I’ll admit, if you mentioned Ian Dury to me when I was growing up, I wouldn’t have had any idea who you were talking about. In fact, even after I’d grown up and my musical horizons had expanded somewhat, I still only really knew of the man from his omnipresent ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ (unfairly viewed as a bit of a novelty single) and perhaps ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3’. I also knew that the Mitchell Brothers of techno, Orbital, had sampled ‘Rhythm Stick’ on one of their album tracks about ten years ago, but apart from that, nothing.
So I was perhaps ripe for getting an education in the ways of Dury and his backing group, the Blockheads. Helpfully, Edsel Records’ retrospective box set ‘The Studio Collection’ (or ‘The Vinyl Collection’ depending on which format you opt for) was more than ready to showcase Dury’s work over eight of his LPs, from 1977’s debut ‘New Boots and Panties!!’ to 1997’s superbly titled ‘Mr. Love Pants’.
Born in Harrow in 1942, Dury was the son of a bus driver and former boxer father, and a health visitor mother. After World War II, the family relocated to Switzerland, but Dury moved back with his mother in 1946 to live in Essex. Suffering from polio at the age of seven, he was forced to spend six weeks in a full plaster cast, before receiving 18 months’ treatment at a hospital in Braintree. After he left school with O Levels in Art, English Language and English Literature, Dury studied at the Royal College of Art under the artist Peter Blake, and taught the subject at various colleges.
Dury’s first band (‘Kilburn and the High Roads’) formed in the early 1970s, with Dury on vocals, where they performed on the London pub circuit, and even signed a record deal in 1974 with an opening spot for legendary rockers The Who, but the band split a year later.
After recruiting Andrew King and Peter Jenner (the original managers of Pink Floyd), Dury began a new band called The Blockheads, again with himself as lead vocalist. His wild lyrics, a mixture of comedic wordplay and poetry, gained him a cult following, and their musical style was equally diverse, refusing to be pigeon-holed into a genre, and featuring elements of funk, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, music hall and reggae. Despite recording a debut album, many major record labels refused to sign The Blockheads, but thankfully, one fledgling punk outfit – Stiff Records – took them on.
Banned by the BBC, the group’s debut single ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll’ was named Single of the Week in NME, and the album ‘New Boots and Panties!!’ (****) – credited at this time to solely Ian Dury – gained platinum sales in the UK, despite not featuring the lead single. The bizarre album title came from Dury’s love of buying second hand clothes, and boots and underwear were the only items he insisted on buying new. Widely regarded as Dury’s finest work, it’s a surprise that the only single from the album ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’, with its sultry beginning and rock and roll second half, didn’t dent the charts. The album features a fantastic early example of Dury’s amazing lyricism in ‘Billericay Dickie’: “Came home to find another gentleman’s kippers in the grill/So he sanded off his winkle with his Black & Decker drill”.
The second album, ‘Do It Yourself’ (*** ½) was released in 1979, with an elaborate sleeve based on a paint colour chart, meaning there were over 12 variants of the cover available to purchase. Featuring more notable funk elements, such as opener ‘Inbetweenies’, ‘Waiting For Your Taxi’ and the almost-disco swing of ‘Don’t Ask Me’, it was another LP that perfectly showcased Dury’s talents. For those still wanting more traditional sounding pop, they were catered for with the fantastic ‘Sink My Boats’ and the weaving bass-lines of ‘Dance of the Screamers’.
With the band firmly established in the singles charts thanks to efforts such as ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ and ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’, ex-Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson joined the band to record the group’s next album ‘Laughter’ (*** ½) in 1980, a period punctuated unfortunately by Dury’s heavy drinking and addiction to Mogadon. Despite this, the album contained gems such as ‘Sueperman’s Big Sister’, the strings ‘n’ sax pub sing-along of album closer ‘Fucking Ada’ and the ska twang of ‘Pardon’.
For the recording of 1981’s ‘Lord Upminster’ (***) album (until the release of this box set, an out of print effort that was rather hard to come by), Dury teamed up with production duo Sly & Robbie and the band Compass Point All Stars. Ultimately however, the album suffered from a lack of depth in material, with only eight tracks, and Dury and songwriting partner Chas Jankel were both unhappy with it. The album was home to one of Dury’s most controversial pieces – ‘Spasticus Autisticus’. While 1981 had been dubbed ‘International Year of Disabled Persons’, Dury felt this was a bit of a piss-take, and penned the song in response, earning himself another ban from the BBC (although strangely it was allowed to be broadcast after 6pm!). The LP also features the only studio cover version Dury recorded – “Girls (Watching)” originally by Sly Dunbar.
The following year saw the disbanding of The Blockheads, with Dury finding a new solo deal through Polydor Records and finding a new backing band called The Music Students. The resulting LP, 1984’s ‘4000 Weeks’ Holiday’ (**) suffered in the sales department due to a new jazz-tinged sound that didn’t resonate well with fans. Some stories from around this time indicate it was perhaps Polydor Records who insisted Dury work with young musicians, whereas others report that The Blockheads were unwilling to play with Dury. With its aforementioned jazz sound, and no obvious mainstream singles, ‘4000 Weeks Holiday’ is regarded as some of the weaker of Dury’s material. Tellingly, the album was not released on CD until 2013. One of the better tracks included however was ‘Peter The Painter’, Dury’s ode to his former art teacher, and a theme tune for Blake’s exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery.
The Blockheads, while reforming in 1987 for a Japanese tour, didn’t last, and after recording the ‘Apples’ album in 1989, drummer Charley Charles sadly passed away from cancer. ‘Apples’ itself (***) was more of a soundtrack to a satage show Dury had put together, and included twelve of twenty songs featured in the performance. The show focused on a character named Byline Brown, a journalist who was investigating a corrupt minister named Hugo Sinister. Unfortunately, the show and the album were not met with positive reviews, and the show closed after ten weeks.
Dury pressed on with recording the 1992 album ‘The Bus Driver’s Prayer and Other Stories’ (***). Thankfully, the sessions were more amiable than they had been for previous albums (apart from calling a studio technician a ‘homosexual’ and threatened to set fire to the studio after a keyboard part was allegedly erased by mistake). However, the album marked a definite return to form lyrically for Dury, whose wry wordplay and comedic rhymes were back in force. One of the album highlights is ‘Poo Poo In The Prawn’: “I defrosted my paella/Came down with Salmonella/Three weeks intensive care/They failed to send the technicians in/To check the air conditioning/Which was unfortunately transmissioning/A case of Legionnaire’s”. Unfortunately, despite the album being better than some previous efforts, Dury’s then-record company Demon hardly promoted it.
There was sporadic activity with The Blockheads after the release of this album, including a number of concerts in the mid-1990s. 1996 did see the unwelcome news that Dury was suffering from cancer himself, however after recuperating from surgery, he began writing a new LP. Reforming The Blockheads for the end result - 1997’s ‘Mr. Love Pants’ (*****). The album must have resonated with Dury himself, as he effectively disowned every album recorded after ‘New Boots and Panties!!’ until this record. The long gestation period for the LP was partly due to Chas Jankel arguing with Dury and eventually leaving the band. It is widely believed that Dury’s cancer diagnosis had spurred him on to reform the band, and despite the bad feeling between him and Jankel, matters were put behind them after Jankel learned that Dury was ill. Musically, the album was an accomplished effort, featuring an excellent turn from all on the first Blockheads’ single for 18 years ‘Mash It Up Harry’. There was more of a rock feel to the album, especially on tracks like ‘The Passing Snow’ and ‘Cacka Boom’, but also a pinch of the ska and funk roots that made Dury so popular in the first place.
The Blockheads would stay together, performing through 1999 and up to Dury’s untimely death in 2000. Even now they remain together, contributing to tribute albums and are still performing. While Dury may have had a sad end in 2000 after losing his battle with colorectal cancer, his legacy lives on in this superb box set, which showcases both the highs and the lows – and is never afraid to shirk away from them, as it was during the years where Dury received less than perfect reviews that made him what he is.
For those of you completists out there, you may wish to know that the CD box set (‘The Studio Collection’) features an exclusive 14-track bonus disc which compiles tracks released as singles that in some cases were not featured on the actual albums themselves.
THE STUDIO COLLECTION (****½)
THE VINYL COLLECTION (****)
Review by Pete Muscutt