With or without his backing band The Blockheads, Ian Dury was a formidable performer in the early days of punk’s metamorphosis into New Wave.
A pub rock veteran who started out as a member of the much-loved but barely noticed Kilburn and The High Roads, Dury achieved greater success in the late 70s as a member of the wildly idiosyncratic Stiff stable of artists (alongside Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric and Elvis Costello).
Dury – a self-confessed “mockney” who was actually born in Harrow in 1942 and was a former art teacher at Luton College of Technology – was a decade or so older than most of his contemporaries and one of the most endearing of this motley crew. With a thick cockney accent and a bum leg as the result of a childhood bout with polio, he was an unlikely pop star but composed ebulliently sarcastic rock/funk ditties which he rendered in a deep sing/speak vocal style.
The offspring of a working-class bus driver/chauffeur and an academic bohemian mother, who spent much of his childhood in horrifying-sounding children’s homes, Dury was a gift to journalists, who found him highly entertaining and always returned to their offices laden down with colourful quotes from the master of repartee. A veil was drawn over his days as a pupil at a private boarding school in Buckinghamshire and he continued to play up his Essex origins.
His debut LP, New Boots & Panties!! (1977) is probably his best-known work – loaded with tough tracks about a collection of very English characters, it is as good as anything Stiff released in its infancy. The LP was like nothing else, then or now – a wild and raw, pithy, lewd, funny, cruel, and brilliantly coarse work of not-quite-punk in a sort of twisted British music hall tradition.
Dury had a genius for words, cockney rhyming slang picked up or invented: “I 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” (Billericay Dickie).
In February 1978, a live compilation of songs recorded on the Stiff tour was released entitled Stiffs Live Stiffs. Like the majority of the shows themselves, the album concluded with Ian’s songs and the raucous finale Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.
That same month Ian and his excellent band, The Blockheads, were delivering their intoxicating blend of music hall and funk to an American audience for the very first time. They had been invited to take part in a six-week tour supporting former Velvet Underground legend Lou Reed and had jumped at the chance.
The Blockheads (which contained at various times Mickey Gallagher, Chaz Jankel, Norman Watt-Roy and the legendary Wilko Johnson) could move seamlessly from straight pub rock to funk to disco without batting an eyelid.
They played 30 cities, travelling in a 12-bed coach, which was an excellent opportunity for Ian and the band to play large venues and test the unpredictable American market. Although the band went down a storm with some of their US audiences, two shows a night and gruelling coach trips left the band exhausted, and by the end of the tour, Ian and Lou were trading insults.
In one withering put-down, Reed snarled “that guy sounds like he’s got tongue disease”, and on at least one occasion, when The Blockheads left, they walked right across the stage waving to the audience from behind Lou Reed while he was playing.
When Ian returned to Britain, the demand for Blockheads shows was growing and they went straight back on the road. His first headline tour kicked off on 11 May 1978 and included various halls, civic buildings and Odeons.
Before the tour started, Stiff released What A Waste b/w Wake Up And Make Love With Me. It entered the Top 75 in April, and as the tour progressed it began to climb. By June, it was #9. His first hit, it would spend 12 weeks in the charts.
Shifting gears somewhat unexpectedly, his second album Do It Yourself smoothed out the funky rock for a disco feel. With Dury’s croaking voice and Wilko Johnson’s cranking guitar, it was hardly The Bee Gees, but it was shocking (at first) to hear Dury and co sounding as if they’d wandered into a Boz Scaggs recording session.
By 1984 Dury had stopped recording and didn’t make a comeback until 1989’s Apples which was never released in America.
Dury was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1996 and underwent surgery, but tumours were later found in his liver, and he was told that his condition was terminal.
Upon learning of his illness (“I mustn’t grumble, I’ve had a good crack”) he took the opportunity to marry his girlfriend, sculptress Sophy Tilson, with whom he had two children, Billy and Albert, and devoted much of his time to charitable causes.
In early 1998 Dury reunited with The Blockheads to record the well-received album Mr Love-Pants. They hit the road again, with Dylan Howe replacing Steven Monti on drums, and gigged throughout 1999, culminating in their last performance with Dury on 6 February 2000 at the London Palladium.
Ian Dury died of metastatic colorectal cancer on 27 March 2000. He was just 57.
The cover photo of New Boots and Panties!! was taken outside the long-closed Axfords clothing store in Victoria, London. Standing next to Dury is his son, Baxter, who, at his father’s wake in 2000, performed My Old Man (originally written by Dury about his father). Ending with the line “All the best mate from your son” it was an appropriately poignant moment in memory of a truly unique man.