The Cockney geezer who rode the punk wave to fame

Jackie Burdon,Pa
Monday 27 March 2000 00:00

Punk brought Ian Dury fame, but his clever Cockney lyrics, acting and broadcasting carried him to a much longer-lasting career on his own terms - a sort of renaissance geezer.

His biggest hits Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Reasons To Be Cheerful were imbued with his exuberant love of life.

They had universal appeal, but there was also an uncompromising side to his work.

Dury called himself "Britain's best-known raspberry ripple" and proudly flew the flag for the acceptance of disability.

He coupled unforgettable handsome hardman looks with the slight and ungainly frame of a polio victim.

Ironically, disclosure of his final illness brought about a career resurgence.

He spoke bravely and matter-of-factly about facing death and sought to remove the taboos about the disease which had already taken some of his closest friends.

Thirty-somethings could still sing along with the mischievous lyrics to such character studies as Billericay Dickie, Clever Trevor and Sex 'n' Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll.

Already 35 in 1977, Dury was almost two decades older than the archetypal punk rocker.

It is possible that like other punk contemporaries, Dury sometimes embroidered his upbringing to gain "street cred".

He certainly once claimed his ostentatiously Cockney accent was a necessary protection in a rough environment.

But over time it emerged his mother was a well-spoken graduate and the Cockney was partly a reaction to his despised grammar school in not-very-gritty High Wycombe.

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His chauffeur father and mother separated when he was three and he was brought up by his mother at his aunt's in Upminster, Essex.

By the time he was five his quick intelligence was getting him into trouble and he saw a succession of child psychologists.

He believes he caught polio on a trip to a Southend swimming pool when he was seven, and the illness irreparably damaged one arm and leg so that he required callipers.

The disease did not dampen his rebellious spirit although it did interrupt his schooling.

At hospital he discovered the harsh realities of death, disability and sickness, and claimed he once joined two other patients trying to hang another from a tree.

"We knew he wouldn't mind. He went a horrible colour and then we let him down," he said.

At his Sussex special school he and other disabled pupils would be left on the floor to get up by themselves to teach them independence, but then it was off to the grammar school.

"To me it was like leaving the normal world for an exceedingly abnormal one, in this case a closed society of fairly well-off greengrocers' sons," he later said.

"It was the first thing I ever hated."

Holidays were still in Upminster, and the vowels and rhyming slang of the East End became "the most beautiful, romantic sound in the world," he said.

After school Dury pursued a career in art, as an illustrator and teacher.

He went to Walthamstow and the Royal College of Art and became a lecturer at the Canterbury College of Art in Kent.

He did not turn seriously to music until 1970, when he formed Kilburn and the High Roads.

His teenage hero had been Gene Vincent - who he described as a "skinny white sailor" in his tribute song Sweet Gene Vincent - who became a leather-clad rock star despite a calliper to support a badly healed leg.

But Dury was also one of those on a mission to de-Americanise English pop.

His wry gravel-voiced observations, more akin to music hall than rock and roll, made Kilburn And The High Roads a pub-circuit cult.

Britain's music scene at the time was awash with progressive rock and unreceptive, and they remained penniless and unsuccessful for seven years.

Two partnerships enabled Dury to turn the corner - with keyboard player Chas Jankel, who became his writing partner in 1976, and with Dave Robinson, who signed the resulting Ian Dury And The Blockheads to independent Stiff Records.

The highly publicised nationwide Stiff tour in 1977 also featured Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, and was a springboard for the so-called New Wave - the less abrasive and more thoughtful band coming along in punk's wake.

The Blockheads's first album New Boots And Panties was also their finest, with Essex vignettes like Plaistow Patricia, Clever Trevor and My Old Man, a poignant portrait of his father.

Initially record buyers were unsure what to make of it, but acclaim grew and it peaked at number 9 in the British charts after a full 15 months.

By contrast second album Do It Yourself was an instant success in 1979, but Dury himself admitted it was middle-of-the-road compared with their quirky debut.

Parting with Jankel in 1980 was a creative blow. He went on to write Ai No Corrida for Quincy Jones.

Dury went on to collaborate with others including Wilko Johnson, Sly and Robbie, Don Cherry and Paul Hardcastle, but tired of life on the road.

His most polemical moment was Spasticus Autisticus in 1981, whose message about the negative image of cerebral palsy was considered so strong it was omitted from radio playlists and failed to chart.

Dury was typically unrepentant and called for it to become the theme for the Year Of The Disabled.

As rock and roll became "exhausting", he switched more and more to a successful acting career, ranging from Roman Polanski's Pirates and Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover to stage play Road.

His tongue-in-cheek anthem Sex 'n' Drugs And Rock 'n' Roll was enlisted for Aids education in 1987 with his approval - "two of these just became more dangerous," he said.

The unmistakeable gravelled tones also brought a lucrative sideline in advertising voiceovers which helped him slow down and enjoy life out of the limelight.

He wrote a musical, Apples, which was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 1989 but not highly acclaimed, and he began to paint again.

He hosted ITV art show Metro and campaigned for the eradication of polio, which still cripples children all over the world.

In 1998 he returned to music, reuniting some of the Blockheads for new album Mr Love Pants and also starred in the film Middleton's Changeling.

He had managed to conceal his cancer for three years, but went public in a Sunday paper interview when it spread to his liver and became inoperable.

Forever counting his reasons to be cheerful, he said: "You don't have cancer; it has you. The "chemo" won't get rid of it.

"But it's another lease of - well, however long it is. You just don't know, but it's better than being hit by a bus tomorrow; you have time to sort yourself out."

He talked about his reservation about private medicine: "Because I'm a socialist, but I don't want to go on no waiting list and end up a dead socialist."

The artist travelled with star of the moment Robbie Williams into the Sri Lankan war zone to highlight efforts to vaccinate children against polio.

He also continued to perform at gigs, including Paul Weller's annual outdoor London festival in August 1998 and appeared in a number of high profile adverts.

He leaves four children, two grown up from his first marriage to Elizabeth, which ended in divorce in 1985, and two young children from his second to sculptress Sophie Tilson.

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