Handsome – Album
‘’I want to book some rooms. We’re a band. There are six of us – one’s a midget, two of us are cripples, and one of the cripples is black’’. This was Kilburn and the High Roads a set of bedraggled misfits led by Cockney legend and poet Laureate Ian Dury. The Kilburn’s were part of the 1970s London Pub Rock circuit that spawned Dr Feelgood, Ducks Deluxe, The 101ers and Eddie and the Hot Rods.
Pub Rock bands in this period had a unique British take on 1950s American Rock n Roll and RnB and it was delivered fast and sweaty in back rooms of pubs across London and beyond. However, the Kilburn’s were different and their sound incorporated elements of Vaudeville, Music Hall, Jazz, Funk and Reggae, ultimately laying the foundations for what Ian Dury and his subsequent band the Blockheads became famous for.
Not only that the Kilburn’s came in all shapes and sizes. Ian Dury a storytelling genius not only had a clever Cockney vocabulary with a savage wit, he also had a compelling and unnerving stage act, which was partly down to his physical appearance after contracting polio as a child, which clearly left him withered and disabled. The rest of the Kilburn’s looked like emaciated, destitute outcasts who had just wandered out of the Anchor House Hostel in Canning Town.
Kilburn and the High Roads one and only album Handsome was originally released in 1975 and was largely ignored by the record buying public at the time. However it is an important album as it provided the foundations for Ian Dury’s lyrical dexterity and later success as leader of the Blockheads. Handsome has finally been reissued as a two-CD set by Cherry Red Records and comes complete with a brilliant and in depth analysis of Ian Dury’s formative years in music and the oddity that was Kilburn and the High Roads.
The Kilburn’s strange and quirky stage act coupled with the disability of Dury and the drummer who came on stage in a calliper and crutches respectively would be unthinkable now in the sanitised world of Pop. However, Dury was aware of the effect that the Kilburn’s had on people, and they were a popular live draw and despite the commercial failure of Handsome, the album was influential on the burgeoning Punk scene and none other than The Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten, whose confrontational and abrasive stage act owes something of a debt to Ian Dury’s larger than life stage persona.
The songs on Handsome have a lyrical theme that might seem tenuous on listening initially, but the songs are studies of dubious and unsavoury characters and this nascent observational style of song writing would come to full fruition on 1977’s New Boots and Panties. Album opener and single ‘’Rough Kids’’ is by far the most hit worthy track on the album and it is a rollicking song complete with Dury kicking a metal dustbin to emphasise the opening lyric, and it’s B-Side ‘’Billy Bentley (Promenades Himself in London)’’ ‘’about a young man’s adventures in the big city’’ is delivered by Dury in his famous playful Cockney
‘’The Roadette Song’’ and ‘’Pam’s Moods’’ are a pair of humorous songs about an on the road groupie girl whose salacious behaviour leaves little scope for ambiguity, and Pam who subjects her partner to mental and physical violence. Both of these songs are satirical studies of unseemly women and ‘’Pam’s Moods’’ in particular demonstrates that women can be as violent and vindictive as men with Dury left to ruminate ‘’the curse of fifty witches making Wormwood of
‘’Upminster Kid’’ is clearly an autobiographical song about Dury’s teenage years in Upminster where he developed the Teddy Boy look complete with black crepe jacket, sideboards and a quiff. The song name checks Dury’s musical hero Gene Vincent who was equally as disabled and it is clear that Dury identified with his hero and fellow kindred spirit to such an extent that he later penned the stupendous and rollicking single ‘’Sweet Gene Vincent’’ for his next album New Boots and Panties.
Despite the obvious lyrical brilliance of some of the songs the album as a whole sounds muted and constrained by the studio and all the rough edges are removed and the band was clearly stymied as a result. However, the second disc on this reissue captures the Kilburn’s live and raw on Capital Radio in 1974, and the eleven tracks on this particular disc will appeal to rabid Ian Dury fans because it captures them at their most raucous, loose and dynamic.
One can’t help but think that if Chaz Jankel and Norman Watt-Roy had of got hold of these songs and fattened them up with a bit of Funk then the album might have stood up better than it does. However, Handsome is an interesting curiosity and it demonstrates the beginning of Ian Dury’s precocious talent for writing songs as poems that eloquently documented life as he saw it on the streets of London and Essex but to a back drop of Jazz, Funk, Reggae and Rock n Roll. BUY HERE!