In life, there are certain things you take for granted: British summers are wet, Arthur Brown really does live in a crazy world and Ian Dury’s Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll was a huge hit single in 1977. Well, whatever the arguments about the first two points, surprisingly the last one is way off the mark. While many assume the Dury classic must have been his biggest chart botherer, in reality it didn’t tickle even the lower reaches of the UK Top 75.
“The single did well on the independent charts, but failed completely on the national one,” agrees Chaz Jankel, who co-wrote and played guitar on it. “One of the problems was that, because of the title, the BBC refused to pay it on air. Annie Nightingale recently told me that she did spin it during the evenings. But it got hardly any daytime plays.”
The other problem was that Dury’s record label, Stiff, pulled the single very quickly, meaning it sold just 19,000 copies. “That was the company’s policy at the time – to go for fast sales on every single and then to delete it,” Jankel explains. “So we didn’t get much chance to climb up the main chart.”
The title itself was something Dury had on the back burner for a long time, before Jankel finally agreed to write some music for it, but it’s a myth that that was because the guitarist didn’t like the title or the lyrics: “That’s not quite true. I just didn’t see how I could come up with anything that worked with it. But Ian persevered. Each time he submitted a new batch of lyrics for me to work on – normally he’d write lyrics, give them to me, and I’d compose around them – right at the top of the pile was Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. And I’d simply put it straight to the bottom.”
What eventually convinced Jankel to tackle it was a very unusual move by Dury. “One day, at his flat in the Oval [South London], Ian started to hum a riff he’d come up with for this song. That was something he never did. But I picked up on what he was doing, and took it from there. Once I had the start, the rest of was easy.”
Only a short time later, Jankel realised where his writing partner had got this piece of musical inspiration.
“I was in his flat one day, and there was this album playing. Ian went off to make a couple of cups of coffee, and left the record playing. Then I heard it – the riff he’d come up with – right there in the bass line. Ian came back in with the coffee, and a cheeky grin on his face, watching as the realisation dawned on me.”
The album in question was 1960’s Change Of The Century by innovative jazz man Ornette Coleman. The particular song was called Ramblin’.
“I know Ian actually made a point of contacting the bassist on that track, Charlie Haden, and coming clean about how he’d ‘borrowed’ his part. But Charlie admitted too that he himself had lifted it from a French Creole song, so it seemed that the riff had been passed down the years.”
‘Sex an’ drugs an’ rock’n’roll’ quickly became a catchphrase that grew bigger than the song itself.
“Ian was brilliant at coming up with titles which could be slogans. There’s also Reasons To Be Cheerful and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, which had the same sort of impact. In that respect, Ian was something of a journalist, although a lot of people misunderstood what he was talking about in the lyrics to Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. They weren’t a celebration of excess or debauchery, but a detached description of what was going on at the time, and still continues to this day.”
Despite its limited chart action, the song rapidly gained anthemic status when it was performed live. Its potency was underlined when, in ’77, Dury went on a Stiff Records package tour with Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Larry Wallis and Wreckless Eric. Sex & Drugs… became the nightly encore climax, with everyone joining in.
“I think that’s when we understood this seemed to have taken on a life of its own, and people were relating to it,” says Jankel. “It was a good song for crowds to chant along to. You didn’t have to be Pavarotti to pick up on the melody line. As Ian Dury & The Blockheads, we regularly closed our own shows with the song. Now it tends to be the one we do to open the set.”
Given its popularity, it’s remarkable that the song was left off Dury’s debut album New Boots And Panties!
“Ian felt that people had already paid for the single so why should they be asked to buy it again? However, it all got a little confused when the French version of the album – which did have the track on it – was imported into the UK and began outselling the official British version.
“That was typical of Ian’s approach, though. He also refused to have lyrics printed on any record. His argument was that these words weren’t poetry.”
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Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is perhaps the finest song to emerge from the fruitful songwriting partnership of Dury and Jankel. It was a partnership that the former used to claim was as good as anyone. “Ian often said we were up there with Lennon & McCartney. He felt that he was better than any lyricist around, and that I was as good a composer as anyone at the time. Working with somebody that positive gave me extra confidence, which was important because I fed off of it.
“I think when you listen to Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll you’re hearing one of the best examples of an extraordinary partnership. We could write something on our own, and it would automatically feed into the other’s subconscious. We had that symbiotic understanding.”
But there is one thing Jankel now regrets about the song: “I wish we’d trademarked the actual phrase itself. Imagine how much it would have been worth today!”