Under the management of Andrew King and Peter Jenner (the original managers of Pink Floyd) Ian Dury and the Blockheads quickly gained a reputation as one of the top live acts of the "New Wave". They built up a dedicated following in the UK and other countries and scored several hit singles, including "What a Waste", "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" (which was a UK number one at the beginning of 1979, selling just short of a million copies), "Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3" (number three in the UK in 1979), and the rock and roll anthem, "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll". (Although it is sometimes claimed that Dury coined the phrase, there is evidence that it was already in common use and a virtually identical wording was used by Australian band Daddy Cool for the title of their second album Sex, Dope & Rock'n'Roll: Teenage Heaven, released in 1972).
Dury's lyrics are a distinctive combination of lyrical poetry, word play, observation of British everyday (working-class) life, acute character sketches, and vivid, earthy sexual humour. "This is what we find ... [H]ome improvement expert Harold Hill of Harold Hill, Of do-it-yourself dexterity and double-glazing skill, Came home to find another gentleman's kippers in the grill, So he sanded off his winkle with his Black & Decker drill." The song "Billericay Dickie" continues this sexual content, rhyming "I had a love affair with Nina, In the back of my Cortina" with "A seasoned-up hyena, Could not have been more obscener".
The Blockheads' sound drew from its members' diverse musical influences, which included jazz, rock and roll, funk, and reggae, and Dury's love of music hall. The band was formed after Dury began writing songs with pianist and guitarist Chaz Jankel (the brother of noted music video, TV, commercial and film director Annabel Jankel). Jankel took Dury's lyrics, fashioned a number of songs, and they began recording with members of Radio Caroline's Loving Awareness Band -- drummer Charley Charles, bassist Norman Watt-Roy, keyboard player Mick Gallagher, guitarist John Turnbull -- and former Kilburns saxophonist Davey Payne. An album was completed, but major record labels passed on the band. However, next door to Dury's manager's office was the newly formed Stiff Records, a perfect home for Dury's maverick style. Their classic single, "Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll", marked Dury's Stiff debut and although it was banned by the BBC it was named Single of the Week by NME on its release. It was soon followed by the album New Boots and Panties!!, which was eventually to achieve platinum status.
Live at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, London 1978In October 1977 Dury and his band started performing as Ian Dury & The Blockheads, when the band signed on for the Stiff "Live Stiffs Tour" alongside Elvis Costello And The Attractions, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, and Larry Wallis. The tour was a success, and Stiff launched a concerted Ian Dury marketing campaign, resulting in the Top Ten hit, "What a Waste", and the classic hit single, "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick", which reached #1 in the UK, was notably not included on the original release of their subsequent LPDo It Yourself. Both the single and its accompanying music video featured Davey Payne simultaneously playing dual saxophones during his solo, in evident homage to jazz saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whose 'trademark' technique this was.
“ Einstein can't be classed as witless
He claimed atoms were the littlest
When you did a bit of splittin'-ness
Frightened everybody shitless
—from There ain't half been some clever bastards
“ I could be a lawyer with strategems and ruses
I could be a doctor with poultices and bruises
I could be a writer with a growing reputation
I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway station
—from What a Waste
Barney Bubbles' Blockheads logoThe band's second album Do It Yourself was released in June 1979 in a Barney Bubbles-designed sleeve of which there were over a dozen variations, all based on samples from the Crown wallpaper catalogue. Bubbles also designed the "mock-cubist" Blockhead logo (illustrated on the left) which received international acclaim,  and continued to be used by the Blockheads after Dury's death, e.g. on their DVD: Live in Colchester 2004.
Jankel left the band temporarily and relocated to the U.S. after the release of "What A Waste" (his organ part on that single was overdubbed later) but he subsequently returned to the UK and began touring sporadically with the Blockheads, eventually returning to the group full-time for the recording of "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick"; according to guitarist Mickey Gallagher, the band recorded 28 takes of the song but eventually settled on the second take for the single release. Partly due to personality clashes with Dury, Jankel quit the group again in 1980, after the recording of the Do It Yourself LP, and he returned to the USA to concentrate on his solo career. The group worked solidly over the eighteen months between the release of "Rhythm Stick" and their next single, "Reasons To Be Cheerful", which returned them to the charts, making the UK Top 10. Jankel was replaced by former Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson, who also contributed to the next album Laughter and its two minor hit singles, although Gallagher recalls that the recording of the Laughter album was difficult and that Dury was drinking heavily in this period. In 1980-81 Dury and Jankel teamed up again with Sly and Robbie and the Compass Point All Stars to record Lord Upminster. The Blockheads toured the U.K and Europe throughout 1981, sometimes augmented by jazz legend Don Cherry on trumpet, ending the year with their only tour of Australia.
Wilko Johnson and Ian Dury & The BlockheadsThe Blockheads disbanded in early 1982 after Dury secured a new recording deal with Polydor Records through A&R man Frank Neilson. Choosing to work with a group of young musicians which he named The Music Students, he recorded the album Four Thousand Weeks' Holiday. This album marked a departure from his usual style and was not as well received by fans for its American jazz influence.
The Blockheads briefly reformed in June 1987 to play a short tour of Japan, and then disbanded again. In September 1990, following the death from cancer of drummer Charley Charles, they reunited for two benefit concerts in aid of Charles' family, held at The Forum, Camden Town, with Steven Monti on drums. In December 1990, augmented by Merlin Rhys-Jones on guitar and Will Parnell on percussion, they recorded the live album Warts & Audience at the Brixton Academy.
The Blockheads (minus Jankel, who returned to California) toured Spain in January 1991, then disbanded again until August 1994 when, following Jankel's return to England, they were invited to reform for the Madstock Festival in Finsbury Park; this was followed by sporadic gigs in Europe, Ireland, the U.K. and Japan through late 1994 and 1995. In the early 1990s, Dury appeared with English band Curve on the benefit compilation album Peace Together. Dury and Curve singer Toni Halliday shared vocals on a cover of the Blockheads' track "What a Waste".
In March 1996 Dury was diagnosed with cancer and, after recovering from an operation, he set about writing another album. In early 1998 he reunited with the Blockheads to record the well-received album Mr Love-Pants. In May, Ian Dury & The Blockheads hit the road again, with Dylan Howe replacing Steven Monti on drums. Davey Payne left the group permanently in August and was replaced by Gilad Atzmon; this amended lineup gigged throughout 1999, culminating in their last performance with Ian Dury on 6 February 2000 at the London Palladium. Dury died six weeks later on 27 March 2000.
The Blockheads have continued after Dury's death, contributing to the tribute album Brand New Boots And Panties, then Where's The Party. The Blockheads still tour, and are currently recording a new album. They currently comprise Jankel, Watt-Roy, Gallagher, Turnbull, Dylan Howe on drums, Gilad Atzmon and Dave Lewis on saxes. Derek The Draw (who was Dury's friend and minder) is now writing songs with Jankel as well as singing. They are aided and abetted by Lee Harris, who is their 'aide de camp'.
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