We’ve had two decades of Baxter Dury’s louche sardonic music, twenty years – twenty years! – of late-night London snapshots, shuffling basslines, comedown disco tunes, all run through with seedy bleakness and a sweet love for humanity. In December Heavenly releases Mr Maserati, collecting tracks from across Dury’s six albums, plus a new song, D.O.A., which was co-written with his son Kosmo and which gives a gorgeous glimpse of what Baxter might get up to in the next decade or two.
“I don’t really think I warrant a ‘best of’ album,” says Dury. He’s wrong, though, and the selection here is stellar: the oldest song, Oscar Brown, is a wistful spooky slice of pop that can somehow put you in mind of The Carpenters and Spiritualized and haunted arcade games and a rotten sadness at the heart of England; a couple of years later we’ve got Cocaine Man, with its grim-sweet singalong chorus, a signature Dury surrealist wide-boy monologue and a half-submerged hook that does sound a bit like the Bloodhound Gang; Leak At The Disco, a provincial horror story from 2011’s Happy Soup, opens with Club Tropicana birdsong and a sweet guitar pulse and ends, after a shitty Chiswick night out, with Apocalypse Now helicopters; there’s the sinister bontempi-ish serenade of Palm Trees, and the poignant, daft and tender Oi; last year’s Carla’s Got A Boyfriend is funny and sexy and sad, with some of Dury’s finest lyrics and a frankly lovely Balearic Chris Rea guitar twang. What riches we have here! Baxter Dury’s career has snuck up on us: he’s quietly built a back catalogue of absolute beauties.
“The work evolves, doesn’t it, as you evolve,” he says, thinking about that career. “We evolve and things change.” Those shifts and developments are all over this album if you want to look for them – growing confidence, bigger ambitions, and a slow advance towards the magical state of getting over yourself. “It’s about catching up with yourself, culturally. Where you want to be and who you are.”
Recently, Dury is part of a loose little gang he describes as “blokey talky bands”, alongside Lias Saoudi of Fat White Family and Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods. “I think all of us think we’re not a part of that scene, like, ‘I’m not a blokey talker!’ But we’re all thinking the same thing.” He’s worked with each of them, on their albums and his own, and they spur one another on: “We’re all really competitive. Everyone’s writing a book, writing a film. People who run bands are always competitive.”
Of course, being a talky bloke in 2021 means asking yourself some serious questions. “Even to the point of being on stage where you go, ‘Hold on, am I really meant to be flanked by two women? What is this?’ The journey there may have been innocent, but it’s a good thing to go, ‘Right, let’s just check what all this means and not just go ahead blindly.’ I’ve always been aware of those roles and positions and recently I’ve thought about it more.”
The delicious blokey-ness in Dury’s music is almost always matched with women’s vocals, providing a counterpoint, a Greek chorus puncturing the singer’s ego, or a crooning embodiment of his own subconscious, or else it’s simply a melodic decision – “a respite from my fucking monotone narrative”, as he puts it.
“It sometimes gets put into that kind of Serge, male-female, coquettish stuff, and I don’t think that’s totally right,” says Dury. “It’s not about male and female, it’s not role-play or sexualised or anything. Sometimes they’re singing what I was singing.”
And the power of women in the Dury family history has been underestimated. “I was mostly brought up by mum, my sister and my aunts. There was only a little bit of dad, and he was under manners to them as well. We all were. It was a female world. And my dad was only really arrogant and strong and confident because of the aunts, because they mollycoddled and educated him. So it’s all down to them really.”
Supposedly minor characters often take centrestage in Dury’s songs, an egalitarian habit he traces back to his youth: “We had unique encounters as a family, a lot of rock’n’roll kids are born into a certain social tier because their parents are rich already, but we met all types and all things and all people and we didn’t really rest anywhere.This is such a class-divided country, we’re constantly reviewing the impact of class on us, and I was definitely brought up in that. I’m a second generation postwar kid, going through all that, growing up quite poor, that stays with you. Now I live in a nice gaff overlooking the river, and it’s weird. I’m not trying to resolve any of it, just talk about it.” (If you’ve read Dury’s recent extraordinary memoir, Chaise Longue, you’ll know he does the same in his writing. The book is full of characters who give us glimpses of other worlds and different times – Aunt Moll, PC Honey, Bartholomew and his didgeridoo.)
Perhaps the greatest of those not-so-minor characters is in Miami, the song that opens the album. Dury’s rutting, filthy disco belter would just be sexy and hilarious if it wasn’t so unsettling. “It’s weird, the narratives from the bottom of my brain, they just pour out sometimes,” says Dury, which partly explains this languidly compelling track’s horribly compelling lyrics (‘Miami’ seems to be a shapeshifter, a beast who emerges when you’re three nights in, starting to feel bleak and chaotic: “I’m the sausage man / the shadow licker… I’m the night chef / the eye doctor / Mr Maserati…”)
“I like villainous stuff,” he says. “You have to handle it quite well to get away with it. People get a sense of who you are, they know you’re not endorsing anything horrible. I mean, I like seediness but I don’t really want to smell it around me. I like being a parent. I love all that. I love the little calm moments.”
There’s one brand new track on the album – the closer, D.O.A. – made with Dury’s son Kosmo. “It’s a kind of provincial nod to the music I got into over lockdown because Kosmo was playing it – Frank Ocean and Tyler the Creator and Kendrick Lamar. I became obsessed. They’re embracing everything – sexuality, politics, all of it – and I find that inspiring. So D.O.A. is me trying to move towards some of that without ever trying to sound like it’s appropriated. You need to be very careful to not be a knob by thinking you are something you’re not.”
The result is a beautiful, uncanny and completely catchy song, with lonesome piano, a vocodered Kate-Bush-chipmunk refrain and theremin gales; Dury’s vocals are more battered and vulnerable than you’re used to, there’s a gorgeous trip-hop richness and an unhinged lullaby at the end. “I wrote the lyrics, and Kosmo wrote all the best bits, the bits I don’t have the musical skills for,” says Dury. “It’s the beginning of something.”
Words: Anna Wood