Ian Dury wrote the song “Spasticus Autisticus” knowing it would cause trouble, and hoping it would be banned. It was written in response to the UN designating 1981 as the Year of the Disabled, as if high-lighting the ‘equalization of opportunities, rehabilitation and prevention of disabilities,’ with a motto that declared “a wheelchair in every home,” would somehow magically bring genuine equality and support where it was needed.
Dury thought the Year of the Disabled was patronizing and ‘crashingly insensitive,’ and his response was to write a song straight from the heart against the naivety and arrogance of well-meaning liberals. ‘Oh, I see, so in 1982, we’ll all be all right!’ Dury said.
‘I thought about going on tour as Spasticus and The Autistics, but [his friend, musician Ed] Speight said, “No, it should be Spasticus Autisticus - he’s the freed slave of the disabled.’
Speight was making reference to one of Dury’s favorite films Spartacus, with its famous ending where all of the slaves declare “I am Spartacus.” It was perfect for Dury and he started running lyrics together:
“I’m Spasticus! I’m Spasticus!
I’m Spasticus! I’m Spasticus!
I widdle when I piddle
‘Cos my middle is a riddle
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 upon the shelf
I must give all proceedings to myself.”
As Ed Speight later told Will Birch for his definitive biography of Ian Dury:
‘We kicked a few phrases around, drinking more dandelion and burdock. “I wobble when I hobble,” was one of them. We knocked out the hooks then Ian did the real artwork: “So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin, And thank the Creator you’re not in the state I’m in.” Some of it was influenced by Lenny Bruce - the “half-man/half-woman” routine. Ian said he wanted a record that would be banned. It certainly did the trick.’
Once recorded, it didn’t take long for “Spasticus Autisticus” to be banned. The song’s irony and anger were lost on a liberal media who were only able to see offense. Worse, it seemed the BBC management had forgotten that Dury was disabled, having contracted poliomyelitis as a child - something he had discussed on camera in a BBC documentary in 1979.
Dury contracted polio after swallowing a mouthful of infected water at a lido in Southend-on-Sea. His condition had been so serious that he had not been expected to live, and spent 6 weeks isolated in a hospital ward in Truro. Against all the odds, Dury pulled through, and he convalesced for a further 18 months at a hospital in Braintree, Essex, before being sent to Chailey Heritage and Craft School.
Chailey was a former workhouse, which had been converted into a school for ‘disabled children suffering from diseases such as rickets, tuberculosis and malnutrition.’ The school had been established in 1894 by Dame Grace Kimmins, under the auspices of her charitable organization the “Guild of the Poor Brave Things” - which says much about the school.
The brutality at Chailey changed Dury. Bullying and violence were endemic, and sex abuse frequent. Dury adopted a tough Cockney demeanor, to disguise his natural intelligence and sensitivity, though it didn’t protect him from bullying or from being sexual abused by other boys.
In 1981, when the BBC led the way with its campaign against Dury, they had no idea the maverick singer and poet was disabled. The BBC behaved like the well intentioned Victorians behind the “Guild of the Poor Brave Things.” The ban had a damning affect, literally ending Dury’s successful career as a singles artist, and damaging his long-term recording career.
A few months before he died in 2000, Ian Dury performed “Spasticus Autisticus” to a ‘rapturous reception’ at the London Palladium. Twelve years on, “Spasticus Autisticus” was performed by Graeae Theater Company at the opening ceremony for the 2012 Paralympics.
More from Ian Dury, after the jump…