'Reasons to Be Cheerful' - the Song Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Created May 12, 2003 | Updated Mar 1, 2009

'Reasons to Be Cheerful' - the Song

Ian Dury and the Blockheads released the song 'Reasons to be Cheerful' in 1979. Here is a brief overview of the song, looking at the things that Dury claimed made him cheerful and trying to determine why they would have the same effect on anyone else.

Reasons to be Cheerful...

The Opening

Why don't you get back into bed?
Why don't you get back into bed?
Why don't you get back into bed?
Why don't you get back into bed?

Unfortunately, if you take this advice you will only really be able to sample a few of the reasons to be cheerful that Ian sang about.

The Bridge

Reasons to be Cheerful ...
One. Two. Three!

It's worth noting here that various people have searched for Parts One and Two in vain.

'Some of Buddy Holly'

Perhaps a surprising start to the list for such an iconic star of punk, but one that acknowledges the roots of modern music. Buddy Holly (1936-1959) was a leading light in the early days of Rock 'n' Roll in the 1950s and as far removed from punk as possible. Though Holly was famous for such hits as 'That'll be The Day' and 'Peggy Sue', it's impossible to tell from this which of Buddy's songs it was that made Dury truly happy.

'The Working Folly'

Quite possibly a reference to the state of the UK economy at the time. Many manual workers were on a three day week at the time as, financially, things were tough. To actually be working at all was also a God-send as the levels of unemployment were incredibly high so to be in work was a reason to be joyful indeed.

'Good Golly Miss Molly'

A song by Robert Blackwell and John Marascalco first performed by the incomparable Little Richard, this is an iconic early Rock 'n' Roll number. This was as much a kick to contemporary music in the 1950s as punk was in the 1970s.

'Boats'

The end of each verse is a single item or thing. The first verse ended '...and boats'. Certainly being on a boat with just the wind is a very relaxing experience. Some people even enjoy being on any boat going anywhere - a gondola in Venice, a barge on the Thames or a Cruise liner. Many reasons to be cheerful.

'Hammersmith Palais'

One of the major concert venues of the time, as immortalised by The Clash in the song '(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais'. It was the main reggae and dub dancehall in West London, which is reflected in 'listening to Rico' later on. Renamed the Po Na Na in the late 1990s, it now hosts School Disco nights (at the time of writing). The venue provided plenty of happy memories for a performer and music lover no doubt, as it still does to this day.

'The Bolshoi Ballet'

Another strange choice in the context of the style of the song, but Dury was far more appreciative of the Arts than his working class gruffness conveyed. However, considering the skill and excitement involved, a ballet, especially one performed by the best ballet company in the world, is an occasion to savour.

'Jump Back In the Alley'

This is from the lyric of 'Tutti Frutti', another track by Little Richard that was written to stop white singers from stealing Richard's songs in the (mistaken) belief that only he could perform such a relentless ditty. The suspicion has always existed that the song's title also refers to some impromptu sexual activity. No need to explain why this would be cause to be cheerful.

'Nanny Goats'

Goats, and in particular nanny goats, can on occasions be vicious, especially if they have young kids. However, they do produce a really nice milk which can be turned into all sorts of cheeses which would be a reason to be cheerful. In this context though, the line refers to 'Bo Diddley', the song by the artist of the same name.

There's another interesting connection to nanny goats, though. Dury attended Walthamstow Art College and, two years after the release of 'Reasons to be Cheerful' and having left Stiff Records, his band released their first record on the Polydor label - 'Lord Upminister'. Between Walthamstow and Upminster lies Becontree Heath, an area of which is called Nanny Goat Common. The houses surrounding the heath were built in the post-war years as 'homes for heroes'. It's possible Dury's memories of this part of the heath led to his wanting to include an obscure reference to nanny goats in this song.

(1) 'Dominecker Camels'

Dominecker derives from the habits of the Dominican monks, which are black and white. An advert appeared in NME at the time of the release of the song quoting this line from the song. It's doubtful if Ian was writing about the qualities of Dromedary and the Bactrain Camels; after all they can spit at you even if unprovoked. No, it is more likely to be a comment to a certain brand of tobacco and filter combination. Ian was not adverse to the evil reed. The colour of these could well be described as black and white, as could the debate over their usage through time.

(2) '18-wheeler Scammels'

Some sources list this as an alternative to the line above. The company Scammell was established in 1919. Along with Leyland, Scammell was at the forefront of British lorry manufacture. Many, including Mr Dury, considered them to be the epitome of articulated style. Sadly, Scammell suffered the same fate as most of the British motor industry and went bust in the 1980s.

'Thumbing Out the Candles'

There is some debate about what this lyric actually is. Some think it is 'Dominca Camels' or even 'Dominate the Camels'. There appears to be no references to camels in Dominca unless this is where the tobacco came from to make that brand of cigarette. However, to be able to dominate a camel, not the most conducive of beasts of burden, would be enough to make any rider of a camel smile.

However, in the context of the lyric 'Thumbing out the Candles' makes a lot of sense. Candles lead to romance and by thumbing them out rather than searching for and using a snuffer, Dury is obviously in a hurry to get on with an enjoyable roll under the covers.

'All Other Mammals'

After all, dogs and cats are man's best friends, or so they say. However, being confronted by a cheetah after some lunch might be a different prospect...

'Equal Votes'

Stemming out of the Women's Lib movement of the late 1960s and early '70s the women already had the vote but were then looking for equality - a different concept entirely, and something that is still an issue today.

'Seeing Piccadilly'

Right in the heart of London's West End, Piccadilly runs from Piccadilly Circus to Hyde Park Corner, Lillywhites, the world-famous sports store at one end while the Ritz Hotel almost at the other. It has it all - the hustle and bustle of the West End with the added bonus of the serene Green Park (which sits to one side of Buckingham Palace) and Hyde Park beyond, while other highlights include a Wren Church, the Shaftsbury monument (commonly - but erroneously - known as 'Eros' due to its similarity to the Greek god of love), the neon signs, the proximity to theatreland and the locations of many a prestigious film premiere, and now the Hard Rock Café which also adds to the area's appeal.

'Fanny Smith and Willy'

As these are nicknames for the male and female genitalia, we can therefore assume it's another reference to sex as mentioning them can only mean they come together.

'Being Rather Silly'

Provided being a clown is not a defence mechanism against depression, being silly is most definitely a reason to be cheerful. Anyone who ever saw Ian perform can ascertain whether or not this is the case.

'Porridge Oats'

Subject to personal taste you either love or hate porridge oats, but you may like the oats if formed into a variety of biscuits. However, as a bowl of porridge can set you up for a miserable winter's day, it cheers you up inside and out.

'A Bit of 'Grin and Bear It''

If you are having to grin it bear it surely you are not having a good time. Fortunately, a bit of 'grin and bear it' is also a euphemism for sexual intercourse... though from a very male-centred point of view, usually.

'A Bit of 'Come and Share It''

Generosity is always a reason to celebrate.

'You're Welcome' / 'We Can Spare It'

Politeness, as with generosity above, always brings a smile to your face, especially when you're able to spare it.

'Yellow Socks'

Ian loved to stand out and often wore weird colours of sock which stood out against his black trousers and shoes. Yellow would definitely bring sunshine to the world around.

'Too Short To Be Haughty'

'Working class through and through' and a reference to the Frost Report sketches starring John Cleese, Ronnie Baker and Ronnie Corbett, where they used their difference in height to convey the ridiculous nature of the English class system. Cleese at well over six feet played the haughty upper class who looked down on the other two, especially Corbett, who 'knows [his] place'.

'Too Nutty To Be Naughty'

There is a long line of British comics who played the cheeky chappy. They were absolute nutters, and were never considered to be naughty, as it was always construed to be accidental. Therefore if you can achieve that sense of nuttiness then theoretically even the victim of your japes will laugh with you.

'Going On Forty'

They say that is where life begins. Also, if you have lead a debauched live as a rock star to reach forty is a landmark not to be sneered at. Ian, having suffered polio as a child, had other reasons to be happy reaching this landmark age.

'No Electric Shocks'

Electric shock therapy had been used as medication for all sorts of ailments even in the earliest part of this century. Ian's polio would undoubtedly have meant loads of electric shocks had be been born earlier.

'The Juice of a Carrot'

Carrot juice is very good for you and healthy people tend to be happy people. They don't get out of breath as often, can concentrate longer on things, and tend to fight off illnesses in less time. Insufferable, aren't they...

'The Smile of a Parrot'

A rare sighting would be a parrot smiling as the beak doesn't allow a change of expression. However, you can tell how a parrot is happy. If it is a talking bird it will say all sorts of things at the most inappropriate minutes and you'll burst out laughing, if not at the time, at least later when you regale in the story.

'A Little Drop of Claret'

A good wine is something to savour and it doesn't need to be much. If you are drinking claret you are generally drinking to enjoy the wine and not to get blind drunk. Therefore you are quite possibly in a social event with close friends and enjoying a whole evening of finery. Additionally, finding a rhyme for 'parrot' and 'carrot' must have cheered Dury up immensely.

'Anything That Rocks'

As a rock musician, no doubt the entire genre made him happy. Already mentioned are Buddy Holly, Little Richard and the Hammersmith Palais. Also warranting a mention is Elvis.

'Elvis and Scotty'

There's an interesting combination in this line unless you believe the tabloids that Elvis is living on the moon. Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-77) is of course the undisputed King of Rock 'n' Roll, sang a wide variety of songs and - as a surprise re-release in 2002 proved - is still capable of topping the charts 25 years after his death. Plenty of reasons to be cheerful, sad or romantic, depending on the song.

Lieutenant Montgomery Scott (or 'Scotty') is the Chief Engineer on James Kirk's Enterprise on the original series of 'Star Trek'. Scotty's main attribute was no matter how difficult the situation he always dealt with the disaster facing the ship with good old Scottish humour. However, it's more likely this line refers to Scotty Moore, who on guitar (along with Bill Black on bass) was added by Sam Phillips at Sun Records to the King's early recordings.

'The Days When I Ain't Spotty'

Acne can be embarrassing and painful as a teenager and can sometimes continue into adulthood. Any day when you do not have to face a spot on your face when looking in the mirror is therefore a day to rejoice.

'Sitting On A Potty'

The potty is a colloquial term (usually used by children) for a chamber pot, that invariably ceramic objet d'art that used to reside under beds for night time toiletry requirements, instead of walking through the dark and freezing house. It is also the vernacular term for the smallest room in the house. Some of the great thinkers and writers say their best ideas sometimes come when enjoying the privacy of the bathroom. Spike Milligan claimed the toilet helped inspire him, while Douglas Adams partook in long baths. Inspiration may have struck Dury while sitting there performing nature's necessities.

'Curing Smallpox'

One of the major achievements of the 20th Century was eliminating this deadly disease in its natural form. Though we are now threatened by the possibility that this may be used in biological warfare, at least we still have the vaccine.

'Health Service Glasses'

A feature of a by-gone age where the least attractive eye-glasses available in the UK were those provided by the National Health Service. These were thick plastic-rimmed glasses as modelled by Sir Michael Caine in his early movies or a wire rimmed variety made popular by John Lennon and, in the 1980s, Morrissey of The Smiths. They showed the owner was poor and looked ridiculous on any face. If you had perfect eyesight it was a source of much amusement, as are the photos of people who used to have them.

'Gigolos and Brasses'

'Gigolos and brasses' is rhyming slang for rent boys and prostitutes, from 'the girls' asses'1, the idea possibly being if you have the inclination to pay for sex this may make you cheerful at least for a short time.

'Round Or Skinny Bottoms'

Not fussy then but obviously a guy who liked a woman's bottom, and a nice follow-on from the previous line.

'Take Your Mum to Paris'

Taking your Mum to Paris may not seem the most logical reason for good cheer. However, if your mother has never been abroad before to visit the Paris of all the movies of her youth, taking her there would surely bring a glow to your heart.

'Lighting Up a Chalice'

Judging by the rest of this song it is doubtful that Ian is referring to attending a high church service. What is more likely is that he is referring to smoking marijuana. As a victim of polio this may have helped to relieve his pain; this is one of the main reasons politicians at the moment are again debating decriminalising the use of it.

'Wee Willie Harris'

William Harris was a vertically challenged and very close personal friend of Ian Dury. As all of us know, close personal friends are exceedingly good reasons to be cheerful. So, in this rather personal verse which also mentions his dear old mum he also name-checks his mate, a 1950s rocker and entertainer who still performs Rock 'n' Roll, Blues, Skiffle, Country as well as novelty cabaret songs today.

'Banto Steven Biko'

Steve Biko was a black South African whose story came to prominence thanks to the writing of Donald Woods. Biko died while in police custody but his life story and Donald's campaigning helped spur the international anti-apartheid movement which gave a lot of people a sense of purpose and achievement and personal involvement in a world where individuals were feeling helpless2.

'Listening To Rico'

Rico Rodriguez is a Jamaican jazz trombonist, who learned trombone instead of the more popular saxophone in the 1940s when he was learning. He was inspired by the music of JJ Johnson and Kai Winding, and started to perform professionally in the late 1950s. His jazz started as mainly the Latin or Cuban style but he later learned new styles through the 1960s before joining Undivided from 1970 - 1975, a band who provided backing for many of the Jamaican Reggae bands that toured his new British home during that period.

In 1975, Rico got his first recording contract and in 1978 - the year before Dury wrote this song - he supported Bob Marley and the Wailers on tour. Since then he has continued to record and perform including with the Specials, the Police, Ian Drury and the Blockheads, and Jools Holland's Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.

'Harpo, Groucho, Chico'

The Marx Brothers started out as vaudeville and Broadway stars before transferring to the silver screen from the 1930s to 50s. They take their place alongside Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges in a long line of physical comedy.

'Cheddar cheese and pickle'

A traditional English sandwich filling and essential ingredients for a Ploughman's Lunch at an English Pub. Traditional British complementary ingredients that go surprisingly well together.

'La Vincent Motorsickle' [sic]

Vincent Motorcycles are a line of classic and much sought-after motorbikes founded by Phillip Vincent in the 1920s. Here, Dury bends the rhyme a little.

'Slap-and-Tickle'

Once again a reference to sex. Although 'slap-and-tickle' generally refers to heavy petting rather than the actual act (and so should really be known as 'tickly and slap', seeing as that's the usual sequence of events).

'Woody Allen'

How can watching the king of neurotic films make you smile? Because Woody writes, directs and stars in them to highlight the comedic elements of his own neuroses. His work is, on the whole, intended to be funny and the laughs are usually at Woody's expense.

'Dali'

Salvador Dali (1904-1989) the Spanish impressionist painter. He had a major falling out with his surrealist contemporaries and founded the Dali School of Surrealist Art with his pupils. In surrealism there are often little things that pique your interest in any of his paintings, and the juxtaposition of subjects on the canvas were often humorous as well as thought provoking.

'Dimitri And Pasquale'

The most likely combination of the two names in this line occur in the field of Opera and classical music, the two being Dimitri Schostakowitsch and the Opera Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti.

Schostakowitsch (1906-1975) - who had only recently died at the time the song was written - had fallen out of favour with the Soviet regime in 1936. However, with three operas, including Lady Macbeth of Mzensk, three ballets, 15 symphonies, six concertos and other works including film scores, he left behind an impressive catalogue and range of pieces which might have appealed to Drury's diverse musical tastes already evident in this song.

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) wrote the opera Don Pasquale in 1842 having earlier written Olive and Pasquale (1826). In Don Pasquale, the Don forbids his nephew Ernesto to marry a poor girl, Norina. He is distraught at the lack of respect from his nephew and heir and decides instead to take a new wife to bear him new heirs. He turns to a friend - a wise choice. However, once married, the new wife, Sofronia - with her name now on the Don's deeds - starts to cause all kinds of trouble for the elderly Don including having a secret rendezvous in the garden with a younger lover. He demands she departs but she insists on staying to ensure the marriage of Ernesto to Norina. Why does she support this? Well, this is explained when she unveils herself as Norina. There is now no objection to her on grounds on wealth so, after his initial anger, Pasquale consents to the marriage of the heir to his (for a brief period) wife. One can only assume the Don's marriage remained unconsummated or else things might have ended up more unsettling on a Freudian level which would certainly not be a reason to be cheerful.

''Ba La Ba La Ba La' And 'Volare''

'Ba la ba la ba la' is quite possibly the start of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, which of course is a very relaxing and inspirational piece of popular classical music. 'Volare' is a song also known as 'Nel Blu Di Pinto Di Blu'. It is Italian and was written by Domenico Modugno and Francesco Migliacci. Though popularised by Dean Martin, Pavarotti has recently added the song to his act, while singer/songwriter Randy Newman quotes from it on his album Little Criminals in the Song 'Kathleen'.

'Something Nice To Study'

One wonders in the context of other things mentioned in this song what this could possibly mean. It could refer to educational study, perhaps. Studying something, especially outside the confines of school or university when it is not for examination, can be a fulfilling experience. For a less literal interpretation, it could be referring to top-shelf magazines. However, as we have covered the topic of sex enough in this entry we can leave the word 'study' to simply mean 'watch thoughtfully' and leave any further analysis up to the individual listener.

'Phoning Up A Buddy'

As Bob Hoskins used to say in the old British Telecom adverts, 'It's good to talk', especially now that so many of us have mobile telephones and can do this anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Though the song was written some 15 or so years before mobile phones really became commonplace, the sentiment still stands.

'Being In My Nuddy'

Referring to just lounging around in the nude (the word 'nuddy' being a child's word for being naked), feeling the fresh air, sunshine or even snow on your bare skin can be quite a sensually uplifting experience.

'Saying Okey Dokey'

This is a far more cheery way of saying 'Okay'. If someone is saying 'okey dokey' to you it will more invariably bring a smile to your face as they more certainly mean it than a less expressive 'fine'.

'Singalong-a-Smokie'

Smokie were a 1970s rock band whose most famous contribution to music was their 1976 hit 'Living Next Door to Alice'.

Alternatively it may refer to soul great William 'Smokey' Robinson (immortalised in another song, ABC's When Smokey Sings). He wrote and sang such greats as 'My Girl', 'The Tracks of my Tears' and 'Tears of a Clown' along with the Miracles. These classics alone are added reasons to be cheerful.

'Coming Out A Chokey'

Chokey is a slang term for prison that derives from a time when a visit to prison might invariably lead to a meeting with a hangman's noose. To escape to freedom would therefore be a reason to rejoice.

'John Coltrane's Soprano'

John Coltrane was famous for playing the saxophone. He is best known for the tenor version, but he also played Soprano Sax.

'Adi Celentano'

Adrian Celentano is an Italian singer/songwriter and film actor who started out as Italy's answer to Elvis Presley in the 1950s. His career has carried on ever since and he is still popular in Italy today. Anyone singing Elvis songs in Italian is bound to bring a smile to your face.

'Bonar Colleano'

Bonar was a minor film star in the 1940s and '50s. He had roles in The Way to the Stars, Johnny in the Clouds, A Matter of Life and Death, Stairway to Heaven, Once a Jolly Swagman and The Sea Shall Not Have Them.

'The Ending'

Yes, yes,
Dear, dear,
Perhaps next year,
Or maybe even never
In which case...

After this colossal list of reasons to be cheerful, the song finishes with a little hint of regret that maybe he'll maybe never get to do them all.

Does it Work?

Are these really reasons to be cheerful? Well one man attempted to find out. His name is Dave Gorman. Yes the same guy who set about finding a namesake for every card in a deck of cards, including jokers. Yes, the same guy who followed his horoscope religiously for 40 days to see if it worked. Before he did either of these he set out to prove this song's validity at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. More details can be found on his website.

1Derrière, bottom etc.2It was many years until the result of this publicity came to a satisfactory result, so the cheerfulness at the time was in the chase and not the outcome.

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