The music video for “Come On Eileen,” a lethally infectious single by Dexys Midnight Runners, hit MTV in 1982 and that zippy violin melody and images of shirtless hillbillies have been burning in our brains ever since. 80s videos were beloved because they combined storytelling with music and few did it better than “Come on Eileen.” It’s a small movie. One of the most iconic videos of the 80s, one secret to its appeal is the archival black and white footage at the beginning of Johnny Ray.
Poor old Johnnie Ray
Sounded sad upon the radio
Moved a million hearts in mono
Ray was a popular singer from the 1950s and the sight of girls swooning and going nuts and writing his name on their penny loafers as he gets on an airplane immediately makes you feel nostalgic and happy, but also sad since nobody knows about Johnny Ray anymore. The black and white photos of Kevin Rowland, lead singer of Dexys, and Eileen romping as kids are adorable, and then they’re all grown up and wearing overalls. Something about kids turning into adults always brings a smile because you think: Look, gee, they’re all grown up now! They made it! (I used to think Kevin or Eileen were the children of Johnny Ray but this is not the case!) By now, you are emotionally invested.
The video goes to color as Kevin and Eileen share a small kiss, and then zooms in Kennington, London into a scene in so strange it could only be an 80s music video: it’s Appalachia meets London! This grungy corner jug band in overalls, shirtless and baring their armpits! Forget Savile Row and the Houses of Parliament, suddenly hillbilly is cool. And these gritty, working class kids are loud and proud. The video was directed by filmmaker and music video director Julien Temple, but the overalls thing was Kevin Rowland’s idea.
The story kicks in with Kevin and his jug band pals playing on the corner and Eileen and her friend with a baby stroller wander by (Eileen is played by Maire Fahey, sister of Bananarama’s Siobhan Fahey, part of the Fahey 80s video dynasty). Eileen is unimpressed, she’s not stopping. So then Kevin corners Eileen by a chain link fence and he’s working on her, really hard, I mean he is pulling out all the stops, just singing his lungs out, to convince her of something the lyrics never make clear. MTV VJs sheepishly hinted it might be about sex, and the lyrics back this up:
You in that dress
My thoughts I confess
Verge on dirty
Oh, come on Eileen
Eileen is not buying it at all, so she peels off. She’s like: Yeah, I’m so not impressed with your greasy dungarees. Kevin’s celtic jug band mates come down the street snapping their fingers in time, like a street gang, and together they work the song even harder. They are not taking no for an answer. They pursue Eileen and her girlfriend, who are engrossed in girl talk (considering Kevin’s proposition?) (where is the kid in the stroller? abandoned?) So Kevin runs up behind her and grabs and spins her in the air — a classic Broadway move women cannot resist! Then it’s night time and the band is cranking on their instruments, and who comes up to join Kevin? Of course, it’s Eileen, and together they go off arm and arm.
The video is a tiny romantic comedy – they fight, they fall in love. Boy meets girl. Boy wears bandana and greasy overalls and starts a jug band. Boy wins girl.
Too-ra-loo-ra, too-ra-loo-rye, aye
And you’ll hum this tune forever