Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on May 7th 2010 5:00PM by James Sullivan
Dury had a personal reason for the catchy diatribe: At age 7, he contracted polio while swimming in a public pool and was left with a gimpy arm and leg for life. "Hello to you out there in Normal Land!" he sneered. No one would tell Ian Dury how to feel about himself.
This is the same singer who once declared, "Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll/Is all my brain and body need." "Singer" was a loose term for Dury. Consistently off-key and possessing a heavy working-class accent when he sang, legend has it that as a youth, practicing his vocal scales, he once inspired a neighbor to cry, "Is there a pig out?"
Bouncing around schools for students with physical and mental abilities, he suffered "heavy-duty sadism" and called it "pure, unmitigated hell." The experience left him with a chip on his shoulder: "He was not popular," recalled one classmate, "because he was not nice."
Dury found a potential career in art school, studying under Peter Blake, the pop artist who would create the 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' cover, before becoming a teacher himself. But around age 30, Dury took a leap of faith into another form of expression. "I got good enough to realize I wasn't going to be very good," he once said about his artwork.
When his idol, rockabilly original Gene Vincent, died in 1971, Dury, already a husband and father, decided to form a band. Working with two of Pink Floyd's original managers, Kilburn and the High Roads would soon become a popular draw on the UK pub-rock circuit. The band earned an opening slot on tour with the Who and made some news with a single called 'Crippled With Nerves.' But that band fizzled by mid-decade, and a follow-up group, Loving Awareness, was forced into hiatus when Dury spent most of 1976 dealing with his ill health.
When he returned with writing partner Chaz Jankel, he released the definitive 'Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll' (the title of a new biographical feature film) and began calling the reformed band the Blockheads. This time, Dury's timing was impeccable. His deeply sarcastic songs, many set to intentionally cheesy funk tempos, were naturally appealing to a younger generation of punk babies. He was accepted as one of punk's own when he became the surprise hit of a Stiff Records tour featuring Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Wreckless Eric.
Rather than hide his disability, Dury gleefully drew attention to it, hiring as his Blockheads a band of "freaks" -- a drummer with a disability of his own and a diminutive bassist. And his songs were deliberately transgressive. 'I Want to Be Straight' sent up the singer's ambivalence about sobriety; the contagiously danceable 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick' was a UK No. 1 and was the Village Voice "Pazz & Jop" poll's top song of 1979.
The '80s were less kind to Dury, who recorded in Jamaica with rhythm duo Sly & Robbie and moved into jazzier territory without much notice. With his music career dwindling, he became a familiar face in other realms in the UK. When the AIDS epidemic hit, the man who called himself "Durex" appeared in a graphic TV commercial advocating the use of condoms. Later, he had a minor career in films, taking roles in Roman Polanski's 'Pirates,' 'Hearts of Fire' (with Bob Dylan) and Sylvester Stallone's 'Judge Dredd.'
In the late 1990s, Dury put his indignation to work, touring Zambia and Sri Lanka to promote polio vaccinations on behalf of UNICEF. Diagnosed with colon cancer, he died in 2000 at age 57 -- a year too soon to see the release of a tribute to the Blockheads' first album, 'New Boots and Panties!!,' containing versions by Madness, Paul McCartney, Sinéad O'Connor and other notables.
A floral arrangement at the funeral spelled out "D-U-R-E-X." Dury's family threw his ashes and his leg brace into the Thames.