“Come On Eileen,” the No. 1 hit by Dexys Midnight Runners, is really a remarkable song. It’s hated by some and loved by many, and even though it’s considered new wave by many music historians, it’s anything but.
Dexys Midnight Runners was a one-hit wonder in the U.S., but they actually had another No. 1 hit in the U.K. two years earlier. “Geno,” a brassy, plodding number, came out of nowhere in 1980 to reach the top spot, but then the group almost broke up. Kevin Rowland, the temperamental band leader, struggled to find a new single and a new sound to keep up with his ever-changing tastes.
‘Come On Eileen’: A new, old sound
Rowland finally found a new sound in 1982, having fired most of his band and settling on a Celtic folk sound. In fact, some versions of “Come On Eileen” begin with a lone fiddle performing the Irish folk song “Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms.”
Then, it’s off to the races with this song, and there’s so much for the ear to discern. A bass guitar keeps up with the syncopated fast beat as several fiddles play a beautiful but bittersweet melody that seems to meander between F and C. But then a sweeping string section takes us into the main verses, which are firmly in the key of C. That root key gives us a joyful foundation after wandering in the musical wilderness for a few bars. We hear banjos — banjos! — as Rowland sings the words, “Come on Eileen!” for the first time.
The melody moves along, again in a melancholy sort of way, as Rowland sings, “Poor old Johnnie Ray / Sounded sad upon the radio / Moved a million hearts in mono.” The verse is only a trick, though, setting the stage for the main theme, which is Rowland realizing his friend Eileen is grown up and then trying to get her to give in to his naughty intentions.
But honestly, you can’t tell from Rowland’s impassioned warbling. The pre-chorus is just a series of sounds — “Too-ra-loo-ra, too-ra-loo-rye-ay,” Rowland sings, going up the scale a full octave before coming back down a bit. The chorus is jolting, moving to D as Rowland confesses that his thoughts “verge on dirty.” The chorus moves into an instrumental in A — another key change — before settling back into C.
The bridge is the fun part, with the tempo slowing way down and sounding like a drunken bar song. But the tempo slowly starts to speed up, until it reaches a feverish pace and moves back into the chorus.
It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard.
The legacy of ‘Come On Eileen’
Sandwiched in between Duran Duran and Kajagoogoo, “Come On Eileen” was an anomaly, an anachronism, really, with the group’s tattered overalls and bare feet looking out of place in the early 1980s. And it has become a bit of a novelty hit: Rowland had only one more Top 10 hit in the U.K. and never hit the Top 40 again in the U.S., which makes this song all the more special.