Partial to His Abracadabra: A Discussion of Ian Dury with Biographer Will Birch

M.L. Heath
Image (partial) by © Peter Blake

On the release of his new book, Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography, Will Birch discusses the complicated glory of the “Upminster Kid".

Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography

Publisher: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd
Length: 384 pages
Author: Will Birch
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-01

"A good song will look after you; [it will] walk out the front door and catch a cab to Tin Pan Alley."

Yes, "there ain't half been some clever bastards," and the man who expressed both preceding quotes -- the late, great, London bohemian musical artist Ian Dury -- certainly knew as well as anyone.

Even among Stiff Records' unlikely stable of New Wave artisans, Dury stood out, and not just for his obvious physical presence. At the height of his fame in the late '70s with his musical crew the Blockheads, Dury ably walked a line of disparate personas; the erudite art teacher he'd actually once been, along with that of the ultimate Cockney lowlife optimist, jovially imparting hard-knock wisdom. This was a virtue gained as much from London music halls and seaside funfairs as from childhood tales told to Dury by his chauffeur father (honored in his song "My Old Man").

Having dealt with the consequences of polio at age nine, Ian Dury nonetheless couldn't have found a better time than the mid-'50s to be young and British. Swept up like many of his generation in the early flashes of rock and roll, Dury gained a role model of sorts in the leather-clad, untamed rockabilly form of Gene Vincent.

Later, Dury would attend art school and find another inspiring mentor, British pop artist Peter Blake. The developing second generation of British rockers that attended such establishments (Stones, Pretty Things) also had an effect on Dury, as did American jazz mavericks Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus. Years later, Dury would appear on Tony Wilson's legendary So It Goes music TV program to recite a spoken section of Mingus' "Freedom" in honor of the recently deceased Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

These connections seemed to aid Dury in developing an appreciation and grasp of both high and low culture. This dual creative mindset would serve Dury well when he assembled an assortment of talented art school misfits named Kilburn and the High Roads (the group that kick-started his career) and subsequently, the Blockheads.

The intrinsic Britishness of Dury‘s music did assign him to the same Stateside ghetto as mid-period Kinks, Squeeze, the late '70s retro-ska contingent, Morrissey and the whole Britpop pack. As with those artists, while some American music fans "got it", many didn't; Dury and the Blockheads' sole attempt at cracking the States was a reportedly fractious opening slot on Lou Reed's Street Hassle tour in the spring of 1978.

Regardless of the cultural divide, there was much about Dury and the Blockheads that was undeniably appealing. Certainly it had much to do with the tension between Dury's word-mad lyric style, rooted in serious urban parlay (it seemed like he had the collected history of London vernacular at his mental disposal), and second-in-command Chaz Jankel's continental and full-on funky arrangements. Blockheads hits like "Reasons to Be Cheerful Part 3", and the mighty one-two of "Sex and Drugs and Rock And Roll" and "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" stand as a testament to those qualities even now.

Since his passing from liver cancer in 2000, Dury's legacy has remained modest if perceptible: the late Malcolm McLaren dragged a young John Lydon to a few Kilburns gigs back in the day, all the better to take sartorial notes of the contentious frontman sporting a razorblade-earring.

More recently, Suggs, singer from the reconvened Madness, admitted in UK culture mag The Word that "without Dury and Ray Davies, there'd have been no Madness". "Do the Freak", a recent jam by Bootsy Collins that winningly samples "Rhythm Stick", is yet another example of Dury's enduring influence.

This year, however, sees two events that, with luck, will cause perhaps an overdue reappraisal among fans of Dury's life and career. First is a biopic featuring Andy Serkis as Dury, thus completing a brilliant hat trick of film portrayals that include Tolkien's Gollum and Joy Division producer Martin Hannett. The second is the publication earlier this year of Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography, by British writer and musician Will Birch.

Birch was a contemporary of Dury's, known as the drummer for pub-rockers the Kursaal Flyers, and later, power pop titans the Records. Having already penned the definitive history of pub rock with 2003's No Sleep Till Canvey Island (available through his own website, will, Birch has written a detailed and illuminating history of the self-styled "Upminster Kid."

Birch was kind enough to take part in an e-mail exchange with PopMatters recently about his book, Dury's insecurity and some essential hidden gems.

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Having already covered the history of Pub Rock with your 2003 book No Sleep Til Canvey Island, what motivated you to revisit that era, and focus on Ian Dury specifically? What made Dury to your mind worthy of a biography, and made him so singular?

Ian Dury was, for me, a magnetic artist and performer, who happened to come up through "pub rock" but may not have. He would still have been magnetic, but without the opportunities the pub rock scene presented for "losers" like Ian, it is doubtful whether you or I would have ever heard of him. So, he was bigger than the scene, but without the scene he may not have broken through.

I focused on Ian because his life was incredible and because I had interviewed him several times and he was so eloquent it seemed natural to put it into a book. He should have written his autobiography but didn't. I felt it was my responsibility to try and put his life into words.

As both punter and participant [with the Kursaal Flyers] within the whole pub rock scene, how and/or why do you think Dury and the Kilburns distinguished themselves as a band and live act?

The Kilburns were the most eclectic group on that scene. Brinsley Schwarz, Chilli Willi and to some extent the Kursaal Flyers performed a diversity of styles, but mainly country and pop, whereas Dr. Feelgood were 100% R&B and Ace were blue-eyed soul. Ducks Deluxe were rocking. Bees Make Honey were jump-jive.

But the Kilburns were calypso and reggae and rockabilly and 50s novelty pop and rock ‘n' roll and English music hall, and although Ian couldn't really sing -- actually he could but lacked confidence and was preoccupied with the visuals -- he was the most amazing focal point, a true star.

Far from being the Cockney grifter persona that he presented, Dury was raised fairly middle class and, when not doing music in the early Kilburns days, was employed as a lecturer in art school. How did Dury resolve or contend with such contradictions?

He was torn and pulled in all directions and it was this internal conflict that produced the art. Deep down he was a home-loving, conservative, family man, but he was also an artist and a rocker and a selfish bastard whose life, like the lives of many artists and rockers, was ruled by his dick, until he discovered alcohol.

Then his life was ruled by wanting to be high, one way or another, but he always had a cushion, whether it was money, when times were good, or the support of his loved ones, so he knew that if he fell on his arse, it would all be alright in the morning.

The self-confidence he acquired could only have come from his solid upbringing. In other words, his mum gave him his moral fiber and work ethic. She put the humor into him and made him into a robust individual.

During your research for the book, what about Dury were you most surprised to discover that you think will surprise Dury fans who read your book?

Nothing surprised me, except perhaps how depressed he became during 1976, between the break-up of the Kilburns and discovering Charlie [Charles, drums] and Norman [Watt-Roy, bass] and the eventual formation of the Blockheads.

His career was slowly moving in the right direction, but Ian knew how fragile it could be and lost faith many times. It's great that it finally worked out.

Certainly his best known songs will pop up in the mind of anyone even vaguely familiar with him, but are there other, more obscure Dury gems that you could recommend to the curious?

"Rough Kids" and "Crippled With Nerves" by Kilburn and the High Roads [both available on the recent and extensive pub rock CD primer Goodbye Nashville, Hello Camden Town].

"England's Glory" [which Dury wrote for British music hall legend Max Wall, released as a Stiff Records single by Wall in 1977].

"Poo Poo in the Prawn" [from Dury's 1993 disc The Bus Driver's Prayer And Other Stories].

Incidentally, I was quite charmed by Dury's humility about his lyric-writing abilities, at one point claiming he only ever wrote three good songs in his life, which he later amends to seven!.

I think the modesty and self-deprecation were a bit forced. He was good, he knew he was good and he needed to be told he was good. But he also knew he'd delivered a few turkeys.

Artists are insecure; they need constant assurance that their work is great. That's the way it is.

One of the aspects of the book I was only vaguely aware of before reading it was the painter Peter Blake's mentoring of Dury in art school and beyond. Talk a bit more about the relationship between Blake and Dury. A photo included in your book of Kilburns-era Dury on stage, with Blake in the audience looking totally transfixed, is priceless.

Peter Blake is a rock ‘n' roll fan, whether it be professional wrestling or Pet Sounds. He has that broad appreciation of popular culture and the images it throws up. In Ian, Peter discovered his own real-life rock ‘n' roller who was not "a blinking thickie," and Ian enjoyed the kudos that Blake brought to his world, i.e., a famous artist, "my mate Peter Blake".

And yes, that photo, taken by Alain Le Kim in Bristol in 1974, is indeed priceless. I was thrilled when I discovered its existence.

How forthcoming were Dury associates and bandmates, from the Kilburns to the Blockheads and after, in cooperating with you during your work on the book? And what's been the general opinion of it from those you interviewed, since its publication?

They were all helpful. Only one or two declined to contribute. I got the main guys -- Russell Hardy, Keith Lucas, Humphrey Ocean, Terry Day and Charlie Hart from the Kilburns, and Blockheads Mickey Gallagher, Davey Payne, Chaz Jankel and Wilko Johnson.

I have received very little feedback so far (early days) except that [Dury bodyguard and confidant] Spider Rowe called me and said, "Will, you've nailed him," which is praise indeed.

Quite the coincidence of both your bio being published and the release of the new biopic Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll, with Andy Serkis as Dury. If you've seen it, what's your opinion?

I've seen the movie and it is a stunning visual feast. Lots of great period detail and Andy Serkis is amazing, but you can't tell a life story in 100 minutes. My book fills in the gaps.

Image: a recreated version of the cover for the single of "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll", ©

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