Kevin Rowland (vocals, guitar, at the time going under the pseudonym Carlo Rolan) and Kevin "Al" Archer (vocals, guitar), both previously of The Killjoys, founded the band in 1978 in Birmingham, England, naming the band after Dexedrine, a brand of dextroamphetamine popularly used as a recreational drug among Northern Soul fans at the time. The "midnight runners" referred to the energy the Dexedrine gave, enabling one to dance all night. "Big" Jim Paterson (trombone), Geoff "JB" Blythe (saxophone, previously of Geno Washington's Ram Jam Band), Steve "Babyface" Spooner (alto saxophone), Pete Saunders (keyboard), Pete Williams (bass) and Bobby "Jnr" Ward (drums) formed the first line-up of the band to record a single, "Dance Stance" (1979).
The song was released on the independent Oddball Records, was named "single of the week" by Sounds, and reached number 40 in the British charts, but the next single, "Geno" – about Geno Washington, and released on EMI – was a British Number One in 1980. It featured the band's newest recruits, Andy Leek (keyboards) and Andy "Stoker" Growcott (drums). At age 11, Rowland had been taken by his brother to see Washington perform live. The success of the song prompted Washington to make a return to live performance, and also saw the departure of Leek, who gave his reasons for leaving as " Really hating being famous all of a sudden... Just because I've been on Top of the Pops doesn't mean I should get any more respect. I didn't want people asking for my autograph all of the time." The band at this time dressed in donkey jackets or leather coats and woolly hats, and had a look described as "straight out of DeNiro's Mean Streets". Rowland said of the band's sound and look in January 1980: "we didn't want to become part of anyone else's movement. We'd rather be our own movement". Image was very important to the group, with Rowland commenting "We wanted to be a group that looked like something...a formed group, a project, not just random".
The band's debut LP, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, was released in July 1980. The album's sleeve featured a photograph of a Belfast Catholic boy carrying his belongings after being forced from his home in the sectarian clearances of 1969, the Irish-descended Rowland explaining "I wanted a picture of unrest. It could have been from anywhere but I was secretly glad that it was from Ireland". Of the album's title, Rowland said "I don't know...I just liked the sound of it, really". After the next single, "There, There, My Dear", was a hit, Rowland insisted on choosing the uncommercial "Keep It Part Two (Inferiority Part One)" for the following single. It was a failure, and most of the band members quit, angered over continual personality problems with Rowland, including Rowland's policy of not speaking to the music press (Rowland imposed a press embargo in July 1980, and would instead take out ads in the music papers explaining the band's position). This was a response to some less than complimentary opinions from some music press writers; The NME's Mark Cordery accused the band of "emotional fascism" and described their music as a perversion of soul music with "no tenderness, no sex, no wit, no laughter".
Archer eventually formed The Blue Ox Babes, while Blythe, Spooner, Williams, Stoker and Mick Talbot (ex-The Merton Parkas, who had recently joined on keyboards) left to form The Bureau. Paterson stayed with Rowland, who added Billy Adams (guitar/banjo), Seb Shelton (drums, formerly of Secret Affair), Micky Billingham (keyboard), Brian Maurice (alto saxophone), Paul Speare (tenor saxophone) and Steve Wynne (bass), releasing a handful of singles in 1980 and 1981, and adopting a new look that included hooded tops, boxing boots, and pony tails. Along with the new image, Rowland brought in a fitness regime, which included working out together and running as a group, Rowland commenting "The togetherness of running along together just gets...that fighting spirit going". The group would also take part in group exercise sessions before performances, and drinking before shows was strictly forbidden.
By the time "Plan B" was released, the band were in dispute with EMI, claiming that as their contract option had not been picked up by the company, they were no longer under contract, and they asked, without success, that EMI not release the single. In March 1981, an ad appeared in which Rowland stated that the previous members of the band had "hatched a plot to throw Kevin out and still carry on under the same name". It also cited Rowland's suggestion that "they might learn new instruments" as a reason for their displeasure. The ad announced that Dexys had been working on a new live venture, "The Midnight Runners Projected Passion Revue". "Show Me" was released in summer 1981 and reached No. 16 in the UK. It was followed by a session for Richard Skinner's BBC Radio 1 show in which the band previewed tracks that would be reworked later on Too-Rye-Ay. "Liars A to E" was released in October 1981, after which Rowland took the band in a new direction.
Rowland then recruited fiddle players Helen O'Hara (from Archer's new group, The Blue Ox Babes), Steve Brennan and Roger MacDuff, known collectively as "The Emerald Express". With the addition of new bass player, Giorgio Kilkenny, this line-up recorded Too-Rye-Ay in 1982, a hybrid of soul and Celtic folk, the new sound accompanied by a new look, with the band attired in dungarees, scarves, leather waistcoats, and what was described as "a generally scruffy right-off-the-farm look", or "a raggle-taggle mixture of gypsy, rural Irish and Steinbeck Okie". Rowland said of the new image: "These are my best clothes. Again it just feels right for the music. Everybody else is dressing up sort of straight-laced and we come in wearing these and it's like, y'know here we are, a bit of hoedowning is even possible".
The first single, "The Celtic Soul Brothers," reached number 45 on the UK charts but the follow-up, "Come On Eileen," became a Number One hit not only in the UK, but also in the United States, where it became the biggest-selling single of 1982. Sales in the UK alone amounted to over 1.2 million copies.
The follow-up "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)", a cover of a Van Morrison tune, also reached the top 5 in the UK singles chart. The band sang this song on the UK comedy The Young Ones. When the band performed this single on the BBC TV music show Top of the Pops, instead of a picture of Jackie Wilson, the American soul singer, the band performed in front of a photo of Jocky Wilson, the Scottish darts player.
Feeling that their role in the group had diminished following the arrival of the fiddles, the brass section of Paterson, Speare and Maurice left. They later formed The TKO Horns, in which Maurice was replaced by original Dexy Geoff Blythe, and most famously recorded an albums with Elvis Costello in 1983 and Howard Jones in 1985. Kilkenny was replaced by John "Rhino" Edwards on bass and Billingham left to join General Public. The group continued to tour until 1983 with a nucleus of Rowland, Adams, O'Hara and Shelton augmented by other musicians.
After a two-year break, Dexys returned in 1985 with the album, Don't Stand Me Down, featuring Rowland, Adams, O'Hara and Nicky Gatfield together with various seasoned performers including Vincent Crane (ex-Atomic Rooster), Julian Littman and Tim Dancy (who had been Al Green's drummer). In an interview with HitQuarters Gatfield later described the recording process as "very long and painful".
The new album brought another new look, with the band pictured on the sleeve wearing ties, pin-striped suits, and with neatly combed hair, what Rowland described as "so clean and simple; it's a much more adult approach now".
Some reviewers were highly critical, yet writing in the Melody Maker, Colin Irwin described it as "quite the most challenging, absorbing, moving, uplifting and ultimately triumphant album of the year".
Rowland at first refused to issue any singles from the album, and by the time a 3 minute edit of the 12 minute "This Is What She's Like" was released, it was too late to save the album from commercial failure. The group disbanded the following year after a brief return to the charts with the single "Because Of You" (which was used as the theme tune to a British sitcom, Brush Strokes).
Rowland became a solo singer with the release of 1988's poorly-received album, The Wanderer. Despite spending much of the 1990s suffering from financial problems and drug addiction, Rowland made plans to reform Dexys together with Big Jim Paterson, although these resulted in no more than a solitary TV performance in 1993. Returning once more as a solo performer, Rowland signed to Creation Records, releasing an album of interpretations of "classic" songs called My Beauty in 1999, which received virtually no radio airplay and sold poorly. The demise of Creation Records, shortly after the album's release, meant that the planned follow-up album, which would have featured Dexys, was never made. In March 2010 Rowland said that signing to Creation was "definitely a mistake".
In April 2003, a new six-piece incarnation of the group, with the name shortened to simply Dexys, announced that they would be embarking on a tour. A greatest hits album, Let's Make This Precious, was released in September 2003, and a successful tour took place in October and November. Two newly recorded songs, "Manhood" and "My Life in England," appeared on the album and were touted as new singles. Despite airplay on national radio, neither was officially released as a commercial single.
During a June 2005 interview on BBC Radio 2, Kevin Rowland announced that Dexys were "back in the studio" and seeking a record deal for a new album. A new track, "It's OK Johanna", appeared on the band's MySpace site in 2007, and in January 2008, Rowland told Uncut Magazine further details about the album, saying in part: "I'm in the process of demo-ing the songs ... I don't know when it will be ready or who will play on the record. I want to get everything 100 percent right, and know that it's the best I can do and every note is there for a reason ... The only way I can be satisfied is to make the record I'm hearing in my head on my own terms."
In February 2011, Rowland officially stated the existence of a fourth studio album for the band, with the name changed to Dexys. The band also released a preview of "Now," the album's first track. The album is entitled One Day I'm Going To Soar, and the release date is set for June 4, 2012.