Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An Illustrated Guide To... Ian Dury


Of course they were going to make a film of his life eventually (and also now out are Will Birch's Definitive Biography and a compilation), it was just a matter of casting someone as barmstormingly brilliant as Andy Serkis. It's a cliche of towering proportions to say that they don't, nay, can't, make them like Ian Dury any more, because they barely made them like Ian Dury then. A London music hall reared wordsmith in his mid-thirties with a mainline to funk via pub rock and extraordinary raw bordering on abrasive openness, let alone one physically affected such as he was. In person he was a mangle of contradictions, difficult to love but easy to warm to, uncompromisingly strong of personality and an eventual renaissance man of arts and letters. Moreover, while there is some dispute about whether he coined it, he certainly brought to the forefront of the English language an all-purpose phrase of international use.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Although right through his life he liked to let everyone think he was Upminster through and through, Dury was actually born on May 12th 1942 in Harrow (as was the similarly waywardly accented Kate Nash, of course). Mother Margaret worked as a health visitor and was of landowning Irish stock, while father George was a London bus driver who later became a Rolls Royce chauffeur. After moving briefly to Switzerland for work purposes they settled in the London Borough of Havering, but the couple soon split up and Ian stayed with his bohemian mother, who took him on holidays to Ireland and to West End shows. One day out in August 1949 changed everything - taken to Southend by a friend's parents, Ian is thought to have swallowed water from the resort's open air pool and while in Cornwall with his grandmother weeks later came down ill overnight and was put in a full body cast for six weeks, staying in hospital for the best part of two years. The polio caused considerable damage to his central nervous system and left him with an affected left side of his body, a withered arm and leg requiring support from steel and leather callipers.

At nine Dury was sent for three and a half years as a boarding pupil to Chailey Heritage School in East Sussex, which specialised in children with disabilities. He claims its harsh-but-fair, craft leaning approach led to a largely unhappy and physically rough time, and also altered his previously near-RP accent. An even more disliked five years at High Wycombe's Royal Grammar School (Dury claimed he was expelled in his final year, but nobody else recalls this) followed which helped bolster his natural defence mechanism. Dury also got into rock'n'roll at this point, regular visits to Upminster's cinemas, pubs and clubs exposing him both to the nascent culture and to Cockney street speak. He was developed enough to win a place at Walthamstow College of Art as a painter, enrolling at the same time as Peter Greenaway and Vivian Stanshall. A more direct influence was Pop Art pioneer Peter Blake, who became a teacher at the college in 1961. Dury's body of work there was strong enough to enable him to enrol onto a post-graduate course at the Royal College of Art in 1963, from which he graduated in 1966 with a 2:1 and a fiance, Betty Rathmell, whom he married in March 1968. A month later George Dury died and the money he left them, and Ian's income working as a part-time teacher at Luton College of Further Technology and commissioned work for the Sunday Times and London Life, came in useful when daughter Jemima was born in January 1969.

In 1970 Ian started two years working as a tutor at Canterbury College of Art, but hero Gene Vincent's death in October 1971 ignited his interest in restarting his rock'n'roll ambitions, and using a name he'd thought of long previously, Kilburn & The High Roads, he gathered together a coterie of art school friends and friendly students, the latter category including subsequently acclaimed painter Humphrey Ocean, for a first gig that December. By then Ian and Betty had moved to Buckinghamshire, and it was here in December 1971 that Ian's second child Baxter was born, legend (corroborated by bandmates) has it upstairs while the band rehearsed below. Kilburn & The High Roads played pub gigs for the next few years, joined along the way by future collaborators - highly strung free jazz-esque saxophonist Davey Payne appeared in 1972 - and Ian writing more and more of his own songs, collaborating with pianist Russell Hardy. They were however getting fewer gigs even as pub rock came into force around them until BBC Radio London's Charlie Gillett, mesmerised by their electrifyingly theatrical live presence, became their manager. Nick Kent praised them in the NME in September 1973 and Roger Daltrey was so impressed he invited the band to open for The Who's October-November tour that year.

By this time Ian's marriage was slowly disintegrating, largely because he'd met and would end up shacking up with a teenage fan called Denise Roudette. His musical life was changing too, as the Kilburns signed to a Warner Brothers subsidiary and began recording in Apple Studios. That, though, ended up being completly stymied - two members were sacked, the recorded sound didn't match the live riot and the label was shut, Warners refusing to take them on any further. Gillett stopped working with Dury when the latter turned down an offer from Virgin and Hardy left the band suffering from stress and a breakdown in working relations.

The band finally got to release a single, Rough Kids (later covered by Wreckless Eric), on a division of Pye in November 1974, with a second the following February and an album, Handsome, in June 1975. A new recording of the same set recorded for Warners, but now cleaner featuring pedal steel and female backing vocals (including future disco hitmaker Tina Charles), it couldn't come close to holding a candle to a uniquely menacing and riotous stage persona. Madness were inspired to form after catching their set, the fabled Nutty Train stance based on a photo that appeared on the back of Handsome, while John Lydon and Malcolm McLaren are known to have regularly seen them, and footage of the Sex Pistols sees the now Rotten betraying an influence from Dury's mike stance and facial contortions. Meanwhile band members left in increasing numbers, and in May 1975 Kilburn & The High Roads called it a day.

Now writing with the Kilburns' latter day pianist Rod Melvin, Dury formed Ian Dury and the Kilburns with an almost entirely new line-up and some new songs, including a nascent What A Waste, as well as a new sideman as roadie and bodyguard, ex-con Fred 'Spider' Rowe. Melvin soon left to become a Scientologist and guitarist Ed Speight put a bulletin out with a music shop owning friend that Dury wanted a new keyboard player. Enter customer Chas Jankel, formerly of A&M-signed proggers Byzantium and session man with Tim Hardin and the Small Faces' Steve Marriott, and someone who could extend their musical vocabulary with his knowledge and love of funk. Dury and the Kilburns spluttered out a year after formation with a gig in Walthamstow supported by the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers, and Dury and Jankel set out to start afresh, with Dury also writing with one Steve Nugent, an American born writer and pub rock scenester.

With former Pink Floyd handlers Andrew King and Peter Jenner managing, a band began inexorably forming. A rehearsal studio engineer hooked them up with session rhythm section Norman Watt-Roy and Charley Charles, with Ed Speight and Davey Payne returning, and a unique mix of sounds and influences began to coalesce. An album was recorded at the Workhouse Studios in Blackhill with Jenner producing, and while that was being taken round the labels Dury, Payne and Roudette recorded a large part of Wreckless Eric's initial oeuvre, Dury on basic drums.

After several knockbacks, King and Jenner realised that the groundbreaking independent label Stiff Records had its offices below theirs. Already a home for the less categorisable strays, Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera signed them up immediately, releasing the first Dury solo single in August 1977. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll was a solo single too, only Jankel and Payne also featuring from the Blockheads, who went officially uncredited until after the album. Driven by a guitar riff transposed from a Charlie Haden bassline found on an Ornette Coleman record, Dury intended it as a friendly warning about the titular lifestyle, not having fits of conscience about what there is to life, but the title and joyous chorus ensured its message went masked. Selling very well until Stiff deleted it after two months, it was a critical hit leading into New Boots and Panties!! Released that September, fronted by Chris Gabrin's celebrated photo of Ian and Baxter and named after the only two items of clothing Dury would buy as new, received rave reviews across the board and stayed in the album top 50 for two years, bar a break around the end of 1977 and start of 1978, although it didn't crack the top ten until March 1978 and achieved its number five peak in February 1979. Even hardened punks were shocked by the directness of some of the lyrics - cf the opening line of Plaistow Patricia, Blackmail Man's anti-abuse tirade or the "song of hate" If I Was With A Woman - but the vast majority fell for the mix of nostalgic tenderness (My Old Man, Sweet Gene Vincent), sexual frankness (Wake Up And Make Love With Me) and low-life portraits in miniature (Clevor Trever, Billericay Dickie).

Clevor Trever

To coincide with the release Stiff organised the Live Stiffs package tour, for which Watt-Roy and Charles suggested their friends and former bandmates guitarist Johnny Turnbull and keyboard player Mickey Gallagher join the live band with Jankel and Payne, while Dury's cast of offstage characters was bolstered by hard man ex-con, and occasional emergency babysitter, Peter Rush, AKA The Sulphate Strangler, who died in a police cell in 1988. The cast list - Dury, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric (for whom Dury, Payne and Roudette acted as backing band) and Larry Wallis - were supposed to rotate order every night, but before long a tradition of ending with a group version of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll was established. Dury's uniquely idiosyncratic stage persona, not to mention the backing band's tightness, won reviewers and punters over inexorably. By the end of the tour, the Blockheads had been christened.

Sweet Gene Vincent, Dury's heartfelt tribute to his teenage idol (also with a damaged leg, from a motorbike accent), was released shortly afterwards...

...and while it failed to chart his stock was incredibly high, even earning them six weeks in America as Lou Reed's begrudging support. April 1978 saw the release of non-album single What A Waste, co-written by Rod Melvin, a paen to finding a job that ultimately makes you happy even if it meant he "chose to play the fool in a six piece band". It slowly took off and in June made it to number 9. During what was supposed to be recuperation time after the accompanying tour Dury and Jankel ended up writing the next single, although a version of the lyrics had been knocking around for a couple of years. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick was less than a week from writing to recording, Payne playing two saxophones at once, Jankel phoning his mother afterwards with the news "I've just recorded my first number one". Released in November it took two months but Jankel was proved right, eventually selling 970,000. And on the B-side...

There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards

Everyone agrees that fame, even at the age of 36, didn't do much for Dury, exacerbating his bad side and later admitting he felt trapped and jealous through his new found celebrity. Put into a studio in spring 1979 the band found they didn't have a lot of songs but did have an overbearing and increasingly confrontational frontman whom Jankel ended up banning from the studio while the backing tracks were completed. The results, Do It Yourself, were released in May 1979 in 28 different sleeves inspired by the Crown wallpaper collection, the idea of Stiff's in-house design genius Barney Bubbles, and were advertised in home improvement stores through an industry tie-in. The music changed too: the cast of characters and musical ferocity were jettisoned in favour of oblique Cockneyfied wordplay and laid-back jazziness. It got to number two, only held off by Abba, and sold 200,000 copies, but the sales were cancelled out by huge losses from touring, largely due to Dury's insistence on the best hotels and his insistence that the balance should not be rectified by releasing a single from the album. During the European sojourn, though, a single was written and recorded, in Rome following the enforced cancellation of the Italian leg. Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3), released in July, was a rapid fire list song to a disco beat that roared to number three.

Inevitably, all was not well with the Blockheads, still on a weekly retainer while the increasingly arrogant Dury lapped up the luxury. Early in 1980 Chas Jankel walked out to concentrate on a solo career, and while he was replaced by Dr Feelgood's guitar hero Wilko Johnson the reverberations from the loss of a musical leader and co-writer were felt throughout recording third album Laughter. That was preceded by not entirely serious single I Want To Be Straight, starting with one of rock'n'roll's rare self-introducing intros and making number 22...

...and the copyright-avoiding Sueperman's Big Sister, which in a typically Stiff moment for their 100th single release packaged in a copy of the label's first single with the details corrected in Biro (only number 51, though). The actual album was a long-winded affair in the recording not helped by Dury's increasing alcoholism and resultant control freak tendencies, despite letting all the Blockheads have a go at writing the music. More indebted to straight up rock than before, despite guest spots for Don Cherry and a tap dancer, Dury would much later admit "I called it Laughter to cheer myself up", and many other close parties suspect an autobiographical edge to the darker, depressive lyrics.

The record buying public didn't enjoy it much either, Laughter peaking at number 48 despite healthy live ticket sales. Dury and Stiff split soon after its release, Dury moving to Polydor without the Blockheads. His first solo release for the label came in August 1981, a reunion with Chas Jankel after his Ai No Corrida had been a club hit and became a proper hit when covered by Quincy Jones in that same year. It wasn't exactly tuned down for commercial purposes either. Spasticus Autisticus, Dury's furious and somewhat defiant reaction to 1981 being deemed International Year of the Disabled ("so in 1982 everyone would be alright?") and an attempt to reclaim the word, was outright banned on British radio.

Spasticus Autisticus

Dury and Jankel had flown to Jamaica to record an album but found they had insufficient material to go with. Lord Upminster, released November 1981, was recorded in two weeks nevertheless with Sly and Robbie as the rhythm section and co-produced by Steven Stanley, who would go on to become an unofficial member of Tom Tom Club, Dury would later claim he couldn't listen to anything on it bar that first single, and reviewers and listeners often concurred, appearing briefly at number 53. Dury rejoined the Blockheads to tour it but man and band finally parted, or so they thought, at the start of 1982.

If Dury can't listen back to Lord Upminster, he says he never even tried with 1984's 4,000 Weeks Holiday. Credited to Ian Dury & The Music Students - accounts differ as to whether or not the Blockheads were so much as asked to appear, although Jankel and Payne appear on a track apiece, Charles added backing vocals and the Specials' sideman Rico Rodriguez cameos - his attempt to work with a younger band was delayed to 1984 due to legal and moral wrangles over the eventually axed song Fuck Off Noddy and reached number 54. Polydor parted ways with Dury afterwards.

Profoundly In Love With Pandora provided a brief revisit to the charts, number 45 in 1985 on the back of it being the theme to the TV adaptation of The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole. Bits of stage and film extra acting filled Dury's days for a while, bar a brief Japanese tour with the Blockheads in 1987, an Alexei Sayle-riffing Toshiba advert voiceover and a celebrated fight with Omar Sharif in a restaurant. The most successful role was as narrator in Road at the Royal Court Theatre, the award-winning debut play of Jim Cartwright, who would go on to write Little Voice, whose star Jane Horrocks, who also had a lead role in Road, ended up living with Dury for a year. He kept his musical arm in by writing a set of songs with Mickey Gallagher for 1987 West End show Serious Money, and a year later was confident enough to put his own project on the stage. Apples, written by Dury with music again by him and Gallagher, starred Ian as a hard-bitten newspaper reporter on the trail of political scandal. An album was recorded for WEA with Gallagher, Payne and some Music Students backing, as well as guest vocals by Wreckless Eric and the show's female lead Frances Ruffelle, who'd won a Tony for Les Miserables and would go on to represent the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest. Pam Ferris, Jesse Birdsall and Bob Goody also took roles in the play, but it closed after ten weeks amid poor reviews for both outlets, Dury later admitting it was a bad idea to construct the plot from a collection of new songs. Dury and Gallagher woudl team up for two more music for the theatre projects for the RSC, 1992's A Jovial Crew and 1993's The Country Wife, and the same director called them up to collaborate on a touring adaptation of Sue Townsend's The Queen And I in 1994.

Charley Charles died of stomach cancer on September 5th 1990. The Blockheads had finally reunited for three gigs at the Kentish Town & County Club starting three weeks later to raise money for his treatment, and they took place in aid of his family. That was followed by a Brixton Academy Christmas show, recorded for live album Warts And Audience, with Apples band drummer Stephen Monti behind the kit. During their own hiatus Jankel made three albums, Watt-Roy, Gallagher and Turnbull played on Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax, Gallagher had been the Clash's touring keyboard player, Turnbull played with Paul Young and Payne with Feargal Sharkey. Asked to produce music for a film Dury came up with a full album of new work, 1992's The Bus Driver's Prayer And Other Stories. All the Blockheads bar Watt-Roy contributed, as did some Music Students, and bar an incident when Dury got drunk, threatened to burn the studio down, insulted the police officers who turned up and was arrested things seem to have improved. While it failed to chart it got Dury his best reviews since the Stiff years.

After returning from filming a small role in The Crow: City Of Angels, Dury felt bowel problems and had a colonoscopy, which revealed he had colorectal cancer. The treatment was initially successful and he continued in the odd public role, not least becoming an ambassador for UNICEF and travelling to Zambia and Sri Lanka, the latter with Dury fan Robbie Williams, in aid of polio immunisation. He'd also been writing songs on and off for a few years and an album's worth was recorded in early 1997, reuniting him in name with the Blockheads. Mr Love Pants, seven of whose ten tracks were Dury/Jankel compositions, came out in March 1998 on Ronnie Harris Records, Dury's own imprint named after his accountant, and returned to the kind of cast of well drawn, drawn out characters Dury had made his name with. Many reviewers called it his best work since New Boots And Panties, and they may well be right.

Mash It Up Harry

In May 1998, Dury went public with the news that the cancerous tumours had spread to his liver and were now inoperable. On finding out he'd married his partner Sophy Tilson, mother of two more sons Billy (1995) and Albert (1997), and before the year was out would go to Sri Lanka and head on tour, while Bob Geldof famously announced his death on his first day in a short spell as an XFM DJ. 1999 saw a collaboration with Madness on the single Drip Fed Fred, A Q Classic Songwriter Award (shared with Jankel) and changes in personnel. Davey Payne, often the instigator of a good scrap, went too far and was thrown out, replaced by Gilad Atzmon, while Dylan Howe came in on drums.

On 6th February New Boots And Panto at the sold out London Palladium cheered their man to the hilt, with more gigs booked for the summer. They never happened. On March 27th 2000 Ian Dury died at home aged 57. Every media outlet paid tribute to a man held in almighty regard by much of the public, and his funeral service on April 5th was attended by a remarkable cross-section from Mo Mowlam and Robbie Williams to assorted high-life waifs and strays. Chas Jankel, Johnny Turnbull, Norman Watt-Roy and Mickey Gallagher were his coffin bearers alongside Chris Foreman and Lee Thompson of Madness, and the Blockheads played his last composition, moving love song You're The Why. The wake took place at the Kentish Town Forum, featured impromptu tributes from Wilko Johnson, Wreckless Eric, Chas Smash, Humphrey Ocean and the Irish singer Ronnie Carroll, whose photo appeared in the Mr Love Pants booklet, and was reviewed by the Guardian.

A Dury tribute concert for BACUP took place in June 2000 at Brixton Academy, featuring a remarkable range of guests from Kathy Burke to Robbie Williams to Mick Jones, Kirsty MacColl, Tom Robinson, Mark Lamarr and Saffrom from Republica. Afterwards the Blockheads decided to continue, backing all but two of the singers on remake album Brand New Boots And Panties, released April 2001, with guests including Williams, Paul McCartney, Billy Bragg, Madness, Sinéad O'Connor, Cerys Matthews and Shane MacGowan. A year later they compiled Ten More Turnips From The Tip, comprised of late period out-takes plus You're The Why with Robbie singing at his own request. Becoming a regularly touring band, Johnny Turnbull took over lead vocals, with Dury's minder and handyman Derek The Draw gradually taking over and "Honorary Blockhead #1" Phill Jupitus making the odd appearance.

A new album, Where's The Party?, followed in 2004; 30 – Live At The Electric Ballroom (2008) saw Davey Payne return to the lineup; and EMI picked up 2009's Staring Down The Barrel. Meanwhile Baxter Dury debuted with the hallucinatory Len Parrott's Memorial Lift in 2002 and followed with the dark psychedelia of 2005's Floorshow; he also produced last year's Slow Club album. Hit Me! The Life & Rhymes Of Ian Dury debuted on the London stage in 2008 and transferred briefly to the West End at the start of the following year. Now, Dury's life is on celluloid. It fits.

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