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.