting at Outlaw where he was quiet and seemed to merge into the shadows. He was polite and friendly to me, but it was his look, his charisma and some sort of energy he gave off that was rather unnerving. I tried to work out his nationality. His hair was dark and curly and he had an olive skin – maybe Spanish or Italian.
Kevin introduced me to the band and suggested I play standing behind the sax players, Paul Speare and Brian Maurice. Pulling my shoulders back I walked to the other side of the room, knowing eight pairs of eyes were on me. In the silence I unpacked my violin from its case, rosined my bow, tuned and looked across to Kevin to show him I was ready.
Jim gave me some music scores and we got to work. It was then that the force of the group hit me. I hadn’t got the measure of the group at Outlaw, but it was clear now, and they almost blew me off my feet. I’d never heard a group so tight. Kevin’s heartfelt singing and the hundred percent from everyone was astonishing. The way the group approached their rehearsal was the same as classical musicians – serious, disciplined, detailed and focused. I totally related to Kevin and the band’s work ethic. I was out of touch with pop music but Dexys sounded new to me. Mixed-up styles, emotional and strong. Dexys, particularly Kevin Rowland, puzzled me, but one thing I was certain of was that my violin could work in a powerful group, and I was on cloud nine.
After we’d tried a few songs, Kevin came over to me. He asked me what music I liked to listen to. I didn’t have the nerve to be honest and say that I’d only listened to classical music for the past four years. It didn’t feel the right thing to say in case it jeopardised my chance of playing in the group. I panicked and suddenly remembered Wendy had been playing Bowie recently, so I said ‘David Bowie’. There was no reaction from Kevin for quite a few seconds. A completely deadpan face. I couldn’t tell if it was good to have said Bowie, or not, or whether it didn’t matter. He then asked me how many violins I thought might work with the group. I had no idea as I didn’t know what sound he was after. One had sounded fine to me, but it was clear that Kevin wasn’t happy with just one. First of all he thought that maybe two would work and then he asked me if I could find two other violin players from the college and bring them along to a rehearsal, to make a section of three.
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