506. ‘Come On Eileen’, by Dexys Midnight Runners

You can imagine, when this next number one started getting airplay on radios up and down the country, people pausing for a moment. What’s this? It’s an intriguing intro, a mix of country and funk. Not something you hear every day…

Come On Eileen, by Dexys Midnight Runners (their 2nd and final #1) & The Emerald Express

4 weeks, 1st – 29th August 1982

And then a glissando. Do glissandos ever lead to anything bad? You need self-confidence to use them – you don’t just go around throwing glissandos around willy-nilly – but they always enhance. Into an Irish jigging, beer sloshing, knees-up of a song. Try not dancing to this. Just try!

Kevin Rowland’s vocals are as hard to make out as they were on ‘Geno’ (probably the only similarity between this and Dexys’ first chart-topper). I think that’s part of the appeal – when you’re drunk and jiving along you can just make them up! Come on Eileen, I swear I’ll be mean, I’ll come on less, Take off on every wing…

The line that I could always make out was the opening one: Poor old Johnnie Ray… Shout out to Mr. Ray, AKA The Prince of Wails, my favourite of the pre-rock chart-toppers. Footage of him also featured in the video. After that, it’s the story of a boy trying to seduce a well brought-up Catholic girl. You in that dress, My thoughts I confess, Verge on dirty…

I like the fact that she means everything to him… at this moment. Don’t do it, Eileen. He’s not to be trusted! And then there’s the best bit – the middle eight, where we slow down to a beer-hall stomp that gradually gets faster and faster. It’s pure music hall. It’s outrageously catchy. It’s one of the eighties’ biggest hits; but one that sounds completely out of place in this, or any, decade.

Do Irish people secretly hate this song? All the too-ra-loo-rahs might get on my nerves if I were from the Emerald Isle. We just need a ‘begorrah’ to cap it all off. Maybe it’s the Irish equivalent of ‘Hoots Mon’ (though I’m Scottish, and I loved that one). And at least Kevin Rowland is of Irish descent. Dexys had only had one further Top 10 hit since ‘Geno’, and this was the lead single from only their 2nd album. The ‘Emerald Express’ featured in the title was just for show – though the band did go through several line-up changes in their short time together.

And I’m going to end on something of a downer. As fun as ‘Come On Eileen’ is – and it is hard to write a song that is such a communal crowd-pleaser – I feel it’s been bestowed with almost mythic qualities. There’s a scene in ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ where the cool kids hear the song’s opening bars and act as if they’ve heard the voice of God himself. Is it one of the greatest ever chart-toppers? Is it transcendent? Or is it just the perfect song to throw on towards the end of a wedding disco, so that your drunken uncle can do the can-can?

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20 thoughts on “506. ‘Come On Eileen’, by Dexys Midnight Runners

  1. On reading this, it’s only just made me realise just how out of place this record was in the charts, almost like a folk club or ceilidh knees-up a la ‘Day Trip to Bangor’. But then Kevin Rowland always seemed, well, very different from anyone else. I heard him giving one or two interviews in which he sounded so intense that I wondered if he was really being serious, he made a few records that sounded monumentally tedious and went nowhere, then he suddenly roared back with this one that became the biggest hit of the year. After which he had a complete change of wardrobe, made that astonishingly uncommercial ‘Dn’t Stand Me Down’ album that stiffed – and then had a hit with a BBC sitcom theme song. A very strange career.

  2. Very fun singalong classic that’s basically the British working-class version of “Born to Run” when you look at it. I also like all the key and tempo changes in the song, the kind you don’t often get in a #1 hit. It feels weird how “Come On Eileen” has become associated it’s become with the ’80s given the Celtic folk influences and the lack of synthesizers and weird fashions. From all accounts, Americans in 1983 viewed Dexys Midnight Runners like the other British acts dominating MTV despite looking very different from the rest. Unlike the UK, we Americans can only name “Come On Eileen” from the group which is notable on the Hot 100 in preventing Michael Jackson from having back-to-back #1s at the height of Thriller-mania reigning for one week in April 1983 between “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.”

    • It is a singalong classic. It occupies an interesting place in pop culture – everyone loves it, everyone will dance and sing along to it, but I don’t think it will be joining ‘Good Vibrations’, or ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ in the pantheon anytime soon. Perhaps it’s the ultimate ‘guilty pleasure’ that nobody actually feels guilty about…?

      Interesting take on it being the British (or Irish) ‘Born to Run’… That pretty much sums up the difference between our two countries. For what it’s worth, I think the next #1 is one of the most ‘American’ songs ever recorded. It could have come from no other source!

  3. This is an 80s song that I really liked…the reason I liked it is becasue it was so out of place in the charts. It didn’t have a Casio sounding fake drum or anything else… It was timeless… that is what I like.
    I like the Replacements a lot…when they were recording in the 80s…they refused to sound like the eighties…they would tell the producer NO…we want to sound timeless…like they could have came out at anytime and not be tied to that decade…For the most part they succeeded in doing that…now…I sure went off the beaten path to tell you why I like this song lol.

    And…it’s a damn catchy song!

    • Yeah, it isn’t an 80s sounding song. But it isn’t a 60s, 70s, or 90s sounding song either. A timeless, catchy classic.

      I think every era has its ‘sounds’, that instantly place a song at a place in time. And the eighties ‘sounds’ just haven’t aged as well as others…

      • After being a big huge fan of the sixties at the time…during the 80s it just didn’t sound right to me. So I get it honest.

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  5. Its a great pop record a party classic of the 20th century. Its meant to be uplifting and the visuals are costumes – they didnt turn up to top of the pops looking like that! Kevin rowland has always been antwacky as used to say, deliberately provocative and sullen. Think Morrissey having a laugh. I rated dexys, still do. The only downside to Come On Eileen was my fab late Aunty Eileen had to put up with “come on, Eileen!” For decades afterwards. That it didnt sound like anything else around was a plus to me, it means you dont sound dated if you live in your own sonic world. Just to show kev was having a laugh, the follow up Jackie Wilson Said had a photo of Darts player Jockie Wilson on top of the pops – just so they could get PR from claiming old fuddy duddys on the show didnt know who jackie wilson was. As if! 🙂

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