Ian Dury, one of England's most beloved musical figures, died of cancer on Monday, March 27, at the age of fifty-seven. Best known for such irreverent songs as "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" and "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll," Dury combined a poet's flair for language with Cockney humor and a love for the trappings of old-time British music hall. Though he initially gained fame as part of the original British punk movement, his engaging wit and bawdy persona soon endeared him to Britons of all ages and persuasions. Even the notoriously hard-to-please John Lydon once described Dury as one of the only worthwhile reasons to return to England.
Born May 12, 1942, in Upminster, Essex, Dury was afflicted with polio at the age of seven, which left him with a shriveled hand and leg. He fell in love with American rock & roll in the late Fifties, but didn't begin writing songs or performing until over a decade later, while he was employed as a lecturer at Canterbury Art College. His first band, Kilburn and the High Roads, gained a solid reputation on the British pub rock circuit, but broke up in 1975 after recording two poorly received albums. After a year spent gigging with various lineups as Ian Dury and the Kilburns, he found a home at Stiff Records, a newly minted punk imprint which had recently released singles by Nick Lowe, the Damned, and Elvis Costello. New Boots and Panties, his first album for Stiff, was a surprise smash; after rising to No. 5 upon its release in the spring of 1978, it went on to spend 104 weeks on the British charts. Backed by the Blockheads, a raucous combo spearheaded by longtime guitarist and collaborator Chaz Jankel, Dury scored an even bigger hit with 1979's Do It Yourself.
With his ever-present sideburns, drapecoat and walking stick, Dury resembled an erudite cross between a teddy boy and Long John Silver. Though he wasn't much of a singer, Dury delivered his refreshingly frank ruminations on sex, petty crime, and working-class existence with plenty of gravel-throated charm. By the late Eighties, when his music had fallen from commercial favor, his immense personal popularity enabled him forge a lucrative career as an actor on British television. He also appeared in such films as Roman Polanski's Pirates and Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.
Dury campaigned tirelessly on behalf of UNICEF and various cancer and polio charities, and he spent much of his free time working with disabled and mentally ill individuals. He continued to do so even after 1998, when doctors diagnosed him with terminal cancer of the liver. In fact, the diagnosis only seemed to kick him into higher gear; in addition to marrying sculptress Sophie Tilson, he also reformed the Blockheads, with whom he recorded the critically acclaimed Mr. Love Pants and toured England for the first time since the early Eighties.
Irrepressible to the end, Dury regarded death with the same good-humored equanimity that he brought to the rest of his life. "If the world by some quirk of nuclear impotency should survive," he wrote in 1982, "I for one will definitely feel the urge to dress up and dance about."
Dury fans would do well to remember him by doing just that.