Ian Dury 1942–2000

Avoiding the Grave With Mr. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Dury saw a lot of bands while studying at the Royal College of Art in the early '70s. "They'd all encore with 'Brown Sugar,' and I'd say, 'Fuck me, I could entertain people better.' " To prove it, he started Kilburn and the High Roads, a pub-rock outfit, and showed that a man with a limp and a cane could be as engaging and sexy as Mick Jagger. Lack of competition helped, he says: "Most people in rock 'n' roll are fuckin' stupid cunts."

"The Kilburns were this mixed bag of odd-bods," says Suggs. "Ian couldn't move much, there was a guy with one leg on drums, and a dwarf on bass—but it was the most theatrical show I'd seen." Once, he recalls, Dury pulled a long string of knotted handkerchiefs from a pocket, "like some cheap sort of magician. With the slightest movement, he'd make it look like the whole stage was alive."

By 1977, Ian Dury and the Blockheads were signed by Stiff Records, the pioneering alternative label that hyped itself with the deathless slogan "If it ain't Stiff, it ain't worth a fuck." Stiff made stars of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, but others—like Wreckless Eric and Lene Lovich, Mickey Jupp and Jona Lewie—mustered a classic 45 or two and departed for cultdom. Many of the singers—"weaklings and runts who would never have got a deal with a proper record company," Nick Lowe says—joined up for a 1977 caravan documented on Stiffs Live, which is still in print. Not that there was camaraderie among the weirdos. "It wasn't a relaxed, happy tour," Dury recalls. "It was geared toward launching Elvis—I didn't need it as much as he did. And there was a certain paranoia flying about" because, Dury says, his band often upstaged Costello.

Equal parts carny, gypsy, thug, pirate, and fop
photo: Ray Hart/Time Out/Camerapress/Retna Ltd, USA
Equal parts carny, gypsy, thug, pirate, and fop

"It was quite a rivalry," Lowe confirms. "Ian and Elvis were very ambitious, and ready to take the world on. We were young and real pleased with ourselves, and everyone was quite nasty about each other." Costello, who kept Dury's "Roadette Song" in his live set for several years, declined a request to discuss Dury and his Stiff years.

Just as Peter Blake taught him, Dury wrote about his obsessions, which were often sexual, comic, or both. Although it was obliquely ambivalent, his first single, "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll," was quashed by the BBC (the B side was a merry tune about shoplifting porno). The title earned him an entry in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, though Dury knows he didn't invent the phrase: "Life coined the phrase, and I nicked it off life." The song "sounds like I'm saying, 'Yee-hah for drugs.' I was saying it was good, but then I'm saying, 'Are you sure that's all there is?' I'm not saying it in a way that's very clear."

Next came "Wake Up and Make Love With Me," about morning erections, which radio also boycotted, and the vibrantly kinky "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick," a No. 1 in England. Dury cheekily proclaims "Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3," the funky recitation that came next, "the first rappin' record. It came out three months before the Sugarhill Gang, 'Rapper's Delight.' I got the same sources as those geezers. I had the Last Poets record in 1971."

After his hits, Dury "went completely crazy," a former manager charged. "He became a monster, turned from being really nice to being a real pain in the ass." Dury has admitted, "I was selfish. Girls were throwing themselves at me and I went for it." He'd had two kids with Betty Rathmell, an art-school sweetheart, but the marriage fell apart over his cheating.

In 1981, to declare his ambivalence about the U.N.'s Year of the Disabled, he released "Spasticus (Autisticus)," in which he yelps, "I'm spasticus!" again and again. He felt entitled to use the word. "I've been sitting with somebody who said, 'I'd sooner be dead than lose a leg.' They say it forgetting that I'm a crip." This was well before women dubbed themselves bitches and blacks called themselves niggers, and Dury's appropriation of insulting language was genuinely shocking. "Some people say that song was a career wrecker for me." Once again it was effectively banned by British radio.

Looking back, he says, "I've written about four songs that I really like. Mind you, Cole Porter only wrote six good songs. There's not a lot about." His bravado flares. "There just aren't any good lyric writers. I'm the only one. In the '60s, I shared a flat with a guy who was into The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. I used to go, 'That guy was on speed when he did that.' I could tell.

"David Bowie must have spawned 700 bands. I don't particularly think we have, because what we do is too difficult." He breaks into a savory laugh.

At the start of the show, Dury gets helped to the mic, and stays still throughout, sending the band and fans into motion. Bassist Norman Watt-Roy sweats through his light-gray pants, until it looks as though he's pissed himself. Before the encore, Dury steps behind his hulking helper and takes a few puffs of illegal. In a white scarf, dark fedora, earrings, and sunglasses, he's equal parts carny, gypsy, thug, pirate, and fop, full of the Devil's own charisma.

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