Music education always & always looking forward.

Too-ra-loo Indeed: Common Tone AND Diatonic Pivot Modulation in Dexys Midnight Runners' "Come on Eileen"

Highly unusual and repetitive key changes in one of the catchiest songs ever. And how!


Hey there! It’s time for another unofficial 80s week. You’ll figure out why in a couple of days. We’ll start with this song, which I imagine will be with us for all of eternity. Space aliens and intergalactic anthropologists will judge us on the early 80s denim overalls of Kevin Rowland and his crew of Celtic-soul musicians.

There is much pop culture wisdom that states that the 1980s, as we remember them largely in the US & UK (and other Western countries) did not really become the 80s we knew until 1984. This song, a quintessential 80s classic, contradicts that wisdom, as it hit the UK in 1982 and US shores in 1983 and has not really let go of pop culture since then. Borrowing heavily from classic Celtic folk music as well as blue-eyed soul, it also moves all back and forth across a few keys.

Intro: A one-hit wonder for the ages, “Come on Eileen” was voted in an ITV poll as the number six British no. 1 of the 1980s. The song hit no. 1 in the UK and in the US (in 1983), as well as six other countries, and it was the band’s only single to chart in the US. It was the top UK single of 1982 and won the 1983 Brit Award for Best British Single. Dexys Midnight Runners was never able to capture lightning in a bottle again that way, despite many line-up changes and much ballyhooed rereleases. VH1 voters placed “Come on Eileen” on the mantle of no. 3 All-Time One-Hit Wonders and no. 1 on the One-Hit Wonders of the 1980s.

Synopsis: There are several very unusual key changes in this song!

Analysis: The initial key of F major moves to C major, but rather than pivoting on a specific chord (C7, appearing at the end of the brief violin intro), the key pivots around the low C in the bass guitar, heard at :09 in the above video recording. Hence, I defend using the term Common Tone Modulation for this first key change. The song stays in C major during the verses, but then pivots again at the chorus, this time on the shared diatonic G major chord (serving as V in the key of C, then as the IV chord in the changed key of D major). The first change from C to D major happens at 1:27, then back to C major (predicated by an A major chord?! with the tonic heard in both the bass and the banjo) at 1:49, then moves back from C to D via a G major chord at 2:28. The song remains in D major until it ends, throughout that famous slowed-down and eventually accelerando-ed bridge and through another singing of the chorus. This analysis is supported by the printed sheet music of the song, especially that found on the band’s official website.

Considerations for Teaching: In the chorus, Kevin Rowland sings lines like “take off everything” and “my thoughts / verge on [and later] which are dirty”, but it almost seems like those words get lost in a merry-go-round melody chorus. This song is so well known and so opaque & whimsical (“too-ra-loo”, etc.) in its lyrics about teenage lust, no one would likely fault you for teaching this in class, despite Rowland’s confession about the song being about Catholic repression. If you are programming it for elementary schoolers, however, it might not stand up to extremely close scrutiny.

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