Although new wave was still two years away, the London music scene of 1975 wasn’t all Queen and the Rolling Stones; pub-rock bands were making fresh and exciting music, laying the groundwork for more radical outfits to follow. Some included musicians whose skills came in very handy when the dam broke in 1977; Kilburn and the High Roads, named after a highway sign, included Ian Dury, saxman Davey Payne (a future Blockhead) and Keith Lucas, who changed his name to Nick Cash and helped found the group 999. During a commercially frustrating career that lasted from 1970 to 1976, the Kilburns were cult-popular and influential. Their records serve as neat reminders of a wonderful band.
An album cut in 1974 was shelved due to record company politics; the band’s debut was, in fact, its second recording. (That first LP, Wotabunch!, was dredged up and finally released once Dury’s solo career took off.) The subsequently recorded Handsome contains much of the same material (co-written by Dury with pianist Russell Hardy) that the group had used the first time. Got that?
Handsome is musically low-key, featuring Dury’s clever Cockney wordplay and a bit of high-powered blowing from Payne, but it’s overly understated, touching on rockin’ ’50s styles and dapper ’40s lounge subtlety in a generally debonair record not above some raving. Upminster Kids is a reissue of Handsome with several tracks deleted.
Stunted in growth, crippled by polio and unrepentantly Cockney, Ian Dury is one of rock’s most memorable (and certainly lovable) figures. Following his time in Kilburn, the 35-year-old came into his own with New Boots and Panties!!, an album whose energy almost defies it to stay on the turntable. With the motley but talented Blockheads, Dury trounces merrily through outrageous odes like “Plaistow Patricia,” “Billericay Dickie,” “Blockheads” and the anthemic “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” (not on the original UK LP, but added to the American edition and later to the British as well). A more sensitive side emerges lyrically on “Sweet Gene Vincent,” “My Old Man” and “If I Was with a Woman” and musically on “Wake Up and Make Love with Me.”
Dury and the Blockheads’ disco leanings came to the fore on the dazzling Do It Yourself. The band’s rich interweaving behind Dury’s playfully obscure vocals may have meant sensory overload for some, and the more sophisticated music (compared to New Boots‘ often raucous blare) must have turned away the punk cadres. With hindsight, though, Do It Yourself can be heard as a trailblazing fusion of dance musics, in both upbeat (“Sink My Boats,” “Dance of the Screamers”) and relaxed (“Inbetweenies,” “Lullaby for Francies”) modes.
Blockhead musical director Chaz Jankel left after Do It Yourself, but the band carried on with thinner textures and ex-Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson. (Jankel subsequently pursued a dull solo career as a pianist/singer.) Laughter is an uneasy and uneven mix of whimsical concepts like “Yes & No (Paula),” “Dance of the Crackpots” and “Over the Points,” as well as less-inspired funk-rock like “(Take Your Elbow Out of the Soup You’re Sitting on the Chicken)” and “Sueperman’s Big Sister.”
Dury abandoned Stiff and scuttled the Blockheads, but reunited with Jankel for Lord Upminster, recorded in the Bahamas with reggae rhythm kingpins Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar. After the Blockheads’ joyful noise, Lord Upminster‘s funk sounds ascetic. (Keyboard player Tyrone Downie is the only other musician.) Disappointingly, Dury scales down his writing for the occasion, approaching minimalist levels on “Wait (For Me)” and “Trust (Is a Must).” Aside from the exceedingly frank “Spasticus (Autisticus),” the record amounts to a creative holding pattern.
It took Dury three years to bang out another, this time with a mostly unfamiliar set of sidemen working under the ironic Music Students moniker. The homemade-look cover of 4000 Weeks’ Holiday belies the slickly produced soul tracks inside; only Dury’s homey speak-singing connects the songs to a non-mainstream aesthetic. Lyrically conservative as well, Dury waxes romantic (“You’re My Inspiration”), treacly (“Friends”), political (“Ban the Bomb”), noirish (“The Man with No Face”) and whimsical (“Take Me to the Cleaners”).
Reuniting with Mickey Gallagher, Davey Payne and a host of other old mates (Steve Nieve and Wreckless Eric both guest), Dury broke a five-year recording silence with the charming and gentle Apples. While the lightly flavored arrangements leave the songs (mostly Dury/Gallagher compositions) on the pleasant side of mild, Dury’s personable vocals provide all the character needed. (Frances Ruffelle duets on several tracks and sings one solo.) In any case, Dury’s lyrics — with the exception of “Love Is All” (“My fevered brow is bursting till I choke”???) — are wonderful. Besides satiric slaps at tabloid reporters (“Byline Browne”) and novice policemen (“Pc Honey”), he considers the labor problems faced by criminals (“The Right People”), offers a laundry list of British celebrities (“England’s Glory”) and rewrites the Lord’s Prayer with homonymic place names (“Bus Driver’s Prayer”).
In his prime, Dury worked best outside the album format. “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” was hastily added to Do It Yourself as a bonus 45; “Reasons to Be Cheerful (Part 3)” fell between Do It Yourself and Laughter. Although it could be ungenerously interpreted merely as Stiff’s last chance to cash in, Jukebox Dury (reissued as Greatest Hits) is also the best and most consistent Dury LP. Besides the two hits just mentioned, it has other fine 45 sides (“What a Waste,” “Razzle in My Pocket,” “Common as Muck”) and a few choice album cuts. Dury’s humanism comes through loud and clear, and the record is programmed swell.
Created as a complement to New Boots and Panties!! , the Sex & Drugs compilation is almost identical to Jukebox Dury except that it omits “Sweet Gene Vincent” and “Wake Up and Make Love to Me” in favor of “Sueperman’s Big Sister” and “You’re More Than Fair.” The CD has four bonus tracks. There is also an American compilation of the same name, with liner notes by Trouser Press‘ own Jim Green. Warts’n’Audience is a live LP recorded in December 1990.
Dury died in 2000.