Ian Dury
Dury performing at the Roundhouse, London, in 1978
Dury performing at the Roundhouse, London, in 1978
Background information
Birth nameIan Robins Dury
Born(1942-05-12)12 May 1942
Harrow, Middlesex, England
Died27 March 2000(2000-03-27) (aged 57)
Hampstead, London, England
Occupation(s)Singer, songwriter, actor
Years active1970–2000
LabelsDawn, Stiff, Polydor, Demon, Ronnie Harris
Formerly ofKilburn and the High Roads, The Blockheads
Elizabeth Rathmell
(m. 1967; div. 1985)

Sophy Tilson
(m. 1999)

Ian Robins Dury (12 May 1942 – 27 March 2000) was an English singer, songwriter and actor who rose to fame in the late 1970s, during the punk and new wave era of rock music. He was the lead singer and lyricist of Ian Dury and the Blockheads and previously Kilburn and the High Roads.

Early life and education

Ian Robins Dury was born on 12 May 1942 in Harrow, Middlesex,[7] and spent his early years at 43 Weald Rise, Harrow Weald (though often misreported as having been born in Upminster, Essex, which he sometimes stated himself).[8] His father, William George Dury (born 23 September 1905, Southborough, Kent; died 25 February 1968), was a bus driver and former boxer, while his mother Margaret (known as "Peggy", born Margaret Cuthbertson Walker, 17 April 1910, Rochdale, Lancashire; died January 1995)[7] was a health visitor,[9] the daughter of a Cornish doctor and the granddaughter of an Irish landowner.[10] They married in 1939.[9]

William Dury trained with Rolls-Royce to be a chauffeur, and was then absent for long periods, so Peggy Dury took Ian to stay with her parents in Cornwall. After the Second World War, the family moved to Switzerland, where his father chauffeured for a millionaire and the Western European Union. In 1946, Peggy brought Ian back to England and they stayed with her sister, Mary, a doctor in Cranham,[11] a small village close to Upminster in Essex.[12] Another sister Mary, and Ian's cousins Martin and Lucy, also lived in Cranham.[9] Although he saw his father on visits, they never lived together again.[13] At the age of seven, Dury contracted polio, most likely, he believed, from a swimming pool at Southend-on-Sea during the 1949 polio epidemic. After six weeks in a full plaster cast in the Royal Cornwall Infirmary, Truro, he was moved to Black Notley Hospital, Braintree, Essex, where he spent a year and a half before going to Chailey Heritage Craft School, East Sussex, in 1951. His illness resulted in the paralysis and withering of his left leg, shoulder and arm.[14]

Chailey was a school and hospital for disabled children, which believed in toughening them up, contributing to the observant and determined person Dury became.[15] Chailey taught trades such as cobbling and printing, but Dury's mother wanted him to be more academic, so his aunt Moll arranged for him to enter the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, where he recounted being punished for misdemeanours by being made to learn long tracts of poetry until a housemaster found him sobbing and put a stop to it:

I had to go into a box room where the suitcases were stored and learn 80 lines of Ode to Autumn by yer man Keats. If I got a word wrong I had to go back, they added that to the end of the sentence and after five nights of this my head had definitely gone.[16]

He left the school at the age of 16 to study painting at the Walthamstow College of Art, having gained GCE 'O' Levels in English Language, English Literature and Art.[17] From 1964 he studied art at the Royal College of Art under Peter Blake.[18]

Art career

In 1967 Dury took part in a group exhibition, "Fantasy and Figuration", alongside Pat Douthwaite, Herbert Kitchen and Stass Paraskos at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.[18]

From 1967 he taught art at various colleges in the south of England.[19]

He also painted commercial illustrations for The Sunday Times in the early 1970s.[20]

Music career

Kilburn and the High Roads (1971–1975)

Dury formed Kilburn and the High Roads (a reference to the road in North West London) in 1971,[21] and they played their first gig at Croydon School of Art on 5 December 1971.[19] Dury was vocalist and lyricist, co-writing with pianist Russell Hardy and later enrolling into the group a number of the students he was teaching at Canterbury College of Art (now the University for the Creative Arts), including guitarist Keith Lucas (who later became the guitarist for 999 under the name Nick Cash) and bassist Humphrey Ocean.[citation needed]

Managed first by Charlie Gillett and Gordon Nelki and latterly by fashion entrepreneur Tommy Roberts, the Kilburns found favour on London's pub rock circuit and signed to Dawn Records in 1974 but, despite favourable press coverage and a tour opening for English rock band The Who, the group failed to rise above cult status and disbanded in 1975.[citation needed]

Kilburn and the High Roads recorded two albums, Handsome and Wotabunch!.[22]

Going solo (August – September 1977)

The single "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll", released 26 August 1977, marked Dury's Stiff Records debut. Although it was banned by the BBC, it was named Single of the Week by NME on its release.[23] The single issue was soon followed, at the end of September, by the album New Boots and Panties!! which achieved platinum status. "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" was not listed on the album's track list, yet it was nonetheless present as track 1 on side 2 of some later 1977 pressings).[24]

The Blockheads (October 1977 – present)

Main article: The Blockheads

Live at The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, London, 1978

Under the management of Andrew King and Peter Jenner, the original managers of Pink Floyd, Ian Dury and the Blockheads quickly gained a reputation as one of the top live acts of new wave music.[citation needed]

The Blockheads' sound drew from its members' diverse musical influences, which included jazz, rock and roll, funk, and reggae, and Dury's love of music hall. The band was formed after Dury began writing songs with pianist and guitarist Chaz Jankel (the brother of music video, TV, commercial and film director Annabel Jankel). Jankel took Dury's lyrics, fashioned a number of songs, and they began recording with members of Radio Caroline's Loving Awareness Band – drummer Charley Charles (born Hugh Glenn Mortimer Charles, Guyana 1945), bassist Norman Watt-Roy, keyboard player Mick Gallagher, guitarist John Turnbull and former Kilburns saxophonist Davey Payne.[citation needed]

Live at The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, London, 1978

In October 1977 Dury and his band started performing as Ian Dury and the Blockheads, when the band signed on for the Stiff "Live Stiffs Tour" alongside Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, and Larry Wallis. The tour was a success, and Stiff launched a concerted Ian Dury marketing campaign, resulting in the Top Ten hit "What a Waste" and the hit single "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick", which reached No. 1 in the UK at the beginning of 1979, selling just short of a million copies. Again, "Hit Me" was not included on the original release of the subsequent album Do It Yourself. With their hit singles, the band built up a dedicated following in the UK and other countries and their next single "Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3" made number three in the UK. The band's second album Do It Yourself was released in June 1979 in a Barney Bubbles-designed sleeve of which there were over a dozen variations, all based on samples from the Crown wallpaper catalogue. Bubbles also designed the Blockhead logo.[25]

Jankel left the band temporarily and relocated to the US after the release of "What a Waste" (his organ part on that single was overdubbed later) but he subsequently returned to the UK and began touring sporadically with the Blockheads, eventually returning to the group full-time for the recording of "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick"; according to Mickey Gallagher, the band recorded 28 takes of the song but eventually settled on the second take for the single release. Partly due to personality clashes with Dury,[23] Jankel left the group again in 1980, after the recording of the Do It Yourself LP, and he returned to the US to concentrate on his solo career.[citation needed]

The group worked solidly over the 18 months between the release of "Rhythm Stick" and their next single, "Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3", which returned them to the charts, making the UK Top 10. Jankel was replaced by former Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson, who also contributed to the next album Laughter (1980) and its two hit singles, although Gallagher recalls that the recording of the Laughter album was difficult and that Dury was drinking heavily in this period.[23]

In 1980–81 Dury and Jankel teamed up again with Sly and Robbie and the Compass Point All Stars to record Lord Upminster (1981). The Blockheads toured the UK and Europe throughout 1981, sometimes augmented by jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, ending the year with their only tour of Australia.[26] The Blockheads disbanded in early 1982, after Dury secured a new recording deal with Polydor Records through A&R man Frank Neilson. Choosing to work with a group of young musicians which he named the Music Students, he recorded the album Four Thousand Weeks' Holiday. This album marked a departure from his usual style and was not as well received by fans for its American jazz influence.[citation needed]

The Blockheads briefly reformed in June 1987 to play a short tour of Japan, and then disbanded again. In September 1990, following the death from cancer of drummer Charley Charles, they reunited for two benefit concerts in aid of Charles' family, held at The Forum, Camden Town, with Steven Monti on drums. In December 1990, augmented by Merlin Rhys-Jones on guitar and Will Parnell on percussion, they recorded the live album Warts & Audience at the Brixton Academy.[26]

The Blockheads (minus Jankel, who returned to California) toured Spain in January 1991, then disbanded again until August 1992 when, following Jankel's return to England, they were invited to reform for the Madstock! Festival in Finsbury Park;[27] this was followed by sporadic gigs in Europe, Ireland, the UK and Japan in late 1994 and 1995.[26] In the early 1990s, Dury appeared with English band Curve on the benefit compilation album Peace Together. Dury and Curve singer Toni Halliday shared vocals on a cover of the Blockheads' track "What a Waste".[citation needed]

In March 1996 Dury was diagnosed with cancer and, after recovering from an operation, he set about writing another album. In late 1996 he reunited with the Blockheads to record the album Mr. Love Pants (1997). Ian Dury and the Blockheads resumed touring, with Dylan Howe replacing Steven Monti on drums. Davey Payne left the group permanently in August and was replaced by Gilad Atzmon; this line-up gigged throughout 1999, culminating in their last performance with Ian Dury on 6 February 2000 at the London Palladium. Dury died six weeks later on 27 March 2000.[26]

The Blockheads have continued after Dury's death, and continue to play live gigs as of 2023.[28]

Other solo work

Dury continued to record other work without the Blockheads, including Lord Upminster (1981); Apples (1989) and The Bus Driver's Prayer & Other Stories (1992). He also released a single album with the Music Students, 4,000 Weeks' Holiday (1984). His 1981 song "Spasticus Autisticus" – written to show his disdain for that year's International Year of Disabled Persons, which he saw as patronising and counter-productive – was banned by the BBC from being broadcast by the BBC before 6 pm. The lyrics were uncompromising:

    So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin
    And thank the Creator you're not in the state I'm in
    So long have I been languished on the shelf
    I must give all proceedings to myself

The song's refrain, "I'm spasticus, autisticus", was inspired by the response of the rebellious Roman gladiators in the film Spartacus, who, when instructed to identify their leader, all answered, "I am Spartacus", to protect him. According to George McKay, in his 2009 article "Crippled with nerves" (an early Dury song title), for Popular Music:[29]

Ian Dury, that 'flaw of the jungle', produced a remarkable and sustained body of work that explored issues of disability, in both personal and social contexts, institutionalisation, and to a lesser extent the pop cultural tradition of disability. He also, with the single "Spasticus Autisticus" (1981), produced one of the outstanding protest songs about the place of disabled people in what he called 'normal land'.

Dury described the song as "a war cry" on Desert Island Discs.[citation needed] The song was used at the opening of the London 2012 Paralympics.[30] In 1984, Dury was featured in the music video for the minor hit single "Walking in My Sleep" by Roger Daltrey of The Who.[citation needed]

Musical influences and style

Dury's self-styling and chief musical influence was his hero since childhood, American rock and roll and rockabilly artist Gene Vincent. After hearing Vincent's hit single "Be-Bop-a-Lula" in the 1956 musical comedy film The Girl Can't Help It, he idolised him. Vincent also wore a leg brace, although Dury said he did not know this until later. Vincent is mentioned in one of Dury's earliest songs, "Upminster Kid"[31] (on the 1975 Kilburn and the High Roads album Handsome[32]),[33] with the words "Well Gene Vincent Craddock remembered the love of an Upminster rock 'n' roll teen". Vincent had died just four years earlier.[31]

More well-known is the single "Sweet Gene Vincent" from his first solo album, New Boots and Panties!! in 1977. He wrote the lyrics after spending six weeks of research on Vincent, which included reading two biographies. His songwriting partner Chas Jankel had to trim it considerably, after Dury's original version, Jankel joked, "would have taken around 15 minutes to perform". The opening lyrics to the song were:[31]

Blue Gene baby / Skinny white sailor, the chances were slender / The beauties were brief / Shall I mourn your decline with some Thunderbird wine / And a black handkerchief? / I miss your sad Virginia whisper / I miss the voice that called my heart.

Dury was a lover of music hall, another of his heroes being Max Wall. Dury developed a unique style that mixed music hall with punk and rock and roll, and crafted an on-stage persona that entertained his audiences.[34]

Dury's lyrics are a combination of lyrical poetry, word play, observation of British everyday life, character sketches, and sexual humour: "This is what we find ... Home improvement expert Harold Hill of Harold Hill, Of do-it-yourself dexterity and double-glazing skill, Came home to find another gentleman's kippers in the grill, So he sanded off his winkle with his Black & Decker drill".[citation needed] The song "Billericay Dickie" rhymes "I had a love affair with Nina, In the back of my Cortina" with "A seasoned-up hyena Could not have been more obscener".[34]

Acting and other activities

Dury in concert

Dury's confident and unusual demeanour caught the eyes of producers and directors of drama. His first important and extensive role was in Farrukh Dhondy's mini-series for the BBC King of the Ghetto (1986), a drama set in London's multi-racial Brick Lane area with a cast led by a young Tim Roth.[citation needed]

Dury had small parts in several films, probably the best known of which was Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), as well as a cameo appearance in Roman Polanski's Pirates (1986). He also appeared in the Eduardo Guedes film Rocinante (1986), the German comedy (lead) Brennende Betten (Burning Beds) (1988), Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Rainbow Thief (1990), and the Sylvester Stallone science fiction film Judge Dredd (1995). His other film appearances included roles in Number One (1985) starring Bob Geldof, the Bob Hoskins film The Raggedy Rawney (1988), and Split Second (1992) starring Rutger Hauer and Kim Cattrall. He also appeared alongside fellow lyricists Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, respectively, in the movies Hearts of Fire (1987) and Bearskin: An Urban Fairytale (1990), also by Eduardo Guedes.[35] His later films included the comedy Different for Girls (1996), and The Crow: City of Angels (1996), directed by Tim Pope, who had directed a few of Dury's music videos.[citation needed]

Dury also wrote a musical, Apples, staged in London's Royal Court Theatre. In 1987 he appeared as the narrator (Scullery) in Road, also at the Royal Court. Among the cast was actress and singer Jane Horrocks, who cohabited with Dury until late in 1988, although the relationship was kept discreet.[36]

Dury wrote and performed the theme song "Profoundly in Love with Pandora" for the television series The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ (1985), based on the book of the same name by Sue Townsend, as well as its follow-up, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1987). Dury turned down an offer from Andrew Lloyd Webber to write the libretto for Cats (from which Richard Stilgoe reportedly earned millions). The reason, said Dury, "I can't stand his music."[37]

... I said no straight off. I hate Andrew Lloyd Webber. He's a wanker, isn't he? ... [E]very time I hear 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina' I feel sick, it's so bad. He got Richard Stilgoe to do the lyrics in the end, who's not as good as me. He made millions out of it. He's crap, but he did ask the top man first![38]

When HIV/AIDS first came to prominence in the mid-1980s, Dury was among celebrities who appeared on UK television to promote safe sex, demonstrating how to put on a condom using a model of an erect penis. In the 1990s, he became an ambassador for UNICEF, recruiting stars such as Robbie Williams to publicise the cause. The two visited Sri Lanka in this capacity to promote polio vaccination. Dury appeared with Curve on the Peace Together concert and CD (1993), performing "What a Waste", with benefits to the Youth of Northern Ireland. He also supported the charity Cancer BACUP.[citation needed]

Dury appeared in the Classic Albums episode that focused on Steely Dan's album Aja. Dury commented that the album was one of the most "upful" he had ever heard, and that the album "lifted [his] spirits up" whenever he played it.[39]

Dury also appeared at the end of the Carter USM track "Skywest & Crooked" narrating from the musical Man of La Mancha.[citation needed]

Illness and death

Dury was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1996 and underwent surgery, but tumours were later found in his liver, and he was told that his condition was terminal.[40]

In 1998, his death was incorrectly announced on XFM radio by Bob Geldof, possibly due to hoax information from a listener.[41] In 1999, Dury collaborated with Madness on their first original album in fourteen years on the track "Drip Fed Fred". It was one of his last recordings, though he also performed again with the Blockheads in mid-1999 at Ronnie Scott's in Soho. This was a special performance recorded for LWT's South Bank Show and the audience were invited fans and friends of the band and crew. His deteriorating condition was evident and he had to take rests between takes and be helped on and off stage.[citation needed]

Ian Dury and the Blockheads' last public performance was a charity concert in aid of Cancer BACUP on 6 February 2000 at the London Palladium, supported by Kirsty MacColl and Phill Jupitus. Dury was noticeably ill and again had to be helped on and off stage.[citation needed]

Dury died of metastatic colorectal cancer on 27 March 2000, aged 57, in Hampstead, London.[9] He was cremated after a humanist funeral at Golders Green Crematorium with 250 mourners at the service, including fellow musicians Suggs and Jools Holland and other "celebrity fans" such as Member of Parliament (MP) Mo Mowlam.[citation needed] An obituary in The Guardian called him "one of few true originals of the English music scene".[37] Suggs, the lead singer of Madness, called him "possibly the finest lyricist we've seen". The Ian Dury website opened an online book of condolence shortly after his death, which was signed by hundreds of fans.[citation needed]


Ian Dury Memorial bench in Richmond Park, southwest London

Dury's son, Baxter Dury, is also a singer. He sang a few of his father's songs at the wake after the funeral, and has released six of his own albums, including It's a Pleasure (2014), Prince of Tears (2017) and The Night Chancers (2020).[citation needed]

In 2002 a "musical bench" designed by Mil Stricevic was placed in a favoured viewing spot of Dury's near Poets' Corner, in the gardens of Pembroke Lodge, in Richmond Park, south-west London.[42] The back of the bench is inscribed with the words "Reasons to be cheerful", the title of one of Dury's songs.[43] This solar powered seat was intended to allow visitors to plug in and listen to eight of his songs as well as an interview.[44]

In 1999 the autobiographical documentary On My Life, directed by Mike Connolly, was released. The film, in which Dury recalled his life and career, intercut with concert footage, included contributions from painter Peter Blake and members of the Blockheads. The programme was broadcast in August 2009 on BBC Four.[45][46]

Between 6 January and 14 February 2009 a musical about his life, entitled Hit Me! The Life & Rhymes of Ian Dury, was premiered and ran at the Leicester Square Theatre in London.[47]

A biopic entitled Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll starring Andy Serkis as Dury was released on 8 January 2010, and was nominated for several awards. Ray Winstone and Naomie Harris also appeared. The title of the film is derived from Dury's 1977 7" single "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll". Also in 2010 music journalist Will Birch published Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography[48] which was well received.[49]

A musical, Reasons to be Cheerful, was produced by the Graeae Theatre Company in association with Theatre Royal Stratford East and New Wolsey Theatre. Set in 1979 the musical featured Dury classics in a "riotous coming-of-age tale". The 2010 production was supported by the Blockheads, while Sir Peter Blake donated a limited edition print of the "Reasons to be Cheerful" artwork.[50]

Interviewed by the Evening Standard in 2010, son Baxter said his father "was like a "Polaris missile"... "He would seek out someone's weakness in seconds, and then lock onto it. That's how he controlled his environment. It was very funny, in a gruesome kind of way ... if it wasn't you he was picking on. But it was a strange obsession, too. Like, why do you want to be like that? He was never really physically violent – he was a small disabled guy – but there was a lot of mental violence."[51]

Speaking to BBC Radio 2 in February 2021, English pop star Robbie Williams cited Dury as his biggest inspiration as a lyricist.[52] Williams sings on the final track of the posthumously released album Ten More Turnips from the Tip.[53]

Personal life

Dury married Elizabeth "Betty" Rathmell on 3 June 1967 and they had two children, Jemima and Baxter. In around October 1973 Dury left his family and moved to London.[19]

He cohabited with a young woman named Denise Roudette[19] for six years after he moved to London, squatting at Oval Mansions in Kennington, which The Guardian referred to as "one of London's most notorious squatted buildings" and Dury himself dubbed "Catshit Mansions".[54]

Dury and Rathmell divorced in 1985 but remained on good terms. He had a year-long relationship (1986–87) with actor Jane Horrocks, whom he met while they both performed a play, and they remained friends until his death.[55]

Dury married sculptor Sophy Tilson in 1999, with whom he had two children, Bill and Albert.[40]


Main article: Ian Dury discography

Studio albums

Acting credits

Year Title Role Notes
1981 Fundamental Frolics Himself
1984 Deus Ex Machina The Fertiliser Video game, Voice
1985 Number One Teddy Bryant TV movie
1986 Pirates Meat Hook
King of the Ghetto Sammy 4 episodes
Rocinante Jester
1987 O Paradeisos anoigei me antikleidi Acrobat
Hearts of Fire Bones
1988 The Raggedy Rawney Weazel
Burning Beds [de] Harry Winfield
1989 The Voice Kowalski
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover Terry Fitch
Bearskin: An Urban Fairytale Charlie
1990 The Rainbow Thief Bartender
After Midnight Harry
1992 Split Second Jay Jay
1994 Screen Two Rendle Episode: "Skallagrigg"
1995 Judge Dredd Geiger
1996 Different for Girls Recovery Agent
The Crow: City of Angels Noah
1998 Underground Rat's Dad
Middleton's Changeling De Flores Final film role


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Further reading