The greatest one-hit wonder of the 80’s? Maybe the greatest one-hit wonder of all time? You can certainly make that case about Dexys Midnight Runners and “Come On Eileen,” the band’s 1982 lightning bolt of a single that they never could quite repeat. Not that they should be ashamed about that, because this was a song that brimmed with so much spirit and passion that anyone would be hard-pressed to replicate it.
It should be noted that “Come On Eileen” was not the only hit that the group had in their native Great Britain; they had actually scored a previous #1 smash with “Geno.” In America, the song seemed to drop out of the clouds in the midst of a wave of British invaders at the peak of the MTV era. Yet unlike the electronic, automaton chilliness of the Human League or Soft Cell, “Come On Eileen” was brimming with palpable heart and soul.
The song was written by Dexys’ frontman Kevin Rowland along with band members “Big” Jim Paterson and Billy Adams. Rowland told authors Jonathan Bernstein and Lori Majewski in the new book Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined The 80s that a big hit was something he was actively trying to achieve. “I always want what I haven’t got – or I used to,” he said. “I was hankering after pop success at that point. I’m not saying we wrote it with that in mind. Oh, that I would be that clever. But we did write it, like everything we did, the best we possibly could. We worked our arses off. Every detail counted.”
Rowland and his collaborators bucked the prevailing trend at the time by spurning synthesizers in favor of a slew of back-porch instruments like fiddles, banjo and accordion. With sure-handed 80’s hitmakers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley at the producing helm, the end result was a song with more hooks per capita than anything short of “Billie Jean,” even as Rowland’s heartsick vocal added a touch of melancholy to the uplift of the instruments.
The song’s lyrics, at surface level, may seem to be nothing more than the narrator’s amorous plea to Eileen, one that gets downright spicy at times: “You in that dress/My thoughts I confess/Verge on dirty.” Yet “Come On Eileen” spins off from that basic concept to articulate the youthful urge for separation from an older generation hoping to indoctrinate these youngsters into their tired society.
Rowland name-checks weepy 50’s crooner Johnnie Ray at the beginning of the song to symbolize the kind of sorrow that hangs over the entire scene he wishes to escape. “These people ‘round here,” he sings, “Wear beaten-down eyes sunk in smoke-dried faces/So resigned to what their fate is.” He promises Eileen that their fate will be different: “No not us/We are far too young and clever.”
By the time the bridge rolls around, with what seems like a whole gang of Runners imploring Eileen from all angles in swooning countermelodies, you are completely caught up in the song’s energy. In the end, nothing sums up Rowland’s argument as well as his wordless cry of independence: “Too-ra-loo-ra, Too-ra-loo-ra, aye.”
Even though Dexys Midnight Runners imploded not long after this colossal #1 hit, the song itself still looms large. There’s nothing wrong with having just one hit when it’s a hit as memorable as “Come On Eileen.” “And you’ll hum this tune forever,” Kevin Rowland promised. You can call that line foresight or just plain youthful arrogance, but you can’t deny its accuracy.