You beauty! Kevin Rowland’s ‘My Beauty’

❉ Stephen Porter on Cherry Red’s reissue of a terrific and often brilliant album.

“Quite simply, My Beauty is a collection of exceedingly popular songs which Kevin Rowland has said (on many occasions) helped him to recover from addiction and depression. The album has a very famous backstory and – if you were somewhat antediluvian in your outlook in 1999 – a somewhat ‘controversial’ sleeve.”

Much as I avoid 99.9% of Radio 2’s output, as a UK charts-loving pop statistician of many years standing, I like to listen to Pick of the Pops, the station’s rundown of two or sometimes three charts from years gone past. Like watching Top of the Pops in the old days, this involves much swearing on my behalf, when (for example) a punk or new wave classic which was riding up the charts that week in pop history is ditched for some middle of the road tedium, or some rock ‘classic’ more in line with the presenter’s taste or Radio Two’s carefully targeted demographic.

I normally switch over as soon as POTP is finished, but one day in 1999 I kept on listening because Kevin Rowland – a pop hero of mine – was being interviewed regarding his new album My Beauty. Kevin talked about a number of ‘controversial’ things in as detailed a manner as one could imagine for daytime Radio 2, but mostly he talked about the songs which had helped him through his drug addiction. In the early days of Dexy’s, Rowland had been fanatically anti-drugs and alcohol, but the Imp of the Perverse is a dangerous creature and as time progressed, the singer slumped into a world of freebasing addiction. One of the songs which helped in the singer’s recovery was Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road, and Rowland had brought along a copy of his own version for inclusion in the programme.  Now I’m not a huge Springsteen fan but I love this song and the cover version was just beautiful – the transposition from Americana to the UK via Rowland’s Birmingham intonation worked brilliantly, with Springsteen’s evocation of small town life and his innate, beautifully observed lyricisms remaining intact.

 

Thunder Road is one of my partner Sally’s favourite songs, and she too appreciated the tender soulfulness that Kevin Rowland brought to the party. Sally was one of the legendary ‘500’ who went out and bought the mega-budget album, but it was not the easiest of purchases. Due to the album’s seemingly contentious cover, many music retailers failed to display or even sell the CD, and after trying our two local independent ‘record shops’, she eventually had to bow down to The Man and buy the album from HMV. She later told me that Independent Record Store One claimed not to have heard about the album, and Independent Record Store Two halfwit had said: “Oh, that album with him out of Dexy’s in women’s trollies? No, we don’t stock that sort of thing.”

I sang the theme from Brush Strokes when that place went out of business.

Cherry Red’s re-issue of My Beauty is as wonderful as I could have hoped. Three extra tracks – including the missing Springsteen and a twelve inch instrumental version of I Can’t Tell the Bottom From the Top are the tastiest of cake icings , and I’ve already ordered my pink vinyl copy in advance. Just to look at, mind; just to marvel at; just to occasionally take out and clean, because – being a vinyl-collecting obsessive – IT WILL NEVER, EVER BE PLAYED.

Quite simply, My Beauty is a collection of exceedingly popular songs which Kevin Rowland has said (on many occasions) helped him to recover from addiction and depression. The album has a very famous backstory and – if you were somewhat antediluvian in your outlook in 1999 – a somewhat ‘controversial’ sleeve.

In the late nineties, Kevin Rowland’s stock was low. The glory days of Dexy’s were long past, but Rowland had a powerful admirer in the shape of Alan McGee, the owner of Britain’s most successful record label, Creation. Largely due to the efforts of Oasis, Creation was rolling in money, and just like the big rock acts of the early seventies who were willing to finance Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or George Harrison with Life of Brian, McGee was willing to pay whatever it took just to have a new Kevin Rowland album in existence.

It would turn out to be a very expensive act of fandom.

Rowland outlined his vision – naming the songs he would sing and his ideas for the sleeve art. Those who are long familiar with the images of a tastefully lipsticked Rowland in a black gown and pearls, and ‘women’s underwear’ and stockings will now think nothing of it – “That’s just Kev!” might be a fan’s thought, but the artwork caused…not exactly shock, but certainly mass derision at the time. The mise-en-scene of My Beauty is completed by a pink chair and a pink feather boa draped across a pink modesty screen.

When Rowland outlined his intentions, uber-fan McGee gave him a ‘sounds good to me’-type reply and off Kevin went to record the album.

The media response to Rowland’s clothing and make-up was almost a foreshadowing of the extreme viciousness we see every day on social media, now that the Pandora’s box of allowing human thoughts to be transmitted on a worldwide scene has been set in motion. There’s always the shock of the new of course, and for some people, getting a glimpse of the certainly ‘non-traditionally feminine’ singer in such attire – and adopting fairly provocative poses – must have been unsettling. Although Rowland had been preppied-up in expensive American collegiate clothing on the just-getting-its-due Dexy’s album Don’t Stand Me Down, most pop fans remember him as the bumfluffed ragamuffin from Too Rye Aye or for his Brooklyn stevedore look from Searching For the Young Soul Rebels – all three looks being traditionally masculine. Britain had been used to androgynous pop for at least three decades (and some would say even longer), so the shock probably emanated from the unlikeliness of its originator, and the fact that the photographs were everywhere. On the cover of My Beauty, Rowland isn’t exactly brazen or over-confident, but there’s a definite ‘fuck you, this is what I’m wearing’ quality to his stance, and maybe this is what upset the little Britons who always expect people to know their place.

There had a been significant – and bizarrely almost forgotten – precedent in UK life. In the early eighties, the mild-mannered Middlesex and English cricket captain Mike Brearley had said in a Daily Express interview that he had “a very definite feminine side”, and from time to time he liked to wear a dress. I remember there being a few jokes made, and a few tabloid headlines, but it wasn’t exactly a nine-day wonder. If it was even a four-day wonder I’d be surprised. It helped that Brearley was an academic, a trained psychoanalyst and a gentle, but authoritatively confident person who was absolutely precise in pointing out the normality of his choice, and the naysayers and catcallers were quickly silenced.

A remarkable achievement.

Unfortunately, My Beauty appeared amidst the depressing ‘Lad Culture’ of the nineties, and many of the social, cultural and philosophical gains of the past three decades were being trampled on by the gleeful troglodytes, emboldened and unleashed by the tacit approval of the leering end of the reactionary elements of the media. The parallels with the ghastliness of today’s retrograde, kindness and PC-thrashing hordes is so depressingly familiar.

But over the past few months, Rowland has been keen to redress many of the myths surrounding My Beauty.

MY BEAUTY MYTH NUMBER ONE

Kevin’s feminised look was the result of him being in the middle of his breakdown.

Rowland told The Guardian that it had been three years since his breakdown, and he “just wanted to wear a dress” on the front of his new album.

MY BEAUTY MYTH NUMBER TWO

When Rowland appeared at the Leeds Festival wearing his new attire, he was bottled off.

Rowland said that four or five empty polythene bottles were lobbed to the front of the stage, but when he told the crowd that if they saw someone about to throw a bottle, they should “have a word”, the bottling stopped and he received the biggest cheer of the day.

MY BEAUTY MYTH NUMBER THREE

My Beauty was criticised for all the wrong reasons by a bunch of twats.

Oh, that one is true, actually.

And the music? My Beauty is a terrific and often brilliant album. First off, I’m not the biggest fan of ‘covers’. I know that We Are Cult favourite David Bowie always had at least one cover on each album and that many covers are ‘better than the original’ (a moot point), or transcend the notion that they’re essentially piggybacking the artistic vision of the originator, but the thrill of hearing an original song by an original artist is  – for me – the greatest musical thrill of all. Having said that, My Beauty is something of a special case because its  intentions were clear from the start. Rowland says that most of the songs chosen meant little to him at their point of release, but as time went on, he formed attachments and relationships with the songs, and they began to mean something more. And is that a case of over-romanticising what is essentially a collection of ‘classics’, old ‘standards’ – the sort of thing that any old club singer/variety act could attempt? Maybe.

Anyway, you’ll find out when you get older.

Opening track The Greatest Love of All was intended as the opening single upon the album’s initial release, but was considered perhaps just too Radio 2 for the times. Kevin’s version opens with a repeated, spoken, almost whispered “It’s OK, It’s OK”, a token eff word and an invocation to his mum, before the lush strings of its mighty orchestral opening. Rowland said the songs “just chose themselves,” and despite the moderate cussing, this is a version you could play to your most conservative of parents.

Throughout the album, Rowland makes minor and major adjustments to the lyrics to ‘make the song his own’, extending and formalising lines, contracting them or simply going off on a completely different lyrical, personal tangent. In TGLOA he sings:

“I decided long ago I didn’t want to walk in anyone’s shadow,
If I fail, if I succeed,
I’d like to live as I believe;
No matter what they say about me –
They can’t take my personal dignity.”

If you are used to George Benson’s, Whitney Houston’s or any of a myriad others’ versions, the lyrical shifts are mildly disconcerting. It’s also interesting to hear an American standard sung in Kevin’s mild Birmingham accent (“If I fail” becomes “If I file”), and there are any number of classic Dexy’s vocal signatures throughout the song.

It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Gloriously.

Rowland takes the song to new heights and it’s easy to sense his joy and his evident, newly discovered lust for life.

My only gripe with this song regards the solipsistic My Way philosophy of songwriter Linda Creed’s original lyrics; Learning to Love Yourself is NOT the greatest love of all.

Not by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, mate.

Second up is a version of The Four Seasons’ Rag Doll (the lyrics of which are curiously omitted from the accompanying booklet). If anything, this is an even more grandiose version of such a familiar song with an angelic host chorus backing up Rowland’s tremendously upbeat vocals. Weighing in at a mighty eight minutes and thirty five seconds, Rowland pulls out all the stops, moving up gear after a gear until it sounds like your ‘stereo’ is about to explode. He also throws in some more “It’s OKs” and a few refrains of Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are. If you haven’t heard this, you’re probably thinking of running several miles from this song, but once again, it’s just brilliant and a mighty fine evocation of the joys of being alive.

Kevin’s version of the Unit 4 Plus 2 1965 hit Concrete and Clay is remarkably faithful and just lovely. This WAS the first single taken from the album and it was such a pity it failed to make the charts – I would have loved to have seen this performed on Top of the Pops, especially for the predictable fallout from any number of in-denial, tumescent middle aged men kicking in their TV screens in imagined, manufactured, self-righteous homophobic fury as Kevin turns up in his My Beauty togs.

There’s a slight quality dip with Daydream Believer; there’s nothing wrong with John Stewart’s lovely song, and its ace and occasionally odd lyrics (“The shaving razor’s cold and it stings”), but Kevin’s version doesn’t have the accidental magic of The Monkees’ version and lacks the bonkers quality of his treatments of most of the other songs. Having said that, I love Rowland’s unexplained substitution of ‘Little G’ for ‘Sleepy Jean’ throughout the song.

Similarly, Rowland’s version of Herb Alpert’s This Guy’s in Love With You is a bit Vic Reeves’ club singer if I’m being honest. Bizarrely (given the somewhat operatic nature of the rest of the album), The Long and Winding Road is given an almost pared down treatment. The song is backed with a lush orchestral treatment, but in comparison to the over-embellished Phil Spector production of The Beatles’ original (which so upset and enraged Paul McCartney), it’s almost minimalist in comparison and unusually short at three minutes and fifty seconds. Nice, but not great.

An OK version of Mama Cass’s simply sublime It’s Getting Better is followed by (for me) the album’s greatest track, Kevin’s version of The Hollies’ 1970 top ten hit I Can’t Tell the Bottom From the Top. Ever since I heard this cover version, I’ve just been in love with it – a song with brilliant phrasing by a brilliant singer, and building from its restrained opening to a crescendo of joy with perfectly matched backing vocals from (amongst others) Carol Kenyon, and with heavenly strings conducted by Fiachra Trench.

Just wonderful. My Beauty, indeed.

Rowland rewrote Squeeze’s alcohol addiction standard Labelled With Love as a warning song about drug addiction. It was a bizarre decision. Lines such as ‘She opens the top of her new cocaine packet’ just don’t work (as far as I’m concerned) and Rowland later apologised to master wordsmith Chris Difford (no stranger himself to the effects of white powder) for what he’d done, saying that he’d “ruined it.” Difford disagreed. It’s not terrible, but it’s the second worst track on this fine album.

Competing for the award of best track is Reflections of My Life. Marmalade’s 1969 original version is almost perfect, and if anything, Rowland gets closer to perfection. Starting with an orchestral reprise of The Greatest Love of All, there’s a seamless segue into Junior Campbell’s classic paean to sadness, homesickness and regret – and is the total antithesis of My Way’s bullshit self-aggrandisement. Rowland’s voice expresses this wonderful cri de cœur in all its plaintive glory. A brilliant version of an underrated song.

I don’t want to finish on a sour note, so can I just say one thing regarding the album’s original closer, You’ll Never Walk Alone?

I FUCKING DETEST THIS SONG.

Moving quickly on, there are two rather nice twelve inch instrumental remixes (Concrete and Clay and I Can’t Tell the Bottom From the Top) as bonus tracks on My Beauty, but the real musical talking point of this reissue is the inclusion of Rowland’s version of Thunder Road.

MY BEAUTY MYTH NUMBER 4

Bruce Springsteen refused to allow Kevin Rowland to include the song on the original album because of the lyric changes made to his original song

As Creation began to crumble as an enterprise, its management systems broke down. From all accounts, the letter requesting  permission to include Thunder Road on My Beauty reached Springsteen’s lawyers far too late, and far too close to the album’s release, and it is doubtful if Springsteen was even aware of the request. For twenty years I’d thought it unusual that ‘The Boss’ would have been so precious. It seems I was right, and when Springsteen finally got to hear Rowland’s version, he (allegedly) thought it ‘neat’.

Rowland makes a number of changes to Springsteen’s lyrics.  He includes the bizarre phrase “show a lickle faith”, but his decision to change Springsteen’s “You ain’t a beauty, but you’re alright” to something less sexist and more celebratory sounds OK to me. In essence, though, it’s a loving tribute to the brilliance of the original writer and performer, and (again, for me) it’s a better version. Heresy, I know, but it’s such a fantastic track and it’s a pity that the album didn’t conclude with this brilliant song rather than the Rogers and Hammerstein dirge.

So what’s the final verdict? I have so much emotional attachment to this album that I thought I’d find it difficult to assess it with objectivity, but there have been so many examples over the past few years of me revisiting the almost sacred texts of my past and finding them wanting. There are dips in quality in My Beauty; there’s nothing terrible – even if I’m being honest YNWA – but some tracks are only alright. However, the really stunning tracks and arrangements here propel the album to something approaching greatness, and when this album is great, it soars.

My appreciation of David Bowie’s Pin Ups was always bolstered by my fandom, but if he were just another singer curating a collection of a (then) decade old collection of British rock and pop oddities would I have cared? Bryan Ferry’s covers collection These Foolish Things (also released in 1973) is a much better album than Pin Ups – although I know which I’d save first in a fire – but (again) would I have cared if Ferry had been some anonymous new pop star, unencumbered with a doting fanbase?

Would I have loved My Beauty so much if I hadn’t invested so much of my time in ‘Kev’, and felt a need to protect (essentially) a total stranger from the slings and arrow of homophobic critics?

As Kevin himself sings throughout My Beauty, “I don’t know; I don’t know; I don’t know.”

And would I have felt a fan’s protectiveness when the media gleefully exclaimed that the hugely expensive My Beauty only sold five hundred copies?

MY BEAUTY MYTH NUMBER 5

The album sold only 500 copies.

My Beauty sold twenty thousand copies. Not an epic number admittedly, but certainly a much finer number than the schadenfreuding journos who wanted to revel in Kevin Rowland’s misery.

Creation’s last-ever album release has often been signified as its last coffin nail, but in many ways it’s a first flower of spring – a joyous, soulful and often really beautiful album.

The world is a different place now, and Rowland’s experiments in gender fluidity would not be considered so odd or radical today. In 1999, however, even those media people we consider to be perfectly accommodating and liberal were sniping at the man’s choice of appearance and indeed his courage. Radio One (now 6 Music) presenter Mary Ann Hobbs decided to introduce Rowland as a “legend in his own lingerie” as he took to the stage at Leeds, but in 2020 when Rowland’s grandson Roo performed in a new video for Rag Doll in full make up and a dress, his appearance was celebrated rather than denigrated.

As I said, Cherry Red’s reissue is as fabulous as ever, with its splendid accompanying booklet and a raft of new photos. Being the fanboy I’ve always been, I’m so looking forward to my pink vinyl package arriving on the 25th of September, and being the eternal trainspotting, vinyl-collecting weirdo I’ve always been, I’m also looking forward to not playing it!


❉ Kevin Rowland – ‘My Beauty: Remastered Edition’ out on CD and vinyl 25 September (CDBRED817) from Cherry Red Records, RRP £10.95. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

Stephen Porter is a performance poet and spoken word artist. He has written for Esquire and a host of other publications and will be performing at Calderstones Mansion House (Liverpool) in October.

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