I first heard about Ian Dury from Frank, the first actual Cockney, born within the sound of Capital Radio, I knew. Frank’s metropolitan motormouth stories of big city life, inventing unlikely rhyming slang as he spoke, entertained & intrigued a young student straight out of the English provinces who had visited that London all of 2 times (that would be me). He introduced me to his wonderful, welcoming family & to the grubby charms of Harlesden High St (blimey !). When he dropped his “more front than Southend” persona he was an articulate, cultured guy but don’t tell him I said that. Frank’s passions were Fulham Football Club & cinema. He had put me on to the films of Luis Bunuel, the greatest achievements in the history of moving pictures. One weekend in 1973 he was raving about a new band he had seen in a West London pub, an anarchic rag-tag bunch led by an interesting character, a stimulating change from the groups with their po-faced prog, sixth form poetry & all that hair so typical of the time. Kilburn & the High Roads would have to be checked for.
Pub Rock was never a unified musical movement , more an opportunity taken by groups around London to find places to play informal gigs which found an audience wanting the same. The Kilburns were there at the beginning of the scene, this clip is filmed at the Hope & Anchor, the Victorian battle cruiser (boozer) on Upper St. Islington which became the place to play. The band is crammed on to a small stage, there’s a small dancefloor & drink has been taken by all in attendance. It looks like a good time & it was. By the time Kilburn & the High Roads came to record an LP the line-up had changed & “Handsome” (1975) didn’t quite cut it. The ingredients are all there, Ian’s witty & stylish stories of London low life, the rock & roll, jazz, reggae influences but there’s a lack of seasoning which meant the record was not as tasty as the live act.
Ian had no recording contract while “New Boots & Panties !!” was assembled. Blackhill, his management, anted-up & found just the label to release it in an office below their own. Stiff Records had been started by Dave Robinson, a man with a colourful CV, a former manager at the Hope & Anchor. They started with their pub rock mates but there were younger bands coming around, hyped up on Dr Feelgood, Eddie & the Hot Rods & cheap amphetamine, eager to make a 3 minute (or less) rock & roll racket not a triple album space opera. Something was happening & the Stiff crew knew what it was. Ian Dury, with his new collaborator Chaz Jankel, caught this energetic, irreverent new wave (a-hem !). With a rush & a push, more confidence & aggression, “New Boots…” is a great British pop record.
“New Boots…” was released in September 1977 & the following month the “Live Stiffs” package tour hit the UK concert halls & what a great night out that was. Nick Lowe & Rockpile were short & sharp, no messing about, they had drinks waiting at the bar. Elvis Costello & the Attractions were terrific but seemed to be taking it a little too seriously. Ian Dury, on drums with Wreckless Eric, fronting his new band, the Blockheads, on a hectic charge at the LP then, as a grand finale, leading everyone still standing through “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll”, an anthem to living well, was at the heart of a very spirited evening. His stage presence, a thrift shop Dickensian dandy, movement limited by his childhood polio, a cheeky chappie nudge & a wink allied to some blinding words & music, made for a memorable, unique show.
I don’t know if Ian invented the phrase “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll”, it became accepted into general use, still is, as shorthand for a good time. (I had the 3 lapel badge set, worked well individually too, there were nights when the first 2 were enough). On “New Boots…” from the opening lascivious & affectionate “Wake Up Make Love With Me” through to the stonking closer “Blackmail Man” his East End patter, his Thames Estuary flow, never falters. Outsiders like the junkie from Plaistow (Patricia) & the jack-the-lad up in Billericay (Dickie) are insightfully & compassionately introduced. “My Old Man”, a song for his father is nice not sentimental. A tribute to his hero Gene Vincent is black & white & beautiful. Ian’s love of language, the rhyme & the reason on “New Boots…” provides a perfect series of snapshots of life & how we tried to live it in mid-1970s Britain. My favourite…”shoes like dead pigs’ noses” from “Blockheads”, oh yes…the decade that fashion forgot.
In the following year, while the LP sold steadily, Ian Dury & the Blockheads became pop stars. The singles “What A Waste”, “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” ( #1, Top of the Pops) & “Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3” were all Top 10 UK hits. The songs were good, “Rhythm Stick” an unlikely & welcome new folk song. 18 months after release “New Boots…” reached its highest chart position. The band was everywhere & life was hectic for them. In May 1979 the follow up LP “Do It Yourself” came around with some original Stiff hype, over 30 different wallpapered sleeves. The songs seemed less fully developed, the music more democratic, less varied. Too much funk, not enough punk. The 6-piece band were still a great live experience, bassist Norman Watt-Roy is a virtuoso, former Kilburn Davey Payne going off like a frog in a sock on sax, Ian, with his big rock & roll heart, a ringmaster ensuring that everyone had just the best time.
There were other records with other musicians, Ian acted, wrote a musical, “Apples”, which I would like to hear. He was asked to write the libretto for “Cats”, a right earner. ” I said no straight off. I hate Andrew Lloyd Webber. He’s a wanker, isn’t he?”. Dury and the Blockheads reunited now and again. In 1996 he was diagnosed with cancer & he had to get back on the road, the last gig was in London just 6 weeks before he passed in March 2000. It was great having Ian Dury around. He was a brilliant lyricist & when he talked he was eloquent, honest & right. His song “Spasticus Autisticus”, a condemnation of 1981’s International Year of the Disabled, was banned by the BBC. His own disability gave him more right than most to voice his opinion but it was, y’know, for charity ! Ian Dury was a right tasty geezer, a clever bastard with a love of poetry & rock & roll, his understanding of life’s imperfections & its potential created an LP that will entertain you, cheer you up, get you out of the house with a spring in your step. “New Boots & Panties !!”, Jah bless it & Ian Dury. Oi Oi !