Born in 1942 in Billericay, England, Ian Dury went into the world aspiring to become a famous painter and ended up being the reluctant voice for several generations. “Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll” is his line, and if he could have copyrighted the phrase back in ’77 when New Boots and Panties came out, and charged money each time it was used in a newspaper headline, a magazine article, or quoted in a film or TV show, he’d probably be a rich man by now.
Severely affected by polio at the age of 7, Dury progressed through art college, and took up a teaching job at the Royal College of Art in London, before forming Kilburn & the High Roads in the early ’70s to support his painting career. Although Dury honed his lyrical prowess in songs like “Billy Bentley” and “Upminster Kid,” there was little commercial potential in this brand of beery bar-room racket. An album, Handsome, was released in 1975, but the Kilburns split up soon afterwards, with guitarist Keith Lucas going on to form the legendary 999. Undeterred, Dury signed a deal with the newly formed Stiff label, and teamed up with Chas Jankel (guitar/keyboards) to write songs for a solo album. Jankel’s compositions suggested a move away from solid rock n’ roll roots towards a more lightweight jazzy style, anchored by funky basslines. This new sophistication, topped with Dury’s earthy delivery, jelled into a formula that was to produce their first album and their first and biggest hit, “Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll.” Most of the session work for the recording of these new songs was supplied by a collection of fine musicians who would later become the Blockheads — Charley Charles (drums), Norman Watt-Roy (bass), and Davey Payne (sax).
On its release, New Boots and Panties was widely hailed as a brilliant debut LP, with Dury demonstrating a talent for a punchy couplet in music-hall parodies like “Billericay Dickie” and “Clever Trevor,” while indulging the rough edge of his tongue on “Blockheads” and “Plaistow Patricia,” and coming up with the ultimate rock n’ roll tribute on “Sweet Gene Vincent.” The album went gold, and this success was consolidated by a punishing touring schedule, with the Blockheads having added Mickey Gallagher (keyboards) and John Turnball (guitar) to the line-up. After providing some riotous nights alongside Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and the galaxy of talent that was the first Stiff tour, they jetted off to support Lou Reed in the States, a market that proved resistant to this very British band.
More than twenty years later, Ian Dury is raising a new family, and serving as an ambassador to UNICEF while still fighting the colon cancer that has begun to spread to his liver. He also has released a new album with the original Blockheads, titled Mr. Love Pants, which features some of the goofiest and sweetest songs to come from the man yet. On the phone, he was so warm and friendly it was hard to hang up — he wanted to know all about my mother (who was a huge Dury fan back in the day), and even mailed her a copy of his new disc (although unfortunately, my mom doesn’t know how to use her CD player yet — after owning it for several years — so the only time she gets to listen to it is when I come over to visit).
What exactly is your involvement with UNICEF? What do you do with them?
I’ve been involved with UNICEF for about a year now. I went to Zambia with them last year, on our immunization project, and I’m going to Sri Lanka later this year. They call it the “Bay of Tranquility,” which is because there’s a bit of a war going on in Sri Lanka right now, and they put their guns down for a day, and then UNICEF runs out and immunizes all the children against polio on that Sunday, and then on Monday everybody starts shooting each other again. UNICEF’s been doing this for about 15 years now. They did the same thing in Afghanistan last year, all the different branches of fundamentalists there agreed to stop shooting for one day, and UNICEF immunized 4 million children in one day. 130,000 volunteers helped, and then on Monday, eventually, the war started again. It’s insane, but it actually works. It’s really tricky, and incredible, because the polio vaccine drops have to be refrigerated right up to the point when they’re actually used. It’s a wonderful organization. I’m very enamoured of UNICEF.
Were you surprised at the success of “Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll” when it came out?
No. I thought it was a pretty good record altogether. I thought also that it did conjure up what the generation was about. However, I did write it as a — not an admonishment, but as a question piece, not as a pure praise piece, but then everyone started singing it in anthemic form when we played it live, and I couldn’t tell them not to sing it, so I just let them take that message as that, rather than the original message, which was really the question: “Is that all there is?” But no one really listens to the song, and no one seems to hear the question in it.
Right now, in the US, there’s this huge, taxpayer-sponsored anti-drug campaign gong on, it’s costing something like $600 million dollars, or something like that, to put commercials on prime time to get their “message” across…
Are they still saying “Just Say No?”
They’ve got a few slogans running around right now, trying to see which one catches.
Which drugs are they aiming at, specifically? Crack cocaine, things like that?
Everything except alcohol, including airplane glue.
Everything except alcohol? [laughs] That’s brilliant. Wonder what would happen if they tried to get rid of alcohol again? Well, I think what they should actually do is decriminalize drugs, I think. I don’t think they should make them legal, but they should decriminalize them. Having said that, half the crimes in Britain right now are being committed by junkies trying to get some money — if they decriminalized it, at least it would cut the crime rate down. Plus, it would cut the price of the drugs themselves down, and it would more than likely be sold purer on the street, not cut with strychnine and whatnot. So that’s the reasons for decriminalizing it. But hey, I’m not a politician — I work for UNICEF.
Have you been really strict with your own children regarding drug use?
No, no. I mean, I’m not going to be a hypocrite, I mean, I’ve smoked pot all my life. Actually, neither of my children — well, my daughter might have tried some, but my son, he’s 26, really hasn’t. If you’re a vicar or a priest, your children are going to be the other way, you know. They aren’t going to believe in God. So my son didn’t want anything to do with pot, he doesn’t like it just because he’d seen me do it. I’ve been truthful about drugs, about how you’re not going to turn into a sex symbol just because you’re doing them. I think, for instance, if you’re a hypocrite, if you’re coking up every night, your kids will know anyway, straight away. You can’t hide that from them. Frankly, I’ve never been involved in things like that. I just like a few beers and a bit of draw now and then. If you behave sensibly, your kids will likely be sensible. You can’t predict it.
Who have been some of your great inspirations over the years? Is there any one person that you haven’t met yet that you’d really like to sit down and talk to?
I nearly met Taj Mahal once. He was playing solo in a little gig in London and he knew I was there, so I had permission to go see him backstage, but I didn’t. I went home and I’ve regretted it ever since — I really regret not meeting him, because I think he’s wonderful. Then I was in this Roman Polanski film called Pirates, I played a small pirate. I walked into a canteen, and into the filming place, and I was wearing a Taj Mahal T-shirt with a lot of hashburns in it, and I walked in and sat down next to this large Afro-American lady who was playing the saloon keeper, and she saw my T-shirt, and she said, “Why are you wearing my brother’s T-shirt?” and she turned out to be Taj Mahal’s sister. They kept it in the movie. She’s a singer in Paris. Most of my heroes are jazz musicians, and I wouldn’t really have much to say to them except “I love you.” I wouldn’t say anything like “come and join my band” or anything like that. I’d leave them on their pedestal.
How have you been able to balance family and music for the past 30-some years?
Not easily. My first marriage ended in separation. This marriage, and with my new family, I haven’t been on the road that much, but I wouldn’t go on the road as much as I did, no way. I would miss my kids too much. But I’ve spent most of my life on the road, and it was too destructive, it was destructive to my family. So I wouldn’t do that again.
Have any of your children become musicians?
Yeah. My boy’s doing a record now, he’s 26, he’s working with some people and has got a record deal. My daughter’s a writer. My other two boys are 3 and 1, so I don’t know what they’ll be. But their mom’s an artist, so I imagine they’ll be artists, poor little sods.