It’s hard to quantify anything about the late, great Ian Dury. The singer and performer wasn’t just the mercurial leader of The Blockheads, nor the mouthpiece for an increasingly disenfranchised sub-sect of society, nor even just the inventor of the phrase “sex, drugs and rock & roll”. Ian Dury was a bastion of unbridled creative energy, one that buzzed with opportunity and rattled every single cage he could find.
Here we’re taking a look back at a special moment of the singer’s eccentric life as Dury joins a list of world leaders and the musical elite who have taken part in the British institution of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. It’s a combination of two opposing viewpoints that makes this a singular piece of brilliant broadcasting.
Ian Dury was never one for being a part of any establishment. Or even establishment-adjacent, come to think of it. The singer was an unstoppable force when he and his band The Blockheads burst on to the late seventies scene. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Dury wasn’t a bright young thing full of spark and idealistic intent; he was a mid-30s former art school student who had a microphone and a lot of pent-up frustration. But boy, did it all come together perfectly.
Unlike his younger counterparts in the growing punk scene, though, Dury wouldn’t rely on anger alone to get his message across; he would use his command of the English language as his tool. What’s more, his sprightly onstage demeanour belied his age and the diagnosis of Polio, prowling as he did like a caged animal. His disgust for anything that appeared to coddle disabled people was also never too far from the fore. Dury refused to conform.
It was the exact kind of attitude that would eventually land him in the Desert Island Discs hot seat, arguably one of the most clearly established shows on radio. The juxtaposition was not lost on the singer. Started in 1942 by Roy Plomley, the show asked leaders of their field a very simple question; if you were trapped on an inescapable desert island, what songs would you take with you?
While a seemingly simple list of tracks may suffice for some, on this show, the presenter (Sue Lawley in this case) would always engage with the star alongside their musical choices, often using those choices to mark out their journey to the top. Lawley begins this episode in 1996, as she did any other, with a succinct introduction.
Ian Dury’s introduction is about as on the nose as you’re likely to find, “My castaway this week is a performer. That his description of a career that’s included music art and acting, among its achievements. An Essex Boy, he contracted Polio when he was seven and has been severely disabled ever since. “
“After a somewhat erratic education, he went to art school, but he graduated in his thirties to writing and performing songs. With his group The Blockheads, he enjoyed huge success, particularly with numbers like ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, although his popularity as a singer has since waned, he remains in the public eye.” That is largely where Dury had found himself by the shortening ’90s.
During the broadcast, the singer was no longer the provocative frontman he once was. Now, he seems more akin to an eccentric artist than the confrontational, loutish lead singer of a funk-punk band. But, if you know Ian Dury, then you’ll know that all of his answers are honest, authentic and brave. One such moment sees Lawley and Dury reflect on his isolating single ‘Spasticus (Autisticus)’, which he claims didn’t celebrate disability but “celebrated life” in the face of criticism.
As the chat continues to delve into the personality of one of the most undefinable artists of the British punk scene, Dury casually goes about picking an incredibly eclectic list of essential songs for his one-way trip. First up is Bobby Charles’ ‘Small Town Talk’, which he admits he had never heard before his first band and says, “I just love this song.”
Dury talks about his inability to sing traditionally and his preference for rhythm over everything else. While he admits that his “Essex growl” has served him well in his career, there’s clearly admiration for those who can really belt out a tune as he picks both Dean Martin (‘That’s Amore’) and Ann Peebles (‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’) who are both star-studded singers in their own right.
For a band born out of the punk age, you might imagine Dury picking some more heavily rock-influenced acts. But, instead, perhaps down to his age, he picks a bunch of records who are all steeped in American standards, the inherent groove that permeated his work.
One rocker on the list, though, the hip-shaking brilliance of Gene Vincent and his song ‘Woman Love’ after being inspired by a film he saw when he was 14, saying his “brain exploded” when he heard the star for the first time. Dury also selected Frank Crumit’s ‘Abdul Abulbul Amir’, which he said he used to listen to on a wind-up gramophone and “can remember the words to this day,” after playing it over and over.
The final collection sees Dury pick Taj Mahal’s brilliant number ‘Music Keeps Me Together’ and Alma Cogan’s wonderful ‘The Naughty Lady Of Shady Lane’. His final and most treasured selection is Ornette Coleman’s ‘Ramblin”, a track that provided the bassline road map for The Blockheads’ ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll’.
“I met Charlie Hayden [the bassist in the track] some years after we recorded it and I said ‘Charlie, we nicked your solo.’ He said ‘It’s ok it’s a Cajun folk tune, I stole it as well.'” And there might be the typifying moment of Ian Dury. A snorting laugh as the humanity of modern life swells around him.
Sadly, on this day in 2000, the world lost one of the most impossibly positive lights the British music scene has ever witnessed. Today, we celebrate the joy of life he pursued at every juncture.
Below you can listen to the full episode as Ian Dury picks his favourite songs of all time.
Ian Dury’s favourite songs of all time:
- Bobby Charles – ‘Small Town Talk’
- Dean Martin – ‘That’s Amore’
- Frank Crumit – ‘Abdul Abulbul Amir’
- Gene Vincent – ‘Woman Love’
- Taj Mahal – ‘Music Keeps Me Together’
- Alma Cogan – The Naughty Lady Of Shady Lane’
- Ann Peebles – ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’
- Ornette Coleman – ‘Ramblin’