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Revisiting: Ian Dury and the Blockheads - New Boots and Panties!!

In the latest in our series looking at classic albums from decades past, we return to an idiosyncratic album from one of modern music’s most characterful artists

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“I saw bands and I thought they were crap, and I thought I could do better in terms of entertainment,” said the late Ian Dury in 1977, upon releasing his first album with The Blockheads.

Born in 1942, Dury was an unlikely pop star. He contracted polio aged 7, which left him disabled, with a withered left arm and leg. He didn’t fit the archetypal image of a 1970s rock god or pop idol, but he possessed a captivating, sonorous voice, a huge personality, and a deftness with words. His lyrics were often genius, and his delivery unique.

Dury’s rise to fame was slow. Like many artists of his generation and genre, he honed his skills by playing live in small venues, making numerous appearances at Islington’s Hope & Anchor pub with his band Kilburn and The High Roads before landing a record deal. 

Whilst he started out as part of London’s so-called ‘pub rock’ scene — which included Dr Feelgood, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Dave Edmunds — it was the emergence of punk that inspired him to pursue a new creative direction. 

“I didn't want to sing in American anymore – I wanted to reflect my culture”, he later explained.

He left Kilburn and the High Roads in late 1975, and spent two years working with musician Chaz Jankel, whom he met at a gig.

This led to the creation of a very different sound – one that drew inspiration from the pair’s wide ranging musical tastes, as well as life in 1970s England.

“The result was a bizarre musical melange that sounded like nothing else around”

“I wanted to be English, and also to sound like the music we liked – Jamaican music, African music, American funk, jazz. But I'm quite proud that my sources of lyric writing are what I know about, and what I live amongst,” Dury once recalled. 

The result was a bizarre musical melange that sounded like nothing else around. It felt worlds apart from the punk rock that was assaulting the charts at the time, but there was a clear ‘punk’ feel to Dury’s vocal style – more reminiscent of Sham 69 than Bryan Ferry – and his lyrics were as blunt and profane as anything coming from the punk genre. As John Turnbull, guitarist for The Blockheads, once noted: “It seemed to be a very good blend of rock-funk, with lyrics from another planet.”

Whilst Dury was a confident performer, he once claimed he had “never thought about making records” until he met Charlie Gillet, a respected rock journalist who became his manager. On September 1977, he released New Boots and Panties!!, his first collaboration with The Blockheads. 

Recorded at Workhouse Studio on London’s Old Kent Road, it went on to spend 72 weeks in the UK album charts – selling over 300,000 copies – and made Dury one of the UK’s most talked-about musicians.

“The album contained an eclectic mix of styles, with elements of early rock and roll and pub rock with music hall and cocktail jazz”

Produced by Peter Jenner, Laurie Latham and Rick Walton, New Boots… was released on Stiff Records, a London-based independent label that had been home to Elvis Costello and The Damned. Dury later admitted that the label played an enormous part in his success. “Without them,” he subsequently said, “we wouldn't have been able to be us”.

The album contained an eclectic mix of styles, with elements of early rock and roll and pub rock with music hall and cocktail jazz. Songs combined catchy beats with wry, witty lyrics, delivered in Dury’s distinctive Cockney drawl. 

It was bookmarked by some superb singles  – ‘What a Waste’, ‘Reasons to Be Cheerful’ (Part Three) and ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ – which didn’t make it onto the album, despite being made during the same recording sessions. All three performed well in the UK singles chart, with the latter reaching number one in January 1979. 

Listened to now, New Boots… sounds surprisingly good. It’s certainly fresh and open, with superb, old-school musicianship that was honed through years of playing live in pubs. It’s no modern high-resolution digital recording, but is still a pleasing analogue affair that sounds very fresh when replayed on modern equipment. Although not a leading London studio, The Workhouse really delivered the goods for this debut. Producer Laurie Latham later recalled that it had an excellent quality mixing desk with great EQ, adding: “I loved everything about it.”

“Despite Dury’s punk sensibilities … he proved a perfectionist in the studio”

The album was done on a Studer 24-track machine, with large JBL 4341 monitor speakers, a Pye compressor and some Audio & Design effects pedals. The sessions began with Dury turning up with a shopping bag full of lyrics, and the first track they recorded was ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’. Musicians included saxophonist Davey Payne, guitarist Ed Speight and Moog player Geoff Castle, who joined Blockheads regulars Chaz Jankel (piano),

Norman Watt-Roy (bass), Charlie Charles (drums), John Turnbull (guitar) and Mickey Gallagher (piano). It cost just £4,000 to record, as the album was done in ‘dead time’ when the studio was otherwise unoccupied. This meant most sessions were done late at night.

Despite Dury’s punk sensibilities and somewhat shabby secondhand clothes – boots and panties were the only items that he reputedly ever bought new – he proved a perfectionist in the studio. Latham later said: "It's hard work making records, and I think Ian understood that to make a great one you've got to cover all options. He was into spending ages on stuff, and quite happy to sit there listening to a hi-hat part for hours on end, analysing: 'Is that right, or should we try this?’”

“Jankel’s playing on a Bechstein grand piano is a particular aural treat, alongside Mickey Gallagher’s Hammond organ work”

Whilst the recording session was later described as chaotic, it produced some excellent musicianship from the band. The relatively primitive nature of the studio meant that much of the recording took place with them playing together, rather than in individual booths at different times. In the case of ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ – which was recorded in the same session as the album tracks, but not featured on New Boots – it was all done in one take. The close working relationship between producer Latham and Chaz Jankel really got things cooking, and Jankel’s playing on a Bechstein grand piano is a particular aural treat, alongside Mickey Gallagher’s Hammond organ work.

Dury’s deep, rich vocals were beautifully captured by a Neumann U47 valve mic, as were  the grand piano's bottom strings. Reflecting on Dury’s time in the studio, Latham once recalled, “He loved working on his vocals — he liked spending ages and ages perfecting bits and getting that vocal timbre going…. Getting everything to fit could be interesting, not least because of the way Ian liked to pause or draw words out.”

Sadly, the album’s only single release – ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’ – failed to chart, but New Boots… gained plenty of attention thanks to the success of Dury’s other singles. Music fans were still quoting one-liners from ‘Wake Up and Make Love with Me’, ‘My Old Man’ and ‘Clever Trevor’ long after the album’s initial release, and the record that followed – 1979’s Do It Yourself – also proved popular. 

Dury died from cancer in March 2000, aged 57. By then, his best work was long behind him, but he remained a household name, on account of both his position as an elder statesman of the new wave generation, and his colourful, cantankerous and anarchic character. Listened to now, his debut album with The Blockheads feels like a fitting epitaph to a lost but not forgotten talent, and there’s no denying the album’s eclectic charms. 

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