Dury was born at his parents' home at 43 Weald Rise, Harrow Weald, Harrow (although he often claimed that he was born in Upminster, Havering). He lived with the effects of polio, which he contracted at the age of seven — very likely, he believed, from a swimming pool at Southend on Sea during the 1949 polio epidemic. His 1981 song "Spasticus Autisticus", intended to mark the International Year of Disabled Persons, was banned by the BBC despite having been written by a disabled person. The lyrics were uncompromising:
The song's refrain, "I'm spasticus, autisticus" was inspired by the response of the rebellious Roman gladiators in the film Spartacus, who, when instructed to identify their leader, all answered, "I am Spartacus," to protect him.
Dury left the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe at 16 to study at Walthamstow Art College. In 1964 he won a place at the Royal College of Art where he was taught by the eminent British artist Peter Blake and, in 1967, Dury himself started teaching art at various colleges in the south of England. When asked why he did not pursue a career in art, he once said, "I got good enough [at art] to realise I wasn't going to be very good." Despite this claim, Dury did have some notable successes as an artist, such as gaining a place in a group exhibition, called Fantasy and Figuration, alongside Pat Douthwaite, Herbert Kitchen and Stass Paraskos in a show at the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, in 1967.
Dury married his first wife Betty Rathmell in 1967 and they had two children, Jemima and Baxter, who is now also a recording artist (he is the author of the ballad "Cocaine Man"). They divorced in 1985 but remained on good terms. She died of cancer in 1994.
Dury was inspired to form Kilburn and the High-Roads (a pun on the road in north London) in 1971 following the death of his hero Gene Vincent. Dury was vocalist and lyricist, co-writing with pianist Russell Hardy and later enrolling into the group a number of the students he was teaching at Canterbury College of Art, including guitarist Keith Lucas (who later became the guitarist for 999 under the name Nick Cash) and bassist Humphrey Ocean. Managed by Charlie Gillett and Gordon Nelki, the Kilburns found favour on London's Pub Rock circuit and signed to Dawn Records in 1974, but despite favourable press coverage and a tour opening for The Who, the group failed to rise above cult status. The group disbanded in 1975.
Managed by Andrew King, Ian Dury and the Blockheads had several hit singles, including "What a Waste", "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" (which was a UK number one at the beginning of 1979, selling just short of a million copies), "Reasons to be Cheerful, Part Three" (number three in the UK in 1979), and the rock and roll anthem "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll", often credited with introducing the phrase to the language. Dury's lyrics are a unique combination of lyrical poetry, word play, observation of British everyday (working-class) life, acute character sketches, and vivid, earthy humour. "This is what we find" refers to how "Home improvement expert Harold Hill of Harold Hill...Came home to find another gentleman's kippers in the grill, So he sanded off his winkle with his Black & Decker Drill. The song Billericay Dickie continues this sexual content, rhyming "I had a love affair with Nina...In the back of my Cortina", and joking that "A seasoned-up hyena...Could not have been more obscener".
The Blockheads' sound drew from their many musical influences - which included jazz, rock and roll, funk, and reggae - plus Dury's love of music hall. The band was formed after Dury began writing songs with pianist and guitarist Chaz Jankel. Jankel took Dury's lyrics, fashioned a number of songs, and they began recording with members of Radio Caroline's Loving Awareness Band, drummer Charley Charles, bassist Norman Watt-Roy, keyboard player Mickey Gallagher, guitarist John Turnbull, and the former Kilburns saxophonist Davey Payne. An album was completed, but major record labels passed on the band. However, next door to Dury's manager's office was the newly formed Stiff Records, a perfect home for Dury's maverick style. The classic single "Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll" marked Dury's Stiff debut and this was swiftly followed by the album New Boots and Panties!!, which was eventually to achieve platinum status.
In October 1977 Dury and his band started to go out as Ian Dury and the Blockheads, when the band signed up for the Stiff "Live Stiffs Tour" alongside Elvis Costello And The Attractions, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, and Larry Wallis. The tour was a success, and Stiff launched a concerted Ian Dury marketing campaign, resulting in the Top Ten hit "What a Waste" and the classic UK number one "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick".
Einstein can't be classed as witless,
He claimed atoms were the littlest.
When you did a bit of splittleliness:
Frightened everybody shitless.|20px|20px|from There ain't half been some clever bastards
I could be a lawyer with strategems and ruses
I could be a doctor with poultices and bruises
I could be a writer with a growing reputation
I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway station|20px|20px|from What a Waste
The band's second album Do It Yourself was released in June 1979 in a Barney Bubbles-designed sleeve of which there were over a dozen variations, all based on samples from the Crown wallpaper catalogue. Another top ten single, "Reasons to be Cheerful", kept Dury in the public eye. In 1980 Jankel left the Blockheads to concentrate on a solo career and was replaced by former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson, who also contributed to the next album Laughter and its two minor hit singles. In 1980-81 Dury and Jankel teamed up again with Sly and Robbie to record Lord Upminster.
Ian Dury and the Blockheads disbanded in 1981 after Dury secured a new recording deal with Polydor Records through A&R man Frank Neilson, choosing to work with a group of young musicians which he named The Music Students and recorded the album Four Thousand Weeks' Holiday. This album marked a departure from his usual style and was not as well received by fans for its American jazz influence. In 1998, following Dury's diagnosis with cancer, he reunited with the Blockheads to record the well-received album Mr Love-Pants and play a number of live dates. In the early 1990s, Dury appeared with English band Curve on the benefit compilation album Peace Together. Dury and Curve singer Toni Halliday shared vocals on a cover of the Blockheads' track "What a Waste".
The Blockheads have continued after Dury's death, contributing to the tribute album, Brand New Boots And Panties, then Where's The Party. The Blockheads still tour, and are currently recording a new album. They currently comprise Jankel, Watt-Roy, Gallagher, Turnbull, Dylan Howe on drums, Gilad Atzmon and Dave Lewis on saxes. Derek The Draw (who was Dury's friend and minder) is now writing songs with Jankel as well as singing. They are aided and abetted by Lee Harris, who is their 'aide de camp'.
Dury wrote and performed the theme song "Profoundly in Love with Pandora" for the television series The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 (1985), based on the book of the same name by Sue Townsend, as well as its follow-up The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1987). Dury turned down an offer from Andrew Lloyd-Webber to write the libretto for Cats (a gig which reportedly earned Richard Stilgoe millions). The reason, said Dury, "I can't stand his music. "... I said no straight off. I hate Andrew Lloyd Webber. He's a wanker, isn't he?" "Every time I hear 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina' I feel sick, it's so bad. He got Richard Stilgoe to do the lyrics in the end, who's not as good as me. He made millions out of it. He's crap, but he did ask the top man first!
When AIDS first came to prominence in the mid-1980s, Dury was among celebrities who appeared on UK television to promote safe sex, demonstrating how to put on a condom using a model of an erect penis. Dury cohabited with actress and singer Jane Horrocks for approximately two years in the 1980s. In the 1990s, he became an ambassador for UNICEF, recruiting stars such as Robbie Williams to publicise the cause. The two visited Sri Lanka in this capacity to promote polio vaccination. Dury appeared with Curve on the Peace Together concert and CD (1993), performing "What a Waste", with benefits to the Youth of Northern Ireland. He was also involved with the charity Cancer Bacup. Dury appeared in the Classic Albums episode that focused on Steely Dan's album, Aja. Dury commented that the album was one of the most "hopeful" he'd ever heard, and that the album "lifted [his] spirits up" whenever he played it. He also felt that it showed Steely Dan's love for jazz musicians and that it had "California in its blood...[even though it was recorded by] boys from New York."
It was known for some time before his death that Dury had cancer. He was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1996 and underwent surgery, but tumours were later found in his liver, and he was told that his condition was terminal. In 1998, his death was incorrectly announced on XFM radio by Bob Geldof, possibly due to hoax information from a listener. Upon hearing of his illness Dury took the opportunity to marry his girlfriend, sculptor Sophy Tilson, with whom he had two children, Billy and Albert. In 1999, Dury collaborated with Madness on their first original album in 14 years on the track "Drip Fed Fred". Suggs and the band cite him as a great influence. It was to be one of his last recordings.
Ian Dury & The Blockheads' last performance was a charity concert in aid of Cancer Bacup on 6 February 2000 at The London Palladium, supported by Kirsty MacColl and Phill Jupitus. Dury was noticeably ill and had to be helped on and off stage.
Dury died of metastatic liver cancer on 27 March 2000. One of his obituaries read: "one of few true originals of the English music scene" (The Guardian). Meanwhile, he was described by Suggs, the singer with Madness, as "possibly the finest lyricist we've seen." The Ian Dury website opened an online book of condolence shortly after his death, which was signed by hundreds of fans. The 250 mourners at his funeral included fellow musicians Suggs and Jools Holland as well as "celebrity fans" such as Mo Mowlam.
Dury's son, Baxter Dury, is also a singer. He sang a few of his father's songs at the wake after the funeral, and has released his own albums - Len Parrot's Memorial Lift and Floor Show. In 2002, a musical bench was placed in Poet's Corner, near Pembroke Lodge, within Richmond Park, South-West London, being a favoured viewing spot of Dury's. This solar powered seat was intended to allow visitors to plug in and listen to eight of his songs as well as an interview, but has been subjected to repeated vandalism.