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Baker's Dozen

Coming Back To Beauty: Kevin Rowland's Favourite Music
Fergal Kinney , August 19th, 2020 08:16

Kevin Rowland guides Fergal Kinney through the songs that saved him, from self-discovery as a musician through the saving grace of music in recovery from drug addiction. Rowland portrait by Eliza Hill.

When Kevin Rowland walked offstage at Reading Festival in August 1999, he raised his arm into the air. “I thought it had been a triumph” he remembers, “a few plastic bottles were thrown, half a dozen, maybe nine, and halfway through the third verse I stopped singing and said that if anyone next to you is throwing a bottle, stop them. There was a round of applause and no more bottles thrown. I walked off stage thinking that I'd turned it round." A few short weeks later, Rowland had a sinking feeling. My Beauty, the album he'd given two years of his life to, had proved a critical, commercial and reputational disaster. He recognised this feeling from fourteen years earlier, when Don't Stand Me Down – now widely understood as his masterpiece – commercially nosedived, partially attributed to a clean cut Ivy League image that the media and public hadn't understood. “It's like the weight of the world is on your shoulders” Rowland says of how it feels to be at the centre of that sort of thing, “it's not even the sales. It's more the fucking feeling of misunderstanding being so profound. It's so frustrating and debilitating. It's hard, you can't do anything about it, but the weight of miscomprehension, it's so strong. There comes a point where you realise that you are fighting a losing battle." NME wondered aloud if Rowland was a “noble failure or tragic relic?”, describing the record as “the sound of a collapsing perspective, a judgement shattering.” That was one of the kinder reviews. Uncut wrote that Rowland's “genius for reinvention has finally deserted him.” In their May 2006 issue, Q ranked My Beauty as the seventh worst album of all time. The Reading festival appearance became a sort of anti-legend, the punchline to an unfunny joke, just another strange entry in the mythology of Kevin Rowland.

In Kevin Rowland, Creation boss Alan McGee saw someone who matched his iconoclastic zeal and flattered his own sense of himself as an industry maverick. The problem was, McGee was buying shares in a persona that Rowland had entirely disavowed, and extricated himself from at heavy personal cost. Since 1990, Rowland had endured addiction, bankruptcy, housing issues, a religious cult and, finally, recovery. The folk hero version of Kevin Rowland – stealing record label master tapes, paying advertising space for manifestos in the music press, refusing to release a single from Don't Stand Me Down - was in the past. Rowland tentatively met McGee, coming to his home to play him some demos of original material (one would be the excellent ‘Manhood', floating around since at least 1994 and finally released in 2004). On the strength of those demos, Rowland was signed to Creation Records.

When the album was delivered two years later, it would be an elegantly arranged and starkly performed collection of pop standards and chart hits that had resonated with Rowland during the lowest points of the last decade. "I wouldn't have said I liked these tracks previously," Rowland tells me now, "none of them would have been in my top ten. But they were the songs that spoke to me at that point, it was really weird. When I was in rehab I think I heard 'Reflections Of My Life'. There was an Asian guy who had a guitar and he'd play it."

Alan McGee interpreted the cover, featuring Rowland in a dress and suspenders as a punk rock gesture. Yet for the singer, this had nothing to do with punk rock. "I think that at Creation, one or two of them were just into the controversy of it" he reflects now. "I like Alan McGee, he's obviously a talented guy. I didn't really get it all until a few years later, but he kept saying punk rock, it's punk rock. I wasn't interested in punk rock, that wasn't my life." 

In the British press, it wasn't just that Rowland was wearing a dress, but that it clearly mattered to him – that he meant it to matter – was what unsettled people. This was the Loaded late 1990s, when kneejerk chauvinism married a pervasive irony, not to mention that this period also marked one of particular nastiness in British public life. As the album campaign progressed – focused heavily on billboard advertising – Noel Gallagher was reportedly privately mystified at why Creation Records was gambling with its reputation on such a thing.

Yet in My Beauty – reissued now for the first time on Cherry Red – Rowland recorded some of the very strongest and most powerful moments of his career. Taking regular acting and singing lessons ahead of recording, Rowland has never quite got the credit for the dramatic performance at work throughout. For me, the centrepoint is Rowland's version of 'Thunder Road' – long available on YouTube and the original press copies of the album, the track was withdrawn at the last minute due to complications with Springsteen's publishers (not, as would become another myth, after intervention from Springsteen himself.) Originally sequenced as the penultimate track on the moment, it's unusually anthemic, even soaring, for My Beauty, and placed back into the record (as it is on the new Cherry Red reissue), it takes on a redemptive quality that ties the collection together. “This is your beauty” ad libs Rowland, “and, hey, it's alright.”  Earlier this year, Rowland released a video to the song Rag Doll, with the filmmaker Jack Satchell, which aims to draw a line between the press reaction then and a climate of increased understanding of gender fluidity now – even featuring Rowland's own grandson, Roo Rowland, in a dress. The video is moving, and the timing is interesting, given the current rise in transphobia in both traditional and social media. The Rag Doll video is a useful counterpoint to bigotry.

As with the critical reappraisal of ‘Don't Stand Me Down', it's likely that My Beauty will never again feature on a ‘worst albums of all time' lists. This is a reason for optimism, and underlines the status of Kevin Rowland as one of the most idiosyncratic and inspiring figures of  20th century British pop culture. In his Baker's Dozen – choosing singles, rather than albums – Rowland walks us through both the songs that shaped My Beauty and the tracks that influenced his life. 

My Beauty is reissued via Cherry Red this September - find out more here. Click the image of Kevin Rowland to begin reading his Baker's Dozen