If there was one figure that had a vision of punk-inflected disco before anyone else, it was Ian Dury and his Blockheads. Emerging from Essex in the U.K. (where The Prodigy would later crawl out from some 15 years later), they plied a lithe dancefloor groove somewhere between the proto-new wave pub rock of Ian's first band Kilburn And The High Roads and a distinctly British vision of nimble disco funk, occasionally spiked with the unmistakable pulse of reggae. This novel combination prefigured crucial developments to come at the intersection of new wave, funk and dub, from the post punk of A Certain Ratio to the sparkling island disco of the Compass Point All Stars.
Ever the inimitable frontman, Dury would moonwalk across these nagging grooves withs his trademark conversational cockney tone. In retrospect, it was unsurprising that more than a few critics would later compare Mike Skinner's proto-rapping on The Streets' turn-of-the-century records to what Ian had been up to decades earlier. The harmonic clash of Dury's off-the-cuff delivery and The Blockheads' impeccably infectious homespun grooves synthesized an utterly unique, totally original sound, with repercussions emanating through the next five years of pop music (and beyond, truth be told).
The Blockhead story stars with Kilburn And The High Roads, Ian Dury's first band with Chas Jankel. Ostensibly a pub rock band, the band's sound was a beguiling stew of proto-funk, rock 'n roll, cod reggae, music hall balladry and even country and western, handily transcending the limits of the genre. Their lone album Handsome, emerging as it does in 1975, is one of the great unsung gems of British pop, capturing the whole new wave sensibility to wax before just about anyone else around. Nevertheless, the band were dropped by Dawn and ultimately broke up. Dury and Jankel stuck it out, hooking up with the remaining members of of Radio Caroline's Loving Awareness Band, who'd also recently broken up. And just like that, The Blockheads were born.
Appropriately enough, the band signed with Stiff Records, home of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Madness and The Damned. The Blockheads' first outing was Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a shimmying mid-tempo dancefloor burner with definite shades of reggae to its rhythm. One can hear immediate parallels with the Compass Point All Stars sound, particularly in the rhythm section of Norman Watt-Roy and Charley Charles (bass and drums, respectively) that seemed the split of Sly & Robbie's rhythmic excursions down at Compass Point. Just as important to the whole effect was the flipside's Razzle In My Pocket, which essayed the first of The Blockheads' casually meandering pop numbers.
Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick was even better, going for the jugular with its smooth, straight up disco rhythm and hazy midnight atmosphere, as if you were submerged in some smoke-filled dive with a dancefloor full up and the booze flowing freely. Ian's delivery swerves brilliantly between an understated, conversational croon in the verses and increasingly angular, new wave spikiness in the chorus. The only possible resolution being his chorus-ending shout hit me! while the band's groove mutates momentarily into an angular new wave stomp. There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards, tucked away on the flip, rattled off a host of innovators like Noel Coward and Albert Einstein over another laidback b-side groove.
Arguably the quintessential Blockheads tune, Rhythm Stick highlights everything great about the group, from the clash of skewed humor and impeccable cool to the band's no-nonsense playing. Ian hurls trademark couplets like Hit me with your rhythm stick, it's nice to be a lunatic, while the band conjure up a rolling infinite horizon rhythm, bringing to mind Bowie's The Secret Life Of Arabia with its ships on the water sound. Toward the end of the tune, John Turnbull's guitars begin to soar over glistening piano runs from Chas Jankel and it all goes atmospheric, bearing an uncanny similarity to Remain In Light-era Talking Heads (and without Eno's help!).
One might expect the band's debut album (credited solely to Ian) to cleave tightly to the rhythmic template of their first couple singles, but The Blockheads had other things in store. Even the record's most dancefloor-oriented tunes were decidedly looser and more relaxed, from the loping beat of If I Was With A Woman to the opening Wake Up And Make Love With Me. The latter begins with gorgeous rolling piano arpeggios before tumbling into a quintessential Blockhead groove, complete with sun-glazed Moog arcing across it all in melted splendor, sounding straight off a killer jazz funk record.
The band immediately throw you for a loop with Sweet Gene Vincent, a tribute to the early rock 'n roll pioneer that starts out like a plaintive ballad before switching gears into a rollicking rockabilly workout. Switching gears with Billericay Dickie, a sort of fairground music hall number, the band recalls (in spirit at least) the early Kilburn sides. Perhaps the greatest shock of all comes with the closing trio of straight up punk tunes, proving the Blockheads could cut it with the nastiest punks even as they played it cool and smooth.
If the debut's somewhat mercurial nature might come as a shock, the band's follow up finds them fusing these disparate parts of their sound into a set of languid dancefloor burners. Sometimes dismissed as a disappointing follow up, for my money Do It Yourself is the equal of the debut, picking up where infectious tunes like Clevor Trevor and My Old Man. The jazzed-out Inbetweenies opens the record with a sea of Rhodes-soaked atmosphere atop a nagging groove, sounding like a precursor to Steely Dan's Gaucho (still a year away). I always remember Ian cropping up on a documentary about the making of Steely Dan's Aja, which in retrospect makes perfect sense when one's confronted with moments like these.
Throughout the record, the shades of reggae and new wave come to the fore, prefiguring the sound of the eighties even as the sonics are often firmly in the seventies style (check the Rockford Files synths in Sink My Boats). Tunes like Waiting For Your Taxi bear a striking resemblance to later Compass Point records like Grace Jones' Warm Leatherette. The band even sneaks in a mildly frenetic disco number in the shape of Dance Of The Screamers, which always makes me flash on James Mason's awesome Rhythm Of Life. Taken altogether, its as if the myriad sides of the band have been woven together into one monolithic groove, where sun-glazed disco, island rhythms and neon-lit new wave rub shoulders and get down on the dancefloor.
A third album, Laughter, marked the end of The Blockheads' original run, which was chronicled in 1980 on the invaluable Jukebox Dury compilation. Rounding up key singles like Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3 and assorted tracks from the albums they orbited, it's up there with the great single collections of the era. Undoubtedly, this is one of those records I wish I would've known about when I was fourteen.
Speaking of which, The Blockheads wound up a crucial shaping influence on one of the tunes that I was familiar with by that age: The Clash's punk-disco masterpiece The Magnificent Seven, which featured Blockheads' Norman Watt-Roy filling in for Paul Simonon and Mickey Gallagher on keyboards. In fact, their presence seems to have rubbed off on the band across the length of their Sandinista!, with The Blockhead Davey Payne splitting sax duties with the great Gary Barnacle throughout the record. With Watt-Roy and Gallagher hinting at the possibility that The Magnificent Seven was based on one of their own tunes, one can't get away from The Blockheads' imprint Sandinista's mutant new wave dancefloor grooves.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the Bahamas, the now solo Ian Dury holed up in Compass Point Studios with Chas Jankel in tow. Bringing things full circle, Ian's band this time out was the Compass Point All Stars themselves, a meeting of the minds between two fellow travelers. Lord Upminster has often been dismissed by critics as weaker than everything that came before, but I'm not sure we're listening to the same record. What I hear is a great island funk record with a crystal clear Compass Point sound, not unlike a post-dub chamber update of Bahamanian funk outfit The Beginning Of The End's phenomenal debut.
One thing that's not in dispute is the greatness of the record's big single, Spasticus Autisticus. It's the greatest thing here, coming on like the islander cousin to the city-dwelling Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Funny enough, the song caused some controversy in some quarters (where it was deemed offensive), but Ian — who had suffered from polio as a youth, which left him partially paralyzed on his left side — argued that it was meant as a rallying cry in the spirit of Spartacus. Sure enough, in the song's extended coda, each member of the band exclaims I am Spasticus!
Appropriately enough, the song took on a life of its own on the dancefloor of Larry Levan's Paradise Garage, where he caned it's dub Version mercilessly alongside other Compass Point gems like Grace Jones' Pull Up To The Bumper and Gwen Guthrie's Hopscotch. The tune even wound up on the first volume of the epochal Disco Not Disco compilation, which arrived perfectly poised in the wake of the turn-of-the-century disco revival just as the fascination with early-eighties dance music was beginning to emerge, with all things post punk and new wave in vogue again.
Sadly, Ian passed away at the turn of the century, after putting out a handful of solid, singular records over the years like 4.000 Weeks' Holiday and The Bus Driver's Prayer & Other Stories. He even cut one final record with The Blockheads, Mr. Love Pants, which rivaled the band's peak-era output. Coming out just before their music wheeled around to shape the culture yet again, it's a perfect ending to the story of a crew that had a vision of odyshape mutant disco before just about anyone else around, creating their own singular context seemingly out of thin air.
Taking in everything from Sandinista! to the Compass Point All Stars, the Paradise Garage and killer punk-disco funk... it almost goes without saying that Ian Dury And The Blockheads would be key figures in the Parallax pantheon. And standing at the front of it all was Ian Dury, the undersized, unlikely hero who blazed a singular path across the new wave dancefloor. There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards indeed.