I Wanna Be Straight
At the age of seven Ian Robins Dury contracted polio during the 1949 epidemic, yet despite this debilitating beginning he went on to become the most unlikely pop star the world has ever seen. Will Birch interviewed Dury several times during his life, and, for his excellent new book Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography, he also spoke to more than sixty people who were close to Ian, creating the first in-depth account of the life and times of this hugely talented, stroppy, insightful, and destructive man. This extract takes us back to...
South London, 1976. ‘This is you, Mr Dury, isn’t it?’ asked the government VAT inspector, pulling a sheaf of Melody Maker cuttings from his drawer. Ian had been summoned to the Kennington Customs and Excise office to substantiate his tax returns. Imagining that he was in the presence of a pop star, the civil servant was fascinated as Ian pulled out his little black book. It was finally going to come in handy as it contained written evidence that the Kilburns had performed exactly 365 shows in just over forty-two months and that their average nightly fee was £75. Ian explained that the expenses of running a group were considerable, and his tax bill was reduced accordingly.
His indebtedness to Blackhill [his management company], however, had now reached £7,000, and there was no sign of a record deal. Since his realization that the cost of running a group was prohibitive, Ian decided he would remain a solo act until such time as he had a great band, a great album and a recording contract. Songs were the priority, and Chaz Jankel was to be his new co-writer. Retreating to Oval Mansions, Ian spent countless hours at his desk assiduously writing lyrics with a giant cardboard cut-out of Gene Vincent watching over him. Hungry for inspiration, his antennae were constantly receptive to any phrase or newspaper headline he thought might make a good song title. When he found one, he’d confer with Denise. ‘I’ve got it, I’ve got it … listen to this! “Sink My Boats” – brilliant! Does it work for you? This is great – “I’ve Got A Lump In My Jeans For You”. What do you think?’
Denise [Roudette, his girlfriend] was always amused by Ian’s wordplay and offered encouragement. She was also optimistic about the Dury/Jankel songwriting partnership, knowing that Ian had been waiting for a collaborator who spoke the same language … well, almost. Unlike many of the musicians who had passed through Ian’s ‘academy of Jack-the-lademy’, Chaz was not exactly ‘street’, but his instrumental skills would introduce a welcome degree of musical sophistication. He had tasted modest success with the rock group Byzantium and more recently formed a ‘dubious cabaret duo’, Pure Gold.
Ian learnt that Chaz’s cousin Robert was married to Jennifer Loss, daughter of the famous bandleader, Joe Loss. This excited Ian. He told friends, ‘I’ve met this young bloke, he’s terribly talented … you know his uncle is Joe Loss!’ Although Joe Loss was the epitome of square and symbolized the old showbiz establishment, he was – crucially for Ian – a household name. ‘Ian was very impressed by Chaz Jankel’s musicianship,’ says [Blackhill Enterprise's] Peter Jenner. ‘He told everyone that Chaz was “a fucking genius”. In Ian’s eyes, everyone was either a complete genius or a total wanker. You were either a diamond geezer or a tosspot.’
Chaz started to visit daily with his guitar and Wurlitzer piano and would occasionally bring his toothbrush and stay over for days at a stretch. Ian had reams of new lyrics and used his miniature drum kit to convey the rhythmic feel he envisaged for each song, much to the annoyance of Mrs Cave, who lived in the flat below. All she could hear was the thump of Ian’s bass drum, not the intricate words and cool, jazzy melodies that Ian and Chaz were now producing. She also had to contend with other disturbances in Oval Mansions, namely the odd ‘domestic’. On the first floor, Fred [Rowe] and Val argued noisily, and there was always the possibility of Fred receiving a visit from some gangland overlord offering him ‘work’. Ian told Fred that, if he had to revert to crime, why not make it ‘a retirement job, like a good £200,000 airport raid?’ But Fred was trying to go straight. Mindful of his criminal connections he’d installed bullet-proof glass in his windows,
boasting to Ian, ‘You can hit those with a fourteen-pound sledge hammer, mate – they won’t fucking break!'
Upstairs, Ian and Denise’s interminable rows heightened the pandemonium. The sound of flying crockery could be heard by passers-by, who were constantly in danger of being struck by flowerpots falling from Ian’s third-storey window ledge. The mansion block was a war zone, but it was in this atmosphere that Dury and Jankel produced a body of work that would become the cornerstone of Ian’s career as the rock ’n’ roll poet laureate.
Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography by Will Birch is available now published by Macmillan/Sidgwick & Jackson
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