Monday, July 23, 2007

The Blockheads

23 July 2007

It's Easter 1992 and we're in the Swan Theatre in Stratford watching a great Royal Shakespeare Company production of John Gay's 'A Jovial Crew'. But we're distracted from the action by a small, stooped figure wandering around the back of the auditorium, selecting a series of vantage points. As he passes the back of our seats, Jeannie turns round and pointedly asks him to be quiet. We reach the interval and the lights go up and suddenly a queue is forming to shake hands with the small, restless man. If I had stopped to write a list of all the people he might have been (which I obviously didn't as I was in a hurry to get an ice cream) the list would have had to have been many pages long before it would have occurred to me that we were being disturbed by rock star and poet of punk, Ian Dury. (Though had I just spent the interval reading the programme I would have discovered that he and Mickey Gallagher had written the songs for this production of 'A Jovial Crew'.)

Fifteen years later Dury is sadly no longer with us but his band, The Blockheads, are celebrating their thirtieth anniversary. So, on Saturday evening, we made our way to The Pitz in Milton Keynes for an evening of 'Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll'. The remaining original Blockheads may have aged but showed no signs of losing their enthusiasm, musical skill or drive. Augmented by a couple of younger recruits they played a high-energy two hour set and were obviously really enjoying themselves. The Blockheads were one of those punk bands who weren't really punks - mixing a variety of musical styles including reggae (as did The Clash), Latin rhythms and funk. Their strolling bass lines sound a lot like their contemporaries Squeeze. The presence of the amazing saxophonist Gilad Atzmon took a lot of the numbers into the realms of jazz funk – at times The Blockheads sounded remarkably like Weather Report – not really my kind of thing but very impressive. Their unique selling point is still Ian Dury’s wonderful lyrics – witty, playful, hard-hitting, brutal and very funny. It was great to see a packed audience singing along to every word. Also interesting to reflect on Dury’s gentle, natural, rhythmic spoken delivery: he was rapping in 1977 – well before Mike Skinner of The Streets was born. On Saturday the Blockheads were joined for the last few numbers by the comedian Phil Jupitus. Almost unrecognisable (if it were not for his distinctive body shape!), clean-shaven and dressed in a giant red checked jacket and bowler hat (“sponsored by Home Pride”), Jupitus delivered the lead vocals with due reverence to his legendary colleagues – and was clearly a big fan. He is due to join The Blockheads for a full thirtieth anniversary tour later this year – well worth catching. And as we pogo-ed into the night shouting “hit me with your rhythm stick – hit me – hit me” I’m sure there was someone looking on from the back of the auditorium and smiling.

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