I finally got around to seeing 2010 Ian Dury bio-pic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll a couple of weeks ago.
I’d resisted before, having read Richard Balls’ 2000 excellent Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll: The Life of Ian Dury biography of the man himself, and not being too keen on revisiting some of the more sordid ins-and-outs.
Needless to say, it was a great film though, Paul Viragh’s script and intricate touches like the graphics by Ian’s esteemed art tutor Peter Blake ensuring a creative take on a tale I knew pretty well.
Andy Serkis was a natural in the lead role, and the same went for many of those around him, not least Bill Milner as Ian’s son Baxter Dury, Tom Hughes as Chaz Jankel, Olivia Williams as Ian’s first wife Betty, and Naomie Harris as his girlfriend Denise Roudette.
I took a similar stance when it came to reviewing Ian’s back catalogue, feeling the same reluctance about rediscovering those eight LPs or the Kilburn and the High Roads records that preceded them.
Besides, surely the 2005 double-CD Reasons to be Cheerful compilation told the story just as well
I loved Ian’s 1977 debut LP, New Boots and Panties, and a few tracks here and there from those that followed, and held 1997’s Mr Love Pants in high esteem, the latter showing Ian in the best possible light after a number of near-misses and not-so-special moments.
I hadn’t properly listened to any of those recordings for a while, and took Edsel Records’ Ian Dury: The Vinyl Collection, featuring all eight studio LPs on 180g vinyl (with an added bonus disc in the CD version, Ian Dury: The Studio Collection) with a degree of scepticism.
But I was wrong, and in the same way that this legendary Harrow-born artist once revealed he was Really Glad You Came, I’m pleased I went back and properly listened again, from start to finish.
As the sleeve-notes remind us, Ian was ‘a rock’n’roll vagabond with the wit and intelligence of Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde’. And there’s no denying that.
Furthermore, it points to his ‘verbal dexterity as an entertainer and a lyric writer’ and talks about 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’. Right again.
I felt you could surmise that much from the singles alone, though. And only a few of those actually ended up on the albums.
But as it turns out, the long players perhaps give us more clues as to the full story of this enigmatic and often-troubled entertainer.
I was lucky enough to see him live a couple of times, at a benefit for cancer victim Charley Charles in September ’90 – barely three weeks after the drummer’s death – at Kentish Town’s Town and Country Club, and later supporting Madness at nearby Finsbury Park in August ’92.
I’ve since seen The Blockheads live too, with Ian’s former helper Derek the Draw up front these days, a fair proportion of that talented band that helped ensure his success enjoying a fresh lease of life, and as shit-hot today as all those years ago.
While Ian and Charley are no longer with us, and Wilko Johnson’s a star in his own right, you still get to see Chas Jankel, Norman Watt-Roy, Johnny Turnbull, Mickey Gallagher and Davey Payne – to name but five Blockhead legends – on the same stage, still at the top of their game.
So what of the albums themselves? Well, I thought it was time to pin back the Britneys and try and listen afresh. And while there were a fair few lows en route, there are some proper corkers too, and maybe no true fan can rightly be without this collection.
My task of re-evaluating Ian’s 1977-98 track record was never going to be easy, and turned out to be a mightier project than I might even have envisaged.
As a disclaimer, I might add that other reviews are available. I’m bound to miss out some key facts or get history slightly upside down at times, but I’ve given it a good go, and hope I’ve done Ian and his band-mates over the years some credit.
In short, I’m really glad I came back to this back-catalogue, appreciating the good, the bad and the downright groovy recorded moments of a lost genius.
New Boots and Panties!! (1977)
From that memorable Chaz Jankel piano intro and unmistakable Norman Watt-Roy bass line to that naughty Dury vocal, Wake Up And Make Love With Me is the perfect opener to ID canon.
I had the Live Stiffs version on cassette once, and that had a similar effect. Back then – and I was too young to discover it first time around, I might add – New Boots was an album to play when the folks were out. But times change – and now it’s one to play when my own children are out.
Next is the glorious Sweet Gene Vincent, in turns poignant and celebratory, a fitting tribute to a rock’n’roll legend by one who soon became one himself, Ian’s quick-fire but measured word rap never sounding tired.
His wordsmithery was there from day one, that highly-effective London lyrical lingo ensuring we’d always be Partial To Your Abracadabra, and like the album’s opener he lands just on the right side of obscene in a song with a true ’70s feel.
My Old Man is something of a hymn or elegy to working class roots, yet reveals something of a complicated character behind the more obvious caricature. And that in turn explains some of Ian’s own verve.
‘Died before we’d done too much talking’ is a line that always gets me, yet it’s never over-sentimental and is all the stronger for that. And all the time he’s backed up by that glorious life-affirming sax and hypnotically-off-centre bass.
From the famous spoken opening, Billericay Dickie is a fantastic introduction to Ian’s special world of well-drawn misfit characters, those charming rhyming couplets leading a modern take on a music hall meets dirty postcard world view.
Chaz’s glorious swirling keyboard and that chop guitar is a backdrop to Ian’s uncomplicated yet sublime monotone performance poetry on Clevor Trever. He’d have been a star just with a mic in his hand, but it turned out that he had those wonderful musicians behind him. And, ‘Also, it takes much longer to get up north … the slow way.”
On the face of it If I Was With A Woman is Wake Up part two, something of an alternative disco anthem of its age. Yet it also points to the more unseemly side of a complex character. Supposedly written on the rebound from a relationship, it’s pretty unpalatable and perhaps the only filler on an amazing debut LP.
We’re back on track with pub rock’n’roll anthem Blockheads though, shouty and gloriously shambolic. And what appears to be out-and-out shaming of the misfit and mob mentality, turns out to be a celebration of an under-class – observational, not judgemental.
Then again, ‘Imagine finding one in your laundry basket’.
Plaistow Patricia was never one for the faint-hearted, and I wonder how many of us fell foul of playing this on the family stereo. Reckon you can get the intro as a ringtone? But while this ‘lawless brat from a council flat’ was a great reason for keeping well away from the Mile End Road, Ian paints her in a more positive light by the end.
The album’s darker side climaxes with the punk noise of Blackmail Man. Yet for all its anger and railing against the nasties, it carries another fine display of Cockney slang, Ian getting a load off his bird’s nest. Maybe that sums him up – even when he was on great form, you wanted to look away sometimes.
I’d have gladly had Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll on here instead of a couple of tracks.
But Ian wasn’t one for including singles. That said, at least seven tracks on this often-raucous debut stand the test of time and this remained one of his finest creations, a portfolio he’d been working towards since those formative High Roads days.
And there aren’t that many artists from that era – despite all the dewy-eyed nostalgia – that managed such a strong first album.
Do It Yourself (1979)
It’s what’s missing from this album that’s striking, not least the defining 1978 singles that ensured Ian’s fame – the wondrous What a Waste and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick – and masterful b-side There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards.
But The Blockheads had well and truly arrived. While Chaz Jankel, Norman Watt-Roy, Charley Charles and Davey Payne were there before, this time the band’s new name appeared on the cover.
Inbetweenies was a promising start for an album on which Ian and Chaz were again the chief architects, the latter steering his paymaster towards a laid-back part-jazzy part-Steely Dan feel, aided by new Blockheads John Turnbull (guitar) and Mickey Gallagher (keyboards).
There are shortcomings, and at first you might think we’re working with New Boots and Panties leftovers. By all accounts Ian was proving hard work in the studio, to the point where it was suggested he just came in to do his vocals. Band dynamics would remain troublesome, with sax player Davey a further loose canon. But that tension sometimes added to the mix.
Despite the disquiet, the album sold 200,000 copies and was only kept off the top of the charts by Abba’s Voulez Vous, and Quiet and Don’t Ask Me suggest a great band with a distinctive feel behind an often inventive and witty lyric.
Sink My Boats has a very ‘70s sound, but it was ambitious, and Ian was at his more melodic, while The Blockheads proved inventive enough. They were more radio-friendly too, although perhaps not as explosive.
Waiting For Your Taxi is more of a b-side but allows the band to flex their musical muscles, with Davey on fine form, while This Is What We Find showcases Ian’s word-heavy poetic side, not least in the verse about DIY advocate Harold Hill of Harold Hill.
The argumentative Uneasy Sunny Day Hotsy Totsy and Mischief suggest a genealogical link with Stiff stable-mates Madness, and although Ian seems low in the mix on the latter, it works.
The band are back in off-centre dancefloor mode for Dance For The Screamers, maybe a pre-cursor of Spasticus, although I think you can tell there are two elements at play – Ian doing his thing and The Blockheads their own.
But Lullaby for Francies shows Ian and his band at their best, and is a song The Blockheads play to this day. I also recall them signing off with this back in 1990, with a big photo of the sadly-departed Charley as the stage backdrop.
Think Ian tackling the pensive part of Sweet Gene Vincent to a Trojan Records era Ken Boothe or John Holt feel. Dreamy, and quite perfect.
As great a closer as that was though, the best was yet to be recorded, Reasons to be Cheerful Pt. 3 following behind, the band’s place in the history of pop assured.
They were at the top of their game in many respects, with high hopes of that continuing when April 1980 saw Ian and Mickey’s statement of intent I Wanna Be Straight released.
With former Dr Feelgood inspiration Wilko Johnson now on board, the future looked bright, in spite of Chaz’s departure. But it turned out that good times weren’t necessarily around the corner.
It’s fair to say there’s no obvious sign of the hits or much in the way of the funny stuff alluded to in the title here.
Ian and Wilko’s string-backed Sueperman’s Big Sister – a rare example of an ID single on an album – is an oddity. That’s not to say it doesn’t work, just that so much better had come before. It did have a delightful b-side though, You’ll See Glimpses giving us a peak into a better world drawn by one of life’s fringe characters.
Maybe it’s because Chaz’s touch was missing, with Pardon and Delusions Of Grandeur good examples, shadows of songs they’d done better before, despite some trademark Wilko chop guitar on the latter.
Yes & No (Paula) is more inventive, Ian’s poetic delivery working in parts and the band firing on all jazz dance cylinders, with a little help from Don Cherry’s trumpet.
Dance Of The Crackpots is largely just a mess for these ears, but it at least sounds like the band are having a good time.
There’s something of an express train version of You’ll See Glimpses on the lyrically-lovely Over the Points, Ian’s fresh perspective on trainspotting and the good old iron horse.
You’d like to think there’s a little humour at play on (Take Your Elbow Out Of The Soup You’re Sitting On The Chicken) too, although it’s largely forgettable.
Ian and Charley’s Uncoolohol is better, bolstered by Wilko’s bluesy guitar, while the uncomfortable Hey, Hey, Take Me Away is more introspective but neither one thing nor another.
Ian denied there was much in the way of autobiographical content, but there are plenty of signs of a performer on something of a downer, and not necessarily just on Manic Depression (Jimi).
The stories were still all there from this gifted writer, but maybe just harder to get at, and Oh Mr Peanut shows a songwriter seemingly running low on inspiration.
But if the first part of the band story was soon to be over, closing track Fucking Ada suggested they were looking to go out on an uncompromising high.
There was more than an element of Ian seeing just how far he could push the envelope, but the result – despite the gloomy lyric – has a glorious Scott Walker feel amid a mutant celebration with Andy Mackay-style sax.
Perhaps it reflected all that had quirkily come before with this outfit. It didn’t get much radio airplay though, he adds, unnecessarily.
Either way, it proved to be Ian’s farewell for Stiff Records, where favoured nephews Madness were the big stars now, the reaction to Laughter understandably lukewarm.
But in August ’81 came a new single that ensured Ian stayed under the spotlight, an angry spin on a believed hypocrisy in The Year of the Disabled leading to Spasticus Autisticus, which would also appear on the first post-Blockheads album three months later.
Lord Upminster (1981)
Ian’s first album for Polydor offered something of a commercial dub reggae feel on various tracks, very much of its time, Sly and Robbie’s playing and production often to the fore, not least on openers Funky Disco Pops and Red Letter.
And while the climax was the controversial Spasticus, on the surface it’s a far more relaxed Dury, the change of gear suggesting a re-invention, although he was on safe ground in that all bar one of the songs were written with the returning Chaz.
Girls Watching keeps up that theme, a nice light toasting from Ian, who certainly sounds like he might be having fun in that studio. His vocal on the laid-back Wait For Me brings to mind John Sullivan on the Only Fools and Horses theme tune though.
There’s a little Booker T type organ on The Body Song, which is at least a little more recognisable as a Dury song, and perhaps the strongest track so far.
Lonely Town is also far more promising, perhaps borne out of a low ebb, but all the stronger for it. Meanwhile, Trust Is A Must could be UB40’s Red Red Wine toaster Astro gruffly delivering This is Radio Clash.
But while Ian and his band were no doubt having fun with a new experimental direction, there’s no real big statement until we finally get to the finale.
If Spasticus Autisticus was somehow lost among the gnashing of teeth and tut-tutting as Ian took his own stance on disabled rights, in retrospect you can appreciate its power.
And beneath Ian’s rigid digit approach, this call to arms is a great song, although perhaps one that might have sounded even better with The Blockheads in tow.
4,000 Weeks Holiday (1984)
It was another three years before Ian’s next recorded output for Polydor, and this time it was with The Music Students in tow, the 40-year-old turning down a chance to get back with his old muckers, instead teaming up with Michael McEvoy and a younger band.
The first sign of the new material was November 1983’s slap-bass-happy single Really Glad You Came, a curious Nile Rodgers soul production proving a good indication of what was to come, and also serving as the album’s closer.
In places, if you take Ian’s vocal away, it could almost be Simply Red backing him, and opening track (You’re My) Inspiration follows that theme. There are elements of smoochy George Benson-like silky soul, the brass and general groove a departure from all that came before.
The album was unsurprisingly passed over on the whole, not least by Dury himself, and by way of example, Friends is lame in places, of its time with regard to the soon-dated synth. But its saving grace is that trombone from Special AKA collaborator Rico, adding soul and depth where the production largely failed Ian.
You could say the same about Tell Your Daddy, a Madness b-side at best, but there’s a step-up in a tribute to Ian’s old tutor Mr Blake, Peter the Painter another track that you can only wonder how good it might have sounded with the old band.
The same goes for Ban The Bomb, a subtly-powerful lyric and general feel enough to form the basis of a Blockheads winner. The bass and guitar work this time, but it’s still tricky to zone out that tinny synthetic sound.
The jam continues with Percy the Poet, which could be Reasons to be Cheerful Pt 4 in places, while Ian’s Lee Marvin-like vocal on Very Personal shepherds in some trademark aural love-making, bringing to mind the inflammatory line from Noel Clarke’s Desmond on the film, comparing Ian to Barry White.
Take Me To The Cleaners suggests nothing more than a filler, one in which you can clearly see the cracks, but The Man with no Face is far more inventive, a drug story that reminds me of an Essex variation on those splendid Sir John Betjeman recordings with Jim Parker.
That sets us up nicely for Really Glad You Came, our companion piece to (You’re My) Inspiration. But we could only hope that better was to come.
It was five years before we had Ian’s next solo effort, and it was far more promising, the WEA soundtrack to his short-lived stage-play Apples – featuring 12 of its 20 songs – showing the main man on the way back to his best lyrical form.
Still, the production’s a bit too clean, and slightly dated now, but we were definitely getting there.
Title track and opener Apples suggests a pastiche of all those cockney rhyming games Ian so enjoyed. ‘It looks like a good ‘un, it’ll do for my pudding’ is my favourite, and there are signs of lyrical sharpness throughout.
Love Is All, the first duet with Frances Rufelle, sees the pair vocally duel in a song that must have had the West End luvvie set running. Elaine off the Page, I’d say.
Byline Browne is a fine little damning of the gutter press spoiled by Mickey’s weedy keyboards, undoing all the good work of Davey’s sax.
It’s a similar tale for the sartorially-elegant Bit Of Kit, another poetic delight, this time with Davey’s blowing and Ian’s words just about winning out.
Frances and Ian gel on Game On in a lovely display of phrasing and word battles, one which almost makes you forget that tinny synth.
Think Lloyd-Webber with attitude as Frances sails alone on Looking For Harry, while England’s Glory – which first surfaced back in 1977 – is sort of Reasons to be Clever Bastards, although arguably without the class of either original.
Bus Drivers’ Prayer is nothing short of a masterpiece, but could do with better company than the accompanying PC Honey, which is hardly Ian’s old Stuff label-mate Wreckless Eric’s finest moment.
That game show synth is back on companion piece The Right People, making me wonder if I’ve chanced upon an off-cut from a Minder soundtrack. It’s chirpy enough, but it’s difficult to see beyond the butt-end of the ’80s production.
All Those Who Say Okay is far more like it, its lop-sided spoken word philosophy including lovely one-liners like ‘I see you’re reading a book, are you on page one yet? ‘Can you spell your name forwards?’ ‘Can you tell me the way straight on, please?’ and ‘I resemble that remark’.
But if you didn’t know where it fitted into the catalogue, I’d suggest the flipside of I Wanna be Straight. And soon we’re away on show-stopper Riding The Outskirts Of Fantasy, with the curtain not opening again for another three years.
The Bus Driver’s Prayer & Other Stories (1992)
That’s Enough Of That gets us off to a promising start on Ian’s penultimate album, his second for Demon after the Warts’n’Audience live LP, the sax vying with the front-man in a frankly cool little number.
This time, The Blockheads – bar Norman – are back at one stage or another, with Mickey and Merlin Rhys-Jones, on his third straight album with Ian, out front.
It’s difficult to put a name on it all though, with little in common between many of the songs here. It’s a collection in a loose sense.
Bill Haley’s Last Words is a not-quite-right rocking oddity, Ian’s American phrasing in the sung bits not a patch on his Sweet Gene Vincent vocal.
The word oddity also springs to mind for Poor Joey, part-music hall/part lover’s rock reggae for a budgie, while Quick Quick Slow has a pleasant-enough almost French or Spanish dusky afternoon feel, and Fly In The Ointment offers more than a dash of wah wah pedal whimsy.
But I like Ian’s tack on O’ Donegal, a veritable love letter to Ireland, and there’s a spirit of trademark Dury lyrical wonder on good old Joanna-based Poo-Poo In The Prawn.
London Talking is a glorious companion for the album’s title track, a funny little number in the best sense – carrying more than a hint of over the garden wall humour, the master of geezer rhymery back at his best.
There’s an early-hours feel to the wistful Have A Word, another song suggesting a more mellow side to an artist seemingly now more in tune with his inner self.
D’Orine The Cow has us back at odds though, and again I don’t think we know what to think. But this might well have made an alternative kids’ poem.
Your Horoscope carries elements of You’ll See Glimpses, and that can only be a good thing, while No Such Thing As Love offers a nicely-reasoned pensive take on life, Dury style.
By that stage, I think there’s enough here to suggest Ian was moving closer to his best, and Two Old Dogs Without A Name sets us up nicely for the title track itself, The Bus Driver’s Prayer another simply-conceived masterpiece taking us to the LP’s Crouch End.
Mr Love Pants (1997)
Then, five years later, we reached the high point, with Ian’s best all-round album since his debut released on his own label, and proving to be a fitting memorial to his talent.
There was a full Blockheads turnout this time, and we were off with a winner on the wondrous Jack Shit George, a modern twist on Clevor Trever and worthy of the comparison.
Norman’s bass comes in at around the minute mark on The Passing Show, a celebration in music and lyrics of how far this band had come and just what they’d gone through en route.
You’re My Baby is more reflective, with the feel of an Anglicised version of a cut from Lou Reed’s New York. It was written about Ian’s youngest son but – like My Old Man all those years before – it never over-does the sentiment.
Despite that, there’s an emotional feel right across the tracks, and not just because we now know what happened next. Honeysuckle Highway is a great example, a song that might have been written any time during that century.
A mention of Havana has me thinking about another lost great, and Mr Love Pants has much in common with Kirsty MacColl’s Tropical Brainstorm. In the same way Kirsty left us with a sparkling finale, Ian did the same.
The fantastic Itinerant Child has that extra-special vibe, a proper road song with a gripping tale behind it, The Blockheads on top form and even carrying a touch of the name-checked Steely Dan en route.
Geraldine is a delight, full of double-entendre, sharp wit and warmth. And who could resist Ian’s saucy, ‘When she’s buttering my baguette, my blood runs hot and cold’?
Cacka Boom is a further example of where The Blockheads were maybe heading all those years ago. It took a long time to get there, but we made it in the end.
Again, there’s a little comforting home-baked philosophy, Ian showing further signs of finally being at ease with himself and now happy to share his alternative, refreshing spin on the meaning of life.
That reflective approach is also taken on Bed O’ Roses No. 9. Here’s Ian as chief muse and home-spun philosopher, and it suits him. A lot had happened in his life, not least since his previous album’s release. And it showed.
There’s further self-analysis with Heavy Living above the guitar and brass, and unlike past fruitless efforts to rock out and recreate Sweet Gene Vincent, this time he was firing on all cylinders.
Then we have the final offering, and again there’s a sense of celebration among the retrospective sense of poignancy. Like the character in Mash It Up Harry, on the surface you get warts’n’all with Ian, sometimes making for uncomfortable truths. But – again like Ian – we warm to Harry and end up singing along on a delightful Madness-like jaunt.
Besides, sometimes we all need a bit of Wembley up our Ponders End.
As it turns out, our alternative national anthem is over too soon, but wasn’t that the case with Ian’s story too? Just when he was finally warming to his task again.
Band Substance: Ian Dury and The Blockheads in 1981, Brighton (Photo copyright: David Corio)
Bonus Disc (CD box set only)
There’s more on the CD collection, and we get to find those tracks Ian left off the albums, with some corkers too of course.
We have defining moment Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a song I first got to appreciate on my Live Stiffs cassette, accompanied by a full starring entourage of label-mates.
Next is Ian’s Romford shop-lifting tale Razzle In My Pocket, as featured on my first ID greatest hits collection. But although the sublime Sweet Gene Vincent follows, Ian then swaps rock’n’roll for risqué reggae on an unpalatable You’re More Than Fair.
The next five selections are pure nostalgia central for me, What A Waste, Wake Up And Make Love To Me, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, Clever Bastards and Reasons To Be Cheerful Pt. 3 unsullied by age or life experience.
Common As Muck was another great example of a classy b-side, while I Want To Be Straight is arguably the last great single before the plot was lost for a while, and carries that most memorable of intros.
Anything is likely to be a filler from there, with Straight b-side That’s Not All fitting those criteria.
And while 1980 single Sueperman’s Big Sister – for all its promise – proved a false dawn in certain respects, we finish on that poignant note with its emotional b-side You’ll See Glimpses.
It’s a track that never fails to bring a lump to the throat, Ian introducing to us another great misfit character, his band’s contributory soundtrack proving just perfect.
There are a few cuts missing, but maybe we can live without High Roads survivors like Billy Bentley or Adrian Mole TV theme Profoundly in Love with Pandora.
I could mention the collaborative pieces elsewhere, not least Ian’s contributions to Carter USM’s Sky West and Crooked and Madness’ Drip Fed Fred. But this is not the place.
And while there’s a case for including 1999 single Dance Little Rude Boy, it sits better on the posthumous Ten More Turnips from the Tip, waiting – like much of Ian’s back-catalogue – to be rediscovered.
We miss you, Ian, but thankfully your music and lyrical genius lives on. You were a complicated character, but gave us some mighty fine moments over the years.
Thanks for looking in on us. We’re really glad you came. For Iver and Iver, Crouch End.
* Ian Dury – The Vinyl Collection (LP box set) will be available from December 8th, while Ian Dury – The Studio Albums Collection (CD box set) will be available from November 3rd on Edsel Records, with pre-orders already being taken via MyPlay.com (fan bundle vinyl offer), Amazon (CD) or Amazon (vinyl).
* For more details about Ian Dury and his work, head here. And for all the latest from The Blockheads try here.
* To see a writewyattuk review of The Blockheads at Preston’s 53 Degrees in March, 2013, head here.
* With thanks to Dave Clarke of Planet Earth Publicity.