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The Times (UK)

Ian Dury, singer, songwriter and actor, was born on May 12, 1942. He died yesterday (March, 27th, 2000) aged 57

Ian Dury
Reasons to be cheerful: an ebullient Ian Dury in 1978
Short, stocky and afflicted with polio in childhood which left him with a limp, Ian Dury was never anyone's idea of a conventional pop star. His music was similarly nonconformist, but with his band the Blockheads, his lyrical and often risqué wit gave him a string of hit singles in the late 1970s, including the chart-topping Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, and made him an unlikely cult figure on the punk scene.

Although he continued to be regarded with affection by the music industry, the hits dried up in the 1980s and Dury turned to other forms of expression including acting. He wrote a play, and his Cock- ney vowels were much in demand for television voiceovers, yet music remained close to his heart. He made an acclaimed comeback album after a diagnosis of colonic cancer in 1998, and continued to work, making light of living with a terminal condition.

Ian Dury was an Essex lad, born into a working-class family in Upminster during the Second World War. His father was a bus driver and his mother a health visitor, but they separated when he was young. At the age of seven he contracted polio and spent two years in hospital before he was sent to a special school.

At hospital he discovered the harsh realities of death, disability and sickness, and claimed he once joined two other patients trying to hang another from a tree. "We knew he wouldn't mind. He went a horrible colour and then we let him down," he said. He hated school and kept running away, but he was bright and despite the gap in his education he eventually made it to grammar school and then to the Royal College of Art.

He abandoned the idea of a career as an artist when he realised he was not good enough to compete with the very best. "I was a good draughtsman but I wasn't a very good painter. I got good enough as an artist to know I would never be happy. I'd always be frustrated because I'd never be that good," he said years later.

He lectured briefly at Canterbury College of Art and formed his first band, Kilburn and the High Roads, in 1970, initially on a part-time basis. They turned professional as part of the so-called pub-rock scene of the early 1970s when they played regularly on the London circuit alongside bands such as Brinsley Schwarz, Ducks Deluxe and Bees Make Honey. Few of them ever made the transition from bar-room to concert hall, and Dury and his band had their share of ill-luck. An album recorded for Warner Brothers was not released, while an album for Pye made little impact. Eventually the band split in 1976, mainly because Dury's doctor had ordered him off the road for health reasons.

He spent a year writing songs with his old friend Chas Jankel and was in the right place at the right time when Dave Robinson, who had managed Kilburn and the High Roads, set up his own label, Stiff Records, as a bridge between the pub-rock scene and the exploding punk movement. Dury signed as a solo artist and formed the Blockheads as a backing band. His first solo single, the anthemic Sex and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll, became his calling card but was not a hit; it was enlisted for Aids education in 1987 with his approval: "Two of these just became more dangerous," he said. The follow-up, Sweet Gene Vincent, was no more successful although he finally reached the Top Ten at the third attempt with What a Waste.

His first solo album New Boots and Panties! was, of its kind, an instant classic, full of songs inhabited by outrageous characters such as Clever Trevor, Plaistow Patricia and Billericay Dickie, as well as Nina, who, as rhyme would have it, was obscener than a seasoned-up hyena and enjoyed sex in the back of a Ford Cortina.

Dury's scatological poetry and rhyming slang were a more knowing take on the anarchy of punk, with references far wider than teenage rebellion, and musically his hybrid sound was considerably more accomplished than the usual three-chord thrash.

He toured with the legendary comedian Max Wall, writing a song for him, England's Glory, and over Christmas 1978 he had his biggest success with Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, which reached number one and was to be a minor hit twice more in subsequent years in remixed versions.

A further single, Reasons to be Cheerful (Part Three), reached number three and his second solo album, Do It Yourself, was kept from the top slot only by Abba; but by the end of 1980 Dury's days in the charts were largely behind him. There were a number of reasons, including a backlash against punk and because he was in some ways unfairly seen as a novelty act. Despite a tour supporting Lou Reed, his career had failed to take off in America: his songs were too Anglo-centric and ironic for mass tastes. Nor did he help his cause with the single Spasticus Autisticus, a criticism of the United Nations Year of the Disabled in 1981. Most radio stations refused to play it and his record label Polydor withdrew it after a month.

A further album, Lord Upminster, was recorded in the Bahamas with the Jamaican rhythm section Sly and Robbie replacing the Blockheads, but there were more problems with Polydor in 1984 over 4,000 Weeks' Holiday. The album was delayed for six months because the company demanded the removal of an obscenely titled song and another about Billy Butlin. A censored version finally appeared, but it was to be his last solo album for eight years.

Dury meanwhile looked in new directions. He wrote the theme songs for two series of ITVs Adrian Mole, worked for Unicef and made his acting debut opposite Bob Geldof in Number One. Further parts followed in Roman Polanski's Pirates and with Bob Dylan in the ill-fated, unfêted Hearts of Fire.

He appeared in the BBC series King of the Ghetto and toured in repertory in Talk of the Devil. He also wrote a musical, Apples, which was staged at the Royal Court (rather a disaster, he later confessed), and turned down the chance to write the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. During the 1990s he appeared in the movie Split Second and began hosting ITVs Metro series.

He made occasional live musical appearances, but his 1992 comeback album The Bus Driver's Prayer and Other Short Stories was largely ignored. His 1998 album Mr Love Pants was better received, partly because interest in him had been grimly revived by the news that he had terminal cancer. Typically he chose to break the story in The Mirror under the headline "I am dying of cancer - but I've still got reasons to be cheerful".

He said: "You don't have cancer; it has you. The 'chemo' won't get rid of it. But it's another lease of - well, however long it is. You just don't know, but it's better than being hit by a bus tomorrow; you have time to sort yourself out."

A strong advocate of disability awareness, he travelled with the star of the moment Robbie Williams into the Sri Lankan war zone to highlight efforts to vaccinate children against polio.

He had lost his first wife, Betty, to cancer, and he amazed everyone around him by the fortitude and good humour with which he bore his illness, performing as recently as last month. He is survived by his second wife, Sophy, and their two children, and by two grown-up children from his first marriage.

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