There’s no getting around it: for all the advances we might have made in the last 21 years, the increase in tolerance and acceptance of the differences of others, we are still essentially living in a world of prejudice. Lockdown has only exacerbated this and pulled back the curtain a little bit in the idea that we’ve become much more civilised. From highly important things such as politics and race to more trivial things like pro wrestling and choices in music and TV, undisguised disgust at the tastes and existences of others has surfaced. You only have to look at social media to see the violence of opinion and language given with zero restraint. And this is before we get onto people’s attitudes towards so-called ‘non-normative’ (i.e. non-hetero) sexual desires and gender identities.
So, imagine the furore in 1999 when a middle-aged, heterosexual male pop star—his heyday having been in the eighties—released a comeback album full of romantic, self-affirming cover songs. He appeared on the album’s cover sleeve vulnerable and exposed in makeup, a pearl necklace and stockings and lingerie; an image presented free of irony or calculated shock. But shock it did, and the vile backlash the image received from the media and the general public caused the album’s maker to lock up that feminine side of themselves in a mixture of doubt and hurt. Until now.
The album was ‘My Beauty’, and its maker was one Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners.
On September 25th, Cherry Red Records will be re-releasing ‘My Beauty’ for its 21st anniversary. The reissue will allow us not only the chance to re-evaluate the music contained therein (I defy you to find a more spine-tingling cover than Rowland’s version of the Four Seasons’ ‘Rag Doll’) but also to give the unnecessarily infamous album cover the appreciation and respect it deserves.
The release of ‘My Beauty’ on Creation Records, home to Oasis, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub, was the culmination of a period of recovery after a desolate addiction to cocaine and having to squat in squalid circumstances to just have a roof over his head. Appropriately, though, for a singer, it was music that set him on the road to recovery.
“I don’t know what happened, man, it was highly unusual,” Rowland recently told The Guardian, “because I’d never registered that song (George Benson’s ‘The Greatest Love of All’) before, if anything I thought it was corny. But I just burst into tears, the first time I’d cried in years.”
When it came to recording his debut solo album for Creation, it was the songs of his recovery that were at the foremost of his mind. ‘My Beauty’ was to be a document of a man’s salvation through the songs that got him there: ‘The Greatest Love of All’, ‘Concrete and Clay’, ‘Daydream Believer’, ‘Rag Doll’. These were balms for the soul, often romantic, sometimes sentimental. The one thing these songs were not were hip or fashionable. It was not of concern to Rowland, nor should it have been, but the music press were not tolerant in the slightest.
The zeitgeist of the nineties had been, on the one hand, the sonic adventures of dance and rave music and, on the other, the more musically and conservative attitudes of Britpop, which saw a longing for the beat pop of the sixties and seventies manifest itself in the lowest common denominator modes of cheekiness and working-class street style—a style that took the plainer aspects of mod culture and stripped it of its colour flamboyance. Covering George Benson and Frankie Vallie & The Four Seasons was not going to endear Rowland to a music press busy putting Paul Weller and Ray Davies on pedestals, however justified those pedestals were.
The late nineties saw the Britpop party finally wind down into its hangover. There was a moment where nobody seemed to know where to go next. But the general air of ‘laddishness’, which had pervaded a lot of English popular culture in the nineties, refused to die. Boys were boys and, quite often, the girls were boys too. See, it was culturally acceptable in the nineties for girls to be tomboyish, to be ‘ladettes’, as was the vernacular. Look at the likes of The Spice Girls, Zoe Ball and Denise Van Outen. But the same courtesy of gender reversal was not extended to men who wanted to explore their feminine side. A lad was a lad, and that was that; so put on your checked shirt and grab your copy of Loaded. Anyone fancy a pint?
It can easily be understood, then, how Kevin Rowland’s feminine presentation on the album cover, his music video for ‘Concrete and Clay’ and the live appearances at Leeds and Reading, was very much at odds with the mainstream culture of the time. Perhaps part of the reason for the confusion is that it was so unexpected. Rowland had never been known for any kind of gender fluidity or playing with gender roles, and so the cover for ‘My Beauty’ came as a surprise. But this doesn’t account for the astonishingly hostile and vile reaction Kevin Rowland received in the media and by the general public.
The recently released video for ‘Rag Doll’ shows a selection of magazine covers from the time, and their headlines betray a sense of the attitudes of the time. “Kev or Bev?” runs one headline, somehow mistakenly assuming that a man can’t wear a dress without changing his name first. Another, playing on the fact that the album included a version of ‘Daydream Believer’, went for the nasty, sneering title, “A Real Homecoming Queen”. Openly brandishing homophobia by playing with derogatory slang, and making assumptions that by choosing to wear a dress, Kevin was making a statement about his sexuality and his desires therein.
As I’m sure our readers understand, gender identity and expression are a lot more complex than which genders we are sexually attracted to. However, if there is still a misconception in some people’s minds today about an absolute link between sexual orientation and attire, then that misconception was much more pronounced in 1999. Even those who were supportive of Rowland’s situation were guilty of misunderstanding. Tim Jonze recounted how one of the staff at Creation gave Rowland some reading material on cross-dressing. It only alienated Rowland further:
“And I was like, no, I don’t wanna wear a wig! I had sideburns on, a male haircut. I just wanted to wear a dress… someone else at the label thought it was about sexuality. It may have been a bit. But I remember having to write something, saying it’s not a gay thing, it’s not this, it’s not that. I kind of defined it through people misinterpreting it. Because I’m not the kind of guy to go, ‘This is a statement and it means this.’ It was all intuitive.”
The hatred towards Rowland (for what else can it be called?) reaches its peak at the 1999 Reading and Leeds festivals, where he played a couple of short surprise sets that were met with absolute hostility, mainly for the fact he was performing in a white dress and stockings. He was reportedly bottled off and catcalled vociferously. Rowland has since downplayed the extent of the abuse received, but reports of the day make it seem ever so hellish.
But perhaps the most hurtful suggestion was the much-touted opinion at the time that Rowland was dressing in woman’s clothes at the time because he was in the middle of experiencing a mental breakdown. What an astonishingly distasteful and offensive idea! That a man’s choice to wear feminine clothes is equated with poor mental health is, in 2020, a completely absurd concept and rightfully so. Yet, this was the accepted theory about Rowland at the time. For a record that was a summation of a feeling ‘The Greatest Love of All’ gave him of being able to open up, to have “a way out” of despair, the reaction it received was, ironically, enough to cause its creator to close up once more:
“There’s a part of you that starts to believe it…like, maybe I am mad? For a period of time I probably did deny that feminine side of myself, because of the reaction. I shouldn’t have been affected by it but I was.”
Now, 21 years later, we get to do justice to ‘My Beauty’. No, we don’t have to like the album (although it is great) just because of its history. To do so would be to patronise it, subject it to a belittling tokenism. What we can do, however, is give it acceptance; acknowledge the right of its creator to express himself in the manner he chose; to affirm that a man expressing and embracing his feminine side is not immoral or a mental health issue. In fact, it should be applauded, its cover being what Tim Jonze has described as not a “big statement on gender so much as a visual metaphor that Rowland was laying it all on the line with an incredibly personal gesture.” That there is still a large number of men in 2020 who struggle to be open with themselves and others about their drives, reflected, I feel, in the high male suicide rates, is shocking. That Kevin Rowland felt comfortable and confident enough to do what he did is worthy of celebration.
To promote this re-release, Kevin has worked closely with director Jack Satchell to produce a beautiful, life-affirming video for his cover of ‘Rag Doll’—the Four Seasons classic that he beautifies further with a passionate vocal and a spine-tingling gospel choir backing.
The video begins by taking us through that late nineties ‘lad’ period, a montage highlighting the likes of The Spice Girls, Robbie Williams, Oasis, The Verve, shell-toe trainers and a magazine aptly titled ‘Lad!’ that I don’t recall but offers the charming phrase ‘Britain’s Biggest T**s” as its tagline.
From there we get shots of Kevin in his white dress against a pink background, as he mingles with female dancers and backing vocalists dressed as angels for the video of his 1999 single ‘Concrete and Clay’. Intermingled with this are shots of various publications that had Kevin in his feminine attire while at the same time insulting him with their innuendo-laden headlines.
The video cleverly uses VHS tracking to move us through the years, showing a montage of various men and women of different ages dressed in attire associated with varying genders to their own and clearly loving who they are.
We arrive at 2020 to find a beautiful, shy-looking young man in makeup and dress and with short pink hair miming along to the song. It turns out to be Kevin’s grandson, Roo, who Kevin has said has “been wearing makeup since he was 13.” The two embrace at the end of the video, a lovely moment of affirmation and acceptance that to be yourself is great and that times have changed, although there is still a hell of a lot of work to do.
In the context of the video, lyrics like ‘such a pretty face/should be dressed in lace’ and ‘I really hope that one day you’ll be understood/you look so pretty, you could easily be a girl’ are revelatory and transformative, a challenge to hetero-normative attitudes. ‘It’s ok’, Kevin intones in the middle of the song, ‘it’s going to be better from now on’. On the strength of this video, you can’t help but believe him.
Kevin Rowland was not the first man, nor will he be the last, to wear women’s clothing. But what he did, to put himself out there so openly as he did into such a toxic culture was brave. To be true to what and who you are, what you want and what you feel, and to live it every day and put it into action, own it and be it and love it, is an act of bravery, make no mistake. The hardest thing is to accept yourself in the face of a ridiculously prejudiced and violent mob. It’s much easier to cave in, to join the crowd and submerge away amongst them. I know I have at times, and I’m sure many of us have. Kevin didn’t, and he paid the price. But what goes around comes around, and sometimes for the better:
“I do feel more positive. And funnily enough, I’m really back in touch with my femininity again. Would I still wear those clothes? Definitely … and maybe I do, but I won’t go into that.”