“Force of nature” is an idiom. To say a person is a force of nature . . . means the person is a very strong personality or character — like a hurricane or a tsunami are also forces of nature — full of energy, unstoppable, unchallengeable, unforgettable. In short, a person to be reckoned with.
Overall, the idiom means that person can accomplish things when other people give up (or give in).
—from Quora discussion on “What does the force of nature for a person mean?”
To describe Ian Dury as a force of nature is almost an understatement.
He was stricken with polio at the age of seven, leaving him with a leg brace attached to a paralyzed left leg and a withered left arm and shoulder. Sent off to a school for the disabled that believed in “toughing them up” and teaching the kids menial skills so they could make some kind of contribution to society, Ian experienced abuse you wouldn’t wish on your most hated enemy. Ian’s mother (his parents lived apart for most of his life) had higher ambitions for her son and had him transferred to the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, where he experienced sexual and mental abuse and the typical scorn targeted at those who are different. His later years at High Wycombe were made somewhat tolerable through his growing talent in the visual and graphic arts as well as his immersion in the rebellious sounds of rock ‘n’ roll. His artistic gifts opened the door to the Royal College of Art, where he studied under Peter Blake, the pop artist most famous for the design of the Sgt. Pepper cover. While he would earn some money teaching art and producing commercial illustrations, the most important outcome of his experience in a British Art School in the 60s is that he would join a large group of art school students who put art on the back burner and pursued careers in music.
His vision was to form a band with himself in the role of frontman. That in itself was pretty ballsy for a guy with a noticeable limp, especially given the lean-and-lithe prototype of a lead singer established by Jagger, Daltrey and Plant, but appearances aside, he also had to deal with the fact that he couldn’t sing worth shit. He compensated for his shortcomings with a gift for witty rhyming poetry, a fair amount of native acting talent, effective use of the much-admired British quality of understatement and an unmistakably captivating presence. His first significant opportunity to show his stuff came when he formed Kilburn and the High Roads, selecting his bandmates based on his personal opinion of their musical ability and how unusual they would look on stage. The Kilburns gained something of a following in the pub rock scene of the early 70s, with Ian Dury starring as the unforgettable attraction:
Knowing he would never be a great vocalist in the traditional sense, Ian compensated with his commanding physical presence. It was a trick he had developed at art school, hyper-aware of the magic he could generate with a limp and an glower . . .
. . . Nothing compared with the high drama of his stage entrance. The band members would saunter on stage and commence a slow-burning riff, then Ian would cut a mysterious figure in the full thirty seconds it took him to reach the microphone. An audience would gather in front of the stage, its curiosity aroused. Then, rooted to the spot, Ian would hold the crowd’s attention with smaller gestures such as a contorted facial expression or the deployment of some bizarre prop. Still hungry for attention and without uttering a word, Ian would exploit the more sinister aspects of his appearance, cleverly converting his disability into a solid gold asset.
Smith, Will. Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography. London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 2010. p. 104
As a bandleader, he was a master motivator who insisted on excellence and, at times, an extremely kind and generous human being. He could also be an absolute prick, especially when anyone threatened to upstage him, intentionally or unintentionally. He fired several band members coldly and cruelly and had no problem humiliating them in public to keep them in their place.
When the Kilburns passed into history, most everyone thought that was the end of the road for Ian Dury . . . except Ian Dury. Still determined to become a major pop star (in his late ’30s, no less), he spent the downtime on the edge of poverty, writing new sets of lyrics, improving his singing to the point where he could at least carry a tune and trying to sell various musicians on his dream.
The most important connection he made took place at the time when the Kilburns were on life-support. The Kilburns had been playing without a pianist since the guy who held the job decided to explore Scientology, and Kilburn guitarist Ed Speight urged Ian to fill the opening. Ian dismissed the idea. “We don’t need a piano player,” Ian told Ed, “they’re all poofs.” (Birch) Ed persisted, and when the multi-talented Chaz Jankel showed up for a meet-and-greet, he received a full dose of the Dury treatment:
Ian recalled being slightly nervous about meeting the young musician: ‘I was in the dressing-room, a bit disgruntled, when Jankel walked in with his big white teeth. I said, “Do I know you?” He said, “No.” So I said, “Well do us a favor and fuck off then!”
Birch, p. 157
Fortunately for history, Ed Speight managed to patch things up, providing Ian with not only a fabulous keyboardist with broad musical knowledge but the man who would take many of Ian Dury’s lyrics and put them to music.
Those lyrics would prove to be another unique feature that differentiated Ian Dury from the rest of the pack, earning him kudos as one of the leading songsmiths of his generation. Here’s a sample of his poetic style from “This Is What We Find” on the album Do It Yourself:
Home improvement expert
Harold Hill of Harold Hill
Of do-it-yourself dexterity
And double-glazing skill
Came home to find another gentleman’s kippers in the grill
So sanded off his winkle
With his Black and Decker drill
No, it’s not Milton, but fuck, when did Milton ever make you laugh?
Despite his poor skills in employment interviewing and a horrible employee retention record, Ian Dury managed to put together a band of exceptional quality who would eventually become known as The Blockheads. The three musicians who received primary billing on New Boots and Panties! formed an unusually cohesive core of first-rate talent. Chaz Jankel could handle just about any keyboard instrument you could throw his way and was also a fine guitarist. Norman Watt-Roy should be mentioned in any discussion of the top bass players of his generation and Charley Charles was no slouch on the kit. Though Ian Dury had no musical training and zero interest in the technicalities of the field, he loved jazz, dance music and rock ‘n’ roll and knew the difference between an average musician and a top-flight professional—and he made sure that The Blockheads (who experienced several lineup changes over the years) were clearly the best backing band in the business (and that none of them would have the nerve to steal the spotlight).
Having found a supportive record company in the form of indie outfit Stiff Records (whose stable included Elvis Costello, The Damned and Devo), New Boots and Panties was released on September 30, 1977. The album’s curious mix of musical styles did not scare off the listening public, and in nine months the album went platinum in the U.K. New Boots and Panties went nowhere in the States, largely because Ian couldn’t have cared less. “You’ll never find me in Malibu, darling, because I don’t like America, I think it’s a pig sty,” he told an interviewer (Birch). He eventually caved into pressures from management to make the trek across the Atlantic, but things didn’t quite work out for Ian Dury and the Blockheads in the USA—things that had nothing to do with the quality of their performances (FLASH! LOU REED OUT-ASSHOLES IAN DURY!).
You can learn about that fascinating story and dozens of others in Will Birch’s outstanding work, Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography. I’ve only provided you with a thumbnail sketch of an intensely complicated life, and though you will likely alternate between despising and adoring Ian Dury, I highly recommend Birch’s balanced, warts-and-all study of this force of nature.
I fell in love with the Blockheads immediately and forever when I first heard the seventeen-second intro to “Wake Up and Make Love to Me.”
The first nine seconds feature Chaz Jankel playing a simple melody sweetened with rising and falling glissandi sans the Liberace-style drama. He suddenly drops the melody when Norman Watt-Roy and Charley Charles enter with a solid funk beat and Chaz does a 180 to supplement the rhythm, knowing exactly when to leave space for the bass and drums and when to accent the beat with a quick chord. Jankel executes the change from melodist to percussive support with such exceptional ease that you know that a part of his mind was always focused on the ultimate goal—getting to the baseline rhythm that would carry the song. Ian then steps to the mike to share his experience of a classic bedtime conundrum that is rarely spoken of in polite company:
I come awake
With the gift for womankind
You’re still asleep
But the gift don’t seem to mind
Rise on this occasion
Halfway up your back
Sliding down your body
Touching your behind
You look so self-possessed
I won’t disturb your rest
It’s lovely when you’re sleeping
But wide awake is best
What a gentleman to allow the lady to get her forty winks! Uh . . . wait a sec . . . he slipped it to her while she was unconscious? Doesn’t that qualify as sexual assault? Arrest that man! Hold on . . . a distant memory is edging its way to my conscious mind . . . oh, shit . . . I was in college . . . ah, yes, my indiscriminate slut years . . . I was somewhere in . . . Orange County . . . I’m in bed . . . half-asleep . . . I feel something poking me in my thigh . . . I open my eyes and see a man lying next to me . . . who the fuck is this guy . . . I hear him snoring gently . . . whatever is poking my thigh is really starting to bug me . . . I lift the sheets . . . oh my . . . it’s a gift for womankind . . . a perfectly lovely morning glory . . . oh fuck it . . . you can’t let opportunities pass you by!
After riding him like a bucking bronco for a few moments, he woke up and gosh, I’d never seen such a beautiful smile in my life. That wasn’t rape! It was a perfectly lovely way to start the day!
Okay, officer. Let Ian go. I don’t think the lady is likely to press charges. In fact . . .
You come awake
In a horny morning mood
And we’ll have a proper wriggle
In the naughty, naked nude
Roll against my body
Get me where you want me
What happens next is private
It’s also very rude
I’ll go and get the post
And make some tea and toast
You have another sleep luv
It’s me that needs it most!
What makes the song work is Ian Dury’s almost deadpan delivery. Birch notes that Ian had a bit of a struggle finding the right tone:
Ian had spent many hours honing the words and finding the right ‘voice” for “Wake Up,” a song that would open his concerts for many years to come. On the demo he had tried for a soulful and sexy performance with an American accent until former co-manager Gordon Nelki asked, “What’s with the Barry White impersonation, Ian?” Ian reconsidered his approach. “That’s when I started singing with an English accent,” he said. “I stripped it down and tried to be funny.”
Birch, p. 175
History tells us that most British rock ‘n’ roll singers did their damndest to sound like Americans, a tendency likely spawned by America’s early dominance in the field and reinforced by the early 60s embrace of American blues singers in the UK. British lead singers of that era wanted to sound like the guys they heard on those 45s. . . and they also wanted to make a splash in the much, much bigger American market.
I can’t imagine this song in an American accent, faux or native. Ian’s tone is “everyman,” the average bloke, the guy next door—not some sleazy pervert on the prowl. Ian’s decision not to go Barry White or Paul Rodgers gives the song an honesty that it would have lacked if spiced with grunts, moans and other spicy vocalizations . . . and if there is one thing we could use more of in every culture on earth it is sexual honesty.
Speaking of honesty, I have to admit that I’ve never cared a lick for Gene Vincent. If you’ve heard one or two Gene Vincent songs, you’ve pretty much heard them all, and his overuse of the word “bop” and constant in-song plugs for his Blue Caps drives me batty (though I do rather like Cliff Gallup’s guitar work).
Still, he was Ian Dury’s idol, likely selected to differentiate himself from the masses who had identified Elvis as the bees’ knees. Ian took his role as lyricist very seriously for this song, reading two biographies of the man and working intensely at his composition for six weeks before handing it off to Chaz Jankel (who said that the original would have gobbled up fifteen full minutes of recording time).
Jankel (with Dury’s approval, of course) winnowed “Sweet Gene Vincent” down to a mini-suite of three-and-a-half minutes. The first part of the suite begins with a reverb-drenched Ian gently giving a nod to Vincent’s intro to “Blue Jean Bop,” changing the lyric to “blue Gene baby.” We hear the sound of primitive 50s guitar—one pluck of the F note followed by a slightly whammied D minor chord—then a shift to classic rock ballad 6/8 time (think “Surfer Girl”) with guitar backed by warm, gentle piano. This part of the song is Ian’s eulogy to his teenage hero, and whether you like Gene Vincent or not, you can’t help but feel moved by this tender, heartfelt farewell:
Skinny white sailor, the chances were slender
The beauties were brief
Shall I mourn your decline with some Thunderbird wine
And a black handkerchief?
I miss your sad Virginia whisper
I miss the voice that called my heart
Sweet Gene Vincent
Young and old and gone
Sweet Gene Vincent
“Shall I mourn your decline with some Thunderbird wine” is pure brilliance, as the reference to the wino’s favorite quaff emphasizes both the sadness and the steep downward angle of Vincent’s personal and professional trajectory. I should note a personal bias here: I had a sip of Thunderbird once and only once at one of those parents-are-out-town-let’s-go-crazy parties and the disgusting smell and taste still linger in my brain twenty-plus years later. I actually left the party to go home and counter its lingering effects with a mouthful of equally disgusting Listerine.
Back to the song . . . Ian begins part two of the suite with another nod to Vincent, lifting a line from “Who Slapped John” (one of Vincent’s more interesting pieces where Gene and the Blue Caps reach the knife-edge of insanity) . . . then WHAM! The Blockheads launch into a fiery 50s rock attack with Chaz pounding the shit of the piano and Charley pounding the shit of the drums. Suddenly the piano and bass drop out of the mix, leaving Ian to spit out a series of contrasting iambic pairs over Charley’s muscular drums:
White face, black shirt
White socks, black shoes
Black hair, white strat
Bled white, dyed black
Sounds like a description you’d give to the cops—and they’d find Gene Vincent in heartbeat.
The structure of the second part consists of two of those drums-and-Ian segments that each lead into three sets of verses where Ian recounts the 50s rock & roll scene. The drums-and-Ian segments are by far the most dramatic and evocative—that man can command your attention like few others in the field of rock. Of the two sets of verses, the first set is a bit too “Happy Days” for my tastes, a recount of well-known images from the era that may evoke nostalgia in those who were there and not much more. The second set is far more interesting as Ian explores his subject’s psyche and connects it with his own experience as “damaged goods.”
Sweet Gene Vincent
There’s one in every town
And the devil drives ’till the hearse arrives
And you lay that pistol down
Sweet gene vincent
There’s nowhere left to hide
With lazy skin and ashtray eyes
And perforated pride
So farewell mademoiselle, knickerbocker hotel
Farewell to money owed
But when your leg still hurts and you need more shirts
You got to get back on the road
“Ashtray eyes” is a fabulous metaphor, and it’s likely that Ian experienced some “perforated pride” when the Kilburns went belly up—but that last verse foreshadows Ian’s eventual disillusionment with fame with its constant travel and overnight stays at the hotels of the era, which were hardly accommodating to the disabled. I’ll close this section by continuing to rain kudos on The Blockheads—not only could they rock with the best of them but I’m deeply grateful they didn’t overdo it with the 50s sound and replaced Cliff Gallup’s rockability twang with a guitar solo more suited to the 70s.
The only mention of boots and panties on the album appears in “I’m Partial to Your Abracadabra,” a song that celebrates the enduring power of women in leather boots and suggestive undergarments:
I’m partial to your abracadabra
I’m raptured by the joy of it all
So stop me where you start
The cockles of his heart
The panties sends it right up the wall
Please, please, stop it, it likes it
Tickles it to death either way
These lovely boots exist
To drive it round the twist
The call of nature must be obeyed
Damn, how I love an obedient male! Alas, Ian wouldn’t have whipped up a boner for me because even though I do like wearing thigh-high leather boots in the prelude to a scene, a.) I never wear panties, preferring to allow my clitoris room to breathe and space to drip via garters and fishnets and b.) my tits are too big (Ian preferred the more modest versions). Once again, Ian delivers this overtly sexual song with perfect understatement, as opposed to McCartney’s approach on his cover version, recorded for Brand New Boots & Panties: Tribute to Ian Dury. Macca tries to channel the ghost who sang “Long Tall Sally” and winds up sounding like he’s about to have a coronary.
Understatement and emotional detachment are also essential to the creation of fine lyric poetry. The poet’s job isn’t to share their feelings; it’s to evoke the reader’s emotions. Achieving such aesthetic distance is most difficult when the poet or songsmith has a close attachment to the subject matter, as Ian Dury did when he wrote “My Old Man.”
Ian’s choice of understatement for the narrative in this particular song explains why he made the apparently contrary choice to work with American anthropologist Stephen Nugent in the creation of the music for “My Old Man.” “Some people say that it was odd that the ones I wrote were the more Englishy songs whilst Chaz was more fixated on American funk,” Nugent explained (Birch). The music is relatively light with a tragi-comic touch, centered around Norman Watt-Roy’s loping bass runs and Davey Payne’s saxophone glides and free-form solo. Though the song is in the key of E major, the verse features a quirky move from B7 to C7 that adds a touch of drama, piquing one’s interest in the story.
Ian chronicles the general flow of his father’s life in a subdued voice tinged with disappointment that his relationship with his father was largely a long-distance affair. The five verses have a defined structure: the first four lines put us in the picture, the fifth line interprets the picture and the two lines that follow are repeated to emphasize the essential meaning. The first verse describes the dreary routine of a driver for London Transport (“Double-decker move along/Double-decker move along). The second describes the class tensions experienced by a common man who has moved up a notch and is now interacting with his “betters”:
Later on he drove a Roller
Chauffeuring for foreign men
Dropped his aitches on occasion
Said, “Cor blimey!” now and then
Did the crossword in the Standard
At the airport in the rain
At the airport in the rain
My old man
His dad may have attained higher status by moving up from a bus to a Rolls-Royce, but he can’t escape the drudgery of his social position. In the third verse, though, he insists that he be treated with respect: “Wouldn’t ever let his governors/Call him ‘Billy’, he was proud.” In the next three lines Ian surmises that there was more to it than protecting his sense of dignity:
Perhaps he had to keep his distance
Made a racket when he rowed
Made a racket when he rowed
In the fourth verse, we learn that Ian’s dad “was fairly handsome” and “tidy in his digs.” Interspersed between those two observations we also learn that he “smoked too many cigs” and that eventually, the odds caught up with him:
Had to have an operation
When his ulcer got too big
When his ulcer got too big
The last verse speaks for itself . . . a lost opportunity for both father and son . . . a sense of regret but not resentment:
Seven years went out the window
We met as one to one
Died before we’d done much talking
Relations had begun
All the while we thought about each other
All the best, mate, from your son
All the best, mate, from your son
My old man
My old man
Will Birch wrote that Elvis Costello’s jaw dropped when he first heard “My Old Man,” and I felt the same way when I first listened to it. It’s one of those songs that any serious songwriter wishes they had written.
By necessity, Ian abandoned understatement on the music hall tune “Billericay Dickie,” as the character he portrays is the ultimate in loutishness. The spoken introduction hints at a certain smugness as Essex man Dickie proclaims (after a pregnant pause) “I’m doing very well.” “Oh,” you may think, “He’s got a good job and has made something of himself.”
Uh, not exactly . . .
Had a love affair with Nina
In the back of my Cortina
A seasoned up hyena
Could not have been more obscener
She took me to the cleaners
And other misdemeanours
But I got right up between her
Rum and her Ribena
No matter what you think of Dickie at this point, you have to admire Ian Dury’s rhyming talents and it’s hard not to laugh at Dickie’s clarification of what he meant by “doing very well.” The clue that something sinister is going on can be found in the last line: “Rum and Ribena” is kinda like “Rum and Coke” but fruitier and without the fizz.
We learn over the course of the song that this is Dickie’s M.O.—get the broad drunk and/or stoned and take advantage of her . . . kind of like a less sophisticated version of Bill Cosby. Later he admits “I brought a lot of brandy/When I was courting Sandy” and gloats about his “rendezvous with Janet” and how “her father help me plan it/And when I captured Janet she bruised her pomegranate.” Dury claimed in two other bios (Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll: The Life of Ian Dury and Ian Dury & The Blockheads: Song By Song) that he saw Dickie as a “pathetic figure,” and the best evidence he has to support that assertion is the song’s unusually long fade-out, where Dickie continues to brag about his various conquests and his voice gets sonically smaller and smaller . . . and by this point, we’re pretty fucking sick of listening to this misogynistic, self-centered asshole.
“Clevor Trever” is a more sympathetic character, an introvert who resents people who make assumptions that he’s not too brainy “Just ’cause I ain’t never ‘ad, no, Nothing worth having, Never ever, never ever” and “Nothing worth saying.” Dury’s acting skills here are first-rate, capturing Trever’s stutter-stop thinking with awkward phrasing that contrasts mightily with the smooth funk background. The song sort of “cleanses the palate” after the disgusting taste of Billericay Dickie.
When I first heard “If I Was with a Woman” many moons ago, I remember thinking, “I hope he’s not really like that.” Will Birch popped that balloon in one paragraph:
Ian viewed the girls he met as either a challenge or a pushover, preferring a challenge to an easy conquest. ‘He thought he had to try to get off with women, just to prove to himself that he wasn’t hideous,’ says Ingrid Mansfield-Allman . . . ‘I think “If I Was with a Woman” is the most honest song Ian ever wrote. “Little things would slowly go askew . . . I’d make quite sure she never understood.” That’s what he was like. If you weren’t on your toes, he would fuck your head but behind it all there was this really nice guy struggling to get out. He was very good at listening. One time I went round to see him, and he’d run a bath for me, put aromatherapy stuff in it and taught me deep-breathing exercises and I thought, “Wow! Is this the same person who was chucking my stuff out the window a few months earlier?”
Birch, p. 239-240
Ah, yes, judge that ye not be judged. Ian experienced more trauma than I will likely experience in my lifetime, and I think he was genuinely trying to deal with some of those demons through his songs. You read lines like this and say, “Hey, he knows his a frigging asshole—the first step to recovery!”
If I was with a woman I’d threaten to unload her
Every time she asked me to explain
If I was with a woman she’d have to learn to cherish
The purity and depth of my disdain
The song has an unusual chorus: “Look at them laughing (3 times)/Laughing, laughing.” I think this is Ian looking at other happier, more “normal” couples and wishing he could get over those demons and have a nice, cozy, fairytale romance for a change.
Ian and the boys let it rip for the next three numbers, firmly establishing their rock & roll cred and edging the fine line that leads to UK punk. “Blockheads” was specifically inspired by “Ian’s brutal observation of the cricket fans he glimpsed from his window at Oval Mansions” (Birch) but the lyrics apply to any group of louts in any sport who get “sloshed and go berserk.” Ian justifiably tags these brainless idiots as “premature ejaculation drivers” and in an aside, asks the listener, “How would you like one puffing and blowing in your ear-hole?/Or pissing in your swimming pool?” While English soccer fans have a well-deserved reputation for such despicable behavior, alcohol-fueled fan violence is common all over the world (when I think “blockheads,” I think of American football fans wearing beer hats with straws as they revel in the violence on the field). Consistent with his “judge that be not be judged” orientation, Ian closes the song with an opportunity for self-reflection:
Why bother at all about Blockheads?
Why should you care what they do?
’Cause after all is said and done
You’re a Blockhead too
The Blockheads (the band, not the morons) kick some serious ass in this song, capped by one of the wildest synthesizer solos I’ve ever heard.
The next song provides me with a perfect defense of one facet of my writing style. If you were to categorize the comments made in response to the reviews on this site, you’d learn that about ten percent of the comments have to do with my use of “foul language.” Well, I might have a potty mouth, but fuck, I’ve never come close to the barrage that opens “Plaistow Patricia”:
Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks
This is Ian channeling the title character, described in a letter to an American love interest almost four years before the song’s release as “old East End girlfriend 1960 mingled with dead health service heroin child called Jenny Wren in 1962.” (Birch) Patricia is certainly a nasty piece of work, thanks in large part to her upbringing as “a lawless brat from a council flat.” She survived her youth and a move from Mile End Road (savaged by Jarvis Cocker in “Mile End”) to Becontree (hardly an upgrade) by selling her body (“dirty tricks,” “pulling strokes and taking liberties”) and shooting smack:
She turned the corner before she turned fifteen
She got into a mess on the NHS – oh, oh
It runs down your arms and settles in your palms – oh, oh
Keep your eyeballs white and keep your needle clean
Ian refuses to give the listener a break from the squalor that characterizes Patricia’s existence, closing the following verse with a manic laugh:
Her tits had dropped, her arse was getting spread
She lost some teeth, she nearly lost the thread
She did some smack with a Chinese chap – oh, oh, oh
An affair began with Charlie Chan – oh, oh
Well, that was just before she really lost her head (manic laughter)
I have no idea why I join in the laughter when Ian goes batty, but I do. The end of Patricia’s story is a bit vague but apparently she started a dealership (not for cars, but the other stuff), has a Siamese cat and a more upscale heroin experience (“The finest grains for my lady’s veins”). If it weren’t for Davey Payne’s saxophone and a solo as wild as the synth solo on “Blockheads,” the rough guitars and the frantic speed of the song would have qualified “Plaistow Patricia” for use as a cover song on the first Clash album. The Blockheads could play just about anything you could toss their way, and their energetic excellence inspires Ian to deliver one of the strongest vocals on the album.
The album “officially” closes with “Blackmail Man,” a piece that confronts the listener with a flood of negative stereotypes of undesirables: non-whites, poor people, jews, cripples . . . the works. This is the only song on New Boots and Panties! that doesn’t work for me—while Ian exposes the tendency of white Anglo-Saxons to project their fears on those who are “not like me,” he doesn’t seal the deal with a strong “aha” moment. It’s also a very curious choice for the album closer.
But wait! Over the years there have been many re-pressings of the album . . . with bonus tracks, demos, different track orders in different countries . . . and I happened to stumble on the latest American version, which ends the album with “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.” Putting singles on albums was a big no-no for Ian (although the original pressing had the song opening side two), but really, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” makes for a MUCH better ending.
Though the title may lead you to expect that “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” is the ultimate par-TEE!!! anthem, I’m afraid you’re shit out of luck. Don’t get your knickers in a twist—the BBC was fooled, too, and banned the song based solely on its title. It’s a great dance song with an interesting developmental history: Chad Jankel’s arrangement is up-tempo funk with the main guitar riff built around a bass run borrowed from a piece by Ornette Coleman, who borrowed it from the melody to an old Kentucky folk tune called “Old Joe Clark,” a very dull piece of work about a guy who builds a house and fills every room with chicken pie. Buck Owens once sang the song on Hee Haw . . . and if you can’t give due credit to Dury and Jankel for transforming that pedestrian piece of work into a sophisticated and meaning-packed dance number, all I can say is . . . you’re a blockhead.
Given what I’ve written so far, you might also assume that Ian delivers his vocal with due restraint . . . and you’d be about half-right. While some of the lines are delivered with relaxed, matter-of-fact confidence, there is a definite sense of urgency in his voice throughout the song, as if he’s trying to warn us about something . . . and that something is . . . mediocrity:
Sex and drugs and rock and roll
Is all my brain and body need
Sex and drugs and rock and roll
Are very good indeed
Keep your silly ways or throw them out the window
The wisdom of your ways, I’ve been there and I know
Lots of other ways, what a jolly bad show
If all you ever do is business you don’t like
As a confirmed hedonist, I appreciate his approach (though I can do without the drugs unless nicotine and booze qualify). It transforms sex, drugs and rock & roll from naughty indulgences to rational lifestyle choices designed to ensure a happy and healthy existence. Released as a single, it didn’t do very well (in part due to a profound lack of airplay), but I think if Ian had placed a warning label on the package along the lines of “NOT ENDORSED BY THE NHS” it would have sold like hotcakes. Health nazis are forever trying to frighten us into avoiding things that make us happy, but if they were really serious about making people healthy, they’d urge you to avoid boring, meaningless jobs that drain your spirit and rarely make you smile. Ian’s message is really “AVOID MEDIOCRITY AT ALL COSTS!”
Here’s a little piece of advice
You’re quite welcome it is free
Don’t do nothing that is cut price
You know what that’ll make you be
They will try their tricky device
Trap you with the ordinary
Get your teeth into a small slice
The cake of liberty
Musically, the song is a solid dance number marked by playfulness and sophistication, highlighted by Jankel’s rough-edged guitar riff and his glittering piano solo blending lovely melodic runs with a touch of blues-based jazz. Most importantly, the song is grounded in the outstanding contributions by Watt-Roy and Charles—tight but not to the point of strangulation, leaving both guys room for some beat-enhancing syncopation. For you party animals, there are a few howls and minor league screams in the fade (and the sounds of a chorus for a few bars), but while the dance rhythm may ignite a feeling of ecstasy, don’t forget the message—get a fucking life!
It turned out that Ian Dury craved fame but couldn’t handle it when it arrived, which makes him very, very human. Given his history, it should have come as no surprise that the tried to deal with the pressures through alcohol and sedatives and embraced his moody prick persona to extremes. Though he still did some very fine work, sales went into a slide, lineups became unstable and after one last burst of controversy with the brilliant “Spasticus Autisticus,” he shifted his attention to acting, appearing on television and in film. Having written a musical and a theme song for a television series, he was approached by Andrew Lloyd Webber to write the libretto for Cats. His response was pure Dury:
.. I said no straight off. I hate Andrew Lloyd Webber. He’s a wanker, isn’t he? … [E]very time I hear ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ I feel sick, it’s so bad. He got Richard Stilgoe to do the lyrics in the end, who’s not as good as me. He made millions out of it. He’s crap, but he did ask the top man first! (Wikipedia)
He spent the first half of the 90s traveling all over the world on behalf of UNICEF and fighting for the disabled until his odds ran out and he was diagnosed with cancer. He stubbornly held on for four more years before passing away in 2000 at the age of fifty-seven.
The Guardian was spot-on when they eulogized him as “one of few true originals of the English music scene.” New Boots and Panties! is universally recognized as Ian Dury’s shining moment, a brilliant flash of originality, humor and an intensely human creation by a man who refused to allow a few bad breaks to stand in his way.