19. A Song that Makes Me Laugh Out Loud
‘This is What She’s Like’ – Dexy’s Midnight Runners
“Tell me what’s it like?” How do you describe a song that starts out by slagging off “the type that use expressions like tongue in cheek“? And yet everything about this really is so arch. It’s a song which goes out of its way not to follow even the most basic pop-song conventions. For a start, the lyrics are mostly dialogue, a spoken-word conversation between Kevin Rowland and his bandmate Billy Adams, almost inaudible in the mix. (This lyric sheet doesn’t get everything right, but it’s genuinely helpful when the words are so hard to hear.)
For the first couple of minutes there’s not even any music, just an awkward discussion where Billy, having just joined the conversation, turns from being paranoid (“You weren’t just talking about me, were you?”) to seedy, demanding to know what Rowland’s new girlfriend is like. “You know what I mean,” he says, like the nudge-nudge wink-wink sketch from Monty Python. As the music kicks in, the rest of the song is Rowland’s valiant refusal to answer this question in any comprehensible way.
To make things stranger, most of the song’s best lines are buried in the spoken word bits, which means that the lines that get the emphasis, the singable ones, are the conversational filler, the putty between actual statements: “May I state here and now”, “May I be clear on this point”. At one point Rowland, after a verse full of evasions and not-quite-descriptions asks Billy’s permission – “I would like to express myself at this point” (Billy: “Go ahead”) – before bursting into sixteen bars of wordless yodelling.
Musically, it’s a song in parts – different tempos, different instruments to the fore, though Helen O’Hara’s fiddle weaves its way between the two speakers throughout. Perhaps the inspiration for the modular arrangement is Smile-era Beach Boys – they’re surely the reference point for the Good Vibrations harmonies of the middle section. But it’s the last section that sticks in the head: a vast four-minute playout – the same four chords over and over as Kevin and Billy work up to the punchline – the closest we get to any actual description of what she’s like:
Kevin: The Italians have a word for it.
Billy: What word? What is it?
Kevin: I don’t really know. A thunderbolt or something.
Billy: What, you mean the Italian word for thunderbolt?
Kevin: Yeah, something like that. I don’t speak Italian myself.
What’s she like? A word, unremembered, in a language Rowland can’t even speak. It’s the perfect climax to a giddy, ridiculous, euphoric epic where the words always get it wrong, and even the characters lose patience with the song they’re in. It’s a joke about blokiness and a rant about class. Maybe it’s even an actual love song. It really does make me laugh out loud, both at the chatter itself, but also at the audacity of a song that manages to be uplifting, glorious, even though Rowland rarely gets round to singing, a Tristram Shandy of a song that takes up nearly quarter of an hour of your time but still resolutely refuses to get to the point.
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