Marc Bolan

A couple of weeks ago saw the 40th anniversary of the death of Marc Bolan but I held off writing a piece then: it felt so much more fitting to celebrate his birthday than to mourn his departure. He would have been 70 years old today.

It was July 1971 when I first experienced T-Rex. Mum, dad and I used to go on a week-long summer holiday in Clacton-on-Sea pretty much every year. We’d have lunch in a cafe on the seafront every day, and the cafe had a jukebox. Though I’m sure it was well stocked with records, the only three discs it ever played were Dawn’s Knock Three Times, Double Barrel by Dave & Ansel Collins – and Hot Love, with it’s splendid, elongated Hey Jude-style coda.

It was a thrilling time to be a T-Rex fan. Get It On was already number one (though hadn’t yet made it to that Clacton jukebox) and, due to Bolan being on two record labels at once, a slew of great singles followed in quick succession: Jeepster in November, Telegram Sam in January and Metal Guru in May. Thursday night was Boys Brigade night, so I rarely saw Top Of The Pops. But, despite missing most of his TV performances, I was hooked. My parents forbade me from spending all my pocket money on vinyl, but I managed to build up my collection of T-Rex singles by surreptitiously scouring the boxes of ex-jukebox discs (with centres missing) that used to be sold off cheap in newsagents.

I also managed to blag a copy of a “Greatest Hits”-style album — Bolan Boogie — for Christmas, simply to complete my singles collection, but it exposed me to the earlier Tyranosaurus Rex material: Dove, By the Light of a Magical Moon, She Was Born to Be My Unicorn. All spellbinding, bewitching tunes, Straight Outta Mordor.

It was a great time to be a Bowie fan too, of course. He had a similar hippy/folky back catalogue to Bolan, and they both caught/caused the same sweetly made-up, androgynous zeitgeist: underpinned by that crunchy, fuzzy, riff-heavy guitar sound that we largely have their common denominator, producer Tony Visconti, to thank for. Each of them constantly shifted, shifted back, shifted sideways, shifted again. And nothing captures Bolan’s own transition from psychedelic pixie to full blown, sexual, glam rock giant (or echoes Bowie’s) more than Raw Ramp:

By the mid-’70’s, Bowie was already on his fifth, sixth or seventh persona, while Bolan had seemed to lose his way after 20th Century Boy. We’ll never know if we’d have seen a Bowie-like reinvention on the back of the Marc TV show. Nor how he’d have reacted as punk — a genre he had inspired and respected — played out. Or if he’d have gone back to his ‘mod’ roots and successfully explored a more Motown/Soul sound that he’d started to experiment with after becoming involved with Gloria Jones. But we can say that we’d not have had Bowie were it not for Bolan, nor Marc if not for David, at least not in the spectacular forms we now remember. Their ‘rivalry’ accelerated Glam Rock, and ultimately popular music/culture, way beyond what had seemed possible or reasonable. Which is why there are at least a thousand reasons to celebrate the undying Bolan’s birth. And why we’re all children of his revolution.

CIRCU5

CIRCU5 is the project of multi-instrumentalist, Steve Tilling. Fairly accurately self-described as “like the errant offspring of Foo Fighters and King Crimson,” it certainly has a ‘prog’ feel, but this is artfully mixed-up with songs with strong melodies and some definite hooks. The album traces the life of a child raised as a psychopath in a secret government organisation. Obviously. We caught up with Steve and, with some relief, can confirm that this isn’t autobiographical; he’s actually a very convivial chap…


Sad Paradise: For the benefit of those new to your work, could you give us a brief résumé?

Steve Tilling: In the Swindon area, some know me from being in Bardiche – a metal band from the late 80s and early 90s. Music’s just in me, I suppose. I started playing classical guitar when I was 7. My parents panicked and steered me towards that when I said I fancied playing the trumpet. So, I learned classical for a few years – sheet music, grades, music stands, precociousness, the works.

Then aged 11, in 1982, my brother brought a cassette by Saxon home. I remember him sitting in a toy tepee in the garden, playing it on a cassette player. I heard it from my bedroom and liked it. Soon after, I gave up the classical lessons, forced out a collar-length mullet, and grew partial to stuff like Ozzy Osborne and Iron Maiden. I got into some prog bands, like Yes and Rush. I was also a bit of a space cadet, and loved bands like Hawkwind. And a Canadian band called Max Webster, who sported a natty line in yellow jump suits and frocks.

So, I see CIRCU5 as edgy alternative rock with a progressive twist. That all came from my childhood. I picked up more influences along the way, such as Jellyfish, who were master musicians and vocalists. If you’re interested, you should check out the Spilt Milk album, which is a classic.

SP: The sound is very much guitar based, which I’d characterise as post-punk-prog – it has a definite harder edge. There’s some piano but, overall, very few keyboards. Is this a conscious attempt to distance yourself from first generation prog (Yes/Genesis) where synth/Mellotron may have made the sound too ‘dated’? Or do you just really like lots of guitar?

ST: I like a lot of bands with keyboards. But the CIRCU5 story, and some of the music, is quite dark and wouldn’t suit florid keyboard solos. However, there are some vintage synth effects on the album. I like bands that rock and shock musically – such as Cardiacs, who were very punky and proggy. That said, I also love songs with rousing choruses, which are on the album in tracks like Stars, Blame It On Me, and The Amazing Monstrous Grady.

SP: ‘Concept’ prog got a bit of a bad name towards the end of the ’70’s, when albums got too long and tediously cryptic. And these days, streaming encourages a pick’n’mix approach to listening, risking the derailment of any narrative. Your songs definitely work standalone, but having a story-line is still a bit of a brave move. What are your thoughts on the story itself and the desire to have a connecting theme through the album?

ST: I think CIRCU5 has a story more than a concept, as there’s a definite narrative rather than a general mood or idea. I’ve always fancied writing a book, but never found the time or the right idea. But after writing a few songs for this, a psychopathic character started to emerge. I started thinking, what if this character was unknowingly shaped to be that way from birth in a secret government organisation? And he discovered the truth as an adult? Before long, I had a four-page plot. The CD packaging is very lavish with a 28-page booklet featuring lyrics, images and clues to the story, and a ‘secret document’ explaining the background. (All this is available digitally too, with a high-quality album download.)

I hope those that stream on sites like Spotify are intrigued enough to get the full package. But I’m happy if they just want to enjoy the music. As you say, the songs stand up separately too, and we all like different things. I’m just traditional in that I like something I can hold and read.

SP: Looks like you have an array of Swindon’s finest musicians guesting on the album. How was the recording process?

ST: Strenuously pleasurable, matron. It took five years because life and bills got in the way. It started as a challenge: could I write, record and release an album all by myself? Halfway through, I felt quite lonely and wanted to connect with others. So I called on guest musicians for support and a different flavour, such as Dave Gregory from XTC and Big Big Train, and Phil Spalding from Mike Oldfield’s band. And I approached Stu Rowe, a top mixer and musician, to mix and master it. They plopped a fat juicy cherry on an already tasty cake.

SP: Apart from the guest musicians, most of the playing is you. Does that mean you’ll not be playing any of this ‘live’?

ST: I’d love to do CIRCU5 live. It will just take time to get it together. I’d like to do an audio-visual event with videos telling the story while the band’s playing. I think it will take some rehearsing too. But if Mike Oldfield could launch Tubular Bells live while being on the edge of a breakdown, why can’t I?

SP: You’re obviously into the promotion phase of this project for the immediate future but any thoughts on what’s next?

ST: I see this debut CIRCU5 album as the first chapter in the story. If enough people like the album and want another, I’ll do it. That’s why I’m so grateful to those listening and supporting me. It means everything, really.


For more information on the CIRCU5 project, go to www.circu5.com and facebook.com/circu5

U-Roy – Happy 75th Birthday

Around 1979, I was clumsily attempting to cultivate an interest in reggae but – with only brief snatches of John Peel and David Rodigan to guide me – was becoming more and more frustrated. Fortunately, that summer I got a job in a factory in Tottenham. The vast majority of the shop-floor workers were of West Indian origin and, as well as being the best workmates anyone could hope for, they were more than happy to help me develop my taste. One particularly accommodating colleague, Ken (no doubt greatly amused by a white boy’s interest in Jamaican culture) suggested I get the big tune of the moment, Horace Andy’s Natty Dread a Weh She Want. I had no idea where to buy it, but Ken drove us (in his rumbling 1972 Ford Capri) down to Third World Records in Stoke Newington, and out I came with a splendid 12″ Disco 45.

The tune was great, but better still was Tappa Zukie’s toasting over the version. My work colleagues thought I was crazy to like all the dub stuff over the mainstream “lovers rock” (“A party is nothing without girls and the girls check for lovers”) but that’s what I liked. For me, Tappa Zukie was my king for a while, though It soon dawned on me that he wasn’t exactly original. In fact, the whole of Natty Dread a Weh She Want was based on an earlier tune, Soldering by The Starlights, with some guy called “Big Youth” toasting over it.

Though gutted to discover my hero was a bit of a thief, it was becoming clear that reggae’s genealogy is complex and incestuous — and, importantly, everyone seemed OK with that. The more I looked, the more “borrowing” I found. A particularly extreme example is Up Town Top Ranking, very familiar to UK listeners since it reached number one in the main UK charts in 1978. It’s actually a copy of Three Piece Suit by Trinity, both cuts using the backing track of Marcia Aitken’s I’m Still In Love With You Boy.

And that’s a cover of Alton Ellis’s I’m Still In Love from 1967. But it doesn’t stop there: Althea and Donna’s hit has been covered several times, including once, magnificently, in German.

The point was that these “answer” records were intended to be ephemeral, never the lasting contribution to cultural history that my European background had conditioned me to expect. Many were cut direct to fragile acetate disks that weren’t intended to last. I was gradually understanding all of this — and tracing the roots of each track became an obsession. The trail that took me from Tappa Zukie to Big Youth inevitably lead to The Originator of toasting, U-Roy.

Born Ewart Beckford, 75 years ago today, in Kingston, Jamaica, U-Roy began as a deejay in 1961. He worked his way around the Kingston sound systems through the ’60’s and, spotted by Duke Reid, started releasing singles in 1970. Of the earlier stuff, it’s hard to imagine anything more joyful than Rock with I. By the mid-1970s, Beckford was internationally known — and  that’s when I caught up with his back catalogue. The 1976 release, Natty Rebel, shows a move away from good-time fun and a greater emphasis on a more serious roots feel. For me, the high point in his output was the work he did on versions of many Linval Thompson tracks, such as Joyful Locks from the middle of the decade.

As the great dub poet Oscar Wilde said, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and U-Roy has been flattered more than most. It’s all out of utter respect — I-Roy even named himself in U-Roy’s honour — and from the certainty that he was, and remains, one of the greats of reggae. One of just a handful of artists, producers and deejays who made the genre so enthralling throughout the ’70’s: like the looping and warping echoes of a King Tubby dub, the beauty of the recycling and cross-breeding of ideas and sounds is both the essence and the paradox of true reggae.

Always the same but always different. Never permanent but always there.

Happy Birthday, Ewart — and thank you, Ken, for starting me off on the right track.

The End Of The Pier Show

For the best part of the past decade, Chris Waddell has been photographing all of the UK’s remaining pleasure piers, from Scotland right down to Cornwall. It hasn’t always been plain sailing but, this weekend, the labour of love culminates in the publication of a 140 page hardback book of the collection. We quizzed him about the project…


How did you start in photography?

It was part of my graphic design course, and I always enjoyed it as a hobby, but it became more serious 16 years ago when I became a self-employed designer. I’d spent years retouching other people’s work and felt it was time to take the shots myself.

Where did the “piers” concept come from?

I’d had a connection with pleasure piers from a young age. I was born near The Mumbles, grew up in Penarth and then lived near Brighton. All locations with surviving piers. Having bagged a great early morning shot of Bournemouth pier in 2008, I decided to do some research and discovered The Pier Society (founded by Sir John Betjeman) which has a great resource about surviving and lost piers. As an adult, I have come to love the idea that piers can give us a unique moment to fantasise about other times and places. The sea looks infinite from the end of many a pier — a place to stand and let your imagination run free… This defines my love of pleasure piers and the reason I then set about visiting all of them.

Bournemouth pier, June 2008

They’re undoubtedly romantic — but I’d imagine achieving the goal of photographing them all hasn’t been easy?

Inevitably, since starting the project, I have found other photographers have had the same idea. I have stubbornly avoided engaging with other collections to avoid their influence, whether positive or negative. If I had spent time watching too closely I’d have given up — and there have been times I have almost done just that for many reasons. During the process, I have had an unrelated nervous breakdown, gone deaf in one ear and developed tinnitus in both, which at times is louder than normal conversation. My family have remained supportive and I have bounced back from each setback with renewed determination. Lately, keeping busy with this project has proved to be a great distraction from the tinnitus; after all, there’s nothing like the lapping or crashing of the sea against a pier to mask the constant hiss…

You’ve said this project has made you feel like you’re starting from scratch with photography. Have you, willingly or otherwise, developed a personal style?

I am uncomfortable with the idea of having a photographic style although others may say, rightly or wrongly, I have developed one. I wonder if maintaining a style represents a kind of formulaic, personal cliché — an easy repetition of more of the same for one’s social media accounts? My approach to the book, I hope, is as eclectic as the piers themselves; hence the mix of monochrome and colour throughout. I prefer to shoot in response to conditions rather than wait for the conditions to suit an apparent style — and to shoot with immediacy rather than labour over a tripod and filter set up.

Aside from Piers Morgan (obviously), which are your favourite piers?

Some unexpected ones. I love Deal (Pier of the Year, 2008) for its simple, brutalist construction, and Walton-on-the-Naze, which sweeps round in a dramatic curve at the end toward the lifeboat mooring. I’m drawn to those with interesting histories too; many were breached during WWII to prevent them being used as landing stages by potential invading forces. Some have since been reconstructed, including Herne Bay — though that was later demolished again, leaving the landing stage and the pier head.

Herne Bay pier, September 2011

Now you’ve reached the end of the End of the Piers, do you have any other plans in the pipeline?

This project feels like a brief punctuation mark in my constant exploration of photography. A decade-long, first chapter of something bigger and better.


The End of the Pier Show” is available to buy through Chris’ web site: http://www.waddelldigital.co.uk/the-end-of-the-pier-show

30 Years of Rickrolling!

Rick Astley will forever be remembered for Never Gonna Give You Up. Despite its utterly formulaic and unspectacular Stock, Aitken and Waterman production, this otherwise banal throwaway was carried, by his rich baritone voice, to Number 1 in the UK, 30 years ago this week.

SAW have to have been the laziest production team in history. Notoriously, they just used DX7 synth factory presets and Linn 9000 drum patterns stolen from Italian disco records. Pete Waterman did absolutely nothing, while Mike Stock and Matt Aitken would hack together something passable but leave the hard work of completing a track to their “B Team”. In fact, more effort seems to have gone into Morris Minor and the Major’s parody of their process than any of SAW’s actual records. In the case of Never Gonna Give You Up, the lyrics weren’t even complete when S&A left the studio — an uncredited junior team member finished them off. And, with typical Hit Factory insouciance, there was no middle eight. The poor mix engineer was expected to come up with something to create a bit of interest half way through, and pad it out to a reasonable length. The usual solution was to paste in an extra instrumental verse and drop in a line or two from earlier in the song. In this case, Pete Hammond got the short straw and devised the sampled and syncopated “never gonna give, never gonna give” motif. In fact NGGYU runs out of ideas about a minute and a half in. It only has two verses. Evidently there was a third verse but it must have been so trite — even by SAW standards — that it was never used. Shamelessly, Pete Waterman later defended this approach to production by comparing it to the output of Motown in the 1960s. We have to assume that’s Coventry humour.

Rick must have quickly known he would never shake off the NGGYU albatross. He eventually parted with SAW and, for a decade, retired from the music business. But in 2004, free to follow a style of his own choosing, he started quietly touring again. Then something quite odd happened. In May 2007, a jolly prankster deliberately misdirected people who were looking for a trailer of the latest Grand Theft Auto to the NGGYU video. ‘Rickrolling’ was born — and exploded. For a time, every other clickbait link led to Rick. At the phenomenon’s peak, as an April Fool, all YouTube’s front page recommendations were Rickrolls. This all brought Astley back into public view and he “won” MTV Europe’s “Best Act Ever” award, after a surge of Boaty McBoatFace-style voting. Although the video has since had over 400,000,000 views, Rick has allegedly only ever received $12 royalties. Yet he isn’t embittered, regarding it as a somewhat humorous episode in his life. He’s still playing along with the joke to this day; earlier this week he was on stage with Foo Fighters, Rickrolling Smells Like Teen Spirit.

I rather like that he’s outlived the Stock, Aitken and Waterman fad and just goes and does what he likes doing – like drumming and singing Highway To Hell. You wouldn’t get this from any other guy…

Itchycoo Park

• The Small Faces classic, released 50 years ago today.

As it ended up overshadowing their “serious” work, the band may have grown to regret recording Itchycoo Park. Nevertheless, with the help of George Chkiantz and Glyn Johns, it all too beautifully melded pretty much every element of groovy 1967 psychedelia into something both unique and emblematic. Though the Beatles (with George Martin and Geoff Emerick) can claim the first high profile use of psychedelic flanging in Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Itychooo Park was the first pop single to use the Summer of Love’s signature effect.

It’s hard to know whether the Small Faces were playing catch-up with the Beatles here, or, like Traffic’s Hole In My Shoe, just having a poke at John Lennon’s pretentiousness. The fact the band didn’t really want the single released at all, and regarded it as a bit of a joke, suggests the latter. In style, subject and structure, the song is a lightly camouflaged parody of Strawberry Fields Forever. Both concern wild, hidden locations within large cities where kids could escape the drudgery of school and have some illicit fun. But Marriott and Lane, although dreaming of touching the sky, bring things down to earth. The abstract “nothing to get hung about” in SFF becomes the commonplace “get hung up, feed the ducks with a bun” in IP.

In both cases, the imagery is surreal nonsense (in the Lewis Carroll non-sense) and so the “meanings” have been endlessly “interpreted”. A particularly nice over-analysis of Itchycoo has it that the “Bridge of Sighs” and the “dreaming spires” refer to the privilege of an Oxbridge education, which the writers eschew in favour of finding true beauty in an Ilford park. In truth, many of the ‘interpretations’ were conjured up by the band’s management in a (successful) effort to get the BBC’s initial “overt drug references” ban overturned. But, of course, not before the ‘censorship’ had provided valuable publicity.

In the end, whether the band liked it or not — and pastiche or otherwise — the song, so of its time and timeless, is a classic that subverts and transcends its genre. Have a listen and let it blow your mind.

Saint John Coltrane

It’s 50 years since the death of John Coltrane, jazz saxophonist.

John Coltrane is god. At least, according to the Yardbird Temple, he was for a while. He’s since been demoted to a mere saint to allow the Yardbirds to incorporate themselves into the African Orthodox Church (without upsetting the, you know, “other” god). You can visit the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco and hear live jazz mixed with some Christian liturgy. You can even get the greeting card.

How come this man is so revered? Surely it’s a bit silly, even crazy, to beatify a mere saxophonist? Perhaps not…

With my interest ignited by the passion radiating from Kerouac’s descriptions of be-bop in On The Road, I desperately wanted to like jazz. But, back in the ’80s, with no YouTube or Spotify to allow me to easily sample the vast range of styles, I had no idea which jazz. I knew the turophilic Kenny G wasn’t even real jazz, but the impenetrable stuff, like Mahavishnu Orchestra, also left me cold. Surely there was something in the middle? Something that had a spiritual dimension?

In desperation, I asked a jazzer friend what I should listen to to find a way into ‘proper’ jazz. Without hesitation, he said ‘Kind of Blue – it’s the best jazz album of all time’. Miles Davis I’d heard of, so I gave it a go. My friend was right. It was quite a revelation. An epiphany. Maybe even a theophany – I just don’t know. But, whatever it was, it certainly felt like what I’d imagine a religious experience would feel like.

Transcendent improvisations sit atop beautifully constructed and deceptively simple schemata. Notes sing in exultation, flowing freely between keys, scales and chords that are often subliminal rather than explicitly stated. But you don’t need those pseudo-intellectual analyses to appreciate it. Just listen. All the playing is exemplary, but I particularly loved the saxophone parts. So who’s the guy blowing that horn? Ah, John Coltrane…

And so I moved on to his Impressions album. Wow. He can play fast too. Really fast. I found out much later that the holy grail I had been searching for had been labelled ‘modal jazz’ by the be-bop taxonomists. Miles Davis popularised the form but Coltrane took it and went much, much deeper. Many cite A Love Supreme as his best but, for me, Giant Steps is his ultimate triumph.

Superb technical skill combined with a soul as deep as the blues, Coltrane’s personal journey away from heroin addiction towards deep spirituality, put him unquestionably on the road to sainthood. As he said himself “In order to play a truth, a musician has to live with as much truth as possible.” I can’t help thinking those founders of the Church of St John Coltrane knew the truth and were not as crazy as they may have seemed.

Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 in North Carolina and died of liver cancer on July 17, 1967, at the age of 40.

David Bowie

It’s fifty years ago today that Sgt Pepper told the band to play. But it wasn’t the only LP to be released on June 1st, 1967. Almost completely unnoticed—and overshadowed by the Beatles’ monumentally significant pinnacle of 60s pop—the young and (almost) unknown David Bowie also gave us his eponymous first album. Had he not gone on to become… well, David Bowie, it would almost certainly have remained—imperfect as it plainly is (or “terrible”, as Rolling Stone less politely put it)—an obscure, discarded, cult relic.

Some of it is terrible. The excruciatingly twee baroque pop of Love You ’till Tuesday certainly is, though if we’re honest no worse than some of the questionable Paisley Pop that Bowie’s contemporaries were coming up with (Tomorrow, Kippington Lodge and The Idle Race spring to mind): these were strange times. Other tracks don’t really work, either. The attempts at sub-Kinks contemporary satire in Join The Gang certainly haven’t aged well. And the whimsical songs—Maid of Bond Street and Sell Me a Coat—are hardly fully polished, rough-edged and flawed, though Bowie did go on to build on and then perfect their whimsy, briefly, with Letter To Hermione.

And that’s the point: although it’s hard to buy the “‘She’s Got Medals‘ is his first foray into gender-bending” thing, it is, like so many other songs in this collection, an early sketch for the masterpieces to come. Most striking is We Are The Hungry Men, an obvious precursor to Diamond Dogs, Saviour Machine and the rest, with its tale of a messiah offering salvation to a futuristic dystopia prowled by desperate flesh-eaters (see also Trump, D.) 

And there’s more shrouded brilliance in there. Coincident with Syd Barrett’s psychedelic, fairy-tale dabblings, Bowie adds in some of the darkness of Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen, adding new twists to the European-flavoured macabre. In this vein, Uncle Arthur and Please Mr Gravedigger become rough prototypes for later songs like After All and All The Madmen, while Rubber Band demonstrates another clear European influence: the songs of Jacques Brel, popularised initially in the English-speaking world by Rod McKuen’s early ’60s translations. Bowie continually revisited European themes throughout his career, as we know, covering several Brel songs himself (Amsterdam and My Death), and, later, Brecht/Weill (Baal’s Hymn and Alabama Song).

When David Bowie was released, nobody (including Bowie) had heard the “groundbreaking” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yet both albums were pushing the same boundaries. And while George Martin managed to tame the Beatles’ weirdness just enough, Bowie was allowed to exhibit unbridled experimentation. The problem for him wasn’t this experimentation: it was the unbridledness. His quality filter wasn’t yet fully functional and we’d have to wait another couple of years for the first ‘real’ Bowie album. This was, though, in hindsight, a hugely significant base camp for the thrilling expeditions to come.

God Save The Queen

It’s 40 years since the release of the Sex Pistols’ Nihilist Anthem

The Sex Pistols were perhaps more purely punk than any other band of the era. The angry politics of the Clash offered at least some hope that, with a fight, social change was possible: Are you taking over, or are you taking orders? But for the Pistols, politics was pointless. While Weller sang “What’s the point in saying destroy?”, Lydon’s nihilism sunk to depths that other so-called punks barely touched upon: No future for me, no future for you.

But we all know now it was just a great rock’n’roll swindle. All manufactured. The Pistols weren’t genuine at all. And no surprise that Her Majesty has long outlived the ephemeral teenage rebellion. It seems surreal that the Clash were accused of “selling out” when they signed to CBS, but that Lydon now advertises butter and we all just chuckle. I suppose the crushing realisation that it was all a sham is an integral part of the nihilistic, Situationist International art installation that punk was. As was foretold, all came to nothing. We really are the flowers in the dustbin.

But those opening chords. More power than any other record before or since.

More Than Fair

Today would have been Ian Dury’s 75th Birthday

By the time Ian Dury was wielding his rhythm stick and giving the big time a hell of a beating, he was no spring chicken. Born in Harrow, West London (WEST?!!) on 12th May, 1942, he was firmly in the Beatles, Who and Rolling Stones baby-boomer cohort, rather than Generation X1 with whom he’s often associated. In fact, he was born before Jagger, Townshend and McCartney. Biding his time while the 60s’ Beat Group fad burned itself out, he spent the whole of that decade learning, and later teaching, illustration. Very much in the Pop Art style, I’d love to find one of these in my laundry basket…

Only after the death, in 1971, of his hero, Gene Vincent, did Dury seriously consider playing the fool in a six-piece band. And even then it wasn’t that serious. His band, Kilburn and the High Roads, was cobbled together from a few of his Canterbury School of Art students and became central to the mid-1970’s Pub Rock scene. Ian was one of the few (along with Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer) to successfully make the jump from that scene to the “New Wave” — a feat that many of his contemporaries, like Eddie and the Hot Rods, failed to manage. Even the Stranglers, despite success, were never regarded as ‘authentic’. But somehow Dury, although long past his teenage sell-by date, fitted in seamlessly. He never claimed to be a ‘punk’ and never denied he was old enough to be the dad of many of his fans. But nobody cared.

Fellow pub-rockers, Dr Feelgood, knowing they were the kings of the London/Essex R&B scene, never felt the need to make that leap. But it’s important to remember that the Feelgood’s Lee Brilleaux helped fund Stiff Records. And it was Stiff that bridged the gap between Pub Rock and Punk and propelled Dury — now with a new band, the Blockheads — to fame. The Blockheads were (are) accomplished musicians; funky, jazzy, unafraid to use a synthesiser and completely un-punk. Again, nobody cared.

The Rest — as lazy writers who have reached their word-count say — Is History. Everything else is well documented. His polio. His work with UNICEF. His ‘controversial’ reaction to the International Year of Disabled Persons. His art. His acting. His storytelling. His memorial bench. His time as a ticket man at Fulham railway station. We all loved his Max Miller “one from the blue book” persona even though, as was made plain in the 2010 biographical film, he could be a difficult character. So, yes, after all is said and done, he was probably a blockhead too. But despite his faults and his numerous uncommon qualities we still felt he was “one of us”.


1.  For any confused Billy Idol fans, that’s the demographic, not the pseudo-punk band that included (in John Lydon’s famous put-down) “the Perry Como of punk”.