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A reason to be cheerful: The resurgent understated legacy of Ian Dury

@TomTaylorFO

“There are a couple of ways to avoid death,” Ian Dury once proclaimed, but he wasn’t thinking about five-a-day and sweaty shell suits, “one is to be magnificent,” was his vivified schtick. However, he didn’t much care for the notion of a legacy either, that was all secondary, Dury had an eye for the main chance. “I’m not here to be remembered,” he said, “I’m here to be alive.” 

For him, the seven signs of ageing couldn’t be fixed by an ointment, Vogue’s latest celebrity diet, or even remaining politically left-leaning—his quick-fix to Polyfilla the wrinkles of time was to simply juice life right down to the pith, and never shake your “fists at the moon” in anger. That much was self-evident in the lust for life that spiritually oozed from his art like honey from a hive in Pooh Bear’s wet dream.

The sticky sap of that joie de vivre has never budged from the undercurrent of musical influence, but now more so than ever, new bands seem to be suckling on the sap of his life-affirming music and using it as a lifeblood for their own.

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The times aren’t great at the moment, so much so that you couldn’t even add ‘but have they always been this way?’ and get a gasp from the most pretentious teenager with a monocle in the halls of Eton’s philosophy wing. The faeces has somewhat hit the fan like a thermonuclear explosion at the bullshit factory. Nevertheless, the understated reality is that there are still so many reasons to be cheerful that if Ian Dury was still with us then he’d probably be onto Pt. 69 of his classic track by now.

Thankfully, for our sakes, many of the bands of today are upholding that mantle for him. We are bombarded by the “but what abouts” every single minute of the day with the internet, radio stations’ bizarre constant need to fill airtime with an hourly news update, and a million other vital doom extolling platforms, but music will forever affirm that “life ain’t always empty”. Dury was one of the greatest proponents of this that there ever was. 

And life was no pie for Dury either. When he was seven years old, he spent six weeks in a full plaster cast where all you could see of him was his smile. He had contracted polio seemingly from a swimming pool at Southend-on-Sea during the 1949 pandemic. He spent the next year and a half in hospital. Of course, you already know this, but it’s worth reiterating that this was a man who went on to write ‘Reasons to be Cheerful Pt. 3’. 

After that, he went to a school for disabled children where they encouraged trades like cobbling and printing, but it was always the arts that held Dury’s heart. After all, you’d have to be one hell of a fucking cobbler to still be a vital cog in the engine of alternative music decades on from the last brogue you darned. 

Thus, when he left school at the age of 16, he ventured off to the Royal College of Art to study painting. It was here that a lecturer dubbed him “a lunatic” owing to his disability which he later transfigured through rose-tinted eyes and self-defiance in the ‘Rhythm Stick’ line, “It’s nice to be a lunatic”. Rather than a wry line, there was a sincerity that held true for Dury when he was standing behind the thrusted middle finger of music. 

He started off with the band Kilburn and the High Roads in 1971, but despite positive reviews, it was until 1977 with the Blockheads’ debut that he would escape the doldrums of cult-hood. Dury was 35 at this stage, no spring chicken for a rock ‘n’ roller, but he never seemed to let this bother him and he certainly didn’t bemoan the fallow period before widespread recognition either—he was just happy to be putting the work in. 

This is another self-evident reflection of the current crop of positive-thinking bands. All too often we lament the lack of presence of alternative guitar music in the mainstream, but it’s an under-recognised boon how so few have looked to swoon to the commercial benefits of being in her spotlight and sequestered their central creative tenets. Quite a lot of artists have stuck to their guns and are reaping the rewards of work well-honed, and not wondering whether their best rock ‘n’ roll years are behind them. 

What’s more, the sound of the Blockheads is also brimming in modern alternative music. Jangly guitars, jazzy arrangement, afro-beat rhythms, and complex 16-notes-to-the-bar basslines are as exuberant as ever. There has been much tired talk about what sort of genre to clobber these permutations in as, but in a similar sense to New Boots and Panties!! ‘this isn’t punk, it’s just jolly good music, old boy’. 

The legacy of Ian Dury and his Blockhead cohorts has been wide-ranging, but ‘Reasons to be Cheerful Pt. 3’, in particular, seems to underpin it. it would seem that a lot of truly great songs have two lives and ‘Reasons to be Cheerful, Pt. 3’ is experiencing a wildly influential second wind in today’s musical explosion. From the lyrical content to the introduction of saxophones and cacophonous sounds, it’s all there. 

In the gloom of post-Brexit and every other dog dirt circumstance to befall the world of late, bands had a choice of which way to go. Thankfully, they looked back into the past and coupled cognizance of the current situation with laughing in the face of it and proving with humour that you can duck-shove the burden of circumstance. Extolling the message that bliss doesn’t have to be ignorant, and art can be brimming with mausoleums of influence without being intellectualised ala pairing “the Bolshoi Ballet” with “being in your nuddy”, Dury still echoes in the radical positivity of music as many continue to plunder the heirloom of his transfigured crock of gold.

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