A piece about the late Ian Dury, written for The Word, February 2010.
The chances were slender. The beauties were brief… Two lines from one of his greatest songs, Sweet Gene Vincent, seem to sum up Ian Dury. He changed a lot of people’s lives. He left his paw-prints all over our pop heritage. Sex and drugs and rock’n’roll? His phrase became a proverb. Reasons to be cheerful? He gave hard-pressed sub-editors a quick solution to the daily scramble for a headline. He was the unofficial Poet Laureate of Pop, the last shout of music hall and a link to the language of a vanished London.
He was also a bit of a phoney, and a lot of a bully. And that’s just what his loved ones say. So what shall we make of him? This year it is ten years since he died. But his biggest achievements date back to the late 1970s when he was, for a short while, Britain’s unlikeliest pop star. Look at his YouTube clips, and contemplate the limping, middle-aged man with the ribald rhymes, the self-invented look of a cut-throat charity-shop dandy, his feeling for the pulse of a city’s life from Geoffrey Chaucer to Noël Coward… and you can only marvel. Could anything like Ian Dury ever happen again?
In 2010 there is a new film, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, and a new book, Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography by Will Birch. The film and the book are different but complementary: one is a kind of fantasia, based on Dury’s personal life and deploying his songs like a Greek chorus; the biography is a more detailed music-biz saga. Consult the latter for tales of his early struggle in Kilburn & The High Roads, and the rise, fall and resurgence of Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Look to the movie for a parable of fathers and sons, wives and lovers, roadies, toadies and diamond geezers. They’re both quite critical of his difficult behaviour, yet they’re ultimately affectionate.
Personally I did not know Dury well and perhaps it was better that way. For this article I spoke to people who have lived with him inside their heads. Paul Viragh wrote Sex & Drugs & Roll; Mat Whitecross directed it; Andy Serkis played the wide-boy rhymester himself. Chaz Jankel was in real life Ian Dury’s key collaborator; he scored the movie and led the re-assembled Blockheads through their stomping re-creation of those long-gone times. There is also Will Birch, a renowned musician (The Records, The Kursaal Flyers) turned author. And finally Baxter Dury, Ian’s son: now a performer in his own right, he was the little boy on the sleeve of New Boot And Panties, standing next to his crop-haired dad.
That album, made in 1977, remains the ultimate Ian Dury artefact. When he isn’t singing of Gene Vincent’s slender chances and brief beauty, there are violent, snarling tales of the Essex under-class or frank accounts of amorous dawns. More touching is an elegy to his late father, My Old Man, that speaks of working-class dignity, of a man who served his boss but kept his self-respect – but a man, alas, who could not stick around to raise his children. His name was Bill Dury, and in the film he is played by Ray Winstone. Three generations of Dury men-folk, then – with one perplexing, sweary, lop-sided pop star in the middle.
When you’re an actor best-known for playing Gollum in Lord Of The Rings, even Ian Dury must seem like a glamour role. Andy Serkis has a certain resemblance to Dury and shares that Estuarial growl. On the screen he looks the spitting image and, in fact, does all the singing too. “It’s part of the man,” he says. “It would have been weird not to. I’ve got a similar timbre to Ian. And he was never a great vocalist, was he?” Dury’s closest collaborator, Chaz Jankel, was amazed by the similarity; the Blockheads’ saxophonist, Davey Payne, pronounced a performance with Serkis as being “like a séance”.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll took shape over drinks in the Blue Posts pub in Soho. Serkis and his friend, the film’s writer Paul Viragh, began by rejecting a straight bio-pic. “We wanted the essence of the man, his energy on stage and his chaotic energy as a human being.” The actor had actually met Dury one evening in the early 1990s: “It happened to be one of the nights when he was not on good form: we were in a Chinese restaurant, he got quite drunk, and the whole night turned bad. So my meeting with Ian was not a particularly rosy one.”
Researching his role, Serkis discovered that Dury’s family also had mixed memories: “They were closely involved and when they read the first draft they went: ‘Nah, he was much worse than that.’ He could be a right bastard, and they didn’t shy away from it. We had a screening for the family and it was wonderful. We wanted to get it right for them, and honour Ian, but at the same time tell a truthful story.”
Paul Viragh did his homework too: “I spent a lot of time talking to family and friends to try and work out what he was,” says the writer. “And once I’d locked onto the front of New Boots And Panties, the fact that it’s Baxter and Ian together, and the similarities between their relationship and Ian’s relationship with his own father, it became a story about father figures, and what you take on board from your parents. Much of the personality that we later knew as Ian Dury, the rough lad-about-town, came from his father, though his mother was the one who was around the most. You can see what she put into him by the fact he’s so clever, so well-read and rounded. You’re always working out the balance between this really clever guy and the one who’s pretending to be a bit of a thug.”
Baxter Dury, whose childhood is central to the movie, confers his seal of approval. “I think I really like it. Trying to stay objective is hard but I’ve seen it five times and I’ve loved it. But it’s very powerful. The first time I saw it, it made me bleed internally.”
Baxter observes that the film is a “patriarchal” affair. “Yeah. All that stuff about his own dad comes into play, and then I’m on an album cover. Bish-bosh, it fits within the format and you have to respect that, for delivering information with a rhythm.” But Ian’s mother is rather absent from the narrative, isn’t she? “You haven’t got both ends of the story in there,” he agrees. “But it’s a view on it. Before truth comes story-telling and that’s really important. My older sister Jemima was involved in the story at least as much as I was, yet she knew all along that she wasn’t going to be in it. But I’m a device, an embodiment of children. Jemima and I both suffered those things, in a good and bad way.”
Was it like his actual upbringing, as he remembers it? The absent father who would periodically gatecrash into his life, take him on the road, expose him to drug-taking reprobates? And put him in the care of a roadie-cum-babysitter called The Sulphate Strangler?
“It’s not right in minute detail,” Baxter allows. “But it all kind of existed. It was extreme, it got happier and it got sadder and it got crazier. The film seems almost cosy, but when things got ugly they definitely got ugly. When things were funny they were definitely funny. It was all more extreme. And it was enormous fun.”
Dury’s background is also a story of social class – a complicated one. His father was a cockney bus driver and his mother a well-educated middle-class lady. But Dury Snr was also an aspirational man of the 1950s, who wished his boy to speak correctly; he left the buses to become a chauffeur, mixing with the rich and valuing formality. Ian’s mother, on the other hand, was of the bohemian sort, happy to live among book-lined untidiness and tolerant of the strange.
The ideal outlet for a boy of such upbringing was art school. Dury, who was only two years younger than John Lennon, made the same escape into this post-War, state-subsidised underground, where creativity was being defined in ever-looser terms. Like his teacher Peter Blake, Dury combined artistic vocation with a love of pop culture. Like Lennon, he was infatuated by the Teddy Boy cult, blending its proletarian swagger with the beatnik leanings of college life. His semi-autobiographical Upminster Kid pays homage to the late 1950s, hymning the rockers with a mod’s eye for style.
Pulled in different directions by the cultural currents of that moment, Dury was an awkward fit whichever way you looked at it. He could never be an Essex gang-leader, nor a dutiful white-collar trainee. On top of which there was the largest obstacle of all. Dury was, in his beloved East End rhyming slang, “a fucking raspberry ripple”…
At the age of seven, Ian Dury contracted polio from an infected swimming pool. The resultant disability – a weakened left arm and a left leg that he would daily cage in metal callipers for the rest of his life – meant he was wrenched away from conventional education and sent to a grim institution for other afflicted children. When he returned to the regular school system he was a conspicuous misfit.
Researching the role, Andy Serkis discovered how Dury’s condition would manifest itself psychologically, as much as physically: “He never considered himself as a disabled person. He’d had it thrust upon him at the age of seven, so it wasn’t like he’d never known anything else. He played the disability card all over the place. He was famed for starting fights and then going ‘No, don’t! I’m a cripple!’ and having someone else carry on the fight for him.”
Baxter Dury confirms this: “Somewhere along the line he decided that his disability should be ignored on one level and used to his advantage on another. Prior to getting ill he’d been encouraged by his mother and became very precocious, spoiled almost, and when that happened, he had to try and regain the position he’d had before. But it was difficult when he went to that school, given the horrible reality of those places in the 1950s.”
After art college, Dury went into teaching, and in 1967 married his fellow artist Elizabeth Rathmell, with whom he had his daughter Jemima, followed by Baxter. He did not form his first band, Kilburn & The High Roads, until London’s pub-rock boom of the early 1970s. The Kikburns were ramshackle, given to musical pastiche and jumble-sale chic, but he was a commanding front-man. Abrasive and tender by turns, he’d spout his gruff couplets, gripping the mike-stand for support (like his idol Gene Vincent, whose own left leg had been smashed in a motor-cycle accident). The band made one album, Handsome, and were undeniably an influence on everyone from the Sex Pistols to Madness, but they were a commercial flop.
The other problem – and you would hear this from many people, at every stage of Dury's life – was that he was absolute bloody murder. His first marriage collapsed, he ran the Kilburns with a dictatorial, manipulative streak and he drove managers to distraction. His great good fortune was to find a supportive girlfriend, called Denise Roudette, and then a musical director named Chaz Jankel. The latter meeting set him on course for stardom, via the newly-founded Stiff label and a fabulously tight band that they christened The Blockheads.
So what was Ian Dury like? Could he really have been so awful?
This was a question that the film’s director, Mat Whitecross, had to address: “It was so hard to gauge who he was. He was like a hundred different people trapped in one body. In the same way that I couldn’t get a handle on the music – it was music hall, it was proto-punk and it was funk and cockney, I couldn’t pin it down – it was the same with his personality. He was this creative, galvanising force. Everyone connected with him at an important part of their lives, which was no coincidence because he brought out the best in them.
“He could be destructive and cruel, yet somehow he’s left all these people behind who have an Ian-shaped hole in their lives… So how do you frame it? You can’t make it too naturalistic, because he wasn’t a naturalistic person. He was the centre of any room he walked into. Despite everything that happened to him he had this amazing zest for life; you see the gigs and they’re incredibly joyful. You get other performers who are cool and machine-like, but he would do anything to engage with an audience.”
Andy Serkis: “The challenge of the thing was to keep people guessing the whole time, which is what Ian did. He could play the cockney geezer with this larger-than-life onstage persona, then switch to this sensitive man who would burst into tears when something moved him. What makes him attractive is that there is an honesty. He couldn’t suffer fools. I remember people reading early drafts and saying he was too unsympathetic. Why would we care about this man? But I think we do, because of this core of honesty.”
Baxter Dury: “Even when he was acting crazy, it was humorous as well. You would have to suffer all kinds of indignities, but you kind of miss it now. No-one’s upsetting people any more. There were some hilarious times, even if it took you a year to accept that it was funny. Like the way we got banned from every hotel in Hamburg, after he’d called everyone an SS soldier. It seems brilliant now but at the time... He was confrontational. He was very good at weeding out the people who needed a bit of that. He wasn’t always right and he was definitely angry. But there was something great about it all.”
Dury’s biographer Will Birch, a fellow pub-rocker, often watched him at close range: “He had a charm and an ability to seduce both men and women. He was a good one with the girls but he also seduced the band members, in the sense that he mentored them, he brought them into his world, and the ones that got it, got it big time. The rest were kicked out.”
Stardom came to Dury rather late in life. He was 36 when he first appeared on Top Of The Pops. His relative maturity should have helped him cope with sudden fame, but in fact he reacted as badly as any adolescent.
“In some ways,” thinks Mat Whitecross, “I suppose it’s even more tempting when you’ve been striving for it all your life. You’ve had these setbacks and people have said ‘You’re never going to make it.’ On the face of it, he couldn’t really sing, he was too old to be a pop star, he didn’t have classic good looks, was disabled, had all these things counting against him. Yet somehow he made it.”
In 1978, the single What A Waste and album New Boots And Panties made him a star. His insecurity was evident right up until the breakthrough. On the verge of the Blockheads’ success he’d applied to be a lift attendant in Harrods. Though wary of hard drugs, he was a drinker who did not cope well with alcohol. The environment of fame, especially in the music business, puts every temptation within easy reach, and Dury did not stint himself. If the struggle had been hard, the effect of success was to make him fractious, then even more anxious.
Paul Viragh: “What does the fighter do when the war is over? The journey of getting there was what drove him. But then it was: Right, you can do anything you want now. And in the ‘doing what you want’ the work wasn’t quite as good. He had no time for people feeling sorry for themselves, whether they had a disability or not. Using what you’ve got, striving and pushing forwards, was in his personality. And when he didn’t have to struggle any more, when he didn’t know what to push against – he fell over.”
There were now the newly-minted Dury classics, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 3). Yet the next album, Do It Yourself, had an air of energies spent. For all the reviewers’ enthusiasm, it was an anti-climax. The Blockheads’ peak had already passed, and Chaz Jankel departed: “Ian was very dominating, very persuasive, and I needed time to explore other music which I felt was not suited to Ian’s voice. And we’d reached a financial position where we didn’t have to rely on each other. So I sauntered off to America.”
Jankel’s solo career got off to a flying start with the worldwide 1981 hit, Ai No Corrida, that he wrote for Quincy Jones. Meanwhile The Blockheads, despite the addition of former Dr Feelgood firebrand Wilko Johnson, seemed to flounder. Jankel defends his old comrade, asserting that the charts were just too narrow a stage for Ian Dury: “I’m sure a lot of artists go through that. They’re brought back to earth when their next record doesn’t sell very well. And the wife asks them to change the baby’s nappies. Success is fleeting. Ian never wanted to be a pop star. He was more the left-wing art student, the punk movement happened to happen at the same time as Ian but he never called himself a punk. His musical influences were very broad. He loved great literature too, and music hall.”
But Will Birch is more sceptical: “Ian used to say that he felt under pressure to deliver a follow-up and it shouldn’t be about follow-ups. But that’s a bit convenient, because he certainly enjoyed the stardom in 1979. When it slipped away in 1980 that’s the point where he started drinking and feeling very bitter. He said he couldn’t cope with fame because he felt cornered in public, he couldn’t run away in case he fell over, and it was embarrassing. But I think he loved it. It was a convenient way of explaining the relative obscurity he now found himself in, to claim he preferred it to fame.”
Fortunately, the writing team of Jankel and Dury did not implode entirely. “There were periods when we wouldn’t speak to each other for nine months or so,” he recalls. “But inevitably I’d get drawn into thinking, Oh, he’s not such a bad bloke after all. I’d make that call and he’d go ‘Come on over, have a cup of tea!’ And that was it. I was back.” Among their next numbers was the rollicking Spasticus Autisticus, made in 1981 for the United Nations’ Year Of The Disabled. It was a worthy cause, no doubt, but Dury was not cut out for pieties, and the song was simply too fierce to get official backing: “I wibble when I piddle, cos my middle is a riddle.”
Observation and word-play were the great strengths of Dury’s writing. He might be selfish, but he was never so inward-looking that he stopped observing others. The rogues’ gallery of characters in his earlier work – the “blotched and lagered” blockhead boys, Clevor Trever and the rest – recurs in the best of his final songs, Mash It Up Harry, whose sorry protagonist is like an older version of those same blockheads, a little more settled and tamed, perhaps a bit defeated by life.
“I remember watching the lyrical journey for that,” says Chaz Jankel. “Ian was originally having a pop at Harry and his little ways, but in the writing he warmed to him. Which is why he sends him off to Wembley to see the Cup Final. Ian was going, ‘You know what? In the end, Harry’s going to have a result.’ Ian was observing people having to deal with life with their unique circumstances, from Plaistow Patricia, a heroin addict, to Billericay Dickie to Harry.”
Paul Viragh: “He understood the frailty of it all. As a screenwriter you couldn’t ask for a better character, a storyteller who is drawing people as they really are, but in a sympathetic way. He could in himself be an unsympathetic man, but people really loved him, his son loved him and he loved his father. He wasn’t some dark and distant Jim Morrison figure. He was a people person, who got under their skin. Not always when they wanted him to, either.”
Ian Dury was diagnosed as having colorectal cancer in 1996. With his new partner Sophy Tilson (whom he would marry in 1999), he had two more sons, Bill and Albert. He continued to record and perform, so far as he was able, right up until his death.
I met him for a short interview, at an awards ceremony, just before the end. Awfully frail, he sat with Chaz Jankel and his minder Derek “The Draw” Hussey (who is now Ian’s replacement in the re-formed Blockheads) and talked with a benevolent air. He had a kind word for the other rock stars in the room and a glad eye for the pretty girls, who were persistently interrupting us for a photo with the great man. I’d been a fan for 25 years, since my first Kilburns gig, and Handsome is almost my favourite LP. So I burbled all this to him, the way one does. I knew there would never be another opportunity.
Dury had definitely mellowed, says his son Baxter. “He slowed down, but he’d become very ill. He stopped fighting as much. He was always really cuddly, Dad. And warm. He was never cold. But he definitely became more that way towards the end. He was really relaxed, and in the last year he was very, very charming.”
“He became more reflective on life,” says Chaz Jankel today. “He was less the angry young man and more the contemplative. Knowing the man, I’d say he found contentment.”
Did Jankel find the movie hard to deal with, emotionally?
A pause: “I’ve had a long time now to reconcile my emotions. Ian passed away in 2000 and in a way I dealt with a big part of the emotions back then. That’s it, physically, he’s gone. Spiritually, he’s around whenever I need him, we were very close. When we play gigs now, he’s there. The whole spirit of Blockheadism was initiated by Ian, this huge group of friends. People were drawn to it because they loved Ian’s energy and they were happy to shelter in it.
“At the end of the day, he loved to have a laugh. He never bemoaned his own physical problems. Ian was stoic. Grind your teeth and get on with it. In fact the rhythm of that song Spasticus Autisticus is a rhythm of defiance. It’s that stomp, four-to-the-floor, it’s the sound of the Zulu tribe about to come over the hill and massacre Michael Caine and the other Brits. And that was Ian’s favourite rhythm, it was defiance. It was Ian with a cane, trying to walk up Primrose Hill.”
Andy Serkis spoke at length to Ian’s widow Sophy: “She told me, ‘If you made a cup of tea for Ian it had to be the best cup of tea ever.’ He was exacting, and therefore not easy to live with, whether you were his child or his lover. He was capable of great selfishness, and he would admit that. It’s that balance of creative drive and thinking, Look, I’ve only got a few short minutes, relatively, on this planet and I am going to be magnificent. Don’t squander that.”
The singer’s last days are movingly described in Will Birch’s book. Dury acquired an Apple Mac and tried to write his autobiography, but the task was physically beyond him now: the only two words he managed to type were “Hallo sausages.” He died at home, with his family around him. At his funeral, mourners included Robbie Williams; the coffin was carried by members of The Blockheads and Madness. Oh, and Baxter Dury, the little boy on the front of New Boots And Panties, got up to sing that album’s sweetest song, My Old Man.