The Blockheads are thriving despite loss of Ian Dury: ‘It was humbling and overwhelming’

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And they are back! Finally, after several years in the wilderness that is self-funding and steadily working at live gigs, the Blockheads have made a return with a new album shortly due to be released and lots more projects in the pipeline.

Not that they have ever really been away. For a good number of years they been one of the hardest working bands in the UK, playing regularly around the country with occasional forays abroad, but it has been hard. The Blockheads are of Derek Hussey (vocals), Mick Gallagher (keys), Chaz Jankel (guitars, keys, vocals), John Turnbull (guitar), Norman Watt-Roy (bass), John Roberts (drums) and a rolling line up of sax players, mainly Gilad Atzmon but also including Terry Edwards and Dave Lewis.

Enough has been written about them when they were, to all intents and purposes, the backing band behind showman extraordinaire Ian Dury. But since Ian’s death in 2000, the band made the decision to carry on and they have worked hard at throwing off old expectations and associations with Ian, though they readily acknowledge that he was key to their success and their string of hits — including “What A Waste,” “Reasons To Be Cheerful,” “Seuperman’s Big Sister” and, of course, “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.”

It was always a volatile relationship between Ian and the Blockheads, and they made the decision to split on more than one occasion. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, Ian and the band went their separate ways, rejoining on occasion but all getting involved in different projects. During their time with Ian, monetary issues were often the cause of fall-outs and many of the band felt poorly treated. However, occasionally they would reunite and eventually played on and off until Ian’s death in March 2000. Ironically, Ian’s death led to the band re-forming, albeit without their sax player Davey Payne who had left in 1998 and Charley Charles (their original drummer) who died in 1990.

In spite of their involvement with successful projects elsewhere (Mick with the Animals, Johnny with Bob Geldof and Gilad Atzmon with his own Orient House Ensemble), the musicians at the core of the band were inexorably drawn together. With the addition of Ian’s long time minder and fellow writer, Derek Hussey, Gilad Atzmon on saxes and Steve Monti (later replaced by Dylan Howe and more recently John Roberts) on drums, the Blockheads were back; they set off on tour to see what would happen — and have rarely stopped since.

They have now played many more live venues as the Blockheads since Ian’s death than before. There is no denying his influence is still felt in many of the songs, and the musical feel of the band and many of Ian’s songs are included in the repertoire. But these are supreme musicians, and the new material works just as well. The Blockheads remain one of the best live acts in the UK.

I have seen them a few times, from as far back as the late 1980s in Southampton to more recently in Ipswich, Suffolk and at several locations in the intervening years. Every performance has been different — largely due to the new material, which is interwoven with old favourites and also the presence of different players, including Terry Edwards standing in for Gilad on saxes and guest musicians standing in for Norman or Johnny. They have, on occasion, included guest singers such as Phill Jupitus, who did a few dates with the band in 2007.

One of the best gigs for the band was in 2011 at the Water Rats in Kings’ Cross, London. This was a rare occasion when the five remaining originals of Jankel, Gallagher, Turnbull, Watt-Roy and Payne got back together and played a three-night residency to begin gearing up for their 35th year celebrations. And this is what the new album is about. Due to be issued 36 years to the day after the release of New Boots and Panties, it is a celebration of all things Blockhead and after hearing it, I can confidently say it is a return to form.

The Blockheads came about from an amalgamation of musicians from the High Roads who backed Ian, the People Band and Loving Awareness. The original line up varied but eventually, Ian used some of them for his album New Boots and Panties and the record company took the band on tour: The Blockheads were formed.

They are still touring widely and playing a range of venues. Over the past few years, things have not been easy for the band. Losing first Charlie Charles, then Davey and lastly Ian left them with a sense of identity crisis. However, live performances have been their “raison d’etre” as Mick Gallagher, keyboard player and co-manager recently told me.

Mick says: “When Ian died, it was hard for us to grab our own identity as a band because everyone thought of us as ‘Ian Dury and the Blockheads.’ Part of the work over the past few years has been to establish our own identity and be accepted as simply the Blockheads.

The band have funded several albums and stayed away from record companies because, as one mogul apparently put it, they would “go nowhere without their leading man.” The exception was the last album Staring Down the Barrel, which was released through a major label but proved disastrous from the band’s point of view. They ended up losing all rights to the music for 10 years.

However, the past is the past, and the band has a new album due for release on November 23, 2013, titled Same Horse, Different Jockey. It is a return to form and captures the Blockheads of today. It is a confident celebration of both their ability to put together new material which sounds different from the old music and yet captures the distinctive Blockhead sound.

The band is hard to put into a category –something which Mick, as spokesman, is inordinately proud of. Their music references many genres including soul, funk, rock, jazz and American blues, but this suits them fine. Onstage and on CD, they create a tight knit, highly original sound. They have a loyal fan base and many new people are coming to gigs who never knew the band when they were with Ian.

A new venture for the band in producing the album has been using the creative public finding platform Kickstarter to finance the new album. These campaigns work by offering rewards and incentives for people who pledge. The Blockheads offered rewards ranging from tickets to gigs, VIP passes, signed albums, T-shirts, pens and a whole lot more.

Mick was taken with the idea after speaking to Kosmo Vinyl (erstwhile “arranger” for Ian and the Blockheads years back) and Jemima Dury, daughter of Ian who recently used it to finance an exhibition of Ian’s paintings at the Royal Academy — and it worked. When Mick and some of the others went there and talked to her and Kosmo, they were impressed and decided to use the campaign for this venture. If it succeeded, fine; if not, then nothing lost. The band had funded their last three albums but this was the chance not only to get funding but to involve their fan base and anyone interested in seeing the band do well again. Well, it worked and within a few days they had reached their target goal of raising enough money to finance the album.

Mick said was also touched by the generosity of fans: “Many took no reward but were happy simply to help the band finance the album; several offered venues for the band to shoot videos and photography services for free. It was humbling and overwhelming.”

One thing which has got people talking is the cover art for the album. Taken from the front, it shows a seated naked man covering his bits with ginger biscuits and a drink of milk. Mick asked me what I thought and I reserved judgment. However, the story behind it is interesting. An artist called Sarah Lucas heard they were looking for suitable cover art and offered them the cover picture for free. Like Mick says, it would have seemed rude not to take the offer. It is something of a shocker but I shall leave that to the album review which follows. It takes nothing from the music, which is definitely worth buying.

Of the new album, Mick said he is “really pleased. The music is great and by far our best recently.” It has been hard work organizing the funding for Mick, his son and Chaz Jankel’s son as well, but the end result is a great sounding CD and enough money for the making of two or three videos to go with it.

Mick says the engagement and interaction with fans has really made the album a worthwhile project for the band because it has become something more than just “band makes album,” but a real story of how a band, along with their fans, can create something which has become a joint project and something which everyone feels a part of.

The band plans more gigs and have a pretty hectic schedule booked over the next few months. They will have an album release night in November in London, and then take the music on the road along with their huge back catalog which includes music from the late 1970s to the present day.

Because the band members are involved in other bands and projects, it can be hard to get them all together for gigs but they always aim to have at least three originals in the line up. Vocalist Derek Hussey had never tried to fill Ian’s shoes, because he has a very different attitude to the music and vocal style, although there are similarities. He is an affable man and always willing to chat — about anything really. I first met him a couple of years back and he spoke about Ian with genuine affection. More recently, I spoke to him and he remains approachable and very amusing. He gives an air of a man hugely enjoying himself. His vocals are varied, with some good grinding throaty overtones, and yet he can sing with heartfelt emotion as well, offering a subtlety to the words which few vocalists are able to.

Mick Gallagher is charming and affable, with a ready smile and a chatty disposition. Yet he remains mindful of the business side of things. Gilad Atzmon is a brilliant sax player. I spoke to him recently at a jazz concert and he proved an interesting character with strong opinions. Their original sax player, Davey Payne, gave a very different feel. Although he lives in the West Country, making gig appearances difficult, Mick told me that “whenever we are down that way, we call Davey up and see if he wants to come and bring his saxes along.” When he made an appearance with the band a couple of years ago, fans were delighted as he remains a favorite. I have met him at a couple of events and he is chatty, with a ready grin and draws people to him. He still plays in the People band as well as at events in his local area.

Each member of the Blockheads is a strong character and each is in the enviable position of being at the top of their game musically. They are never idle. Norman and John both had solo albums out recently and all of them are in demand for other projects, but it is when the Blockheads come together on stage that the real magic begins. Tight, tuned into each other, listening, picking up cues, interspersing solos and seeming to understand what other members want to do and when, the band just has a sense of “rightness” on stage. It is as if — while they should, of course, be doing other projects — playing together is what these musicians were meant to do. Whatever is going on outside drifts away as one tune after another, an old song, a new piece, all interweave to create the magic of a Blockhead show. And the audience is part of it. One of the keys to their ongoing success as a live act is their interaction with the listeners. Banter and anecdotes are exchanged and the show, far from being a “look at us” event, is turned into a shared musical moment.

The standard opening is usually along the lines of Derek taking the microphone and saying, “We are the Blockheads and we sound like this” — and fans know they are in for a good couple of hours.
After a gig, members of the band usually appear in the bar and will willingly talk about music, the state of the economy or anything which takes their fancy. There is no aloofness or airs and graces, these are men making a living and happy to be playing and meeting the audience. Many people go to as many gigs in a year as they can because they are welcomed, recognized and made to feel part of the occasion.

An integral part of the Blockhead experience are the fans. The band have some of the most loyal and steadfast fans, many of whom have supported them for over 30 years. They come from a range of backgrounds and ages. From 19 to 60-plus, everyone fits and is welcome. At a gig I went to recently, there were dads with their sons, girlfriends down for the night, local people and people who had travelled over a hundred miles to get to the gig. One or two were there out of curiosity because they had heard of the band in the past and wanted to see them without Ian. Some were there because they had read a review I wrote a while back and were simply curious. Talking to the audience, you get a sense of the genuine affection and appreciation shown to the fans by the band, which is clear from conversations. At larger venues, they often use local bands as support acts, giving them the chance to share the stage.

I have seen the band at different venues, and it is in smaller ones where you feel the Blockheads’ soul remains. At the last gig I went to, I was delighted by the presence of John Kelly. John had a leading role in the recent production by Graeae Theatre company — a company formed to raise the profile of actors with disabilities. The company had recently finished a run of Paul Sirret’s play “Reasons To Be Cheerful.” The play tells the story of a lad trying to get to a Blockhead gig, and is full of songs, mainly from the New Boots and Panties album. John sang many of them in his role and, when he came to the gig, he was afforded pride of place to sing a couple of songs with the band. John has been a Blockhead fan for many years and clearly was delighted at the chance to sing with them.

When the band were with Ian (which is now almost 14 years ago), they had almost a supporting role status but Ian, even though he tried many other projects, only really achieved success when he was with the band. When Ian died, the band had a few doubts about how they would be received and whether a new vocalist would be seen as “replacing” Ian, but this has not happened. Instead, fans have been supportive and the Blockheads’ music has continued to go from strength to strength. I shall review the album nearer its release date, but suffice to say: It is as good, or better than anything they have done for a long time and demonstrates their Tigger-like ability to bounce back from what could have been indifference.

Most of the new material is co-written by Derek and Chaz, but there is a lot of input from other band members. Derek has proved himself a creditable wordsmith and the only difference is the music is more polished that of old, which is a good thing but I say too much — the album is not out yet. The band have also proved that you do not have to have a major record label backing you to be successful; you do not have to conform to a mass produced idea of pop stardom.

Of the future, Mick says the band still want to play as many gigs as possible, other commitments allowing. They may use virtual media more but Mick said, with a laugh that he does not really understand it yet, but they may turn virtual — who knows?

The Blockheads have a special place in the hearts of their fans. They influenced many other groups like Madness (whose members used to regularly follow the band at gigs in London) and helped change British pop music forever, because they formed a bridge between the anarchy of punk music and the hard grind of rock ‘n’ roll — but you would be hard pushed to put the Blockheads into any box: Their sound remains original, distinctive and purely Blockhead.

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Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein
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