I often stand in front of a problem or a situation and think ‘What would Ian think?’ Not that I’m like him. But I am. Not that I ever met him. But I did. Sort of, twice. Meaning I saw him sing. Which was a much more powerful thing than your average ‘going to a concert’. I mean, this is not the kind of average thing you get to hear is it?
“Summer, Buddy Holly, the working folly
Good golly, Miss Molly and boats
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet
Jump back in the alley and nanny goats
18 wheeler Scammels, dominica camels
All other mammals plus equal votes
Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3!”
First time I saw him I didn’t come with any great expectations. His band, Kilburn and the High-Roads had been mentioned appreciatively in the New Musical Express a few times and in those days that was enough to tempt me and my mates along to the Mountford Hall at Liverpool University. This must be around about 1974 as I’m lackadaisically dreaming my way through a sociology degree there.
We’re in the bar underneath the concert hall as, soundcheck presumably over, the band start to drift in. ‘Menace’ is the best word to describe the feeling they all exuded. No way were we going to go over and make small talk or ask for the autograph of the only one we could recognise from the NME, Ian Dury. He was clearly the most menacing of them all, but with strong competition.
There’s a nicely written short history of the band on this history of punk site which, after describing them as looking ‘like a bus queue’ goes on to say:
“They presented a bizarre spectacle for gig goers expecting a line up of long haired glam boys or road hardened rockers, being presented with the dapper Dury with a razor blade earring (in 1974) and the contrasting band, sometimes resembling something between gangsters and dossers.”
So they were punk before punk, but they were also music hall. And that night most of us didn’t really know what to make of them. Most of us certainly didn’t rush off to Probe Records the next day to see if we could find any LPs they’d made. But Paul did, our friend Paul. The only one of us who went on to a life where people paid him to write about popular music. And I know he treasures the Kilburn and the High-Roads records to this day.
Anyway, the worried one on the left of their final record there ‘Handsome’ went on to be not just famous, but by the time he was dying such a national treasure he’d even made this advert about the pleasures of being alive.
The second time we’d all seen him was just at the moment Ian and his partly new band The Blockheads (containing two ‘Kilburns’) were becoming properly famous. It’s 1977 and we’re all at the Liverpool Empire for the ‘Five Live Stiffs’ tour: Ian, Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe and someone time, or at least I, have forgotten – Larry Wallis.
Ian is still menacing, but also mesmerising. He is singing the songs that are on all of our record players, from the LP with ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’ on it. And his band, considering it’s evolved from the Kilburns, are a funky astonishment. In Chas Jankel, the keyboard player, Ian has found the musical partner to his verbal eloquence and the two will write-up and light-up the rest of his upsy-daisy life (Summed up here by The Guardian, reviewing both a film and a book about him).
But I don’t want to go into all the ups and down of a clearly complicated character. No, on this greyish November day I merely want to bring a bit of sunshine into all of our lives by remembering the joy he brought us. Joy like this:
Noel Coward was a charmer
As a writer he was Brahma
Velvet, jackets and pajamas
The gay divorcee and other dramas
(There ain’t half been some clever bastards)
Van Gogh did some eyeball pleasers
He must have been a pencil squeezer
He didn’t do the Mona Lisa
That was an Italian geezer
Einstein can’t be classed as witless
He claimed atoms were the littlest
When you did a bit of splitting-em-ness
Frighten everybody shitless
There ain’t half been some clever bastards
Probably got help from their mum
(Who had help from her mum)
Now that we’ve had some
Let’s hope that there’s lots more to come
Go on, sing along. Hit me, as he’d say, with your rhythm stick!
Now how about ‘Reasons to be cheerful, Part 4?
“All my lovin’ The Homebaked Oven
Going to the Wirral on the bus
Talking in Granby, being all we can be,
Taking nothing very serious”
Well it’s a start. Thank you Ian Dury for lighting up my life, you clever bastard.