Song of the Week 33: Sweet Gene Vincent – Ian Dury

Sweet-Gene-Vincent-single

This week´s SOTW is the second song and only single off the unique character Ian Dury´s first solo album, New Boots and Panties!!  The single was released in 1977, with no picture sleeve.

Ian Dury was born in north-west London at his parents´ home in Harrow. His father was a bus-driver, former boxer and later a chauffeur, while his mother was a health visitor, son of a doctor, and grand-daughter of an Irish landowner.

He and his family moved to Switzerland after World War II where his father chauffeured for a millionaire. His mother brought Ian back to England where they lived with her sister. He would see his father on visits after, but never lived with him again.

At the age of 7 he contracted polio (which would leave him crippled), most likely from swimming in a public pool in Southend on Sea during the 1949 polio epidemic. He spent six weeks in a full plaster cast in hospital before moving to a hospital in Essex, and then was sent to Chailey Heritage Craft School in East Sussex in 1951, a school/hospital for disabled children which believed in toughening them up.  He was taught trades such as cobbling and printing, but his mother wanted him to be more academic, so it was arranged that he enter Royal Grammar School in Wycombe.

Dury remembers being punished for misbehaviour by being made to learn long tracts of poetry.

“I had to go into a box room where the suitcases were stored and learn 80 lines of Ode to Autumn by yer man Keats. If I got a word wrong I had to go back, they added that to the end of the sentence and after five nights of this my head had definitely gone.”

He was found sobbing by a housemaster, who put a stop to the punishment.

Spartacus

In 1981 Dury would release a song called “Spasticus Autisticus” to show disdain for that year´s International Year of Disabled Persons, which he felt was patronising and counter-productive. The song is an uncompromising rebuke to the establishment.

“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”

The refrain “I´m spasticus, autisticus” was inspired by by the rebellious  Roman gladiators in the film Spartacus, who when asked to identify their leader all replied “I am Spartacus!” to protect him.

Here´s Professor George McKay, in a 2009 article in Popular Music called ‘Crippled with nerves’ (a Dury song title):

“Ian Dury, that ‘flaw of the jungle’, produced a remarkable and sustained body of work that explored issues of disability, in both personal and social contexts, institutionalisation, and to a lesser extent the pop cultural tradition of disability. He also, with the single ´Spasticus Autisticus´ (1981), produced one of the outstanding protest songs about the place of disabled people in what he called ‘normal land’.”

The song was banned by the BBC at the time, and was forbidden from being played on TV before 6pm. The song was recently used in the opening of the London 2012 Paralympics.

Desert Island Discs

Dury described the song as “a war cry” on Radio 4´s Desert Island Discs in 1996, a programme on which he also picked out Gene Vincent´s first single Woman Love as one of his 8 songs.

After receiving GCE  ´O´ Levels in English Language, English Literature and Art, he left school age 16 and studied art at the Royal College of Art under British Artist Peter Blake. In 1967, he took part in a group exhibition  called Fantasy and Figuration. When asked why he didn´t persue a career in art he replied:

“I got good enough to realise I wasn´t going to be very good.”

From 1967 onwards he taught at various colleges in the south of England and also painted illustrations for the Sunday Times in the early 1970s.

His first group was called Kilburn & The Highroads, but despite a cult following and good reviews with the press, the band never really took off.

ian-dury-and-the-blockheads

His next band, The Blockheads, however quickly got a reputation for being one of the top live acts in New Wave music. Dury was known for his wordplay, original lyrical poetry, infused with colloquial language and observations of everyday British life, full of character sketches and lewd humour.

Chaz Jankel

The Blockheads sound was a diverse mix of influences ranging from jazz, rock and roll, funk, punk, reggae and music hall. Dury and Chaz Jankel formed the band after finding out they could write songs together. Dury would bring the lyrics to Jankel who would put them to music. Jankel brought his funk influence to the table. He would go on to reach number 1 a couple of times in his solo career in the early 80s before returning to The Blockheads.

Ian_Dury_New_Boots_And_Panties-Front

New Boots and Panties was not attributed to The Blockheads, as it was recorded before the band were officially christened. The album was released in September 1977, while the band wouldn´t play their first gig with their new name till the following month.

Most of the album was written the previous year in a flat (40 Oval Mansions) in Kennington nicknamed “Catshit Mansions” with Chaz Jankel as co-writer and contributions from American Steve Nugent.

Dury and Jankel recorded demos for the album in Spring 1977 in Alvic Studios, Wimbledon, with Jankel playing bass, guitar and piano parts, while Dury sang and played drums. These demos are  included on Edsel´s 2007 reissue of the album.

The studio engineer told Dury about a rhythm section who were acting as session musicians for a bit of extra money, bassist Norman Watt Roy and drum Charley Charles, who would become key members of the band.  They gelled instantly and the album was recorded a week after the demos were finished in The Workhouse Studio on the Old Kent Road. Dury´s management company Blackhill (who would also manage The Clash) owned a 50% share in the studio, and put up £4,000 sterling to pay for the group to record in “dead time”, or when the studio is empty, which usually means late at night.

The album was produced by Peter Jenner, Laurie Latham, and Rick Walton, the latter two being relatively inexperienced. David Payne and Ed Speight of Kilburn & The Highroads were asked along to fill out the sound. A friend of Speight´s, Geoff Castle, played Moog synthesizer on a few songs.

A chance remark by drummer Charley Charles after reading the words to the song “Blockheads” from the album gave name to the band.

The photo for the front cover was taken by Chris Gabrin outside the Axford lingerie shop on Vauxhall Bridge Road, Westminster, close to Victoria Station. It features Ian and his son Baxter.

Written on the back of the album sleeve was “there’s nothing wrong with it!!”, which was the band´s reaction after hearing the first playback of their work.

Gene-Vincent

“When your leg still hurts and you need more shirts
You gotta get back on the road.”

Ian Dury had been a fan of Gene Vincent since his early teens and claimed to have bought every single Vincent produced, after first hearing Be Bop a Lula in the film The Girl Can´t Help It and being reduced to tears by it. Vincent´s death in 1971 was one of the major reasons for Dury getting serious about music at the time, and he would wear Gene Vincent-style signature black leather gloves on stage during that period with Kilburn & The Highroads.

Dury denied that his identification with the singer had anything to do with the fact that Vincent was also crippled and forced to wear a leg brace (after he smashed his leg in a motorcycle accident), as he wasn´t aware of that when he first became a fan.

For the song Sweet Gene Vincent, Dury spent six weeks researching his lyric and read two biographies before handing the draft to Chas Jankel. Jankel joked that had it been kept in its original draft, it would have been 15 minutes long. Here´s a demo/backing track for the song, which stretches to 9 minutes.

Dury´s research and musical knowledge, allowed him to reference Vincent´s songs in a rough life story of the singer. The opening line “Blue Jean Baby” recreates Blue Jean Bop. The line “Who, who slapped John” is lifted directly from the song of the same name. Another line, “and you lay that pistol down” is taken from Pistol Packin´ Momma, which refers to Vincent´s habit of waving guns around in the studio, something that once scared the hell out of The Beatles, as reported by Paul McCartney is his “letter to John”, when he inducted Lennon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“We went back with Gene Vincent to his hotel room once. It was all going fine until he reached in his bedside drawer and pulled out a gun. We’ said “Er, we’ve got to go, Gene, we’ve got to go…” We got out quick!”

Dury also references Be Bop a Lula (“the one with the flying feet”).

Two sections focus solely on Vincent´s black and white style of dress. Dury would regularly forget the lines “Black gloves, white frost, black crepe, white lead, white sheet, black knight, jet black, dead white” while on stage replacing them with totally different lyrics.

Here´s Dury live with a typically eccentric intro (and outro) to the song. You can hear him completely mix up the lyrics in the “black gloves, white frost…” part.

Wreckless Eric, describes calling around to Dury´s flat on the day they were writing the song, 1st December 1976 (the day of the Sex Pistols´infamous appearance on the Today show, hosted by Bill Grundy), after having been invited, only to interrupt them working on a new song they said was called Sweet Gene Vincent.

Ian Dury & The Blockheads Song by Song Jim Drury

Worth a read is Ian Dury & The Blockheads: Song By Song, 2003 by Jim Drury (no relation).

Also, for anyone who´s interested in learning more about one of the true originals in rock and roll, here´s a brilliant little documentary about Dury, called X, with the man himself philosophising about his life and work, containing classic lines like:

“I felt like I´d been ordinaried.” and…

“T.S. Eliot said that the immature artist plagiarises, and the mature artist steals… and one of these days I´m gonna grow up.”

Finally, here´s the single version.

Enjoy…

There’s nothing wrong with it!!

Lyrics:

Blue Gene, baby

Skinny white sailor,
The chances were slender
The beauties were brief
Shall I mourn you? Decline,
With some thunderbird wine
And a black hankerchief?
I miss your sad Virginia whisper
I miss the voice that called my heart

Sweet Gene Vincent,
Young and old and gone…
Sweet Gene Vincent

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 Caps roll tonight
At the soc. hop ball in the union hall
Where The Bop is their delight

Here comes duck-tailed Danny dragging Uncanny Annie
– she’s the one with the flying feet.
You can break the peace daddy, sickle grease
The beat is reet complete
And the jump back honey in the dungarees
Tight sweater and a pony tail
Will you guess her age when she comes backstage?
The hoodlums bite their nails.

Black gloves, white frost
Black crepe, white lead
White sheet, black knight
Jet black, dead white

Sweet Gene Vincent.
There’s one in every town;
And the devil drives ’til the hearse arrives
And you lay that pistol down.

Sweet Gene Vincent:
There’s nowhere left to hide.
With lazy skin and ashtray eyes
A perforated pride.

So farewell mademoiselle, knickerbocker hotel
Say goodbye to money owed.
But when your leg still hurts and you need more shirts
You gotta get back on the road.

Sweet Gene Vincent!
Sweet Gene Vincent!
Sweet Gene Vincent!
Sweet Gene Vincent!

When your leg still hurts and you need more shirts
You gotta get back on the road.

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8 thoughts on “Song of the Week 33: Sweet Gene Vincent – Ian Dury

  1. I think that it is evident that the songs on “New Boots” were lyrics that Ian had written over a long period of time. Certainly his collaboration with Jankel added a strength to the music which was lacking with the Kilburns. None of the later LPs have the consistency of the debut. I struggle to recall more than a couple of tracks from the follow-up “Do It Yourself” . There is less resonance because this record seems to have been written on the road and in the studio.
    Two months ago I was lucky enough to hang with a couple of former Blockheads (Norman Watt-Roy & Wilko Johnson). Of course our chat turned to Ian (who I saw perform 3 times). It was a privilege to listen to their stories & memories of a much-missed original talent.

    1. Yep, there are a lot of different styles on the record. And there are no “fillers” really. I love My Old Man too. So honest and authentic.

      What you say makes sense. For a lot of artists the first record is a long time in gestation, and the songs are well crafted, because they have that time to edit and refine the tracks.

      Cheers for sharing that. Interested to hear more. Did they mention their first impressions? Were they already aware of Ian before they worked with him?

  2. Even though the Kilburns were not successful they had quite a rep on the London circuit. I remember friends telling me about how wild they were and about the odd singer in around 1973/4. Norman, John Tunbull, Micky Gallagher & Charlie Charles were Loving Awareness, a band managed by Ronan O’Rahilly the owner of Radio Caroline, who used the station to promote a vague spiritual notion of the same name. (You were born too late Padraig, the world was wonderfully nuts for a time back then).

    Norman’s bass was central to the funk of the Blockheads, he really is an amazing player. We sat on the front row for the gig in October & watched open-mouthed. Wilko, who replaced Chas Jankel, told me he joined the Blockheads because he wanted to play with Norman & 30 years on he still does.

    “New Boots” took its time to gather any sales momentum. By the time “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” was #1 Ian & the Blockheads were the biggest band in the UK. Obviously Norman has good memories of that time. My blog on the Stiff Live Stiffs tour is forthcoming. On July 29th 1981 25,000 of us attended “It’s Only Rock and Royal”, a free concert headlined by Ian for those who wanted to ignore the Royal Wedding. The 3 of us shared a wry laugh about the very idea that this would happen now.

    1. Yep, was born in July of the year New Boots and Panties was released. A bit too young to appreciate it back then. Was a great year for music, 1977. Had read about the Radio Caroline link alright.

      Was familiar with Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick as a kid, and remember watching a documentary. My folks were fairly impressed by Ian Dury, so he was on the radar early on. Didn´t really get into the rest of the stuff till a few years ago though. He has a wonderful way with words. They´re a great band too, The Blockheads.

      Ignoring the royal wedding sounds like a very good cause. 🙂

  3. Hi Padraig, I found this great version of “Sweet Gene Vincent” by the Ian & the Blockheads with Wilko Johnson. Unfortunately I found out today that Wilko is suffering from pancreatic cancer. I have been proud to be his friend since his band, Dr Feelgood, kindly picked me up on the M1 in 1974. So, tonight is a sad one but, as with all these great musicians, their music will always be with us & we should celebrate it.

    1. Hey. Just getting around to watching it now. Great performance. Cheers for sending it on. Sorry to hear that news about Wilko. I wholeheartedly agree with your last point.

      I´ll get around to replying to your other messages soon too. Have been a bit slow with blogging the last week or so. Suffering from Christmas holiday hangover. Too much turkey probably. 🙂 That or the guinness.

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