Block and Roll and All That Jazz
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.