Ian Dury was a rock and roll vagabond with the wit and intelligence of Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde. His verbal dexterity as an entertainer and a lyric writer gave the world some of its most famous phrases – ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ and ‘reasons to be cheerful’. He was a true Renaissance man – a talented painter, musician and actor who left behind a body of work that continues to amuse, impress and delight to this day.
Ian Robins Dury was born in Harrow, West London on 12th May, 1942. His mother, Peggy Dury, was a health visitor and his father, Bill, was a bus driver and chauffer. His parents separated after the end of the Second World War and Ian and his mother relocated to Cranham in Essex to live with Peggy’s two sisters Elisabeth and Molly, and Ian’s cousins Martin and Lucy.
The roots of Ian’s creativity can be traced back to the cultural wastelands of post-war Essex and the various schools he attended in the 1950s. After contracting polio in 1949, at seven years old, Ian was confined to Braintree Hospital in Braintree for eighteen months before attending Chailey Heritage Craft School for disabled children from 1951 until 1954, followed by the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe. The schools proved tough going for Ian. Chailey let the children fend for themselves in spite of their varied disabilities, and physical and mental hardships were not uncommon. The Grammar School was also a challenge and its academic private school traditions provoked Ian’s rebellious character. He sought to sublimate the rigours of school life, and gain respect, by expressing himself through drawing and music, becoming an authority on reproducing images of glamour girls and knowing all the latest record releases. The wild rock and roll sounds of Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent and the Bluecaps became the backdrop of his teenage years.
On leaving school at 16, Ian chose to attend art school, gaining a place at Walthamstow School of Art in 1959, where a love of jazz and a taste for cockney rhyming slang helped him sail through his studies. He met painter Peter Blake, who came to teach at Walthamstow in 1961, and found his spiritual home amongst a talented set of music loving artists. Many of Ian’s Walthamstow peers, like him, were accepted onto MA courses at the Royal College of Art and in 1963 he began three years of study that led onto work as an illustrator and art teacher.The death of Gene Vincent in 1971 inspired Ian to form his first band, Kilburn and the High Roads. He became the vocalist and lyricist, co-writing with piano player Russell Hardy. A year later Ian enrolled into the group a number of the students he was teaching at Canterbury School of Art, including guitarist Keith Lucas and bassist Humphrey Ocean. The Kilburns, as they were affectionately known, found favour on London’s Pub Rock circuit and signed to Dawn Records in 1974, but despite acres of favourable press coverage, an album – Handsome – and a tour opening for The Who, the group never rose above cult status.
In 1975 the Kilburns disbanded and Ian kept his head down for the next year, writing new material and considering his options. A chance encounter in a musical instrument hire shop with former Byzantium guitarist Chaz Jankel led to a new songwriting partnership. Jankel, armed with reams of Dury’s lyrics, fashioned a number of songs, including the classic Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. Jankel’s treatment of this material was precisely what Ian had been searching for and soon they were recording, assisted by drummer Charley Charles, bassist Norman Watt-Roy and the former Kilburns saxophonist Davey Payne.
An album was completed, but major record labels passed on Ian Dury, whom they may have seen as a Pub Rock no-hoper. However, next door to Ian’s manager’s office was the newly formed Stiff Records, a perfect home for his oddball genius. The now legendary single Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll / Razzle in My Pocket marked his Stiff debut and this was swiftly followed by the album New Boots and Panties!! that eventually achieved platinum status.
In October 1977, Ian signed up for the Stiff Live Stiffs Tour, alongside Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis. Ian’s new band, now augmented by guitarist Johnny Turnbull and keyboard player Mickey Gallagher, was christened Ian Dury and the Blockheads and the group became the surprise hit of the tour. To capitalise on this, Stiff Records launched a concerted Ian Dury marketing campaign, resulting, in the Spring of 1978, in the Top Ten hit What a Waste. New Boots and Panties!! continued to sell in greater quantities and in November that year, Ian released the irrepressible Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick, which became a UK Number One hit in January 1979. Dury was now a bona fide pop star and, with the Blockheads, toured to great acclaim.
While New Boots and Panties!! headed towards its remarkable 90 week chart run, the group commenced work on the follow up album, entitled Do It Yourself. Another Top Ten single, Reasons to Be Cheerful (Part Three), kept Dury in the public eye during this arduous period of recording. The album was eventually released in June 1979 in a Barney Bubbles-designed sleeve of which there were over thirty variations, all based on samples from the Crown wallpaper catalogue. In 1980 Chaz Jankel departed the Blockheads to concentrate on a solo career, signing with A&M Records. Chaz was replaced by former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson, who further enlivened the group’s stage act and contributed to the next album, Laughter, and its two minor hit singles – I Want to Be Straight and Sueperman’s Big Sister.
In 1981 Ian Dury and the Blockheads disbanded, Ian quit Stiff and signed instead to Polydor, who released the album Lord Upminster. This included the controversial single Spasticus (Autisticus). For this record, Dury was re-united with Chaz and they recorded in the Bahamas with the legendary rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. A second Polydor album, 4000 Weeks Holiday was released in 1984 and it was toured with a new band, Ian Dury and the Music Students.
In the mid-eighties Ian scaled down his musical output to concentrate on film and stage work. His theatrical CV includes films such as Roman Polanski’s Pirates, Bob Hoskins’ The Raggedy Rawney and Hearts of Fire with Bob Dylan, plus a voice-over for the fondly remembered Toshiba TV commercial, ‘Hello Tosh – got a Toshiba?’ He also acted in the stage plays Road and Talk of the Devil and wrote songs with Chaz and Mickey for Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money and his own stage musical, Apples, produced by the Royal Court Theatre in 1989.
In 1990, Blockheads drummer Charley Charles became ill with cancer and the group decided to help with a series of benefit concerts but sadly Charley did not live to see these shows. The re-united Blockheads, with new drummer Steve Monti, produced the live album Warts ‘n’ Audience, released on Demon Records. Throughout the early nineties, the group played gigs on a regular basis, often in mainland Europe. A second album for Demon, The Bus Driver’s Prayer & Other Stories, was released in 1992.
In late 1995 Ian returned from filming in America feeling unwell and in 1996 he was treated for colorectal cancer, undergoing surgery and making a good recovery. He and the Blockheads began work on material for a new album and Ian became involved with UNICEF, accompanying the organisation to Zambia to witness an immunization programme. Ian’s work rate didn’t slow throughout the following year even though he was re-diagnosed with cancer in early 1998. In June that year he and the Blockheads released their first album for seventeen years – Mr Love Pants. It was greeted with rapturous acclaim, many critics opining that it was Ian’s best album since the seminal New Boots and Panties!! It was followed by a guest appearance next to Paul Weller at an open-air gig in London, and a sell-out UK tour.
Ian continued to work for UNICEF, traveling to Sri Lanka with Robbie Williams in October 1998. His profile remained high and he used it to good effect, working for the charity Cancer Bacup on the launch of their new helpline number. In April 1999, Ian and the band played three sell out London gigs followed by a string of shows around the country and later that year the band returned to the studio to start laying down tracks for a new album. Sadly, Ian became too ill to finish this album and it was released posthumously in 2002 with the unrecorded vocals covered by Chaz and Robbie Williams.
Before Ian died he kicked off the new Millenium with ‘New Boots and Panto’ on February 6th 2000. It was a special evening at the London Palladium, with Kirsty MacColl as guest support. Ian drew on his last reserves of energy to give an astonishing performance. It would be his final gig. Six weeks later he passed away peacefully at home with his family.
Ian Dury died on March 27th 2000.