IAN DURY - OBITUARY
published as 'The Life and Rhymes of Ian Dury 1942 — 2000'
by Simon Reynolds
At the peak of his late '70s success, Ian Dury was one of this country’s most beloved entertainers. He kept busy in his post-stardom years — movie acting, working for UNICEF, squeezing out albums intermittently. But despite a recent resurgence of affection and interest, Dury never quite recovered his place in the public eye.
His charismatic soul-clash of salt-of-the-earth Cockney ("Mockney", Dury confessed, since he’d actually grown up in Essex) and arty weirdo came from his parents — the unsuccessful and shortlived marriage of bus driver/chauffeur Dad (beautifully immortalized in Dury’s poignant 'My Old Man') and posh, bohemian mother. The polio he contracted in 1949 at age seven left Dury with a withered left leg and a personality that mixed adversity-hardened toughness with the classic comedian’s craving for acceptance. (The perfect blend of menace and cuddly charm for a post-punk pop star, in other words).
Like so many in the Britrock pantheon, Dury was a product of '60s art schools. Attracted as much by the long-haired boho lifestyle and opportunities to draw nude models as by art-as-vocation, he studied at Walthamstow Art School, where he was taught by Peter Blake, the Pop Art painter responsible for the cover of Sgt Pepper. Dury then made it into the Royal College Of Art (something he rated as the greatest achievement of his life), but eventually decided he was never going to be as great as his painter heroes, and focused his attention on rock’n’roll, figuring that the competition (especially lyrically) wasn’t as hot.
His first band, Kilburn And the High Roads, was a theatrical outfit that achieved some popularity on the nascent pub rock circuit in the early Seventies (John Lydon was often in the audience and reputedly learned some things from Dury when it came to baleful stage presentation) but only released on a posthumous and little-bought LP. Towards the end of the band’s life, pianist Chas Jankel joined. Cleancut Jankel and Dury (then looking like a glam bovver boy, with sepulchral eyeliner, Doc Martens, skinhead crop, and straight leg rolled-up jeans) formed a classic chalk-and-cheese songwriting partnership — Chas’ melodic flair and neat-freak talent for arrangement strangely yet perfectly complementing Ian’s scabrous yarns and lyrical Method acting. Hooking up with Loving Awareness, a band of seriously seasoned musicians (bassist Norman Watt-Roy had been on the road since he was 13) who were swiftly and thankfully renamed the Blockheads, Dury finally found the fluent funk and vivid instrumental colours he’d never got from the High Roads.
The result was New Boots And Panties!!!, recorded on a £4,000 loan with Jankel as "musical director", then sold to Stiff Records. An incongruous mix of funk, rockabilly and music-hall influences like Wee Willie Harris, plus Dury’s coarse vernacular poetics, New Boots became a word-of-mouth hit, finding its place in every suburban new-waver’s hi-fi cabinet, and ultimately selling a million copies worldwide. Balancing the punk shock appeal of rude words (the infamous "arseholes bastards fucking cunts and pricks" swearfest that kickstarts 'Plaistow Patricia') with satirical wit, shit-hot musicianship and indelible tunes, New Boots was the perfect crossover record for its time, without ever seeming compromised or calculated.
Although punk provided the climate for Dury’s success (without it, he’d probably have remained an Alex Harvey-like cult), in many ways he did not fit at all. At 37, Dury was more than twice the age of punk’s archetypal 17-year-old kid on the street. The Blockheads were also borderline musos, slick funkateers who’d probably have been an Average White Band without Dury’s prickly persona.
More enamoured of the Meters than the New York Dolls, Dury regarded himself as a non-musician who "knows a lot about rhythm — I work my lyrics with rhythm". He even half-seriously claimed that 'Reasons To Be Cheerful (Pt 3)' was "the first rapping record", having been released three months before 'Rapper’s Delight'. Do It Yourself, the long awaited sequel to New Boots, was glossy, full-on disco — "because if you can’t dance to it, there’s a lot of other things you can’t do to it", Dury told Radio One with a nudge-nudge leer in his voice. Ironically, the best songs on the album were about not getting laid — the are-we-just-friends-or-something-more tentativeness of 'Inbetweenies', the desperate chat-up merchant of 'Do Not Ask Me', the marital warfare scenario of 'Sink My Boats', and, above all, the discotheque hellzone of 'Dance Of The Screamers', with its lost lonely losers and socially unskilled inadequates searching hopelessly for love, and Dury’s chorus howls of hoarse, wordless agony sparring with Davey Payne’s blasts of freedom sax.
The other big difference between Dury and punk was that for all his lyrics’ occasional grotesquerie and his own life’s pain, his vision was ultimately heartwarming and humane, a celebration of life, love, and "the jolly-up". Following the Blockheads’ Number One smash, 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick', with its risque double-entendres and panoramic shimmerfunk, Dury’s chirpy Cockney chappy side came to the fore. Now superstars, Dury and The Blockheads did a 100-date tour of the UK that climaxed with a week at the Hammersmith Odeon, and scored another huge hit in late 1980 with 'Reasons To Be Cheerful'.
Dury, by his own later admission, lost it, spiralling off into self-loathing confusion while simultaneously vigorously enjoying the fruits of stardom. His first marriage was one casualty; his partnership with Jankel another. Apparently finding Dury’s potent personality "threatening" and "oppressive" to his own sense of self, Jankel quit to do a solo album.
Dury and The Blockheads recruited ex-Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson and pulled together the self-produced and scrawny-sounding Laughter, ("A miserable record", as Ian admitted later. "I called it Laughter to cheer myself up"), which went down with the public like a cup of cold sick. Dury collaborated again with Jankel for 1981’s Lord Upminster, recorded in Nassau with Sly’n’Robbie. Negatively inspired by the UN’s Year of the Disabled, the single, 'Spasticus Autisticus' (a "war cry" and an "anti-charity song," said Ian), got banned by the Beeb. Its commercial failure effectively ended Dury’s pop stardom.
Over the next 19 years, there were other albums: 1984’s 4000 Weeks Holiday, 1989’s Apples (which became a musical). Dury wrote the theme song for The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, acted in films like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover and The Crow: Part Two, globetrotted in support of polio immunisation for UNICEF, did a bit of TV hosting, married sculptor Sophy Tilson and had two sons. He did not seem overly bothered about extricating himself from the "Where Are They Now?" file. But partly in response to his struggles with cancer and partly triggered by his status as Britpop reference point, a surge of public fondness dragged him out of semi-retirement, resulting in gigging with a reformed Blockheads and last year’s well-received Mr Love Pants. On March 27 he died aged 57, finally succumbing after a five-year long battle with cancer.
Like Jarvis Cocker, an artist with whom he has some things in common, and unlike virtually everybody else, Dury managed to pull off two precarious marriages — rock’n’roll and Englishness; rock’n’roll and comedy. Personally, Ian and the Blockheads turned my 16-year-old self onto punk and funk; it was New Boots that led me both to Never Mind The Bollocks and to Off The Wall. Until I heard 'Wake Up And Make Love With Me', I’d no idea pop music could be so casually adult. Until I heard 'If I Was With A Woman', I never knew that lyrics could have things going on between the lines, that the message of a song could really be the total opposite of what its persona (the spiteful, scared-shitless misogynist) was apparently saying.
Along with Billy MacKenzie, Dury is one of the few pop heroes I really regret never having met; as with MacKenzie, I sometimes wonder what might have happened if he’d only been able to maintain the chemistry between himself and his most fruitful collaborator (Jankel/Rankine), then immediately realise the stupidity of such speculations, when he’d given us so much already. As Dury quipped not long before his death, when you make a great record, you should have the right to milk it for the rest of your life. Ian Dury made at least two.
All the best, mate, from your fan.