Search The Line of Best Fit
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Baxter Dury
Nine Songs
Baxter Dury

From breakdancing in chef's trousers to bohemian dwellers on the Thames, the Renaissance man talks Maeve Hannigan through the songs that retell the chapters of his identity.

26 May 2023, 08:00 | Words by Maeve Hannigan

“​​I guess I'm trying to be very honest about as much as I can be accountable for - where I'm from, what I've done and what I've seen. I'm taking the piss out of myself before anyone else does.”

I tune into a Zoom with Baxter Dury - no middleman, no waiting room - just a smiling Dury in his flat on the Thames. What version of Baxter Dury was I expecting? “I think I project a bit of a dangerous character, that people are either relieved or disappointed I'm not.”

There’s a stark contrast between the outspoken Renaissance protestor and the man sitting in front of me, but Dury is entirely aware of it. In fact, he beats you to any assumptions of his image. On his new album I Thought I Was Better Than You he asks, “Who am I?”

As his seventh studio album - and latest since the release of his memoir Chaise Longue - the songs reflect the chapters of Dury’s life, portraying the bohemians, the avant-garde types, the sausage-meat-thighed-men, the famous father and the Aylesbury boy himself, in all their faults and glory.

“It was a lazy reference, because I didn't know what else to do and I thought I'd appropriate it in a faux hip-hop way. I used what I may have felt growing up, you know, we were these bohemians - West London, urban, multicultural things - and our accents and everything were all a bit of a mutation” he explains. “We were inventing ourselves. I made it sound very candid, but also more mysterious, in a way that people who do hip-hop really well do very convincingly. I thought I'd do it a bit badly, by the nature of the kind of music I make, so I wasn't pretending to be that.”

Dury’s lyrics indulge in the disgusting, provocative, and loose seductive meanings that Virginia Woolf called a stream of consciousness. Our protagonist is noncommittal with his phrases, both lyrically and conversationally. It’s clear that Dury doesn’t want to be seen as a concrete figure that you can fully understand.

“You don't want to over-document in a song because it burdens you too much. A documentary narrative starts to make it less mysterious. There has to be a foggy abstractness to a song for it to work.”

I Thought I Was Better Than You invites you into the wandering mind of Dury questioning his identity. There’s room for the ideas to be relatable as they take on multiple meanings - he’s a poet indulging in the abstract.

“My wordsmithery is compensation for my lack of singing. I find too many words sometimes offensive, and I try and pull back from that. There’s a valve missing in my head, so words can leak out very readily. I guess it's a family trait - the avant-garde wordy types.”

Each of Dury’s Nine Songs selections come with their own story. Dury’s choices don’t lean towards the permanence of Desert Island Discs, but more the ever-changing mood of a Discover Weekly. He’s non-committal in his reasoning, but one thing is for sure, he thinks Frank Ocean is a clever man. Did he enjoy the selective process? “I did and I didn't, because I switch off to what I like every other day. I'm not that attached to what's very permanent.”

If anything, we get a little closer to the evolving image of Baxter Dury - something he openly tackles in I Thought I Was Better Than You. If Dury asks, ‘Who am I?’, the poet answers his own question. He’s Captain Chiswick, the Aylesbury boy, aka Burger King Trousers, the pineapple-headed knob, the bohemian with a famous father, the Renaissance man - he’s Baxter Dury.

“Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry

I was apparently born to that song being played by the first incarnation of Dad's band. But Dad was also a massive bullshitter. Someone recently went “Oh no, that's a total load of bullshit”, but there's no one alive to actually verify whether it is or isn't, so I won't obstruct the story. Now I have just obstructed the story, but apparently they were all playing this song as I was born in the house.

I know Mum did shout at Dad when he was with all his buddies - these sort of weird... they weren't even hippies. There was a period where men had big thighs and they looked like they bore sausage meat thighs and awful clothes. Sorry, if they're alive, but they were disgusting.

They were in a band which was in the basement of this big decrepit old vicarage that we were born in, because they were all painters. So the myth is that I was born to "Johnny B. Goode” But beyond that, I don't know... someone did very clearly say that's the total bullshit reason.

But the house where I was born, I think is an Airbnb now. I actually went there about four years ago and knocked on the door. A very posh woman answered it, and I asked them about when we lived there, and they said they let the room out sometimes. Behind her was a gothic kid with makeup and he stared at me as I was explaining who I was. She looked really disturbed that I'd come to the door while they were eating Sunday dinner, but the kid just stared at me.

That night, I got a message from him going, ‘I hate my parents. It's so cool that you were born here - I want to escape.’ I'm like ‘Escape, escape!’ Isn't that cool? He was a gothic kid trapped by his horrible conservative parents.

“My Old Man” by Ian Dury

Well, obviously here was my exposure to music, as well as lots of other things. There were some other songs where I really focused on what Dad wrote, that had a lot of swearing in them.

We were brought up in a pretty poor area, in a place called Aylesbury. My two mates and I would listen to Dad's music, including some of the sweary ones, and their Dad could hear it through the wall, because the houses were so thinly built, and they would get a whack around the head. I wouldn't get a whack, obviously, but that was the difference between us. We were the weird Bohemians then.

“My Old Man” was always something that I picked up on and it was the first song I ever sang when Dad died. I sang it on stage at his wake, so it's a real kind of rite of passage. Because the wake was at The Forum, it was in front of 1,000 people, so I stood up and performed that song. I demanded that I do it again because I enjoyed it so much and sort of ruined the moment, but yeah, that was quite weird.

I think I was lucky in a way, even though it was a weird introduction. I wasn't that young, as I was in my late ‘20s and suddenly I had to do that. I'd never performed live.

“Jam On It” by Newcleus

It's kind of shit and good, but I thought it held significance. There was a bit of independence about finding it because not everyone was naturally into hip-hop, and for whatever crew I was in we discovered it, as it wasn't being played that much on the radio.

It was being played on pirate radio once every week, so you couldn't really listen to it that much, and those kinds of tunes were massive to us. We were only 13 and we were getting it all a bit wrong. I wore a pair of chef's trousers, which looked straight out of a dressing-up box. It just didn't quite work.

BEST FIT: Has not fitting into a specific image given you the freedom to try different personas?

Oh yeah, I think that’s important. It's a weird thing between being very shy and very cocky at the same time. I sort of create this thing, but I think as I've gotten older and probably straighter, the valley between the projection and who I am is so vast, people think I'm going to be really dangerous. I keep out of the way day to day. I'm not really like ‘Hey, look at moi’. I'm quite subtle and I like that separation onstage and being something.

I'm very aware of things and I guess I feel like a bit of a refugee of where I'm from and what we are, what you stand for, and then having a famous parent who was a bit of a class figure. But all those terms feel a bit inappropriate. Also, we're a self-study of all those things anyway, which I think is interesting, especially in this country.

Talking about class, what we are and what privilege is, and then being privileged whilst being brought up in total chaos. So, where does the privilege start and stop? Not to say that I'm not privileged, but it's interesting to talk about it because I think I've got a unique perspective.

“Runnin’ Away” by Sly and the Family Stone

I chose Sly because he was very smart, and that's the sort of music I would have found quite early on and been really into. Sly was always a thing that really activated my interest in music and still does.

This is from an album called There's A Riot Goin On, which supposedly, is an answer to Marvin Gaye saying ‘What's Going On?’.” This was his smart period before he probably burned himself out, he was writing songs like “Runnin’ Away’”. Hippies running away from being hippies - that's what he said.

The concept and the song are brilliant. It's also about not belonging anywhere and that's what he was talking about. He was this amazingly multicultural genius. Where the fuck do you run away from when you run away from being a hippie?

I think Sly was so eruptive and kind of beautiful. I don't know that beautiful means anything, but everything is this glorious thing. That sprouted out of this really fertile period in an amazing part of America, where things were allowed to happen. Then you have someone who got seduced by the darker side of it all so quickly that he just burned out. He's such an important musician.

“Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” by Velvet Underground

I think this was my footpath into indie music. I got there quite late, when I first signed a record deal and I was trying to find an identity. This song really appealed to me because it's soulful as well. There's a sort of unpleasantness about the Velvets but I think they were very good, and Doug Yule was really good.

The way they were put together was a bit contrived, but there was a moment where those recordings were done by really clever musicians recording it really scruffily, with these soulful vocals.

I nicked it for the first song I ever wrote. When I first signed to Rough Trade, years ago, I nicked the “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” title and put it on the song (“Oscar Brown” from Len Parrot’s Memorial Lift). It got single of the week everywhere and that was the first little bit of self-acknowledgement I ever had.

I said to Geoff Travis, who owns Rough Trade, ‘Aren't we meant to ask Lou Reed's people?’ and he went, ‘No, no, Lou will be cool’ and then he took 99% or whatever, every percentage possible, and I never saw a penny. It actually got into a few films and wow, man, I never saw anything from it. It was quite interesting.

“NYC” by Interpol

When I signed to Rough Trade in the ‘90s, Geoff Travis gave me a single and said ‘I've signed this band, they’re called The Strokes.’ He played me "Last Nite" and I didn't get it. I just wasn't clever enough to get it. But then that boomed and I really do like it now.

The first band I really got into were Interpol, as it was more personal to me. That first album Turn On the Bright Lights and those songs were more fragile and weird, and I identify with it the most. I think that particular album is incredible. It came from a weird, a bit of an exaggerated era, where some of it definitely wasn't as good as it’s made out to be. But some of it is really good and I think Interpol are excellent.

BEST FIT: Why did you identify with Interpol?

I don't know why I exactly identified with them more than all the rest. I think chronologically, that's when I acknowledged indie music as it was back then. I’d never been into indie music at any point, so I went from the Velvets to them. I was more into soul and hip-hop, but I bought that record for the first time and thought ‘This is really interesting.’

I'm still listening back to it. I watched their documentary The Other Side Of Make-Believe the other day and I thought they were the most interesting. They’re just fragile.

“Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean

I think he's brilliant and I was eight years after the event. It was lockdown, when my son was playing it and it was a bit of a process for it to click. There’s so much rawness to it, and then he’s into songwriting and it's really clever. There's a whole wordy thing going on and it's deeply conceptual.

It puts you in a place, because he's talking about divide and being rich in an abstract enough way that you don't know what he's talking about, but in another way, you can imagine it. It's the voices, the words, the tempo and the use of the sample - it all belongs.

BEST FIT: You reference Frank Ocean on the new album, but do you feel like his style has really influenced you?

I mean, I don't want to offend him by saying it did, because he'll say, ‘Who the fuck is that massive pineapple-headed knob suggesting that’, you know what I mean? Because I get some really cockney blokes doing these songs - oom-pah-pah songs that they send me - and I'm like, ‘Fuck, what have I created?’ So he might think the same thing.

That's what influences are meant to be though, aren't they? Because otherwise if you're able to emulate someone else too much, it just becomes that. I mean, I can't sing - there's only an essence of DNA I can take.

BEST FIT: Similarly to Frank Ocean, the really honest parts of your songs are often sung by others, such as Madelaine Hart, which I would think would be the hardest for you to sing yourself. Do you agree?

The emotive bits? That's a device because I don't just want raw man data. I'll write in a melodic journey, and I think that's important. I want the melodic landscape and I want that thing to happen. I’d just find it too manly otherwise.

“King Kunta” by Kendrick Lamar

I think he's smart and sort of unparalleled. The music's amazing and the words are fascinating, more than anything else - really fucking clever. I don't think there's anything better, it's kind of angry and he's so confrontational. Sometimes in a really cheesy way, but most of the time in a really heavy way.

I really identify with it. He takes it very seriously and I like it. I think those guys that make that music are incredible, and there's a whole load of jazz going into it too.

BEST FIT: When did you first hear “King Kunta”?

Not that long ago. I just wasn't in the game. I was listening to - who the fuck knows what - I was definitely three or four years late. I saw him live recently. It was pretty good and pretty depressing. I think he's really smart and I really like it.

I think it's one of my favourite songs ever. He's burdened by something – it’s quite menacing and very exact.

“Gone, Gone / Thank You” by Tyler the Creator

“I think I chose this song because it really helped me in this album, as it's all over the place and it's very prog. It's kind of prog hip-hop, and you can use his freedom if you can find out where he's going with it. It allows you to be free as well, because he does what he wants. All those guys are making the most interesting music.

He's into the soul thing and then he'll go into something harsh narratively, and then pull back out of it - just creating a whole world. It’s not really hip-hop anymore. it's something very smart. They're beautiful, smart, and unobtainable and I think that's very intriguing. We're still sausage-meat people over here. A horrible concept is someone with sausage-meat-thighs, I don't really know what it means.

BEST FIT: What do you see in hip-hop and soul that attracts you?

“I was brought up with it and I was surrounded by American black music. I was never into indie music, and I've found that as I’ve grown much older, it's not naturally my instinct to go to that, but growing up, hip-hop was always the thing we were into.

Then I didn't listen to that for a long time because it may have not been worth listening to. Now it feels like it's at its peak or it's re-peaked. I guess it's not really even hip-hop. It has some emotion and an honesty about it.

At one point, hip-hop was sold on the basis that it was about aggression. That's an easy thing to sell, but I think now there are very clever people making music in America generally, that seems more provocative.

I think there's a lot of punk about it. Also, it’s good, because there's a whole awkward race divide thing that they're fucking with for the people buying it.

I Thought I Was Better Than You is released 2 June on Heavenly Recordings

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