Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography by Will Birch
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|Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography by Will Birch|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A biography of the artist turned singer and later briefly actor, whose career peaked in the late 70s with the chart-topping single 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick'.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 384||Date: January 2010|
|Publisher: Sidgwick & Jackson|
Ian Dury was always one of the most individual, even contrary characters in the musical world. In a branch of showbiz where people often relied on good looks as a short cut to stardom, he was no oil painting. During the pub rock era, he and his group, the Blockheads, ploughed a lonely furrow which owed more to jazz-funk than rock'n'roll, and his songs extolled the virtues of characters from Billericay or Plaistow rather than those from Memphis or California. Alongside the young punk rock upstarts with whom he competed for inches in the rock press, he was comparatively middle-aged. As if that was not enough, in his own words childhood illness had left him a permanent 'raspberry ripple'.
Born into a lower middle-class family in 1942, he enjoyed a happy childhood until that fateful day at the age of seven in the swimming baths at Southend when he contracted polio after swallowing a mouthful of polluted water. It proved to be a life sentence. Birch suggests that the embittered teenager suffered from 'a massive identity crisis', and chose to model himself on his more working-class father, 'deliberately assuming the role of an East End villain'. Being bullied and picked on at boarding school hardened him, and as some contemporaries would later recall, he was often not the most pleasant person to have around.
A love of art and a fascination with rock'n'roll, especially Gene Vincent (who also had a gammy leg), proved his salvation. After leaving college he was torn between teaching art and singing with a band on the pub rock circuit, until he was sacked from the former and realized that music was to become his career. Yet despite his gifts as a lyricist, some found his singing left much to be desired. One night he was practising his scales in a Kentish country lane, and a farmer's wife came out to ask whether a pig had escaped.
Ian and the Blockheads had the good fortune to be around in the mid-70s when disenchantment with rock megastars in tax exile led to a resurgence of the pub rock circuit. Ironically, part of his stage persona was misappropriated by the young John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), but success was not long in coming. The famous Stiff Records package tour of 1977 made a star of Ian, although a tour of America the following year found US audiences somewhat bemused by his Cockney persona. It is amusing to read of his being the support act for a thoroughly unwelcoming Lou Reed, and of Rod Stewart showing British solidarity by secretly detuning Lou's guitars backstage before he went on, thereby wrecking one of his performances.
Notwithstanding two Top 10 albums and a No. 1 single in quick succession in the late 70s, Ian's life at the top proved brief. The usual showbiz indulgences, coupled with a feeling that somebody with his disabled condition could get away with more or less anything, soon destroyed his career. Boorish behaviour, particularly on what should have been prestigious visits and tours abroad, did him no favours. Taunting a German about his nation being responsible for Auschwitz, or publicly and very loudly telling Omar Sharif that his last few films were rubbish, were not the greatest career moves.
A move into acting, playing small parts on stage and in film, proved mildly successful, but a musical he wrote and staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 1989 died a death after savage reviews. Much of the latter days of Ian's career, including a brief stint as a TV presenter, was littered by failures, and often he only had himself and his drunken outbursts to blame. Yet against these negative episodes, it is reassuring to read of the hard work he carried out as an unofficial ambassador for UNICEF and the cancer charity BACUP.
For by his early 50s, Ian was in the grip of cancer. Reading about the last years of anybody in the public eye who was dying by inches is always poignant, and the last chapter or so of a man determined to fight the malignant cells until they got the better of him is inevitably sad though it has its inspiring side. It rounds off very effectively the life story of a difficult man who was often his worst enemy, but who was still held in affection for the right reasons by many of his contemporaries.
Bringing somebody like Ian Dury to life cannot be an easy task for the biographer, but Will Birch, whose CV includes stints with late 70s bands the Kursaal Flyers and The Records, has pulled it off extremely well. The story is affectionate yet remarkably objective, funny and sad in turns, and a must-read for anybody who loved the music of that era.
Our thanks to Sidgwick & Jackson/Pan Macmillan for sending a copy to Bookbag.
For further reading on the subject, why not also try Roxy: The Band That Invented an Era by Michael Bracewell, Jumpin' Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock'n'Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim or Black Vinyl, White Powder by Simon Napier-Bell.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography by Will Birch at Amazon.com.
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