TODAY’S choice has been described as a diamond geezer, national treasure, England’s greatest lyricist, working-class hero and a right pain in the backside. In a 2003 BBC poll of Great Disabled Britons, he came second only to Professor Stephen Hawking.
Who else but Ian Dury, described by his biographer Will Birch as ‘a great man who battled severe physical setbacks to become a cultural icon of the late twentieth century’. He made some nifty records, too.
Ian Robins Dury was born in 1942 in Harrow, Middlesex, although he would claim to have started life in Essex. ‘I was conceived at the back of the Ritz and born at the height of the Blitz,’ he told Birch.
The event that would shape his life happened when he was seven. During an August heatwave, young Ian and a friend, Barry, took a trip to Southend-on-Sea with Barry’s mother. They visited the open-air swimming pool on the Western Esplanade and played in the shallow end for an hour. Ian accidentally took in a mouthful of the salty water and swallowed some before he could spit it out. Soon afterwards in Cornwall, where an aunt had taken him on holiday, he had a severe headache and was diagnosed with poliomyelitis, a viral disease of the nervous system. The effect on the boy was paralysis of his left arm and leg.
In Ian Dury, The Definitive Biography, he tells Birch that in later life he found letters from the Southend medical officer to his mother Peggy which disclosed that nine cases of polio had been reported in the town that month. ‘I spent six weeks in an isolation hospital in Truro because I was infectious. I was encased in plaster, both arms and both legs.’
The next few years were spent at grim boarding schools where the disabled pupils were badly treated to ‘toughen them up’. He was bullied, and would wake up in the morning sobbing. He was described as surly and foul-mouthed, understandably so. Rock and roll music, however, transformed his life and he became a Teddy boy involved in a number of skiffle groups.
In the late 1950s, Ian enrolled in Walthamstow College of Art and in 1964 attended the Royal College of Art under the instruction of Peter Blake. From 1967 he taught at various colleges and in 1971 he formed the group Kilburn and the High Roads, who became a fixture on the capital’s pub-rock scene and recorded two albums which failed to sell. Here’s an example of their work, Billy Bentley (Promenades Himself Around London).
Dury once said: ‘My idea about being in a band has always been a little bit of Tommy Cooper, a little bit of Chuck Berry.’ Journalist Nick Kent described him as ‘the most charismatic figure I’ve ever seen on a small London stage’.
Despite high-profile gigs including a tour supporting The Who, success and the Kilburns were strangers to each other and the band broke up in 1975.
The partnership which was to propel Dury to fame came when he met pianist and guitarist Chaz Jankel, and they began writing songs together. They recorded some with guitarist John Turnbull, bassist Norman Watt-Roy, drummer Charley Charles, former Kilburns sax player Davey Payne, and Mick Gallagher on keyboards.
Dury, by now in his mid-thirties, had trouble securing a record contract but was eventually signed to Stiff Records, who clearly had taste having also enlisted Nick Lowe, the popster formerly of Brinsley Schwarz. Ian’s first release, in August 1977, was the iconic single Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a huge success with critics and public although it was banned by the Beeb.
This was followed a month later by the album New Boots and Panties!! – its title apparently derived from the fact that Dury bought all his clothing second-hand, apart from footwear and underwear.
First track is the excellent Wake Up and Make Love With Me, followed by a salute to one of Dury’s boyhood idols, Sweet Gene Vincent.
It begins slowly, then lurches into frantic rock and roll. Virginia-born Vincent, who shattered his left leg in a motorcycle crash and also survived the road accident that killed Eddie Cochran, had major hits including Be-Bop-A-Lula but fell on hard times and drank himself to death at the age of 36. Producer Jack Good is said to have ordered him to play on his bad leg with the words ‘Limp, you bugger, limp!’ However Dury claimed to have been unaware of Vincent’s disability until after the American’s death.
Roy Carr in the New Musical Express wrote: ‘It’s impossible to bag Ian Dury, except to say that he has taken the essence of the Cockney music hall and utilised rock as a contemporary means of expression. On occasions Ray Davies [of the Kinks] has dallied with a similar approach, but Dury has none of the self-conscious pretentions that Davies exposed in his flawed Flash Harry caricature.’
The subsequent singles What a Waste and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick so increased Dury’s profile that New Boots went platinum 17 months after its release. It was his finest achievement and he spent the rest of his career trying to match its success before his death from colorectal cancer at the age of 57.
I never saw him perform live, but I know a man who did, my TCW colleague Ollie Wright. Over to Ollie, who writes:
I can’t say that I’m a fan of ex-London Mayor Ken Livingstone, but his putting on a gig where the fifteen-year-old me got to see Ian Dury and the Blockheads for free is something I will always be grateful for. (And my gratitude too, to London’s taxpayers who Red Ken cheerfully stiffed for the bill).
On a hot July day in 1981, timed to clash with Charles and Diana’s wedding, I sat on the steep slopes of Crystal Palace Park in South London watching Dury stomp and prance around an improvised stage. The park is famous for its Victorian life-size concrete replica dinosaurs, but Dury’s presence was more startling.
A mixed crowd, including too many oddly misplaced skinheads for my comfort, were beyond enthused by Dury and his Blockheads, belting out all the standards. In those happy days before health and safety, dozens decided to dance in the lake; carried away by Dury’s controlled frenzy.
He had energy, humour and anger. At a time when disability was still a rather too awkward subject for many to discuss, Drury shouting out the defiant lyrics of his protest song Spasticus Autisticus was magnificent and daring. It might sound like childish doggerel to sing ‘I wibble when I piddle cos my middle is a riddle’ but Dury’s display of passion was perhaps the most powerful thing I’ve ever seen on a live stage.
He ended the set with Sweet Gene Vincent. A brilliant combination of humour and theatricality demonstrating all of his musical talent and flair.
An unforgettable gig from a true one-off. There will never be another Ian Dury.
I fear I haven’t even scratched the surface of the Dury story so I will return to it in a future column. I’ll leave you in the meantime with the Bus Driver’s Prayer, here delivered by Dury during an interview with future Factory Records mogul Tony Wilson on my then local TV news programme Granada Reports.
Who art in Hendon
Harrow Road be Thy name
Thy Kingston come
In Erith, as it is in Hendon
Give us this day our Berkhamsted
And forgive us our Westminsters
As we forgive those who Westminster against us
For thine is the Kingston
The Purley and the Crawley
For Iver and Iver
PS: Thanks to reader JackBz for pointing out last week that the cartridge on the picture which illustrated this column did not have a stylus. We nipped down to the Electron for a replacement and hope you find the new version less distressing.
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