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.

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 Dury—both 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 & Robbie—again, not successful and the album Lord Upminster (Polydor, 1981) was panned by critics.

Dury also toured with younger musicians as 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 Madness— previously 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 vocals—a 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 rock—and 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 lineup—Hussy, Turnbull, Jankel, Gallagher, Watt-Roy, drummer John Roberts and Atzmon, Lewis or Edwards—all 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 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.


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