Remembering Ian Dury
PUBLISHED: 15:41 08 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:41 29 October 2010
Norwich-based writer Richard Balls wrote the first biography of Ian Dury and this Wednesday he'll be introducing a local screening of a new film documenting the rock star's life. He spoke to KIERON PIM.
Norwich-based writer Richard Balls wrote the first biography of Ian Dury and next week he'll be introducing a local screening of a new film documenting the rock star's life. He spoke to KEIRON PIM.
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“There are two ways to avoid death,” reckoned Ian Dury, “and one of them is to be magnificent.”
In a way he was right: a decade after his death his music lives on, while his ebullient and ultimately inspiring personality is the focus of an eagerly-awaited new film.
But if he was magnificent in many people's view, not least his own, he could also be obnoxious and selfish. Faced with the obstacle of being crippled by polio, Dury felt that if he didn't look out for himself, no one else would; and the attitude worked, helping the boy who couldn't walk unaided haul his way up from the horrors of a boarding school for the disabled to the top of the charts.
The darker sides of Dury's character are well explored in Mat Whitecross' new biopic, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, where he is played by Andy Serkis.
They are there to see in Norwich-based writer Richard Balls' acclaimed biography of the same name, which was published in 2000 just after the Blockheads' frontman died from cancer aged 57.
Richard will discuss Dury's life on January 13 when he introduces a special screening of the film at Cinema City in Norwich.
“My book is a linear approach to the story and tells it in a chronological way, but with the film they had a lot of scope to do it differently and it really works,” he says.
“They have structured it so that it segues very cleverly from one chapter of his life to another without seeming disjointed. The film focuses on his very complicated relationships with his wife Betty, his lover Denise and his son Baxter, and it also deals with the way that he responded to fame, which was very badly.
“Ian and fame didn't mix. At the height of his fame he was at his most unpleasant, and the film doesn't shy away from the kind of person that Ian Dury was: aggressive, confrontational and very difficult to be around a lot of the time.”
Seeing a preview recently brought Richard right back into Dury's world, reminding him of the late-1990s days when he spent much of his spare time traipsing around the country in search of erstwhile Blockheads, discarded drummers from Dury's first band Kilburn and the High Roads, childhood friends and elderly relatives. It was in the latter two categories that he struck gold, finding the friend who took Dury on a fateful trip to Southend swimming pool and being directed by Dury himself towards his elderly aunt; both sources offered invaluable information and a trove of hitherto unseen photographs.
“I decided to approach from the outside and work towards the centre, with Ian at the centre,” he recalls. “Obviously Ian was ill at the time and I was very aware that I had to be sensitive to his family and friends.
“The nearer I got to him, the more he knew what I was doing and he became curious about what I was doing.”
Dury was born in Harrow in 1942, the son of a university academic and a bus driver, though later he would claim to have been born in Upminster, Essex, which better fitted the gruff, “working-class geezer” image he adopted.
In the cockney rhyming slang that peppered his speech he was a “raspberry ripple”, one who fought tirelessly to avoid being patronised or pigeon-holed for his disability.
Now that he's safely dead he's sometimes referred to as a national treasure but while it's true that he mellowed in later years, in life he was never quite cuddly enough for that title. National treasures probably wouldn't greet the invitation to pen a song for the International Year for Disabled Persons with a spiky response like Spasticus Autisticus. The BBC banned it, but for Dury's fans it summed up his defiance.
“His life was a fight - that was how he saw life,” says Richard. “That's why he was so confrontational.” At Chailey Heritage School, the institution in East Sussex where he was sent after contracting polio, he was “always told 'You are on your own, you have to pick yourself up off the floor, and no one else will do it for you'.”
Tracking down the childhood friend who in some ways felt responsible for Dury's disability was one of Richard's proudest moments. Exploring the Essex village of Cranham in which Dury grew up, he found elderly residents who remembered the young Dury and put Richard in touch with a friend called Barry Anderson.
“When I contacted him, it turned out that he and his mother took Ian to Southend swimming pool in the summer of 1949. It was just incredible to stumble on this guy who was Ian's childhood friend, who had been there at this momentous time in Ian's life, and who always felt kind of guilty that he didn't contract polio himself. He had some amazing photos, and as a result of talking to Barry I put him back in touch with Ian for the first time in about 30 years.
“At this point I was summoned to Dury's house in Hampstead to meet him. It was more him interrogating me than me interviewing him. He was very impressed with the number of people I had managed to unearth.”
Dury instructed Richard to interview an aunt, Molly Walker, who was “absolutely critical - without her I would have been a bit stuck”. Dates were mentioned for a proper interview with Dury but his illness worsened and time ran out.
The book continues to do well, having notched up 32,000 sales to date, with the new film prompting fresh interest. Richard, a former Evening News journalist who works as communications manager for Norwich City Council, still holds Dury up as one of his musical heroes.
“I still listen to him quite a lot. When I first did the book I went through a period where I had listened so much that I couldn't listen to it anymore. Although Sex & Drugs… and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick are the big hits people are familiar with, there's a lot of stuff that I recommend people dig into. Behind those four or five famous songs, there are some real gems.”
This was recognised during his heyday in the late 1970s, early 80s: his first album New Boots and Panties!! sold more than a million copies.
What was so great about the music, then? “It's unique,” Richard believes. “That's not a word to be bandied about lightly when you are talking about popular music but in the case of Ian Dury it's spot on.
“The reason is that Dury's influences were music hall, vaudeville and jazz and [his creative partner] Chaz Jankel's influences were funk and American music. You had this coming together of these incredibly diverse things, music hall and funk, which is surely something nobody had previously thought of putting together or has done since.”
It took an artist with Dury's force, charisma and linguistic invention to make it work. He wasn't so much a singer as a street poet spouting distinctly British verse over a tight and funky American-sounding backing.
“What was great about Ian,” reckons Richard, “and this is why he deserves the film, is that if you think of the media that covered his death, it ranged from the Mirror and the Sun to the Daily Telegraph, Channel 4 News and Newsnight. Not every rock'n'roll singer's death is covered by that variety of media.
“I think that's to do with his story. The music was amazing, but lots of people's music is amazing. It's because he was a very inspirational man for many people and you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by his story.”
t Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is out today.
t The special event with Richard Balls takes place at Cinema City at 6.10pm on January 13. For tickets call 0871 704 2053 or visit: www.picturehouses.co.uk
t Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll: the Life of Ian Dury is published by Omnibus Press, priced £9.95. London Street bookshop The Book Hive will sell discounted copies at the Cinema City screening.