Graded on a Curve:
Ian Dury &
The Blockheads,
Laughter

You have to wonder how this album came to be called Laughter. The sessions that produced it were stressful and marked by discord; Chaz Jenkel was gone and personalities clashed. Ian Dury, who was juggling addictions at the time, was, by all accounts, almost impossible to work with. The subject matter is often dark, and very dark at that. So why the incongruous title? Said England’s most foul-mouthed polio victim matter of factly at a later date: “I called it Laughter to cheer myself up.”

That said, I have this to say about 1980’s Laughter; it never fails to make me laugh. Which is to say Laughter isn’t such an ironic title after all. Even at his most lugubrious Dury–who was, and will likely always remain, England’s most lovable vulgarian–cheers me up, and that’s a rare gift. Down in the mouth Dury may have been, but he hadn’t lost his cheek, and he still managed to produce an album chockfull of dance friendly grooves and happy-making pub rock sing-alongs. So what if “Uncoolohol” is a dark ode to the perils of alcoholism; I spent plenty an alcoholic night cheerfully slurring along to its rousing chorus while falling down drunk. Laughter is not unlike one of the later Beatles albums; John and Paul may well have hated one another’s guts, but you’d never know it listening to the music.

I have my favorites on Laughter. LP opener “Sueperman’s Big Sister” (that’s no typo) is all swing, strings, and vocal bluster–a funky dance floor raver that will simply sweep you off your feet. “Dance of the Crackpots” comes at you in a rush; Dury can hardly get the words out of his mouth fast enough. Harmonica and some great tap dancing by Will Gaines transform Dury into a mad square dance caller; he name drops Thelonious Monk and Rosemary Clooney, and utters the Inspirational verse: “Being daft is a therapy craft/Which sharpens up your wits.” “(Take Your Elbow Out of the Soup) You’re Sitting on the Chicken” is sheer joy to the ears, what with its mental nursery rhyme lyrics (“The mouse runs up your leg/It’s one o’clock in China”) and chorus you simply have to join in on.

“Uncoolohol” is a personal highlight; the great Don Cherry plays pocket trumpet all over the thing, while Dury serves up lyrics along the lines of “The war cry of the boozer of the booze/In normal state of little left to lose/Pissed and witless blood and bandage/Not a care/Splashing noxious liquids everywhere.” But if you think it’s joyless you’d be wrong; the song swings, and the rousing chorus (it’s just that one word, “Uncoolohol”) is repeated over and over again until you break down and sing along. My other fave is LP closer “Fucking Ada,” which may well be the most ebullient song ever written about being sunk in a funk. Sure, it’s opening strings and Dury’s lyrics are hardly the material of mirth; but once that big music hall chorus comes in (it’s just “Fucking Ada!” repeated ad infinitum) you’ll find yourself joining in; you would have to be fucking catatonic not to.

“Pardon” comes on like a seductively good Blondie song, but it’s warmer in tone. And Davey Payne’s saxophone work is superb. Dury announces “I am an actual train” on “Over the Points,” and proceeds to chat the length of a rather bumpy four-minute ride on the rails. The train picks up speed; “Last train to Wanking Panda,” calls Dury, adding, “If you miss this one you’ll never get another one/Iddybiddy arseholes to Wanking Panda.” Meanwhile, “Hey, Hey Take Me Away” is a looney tunes invitation to a prayer meeting full of mad shouts, deranged vocals, and one long, desperate, blubbering plea. Lots of cool sax squonk, too.

As for the surprisingly tender “Manic Depression (Jimi),” it features some simply luvverly flute, hushed vocals, and the question, “Is this fair?” (Answer: “Oh no it fucking ain’t.”) As for “Oh Mr. Peanut,” it’s a hilariously savage assault on everybody’s favorite goober and features some wonderfully dada-fried lyrics along the lines of “Oi, rotten hat/Where’d you get that haircut/Bent Cross Shopping Centre?/I bet your mother feeds you with a catapult.” And it boasts lots of demented horn blurt and some truly crazed piano by Mick Gallagher. Meanwhile, “Delusions of Grandeur” works on lyrics alone; I love it when Dury, channeling Ray Davies, sings, “I’m a dedicated follower of my own success.” And how many songs go out on the lines, “Delusions of grandeur/delusions of grandeur/Megalomania/Megalomania”?

Laughter is a testament to one very flawed but erudite man’s ability to alchemize joy from misery by means of riotous comedy. Samuel Beckett once said “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” and here is your proof. But Laughter isn’t a comedy LP by any means; the playing, from sax to pocket trumpet to guitars, is stellar, and Dury and his various collaborators come up with great songs with great words to go with them. Just listen to Cherry and Payne join together on horns in the mid-section of “Fucking Ada”; it’s a bloody brilliant moment of inspired musicianship. And then comes the chorus. “Fucking Ada!” indeed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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