Brisbane suburbs, 1979.
Men tend to bond over shared interests. Footy, fishing, surfing, bands whatever. I was already well into music in grade 11 before I met my still good friend Blair. He was a grade younger than me and we did not have lot in common. He didn’t play footy, didn’t surf or ride motorbikes, he didn’t do much macho posturing around the girls as the rest of us did in those terribly judgmental days of high school. Even worse he played soccer. Now after 40-plus years of friendship it seems so petty and stupid to be saying those things but that was how it was.
Neither of us can remember how we discovered we both loved music more than most of our peers and how we loved the same music. I’m sure he just heard me rabbiting on one day about Bowie, Zeppelin, AC/DC or someone liked that and he chipped in. He was fortunate to have a big brother and sisters who brought music and cigarettes into his house so I soon found he was always ahead of me in terms of new bands. He appreciated a wide range of music and knew about Little Feat and early Robert Palmer. We were both aware of English punk even if it was more through the mainstream press rabbiting on about the nasty and degenerate Sex Pistols but I must admit being not sure initially. I could see the appeal of the raw energy but was a bit too comfortable with my faves so it was definitely Blair who introduced me to an album called New Boots and Panties by Ian Dury and the Blockheads.
Punk’s rising tide lifted a lot of boats, not all of them worthy but once all the Pistols marketing hoo-ha had drained back out we were, as I now heard, left with some gems. XTC, The Jam, Elvis Costello and The Clash were all great but no one, as I discovered, was quite like Ian Dury.
The cover alone was an eye opener. The 1970s extravaganza album covers with airbrushing and huge budgets for photography were gone, replaced with a raw do-it-yourself style and Ian Dury’s photo on the cover sits, centrally timewise, between Ziggy Stardust and Oasis’s Morning Glory in the great tradition of English shopfront/street covers.
In op shop clothes but with a certain sartorial elegance, Ian Dury, partially crippled with polio, fronts the camera with a strange defiance and charisma. The songs are angry, crude, literate, funny and affectionate stories about Ian and, I suspect, other thinly-disguised East London characters.
The music draws from a range of influences, especially English music hall, funk and 1950s rock and roll and the band groove. The English do eccentricity better than anyone and in a period of genuine one-offs like Joe Strummer, Viv Albertine and Ari Up, Ian more than held his own. No one looked or sounded like Ian Dury. Blair and I instantly agreed he was beyond cool.
Of course, as sometimes happens, your secret cool artist then goes and has a surprise hit, cue Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. So when I decided that Ian was a perfect choice for me to go to the next school dance which was fancy dress, he was no longer so secret. Blair couldn’t go as him, he was too skinny (bugger, still is) and I had a mullet haircut by then anyway.
I looked the part. As Blair and I walked from our homes towards the school we mixed our cigarettes with a couple of puffs from a leftover joint end that Blair had rescued from his brother’s ashtray. It turned out that was just enough for me to dance in character for most of the night especially when the DJ played Rhythm Stick. Plus the high helped keep the rest of the night that featured endless disco songs just bearable. Best school dance ever, so thanks Ian.
Despite having some more great hit singles Ian never made a better album than New Boots and Panties. For any sort of artist not topping your debut is often thought as failure but I’m not so sure. Punk and New Wave music was largely a reaction to all that. It championed originality and spontaneity over craft, personality and belief over process and when you were as idiosyncratic as Ian superstardom was never going to happen anyway. But to Blair and I, Blair still has that original vinyl album that we played after school, the album still sounds fun, fresh and bolshie.
Even today, when the circumstances are right, I can still embarrass my friends and loved ones with a bit of “Ian dancing”.
Stereo Story #676