Mixing music hall with rock and roll

Ian Dury, who died on March 27th aged 57, was one of the few originals of the English music scene, the only man to successfully…

Ian Dury, who died on March 27th aged 57, was one of the few originals of the English music scene, the only man to successfully combine the energy and excitement of rock and roll and punk with the bawdy humour, wit and homespun philosophy of music hall and of his native Essex.

The fact that he had been crippled since childhood, and was severely ill during his final years as a performer, merely added to his stature. He was truly brave - both physically, and in the way that he approached his music.

That bravery was evident at his first major London concert, at the Hammersmith Odeon in May 1978, at the height of the punk era.

The audience was told to prepare for "one of the jewels in England's crown", and on came not Ian Dury but his hero, the veteran music-hall star Max Wall, who was barracked by the crowd until Ian Dury stormed on to quieten them down. When he reappeared with his band, he hobbled across the stage, supported by a stick, looking like some spivvy update of a Dickensian villain. The punks were suitably impressed.


Here was a man already in his mid-30s, who looked crippled but dangerous, and had an armoury of quite extraordinary songs. He could belt out a thoughtful rock song like Sweet Gene Vincent, and then introduce a distinctive Essex spin. Even hardcore punks were taken aback by the stories of Plaistow Patricia or Billericay Dickie, dealing with the life and loves of losers, chancers and wide-boys from the east end of London and beyond. No one could match lyrics like "a love affair with Nina in the back of my Cortina, a seasoned-up hyena couldn't have been more obscener".

The man responsible was born in Harrow, west London. His father was a bus driver and later a chauffeur, who split up with his university-educated mother soon after the war. The young Ian went to live in Upminster, Essex, with his mother, but contracted polio at the age of seven. He spent several years in hospital, and at a school for the disabled in Sussex, then moved to the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe. He left, with three O-levels, for Walthamstow Art School.

Then came the Royal College of Art, a stint teaching art in Canterbury, and, in 1970, the formation of his first band, Kilburn and the High Roads. They developed a minor following on the emerging London pub-rock scene.

The transformation came after he started writing with pianist Chaz Jankel and signed to the independent Stiff label, co-founded by David Robinson.

He toured with his fellow Stiff artists, including Elvis Costello, and, in October 1977, released his classic New Boots And Panties!! The album sold more than one million copies. In 1978, he notched up his first top-ten single, What a Waste, followed later the same year by the number-one hit, Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick, and, a year later, Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 3). In 1980, the compilation album Jukebox Dury packaged these singles along with his best-known stage anthem, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. The departure of Chaz Jankel from the Blockheads proved a serious blow and, in 1984, after the release of the unsuccessful album 4000 Weeks Holiday, Ian Dury took a rest from live performance, and concentrated on acting. He appeared in a series of unremarkable films, including Polanski's Pirates (1986) and Hearts Of Fire, a vehicle for Bob Dylan.

Never too concerned about personal wealth, he had turned down an offer from Andrew Lloyd Webber to provide the lyrics for Cats (a commission that reportedly earned millions for Richard Stilgoe). Ian Dury had a simple explanation for rejecting Lloyd Webber: "I can't stand his music."

In 1990, the Blockheads came together again, initially to play a benefit for their former drummer Charlie Charles, who was suffering from cancer. The reunion was so successful that further shows followed over the next two years, and several members of the band collaborated on Ian Dury's 1993 album, The Bus Driver's Prayer and Other Stories. Then, just as his career was heading for another upswing, Ian Dury himself was diagnosed as suffering from cancer. In 1996, a tumour was removed from his colon, but two years later, further tumours were detected on his liver.

He reacted, in typical fashion, by plunging himself back into work, and 1998 will be remembered as his finest period since the glory days of the late 1970s. Once again reunited with Chaz Jankel and the Blockheads, he embarked on a series of concerts that showed he had lost none of his old verve, wit or musical skill. Their new album, Mr Love Pants, was rightly hailed as the best in two decades, and its success led to a series of triumphant shows that continued this year.

Ian Dury married twice. His first wife, Betty, was a fellow art student. They were divorced in 1985 and after she later died of cancer, he married Sophie Tilson, a sculptress.

Ian Dury is survived by his wife Sophie and their two sons and by a son and daughter from his first marriage.

Ian Dury: born 1942; died March, 2000.