The term "pub rock" usually sways towards the lowest common denominator. It implies that the music only works in a drunken environment, creatively stunted and intellectually ghettoized. This is the paradox of Ian Dury, the sneering frontman, gutter poet and heart of the Blockheads, a group of weirdos who topped the English charts in the late '70s with a unique, clever hybrid of disco music, British culture and punk sensibility called Do It Yourself.
Ian Dury's unique worldview is likely connected to his childhood struggle with polio: He had a disproportionate body his entire adult life as a result of the illness, and he also has a rambling, frenetic vocal style, barrelling downhill on tracks like "Uneasy Sunny Day Hotsy Totsy," yet restrained and poetic on barroom bouncers like "What A Waste."
Dury was notoriously difficult to work with. He was a drunk and addicted to sedatives. He'd throw cookies at people in the studio and was banned from this album's sessions near the end. His woeful 1981 album, Lord Upminster, recorded at famous Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas with dub legends Sly & Robbie, was written on the plane over and features pretty much no extended thought and several shockingly lame ideas.
Yet people put up with him because of his command of words and his sonic personality. He balances well against the smooth jazz leanings of producer and keyboardist Chaz Jankel (a man who would later be covered on Quincy Jones' Best Album Grammy-winning The Dude) with a gruff off-kilter voice that strangely suits itself to both disco throb and pure punk rattle. "Don't Ask Me" is a mid-tempo thumper about not asking Dury to do anything. It features nonsensical lyrics for the most part, but goes for the heart during the middle eight: "Let me offer you my life and all my love / Let me offer you a bargain."
Indeed, there is a sweetness to Do It Yourself that shows up in spite of Dury's bombast. He has a penchant for Cockney rhyming slang that affects many songs with a childlike, nursery quality. "This Is What We Find" is a character sketch about non-existent people without the sensitive, wideband morality of similar songs by the Beatles. These characters are merely objects of neighbourhood gossip: "Home improvement expert Harold Hill of Harold Hill / Of do it yourself dexterity and double glazing skill / Came home to find another gentleman's kippers in the grill / So he sanded off his winkle with a Black And Decker drill."
There are almost 20 different versions of this album's cover available. And why not? It's as if Dury and his band thought, "If no one else is going to combine a mild reggae obsession, four on the floor disco, regional quirks and punky screaming, we might as well do it ourselves." Do It Yourself is a trailblazing record that stands out as truly weird against the comparatively tucked-in orthodoxy of the rest of the British New Wave scene. V