Sunday 12 October 2014

December 1979

Jewel in the bile

‘I see myself as a member of the building trade – a rock ’n’ roll brickie. It all depends on just how good a brickie you want to be …’

Ian Dury, man of Hod, has invited me round to his recently acquired West End flat – ‘I’ve only got a year lease. Haven’t got a fucking clue where I’ll be after that.’

When you’re writing the interview for Record Mirror, the Daily Record and the Evening News, you get bounced up to club class − invites to the homes. I’ve interviewed Ian once before -- we went ice skating together at Queensway, believe it or not. He’d just released New Boots and Panties, the outlet for a townful of emotion that swirled and bubbled in Dury’s jewel box.

It created a unique market. Seldom out of the charts, the album has clocked up sales approaching half a million.

The follow-up, Do It Yourself, was a disappointment. A bit self-indulgent maybe? Over-estimating the aural intelligence of the masses? Or just plain shit?

After chatting to Ian for an hour and a half, I’m still not sure what he thinks of the album.

‘I think we went a bit MOR simply because we tried to be so different from New Boots. But it has paved the way for a lot of new songs to be written. A lot more hard work will come as a result of it. Oh, well, you can’t disappoint everybody. The songs on Do It Yourself were more autobiographical, which may have been a mistake. Now that sounds as if I hate the album and it’s not true.’

Why was the album more autobiographical?

‘In a personal way I wasn’t really happy last year. Everything that happened really messed up my normal life. I felt alone a lot of the time. I didn’t go out; I didn’t meet many new people. I guess it was obvious, in the light of that, how my songs would turn out.’

Are you a satirical songwriter?

‘What’s that saying . . . ‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit’? No. Satire is the last outpost of the bankrupt middle-class public-schoolboy wanker. There’s nothing very important about the entertainment industry. People worry too much about industrials. If it’s entertaining and people want to see it there doesn’t have to be any more reason.’

But it’s true he’s regarded as something of a hero by many. ‘And I’m amazed by it. To think me, just another normal crotchety old bastard, could be thought of as some kind of bod to a lot of people. I mean, for a start, I’m not all that reliable a person. I don’t go waving magic wands at people in real life.

‘A bishop once told Mick Jagger he had a lot of respect. Jagger replied: "There is no respect attached to what I am." When I realised he really meant that I stopped loving him. The only real respect is a personal one. If someone wants to be decadent in private it’s their responsibility not to make a fuss about it. It’s not that wonderful a thing. In fact it’s very sad – the last outpost of someone who can’t relate to normality. I have a responsibility to keep myself together.

'Ten years ago I could like myself quite easily. Now I have to work hard at it. But I still have that self-respect. If I lost that, I’d give up. Van Morrison used to get a lot of letters from people who said his songs prevented them from jumping off bridges. After he read them he’d say, "Christ, that’s another one I’ve stopped." I hope my songs don’t stop people jumping off bridges.’

He’s got a smile as blue as his baggy shirt. I’ve had my doubts about Dury in the past. It was that art-school/fart-school antecedence, that down-among-the-plebs pageantry. After our last interview I had a cast-iron respect, which has since rusted. But the longer he talks, the more I begin to realise he’s still out there on that ledge with the rest of us, scheming and dreaming. Scheming and dreaming … and screaming …

But self-respect isn’t the only kind, is it, Ian?

‘I do respect the guys I work with, enough to want to work with them. I don’t think they think I’m the best singer in the world. But I do object to being called, as I once was, the "Roy Hudd of rock". I mean, fuck me.’

Ian, do you think you’re ugly?

‘Nah, I’m just around the corner and three doors down from handsome, that’s all. I still get my fair share of fan mail. A lot of the young ladies don’t seem to mind that much. In fact, some people seem to find me attractive. I have fourteen-year-old girls writing to me asking for a photograph. And I remember the last time I played at Hammersmith, ten girls leaped on the stage to get hold of me. ‘Oh yeah,’ he adds, tongue in cheekily, ‘I get the screamers alright. Gary Glitter watch out.’

But he also takes great pains to point out that he doesn’t want to simply attract the ‘TTDC – that’s Teen and Twenty Disco Club. It’s like I’d rather do an interview with the Daily Mirror than the Observer. I want to reach as many kinds of people as possible. I’d be very happy if the audience was full of old age pensioners and little kids.

‘You can’t attach much importance to what I do – although at the same time I hope I believe in what I do. I’m thirty-seven now. On my thirty-fifth birthday the telephone was cut off because I hadn’t paid my bill. I was skint. I was very worried about that telephone bill. Very worried. I don’t have to worry about the telephone bill any more. They used to say something about Keith Moon which I thought was a magnificent concept. They reckoned that if he’d left The Who at any time he would have been broke in six months. That’s a great thing to remember.

‘I’ve been in a closeted atmosphere for quite some time. Mind you, I never was one for showing my face. Don’t like the scuffling it involves. I’m just not interested in that nonsense. I don’t find it very interesting in the way that, say, Bob Geldof or Billy Idol seem to. Oh, I didn’t have time to experience an identity crisis or anything like that. I was too bloody busy. Still am. I die when I’m alone …

‘Still, I’ve been lucky. None of us are in debt. We’ve managed to stay alive by selling records. It’s all quite healthy. But I think the rest of the guys still worry about their telephone bills.’

He looks a little tired. Does he get depressed?

‘I usually get moody when I’m exhausted but generally I don’t think there’s any point in taking things seriously. If we make mistakes on stage we just laugh. We know we’ve done our best and there’s absolutely no need to get uptight about it. The only people who know when you’ve played a bum note are musicians and they didn’t pay to get in anyway. So it doesn’t matter.

‘It’s important to have normal feelings. I try hard to keep myself together in that way. I’d hate to end up like, say, Bob Dylan, living in that vast West Coast mansion. One day Dylan was walking down a narrow corridor with a huge bodyguard. This little guy came rushing towards them and bumped into Dylan. The bodyguard got hold of him

and said, "Hey, do you know who you’ve just knocked into? That’s Bob Dylan." And the little guy replied, "I don’t care if it’s fucking Bob Donovan! Get outta my way!"

‘Once I was walking down to a tube train when a mass of people suddenly swept me off my feet, and they didn’t touch the ground till I reached the platform. The train was already there and in the rush I fell over. Someone saw me and helped me onto my feet, which saved me from a right good stamping. It’s nice to have someone around to pick you up when you fall down. I get up quicker that way.’

Like all good circles the subject reverts back to respect. ‘I just don’t know why it should be that people respect me. After all, I’m only a bit of a spiv, a bit of a clown, a bit of a brat. It’s always easy for an oddball to be accepted.’

(The Blockheads broke up, re-formed, broke up, re-formed and gave their final performance at the London Palladium on 6 February 2000, supported by Kirsty MacColl. Ian died of cancer a few weeks later, aged fifty-seven. In my humble opinion, New Boots and Panties featured the finest lyrics ever written by a British artist)

Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain

© Barry Cain 2013

Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives



Friday 3 October 2014

September 1979

New balls, please

Photo copyright Neil Matthews

Queen are among that elite number of bands universally despised by the rock press. And the feeling is, make no mistake, mutual. When you’ve been on the receiving end of a stream of vitriol at the outset of your career and watched it being carefully cultivated over the next six years, you’re bound to retaliate.

Queen’s hatred manifests itself in their continued habit of ignoring the music press. There’s the occasional token chat, as pointless as it is innocuous, but in the main it amounts to a blanket, ‘No.’

One of the last interviews Freddie Mercury gave was the final nail in the Perspex coffin. Under a headline that boldly asked, ‘Is This Man A Prat?’ the king of the leotards was demolished by one of the old school Queen-haters and Freddie obviously came to the conclusion that interviews in future would be superfluous because he was popular enough already. It just wasn’t worth the hurt.

The curtain, velvet naturally, closed.

So I’m intrigued.

I drive down to Roger Taylor’s very big house in the country for a chat about Freddie Mercury’s balls. In fact, his home is so large that when I go to the toilet halfway through the interview, I get lost. As I search around for the door to the lounge from which I emerged seemingly hours before, I walk past open French windows in an endless hallway and glimpse two people playing tennis in one of the courts outside − Freddie Mercury and Brian May. Freddie waves and I wave back, and that’s the closest I ever get to the guy. They may have released more than their fair share of duffers, but Queen cream is creamier than anyone else’s. It’s an honour to get a royal wave from the greatest showman of them all.

But when Roger saw Freddie pirouette across the stage with the Royal Ballet in a skin-tight leotard and looking for all the world like the Fonteyn of youth, he had to admit Freddie had a lot of balls.

‘I was more nervous than he was,’ says Roger, who’s not the biggest ballet fan in the world. ‘I mean, I wouldn’t do it. That’s just not me. But I’d like to see anyone else have the courage to do that − and carry it off as well as he did. He had a lot of bottle to go on that stage. He loves all that stuff.’

And as Freddie delighted the dickie-bow dahlings with his well-developed pas de deux and distributed his obvious terpsichorean talents liberally around the theatre, young Roger lent a hypercritical ear to the music − orchestral versions of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’.

He wasn’t impressed. ‘It was awful. Badly played, under-rehearsed, they couldn’t even keep time. These guys seem to be ruled by opinions, not by music. A lot of people are conned by these classical musicians who bandy the word "culture" about so frequently. They hide behind it. Rock ’n’ roll isn’t culture − it’s vulgar, thank goodness.’

Still, you could hardly accuse Freddie of being ‘vulgar’, more Olga as in Korbut, such is his gymnastic dexterity when he leads Queen across the quiescent wastes of pomp (as in -adour) rock.

‘Freddie is only being himself. He doesn’t care − and it’s the only way to be. Some people think that’s great − others simply hate it.’

Roger, a little wary, a little weary, sits stiffly in an armchair. He seems to be the only member of Queen left who is prepared, albeit rarely, to open his mouth in the presence of a hack. ‘We all sat around a table to discuss the press situation and we agreed I should be the one to represent the band. Freddie is very uncompromising and refuses to have much to do with journalists.’

Roger, too, has a very low opinion of the music press. ‘Most of it is rubbish,’ he says. ‘There was something I liked recently, a piece on Malcolm McLaren.’ (Hope it was mine.) ‘I think I’m the only member of Queen to actually read the music papers.’

Why does he think the band are slagged?

‘Queen have always come across as being a rather confident band and I think the press may have mistaken confidence for arrogance. Hence they became very wary of our motives, which in turn has bred a dislike for our music.’

At the risk of being sent to Coventry by my colleagues, I’d like, if I may, to come clean. I love Queen. My love affair began with a simple, pre-packed but indispensable line – ‘Dynamite with a laser beam’ -- and has continued mainly uninterrupted right through to Live Killers.


Freddie Mercury’s lascivious lisp – the most attractive intonation known to man; Brian May’s reel-’em-off rococo riffs that would, in his capable hands, transform the music for Corrie into a masterwork; John Deacon’s stoic stance; Roger Taylor’s intense power, so unexpected from one so slight; the band’s ability to go over the top without falling into the trap of caricature; a desire to give the punters what they want; their cast-iron confidence; those nine glorious winter weeks of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which kept the cold away from my door.

The monkey on Queen’s back, as corpulent and cantankerous as ever, has been put there by those who firmly believe they can never emulate past achievements.

‘That all began after "Bohemian Rhapsody",’ says Roger. ‘When it stayed at number one all those weeks, we were told that we would never be able to make another single to rival it both artistically and from the point of view of sales.’

Yet ‘We Are The Champions’ sold a great many more. Why did they decide to dispense with the services of a manager?

‘Because we were fed up with giving other people money. I mean, everything seems so great when you get into the charts for the first time. You’re living on cloud nine and nothing else matters. But in truth that hit means absolutely nothing. Oh, you think you’re really living . . . for a while. Somebody gets you a flat in Chelsea and it’s all free. But one day the rent stops being paid for you and you realise you’re skint.’

My attention is suddenly diverted.


Wimbledon, the Persil white opiate for the suburban strawberry munchers, wrings out its perspiring petticoats on the huge back-projection TV in the next room. Roger’s girlfriend, an extremely attractive French girl called Dominique, is engrossed. The couple have lived together for two years. Crippled old marriage questions permeate the air.

‘I don’t believe in marriage,’ says Roger. ‘It’s simply a contract and the fewer contracts I enter into the better.’

What’s it like having a bank account overflowing with money at the age of twenty-nine?

‘I’ve completely lost touch with how much things cost. When you find yourself living in hotels for so long you never really deal in money as such. Everything is available whenever you want it − but you never see the cash actually being handed over. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be penniless, which Queen were for years.’

Roger is a decent chap who knows how to schmooze. In fact, most of these guys are pretty decent chaps, whether they’re Bruce Springsteen or Joe Strummer, Lemmy or Johnny Rotten, Debbie Harry or Paul Weller. There’s a kind of streak of decency that links them all. They are artists, masters of their crafts, confident in their ability, devout in their belief. They know what they want and they know how to get it. They don’t want to destroy, they want to create. They are your friends. They help you glide through life.

A music journalist kinda destroys more than he creates because it’s a lot fucking easier to write. It’s one of life’s tragedies.

(Roger has released four solo albums – two since Freddie Mercury’s death in 1991. He also released three albums with his band the Cross between 1987 and 1993. He still played under the Queen name with guitarist Brian May and ex-Free singer Paul Rodgers, and they released the album Cosmos Rocks in 2008. Since 2011, May and Taylor have collaborated with vocalist Adam Lambert under the name of Queen + Adam Lambert. Later this year, Queen will release a new album, Queen Forever, featuring vocals from the late Freddie Mercury. The band had 18 No. 1 albums, 18 No. 1 singles, and 10 No. 1 DVDs. Estimates of their record sales generally range from 150 million to 300 million records, making them one of the world's best-selling music artists. They received the Outstanding Contribution to British Music Award from the British Phonographic Industry in 1990, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Roger has been married twice and has five children.)  

Next: Ian Dury

Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain

© Barry Cain 2013

Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives



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