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Block and Roll and All That Jazz

By Published: September 29, 2012
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 interesting—the 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 UK—twice.

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 Schwerbel & Patrick 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 Dury—with 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.

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