The first two Blockheads records are excellent and unique pub rock albums. The third Blockheads record and Ian’s first solo record are worth hearing, but they’re not all that great. The remainder of Dury’s small catalog is a total wash.
Handsome (Kilburn & The High Streets)
New Boots And Panties *
Do It Yourself *
4000 Weeks Holiday
The Bus Driver’s Prayer And Other Stories
Mr. Love Pants
HANDSOME (Kilburn & The High Roads) (1975)
This was Dury’s first famous band, and legend has it they were an incredible live ensemble that never managed to make a truly definitive record. Dury all but disowns this – their one true studio album – and apparently the recording doesn’t quite capture the essence of the band. Nonetheless, this a very fun and idiosyncratic record with a lot of variety. It relies too much on boring pub rock tropes at times, (especially in the second half), but it also manages to create a paradoxical mix of celebratory and somber moods. Almost as if Roger Waters started a pub rock band. This points the way towards the early Blockheads records, but sounds quite different than those, with barely any hints of either funk, disco, or punk. The album opens with my two favorite songs: “The Roadette Song,” a reggae-tinged music hall song with a totally awesome and sleazy vocal delivery. Then there’s “Pam’s Moods,” another super British and music hall-derived song with some big band-era jazziness to it. The lyrics are amazing, and once again the vocal delivery is genius – especially when Dury sings the word “moods” in the chorus, and pitch-bends the note upwards. It’s an odd and hilarious idea, and just adds more brilliance to an already great track. The rest of the record ranges in quality, never quite matching the heights of the opening two-fer. Things perk up at the end with the awesome final track, “The Call-Up,” which comes complete with steel drums! This record definitely worth hearing, but it ain’t no classic.
NEW BOOTS AND PANTIES!! (1977)
A hell of a record – lots of variety, lots of energy, lots of personality, and lots of fun. It’s also very consistent – there isn’t one problematic track on this one. The thing that jumped out at me from the very beginning were the awesome arrangements and the genuine CHOPS displayed by the band. It’s not often you get insanely professional and adventurous musicianship on punk and pub rock records – these fellas definitely hold their own alongside The Attractions and the original Joe Jackson band. Actually, sometimes they sound even TIGHTER than those groups, probably because they’re playing predominately groove-based music. Yes – this album mixes the quirky British vibe of Dury’s previous band with disco, funk, punk, and good old fashioned rock and roll. It all adds up to a truly unique sounding record – there are even wacky new-wave synth solos mixed in here. It’s nearly Beefheart-esque at times, and some moments remind me of Steely Dan! But all those disparate elements are mixed into an upbeat British punk/pub rock record…this record is STRANGE. The opener is the hilarious and totally grooving “Wake Up and Make Love With Me,” which struck me as off-putting when I first heard it due to Dury’s underplayed vocals. But it grew on me to a great degree – and those little YELPS are fantastic! “Sweet Gene Vincent” is a solid old-fashioned rocker. Every song is worthwhile – there’s the totally awesome groove in “Clever Trevor,” the endearing “My Old Man,” the jazzy piano-driven “If I Was With A Woman,” – it’s all good. AND the album takes a welcome and sharp turn into punk territory on it’s latter half with the ferocious “Blockheads” and “Blackmail Man.” Then there’s the killer non-album single “Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll,” perhaps Dury’s most iconic song – it’s usually associated with this album (I think it may have been on the original pressing). There are many pleasures to be had here – Dury’s unique style takes a couple spins to truly process, but it’s worth the effort.
DO IT YOURSELF (1979)
Another awesome record from the Blockheads. This time, the band has honed in on the dance-grooves and jazziness of the previous record, and polished things up considerably. This is pretty much on par with “New Boots,” even if it has a lesser reputation. It’s a tiny bit less consistent, but just as essential if you want to get into Dury. “Inbetweenies” is an incredible opener, and probably the best song on the record. This really DOES sound like Steely Dan! The groove is very similar to Steely’s “Haitian Divorce.” It’s followed by “Quiet,” a funky and super catchy number that reminds me a bit of Berlin-era Bowie. “Sink My Boats” is another fantastic and anthemic song – I love the way a less ragged sounding group vocal sings the melody behind Dury’s speak-singing at the end of the verses. Side 2 isn’t quite as strong as the first, but the 6 minute groovy monster “Dance Of The Screamers” is a total winner. My version has some great bonus tracks: “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Reasons To Be Cheerful: Part 3” are two of the best and wackiest Dury tracks. Overall, this is a very entertaining and insanely well performed piece of music.
I’m very sad to report that this album reprsents a giant drop in quality for Mr. Dury. After “Do It Yourself,” Chaz Jankel left the group, and apparently he was a crucial member – a good half of this album falls completely flat. Many of these tracks sound like rejects from the previous two albums, and though the band is still awesome and the sound still lively and crisp, this is a major disappointment for me in the writing department. There are some HUGE highlights though – the good stuff on here is just as strong as the best of the previous two albums. There’s a three song run right in the middle of the record that towers over everything else on here. “Over The Points” is a super Beefheart-esque tune, with a post-punky and pummeling arrangement running beneath what’s basically a spoken work recitiation by Dury. Actually, this song sounds almost exactly a template for Mark E. Smith. Then comes the groovy and hilarious “You’re Sitting On The Chicken.” Finally there’s uber-catchy and anthemic “Uncoolohol,” which is in the “Sink My Boats” vein. Other good ones include “Manic Depression,” a very pretty near-ballad, and “Fucking Ada,” which sounds positively Nick Cave-esque. The rest of the album is too undistinguished (and some of the worst tracks come at the beginning, leaving a stench that won’t go away for the rest of the playing time). “Superman’s New Sister” is moderately fun, and “Dance of the Crackpots” is a loony good time with some OK hooks, but neither would have been up to par on the previous albums. So it’s a half-great record, and definitely shows signs of the coming problems…
LORD UPMINSTER (1981)
Ian took a trip to the Bahamas with Chaz Jankel, and made this little album with Sly and Robbie. It was a commercial and critical failure, supposedly ate up a huge portion of Dury’s advance, and essentially led to his disappearance from the cutting edge. Even he seems to hate it – apparently he didn’t have enough material to record when put into the studio with Sly and Robbie. But you know what? It’s an underrated, solid record. Granted, there are hardly any songs to speak of on here. This is a GROOVE album – and the grooves are very minimalist, and often awesome. They remind me a bit of GAUCHO-era Steely Dan – super slick and shiny, but also stripped down and weird. There’s some dubby influence. There’s also a late-Clash element – some of the weirder and more groove-heavy SANDINISTA and COMBAT ROCK tracks. The playing is tight and professional, the drum sounds are sweet, and it really never gets boring, even though it’s extremely repetitive. But it’s the kind of music that demands repetition. The album opens with the catchily syncopated ‘Funky Disco Pops,” one of the highlights. “The Body Song” is really fun. The most famous track “Spasticus Autisticus” is also the best. It’s a wacky scream-sing track in the vein of “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” and it has the most fleshed out arrangement. “Lonely Town” is probably the closest thing to a SONG in the classic sense, and it’s sort of pretty and atmospheric. Overall, this isn’t a great album, but it should still be considered part of the “peak” era Dury catalog. It’s definitely worth hearing.
4000 WEEKS HOLIDAY (1984)
Ouch. Before making this record, Dury said goodbye to Jankel and all other Blockheads, hired a new and younger band, and must have let someone convince him he needed to “modernize” his sound to keep up to date with the new trends at play in 1984. Well, he falls completely flat on his face. As far as I’m concerned, this is the first record of a completely irrelevant and mostly atrocious latter day career for Mr. Dury. He would never again sound as confident or creative as on the previous records. The less said about this record the better. It’s mostly TERRIBLE, and sounds terrible as well. There are dated synths all over the place. 80s dance horns. Cheesy bass tones. Too much reverb. THAT kind of sound. The album opens with BY FAR the worst Dury song yet – “(You’re My) Inspiration,” a hookless droning tune so horrible I almost gave up even listening to the rest of the record. The only real highlights are the goofy and endearing “Friends,” the verses of “Percy The Poet,” and “The Man With No Face,” a noir-voiceover recitation by Dury that rips off Alex Harvey’s way better “The Man In The Jar.” The rest is simply dire. Avoid this one, and let the early records remain the only known part of Dury’s legacy.
This is a soundtrack to a musical Dury wrote in the late 80s. I can’t imagine how bad the stage show must have been, but I CAN report that my one listen to the record was quite painful. This is positively dreadful – Dury sounds tired and bored, the songs are barely there, the arrangements lame and very dated (enough with the friggin’ synth horns!!!). There are some other singers on here too, and they made no impression on me. I don’t know what this show was about, but the songs are so unmelodic and underwritten that the script must have been working overtime to get the points across. I don’t really know what to say about Dury anymore – those early albums with the Blockheads are great, but this is embarrassing. The thought of hearing this again makes me squirm – it’s just plain bad.
THE BUS DRIVER’S PRAYER AND OTHER STORIES (1992)
Not including the musical soundtrack “Apples,” this was the first collection of new Dury compositions since 1984. And while it’s not nearly as bad as “Apples,” and probably a tiny bit better than “4000 Weeks Holiday,” it’s also extremely dull and dated. The arrangements have no spunk, and Dury’s vocals are all speak-singy with little attention paid to melody. There’s little sign of his punkier beginnings. Ian has essentially become a Cockney Serge Gainsbourg, minus the sleazy sex, but the results are not nearly as amusing as that may sound. I only heard this once, and it seemed like it had a couple nice tracks that could potentially grow on me – but the sound and atmosphere is so unappealing, I’m just going to let it pass me by and keep my fandom in the classic era.
MR. LOVE PANTS (1998)
A reunion with the original Blockheads, released just before Dury’s untimely death in the late 90s. Right from the start, it’s obvious this is going to be the best Dury release since “Lord Upminster” – the man simply needed his original band and Jankel’s guiding hand. That being said, this sounds very digital and 90s, and really nothing much like the classic records. But there’s more energy and creativity than on any of the other post-Upminster albums, and some actual melodies, some unique grooves and jamming, and Dury sounds very lyrically engaged (his voice is still too monotone and old-mannish though). This also sounds like an actual BAND, without the corny synths and (I think) programmed drums that were marring some of the other releases. Again, I’m not going to put too much energy into my listening of this record, but it’s maybe worth hearing if you’re super interested in Dury. In the end, you’re better off stopping at “Lord Upminster” and letting your impressions of the man remain totally positive.