Ian Dury

Ian Dury, who has died of cancer aged 57, was 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 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 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 were told to prepare for "one of the jewels in England's crown", and on came not Dury but his hero, the veteran music-hall star Max Wall, who was barracked by the boisterous crowd until 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 Cockney update of a Dickensian villain. The punks were suitably impressed.

Here was a man already in his mid-thirties who looked crippled but dangerous, and had an armoury of quite extraordinary songs, ranging from the realistically romantic to the outrageous. 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 as they did with the life and loves of losers, chancers and wide-boys from the East End and beyond. No one then, or since, 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. 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 with his mum, but was struck down by polio at the age of seven. He spent several years in hospital and at a school in Sussex for the disabled, and then moved to the Royal High Wycombe Grammar School. He left with three O-levels and moved back to Essex, to 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 and their first album, Handsome, in 1974. It included some distinctive Dury lyric but was not successful. Dury had yet to fully develop his exaggerated Cockney stage persona.

The transformation came after Dury started writing with pianist Chas Jankel and signed to the independent Stiff label, co-founded by David Robinson, one of the great showmen and the godfather of British funk.

Dury toured with his fellow Stiff artists including Elvis Costello, and in October, 1977, released his classic New Boots And Panties. The album, which went on to sell over a million copies, included the erotic Wake Up And Make Love With Me.

In April 1978 Dury notched up his first Top Ten single, What A Waste, followed later the same year with 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 Juke Box Dury packaged these hit singles along with Dury's best-known stage anthem, Sex & Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll.

At the time, Dury insisted to me that, as an unlikely pop star, he was merely continuing his career as an artist: "I was a painter for seven years, a successful illustrator for two years, and now I'm a rock 'n' roll singer. I still feel I'm doing the same thing, but I'm not painting with paints." As for his physical disability, he had confidently used it as a part of his stage act.

"I'm charismatic and I'm not ashamed about my physical appearance," he said.

"Even good-looking people have got a weakness. My weakness is so obvious that there's no point in worrying about it. Luckily I'm quite interesting to look at.

I know 'cos I painted myself as an art student about 500 times."

He succeeded partly because of the care and attention he put into his work,explaining: "I ain't a poet, I'm a lyricist," and spending weeks carefully perfecting his songs. He described his influences as "the Stax and Motown labels and Max Miller, with a lot of television thrown in".

During the 1980s, with the waning of the punk era and rise of the New Romantics, Dury gradually fell out of fashion, despite some glorious tours with his band the Blockheads. But he still continued his policy of musical bravery, collaborating with trumpeter Don Cherry on the 1980 set Laughter, and travelling to Nassau the following year to record with the reggae rhythm section Sly and Robbie for Lord Upminster.

This was the Year Of The Disabled, and Dury contributed the thoughtfully realistic Spasticus Autisticus. The song, which contained lines like "I dribble when I nibble," was considered to be in such bad taste that, despite Dury's own disability, it was banned from radio play.

The departure of Chaz Jankel from the Blockheads proved a more serious blow and, in 1984, after the release of the unsuccessful album 4000 Weeks Holiday, 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.

He had more success on stage the following year, in the Royal Court production of Jim Carter's Road. Two years later, he was back at the Court with a musical, Apples, which he had co-written with former Blockhead Mickey Gallagher. It was not a success, but Dury had continued with his policy of doing exactly what he wanted.

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. Dury had a simple explanation for turning Lloyd Webber down: "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 Dury's 1993 album, The Bus Driver's Prayer And Other Stories. Then, just as his career was heading for another upswing, Dury 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 Chas 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 songs ranged from the funk and black humour of Mash It Up Harry and Jack Shit Georgie (an attack on the education system) through to an unashamedly emotional, semi-spoken love song, You're My Baby.

• Ian Dury, singer, songwriter and actor, born May 12 1942; died Mar 27 2000

Contributor

Robin Denselow

The GuardianTramp

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