For his debut album New Boots and Panties!! (1977), Ian Dury looked towards his hero, rock ‘n’ roll singer Gene Vincent for inspiration, penning one of his many iconic songs, the biographical Sweet Gene Vincent. Sweet Gene Vincent was released as the sole single from the album on the fledgling, and equally iconic, Stiff Records label in November 1977. The song, as with New Boots and Panties!!, is credited to Ian Dury as a solo artist, as his backing band, The Blockheads, were yet to be named at this point.
As a teenager, Dury, born 12th May 1942 in Harrow, London, had lovingly bought every single that Vincent had ever produced. On various occasions, Dury would tell of how upon hearing Vincent’s Be-Bop-A-Lula in the 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It, he was reduced to tears.
Throughout his entire career, Dury would talk sentimentally, and on occasions poetically about Vincent and the influence that he had had on him. Whilst Vincent’s music inspired Dury to follow the path of rock stardom, the fact that the two shared a similar disability only served to make his affinity felt towards Vincent even stronger.
At the age of seven, Dury contracted polio. He believed that he had contracted the disease from a swimming pool in Southend on Sea during the polio epidemic of 1949. He spent six weeks in a full plaster cast in Truro Hospital before being moved to Black Notley Hospital in Braintree, Essex, where he remained for a year and a half. Following this, he was sent to Chailey Heritage Craft School, a boarding school for disabled children in East Sussex in 1951. He was left permanently disfigured by the polio and wore a calliper on his withered left leg. The disease similarly affected his left arm and hand.
Gene Vincent was born Vincent Eugene Craddock on February 11th 1935 in Norfolk, Virginia, USA. Dury refers to Vincent’s Virginia origin in the line “I miss your sad Virginia whisper”. The man who became the pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly had actually planned a career in the Navy, hence the line “Skinny white sailor, the chances were slender”. He first enlisted in the Navy in 1952 after dropping out of school at the age of seventeen. He completed boot camp and joined the fleet as a crewman aboard the fleet oiler USS Chukawan, although he spent two weeks training period in the repair ship USS Amphion before returning to the Chukawan. He never saw combat but completed a Korean War deployment. He sailed home from Korean waters on board the battleship USS Wisconsin but was not part of the ship’s company.
In 1955, Craddock re-enlisted in the Navy and used his $612 re-enlistment bonus to buy a new Triumph motorbike. In July 1955, whilst in Norfolk, he crashed his motorbike and shattered his left leg. He refused to have it amputated. Whilst his leg was saved, the crash left him with a permanent limp and constant pain, hence the line “But your leg still hurts …” He wore a steel sheath around the leg for the rest of his life, much like Dury wore a calliper. In various interviews, Vincent would tell a different story of how he received his injury, claiming that he was injured whilst serving in the Navy.
Once recovered enough, Craddock became heavily involved in Norfolk’s local music scene, changed his name to Gene Vincent and formed the rockabilly band, Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps. ‘Blue Caps’ is a term used to describe enlisted sailors in the US Navy. The Blue Caps are mentioned in the line, “Let the Blue Caps roll tonight”, which is also a reference to Vincent’s 1958 album Gene Vincent rocks! and His Blue Caps Roll! In 1956, he wrote the song which would secure him with a record deal with Capitol Records, Be-Bop-A-Lula. The song became a number 5 hit on the Billboard Chart. Although the band were unable to follow up the commercial success of Be-Bop-A-Lula, they did gain an appearance in The Girl Can’t Help It and released critically acclaimed songs such as Bluejean Bop (1956) and Race With The Devil (1956), both taken from the debut album Bluejean Bop (1956).
On April 16th 1960, whilst on tour in the UK, Vincent, fellow rock ‘n’ roll artist Eddie Cochran (who had also appeared in The Girl Can’t Help It) and songwriter Sharon Sheeley were involved in a high-speed traffic accident in a private hire taxi in Chippenham, Wiltshire. Vincent suffered broken ribs and collarbone and further damaged his already weak left leg. Sheeley suffered a broken pelvis whilst Cochran, who had been thrown from the vehicle, suffered serious brain injuries and died the following day.
Following the accident and overcome with grief at the death of his friend Cochran, Vincent returned to the US, where his life went into terminal decline, developing serious addictions to alcohol and painkillers. Vincent’s alcoholism is referred to in the line “Shall I mourn your decline with some Thunderbird wine”. Incidentally, Thunderbird wine is a particularly cheap brand of fortified wine containing 17.5% alcohol, introduced after the end of prohibition. Despite its yellow colour, Thunderbird wine turns your lips and tongue black when consumed in large quantities, therefore linking in with the prominent theme of black in the song, “black handkerchief” and so on.
Vincent’s career never really recovered following the accident, despite several comeback attempts. One such comeback attempt was his 1969 album I’m Back and I’m Proud, produced by Kim Fowley, later the Svengali behind The Runaways, and released on John Peel’s Dandelion Records label.
Fowley would later pay tribute to Vincent and his experiences producing I’m Back and I’m Proud on his 2004 album Adventures in Dreamland.
Vincent died on October 12th, 1971 from a ruptured stomach ulcer in his mother’s arms. His final words were reportedly, “You can call the ambulance now, mama”.
Vincent’s death inspired Dury, who at this point in time was a member of pre-Ian Dury and the Blockheads band, Kilburn and the Highroads, to make a serious go of a career in the music industry. Dury also began to mimic Vincent’s stage outfits for his own on stage presentation, most notably, black leather gloves.
He also referred to Vincent in the Kilburn and the High Roads song Upminster Kid, from their debut album Handsome (1975). Upminster Kid can, in many ways, be seen as a forerunner to Sweet Gene Vincent and discusses Vincent’s influence on Dury.
Dury dissolved Kilburn and the Highroads in 1977 in order to form the band which would become known as Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Whilst writing what would become New Boots and Panties!!, Dury spent six weeks researching the lyrical content for Sweet Gene Vincent, reading two biographies about his hero, before handing an initial draft to the song’s co-writer and Blockheads guitarist and keyboardist, Chaz Jankel. Jankel joked that if the song has been kept in its original form, it would have lasted 15 minutes.
Sweet Gene Vincent makes several references to Vincent’s songs. Firstly, the opening line, “Blue Gene baby”, is a play on the first line of Bluejean Bop, “Bluejean baby”.
Additionally, the music of Sweet Gene Vincent, which begins with a slow paced verse before moving into the rockier section of the song, is a tribute to the musical structure of Bluejean Bop. The line “Who, who, who slapped John”, spoken as the song moves into its faster section, is a direct lift from the song Who Slapped John, the B-side of Bluejean Bop.
Later in the song, the lyric “and you lay that pistol down” is a reference to the single Pistol Packin’ Mama (1960), which includes the line “Lay that pistol down” and also refers to Vincent’s habit of waving guns around in the studio. In one incident of ‘pistol packin’’ in 1968, Vincent is said to have scared Gary Glitter so much that he nearly left the country in fear.
“Here comes Duck-tailed Danny dragging Uncanny Annie, She’s the one with the flying feet” refers to the line “She’s the one with the flying feet” in Be-Bop-A-Lula. The “Danny” mentioned in the line appears in Rollin’ Danny, from the album Gene Vincent Rocks! And The Blue Caps Roll (1958), whilst the name “Annie” could be a reference to Queen Anne County, now known as Virginia Beach, where Vincent lived during part of his childhood.
The line “And you jump back honey in the dungarees, Tight sweater and a ponytail” is a reference to both Jump Back, Honey, Jump Back from the Bluejean Bop album …
… and Red Blue Jeans and a Pony Tail from Vincent’s follow up album Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps (1957).
Additionally, the line “The devil drives ’til the hearse arrives” not only speaks of Vincent’s death but also refers to Race With the Devil.
Other references to Vincent’s music include the lines “At the sock hop ball at the Union Hall, Where the bop is their delight”. “At the sock hop ball” refers to the song Ready Teddy (1958), which includes the lines “All the flat top cats and the dungaree dolls, Are headed for the gym to the sock hop ball” …
… and “Union Hall” refers to Vincent’s song Rip It Up (1958) which includes the line “Shag on down to the Union Hall, Cats are jumpin’, gonna have a ball”.
Sweet Gene Vincent also makes many references to Vincent’s typical black and white stage attire and presentation: “White face, black shirt, White socks, black shoes, Black hair, white strat, Bled white, died black” and “Black gloves, white frost, Black crepe, white lead, White sheet, Black knight, Jet black, dead white”.
Dury would pay further tribute to Vincent when he appeared as a guest on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1996, choosing Woman Love, the B-side of Be-Bop-A-Lula, as one of his 8 songs.