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On a close, muggy evening outside the Royal Albert Hall on Monday, an understandably enthusiastic crowd pitched up in various forms of smart summer wear to hear the first part of Daniel Barenboim’s Ring cycle at the BBC Proms. Right place, right time: there is no better way to celebrate impending thunder than a cranky dose of Wagner.
But I was with a small, more bedraggled, and dare I say more select, group that filtered to the right of the hall as we crossed the road. Not for us the bombast and agony of Das Rheingold; we were celebrating the altogether different artistic sensibility of Ian Dury, subject of a first-ever solo exhibition, 13 years after his death, at the adjacent Royal College of Art.
Dury was a one-man Gesamtkunstwerk, rightly feted for his brilliantly inventive pop lyrics, but who trained initially as a fine artist, gaining a place at the RCA (“the only thing I aspired to in my life”) after studying at Walthamstow Art College, northeast London. He had just three O-levels under his belt when he went there: English language and literature, and art. No need for any others. Playing with words and images became his life.
The art work on show at the RCA is neither startlingly original nor supremely polished. A meeting in 1961 with Sir Peter Blake pushed Dury in the direction of Pop Art, and he remained fascinated with the minor celebrities and B-list sex symbols that formed the undercurrent of British cultural life.
At the time, it was a radical idea: why shouldn’t the cheap and the ephemeral be celebrated with paintings in a gallery? Today, engulfed by witless celebrations of the cheap and the ephemeral, we have no need for Pop Art at all. Blake and Dury were ahead of the game, but probably didn’t realise what a squalid preoccupation their work prefigured.
If you don’t know much about Dury, the eloquent description of him in the exhibition’s preamble serves pretty well: he was somewhere between “a music hall vagabond, a bohemian docker, [and] a Dickensian fairground teddy-boy.” That captures the streaks of anti-authority, spontaneity and good humour that infused his work.
But to be truthful it is not his visual art that best serves him. When he left college, he struggled to make it as an artist. He managed to gain a foothold in the commercial world, illustrating features for the Sunday Times magazine, and designing album covers (including one, extraordinarily, for the estimable Vera Lynn). Yet there were limited opportunities for the satirical turns and bawdy nudges that forever sprang to his mind to find expression. To find his true status as an artist, he turned to music.
Dury’s career as a bona fide pop star, bookended by 1977’s “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” and 1981’s “Spasticus Autisticus”, was short, and sweeter than you might imagine. Right place, right time. Britain was undergoing a radical and menacing cultural reorientation, and it was not a pretty sight. Wanted: lippy troubadour with GSOH. Dury brought charm and lightness of touch to an angry generation’s impatience.
Remember that delicate introduction to “Sweet Gene Vincent”? “Skinny white sailor, the chances were slender, the beauties were brief / Shall I mourn your decline with some Thunderbird wine, and a black handkerchief?” “Sex & Drugs”, if you listened carefully, was no call to degeneracy, but an exhortation to be an original thinker.
“Spasticus” was a withering take on sanctimonious tokenism from Dury, whose own mobility was impaired after a childhood bout of polio. The BBC banned both songs, in some shape or form. Last year, “Spasticus” was one of the remarkable highlights of the Paralympic opening ceremony. It is the fate of original thinkers to have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up with them.
Dury always said that he knew he was good enough, at art, to know he wasn’t going to be good enough. He saved his attention to detail for his music, which was fresh and scrupulously crafted. He had little in common with the punk movement, which co-opted him for his faux-aggressive demeanour. One of his favourite albums of the era was the super-slick Aja by Steely Dan: no group was more reviled by his bedfellows.
Which was Dury’s greater love, art or music? Difficult to tell. But he is not the only figure of the pop age to try his hand at both. Two of the era’s greatest lyricists, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, are also painters (Mitchell regards it as her true vocation; Dylan dabbles). John Lennon’s fluent, mischievous drawings have always struck me as truer to his spirit than some of his more portentous lyrics.
Dury disliked any attempt to make too haughty with his achievements; indeed he was embarrassed by some of the more extravagant claims made on his behalf. “I’ve been accused of philosophy, I’ve been accused of poetry,” he told Sue Lawley while choosing his Desert Island Discs. “I’m not guilty of either.”
‘Ian Dury: More Than Fair, Paintings, Drawings and Artworks 1961-72’, Royal College of Art, until September 1, www.rca.ac.uk
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