Electrify The Joy Of It All
© Jon Horne

In Praise of Ian Dury

Ian


   A small boy stands with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of a pair of flared jeans, several sizes too large and held up by miniature braces which hang lopsidedly from the boy's skinny shoulders. His legs are splayed with feet forward in imitation of casual teenhood, still a few years away. He looks off to one side and it is hard to tell whether he is bored or just looking for someone to mug. More likely he is trying to match the amused, observant stance of the sleazy, deviant-looking figure who stands to his left, in the centre of the photograph. The figure is Ian Dury, singer in a category of one. The photograph is the cover of his first LP.
   The pair are posing in front of a shop window on a high street, presumably somewhere in London. Opposite, and reflected in the window, is a Woolworth's sign in thin, simplistic 1940s lettering. Parked outside Woolworth's is a Mini Clubman van, which even from a distance, in reflection, looks as if it is about to fall to pieces. Beneath them is a mosaic pavement, a broken relic of the street's heyday.
   The shop is a ladies' and gents' outfitter. The sexes are strictly segregated in the window, as if each is forbidden to enter the other's world. A card in the centre advertises 'fitting rooms available'. To the right are grey formal suits and trousers, shoes, boots and spats; to the left, bras and basques, corsets and lace knickers. A scrawled card in the top of the window urges customers to 'come in and look round!', but to no avail. Fluorescent lights inside the shop are impotent against the darkness. The scene is almost pornographic in its seediness. Looking closer in amongst the men's suits, and nearly hidden by the reflection of the car, is a white brassiere - not on display, but as if it has been discarded in a sudden, long-forgotten moment of abandon.
   Ian Dury stands between the two displays in Doc Martens, turned-up jeans and an ill-fitting white jacket. There is something utterly disturbing about his appearance, far beyond the sartorial disaster. His head is too big for his withered body. He has no neck. His hair is very short but still greasy. He is dark - not tanned, more like stained; the shabby jacket almost shines in contrast.
   Scrawled at the bottom of the photograph, in friendly orange marker-pen, is the title of the record: 'New Boots and Panties!!'

   There is no other record like it. Sung almost entirely in character, it is nonetheless a unique and personal work of art. It is the record that Raymond Carver would have made, had he been an Essex layabout in love with Gene Vincent, rather than an American alcoholic obsessed by Anton Chekhov.
   The record speaks for a dispossessed underclass that at the time of its release (1977) had yet to be named as such. However it makes no such claim for itself. It is a series of short stories, slices and exaggerations of life. It has a point to make, but it does so with humour (both subtle and sledgehammer) and a raw, offensive glee.
   Raymond Carver's characters are Thoreau's "mass of men lead(ing) lives of quiet desperation". Ian Dury's protagonists are just as desperate, but they are very noisy about it.
   NB&P!! opens with music at odds with the image that one has gleaned from looking at the LP cover: arpeggios and harp-like glissandos from a piano. The notes are sustained and echoed into discordancy which finally, with a clunk, gives way to the first song.
   'Wake Up And Make Love With Me' is not an unusual premise for a song. Sex is the basic stuff of rock 'n' roll and disco (NB&P!!'s musical poles). However, you soon realise that you are being taken to a place that has hitherto been a no-go area for pop: the bedroom of an ordinary couple. They might be you and your partner. Or your parents. The narrator is not a Mick Jagger, getting a groupie to spend the night with him; a Robert Plant or Donna Summer, overdoing a fake orgasm. He is a nobody, waking up next to someone he loves and feeling randy as hell. He gets what he wants (something "private, and also very rude"), but afterwards he's still not satisfied, and ends up making breakfast and emitting frustrated squeaks in tune with Chaz Jankel's erratic synthesiser-playing.
   The territory has been set out: we're with the scruffs. They are stuck in meaningless lives, yet, as Jarvis Cocker would later sneer at his middle-class audience, "they burn so bright, and you can only wonder why".
   New boots and panties, that's why; a little bit of something to chase, a bit of naughtiness, a bit of glamour; something from the wider world that they have no hope of joining.

White face, black shirt, white socks, black shoes,
black hair, white strap, bled white, dyed black!
('Sweet Gene Vincent': Dury-Jankel 1977)

   Gene Vincent must have provided that for the young Ian Dury. When English rock 'n' roll was a pre-Beatles non-event, he along with Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran came over from America to clean up. Where Holly and Cochran were nice boys who (despite having more talent than Cliff Richard or Tommy Steele could dream of) fitted in with the locals, Vincent in gleaming greasy black leather embodied the dangerous and homo-erotic Marlon Brando biker; cornbread and Hollywood combined. Dragging a lame leg (injured - of course - in a motorcycle accident, and exacerbated by the car crash which killed Cochran), he lurched drunkenly across English stages while the promoter Jack Good yelled: "Limp, you bugger, limp!". Increasingly violent and out of touch, he continued to burn with rock 'n' roll passion long after he had become an irrelevance.
   Dury himself hobbled around the stage as a moth-eaten Edwardian in velvet rags, leaning on his African 'rhythm stick' and leering malevolently through mascara eyes.

Please please stop it, it likes it!
Tickles it to death in a way.
('I'm Partial To Your Abracadabra': Dury-Jankel 1977)

   The world of NB&P!! revolves around that moment when the bra went flying across the clothes shop. With the stage character in full flow, Dury slavers his way through 'Abracadabra', a paean to lechery. The lyrics are barely audible, but the sound of the words creates an image of drooling lust, filth and vitality.

These lovely boots exist to drive it round the twist
The call of nature must be obeyed.

   There's more to clothes than frottage though. Wearing "three-piece whistles" and being "tidy in his digs" are points of honour in 'My Old Man', a dry-eyed memorial to Dury's father. Working-class pride runs all the way through NB&P!!, but never more strongly than in Dury Snr's quiet demand for privacy and respect.

Personal reasons make a difference.
('My Old Man': Dury-Nugent 1977)

   Years later, Dury said in an interview: "When I made 'New Boots and Panties!!', I knew who I was - I was a dirty little pig and I was quite happy being that."
   He was underselling himself and he knew it. These first four songs define the parameters of Ian Dury's world; domesticity, rock 'n' roll romanticism, libertinism, and straightforward proletarian values. Unstated, but self-evident in the very nature of the work is the other piece of the jigsaw: However much he tries to hide the fact, Ian Dury is an artist, both in the literal sense (he trained under Peter Blake in the early 1960s), and because you don't make records as good as NB&P!! without thinking about what you are doing. There is too much depth in Dury's work for him to be the lazy yob that he played when he was off-stage.
   That said, he nearly blows it with 'Billericay Dickie', a shallow little tale of an Essex wideboy and his cheerfully-sordid conquests, which says nothing beyond its wonderful first line:

Had a love affair with Nina
in the back of my Cortina
('Billericay Dickie': Dury-Nugent 1977)

   With Dickie out of the way, he settles back down to work. By the second side of NB&P!!, Dury himself is out of the picture and he sets about populating his world with 'blockheads'.
   'Clevor Trever' (sic) is Dickie's idiot cousin, droning over a ponderous one-note tune like a drunken Eccles. He is pushed and taunted into trying to explain himself, getting more and more confused "until me mouth becomes me head which ain't not all that clever". He sounds bewildered and hurt; a child in an adult's body, stamping his feet impotently at those who "haven't not got no right to make a clot out of Trevor."
   And we laugh at him, just as we do at the next character, the psychotically-bitter narrator of 'If I Was With A Woman'. Throughout this song, the character lists all the things he is going to do to the next woman he goes out with (there won't, of course, be another woman). There is no violence involved, no bullying, just mind-games. The games he wants to play seem strangely, stereotypically, female. Slowly you see that he is simply returning what has been done to him in the past, in the one relationship he's had. He lacks the ideas to think of any other way of hurting women, beyond the way he himself has been damaged.

I've been with a woman, she took away my spirit
No woman's coming close to me again
('If I Was With A Woman': Dury-Jankel 1977)

   "Look at them laughing," goes the chorus, and by the end of the song, the band's falsetto voices are multi-tracked and de-tuned to give a hideous, insistent chant:

laughing, laughing, laaughing, laaaaughing, laaaaaaaughing,..

   The song cuts off in mid-syllable, and the Blockheads are let out of their cage. Dury's cast of misfits flood out of their council-estate prison "in raucous teams... in ghastly bender shirts" to disrupt the city. They are like Martin Amis's anti-heroes, except that Dury doesn't have to stand back and observe as a novelist would. Instead he cheers them on, revelling in their assault on decency (and hypocrisy: "You're all blockheads too!" he screams at the audience).

How would you like one puffing and blowing in your ear-hole?
And pissing in your swimming pool?
('Blockheads': Dury-Jankel 1977)

   He grunts out a long list of bizarre comic stereotypes ("blockheads often acquire black and orange cars"), simultaneously repulsed and attracted by their innocent violence and vivacity, as they invade the smart suburbs like Joe Dante's Gremlins:

Imagine finding one in your laundry basket,
banging nails in your big black dog!

   A huge wet fart then drowns out the music as a prelude to a berserk synthesiser solo, which goes on all the way through the song's fade-out, the band yelling: "Blockheads! Blockheads! Blockheads!"
   Dury interrupts them, and starts loudly chanting obscenities. This turns out to be the first line of the next song: 'Plaistow Patricia'. Behind him, Chaz Jankel and Davey Payne play a tuneless, insolent riff on guitar and saxophone, sounding like children picking up instruments for the first time, determined to make a racket.
   Once again, the song kicks off with a sudden burst. Patricia is given a life-story in edited highlights. She is a mess; a hopeless loser with pretensions of being the junkie-queen of the Mile End Road. 'New Boots and Panties' mean everything to her ("her outer garments are the latest mode"), as she rots away in magnificent style, killing herself slowly with "the finest grains for my lady's veins". She swans around the east end of London, giving of herself generously, and greedily accepting whatever is given back. Patricia will not live to be thirty, but she'll not be forgotten.
   Dury is utterly on her side ("Go on, girl!" he yells at the end of the song). Her physical decay is portrayed as heroic; underpinned by a karmic morality that she couldn't possibly explain. Too streetwise to be caught by a lightweight like Billericay Dickie, she would never have thought of playing the games of 'If I Was With A Woman'. Too individual and too grand to be a blockhead, she nonetheless has to share their environment. In some ways, Patricia is Ian Dury - or at least his stage character - in that she embodies his regal seediness far more fully than the one-dimensional lecher of 'I'm Partial To Your Abracadabra'.
   To end here would be apt, but too easy. NB&P!! cannot leave us with a sense of heroism, however sordid. The final song, 'Blackmail Man' would in any other context be a waste of two minutes: it is little more than a torrent of racial abuse, in cockney rhymes. The vocal is an incoherent, screaming, panting rant. It could be any of the characters at their worst, blind drunk and out of control. It could be the considerate lover of 'Wake Up'; there's nothing to say he's a nice guy all day. It could be Dury's father, who "made a racket when he rowed". It could be Billericay Dickie or a Blockhead. Apart from Gene Vincent, who would have agreed with the sentiments but wouldn't have understood the slang, they are all possibilities. Certainly it could be Ian Dury, railing insanely at the polyglot crew which made up his band.

   'New Boots And Panties!!' ends with howling feedback, which continues into the run-out groove of the record. At some point, you take the needle off and get back to your ordinary lives. How one is changed, I don't know. I was very young when I heard this record, and its characters are simply a part of my life. What they do while they're sitting around in my mind is probably their own business. After all, personal reasons make a difference.

*

Dammit, that was a good way to finish. Unfortunately I can't let it end there. Since I wrote this piece, Ian Dury has been diagnosed with incurable liver cancer. He has brought out a new record, 'Mr Love Pants', co-written mostly with Chaz Jankel, played by the Blockheads (minus the drummer Charley Charles, himself lost to cancer) and hailed in the media as a return to the glory days of 'New Boots and Panties!!', which it isn't. The only time Ian Dury came close to matching NB&P!! was with the contemporaneous single 'Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll', which (nothing like as simply as the title implies) summed up his concerns in one song. After NB&P!!, he went on to make a series of nice, silly, funky records. Some of them were good and most of them were mediocre. 'Mr Love Pants' is a good one. Every few years he gets rediscovered, and when that happens, he is allowed to appear in the media as himself, as a spokesman for the disabled, and as an advocate for naughtiness and the general good. For what it's worth, I hope he lives a lot longer, not because we're going to get another masterpiece out of him, but because the world is a slightly better place for having him in it.

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Ian Dury died on 27th March 2000

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Originally written in 1997, this piece is part of Dennis Hopper's Party,
a collection of small entertainments from home and abroad.

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