Block and Roll and All That Jazz
There are just a few bands that can fill a jazz venue as easily as they fill one more used to contemporary pop music, and it seems right to acknowledge one of the best jazz-influenced, long-lived and popular groups from the late '70s to the present day, The Blockheads. This band filled Ronnie Scott's and The 100 Club in 2011 and will also play at the Jazz Café, London in December, 2012, as well as many other venues around Britain.
2012 sees the group celebrate 35 years of playing together. The Blockheads' unique sound relies much on its strong jazz roots, and several songs centre around its saxophonists. Originally, the group used Davey Payne, a free form jazz saxophonist who played with The People Band before joining Wreckless Eric's New Rockets and, later, Ian Dury's backing band (who would become The Blockheads). This, in a nutshell, is The Blockheads' storywith a lot of bits left out.
Just over 35 years ago, members of The People Band, Kilburn and The High Roads and various other ad-hoc musicians were playing together on and off at venues in London, performing in pubs mostly and delighting audiences with their jazz-rock tunes with ribald and observant lyrics added by that wordsmith of wonder, Dury. Although Kilburn and The High Roads consisted largely of regular players Rod Melvin, Charlie Sinclair, David Rohoman, Keith Lucas, Humphrey Ocean and Russell Hardy, the lineup could change without notice and the group might be joined by free drummer Terry Day and bassist/violinist Charlie Hart, or Payne, from The People Band. The Kilburns based its raucous, gritty songs on jazz roots and when the group eventually split, Dury recorded an album titled New Boots and Panties!! (Stiff, 1977), using songs co-written with Chaz Jankel, some of the same musicians and session players, including bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Charlie Charles as well as guitarist Johnny Turnbull and keyboardist Mickey Gallagher, from Radio Caroline's house band, Loving Awareness. The record company formed a tour and the band came together to play live, choosing the name The Blockheads. Live they proved a hit and several singles were released, giving them a brief but emphatic presence in the UK charts during the late 1970s to early '80s.
The Blockheads' jazz-rooted music, combined with Dury's compelling, evocative lyrics had a big influence on the UK music scene and helped change British popular music forever. The group, along with other bands from the UK pub rock and jazz scene, paved the way for punk to emerge because they created a bridge from the standard tunes of pub rock to the anarchic frenzy of punk. The Blockheads were ribald but not offensive, rude but not abusive and above all, built from skilled musicians. Lucas later went on to reinvent himself as Nick Cash, of punk group 999, and John Lydon of the Sex Pistols (and later Public Image Limited) was one of those in the audience on several occasions. He was influenced by The Blockheads and Payne recently told me about a time when he, Lydon and Day met in the early '80s in a New York Bar and discussed the music. They gave a platform to younger bands that performed anarchic music in rebellion to the increasingly right-winged direction the UK was taking. Somehow, it became OK for people in their 30s to rant and rave against the state, so the younger ones simply took it a step further.
Since then, the band has seen many changes including the death of their drummer Charles, the loss of Dury in 2000 and changes in the line-up around the main four musicians of Gallagher, Turnbull, Jankel, and Watt-Roy.
Dury himself had a background heavily influenced by jazz and rock, and Payne was a free form player. His style of playing was a major factor in the Kilburns' original sound and later The Blockheads (he joined permanently after New Boots and Panties!!). One of Dury's best known songs "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" was based on a riff lifted from saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman's "Ramblin,'" and many of The Blockheads' songs have strong jazz riffs underpinning the lyrics and melody.Payne's famed double sax solo on "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" was a homage to blind jazz saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Newer material has strong jazz links thanks to the input from vocalist and front man, Derek "The Draw" Hussey, who met Dury in a jazz club and became a friend of the band for many years before Dury died. Turnbull took over vocals for a while but the reins were handed to Hussey in 2009.
After a brief sojourn in the charts with several hits including "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick," "What a Waste," "Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 3)" and a few lesser hits, the band lost its novelty with UK pop music audiences. Dury wanted to try other projects, and disparities within the band showed up as major cracks, resulting in projects which Dury did without The Blockheads, and The Blockheads trying a few projects without Duryboth as a band and individually. Many of Dury's projects still involved individual band members, such as the ill-fated Apples musical written with Gallagher, and a foray into disco with Jankel and reggae artists Sly & Robbieagain, not successful and the album Lord Upminster (Polydor, 1981) was panned by critics.
Dury also toured with younger musicians as The Music Students and recorded an album, 4000 Weeks' Holiday (Polydor, 1984). The album included collaborations and arrangements with Michael J McEvoy, who went on to create scores for many films. Though Dury acted in plays, produced the musical and appeared in small roles in several films, it was only when he was reunited with The Blockheads as a whole that success really came his way. Because their music was so different, it had become special to a whole generation of people, and anything else the group or Dury did simply did not do the trick.
Payne and Jankel both made solo recordings but Payne's "'Saxophone Man," backed by a gorgeous instrumental version of George Gershwin's "Foggy Day in London Town" never saw the charts and Jankel achieved limited success away from The Blockheads, with the major exception of "Ai No Corrida," written with Kenny Young and rerecorded by Quincy Jones, whose version made the charts.
Playing only sporadically until the early 1990s The Blockheads began to fade from the public mind, and had largely been replaced in the charts by younger bands which were influenced by them, like Madnesspreviously The Invaders, who followed The Kilburns through their early pub career.
Much of The Blockheads' live success was based on the quality of the musicians which made up the band and this is still the case today. Payne left in 1998 and was replaced by saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, one of the most accomplished free players around. He has played with Jazz Africa, Richie Beirach, Jack DeJohnette and others. He has his own band, The Orient House Ensemble, and brings a touch of free jazz to the music with his interpretation of many of the songs, with an Eastern-influenced feel. At a Blockhead concert I went to a few years ago he was given the honor of a solo session, and held the audience in the palm of his hand with a free jazz piece combining Eastern flavors of manic sax playing interspersed with vocalsa blend such that it was impossible to tell, at times, where the sax ended and the voice began. His solos have a distinctive touch and he develops the earlier sax sound of Payne to reach modern audiences. Since concentrating on more projects outside the band (he is younger than most of them), Atzmon plays regularly but not always and the saxophonists are now drawn from a rolling team of players including Atzmon, Dave Lewis (of Dave Lewis' 1UP, which brings a jazz-funk sound to the music) and Terry Edwards, who plays with Gallon Drunk, Robyn Hitchcock and Tindersticks.
Part of their appeal is that when The Blockheads play there is a freshness to the gig. This may be due to the fact that the group is always writing new material and that The Blockheads, for most of the players, is not their only band: Turnbull plays for Bob Geldoff;Gallagher for The Animals and Watt-Roy plays for Wilko Johnson. Johnson, incidentally, joined the band for a brief period after leaving Dr Feelgood. All of them have played for countless musicians as backing and session players. The music has a punk influence and yet is not punk; it has a jazz influence but is not straight-ahead jazz, and it has a pub rock influence but is not pub rockand yet it combines all these genres into something which appeals across ages and to all kinds of people. At a Blockhead gig you get jazz lovers, punk lovers and rock fans. This makes The Blockheads stand alone in their class and is what attracts audiences to gigs.
The members of the current lineupHussy, Turnbull, Jankel, Gallagher, Watt-Roy, drummer John Roberts and Atzmon, Lewis or Edwardsall have deputies for times when other commitments take them away from the band, including guitarist Guy Pratt (who has played with Madonna, David Gilmour, (played with Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson) for Turnbull, bassist Luke Gallagher for Watt-Roy, and drummer Danny Cummings (who has played with Mark Knopfler) for Roberts.
The music continues to be a mix of jazz and pub-rock, the songs populated by characters, usually London-based, like Byline Brown, the reporter, or Ada and Patricia, the prostitutes, and The Blockheads' audience continues to grow. Gigs include people who remember them from the '70s and '80s, as well as newcomers, and all gigs are loud, noisy and great fun.
The members of The Blockheads see themselves as non-generic but acknowledge both their jazz roots and the rock influence which gives them wide appeal. They do not sit conveniently into any genre and cannot be pigeonholed that is what makes them attractive to free form players, trad jazz lovers, rock fans and punk fans. They have been asked to tour with people like Hugh Cornwell, The Damned and other groups, but prefer playing their own way, using various support acts in different venues.
When venues describe The Blockheads, the descriptions vary from jazz-funk, rock-jazz, new wave (whatever that means) and Dury's ex-backing band (which is the least popular with the band).
The future looks interestingthe band is making a documentary for its 35th year, there are more live gigs around the UK this year and into 2013, and they continue to write and play excellent music. The 2010 film Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll gave the group a higher profile, recording music for the film and adding new takes on old songs. Actor Andy Serkis played Dury with some accuracy, and while few in the band apparently liked it, the film reached a different audience and created new interest in The Blockheads.
A stage show put on by the Graea Theatre Company, written by Paul Sirett, Reasons To Be Cheerful, has given a wider audience the chance to experience this jazz-rock band's story. It tells the story of a guy trying to get to the band's five-night residency at the Hammersmith Palais in 1979 and, although not the story of the band, their music features strongly throughout and punctuates the play. It gives theatre audiences an insight into what made the group popular. Reviews have been strong and the tour went round the UKtwice.
Graea performed "Spasticus Autisticus," the song penned by Dury to protest at the Year of The Disabled in 1981 (because he found it patronizing to have a year 'given' to the disabled people of Britain), at the opening ceremony of the Paralympics and John Kelly, who is also a star of Reasons To Be Cheerful (the play), sang it with gusto, causing a trend on Twitter for the song and Dury.
Most of the band are now well into their sixties, with the exception of Atzmon, Roberts, Edwards and Lewis, but their popularity is enjoying a surge once again. And the group owes a lot to its jazz roots.
For those who like jazz, funk, rock or pop, when faced with a solid wall of Blockhead sound, resistance is futile. The musicians remain approachable and, in the manner of many jazz-rooted players, enjoy communication with the audience almost as much as playing. Hussey is a wonderful raconteur. He will talk about almost anything and when I met him last year, he discussed a range of subjects including Dury's mother's house in Hampstead, Asperger's Syndrome, and his former film prop business, before he came to be Dury's friend and driver. Dury apparently had a habit of not treating staff well, but for Hussey things were different because he was a friend and therefore not obliged to offer his services but did so based on their friendship. He sees himself as not replacing but playing tribute to the man he became close to and seems genuinely to be pinching himself at his luck. He talks about Fred 'Spider' Rowe and Pete Rush (The Sulphate Strangler)previous incumbents of his role with Durywith respect, and tells how he came to meet, write with and enjoy Dury's friendship. Hussey is wonderfully engaging.
Quite why The Blockheads captured British hearts and minds is as unfathomable as Atzmon's playing at times, but their fan base is loyal and still growing. They are one of the reasons I became interested in jazz and free playing. Reading about Dury as a youngster, I found my way to several great musicians' material and Dury's music was so different from the pop music of the time. Payne's playing, at the time, was different to material I had listened to before and through listening to him I found similar material which hit home with me. I had grown up with classical music and had absorbed just about enough knowledge to know good musicians when I heard them, too. Even my pianist sister commented on Gallagher's excellent playing. So, though a pop band in some ways, The Blockheads also helped me, in a small way, to find jazz, (though George Melly has a lot more to answer for in that respect but that's another story). Plus, it was like watching my dad's friends onstage swearing their heads off and getting away with it. When you are 16 and defiant that alone is worth going to a gig for.
Both Atzmon and the previous saxophonist, Payne, play free form outside the band and Atzmon will intersperse it into songs whenever he canmuch to the delight and sometimes amusement of both band members and the audience. Payne makes occasional returns to the band and his playing is different, in that Atzmon relies on technical detail and Eastern influences, whilst Payne is more of a free player in spirit and has a more musical touch, but both are excellent. Personnel mean a lot to the audience and many fans were delighted when Payne made a rare appearance last year at a pre-35th anniversary celebration 3 night residency at the Monto Water Rats in Kings Cross, London.
According to the group's manager, Jankel (who wrote or co-wrote much of the material) is less concerned about who plays his songs as to the fact they are being played, but personnel is important to fans, and those who remember those brief chart-riding days of the late 1970s love it when Payne returns to the fold because it makes the lineup as original as it can be. Payne remains committed to free form music and indeed, gave me a helping email or two when I was first involved in writing about free form developments. Their manager says of Payne, that he cannot be considered a band member now because is location dictates otherwise ans he has only played 7 or 8 gigs with them in recent years. Payne's attitude to the band is hard to fathom: "Lee and The Blockheads do their thing, I do mine and occassionally I play with them." He remains a popular prodigal son for the band and audience and in person is affable, self contained and knowledgeable on early free jazz influences.
Gallagher has the look of a younger Colonel Sanders, a fact hugely played on by Phil Jupitus when he made a tour, five years ago, as guest vocalist with the band to celebrate its thirtieth year. He has an utterly charming disposition and a smile which lights up his face. After a gig, he chats incessantly. At one gig I found him beside me and realized he had been probably speaking for about five minutes but, after a brief chat earlier, I had not been listening. He did not mind and would have continued chatting still, had I not been called away. A lovely guy and one of those people you genuinely feel happier for meeting.
When The Blockheads are into the music, you experience a full frontal attack of British jazz-rock at its best. There is energy, power and a professionalism that only comes from this much experience gathered together on one stage. After 35 years, you might think the group would lose its groove for some of the songs, but not a chance. At one gig, where Payne had joined the band, he finished a double sax solo and toasted the audience with Evian. He was grinning madly, obviously pleased with himself. Then he decided to spray water across the crowd. Given the lungs behind it, that water went a long way. Later, Payne joined the post-gig gathering and said, sheepishly almost, that he often gets carried away onstage (hence the water), and remembered the time he lost a treasured jacket at a gig where he got so carried away he threw it into the crowd. He has, apparently, lost a few things over the years, most notably a Westwood and McLaren jacket complete with badges and memorabiliaand lots of shades (and given some as well).
The people who come to a Blockhead gig are mixed, which shows the wide appeal the band still has. At one I attended I came across fathers and sons, groups of women and groups of men; there was Glen and his pal from Australia; two couples from Sligo, Ireland; and people from all over the UK far and near. There were able and disabled, lads of 19 and men of 60-plus, those who have followed the band since the 1970s and newcomers.
With Dury, The Blockheads were given the backing role but now the group are on their own and doing just fine. The group is bringing their unique sound and, more importantly, a touch of free form playing always in there somewhere, to the rest of the world. These are The Blockheads of today. If you love jazz, you will enjoy a Blockheads gig; if you love rock, you will enjoy a Blockheads gig; and if you love punk, you will enjoy a Blockheads gig. The Blockheads don't' fit a pop market nor do they fit the rock market; but jazz people know good jazz-based sounds when they hear them. And if ever you are at a gig and Hussey meanders, disheveled and shuffling, across the stage, takes the mike and says, "Good evening, we are The Blockheads," start listening and enjoy.