Swan Songs: Baxter Dury Interviewed

Jeremy Allen speaks to Baxter Dury about his popularity in France, latest album It's a Pleasure, and following in his father's footsteps

By the end of 1979, when Baxter Dury was nine-years-old, his father’s song ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ had sold nearly a million copies. Meanwhile Stephen Pearson’s Wings of Love print – featuring a naked couple on a lurid patio stretching out into a fantastical ocean and sheltered by a majestic oversized swan with a welcoming wingspan – had been replicated and framed in living rooms across the country by nearly three million amorosos. The swan was cemented in the imagination as a creature of romance for a whole generation of impressionable working class suburban kids, and the anthropomorphic projection wasn’t entirely random. Swans are believed to take a mate for life, and few separate, except in dire adverse circumstances such as nesting failures like flooding, human interference and having one’s eggs eaten by a coyote.

The graceful white birds might symbolise monogamous felicity, but they’re also birds of comedy too. Swans are known for their short tempers and are prone to hiss and flap; the belief that they deliberately fly into people in order to break their arms is almost certainly a myth though, sadly. It’s perhaps this dichotomy of amour and aggression that has seen Dury embrace the majestic beast as a motif in his current work. He is flanked by one poking its head up conspicuously on the cover of fourth album It’s a Pleasure, and at the Les Inrocks Festival at La Cigale in Paris where Dury headlines, a giant inflatable swan hangs from the roof when his band plays. It might be an accidental reference to Pearson’s famous kitsch iconography, but for anyone of a certain age it’s impossible not to think it when Baxter grooves underneath with the swagger of a 70s man dressed in a suit and tie like the man from the Pru.

Nobody’s naked below the swan of course, though there are blow up dolls on stage being thrown intermittently into the crowd to make sure thoughts of seedy intercourse behind the drawn curtains of mock Tudor semi-detacheds is never too far away. Or maybe that’s just me and Bryan Ferry. There’s a musical relationship too between Baxter and We Were Evergreen chanteuse Fabienne Débarre, who provides an extra layer of dialogue and who, like in the retro poster, never quite makes eye contact with the preening alpha male, but certainly shares onstage chemistry with him nevertheless. Débarre appears throughout It’s a Pleasure as foil to Dury, adding fresh perspective to his dry articulations and observational bon mots that so often elevate the quotidian to the gloriously poetic.

For whatever reason, Dury is a big star in France right now, and as we’ll learn, a much bigger one than Ian Dury ever was across La Manche. Dury Jr can’t speak a word of the language, but he’s signed to PIAS and he’s been enveloped into the bleu breast of le coq gaulois nevertheless. The singer was just recently on the cover of Les Inrockuptibles – the country’s premier music and culture magazine – and he plays L’Olympia in a few months, a venue that has a rich history of legends stretching back to Piaf and Gainsbourg, and interlopers like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. It still carries prestige perhaps more than any other venue in the French capital, and usually denotes a class act is passing through its hallowed doors.

So why do you think the French have taken you to their hearts in the way they have?

Baxter Dury: Yeah, you find these unexpected pockets of popularity and France seems to be one of them. I guess there are a few clichés that I work within that appeal. That Serge Gainsbourg / girl-singing crossover thing maybe? You know what I love about ’em, they’re so nerdy, the French. And once you’re in with them they’re very fucking committed. And they don’t give a fuck if you’re not cool, and that’s really freeing.

You don’t speak any French yet, do you? Perhaps you’ll pick some up on the next tour…

BD: I try but some part of my brain won’t absorb other languages, especially French.

Is that not just a lazy post-imperialist attitude though?

BD: Maybe it’s an inbuilt lazy arrogance, yes. We’ve been invaded quite a lot and there must have been some point where we stopped learning anyone’s fucking languages any more. We just kinda got stuck with our own and invaded everyone else. So maybe you’re right, yeah.

I really like <>Happy Soup but I think I like It’s A Pleasure even more. The hooks are hookier.

BD: It’s a bit more musical, maybe? I can’t tell. It’s a bit more pretentious in a way because it’s more about the music than the raw stuff I wrote last time. The other one’s more emotional whereas this is a bit more stylised, know what I mean? Over here [in the UK] the reception was pretty shit, it got a few slaps, which was quite rare actually. In France it seems to have been really loved, so that’s nice.

When you said it was more pretentious – and I should qualify that I don’t think this is pretentious – I was wondering if the backing singers are deliberately humming a line from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake towards the end of ‘Whispered’…

BD: Oh no, I don’t think that was intentional. Fabienne can sing all sorts of amazing things and she comes up with these great parts.

Fabienne Debarre from We Were Evergreen?

BD: Yeah, she supported us once so we kidnapped her. She’s great. I suspect she grew up having a serrated bit of wood smashed across her hands if she didn’t sing ‘do re mi’ or whatever. You say ‘try something’ and she’ll come out with some shit from 1,000 years ago, so maybe it’s that. She’s got this fascinating musical brain which she uses in any band she plays in, whether it’s mine or her own band. She’s the sort of person who could be in any band and they would benefit from it. She’s a pretty unbelievable musician on every level, and one of the best I’ve ever worked with really.

You did well to kidnap her.

BD: Yeah, she’s in her own thing so she’s doing that, but it’d be good to kidnap her completely. Controversial, but I’d like to.

So you’re in Paris quite a bit these days. How are you enjoying it?

BD: It’s quite funny how different France all is. We just did a little tour and it all changes. Paris is brilliant I think. It’s kind of a funny place. It’s a middle class haven where you don’t ask questions about the issues that they definitely have there. It worries me a bit that everyone’s blinkered about the issues, but if you live in the Pigalle bubble lunching all the time it’s paradise, like living in a massive village. But social issues they tend to ignore. Race problems. They all think they’re quite left wing, but they’re kind of left wing on paper. That’s the one thing that worries me.

There are certainly disparities between the wealthy centre with the problems pushed out beyond the peripherique.

BD: It’s absolutely perfect there in the middle. I would love to have a gaff in the middle there. There’s about 500 different variations of somewhere nice to eat. A chef you get to know and all that.

The bread’s amazing.

BD: The bread, everything, all the little details. It takes you a while to get into Parisian cuisine – you’re like ‘oh, is it?’, but then you kinda get it because you’ve got to educate yourself about food, and you think ‘fuck it, it’s just another deep level of stuff, a deep level of cooking’.

They take it seriously.

BD: Very seriously, the tiniest aspects of your food. We wolf it down and they savour it slowly. It’s probably a nice thing to learn about, like opera or something.

It’s best in a restaurant to never say you’re a vegetarian. You’re better off telling them you’ve got a medical condition.

BD: They like the taste of animals in distress don’t they?

I first came to Happy Soup when someone at EMI gave it to me. I played it and quite enjoyed it, but it was after reading an interview with Black Francis where he was raving about it that I decided to get it out again, and after that I was hooked.

BD: He was really nice wasn’t he, old Frank?

Did you tour with him?

BD: Nah, I dunno, he just got it somehow. Someone must have sent it to him. We met him for a few hours after a gig and he was such a sweet guy, really genuine. Unfussy, you know.

I met him once when I was pissed about ten years ago and he pushed me over.

BD: Did he really? Were you too pissed?

I imagine he’s probably quite nice if you’re not a drunk bellend.

BD: I don’t think he takes nonsense. There are a lot of weird characters in that band. The other one was pretty scary to be honest. The other dude was a bit, ‘whoa, he’s not like Frank’. He was a bit edgy and weird, you know, a bit razorblade-y. Frank was a sweetheart.

Was that Joey Santiago?

BD: Yeah, maybe. He was on a different frequency. There was something really genuine about Frank though, he was drinking a glass of water after the gig – I’m not even sure if he drinks – but he was just a really nice dude. A solid dude. I bet he can be a cunt if he wants to be. I bet he could switch if he needed to. He’s quite tough, know what I mean?

When you write, do you find there’s any conflict between the urbane gentleman you’ve become and your more working class roots?

BD: Well my working class roots are curious aren’t they? We’re more arts and crafts than working class. There have been stages of poverty when we were young, and then stages where my sister was going to dancing school and all that. Claiming to be working class would be a bit nebulous I think. I kind of have an insight where I’m surrounded by everyone, but more art-orientated people than anything else. I can only really be honest that I’m a bit of a cockney-speaking posh guy. I know as many posh people as I do poor, know what I mean? We have a working class centre but even my father was curiously cultural before he’d even started.

Ian Dury was very into poetry from an early age wasn’t he?

BD: He was a bus driver’s son but his mum did a philosophy degree at a time when women didn’t do that sort of thing, so there was a middle class advantage, education wise. In a way he really cashed in on it, but then he could because he was excellent at manipulating. He used culture to his advantage and he did it brilliantly which is what most gifted people do I guess. But we get very upset in this country if people fuck with it, or they don’t have the credentials, or haven’t been through the hardship. And I can see why people are very fucking touchy about upbringing and what their parents did. I mean I like Damon Albarn, but maybe sometimes people use it for the wrong reasons. It’s really interesting that people believe they belong somewhere, and now it’s reversed massively because people want to aspire to be working class. It’s very fucked up.

Is there a war on the geezer in the media at the moment [the interview takes place the morning before White Van Dan’s white van hits Twitter]? At one end of the scale you have an idiot like Dapper Laughs, and then at the other end you get an autodidactic Russell Brand being vilified for using fancy language.

BD: I dunno what I think of Russell Brand. I don’t always get him. I don’t dislike him, he has amazing energy and if you met him in real life I bet he’d be so charming. I dunno if it’s got anything to do with being working class or not working class, but it’s quite poorly constructed language sometimes I find. Overpopular becomes benign after a while, so what he achieves because of his popularity also becomes what he’s annoying for. When it plateaus then it becomes frustrating I guess, and the effect starts to reverse. I guess there was a moment when he was in full flight and he was a genius (not that I ever saw it but I can recognise he’s one clever motherfucker) but then I saw him the other day and he looked tired. It’s such an interesting country, you don’t really get that in France do you?

What do you get in France?

BD: Serge [Gainsbourg] is becoming one of my favourite artists ever, especially the more I learn about him. All that reggae stuff and the stuff he did with the national anthem is amazing. …Melody Nelson is one of the best records ever made; I know it’s an obvious one, but it is one of the best ever.

Do you feel a sense of affinity with someone like Charlotte Gainsbourg, because you’re both making your way in music with famous fathers?

BD: Yeah I guess so, there’s always an affinity with the sons and daughters of. It’s like a survivors group, a little cuddle and an, ‘ooh fucking ‘ell, you survive’. And in a lot of ways I feel relieved that my [upbringing] was normal – relatively – compared with many others. There’s also an appreciation when someone can climb out of that. It’s really fucking hard and I guess she of all people has really scaled great heights. She’s a fucking amazing actress. Lineage syndrome is the worst thing in the world in music. 99.9% of the time, anyone who is related to a rock singer who goes out, the first thing they’ll immediately do is assume their parent’s chops, their shapes, and their parent’s shapes just evolved out of nowhere. You don’t go to acting school to learn them.

Martin Amis says he was a novelist because his father was a novelist, even if he was left to his own devices…

BD: It’s so much more hidden though; with writing you haven’t got someone’s face pulling an expression at you and condemning your whole act. I mean I’m sure when I’m singing sometimes I think of my old man singing because he was so influential. I’m sure there’s so much that comes out, and I’m sure he gave me the freedom to use this sort of electrician’s voice to sing.

I’m not that much younger than you and I remember ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ being ubiquitous in 1979. Kids loved it, comedy programmes were spoofing it, it was everywhere. So I can only begin to imagine what it was like for you being surrounded with that music throughout all of your formative years. It’s bound to rub off.

BD: Also some of the music from that period is so good that I’m lucky to be able to know it so well. You think, ‘how the fuck was that ever made?’ it’s so good, it’s so excellent, I’m very proud of it. And you realise it’s so good because they worked so hard. They worked so hard at doing it and that’s really where it starts. You can turn it into a practical thing. My dad was quite famous but he earnt it, so that’s where you start…

The idea that rock stars are meant to spend the whole time out of their heads is a con trick really.

BD: They’re total nerds, all of ’em. Everyone from Prince to even Noel Gallagher, they’re all nerds. They’re total nerds underneath it all who just graft. They graft harder than everyone else and they’re probably quite good as well.

They say that being a child of a celebrity in the same field is a blessing and a curse don’t they? It gets you exposure, but then you’d better be good. I wasn’t planning on talking about Ian Dury today…

BD: Sometimes it’s really annoying being asked about it, but I like it when it’s interesting. I like anything that’s interesting. Some of the fucking time you just sit there and go ‘oh God, all I’m doing here is providing historical moments about how crazy my old man was’, and that’s just boring. Go and watch the film [Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll] or read one of the million articles about it. It’s an interesting situation, and to be honest it’s impossible for me to tell where it stops and where it begins. One of the reasons it’s nice for me to have popularity outside England is that I don’t get any of all that in France, just maybe a very distant nod.

Regarding your father’s fame?

DB: Dad managed to piss them off years ago because he shagged [French record tycoon] Eddie Barclay’s girlfriend, and that was the end of his career in France. I think Eddie Barclay turned over a dinner table in a restaurant. He was the most influential producer in France in the 70s, he brought the Sex Pistols over to France, and then he tried to do the same with dad and they had this big meeting. I think dad had it off with his girlfriend somehow, and he turned the dinner table over. ‘You motherfucker! You’ll never work here again,’ and he never did.

Usually if you sleep with someone you shouldn’t in France it does wonders for your popularity.

BD: Haha, yeah exactly, I think it probably depends on who you shag though. I dunno how true that story is, but I’m not sure dad thought much of France anyway. I think all the things we like about it he didn’t.

What’s the significance of the swan?

BD: It’s total faux symbolism. No basically, my girlfriend, she’d taken a picture of me where I was trying to look handsome on the beach in Barcelona. I thought let’s use that for the album cover, but to distract from the vanity of using that picture of me, I put a swan next to me. Just so we could use that photo, otherwise I would have looked like a knob. I like it, everyone chose to rip into it, and I like swans.

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