Sunday, 22 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #88: Reasons To Be Cheerful (1999)

The second consecutive compilation serves as a summary of the career of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, released a year before Dury's death of cancer in March 2000. The career of Ian Robin Dury began in 1971. Following the death of his idol 'Sweet' Gene Vincent, Dury formed Kilburn and the High Roads. This 'pub-rock' band incorporated keyboardist Russell Hardy and also features many of the students Dury was teaching at the time, at Canterbury Art College. The band never released an album, but got enough of a cult following to open for The Who before disbanding in 1975. The Blockheads were assembled in 1977, signed to Stiff Records, and lasted until 1980 in its original incarnation (when pianist and guitarist Chris Yankel left to start a solo career). The group folded in 1981 but reformed in 1998 after Dury was diagnosed with cancer; they played together until his death and still tour today.

In typical brash style, we open with the catchy, cleverly worked 'Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3'. The intelligent opening features a simple drum riff, after which the backing vocals and off-beat cowbell come in. Dury's voice works well against the jazzy guitar, and as usual we are treated to his wonderfully witty lyrics; few artists have produced lines like Summer Buddy Holly, the working folly/ Good Golly, Miss Molly and oats. The whole thing is rhythmic, a sure-fire toe-tapper and a great way to kick things off.

'Wake Up And Make Love To Me' is more direct and relies on Yankel's piano. Good as he is, this does not have the same kind of reggae-punk pull that the previous track had. Dury 'sings' slowly and as such the sexual nature of his lyrics is compromised by the tempo. This is a bit too mellow even for such a personal subject. But before one can lose faith, we power into the sublime and majestical 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick', without a doubt one of the greatest and wittiest songs ever written. Dury's delivery is at his most charmingly humorous and the lyrics and excellent. The band functions like a complete unit in this swirling, blues-funk number which deservedly got to No. 1 in 1979. From the spoken-word vocals to the jazzy piano fills and the two saxophones being played simultaneously by Davey Payne, this is a flawless British gem that has stood the test of time.

'Clever Trevor' returns thing to a slower pace. Here Dury gives the Blockheads some room, which is much appreciated. While he thrashes out every conceivable word which rhymes with 'Trevor', Mickey Gallagher's keyboards and Norman Watt-Roy's bass swirl and thunder around us, leaving us feeling... well, cheerful. Overall, though, this is a weaker effort, despite the sublime final line: Also, it takes a lot longer to get up north... the slow way. There is for one thing too much room given for inane guitar improvisation which is thankfully guillotined.

'What A Waste' is a much-needed rebound to upbeat, witty mode. Lines like I could be the driver of an articulated lorry/ I could be a poet, I wouldn't need to worry sum up this song about inadequacy and nerves. You can sense that Dury is singing about himself.Physically speaking, he was not suited to the rock star life - having almost died of polio aged 7, his growth had been stunted and his voice reflected this, on top of the thick, even more hindering Cockney accent. But by writing songs around his voice instead of what the people thought or wanted him to sound like, he made songs like this Top 10 hit and 'Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll' into anthems. This especially is remarkable, if nothing else in the simple statement in the chorus which became part of the common language - Sex and drugs and rock and roll/ Is all my brain and body need/ Sex and drugs and rock and roll/ Is very good indeed. The guitar riffs hark back to the 1960s and the lyrics reflect Dury's love of music hall, both welcome if unusual ingredients in this classic.

'There Is What We Find' returns to the graphic connotations explored in 'Wake Up And Make Love To Me', but is more quickfire. Sometimes this works against Dury, who often sings so quickly that all meaning is lost. But generally this is a good combination of reggae and 2-tone ska, with Dury at his most rhythmically obscene. 'Itinerant Child continues in this vein but changes the focus from sexual gossip to the rebellious lifestyle. Paying homage to Steely Dan in the lyrics, it's a great document of generational change - though which is unclear, since it references both punks and hippies - told through the story of a clapped-out car, driven to a gig which turns into a riot. Once again, above Dury's vocals rise the swirling keyboards and saxophones that make the Blockheads such a great listen.

If you like musical practical jokes, then 'Sweet Gene Vincent' is just about the best around. It opens like a funereal tribute to Dury's idol, and though we later find out that Dury is holding back the laughs, this feels deeply serious and gives nothing away. Soon the sombre drums die down, leaving silence - and then a great piano rockability song rushes to the front, Dury's sense of humour bounces forwards and the result, thanks to one of the greatest turnarounds in music, is a hilarious masterpiece.

'I Want To Be Straight' starts with the band introducing themselves, Bonzo-style, before this easy but effective little number saunters through. This is again addressing Dury's concerns about his health and lifestyle, but lines like I want to be straight/ I want to be straight/ I'm sick and tired of taking drugs and staying up late also reference rumours that Dury was gay. Overall this is a bit cloyed, goes on far too long and the ending with the Scottish harmonies - Straight, straight, straight, that would be great - is awful, but thanks to Dury this is disarming and honest enough to pass muster.

The same praise should not be accorded for either 'Blockheads' or 'Mash It Up Harry'. The former screws is reduced to an unvarying shouting match. Dury was always too poetic to be a proper punk - and also way too talented - so there was no point trying. Certain lyrics may have comteporary relevance, should chavs develop a fancy for black and orange cars, but others are just plain rubbish - what the hell are premature ejaculation drivers? The latter sounds more quintessentially English, in its subject of football and its inventive use of innuendo. But that is not enough to save it, since while this is not a shouting match, the two halves don't gel - the first is a friendly, coy look at football fans, the second boils down to a supporters' chant which just doesn't work.

The last truly great track on the album is 'There Aint' Half Been Some Clever Bastards'. It's inspirational, not just musically but because it's one of Dury's lyrical masterstrokes. In the space of three verses, he praises the likes of Noël Coward, Vincent van Gogh and Albert Einstein through wonderful rhymes, before concluding that they were probably so clever because their mums helped them. The Einstein verse in particular is to die for:

Einstein can't be classed at witless
He claimed atoms were the littleist
When you did the bit of splitingingness
Frightened everybody shitless

From hereon in, things look a little more uneven. 'Billericay Dickie' attempts to replicate the faculty for poetic rhyming that the previous track achieved. But while the verses work very well, conveying the theme about a hopeless romantic and his most recent dates, the choruses just jar alongside the meaningless middle-eight: You should never hold a candle/ If you don't know where it's been/ The jackpot is in the handle/ On a normal fruit machine. Just as humdrum is 'In-Betweenies'; it's quite lazy on both lyrical and musical counts, with a cabaret sound that one would have thought anathema to the Blockheads. The backing vocals in particular sound too much like a pop hit from the 1950s - and the use of sirens in the instrumental section doesn't lift it, but rather makes it sound more desperate.

More promising is 'Spasticus Autisticus', a song written for the National Disabled Persons' Day in 1981 and banned by the BBC. It's easy to see why the squeamish executives would have shuddered at this offering - because it's one of the most direct offerings of Dury's career. Again, it is a song about his own disability, but in a manner which manages to send himself up through more clever wordplay. The song concludes with an inspired parody of the end of Spartacus - one by one different voices, both male and female, shout 'I'm Spasticus!'. Though this again goes on too long, it's a worthy effort and deserves its place here.

The closers, 'My Old Man' and' Lullaby For Francies' are more introspective and subdued. This means that, even though they deal with subjects close to Dury's heart, they are not suited to his style. 'My Old Man', about his Cockney father, features prominent bass work and catchy sax riffs, but Dury is vocally a bit tired-sounding. It is too slow even for this kind of subject, and as a result is one of the weakest tracks. 'Lullaby For Francies' begins better, with great drum work from Charley Charles, but this sounds too much like UB40 in the guitar work to be counted as a Dury classic. And so the album ends on a whimper - a faded-out wimper.

Reasons To Be Cheerful is not the most cohesive of albums. This is not just because this is a greatest hits, but also because both Dury and the Blockheads were single-oriented, focussing their energies on writing individual anthems and pop songs rather than trying to draw out themes across multiple records or - heaven forbid - create a concept album about late-1970s life. That said, this does not have the feel of a CD made up of a selection of hits packed in by record executives without any care for the order. This does rumble along rather nicely: though no sleeve detail is provided of the history of these records, you get the impression of something of fairly major historical importance. Many of the songs don't really deserve to be on here, and in any case this would be too long even if all Dury's work was of 'Clever Bastards' quality. Nevertheless, this is a great record to have on shuffle, and for those just discovering Dury, it's an ideal starting point.
3.72 out of 5

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