Dead Cool: Ian Dury

Long before Lady Gaga and her disco stick, there was Ian Dury, British rock god—and subject of a new film screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Simon Doonan on the creator of “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll.”

Barry Schultz / Sunshine / Retna Ltd.

Decades before Lady Gaga announced her desire to “take a ride on your disco stick,” there was Ian Dury, hilarious, horrible, wicked, and irate, screaming, “hit me with your rhythm stick. Hit me! Hit me! Hit me!” at the top of his lungs.

Hit Ian Dury? That would not be very nice. You don’t hit England’s most beloved low-life rock poet. You don’t hit the bloke who popularized the phrase, “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll.” And you certainly don’t hit a cripple.

With his jarring sinister performances—part art-rock, part bawdy Musical Hall—he became the Caliban/Quasimodo of Punk.

Ian Dury was not handicapped upon arrival. He was born in the year 1942 into an almost middle-class milieu, in Harrow, England, home of the eponymous not-quite-as-posh-as-Eton public school. His mum was a nurse and his dad chauffeured a Rolls-Royce for a living. Little Ian seemed destined to claw his way up the social ladder, but fate intervened: On a day trip to what the Brits call “the seaside,” Dury picked up a really ‘orrible souvenir. We are talking the killer virus du jour.

Poliomyelitis almost did him in, but decided instead to simply paralyze his left arm and leg. Ian and his malfunctioning appendages were sent to a rough tough school for mentally and physically disabled kids where he learnt to fight and to talk common and act pissed off and belligerent, skills that would serve him well in the coming years. Art college gave his rage a bohemian tinge. (Peter Blake, creator of the Sergeant Pepper’s album cover, was one of his teachers.) A half-hearted illustration career ensued. Then, in the mid-1970s, Ian found his rhythm stick.

The working classes of Thatcherite Britain were in dire need of a spokesperson to celebrate their wretchedness. Enter Mr. Dury, pen at the ready:

What a horrible state they're in They've got womanly breasts under pale mauve vests Shoes like dead pig's noses Cornflake packet jacket, catalogue trousers A mouth what never closes. (Blockheads)

With his jarring sinister performances—part art-rock, part bawdy Musical Hall—he became the Caliban/Quasimodo of Punk. Ian Dury and the Blockheads, aided by collaborator Chaz Jankel, pooped out a big hit album titled New Boots and Panties. (In recognition of his disabilities, Mr. Dury had originally wanted to call it Live at Lourdes.) Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll slipped into the global lexicon. Ian was having a major moment: He even had his very own minder/personal assistant, a bloke who was known in the Dury camp as "The Sulphate Strangler."

Two more big hits followed— Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Reasons to be Cheerful Part 3—before the unforgiving glare of the pop spotlight sought pastures new. In 1981 he enjoyed a burst of renewed notoriety with Spasticus Autisticus, a rant against patronizing Nanny State attitudes toward disabled folk which was immediately banned by the BBC.

So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin And thank the Creator you're not in the state I'm in So long have I been languished on the shelf I must give all proceedings to myself. (Spasticus Autisticus)

Other than his star-studded funeral, this was to be his last big media moment. The pop/rap/grunge landscape of the '80s and '90s did not have room for anybody as idiosyncratic as the fabulous, brilliantly bleak Ian Dury. At the turn of the century, he was afflicted with another ‘orrible disease: cancer. Sadly, this one succeeded in finishing him off.

So what made Ian Dury so cool?

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Ian Dury was cool because he rescued song lyrics from the grip of '70s bland rock (also known as yacht rock) and pushed them into the Philip Larkin realm of the ‘orribly poetic.

I could be a lawyer with strategems and ruses I could be a doctor with poultices and bruises I could be a writer with a growing reputation I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway Station. (What a Waste – co-written by Rod Melvin.)

Ian Dury was cool because he didn’t suddenly become American when he got in front of a microphone. His candid cockney-accented vocal stylings still reverberate through the Brit pop of today. Lily Allen’s chatting-to-your-mum-over-a-cuppa-while-saying-all-kinds-of-appalling-things style of vocals is totally traceable right back to Ian Dury. If Mr. Dury were around today, would he enjoy the homage? Or would he get irate and hit somebody with his rhythm stick? Or maybe he would just send round The Sulphate Strangler to do the dirty for him.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Writer, fashion commentator and window-dresser, Simon Doonan, is known for his provocative "Simon Says" column in the New York Observer. He has written four books: Confessions of a Window Dresser, Wacky Chicks, a memoir entitled Nasty and a tongue-in-cheek style guide entitled Eccentric Glamour. Nasty is to be re-released as Beautiful People . A comedy TV series entitled Beautiful People , produced by Jon Plowman, will debut on LOGO in May.