Given that he passed away over 20 years ago, a lot of people seem to forget the potency of Ian Dury. The temperamental leader of Kilburn and the High Roads, The Blockheads, and a mouthpiece for a part of society that struggled to have its voice heard, Dury was the bridge between the rock and roll of the likes of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and the first wave of punk, which was to finally give the most disenfranchised in society the chance to have their voice heard loudly.
Much more than simply the man who coined the term “sex, drugs and rock & roll”, Dury was an artist, a provocateur, and a poet who fused his “mockney” roots with the art school education he had received. He was 35 when he first properly made it with The Blockheads, which was much older than the norm for rockstars at the time. It meant that his music contained a maturity that helped him stand out, as the ironic track ‘Reasons to be Cheerful Pt. 3’ reflects.
Notably, Dury endured a tough start in life. When he was just seven, he contracted polio from a swimming pool during a visit to Southend-on-Sea during the 1949 pandemic. Spending the next 18 months in hospital, this moment had a transformative effect on him, as his left leg, shoulder, and arm would be left paralysed and withered permanently.
Showing the strength that he always held within, in the face of much adversity because of his physical condition, Dury developed a tough persona as well as a sharp wit, helping him through life as if he’d never experienced such trauma.
This wit would also help him rise to become one of the most influential musicians of the era. He is quoted in the 2010 book, Ian Dury, The Definitive Biography as saying of himself: “I’m (a) cocky-dick about my words. I always thought that I didn’t have any competition. I’m the best in the world by a hundred miles. In a nutshell, I think I’m shit hot.”
“There are a couple of ways to avoid death,” he also once proclaimed, “One is to be magnificent”. However, ironically, he didn’t much care for the idea of a legacy, as his childhood brush with death influenced. “I’m not here to be remembered,” he said, “I’m here to be alive”.
However, Dury would never fully escape the spectre of polio. For a time, he visited a disabled school in Chailey, before moving to a Grammar School in Wycombe. He then left school aged 16 after completing his O Levels and studied painting at the Royal College of Art. Here though, a lecturer described him as “a lunatic” because of his disability, which was to be an experience that would stay with him. In ‘Rhythm Stick’, the line, “It’s nice to be a lunatic” is a direct reference to that moment of discrimination.
Fast forward to when he kicked off his musical career with Kilburn and the High Roads in 1971, and Dury would use these experiences to create a lyrical style unlike any other. It was as the leader of this outfit, long before he formed The Blockheads in 1977, that he would have a defining influence on those who would become the key members of the punk scene later in the decade.
As the frontman of Kilburn and the High Roads, Dury was fast approaching 30, and so he grabbed the opportunity to emulate his hero, Gene Vincent, with all his might, cutting a similar image to the rock ‘n’ roll legend by slicking his hair back, dressing in black, and wearing fingerless gloves. In addition to his sharp lyricism, the attitude he espoused captivated all those who saw him live, and it was this that helped him to become a progenitor of punk.
Of course, Dury’s music also had a significant impact on the growing punk movement. Embodying the anarchic ideology of the movement before it had even formed, it tapped into a primal realm in a way that had never really been done before. “His idea of rhythm was based on Zulu,” said Chaz Jankel, his songwriting partner in The Blockheads to The Guardian. “That scene where you can hear the Zulus before you can see them, that incredible stomp before they come over the hill. It was the rhythm of survival and, as it happened, it suited the times perfectly.”
Echoing this, Paul Simonon, bassist of The Clash, told The Guardian in 2009: “You went to see Dr Feelgood, the Alex Harvey Band and Kilburn & The Hight Roads, and that was it as far as raw British rock ‘n’ roll was concerned in the mid-70s. They were the tough guys and Ian was one of the toughest. You felt he was coming from the same place as you.”
However, the most notable example of Dury’s influence on punk was via the divisive frontman of Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten. When punk was starting to bubble under the surface, Dury was critical of many of those who would become its champions, and in particular of Rotten. He lambasted Rotten for stealing his unique razor-blade-on-safety pin earring, and most importantly, the hunched-over microphone stance, which Dury did as a result of his polio, clinging to it for support. You can understand exactly why he was irked by Rotten appropriating his style so unashamedly.
Additionally, in the early days of punk, Dury wasn’t so keen on The Clash either, no matter how much the band respected him. He famously disregarded them as “public school punks”, until they offered him an olive branch and took him out on tour after punk had exploded.
A real iconoclast, without Ian Dury there would be no punk as we know it today. So next time you’re watching videos of your favourite bands be it Sex Pistols or Green Day, remember that they owe a lot to him.