The first words of the 1999 BBC documentary “On My Life!” about the remarkable and distinctive pub rock perormer Ian Dury are “Good evening. I’m from Essex,” which come from the spoken intro to his jaunty 1977 song “Billericay Dickie,” off of Dury’s 1977 debut album New Boots and Panties!! Filmed and released just a year before his death to cancer, the hour-long doc, clearly made with an acute awareness of Dury’s impending demise, focuses on Dury’s self-consciously working class background and refusal to disavow it.
A clip of Dury discussing his father’s working life as a bus driver and chauffeur segues naturally into “My Old Man,” an autobiographical song about his pop. (It says something about Dury’s originality and crusty persona that he could get away with a song as unabashedly sentimental as “My Old Man.”) Dury suffered from polio as a young lad, and always defiantly scorned any attempts to pigeonhole him, or anybody else, as “disabled”—his cheeky 1981 song “Spasticus Autisticus,” banned by the BBC, was a brazen eff-you to the people who had named that year the International Year of Disabled Persons.
In the 1960s Dury attended the Royal College of Art, where he studied under the renowned pop art master Peter Blake (the portrait at the top of this post is by Blake), and Dury actually produced a number of notable canvases in the pop art idiom, but you’d never know any of that by encountering one of his “working-class” tracks on the radio.
Dury tells an amusing (and unexpected) anecdote about how some of his early demos, in which he apparently adopted a sultry American accent—difficult to imagine, right?—called out for “all that Barry White impersonations,” Dury decided it would be best to “try to be funny rather than sexy.”
Dury is a fascinating figure who was taken from us all too soon at the age of 57. This documentary is an invaluable document into the circumstances that made him so distinctive.