Block and Roll and All That Jazz

Sammy Stein By

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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.

Both Atzmon and the previous saxophonist, Payne, play free form outside the band and Atzmon will intersperse it into songs whenever he can—much 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 memorabilia—and 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.


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