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Kevin RowlandCherry Red
Released: 25th September 2020
|LP - Pink Vinyl||£19.99||Out of Stock|
|CD||£11.99||Out of Stock|
First time on vinyl for this long-overlooked classic and is a Limited Edition
pressing on baby pink vinyl.
When My Beauty by Kevin Rowland was released on Creation records in 1999 it became one of the most ridiculed flops in the history of the British music industry. For an artist so well loved by the music press and buying public to emerge from a prolonged period of drug abuse and self-sabotage with an album of covers, boldly displaying himself half naked on the front cover dressed in female-gendered garb on a label that had become the archetypal Lad platform was nothing short of complete bravery. In the pre-social media world still dominated by toxic masculinity - as if we’ve really come that far - and a stoic refusal to truly engage in any sort of societal examination of mental health, gender politics, homophobia, drug abuse and male fragility My Beauty constituted a swan song for Rowland’s career. It was a discordant “My Way” that served as a full stop on a career in which Rowland had subverted several musical and stylistic tropes but this time had gone too far. Quite simply, it was “too much.”
I’ve never been a massive of fan of Dexy’s Midnight Runners or Kevin Rowland’s solo output. I of course thought Come On Eileen was a genius pop song but for some reason never went further. For these ears, when Creation released My Beauty I was personally deep into experimental rock music and noise. Those are years I’ll never get back, but anyway. My Beauty was in the background in 1999 as a kind of joke to anyone involved or interested in music. It wasn’t taken seriously, outright ridiculed in the music press and became a kind of cultural short-hand for grand career failure. It’s taken its reissue and reappraisal for many of us to examine why that was, why it became vilified and then buried as an outlier in an otherwise critically lauded career. It was too much on many levels and the reasons for that say a lot about the culture at the time and what is expected of entertainers, musicians, artists and public figures.
Make no mistake, My Beauty is fragile. In 1999 the UK music hegemony was about guitars, preferably with white dudes behind them. For the most part, culture as a whole was about doubling down on the patriarchy. Oasis, The Verve, Nuts magazine, the glorification of the 70s and “real music” (code for, you guessed it, white dudes with guitars behind them.) Of course there were many scenes in defiance. Glasgow’s own attempt at cashing in on the New Lad music crashed and burned with a few Oasis clone hopefuls ending up more famous as being ironic graffiti than for any music they made. Instead we had sensitive souls and experimental avant garde rock music. The dance music sub-culture and all its permutations offered many alternative avenues for the curious to go down - but then it was always more diverse and rooted in Black and gay culture. But in the mainstream everything was really about power and showing it. Tony Blair’s government and its massive mandate facilitated a space where the Spice Girls could be the biggest pop group in the UK as long as they weren’t taken seriously and the boys club could be sanctified by visits to parties in the seat of power. In the middle of all this, My Beauty dared to show Kevin Rowland at his most fragile, singing sometimes off-key cover versions of songs about personal redemption, love, overcoming adversity through daily struggle.
My Beauty is fragile partly because of the biography around it, where Rowland was at in his life and also because it’s gloriously camp with a deep, deep seam of pain shot right though it. Musically the arrangements are saccharine, dressed in cabaret production. But what My Beauty has in spades that is that rarest of things, truth, and I believe that that truth is what so many people found “too much” about the album and, let’s be clear, the culture it was set against in its presentation. On The Greatest Love Of All - Rowland’s version of George Benson’s original taken to epic heights of emotional drama by Whitney Houston - you can literally feel the years of emotional turmoil drip from his voice. Straining for the higher notes, we’re witnessing a man at the very limits of his endurable experience, communicating in the most direct, unadorned way he can with whoever cares to listen. The fact that Rowland’s performances are so raw and naked is contrasted with the highly “professional” musical backing that had many critics lambast it as “karaoke,” itself a shorthand for almost anything that failed to cut the muster of the Gibson-wielding male hegemony.
The fact that My Beauty is an album of covers is important also. It feels perhaps that Rowland was too close to the pain he’s singing of to really have any perspective on how to conjugate it into a self-penned song. On Reflections Of My Life - originally by, of all people, 70s pop group Marmalade - Rowland skewers the melodrama of the arrangement simply with the vibrato of his voice. It’s a song about reckoning with your past and looking at how you’re changing, emerging from it for better or for worse but here it feels like Rowland is labouring from the weight of his past. You can feel that from the interplay between his vocal and the backing. It’s almost too sad to take. My Beauty doesn’t boast musical arrangements that purposefully ladle on the gloom. This is the glitz, a ballroom drama with tears dripping from the chandelier rendered in a “karaoke" booth at 2 in the morning, the full weight of your failures pushing you to break on through into a new, more real, version of yourself.
It’s easy to pass My Beauty off as a failure and to do so would be to just wilfully ignore a lot of important questions. Who made it a failure? What pre-conditions in the society in which it was made and released guaranteed that the album would become an unwilling Trojan Horse for institutionalised homophobia and what we would now call transphobia. Concepts of “good” and “correctness” are sometimes tools used by patriarchy to keep us from thinking about the constricting pressures and oppressions it uses to keep itself alive, though of course sometimes things are just not very good. Will My Beauty ever be as celebrated as, I don’t know, Abbey Road or Blonde On Blonde or whatever? Of course not. It’s an acquired taste and that’s ok. It’s raw, hard to take precisely because it turns so many concepts on their head at the same time and also just because it’s an honest depiction of a man in trouble, trying to get out of something. A lot of people just don’t want to hear that, and that’s fine. It’s been painted as an “outsider” classic, which itself is a problematic term but let’s not go there right now. I like to think we’re at a place in 2020 where we can reappraise My Beauty as an incredibly true depiction of human frailty that’s a hard pill to swallow. But maybe we need that medicine.
Listening to Kevin Rowland’s rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, in a way, eradicates all of the concerns and points raised in this essay. You’re not listening to this thinking “wow this subverts so many gender norms and sticks two fingers up at the patriarchy.” These are concerns for criticism, for what happens when the music’s finished and you need to think about it. Listening to Rowland singing this song you get the feeling that he’s known true, true loneliness and that in itself is something that makes anyone willing to listen feel less lonely.
What else do you want from music?
Originally released in 1999, “My Beauty” was the second solo album from Dexys/Dexys Midnight Runners’ lead singer Kevin Rowland. The album was mostly unfairly received by critics at the time, but in the years since has come to enjoy cult status. This reissue is the first time “My Beauty” has been available on vinyl and on CD with its originally intended tracklisting. “My Beauty” comprises twelve cover songs, personally chosen by Kevin and adapted to make the lyrics more directly reflective of his life. The result was an autobiographical concept record about his battle and recovery from addiction, and his own struggle with self-esteem, exemplified by his incredible version of George Benson / Whitney Houston classic ‘The Greatest Love Of All’.
Kevin’s choice of style for this record was men’s dresses – in stark contrast to the prevailing mood in the late 1990s of British lad rock. The cover design was a radical look for the time – silk dresses, stockings and make up, not cross-dressing but a look that was undoubtedly feminine. The album was released on Oasis’ label Creation, after Kevin was signed by Alan McGee (who loved Kevin’s new look and labelled it “punk rock”). However, My Beauty was to be the last record released before Creation
folded and the chaos that surrounded the label meant they hadn’t secured approval for the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’. Despite its flowing, elegant music, the album was viciously savaged by most critics, with some focussing on Kevin’s choice of attire rather than the quality of the music.
Now in 2020, on the album’s 21st birthday, the world has changed and it’s
high time to re-evaluate this modern masterpiece. Only ever previously
released on CD, “My Beauty” has been remastered by original coproducer (with Dexys stalwart Jim Paterson) Pete Schwier and Marco
Migliari. Two new videos have been filmed. The first – for ‘Rag Doll’ – is mimed by a
young man in make-up, dressed in a gender fluid way. It’s a look that has become rightly incorporated into modern society, and by the end of the video, it’s revealed the man is Kevin’s grandson Roo, importantly closing the circle on what has been a painful experience for Kevin.
Over time, some music critics have re-evaluated “My Beauty” as a lost classic. Kevin has lived through all of this, and it was a painful experience to be outcast and dismissed. Now that attitudes have changed, hopefully the music can finally reach the audience it deserves and Kevin can tell his story.