In the first half of the 1980s, Kevin Rowland had it all. As lead singer of Dexy's Midnight Runners, he enjoyed a string of hit singles including the classic 'Come On Eileen' which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1988, however, the band had broken up and Rowland's attempt at a solo career had been met by a general lack of interest. Rowland sank into depression and drug abuse for most of the 1990s, until he signed to Creation Records1 and released his comeback album, My Beauty, in 1999.
On paper it looked like a guaranteed winner. In the middle of an 1980s revival, Rowland released an album of cover versions. No songwriting problems, no tedious new material to bore the old Dexy's fans. Rowland, however, was never one to take the obvious route, as anyone who has come across this album will confirm.
If an unsuspecting Dexy's Midnight Runners fan were to buy this album by mail order without knowing any of the details, they would be in for a shock. The first surprise would come immediately on opening the parcel. The sleeve of My Beauty depicts Kevin Rowland in a dark blue velvet dress, pulled down to expose his nipples, and hitched up at the front to reveal stockings and bikini briefs. To complete the ensemble, Kevin is also wearing a pearl necklace and full make-up, with a pink feather boa draped over a screen in the background. The purchaser would probably assume that this is some kind of bizarre publicity stunt, an accusation that Rowland fiercely denied at the time, claiming that he was wearing 'a man's dress' and simply wanted to show his 'soft, sexy, feminine side'.
If the purchaser made it as far as actually listening to the album, he or she would be left open-mouthed for a second time. At the time of release, Rowland was also keen to point out that My Beauty was not an album of cover versions, but of 'interpretations' of other people's songs. To this end, Rowland has taken the original songs and adapted the lyrics to suit his own purposes. Some tracks escape with minor changes, while Squeeze's 'Labelled With Love' is given a completely new set of lyrics, and even a new title, 'I'll Stay With My Dreams'.
The third surprise arrives approximately two minutes into the opening track, 'The Greatest Love of All', when Rowland's spoken word introduction gives way to his all too familiar singing voice, which although somehow suited to the old Dexy's material, sounds quite out of place when applied to the easy listening arrangements on offer here. As Rowland carries on singing in that voice and changing the words here and there, the purchaser would be forgiven for suspecting that the album was recorded at a karaoke evening round Kevin's place.
The purchaser, however, would be wrong, and should fight his or her instinct to send the album back or file it away in the box marked 'CDs I should never have bought'. With repeated listening, the truth behind the recordings becomes increasingly evident; this album is the work of a disturbed man, a man who has seen his world fall apart and is desperately trying to return to normality. Rowland is talking and singing to himself, attempting to boost his low self-esteem by singing 'It's Getting Better', telling the story of his own life in the new lyrics to 'Labelled With Love', and offering himself a glimmer of hope in the closing track, 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. The album should be seen as a triumph, a beautiful record which displays Rowland's remarkable courage and spirit.
Unfortunately though, the purchaser will probably send it back. The album failed to reach the top 200 in the UK, and by the end of 1999 it was estimated that My Beauty had sold less than five hundred copies2.
'The Greatest Love of All' - originally recorded by George Benson
'Rag Doll' - originally recorded by The Four Seasons
'Concrete and Clay' - originally recorded by Unit Four Plus Two
'Daydream Believer' - originally recorded by The Monkees
'This Guy's in Love With You' - originally recorded by Herb Alpert
'The Long and Winding Road' - originally recorded by The Beatles
'It's Getting Better' - originally recorded by Mama Cass
'I Can't Tell the Bottom from the Top' - originally recorded by The Hollies
'Labelled with Love - I'll Stay with my Dreams' - originally recorded by Squeeze
'Reflections of my Life' - originally recorded by Marmalade
'You'll Never Walk Alone' - by Rogers and Hammerstein, from the musical Carousel