Ian Dury – an epitaph to punk’s lost disability advocate4 min read
CCS Disability Action staff member Gareth Griffiths finds an unlikely hero in punk icon Ian Dury.
The year was 1979 and I recall being on holiday in our much-loved old caravan, with transistor radio in hand. Making micro adjustments to the aerial and tuning dial I managed to tune into BBC Radio Live from Hammersmith Odeon from somewhere over the massive Snowdonia mountain range.
A voice of such pure energy and snarling intent stopped me in my tracks and melted my heart to the pure joy of rock n roll. The man was Ian Dury with his band of misfits The Blockheads. Never, have I been so utterly transfixed by the power of music. The song was Sweet Jean Vincent, a tribute to the local musical hero Dury adored.
Some of the lyrics still fill my head with wonder:
Who, who, who slapped john?
White face, black shirt
White socks, black shoes
Black hair, white strat
Bled white, died black
Sweet Gene Vincent
Let the blue roll tonight
At the sock hop ball in the union hall
Where the bop is their delight
Born in London in 1942 Ian had a working-class dad who was a chauffeur and a posh bohemian mother. As a youth he was driven around in his father’s Rolls-Royce like a little Lord. Then a life changing event occurred. On a day trip to an open-air swimming pool he contracted polio at the age of eight. With one leg now in a calliper he was redirected to a school for children with disabilities. It is hard to imagine the effect of losing all his classmates and friends must have had on him.
School life became a whole lot tougher and far more brutal. Vicious playground fights enforced a pecking order clear from day one. There were obviously winners and losers and Ian soon rose up the ranks in what he described as a ‘brutal environment’.
His recollections certainly rang true to me, having been to a local all boys school in the 1970s. Difference and diversity was rarely celebrated. Eventually he was transferred to a local grammar school, being the only disabled pupil amongst 800 kids. He made no effort to fit in and was not popular. He was described as “not nice!”
By 1976 punk emerged after a decade of, in my opinion, musical banality and over-blown rock bands. On the coat tails of the punk explosion came The Blockheads and a man of unique wit and attitude, but above all disabled kids had an unlikely champion and a new acceptance of disability in the music world.
The lives of disabled teens were very different in the 1970s than today. Many found themselves in institutions or in a world that tried to hide them away. People’s perceptions, low expectations and often abuse shaped people’s lives. Some, like Ian, kicked against the system and fought back.
Later in life Ian displayed a strange mix of amazing wit, lovability and an incredible cockney sense of humour. He could be both difficult and downright nasty. His personal life became more and more anarchic and drugs and booze took their toll. The famous hit Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, with the qualifying understated second line; “Is all my mind and body need’. Rang true.
Dury was a wild child. He commanded the stage with menacing intent, daring anyone to challenge him. But the songs were at times both tender and reflective, particularly of the people who formed the underbelly of a burgeoning underclass. And life on stage could be hard, he often fell over under the influence or simply because his body became weaker. But nothing stopped the outpouring of the most brilliant and eclectic songs. Hit me with your rhythm stick being the most memorable. It stayed at the number one spot for weeks and brought him into the mainstream at last.
In 1979 the International Year of Disabled Persons, he managed to get the song he wrote to celebrate for it banned on the BBC. For disabled youth it became and anthem, no longer feeling marginalised they embraced the new-found freedom he brought. Dury was furious about the way disabled people were portrayed and angry about their marginalisation from the mainstream. Parents often hated him but for a new generation of disabled and none disabled teens he was a hero. He was simply larger than life.
Ian Dury was an unlikely hero who pushed the cause of disabled people forward in a way that was honest, visceral and above all helped to deinstitutionalise thinking. His fierce intelligence was born out of lived experience and it was through music not sloganeering that he made his mark on a whole generation. Once the genie was let out of the bottle we could not return to a world of ignorance and exclusion. We have so much to thank him for, especially because he remained a rascal till the very end.
Ian Dury 1942 -2000