Hit me with your rhythm shtick: How did Ian Dury become one of the most fascinating rock stars of the 1970s?
As a new film reminds us, he was a polio survivor from the suburbs and not much of a musician.
Sunday 03 January 2010
Andy Serkis is a very fine actor. He must be. He won lots of awards a few years ago for portraying a vulnerable, self-serving, treacherous, addicted, grasping, malodorous, dimensionless little reptile, and for doing so in such a way that you cared about his character's pain. If the role of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings perhaps lacked a little in Chekhovian depth, it would surely represent ideal preparation for the portrayal of a rock star.
Mind you, it depends on your rock star.
The one Serkis is playing in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (released this week) was certainly vulnerable and was certainly capable of malignancy, but he did not lack for, as an American academic might put it, dimensionality. Ian Dury was possibly the least flat rock star this country has ever produced. He had uncultivated rough edges and hinterland in abundance; he suffered in ways that rock stars usually only fantasise about in their most selfless moods (that is, hardly ever). He saw himself as an artist first, musician second. But he was, nevertheless, a rock star – one whose personal narrative was geared to the pursuit of creativity, fame and the imperative to respond to the pitfalls that inevitably accompany those pursuits.
Down, up, down, up, down, up, down – the model rock-star story is a rail-bound rollercoaster ride and therefore rather dull in the telling; life represented as a "journey" rather than as events glued together with inertia. The life stories of rock stars virtually never make interesting narratives. Which is not the same thing at all as saying that no rock stars are interesting. Ian Dury was a case in point. For a brief period, he was the most interesting rock star in England.
He was born in 1942 in Harrow-on-the-Hill – not Upminster, as he liked people to think – which made him a contemporary of the equally suburban Rolling Stones. His mum was a middle-class bohemian, his dad a bus driver and sometime chauffeur. Soon after his parents' separation, at the age of seven wee Ian contracted polio, which resulted in the paralysis and withering of his left leg, shoulder and arm. He went to a special school for the disabled, then grammar school, then art school in Walthamstow. At 22, he was studying under Peter Blake at the Royal College and then became an art teacher himself. Dury was a model of postwar class slippiness. He is said to have got through accents as some people get through shoes.
The theatrical greaseball rocker version of Ian Dury began to show himself around town in the early 1970s, as he approached his thirties. Gene Vincent seems to have been the main inspiration.
Vincent Eugene Craddock was a native of Norfolk, Virginia, a careerman in the US Navy until he crashed his motorbike on furlough, virtually destroying his left leg in the process. The limb was saved but it never worked properly again and it gave him pain for the rest of his life; it became a prop in both senses of the word. And so Vince Craddock became Gene Vincent and made one of the greatest of all rock'n'roll records, "Be-Bop-A-Lula" – a slippy rockabilly shuffle which compares with the very best of Little Richard, Jerry Lee and Elvis; a character sketch popping with alliterative consonants as well as the implication that shuddering, twitching Gene has just had an orgasm.
But by the start of the 1960s, Vincent's American career had began to stutter and it was while he was touring England that he survived the car crash which killed Eddie Cochran. The crash made his leg hurt even more. He died in 1971. By which time Dury had formed Kilburn & the High Roads, which might have been remembered as one of the quintessential art- college bands, had they been as good at rocking as they were at dressing up. Nevertheless, Dury cut a memorable figure and gave good copy – it seemed that barely a week might pass in the mid-1970s pages of NME without an allusion to his latest deeds or, failing that, a full-blown interview accompanied by inky images of the ear-ringed, kohl-eyed, foul-mouthed pikey rocker of the suburbs. Alongside the Canvey R&B mob Dr Feelgood, Dury established a visual aesthetic rooted in retro boondock scuzz and notoriety – the keynotes of the English "new wave" look.
"Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll", the single, came out in 1977 as punk came to the boil – though it didn't have much to do with punk. Dury, now joined by the Blockheads, signed to the newly formed Stiff label, and everyone who aspired to hipnitude wanted to talk about Stiff almost as much as Stiff wanted to talk about themselves.
There are at least two things worth saying about "Sex & Drugs". The first is the obvious one: that the record gave rise to one of the more hard-working clichés of the language. Dury may or may not have coined the phrase, but he certainly popularised it.
The second is less obvious but just as worthy, as it concerns the music itself. To be specific, the tune. The song's compelling, oddly modal snatch of a melody was lifted note for note from the opening of Charlie Haden's bass solo in "Ramblin'", the epic that begins Ornette Coleman's early classic of "new thing" jazz, Change of the Century. It is said that Dury later apologised to Haden for nicking his stuff, only to be told not to worry about it because Haden had himself pinched the tune from an old English folk song. And it's in that curious ebb and flow of influence and counter-influence that we come close to the real reasons for Ian Dury's status as the most interesting English rock star of the late 1970s.
British rock is not real. Never has been. Not in the sense that American rock is. Our rock did not grow in cotton fields and freightyards. It was not born out of poverty and racial tension, nor shaped by a clash of commerce and culture. We simply imported rock along with a load of other American gear as we emerged from the trial of postwar austerity. We imported it, consumed it, copied it and, later, sometimes even improved on it.
Certainly, in 1977, there had never been an occasion when British rockers had not looked over their shoulders at the American original without a chip of either envy or longing or resentment or rejection glistening in their eyes. You might argue that the stylistic self-consciousness of British rock is a direct product of that anxiety. That would be because, one way or another, British rock always had American rock squatting like a troll in some part of its brain. British rock was about its relationship with America.
But Ian Dury's accommodation with America was completely original and oddly effortless – the two co-existed in musical space without interfering with each other. The Beatles had, of course, borrowed the tropes of American R&B and shaken them up in a bag with a lot of English cultural sherbet. The Stones were impertinent enough to take American R&B and do it better than (white) Americans did it. The Kinks were the first to make rock sound English as a matter of principle. English folk-rockers (such as Fairport Convention) wanted to reveal an old, lost, mythical England, and do it with electric guitars. Progressive English groups wanted to remove every last trace of America from rock, resulting in arguably the most self-conscious-sounding music ever made. The agonies of influence were everywhere and they were profound.
Not in Dury's case, though. He lived not in a lost, mythical England but a rather grimy current one, an England which had somehow made it through the 1950s and 1960s and settled for disco and dirty talk. He liked American jazz, American soul, American funk, and he liked the way English working-class people spoke the language. "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" was a talking disco record that enjoyed its sophisticated avant-jazz allusions as much as it enjoyed the poetics of a pert funk beat and the pop of short syllables. It was Englishness represented unconditionally and without contingency. New Boots and Panties!! continued the vibe when it came out the following year. In another age Clever Trevor, Plaistow Patricia, Billericay Dickie and Harold Hill of Harold Hill would have known their place was really in the music hall; now they lived in hip homes everywhere.
On the cover of New Boots is Dury's six-year-old son, Baxter; he's the easy little chap leaning against the outfitter's shop-front next to Dury. Baxter is now a musician in his own right. He's in his late thirties. He says that he is only beginning to learn about his father as a man but is clear in his mind about the artist.
Dury died of cancer 10 years ago this March, at the age of 57. "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" and "Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3" were his greatest hits. New Boots was his best album. They all belonged to the dying days of the 1970s. But their author did go on to act in films, to write a musical, to present a television show, to turn down Andrew Lloyd Webber and to become an ambassador for Unicef – possibly the only thing he ever had in common with Audrey Hepburn. And right at the end, he made a rather good album again, entitled Mr Love Pants. You should try to hear it.
"Fame was to him a way of controlling his predicament, a form of power," says Baxter Dury of his dad. "He wasn't musically that capable. He was lucky: he happened to find the Blockheads and [co-writer/arranger] Chaz Jankel. It wasn't by design. He found the right oil and decided not to change it.
"Why was it so special? It was music that fought the forces of expectation, about what you can do and what you shouldn't do. He wasn't much of a singer at all. He was a short, disabled guy. He was never meant to be an icon. It's just that a great deal of effort over 10 years – 10 years of performing, singing, writing, talking – culminated in New Boots and Panties!!. All his test tubes had been boiling from an early age and it all came together at once. It just blew up, like a manhole cover exploding out of the Tarmac. It wasn't a choice."
So, Andy Serkis – no pressure then.
'Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll' is released on Friday. A new CD, 'sex&drugs&rock&roll: The Essential Collection', comes out on 11 January on DMG TV
Reasons to be cheerful: Five influences on Dury and the Blockheads
Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps: 'Be-Bop-A-Lula'
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