Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reasons To Be Cheerful

One of the best things about the punk era was that it gave space to many characters that looked or sounded different. This was great news for Ian Dury, surely one of the most unlikely rock stars of all time, who fitted easily into the 1977 music scene, despite (or maybe because of) his quirky appearance and unglamorous image.

Struck down by polio at the age of seven, Dury was well aware of his unorthodox look and actually seemed to revel in it, “Even good looking people have got a weakness. Mine is so obvious that there’s no point in worrying about it. Luckily I’m quite interesting to look at”. His courage extended to the way that he approached his music, which was uncompromising to say the least. Although he was much older than his punk contemporaries, his influence on other singers is undeniable, most obviously Johnny Rotten, the scene’s pivotal figure, who copied many of Dury’s gestures at the mike stand.

"Stand and deliver"

However, Ian Dury was never really a punk and his band, The Blockheads, were more funky than punky. Even though the opening line of “Plaistow Patricia” was stuffed with expletives (“arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks”), Dury’s songs were more humorous and often gentler than the angst and rebellion of his punk peers. No, Dury was a true renaissance man, also gaining success in art and the theatre, and his music reflected this eclectic background, being a mixture of pub rock, punk, funk, soul, disco and even music hall. He had an armoury of quite extraordinary songs, ranging from sweetly romantic to outrageously rude, but his boyish charm and irrepressible energy managed to bring together the many diverse styles.

Dury was unique, one of the few true originals of the music scene, successfully combining the energy and excitement of rock with the bawdy humour, wit and homespun philosophy of his native “manor”. He was as English as fish ‘n’ chips and a good cup of tea, an eccentric whose inspired combination of rhyming couplets, clever wordplay and depictions of working class life owed a large debt to music hall. So much so that he was actually supported by Max Wall on one of his early tours. A disarming honesty and endearing roughness shines through his work, because he was singing about the world he knew, making social observations about his people, using the everyday language that he heard around him in London and Essex. All of this was delivered in Dury’s distinctive vocals, half spoken, half sung, which fitted in perfectly with the times. This “diamond geezer” at times sounded like an articulate, intellectual poet.

"Jet black, dead white"

Dury learnt his trade during his stint as front man for Kilburn and the High Roads, who developed a minor cult following on the emerging London pub rock scene in the early 70s. Although the band had some success, Dury was well aware that the Kilburns did not have the musical nous to back-up his smart lyrics, so he moved on, signing to the independent Stiff label, which specialised in artists that did not fit into the conventional music boundaries like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Wreckless Eric. Dury would later tour with all these bands, stirring up the crowd with his famous “Oi, Oi” greeting.

Signing to Stiff seemed like entering the last chance saloon, especially when the brilliant single “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” did not chart, probably not helped by the BBC deciding to ban it. Nevertheless, the transformation towards commercial success was not long coming with Dury establishing an awesome writing team with (musical director) Chaz Jankel, who created the perfect soundscape for Dury’s lyrics. Their partnership did not get off to an auspicious start with Dury telling Jankel to “fuck off” after a gig, as he thought he was just another hanger-on. The rest of The Blockheads were largely taken from Radio Caroline’s Loving Awareness Band, including the majestic rhythm section of Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Charley Charles (drums), Mickey Gallagher (keyboards) and John Turnbull (guitar); plus the former Kilburns saxophonist, Davey Payne.

"You're a Blockhead too"

Never mind the music, what about the lyrics? Despite critical acclaim from broadsheet culture columns and other highbrow publications, Dury declared: “I ain’t a poet, I’m a lyricist”. And much of Dury’s enduring appeal lies in his lyrics, which are remarkably clever sketches of British life, delivered with a wry wit and much verbal dexterity. Very few could match the lyrics in a song like “Billericay Dickie”, when recounting this cheeky chappy’s sexual conquests: “Had a love affair with Nina/In the back of my Cortina/A seasoned up hyena/Could not have been more obscener/She took me to the cleaners/And other misdemeanours/But I got right up between her/Rum and her Ribena”. Great stuff.

The band was complete, so all that remained was to produce a classic album, which is exactly what Ian Dury did when he released the exceptional New Boots And Panties in 1977. Written on the back of the album's sleeve below the track list is the quote, “there's nothing wrong with it”, which apparently was the reaction of the musicians on hearing the first playback of their work. You can say that again – the album is a tour de force, starting with the innovative cover, which shows Dury and his six year old son Baxter standing outside a thrift store on the Vauxhall Bridge Road. The album’s title was an allusion to the impoverished singer’s habit of buying his clothes second-hand and refers to the only items that he would insist on buying new.

"Caning it"

The opening track on the album “Wake Up And Make Love With Me” is similarly risqué in its humour: “I come awake/With the gift for womankind/You’re still asleep/But the gift don’t seem to mind”. Although a mischievous compliment to an early riser (oo-er, missus), it’s also a remarkably tender song, which I’ve always believed to be about a long-married couple’s intimacy. In fact, Dury’s romantic side is given plenty of space in the early tracks with the bouncy, horny refrain of “I’m Partial To Your Abracadabra” and “If I Was With A Woman”, which has a much darker and pessimistic take on matters of the heart, “If I was with a woman/I'd offer my indifference/And make quite sure she never understood”, climaxing (stop it now) with a hypnotic, menacing coda, “look at them laughing”.

But Dury is probably best know for his character sketches and he does not disappoint here, introducing us to two of his sharpest characterizations in “Billericay Dickie” and “Clever Trever”, which beautifully showcase his dry wit, sensitivity, humour and way with words. The appalling Dickie is an outrageous Essex Man (before the term was even invented), a real Jack the Lad boasting of his conquests around the county of orange faces and white handbags, “I bought a lot of brandy/When I was courting Sandy/Took eight to make her randy/And all I had was shandy”, but his claims that he’s “not a blooming thicky” and he’s “doing very well” ring hollow. The protagonist of “Clever Trever” is a much more sympathetic figure, though perhaps not that bright, despite his protestations to the country, as he can’t even spell his name correctly. However, Dury was always ready to support the underdog, so he ends up mocking the bullies who label Trevor dim, “Why should I feel bad about something I ain’t ‘ad/Such stupidness is mad”.

"Knock me down with a feather"

Two reflective tributes are included on side one of the LP (in old money). “Sweet Gene Vincent” is a brilliant evocation of one of Dury’s idols, delivered with affection and accuracy. It starts out as a sentimental ballad before breaking into a powerful accolade, all raucous guitars and crashing keyboards, with the compelling chant: “White face, black shirt/White socks, black shoes/Black hair, white strat/Bled white, died black”. It’s a majestic performance worthy of the ultimate rock ‘n’ roller who had died six years earlier (“young and old and gone”). “My Old Man” finds Dury paying poignant testimony to his late father: “My old man was fairly handsome/He smoked too many cigs/Lived in one room in Victoria/He was tidy in his digs/Had to have an operation/When his ulcer got too big”. Floating along on Norman Watt-Roy’s rolling bass line, it’s a touching, infectious song and you really empathise with the sadness and regret: “all the best mate from your son”.

The band bring the album to a rousing close when they finally let loose in the punk spirit with three manic and anarchic tracks. “Blockheads” is a venomous diatribe that rips into lager louts and the like: “You must have seen Blockheads in raucous teams/Dressed up after work/Who screw their poor old Eileens/Get sloshed and go berserk”. The pace is maintained on the profane “Plaistow Patricia” about a “lawless brat from a council flat” who “liked it best, when she went up west”. Finally, the frenzied “Blackmail Man” is an unnerving tirade of Cockney rhyming slang performed at breakneck speed.

"Hit me with your rhythm stick"

The original album ended there, so did not include the hits, as Dury expressed a strong desire for singles not to be included on the LP. The re-release however contains five marvellous bonus tracks, including the aforementioned “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” and the excellent “What A Waste”, featuring some of Dury’s greatest lyrics: “I could be a lawyer with stratagems and ruses/I could be a doctor with poultices and bruises/I could be a writer with a growing reputation/I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway Station”. There’s also “Razzle In My Pocket” about a teenager thieving a dirty magazine and a live version of “England’s Glory”: “Nice bit of kipper and Jack the Ripper and Upton Park/Gracie, Cilla, Maxy Miller, Petula Clark/Winkles, Woodbines, Walnut Whips/Vera Lynn and Stafford Cripps/Lady Chatterley, Muffin the Mule/Winston Churchill, Robin Hood/Beatrix Potter, Baden-Powell/Beecham's powders, Yorkshire pud”.

Ian Dury may no longer be with us, having passed away in 2000, but his music lives on. He may have been lewd and rude, but he was the consummate wordsmith, always amusing and frequently hilarious. The issues he wrote about are essentially timeless and have as much relevance today as they did in the 70s (just ask Blur), which is probably why a biopic, inevitably called “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” is due to be released next year, starring Andy Serkis and Ray Winstone (of course). In the meantime, we can content ourselves with New Boots And Panties, a totally unique and classic record. Oi, Oi !!


  1. A well composed ode to Ian. He was no blockhead.
    Is the Swiss Rambler the boy next to Ian in the first photo?

  2. Thanks. The Swiss Rambler was quite possibly in the audience of the live pix, having seen the great man in both London and Brighton.

  3. “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” was on the original album but possibly was not listed on the hand written back cover - I remember at least one song missing.
    Very interesting otherwise - lots of things I did not know.

  4. @Anonymous (3:07),


    "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" was indeed on the very early pressings of the original album, but was not on the widely distributed version (which I still have on vinyl).


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