A few years ago, while listening to the radio, a strange song invaded my ears. I could not decide whether I loved the tune or hated it, whether it was a clever song or an insipid one. The vocalist made no effort to hide his heavy cockney accent, and sang these incredibly bizarre lyrics: “Hit me with your rhythm stick/Hit me slowly, hit me quick/Hit me, hit me, hit me!” Strangely intrigued, I scoured the Internet for further information on the song, “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick,” and the artist, which led me into the highly original world of Ian Dury.
One of the most unlikely rock stars ever, Dury overcame physical limitations due to childhood polio to achieve great success in the UK. Born in Essex in 1942, his love of art and music appeared quite early. After earning a solid reputation in art college, he was soon accepted into the Royal College of Art in 1964. Dury subsequently studied under prominent artist Peter Blake (best known for his psychedelic paintings and for designing the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover). After graduating in 1967, he began teaching at various colleges in the south of England. But his love for music never died, as he was a lifelong fan of Gene Vincent and jazz, and displayed a distinctly humorous streak.
After Vincent’s death in 1971, Dury was inspired to pursue a music career. He formed a “pub rock” band, which enjoyed local popularity but little crossover success. After the band split in 1975, Dury began penning his own songs. At a music instrument store he ran into Chaz Jankel, former guitarist for the 1970s English rock band Byzantium. That chance meeting formed their long collaboration—Dury would submit his lyrics to Jankel, who then perfectly punctuated the biting words with elements of rock, jazz, and funk. Forming a small band, they recorded an album that featured one of Dury’s best known tracks, “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll.” A winking take on the stereotypical rock and roll lifestyle, Dury flatly drawls that the life “is all my brain and body need” and “is very good indeed.” A popping bass and funky beat add up to an irresistible slice of grungy rock. Besides, how many rock songs contain a reference to James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?
Initially major labels passed on the album, but the now-legendary Stiff Records decided to take a chance on this unusual singer/songwriter. Mostly known for launching Elvis Costello’s career, Stiff issued “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” as a single, followed by the 1977 album New Boots and Panties. While part of the Stiff Lives Stiff tour in 1977, Dury formed a new combo, which he rechristened the Blockheads. A surprise hit of the tour, the group benefited from Stiff’s aggressive marketing campaign and soon scored a major coup: a Number One hit. The aforementioned “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” soared to the top of the UK charts, and Dury’s new career as a rock star was born. Anyone who could drolly sing “it’s nice to be a lunatic” and write lyrics in various languages was clearly a unique talent.
Another album followed, 1979’s Do It Yourself, which spawned the Top Ten single, “Reasons to be Cheerful Pt. 3,” a twisted disco song that features a deliriously zany rapping performance by Dury. Fueled by a relentless, danceable beat, the track bears the hallmarks of many dance records: rhythmic guitar, funky bass, and a slightly sleazy saxophone solo. But Dury’s bizarre imagery belies this seemingly typical disco vibe: “Elvis and Scotty, the days when I ain’t spotty/Sitting on a potty, curing smallpox” are among reasons, he says, to be cheerful. A truly eccentric song, “Reasons to be Cheerful, Pt. 3″ showcases Dury at his loony best.
After Jankel departed the Blockheads in 1980, Dury forged ahead with new guitarist Wilko Johnson, who became a major factor in the next album, Laughter. Among its minor hits include “I Wanna Be Straight,” a tongue-in-cheek look at sobriety, and “Superman’s Big Sister.” The following year brought huge changes: the Blockheads disbanded, and Dury left Stiff Records to join Polydor. After reuniting with collaborator Jankel and recording with famous reggae artists Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Dury released his solo debut, Lord Upminster. The album drew immediate attention for its lead single, the punk-influenced “Spasticus (Austisticus).” A hard-driving rock song, the track features a furious Dury rap about being physically challenged. In a televised interview, Dury defended the song as both promoting tolerance and poking fun at himself—in fact, he penned the song specifically for the International Year of Disabled Persons—with lyrics such as, “Hello to you out there in Normal Land/You may not comprehend my tale or understand.” The BBC still deemed the song too inflammatory and denied it airplay.
In 1984, Dury released 4000 Weeks Holiday, which was his last full studio album until 1998, when members of the Blockheads and Dury reunited to record Mr. Love Pants. Earning much critical acclaim, the album spawned a sold-out UK tour. In addition to recording, Dury also focused on a stage and film career, acting in films such as Roman Polanski’s Pirates and the Bob Dylan movie Hearts of Fire. He worked with UNICEF and cancer research fundraising groups as well, despite his 1996 colorectal cancer diagnosis. His condition became terminal after doctors found tumors in his liver, and he passed away on March 27, 2000. In their obituary, the Guardian wrote that Dury remains “one of few true originals of the English music scene, the only man to successfully combine the energy and excitement of rock ‘n’ roll and funk with the bawdy humour, wit and home-spun philosophy of music-hall.”
Yes, Dury was not a traditionally skilled singer. He looked like a punk rocker, yet lived the rock and roll life with a wink and a smile. In addition, he refused to adhere to the rules of lyric writing, instead incorporating sophisticated puns, offbeat imagery, and words that might cause discomfort. In short, Dury was a true original in his voice, lyrics, and ability to span various genres. To this day, he defies easy categorization which, I suspect, just might have been his goal all along. While Dury’s albums can be difficult to locate in the U.S., seek them out to experience one of the most unusual artists you’ll ever encounter.
Some Essential Ian Dury Tracks:
- “I’m Partial to Your Abracadabra” (1977, New Boots and Panties)
- “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” (1977, New Boots and Panties)
- “Wake Up and Make Love with Me” (1977, New Boots and Panties)
- “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” (1978 single)
- “Inbetweenies” (1979, Do It Yourself)
- “Reasons to be Cheerful, Pt. 3″ (1979, Do It Yourself)
- “I Wanna be Straight” (1979, Do It Yourself)
- “Superman’s Big Sister” (1980, Laughter)
- “Spasticus (Autisticus)” (1981, Lord Upminster)