If the name Helen O’Hara doesn’t immediately ring a bell, then you’ll know her work. Most obviously, you’ll have heard her playing the fiddle on Dexys Midnight Runners’ Come on Eileen, an imperishable classic that manages to be part of the pop culture furniture and yet remain a genuinely striking, unusual song in its own right.
Now O’Hara has written an insightful, thought-provoking memoir, What’s She Like, documenting her journey from Bristol-born music lover who dreamed of playing in a band to chart-topping stardom with Dexys and a rich, fascinating life beyond. The germ of the project came a couple of years ago in a comment from her mum.
”I was visiting her in Bristol,” O’Hara says. “I must have been talking to her about what I was doing musically. She went a bit quiet and then she said ‘you know what, I think it’d be really interesting if you wrote a book’. At the time I sort of dismissed it. I suppose I felt a bit embarrassed that she’d said it, in a way. ‘Me, write a book?’. And then she said ‘well, yeah, because it’s been unusual what you’ve done and the time out’. I took 20 or so years off bringing up my children…I thought about it for a year or so and then I went ‘you know what? That might be quite a nice thing to do’. It’s been pretty chaotic, my life, actually. I felt I’d never really looked at the timeline and thought about everything.”
Born Helen Bevington, she remained as such until 1982 when session work as a violinist brought her into the orbit of Dexys. At the time, head honcho Kevin Rowland was rebuilding the band after an exodus of members while their second album was being recorded. The new, strings-heavy Celtic sound he was exploring prompted Rowland to draft in Bevington permanently, while simultaneously renaming her ‘Helen O’Hara’ as a pseudo-Irish flourish.
As a group, Dexys exuded a gang-like quality: tight-knit, 100 per cent male and uniformly dressed. Nevertheless, O’Hara didn’t feel too intimidated. “When I first walked into the Dexys rehearsal room and saw them playing, it seemed very obvious to me that here was an incredibly dynamic, original musical band. It just ticked all the boxes that I’d been looking for in my life. Maybe that’s why I’ve fitted in, because I’ve just always felt everything has felt perfectly natural.”
But she adds: “When I first walked into that room I did feel uncomfortable, because they did feel like a gang. That can be the way with any group who have been together for a while. You’re walking into something where you’re the outsider and they know each other very well. They did look quite tough. Some of them were in boxing boots, and they might have been wearing training clothes. It wasn’t like a full uniform going on, but they were cohesive in what they were wearing, so that again gave them the gang-like feeling. But they were quite quiet when I walked in. I didn’t know about any of the tensions that were going on at the time within the band.”
Making the transition
In the process of transitioning Dexys across from a brass-led sound to more strings-based, Rowland had encouraged the existing brass section to try and learn to play strings. “The brass players weren’t feeling particularly comfortable with that at the time, so I was viewed with suspicion,” she says.
As her book details, though, O’Hara might have been fresh out of music school but this was by no means the first band she’d been in. Besides, her formal training came in handy for coping with the situation.
“For the first few rehearsals I found it fairly intimidating, but as a musician, working with different musicians and in orchestras, I’d learned to just switch off from all the other outside stuff and focus on the music. You have to be able to do that from quite an early age, or certainly I found that happened in my training. You have to learn to ignore all the other noise going on that might be off-putting and focus on what really is important. So that’s what I did.”
It proved important for O’Hara to stay focused and grounded. Within a few months of joining Dexys, she had played on their album Too-Rye-Ay and was playing live with the band on their The Bridge tour as singles such as The Celtic Soul Brothers, Jackie Wilson Said and, most decisively, Come On Eileen hit the charts.
“I mean, it was crazy, to suddenly find yourself on Top of the Pops, and that Bridge tour…we’d come out after the show and be mobbed by the fans afterwards, really. That sort of thing when I was still living in my student flat…and I was still me. Things had changed incredibly, almost overnight. But it was almost like it was happening to somebody else in a way. And because we were so busy, I never seemed to have much time to take stock. It never seemed right to think about fame. It was always more about the music and the performances.”
O’Hara stayed on as part of a slimmed-down Dexys Midnight Runners for the long, torturous recording of their 1985 album Don’t Stand Me Down, by which point she was in a relationship with Rowland and found herself playing on songs he’d written about her, such as the epic This is What She’s Like. At the time the album made very little impact, but it’s now regarded as a masterpiece. After Dexys fell apart in 1987, O’Hara went on to work with artists including Graham Parker, Mary Coughlan and Tanita Tikaram (that’s her playing violin on the latter’s Top 10 hit Good Tradition). Since her return to the music world in 2015, she’s reunited with Tikaram and collaborated with The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess.
Coming full circle
On the day that O’Hara spoke to Northern Soul, she had been due to play with Dexys in Manchester as part of a tour promoting Too-Rye-Ay As it Should Have Sounded, a painstakingly remixed version of their biggest-selling album. Unfortunately, the whole tour had to be cancelled after Rowland was involved in a motorbike accident and didn’t recover on schedule.
“We could see that Kevin wasn’t progressing very well with his knee and at that time he had long Covid as well. It’s going to take quite a while. He’s had a couple of operations I think, and he’s gradually getting better, but he wouldn’t have been able to do a tour. It was really disappointing, but it was the right thing to do.”
Thankfully, Rowland did manage to appear with Dexys back in August for the closing ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. They played one song – Come On Eileen, naturally – for an estimated global audience of one billion viewers. O’Hara was present and correct, fuelling rumours that she’s now a full member of the band again and working on a new Dexys album for release as soon as next year.
“I’m working on the promotion of Too-Rye-Ay As It Should Have Sounded, but in terms of future things, I don’t really know at the moment,” O’Hara says. “I haven’t got any further plans with Dexys. Kevin is definitely working on an album and I know he wants to tour with it as well. Whether it’ll be next year I don’t know, I’ve no idea of the timescale. But I know he’s definitely writing songs. I was involved in that earlier on in the year with him, actually, in terms of giving feedback. The songs were sounding great, but I had to pull out because I was very heavily involved in the edit of my book. I was working around the clock on that and I was also working with Tim Burgess on lots of festivals and things. Basically, I’d bitten off more than I could chew. So I had to apologise to Kevin for accepting it initially and then pulling out, but you can’t do everything sometimes. I didn’t want not to be fully present and fully on it.”
O’Hara isn’t a great reader of music memoirs and says she didn’t take any other books as a model of inspiration for What’s She Like.
“All I did was just write from the heart, really, I wasn’t trying to be anything but myself. I think I thought that’s all I can be. That’s how I’ve approached my violin playing as well. I just think ‘well, I’m not Nigel Kennedy or anybody who’s of that calibre. I’m just me, so take it or leave it’.”
The process of writing What’s She Like has had some impact on her, though.
“The main thing it’s done is make me appreciate what a good life I’ve had. Things haven’t always worked out quite to plan. There have been ups and downs, but generally speaking I’ve had a really good life. I’m just lucky. I really appreciate the people I’ve met along the way and everything. Also, it’s made me realise that through joining Dexys particularly, and going on to work with Tanita and now Tim Burgess, the future I hoped for when I was 12 or 13 has happened. That’s pretty amazing really, isn’t it?”
Images courtesy of Route Publishing
What’s She Like by Helen O’Hara is available in hardback from Route Publishing.