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Block and Roll and All That Jazz

Sammy Stein By

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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, as well as many other venues around Britain.

2014 sees the group celebrate more than 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' story—with 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.


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