Ian Dury – 12 May 1942 – 27 March 2000
We can probably guess what Ian Dury would make of the X-Factor and The Voice. Blubbing wannabes, some still in their teens, who reckon their lives will be wrecked if they are sent home after performing someone else’s song.
Dury was the antithesis of today’s fame-fixated culture. He was 35 by the time he made his debut in the UK charts and had spent years tramping the beer-sodden back rooms of the pub rock circuit with a troupe so weird only he could have pulled it together. As a child he had been struck down with polio, leaving him with a visibly wasted arm and a calliper clamped around one leg. The complaints received by the BBC after Robert Wyatt appeared on Top Of The Pops in his wheelchair in 1974 underlined a distinct public unease around disability.
As the leader of the pigeonhole-defying Kilburn & The High Roads, Dury was the ultimate square peg. His voice coarse, sandpapery vocals and spiky persona were in stark contrast to the light entertainment acts gracing the charts at the time – 10CC, The Three Degrees, Hot Chocolate. He also cut a sinister figure, clenching his mic with a black leather glove and singing about a making a young girl cry in a lonely bus shelter. The ever present glint in the eye, razorblade earring and sharpened sideburns only added to the air of menace. In 1976, Dury’s extraordinary lyrics and crafted stage persona seemed destined to be enjoyed by the handfuls of music fans who liked their live music up close and personal and with a beer in their hand.
Predictably, the increasingly corporate major labels of gave an unanimous thumbs down to New Boots And Panties when Dury’s managers Peter Jenner and Andrew King peddled it around their plush offices. Frustrated that such a melting pot of original of songs should be left gathering dust, they took it downstairs to the small independent label which rented the space below them, ironically named Stiff – the industry term for a flop. They recognised it for what it was, one of the most unique rock ‘n’ roll records ever made, and signed him up. And when Dury overheard Stiff’s owners Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera plotting a nationwide outing for some of its acts, he knew his chance had come and he grabbed it with both hands.
On the opening night at High Wycombe Town Hall, Dury emerged in a bowler hat and with a range of props, putting on a show that was as evocative of Tommy Cooper as Gene Vincent. Off-stage, he was a music journalist’s dream, helping to ensure that, despite the tough competition posed by Elvis Costello, he stole the headlines. New Boots began a 90-week stay in the album chart and What A Waste gave him his first hit single and Stiff a giant shot in the arm after Riviera exited stage left with Costello and Lowe. When Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick climbed to the summit of the UK charts in 1979, the Essex geezer’s transformation from rank outsider to household name was complete.
To say fame didn’t agree with him would be an understatement. It amplified his worst traits and he became the rock ‘n’ roll stereotype, boorishly holding court in a country pad with a swimming pool. He became difficult to be around and in the studio he could be a nightmare. His third and final album for Stiff was called Laughter, but making it was no pleasure for those involved.
Polydor paid out a huge advance for his signature, but by then Dury had decided he no longer needed The Blockheads and could make do with younger and cheaper session musicians. Many of his fans would contend that his next great album was Mr Love Pants, the one he recorded after reuniting with The Blockheads in 1997. That record raised his profile and proved that although his profile had waned in the intervening period, public affection for him had not.
The way in which he responded to the news of his terminal cancer spoke volumes about the man. He became an advocate and fundraiser for Cancer Bacup, the charity which had treated him, and he continued performing live. Poignantly, his final show on 6 February 2000 was at The London Palladium, the venue his mother had taken him to as a child. He left the stage knowing this was his final stand and waving his goodbyes.
At 57, cancer cruelly cheated Ian Dury of the chance to see his young sons grow up and to grow old with his wife Sophy. Artistically, he had been back on form and clearly there was much more he wanted to give as a songwriter and performer with his still electrifying group. As for us, his death robbed us of one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation and an artist who didn’t see himself as a pop singer, but an old-style entertainer. ‘Performer’, read his passport.
‘There ain’t have been some clever bastards,’ he famously observed on the B-side of his number one hit single. Ian Dury was all of that, and so much more. We’ll never see his like again.