There may be an ocean and more separating London’s ‘70s pub rock scene from the country “rube” humor popular throughout America’s Southern states since before the 20th century, but nonetheless, they share many traits: both employ a vernacular and accented humor that serves to bind their respective working class communities; both use that humor as a defense-offense device that protects their community’s dignity while chastening the phoniness of the “outside” world; both express themselves in small, intimate venues (the pub or the honky tonk) that bond their constituencies to each other and to the performers; both are also largely conservative in essence, resisting modern “progress” and drawing sustenance from deep past roots such as the music hall and vaudeville traditions. The pub rock scene—whose heyday was the mid-‘70s—boasted many humorists, but its premiere wit was a cane-carrying polio victim from Upminster, Essex called Ian Dury.
Like the legendary country-rube humorist Uncle Dave Macon, Dury came to music at a relatively late age, and was in his mid-30s when he became the unlikeliest of pop stars. Also like Uncle Dave, Dury came from working-class roots and had an established career before turning to the rock lifestyle that he would later ironically bemoan in “What a Waste”. Unlike Farmer Dave, Dury, despite leaving school at 16, became an accomplished art student and later, a teacher. However, whereas art-school rocker peers like Brian Ferry and Talking Heads drew from many of the experimental art movements in their creative processes, Dury sought inspiration in the cockney rhyming banter and physical charisma of the old music halls. Besides a lyrical reference or two, his art training had little bearing on the character “sketches” in his songs.
His first band, Kilburn & the High Roads, languished on the London pub circuit during the early ‘70s, drawing cult appeal but few commercial rewards. Dury resurfaced in 1976 with a new backing band, the Blockheads, at the height of the proto-punk pub scene. The band’s raw musical amalgam of R&B, ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, and funk was suited to a circuit that privileged old rock primitivism over the progressive ambitions and slick corporate productions of much modern rock. Soon the band came to the attention of Stiff Records, a recently formed independent label that was taking many of the humorously-bent (proto) punk bands on board. Already on their roster were such feisty wits as Elvis Costello & the Attractions, the Damned, the Adverts, and Devo. With the addition of Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Stiff consolidated itself as the independent home of punk humor. Their slogan, “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck”, presented a manifesto welcome sign to the type of rock humor they trafficked in.
Dury had long been lauded for his distinct physical humor on the pub circuit. His style, a mutated fusion of spiv, greaser, cockney pearly king, and Dickensian villain, was grotesque yet transfixing. And using his disability to his advantage, he used his cane as a prop, strutting around the stage like a dirty dandy, making his deficiencies integral parts of his distinctive charisma.
As startlingly amusing as his stage persona was, it was always secondary to the striking humor that defined the Blockheads’ song catalog. Dury was adept at moving between the anthemic and the intimate in his lyrics. “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll”, the band’s 1977 debut single, stressed the former with its soccer slogan-style sing-along chorus line. They are “all my brain and body needs”, Dury proclaims of his title’s contents in the “naughty Uncle” snarl that Johnny Rotten would later inherit.
Stiff capitalized on the cult popularity of “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” (and the buzz caused by the BBC’s unwillingness to air the song) by releasing New Boots and Panties!! (1977), the Blockheads’ debut album. It became a platinum revelation and, to this day, remains one of Britain’s most beloved documents of national humor. Neither trailblazing in sound, nor focused in style, New Boots and Panties!! was an eclectic collection of disco-funk workouts, old-school rock ‘n’ roll, and jazz-tinged R&B; however, it was all glued together by Dury’s penetrating lyrical humor with its rhymes, wordplay, and cockney slang. The master MC Dury delivers his tales of grotesque decadence with the deadpan confidence of the street (fleece) salesman or a west coast rapper. With music-hall dexterity, Dury raps about various “geezers” and “birds”, sending his caricatures up while lovingly detailing their foibles and eccentricities.
Like the country rube humorists, part of Dury’s subversive humor was in gently ribbing the eccentrics within his own class-culture. His caricatures were vicarious self-parodies, pre-emptive strikes fending off a dominant middle-class inclined to more demeaning and patronizing portraits of its “inferiors”. Also like the rube humorists, such humor was as affectionate as it was “taking the piss”. Dury’s most enduring and endearing character sketch of this kind was of “Billericay Dickie”. With its jaunty knees-up tune, cockney rhyming patter, and saucy content, “Billericay Dickie” was pure music-hall humor for the punk generation. Related (through Dickie (sic)) in first person narrative, Dury’s character boast raps about a series of sexual conquests, such as the following with the rhyme-friendly Nina: “I had a love affair with Nina / In the back of my Cortina. / A seasoned-up hyena / Could not have been more obscener.” The self-deprecating wit that bursts the bubble of Dickie’s bravado comes in the chorus, when the character betrays his insecurities and social inferiority crisis by protesting “I ain’t an ‘effin’ thicky / I’m Billericay Dickie / And I’m doin’ very well.”
Dury continues such satire of working-class machismo in “Blockheads”, a rollicking rocker in which Dury screams his voice into hoarse desperation while decrying the unsavory manners of coarse men who “screw their poor old Eileens / Get sloshed and go berserk.” In conclusion, though, Dury turns his insular humor outwards, implicating those who would patronizingly look down on such characters. “After all is said and done”, he muses, “You’re a blockhead, too.”
At times, Dury’s character studies turn more intimate and moving, employing a light humor that speaks to working-class dignity. A particularly touching example is “My Old Man”, a song that lovingly pays tribute to his father, an emotionally distant man who showed his love for his family by working long hours as a bus driver and private chauffeur. As is the case with many humorists, “My Old Man” is more moving by virtue of our expectations that it will be more funny.
Not amused by some of Dury’s envelope-pushing humor was the BBC, who not only refused to let “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” pollute the airwaves, but also set its censors on “Spasticus Auticus”, a song Dury specifically wrote to represent the “Year of the Disabled” in 1980. Despite being a victim of polio since the age of seven, the Beeb found Dury’s brand of blunt, self-deprecating humor to be too provocative for the general public. “I wibble when I piddle / Cos my middle is a riddle”, rhymes Dury, tongue-twisting athletically around his own disability.
His comedic charms of similar bad taste and/or refreshing candor were brought to external issues, too. Much as Dury is loved and remembered for his caricature wit, he was also prone to turning his satirical pen to cultural institutions and issues. In “Ban the Bomb” (1984) he taps into the CND movement revival of the early ‘80s, transforming Pete Seeger-style protest into Dury-type mockery: “Wrap yourself in silver paper, put a sandbag on your head / Crawl inside your fallout shelter underneath your garden shed / Boil an egg, have a cuddle, cut your toe-nails, make the bed / By the time this record’s finished, everyone will be dead.” In another song, “There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards” (1978), he turns his vernacular to the art school set from which he had come. As fellow art-school rockers sought to emulate lofty art ideas and masterpieces with high-minded musical craft and ambition, Dury here chastens any art pretensions with his class-conscious grounding of the culturally over-bloated: “Van Gogh did some eyeball pleasers / He must have been a pencil squeezer / He didn’t do the Mona Lisa / That was an Italian geezer.” Such deprecating rhyming banter would certainly have made his music hall hero, Max Wall, proud.
New Boots and Panties!! will forever be recognized in the U.K. as Dury & the Blockheads’ comic masterpiece, but, whether with or without the band, Dury continued to record and perform in his patented styles for the next 20 years until his long-time battle with cancer was finally lost. The “fashionable” ‘80s were not kind to Dury’s career, but his legacy and influence lived on during those times via such fellow London acts as Madness, Squeeze, and Billy Bragg. Indeed, his proto-rap delivery and working-class tall-tales still resonate through the more humorous U.K. artists of recent years, such as the Streets and the Arctic Monkeys. All of these performers cast deeply into Britain’s pub rock and music hall traditions, each bringing a distinction that enables their malleable conventions to be forever updated.
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The above essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book about rock-related artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion.