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 chauffeur. 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.
At age seven he contracted polio, most likely, he believed, from a swimming pool during the 1949 polio epidemic. After six weeks in a full plaster cast in the Royal Cornwall Infirmary, Truro, he was moved to Black Notley Hospital, Braintree, Essex, where he spent a year and a half before going to Chailey Heritage Craft School, East Sussex, in 1951. Dury was a pretty short guy, perhaps because of all this, coming in at just over 5 feet tall
Dury, like so many of his British peers, attended art school (Walthamstow School of Art.) There he met painter Peter Blake* along with a variety of music lovers. He was well on his way to an art career when the “death of [’50’s rocker] Gene Vincent in 1971 inspired him to form a band.” He sang and wrote lyrics for the ensemble who did the usual tour of playing in pubs. The band, Kilburn and the High Roads released two albums which pretty much went nowhere.
By the late ’70s, punk had been on the scene for a few years and its cousin New Wave was coming in. Dury’s manager was able him to get noticed by Stiff Records where Nick Lowe was both a performer and producer. (Stiff released Elvis Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True which Lowe produced.)
Stiff had arranged some “package tours” which – as in the days of Motown and early Beatles tours – sent a bunch of acts out on the road to get them some exposure. “The first tour, known as the Live Stiffs Tour or 5 Live Stiffs (3 October – 5 November 1977), comprised five bands: Elvis Costello and The Attractions, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Wreckless Eric and The New Rockets, Nick Lowe’s Last Chicken in the Shop, and Larry Wallis’s Psychedelic Rowdies.”
Costello and Dury were clearly the most exciting acts and Stiff – capitalizing on Dury’s newfound popularity – released an album by the newly named Ian Dury and the Blockheads. The band’s name came from a Dury song of the same name which included these sweet, yet endearing lyrics:
They’ve got womanly breasts under pale mauve vests
Shoes like dead pigs’ noses
Cornflake packet jacket, catalogue trousers
A mouth what never closes
Dury’s first single was basically the rallying cry of the boomer generation – “Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll.” A great tune, it didn’t initially make its way to Dury’s highly acclaimed debut album, New Boots and Panties!! and was banned by the staid, boring BBC. During the Stiffs tour, everybody would encore on this tune.
That tune and Panties put Dury and the Blockheads on the musical map although likely more on the UK side of things than the US. (Dury was certainly known here and we loved his songs. But it’s not clear that they ever rose much above being a cult band.)
The band followed up with the album Do It Yourself about a year and a half later and also the single “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.”
Wikipedia: “The song is noted for a complex 16-notes-to-the-bar bassline played by Norman Watt-Roy, which producer Laurie Latham believed had been influenced by seeing Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius in concert, and the saxophone solo in the instrumental break in which Davey Payne plays two saxophones simultaneously.” (Not your typical punk band – ME.)
The band continued on with its successful combination of touring, singles and albums. Dury’s co-writer, keyboardist and guitarist Chaz Jankel left the band for a while and was replaced by former Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson. On later albums, they traveled to Jamaica to record with famed rhythm section of Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar and even featured jazz trumpeter Don Cherry on one album.
In keeping with the band’s tradition of releasing singles but not putting them on albums, in 1979 the band released “Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3.” Some of these reasons include:
18-wheeler Scammels, Thumbing out the candles
All other mammals plus equal votes.
Seeing Piccadilly, Fanny Smith, and Willy
Being rather silly, and porridge oats
I’ll leave you with one more tune, the kickoff from New Boots and Panties!!, “Wake Up and Make Love With Me.”
Dury had some level of success as an actor as well, his most well-known (well, at least to me) movies being Judge Dredd and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.
Ian Dury died of cancer on 27 March 2000, aged 57. Knowing he was terminal, he married his long-term girlfriend with whom he had had two children.
And in case you’re curious, yes some version of the Blockheads is still around and still touring mostly, it would seem, in the UK.
*Among other things, Peter Blake co-created the sleeve design for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and for two of the Who’s albums, Face Dances and their upcoming Who album. His other best-known works include the cover of the Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?.” and the Live Aid concert poster. Blake also designed the 2012 Brit Award statuette.
Sources: Ian Dury website; Wikipedia