Kevin Rowland cut a weird figure walking around town. He must have lived nearby because he’d always be sat in the Chinese restaurant around the corner from my flat by the seaside. It was one of the nicer restaurants, and as such was often empty. Apart from him.
He was the sharpest man everywhere he went. His wide flat cap was cocked at 23.5, degrees, mirroring the tilt of the axis of the Earth. The flares on his trousers were as wide as the Irish sea, and their creases were as tight as the lines on an architectural drawing.
But he had a chip on his shoulder and he always seemed to be on his own. He’d once said about the thinking behind the founding of his band, Dexys Midnight Runners, “We’re gonna prove this. fuck them, fuck everyone…” and his pissed off stare looked like he still meant it 25 years later.
But you knew he’d once done something. He wasn’t just another flash wanker in a town full of them. His loftiness was justified. He carried himself like The Man Who Once Made The Best British Soul Album Of All Time.
Which, in “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels,” he once had.
Rowland was born in Ireland to Irish parents, but moved to the English west midlands as a kid. He was a weirdo, a dandy, a poet. A reformed punk singer. An affectatious soul singer. A mongrel. A working class man from the black country with a perfectly turned out cravat, eating chicken feet on his own in a largely bourgeois town by the seaside.
“Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” still stands up. It is a startling record, a proper soul record, that could have been made by Edwin Starr, made as punk rock inexorably slid towards becoming everything it had previously despised. It bristles with ill-concealed righteousness.
“Shut your fucking mouth, you don’t know the truth” is snotty English poetry in its purest form.
It references revolutionaries, be they Brendan Behan or James Brown. The horn section’s chops are clean, yet carry a punch like a brick lobbed off a motorway bridge by a bored kid in a shitty town. The drums are hard as teak. The flourishes and flashes of Hammond B3 organ provide a warmth and a comfort, and on top of it all is Kevin Rowland channeling Oscar Wilde channeling Teddy fucking Pendergrass.
And I played it a lot around the time of the decision of the English and the Welsh to leave the European Union. It was a weird time to be an Englishman living in Europe. Alongside the VIZ almanacs – which should be read by anyone wanting to truly understand the British – I’d unconsciously been dragging out certain records.
I’d play The Kinks’ “Village preservation Society”, a strawberry jam and clotted cream swathed satire of a land of Empire, that was being constantly invoked in a bout of collective fantasy unparalelled in modern times. Or The Specials’ flawless, self titled, first album. Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica,” which transposed Detroit techno, Balearic sushine, and Jamaican dub over a romantic, old fashioned Scottish guitar band, obsessed with the musical mythology of Memphis, Tennessee, but who had discovered the joys of ecstasy on the south coast.
Records that I’d listened to for years, that I’d taken for granted, suddenly seemed to crackle with pathos every time I put a needle onto them.
Two days after the vote, with the garbled rollcall of great Irish writers listed in “Burn it down” running endlessly around my head (Behan, Wilde, George Bernard Shaw), I was near Görlitzer Park as the summer sun passed slowly over our heads. And all I could hear were the ravings of a woman behind me somewhere detailing her hatred of the English.
She was wild-haired and tired-eyed in a way that suggested she had spent the night asleep outside, but her clothes were clean and her dog looked fit as a fiddle. I don’t know what breed it was, for dogs bore me (though not as much as the people who speak to them in baby voices,) but it was big and content looking and shiny coated.
She spoke at least two languages, but despite her almost flawless, accent free English, her German poked between the words the way weeds punch their way through unattended concrete.
I could tell by the way she swore, it just didn’t sit quite right.
She should have listened to “Young Soul Rebels.” It gives an important lesson in the pronunciation of a contemporary European language.
“Shut your fucking mouth,” is delivered by Rowland with both a deadpan resignation and a bilious snap. It’s a difficult thing to get right if it’s not your mother tongue. Though convincingly impassioned, she couldn’t get the tone right, she was trying too hard.
A crowd had drifted into place. In ten minutes England would be facing Iceland in the European Championships.
The news over the previous days had been full of easy to find footage of English football fans in Marseille, in a bi-annual feast of flatulent and drunken boorishness that happens all too easily when we get together in foreign towns in large groups.
And as they raised merry hell they sung as one,
“Fuck off Europe, we’re all voting out.”
I tried to focus on the TV. Now, Russians had been chasing the English across the city. The Russians were organised. And, worse, they were sober.
Some had implied that this was somehow unfair. It was against the rules. But no-one else seemed to be that bothered by the mob justice being handed out. I’d always been aware of a begrudging like of the English here, but for the first time I felt like I was representing the most disliked country on earth.
“Fucking English Fucking Cunts,” she said.
Her dog looked embarrassed. Its eyes rolled as if to say “here we go again” before eventually it grew bored, and led her away to bawl at the fucking English on a different corner. But I could still hear her for a while after, her ill-formed swearing, spiky when it should have been rolled. Loping when it needed bite.
“Fuck you England. I hope you fucking lose.”
There were a few of us there, but I was the only one wearing a white replica England football shirt. As the TV cut to the stadium and the massed ranks of English supporters on the stands of the gorgeous curves of the rebuilt Stade Velodrome onto the screen in front of us, I heard an English voice from somewhere behind me.
“Well you know that the English out there are the ones that voted for Brexit.”
He wanted us to know, was desperate to tell everyone that could hear, that he wasn’t like them. He was educated and urbane and the football teams he supported and their supporters were better than this.
The same voice would laugh later at Wayne Rooney dropping deeper and deeper, looking for the ball as England got bossed around by a country who had a significant chunk of the population in the stadium that night.
He derided his baldness and his wife and his perceived stupidity.
he should have stuck to football criticism. Rooney was terrible that evening. As were his team-mates, and England slunk out of the the tournament the same way that the dog did when its owner started off on another violent tirade. The people around me hooted and cheered and celebrated brave and dogged Iceland and their defeat of the arrogant and backwards English.
The German papers the next day would talk about the folly of relying on “kick and rush”. After all, they said, the Europeans had been trying for years to show them how to play the game they’d invented.
And I found myself conflicted.
I knew they were partly right. That the English had let everyone down in my new home with the vote. That they had allowed xenophobia seeped in misty eyed fantasies about a land that never really even existed to bewitch them. That their football fans were a stain on the city squares of the world, and that their footballers were an ugly and slow-witted anachronism in the modern footballing landscape. And that I had always been brought up to despise nationalism, that the Union Flag was a fascist symbol.
And that, despite what it said in my passport, I should never think of myself as a subject of anyone.
But still I supported the football team. I still do, even though I am now a German citizen as well as a British subject. I would proudly fail the Tebbit test. They gave me something to define myself by. Even in their drudgery they successfully summed up this whole mess. I was shocked by how much I felt that miserable loss to Iceland.
It felt like a kick to the guts for days afterwards.
The jeering glee around me, from the Europeans as from the sneering English who wanted England to lose, just to give a bloody nose to “the ones who voted for Brexit anyway,” pulled me into a funk. I just wanted to channel Kevin Rowland. A mongrel. A beautiful weirdo. An outsider in his own land. A man for whom the gift of swearing was a birthrite.
I just wanted to quote “Burn it Down, the first track on “Searching for the Young Soul rebels.”
“Shut your fucking mouth, you don’t know the truth.”