Aug 08

IAN DURY AND THE BLOCKHEADS – “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”

FT + Popular131 comments • 8,274 views

#432, 27th January 1979

What is the relationship between the charts and everything else? The charts are a show home for pop music, filled with its shiniest mod cons, but one stuffed with hidden doors and tunnels, records that can tumble you out of pop and into other worlds which have their own codes and rules and no cosy countdown to set things in order. And in those other worlds – some of them, anyway – the charts are a sunlit palace of temptation, but to step (or be plucked) into it is to risk having your life and art and the world it came from turned higgledy-piggledy.

Every so often a door between the palace of pop and one of these other worlds opens so wide that every visitor can’t help but notice it and the walls between what’s mainstream and what’s not suddenly seem very thin. “Double Barrel” is one of them, so you could argue is “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”. So is this: it promises a sharper, smarter, more dangerous place than Number One hits generally admit you to.

This wasn’t a fluke, either, a canny act taking advantage of the January lull: it sold close to a million copies, a megahit in an era of them. “Rhythm Stick” is the sound of a band well aware that they’ve written a smash, and pushing themselves to make the delivery count. There isn’t a wasted note or fluffed decision on the track, but the whole thing comes off as wonderfully simple – a darting, jabbing groove designed to seduce even the most stand-offish of blokes onto the dancefloor, and a superb backdrop for Dury’s amazing performance.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Ian Dury – like a lot of highly quotable songwriters, he works best for me quoted. But on “Rhythm Stick” he makes every word count, caressing the line-end “-o” and “-an” sounds, wheezing and gasping through the chorus, then kicking off on the coda as the guitar shrieks him on. This is one of the first number ones where the hip-hop concept of “flow” really seems relevant: riding a rhythm, racking up bonuses with multi-syllable combos. 

Like “Y.M.C.A.”, this is an ostensibly inclusive lyric, celebrating the universality of dancing (or screwing), but there’s also something mocking, even sinister about it: check the promo clip of Dury onstage, surrounded by darkness, blinking, contorting, urging the dance on but always apart from it. That goblinoid malice doesn’t come across so fully on record – “Rhythm Stick” got to No.1 because it was infectious and jolly as well as demented and sardonic – but it’s there.

The distance, as much as the playful aggression, might make this one of the most laddish dance records. It’s never beery or off-putting, though: there’s just a thread of cheek to it, which if followed might lead you quite out of pop and into some very rum places. Though just then the top of the charts was as rum a place as any. The people who didn’t fit in anywhere were getting their chance not just to make, but to define pop music: interesting times ahead.



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  1. 101
    Waldo on 8 Sep 2008 #

    Sorry, Rosie but my bookie, Jimmy the Swede, will be up to collect her at 3pm today.

  2. 102
    Erithian on 8 Sep 2008 #

    Don’t forget that originally “Sports Personality of the Year” laid the emphasis on the sport rather than the personality – it’s not a question of “having personality” but “being a personality” (the Aussies would call it “an identity”). So it should go to the greatest UK sporting achiever of the year regardless of whether you think they’re a miserable git. If Murray and Hamilton both deliver it’ll be very difficult this year.

    “Best player Britain has ever produced”? That’s contentious Waldo – making the usual necessary allowances for fitness levels, training regimes and racket technology, would you still place him above Perry’s 8 grand slam wins or whatever it was?

  3. 103
    Mark G on 8 Sep 2008 #

    I remember Ian Dury getting some sort of award from Sue Lawley, back in the day.

    “Oy, Basher! Alright?” he yelled. To Nick Lowe, not one of the bouncers…

  4. 104
    Erithian on 8 Sep 2008 #

    Dury also met Sue Lawley when he did “Desert Island Discs”. I don’t recall the exact exchange but he was talking about his polio in the context of “Spasticus Autisticus” and Lawley commented, “It’s a good story and you tell it well…” – he retorted that it wasn’t a story, it was his life. Can’t quite recall whether there was real tension in the exchange or not – anybody else hear it?

  5. 105
    DJ Punctum on 8 Sep 2008 #

    That would have been the Nationwide Rock And Pop Awards, and I can’t remember at this late stage whether these morphed into the Brits or whether the Brits were something different altogether.

  6. 106
    DJ Punctum on 8 Sep 2008 #

    Lawley really was hopeless on Desert Island Discs; she never seemed to listen.

  7. 107
    mike on 8 Sep 2008 #

    #105: No, the Brits are a re-branded continuation of the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) awards.

  8. 108
    DJ Punctum on 8 Sep 2008 #

    What were the ones that were presented by DLT and pre-TV-AM Anne Diamond and Kate Bush won everything?

    According to Wikipedia the BPI awards started in ’82 and the first improbable host was David “Hello Thaar” Jacobs.

  9. 109
    Mark G on 8 Sep 2008 #

    I remember two in a row where The Police won Best Group or Alltime group or something the first year, and got it awarded from some bloke who rattled off some speech about how it was great that all that punk rubbish was gone, to the obvious embarrassment of Stingie. Oh, and the bloke had a red setter dog on stage with him.

    The following year was more professional, Rob Dicken gave the final speech, and I was “Thank god that bloke with the red setter is gone OH NO THERE HE IS!!”

  10. 110
    mike on 8 Sep 2008 #

    The man with the dog was Maurice “Obie” Oberstein, a CBS big-wig who died in 2001. I think that award ceremony marked the last public appearance from The Police until their recent reunion tour, although they didn’t actually perform on that occasion. Indeed, there was an unspoken assumption that the award was already posthumous – which no doubt added to the band’s embarrassment.

  11. 111
    DJ Punctum on 9 Sep 2008 #

    Well that Federer/Murray final wasn’t exactly an all time classic.

  12. 112
    Waldo on 9 Sep 2008 #

    Indeed it was not, Marcello. 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 and all over in less than two hours. This is infuriating for me personally, having watched him out-Nadal Nadal only to see him go all girlie in the final. Admittedly he was disadvantaged in having to endure a sleep-over with Rafa, whilst Federer had a day off but here the excuses end. Great tournament for Murray, nevertheless and almost as an afterthought, let’s applaud Roger for his 13th Grand Slam, only one behind Sampras now with a couple of good years left in him to equal it at least. One of the greatest sportsman of our lifetime and such a nice guy, with a girlfriend who looks like his wife and not his secretary.

    Erithian # 102 – I stand by what I say, whilst accepting your point re fitness and equipment. I, in fact, would go further. If Fred Perry (c.1936) turned up today, he would be soundly trounced by any modern top woman. The sisters would just out-hit him and I’d love to see the look on Fred’s boat when Ivanovich or Sharapova wiggled onto court…

  13. 113
    DJ Punctum on 9 Sep 2008 #

    I imagine such fantasies helped keep him buoyant in his declining years.

  14. 114
    Waldo on 10 Sep 2008 #

    They certainly do, buddy!

  15. 115

    […] Tom Ewing’s freaky trigger, which reviews every UK chart-topper since 1952 and ranks “Stick” as #432 — a more, um, sophisticated and musically informed take than my own. Comments galore. (hat tip […]

  16. 116
    Ashley Pomeroy on 14 Oct 2008 #

    This is one of the earliest pop songs I remember, along with “Cars” and “Walking on the Moon”. As a child I always assumed that he was singing “hit me with your ribbon stick”, and that a ribbon stick was a stick with a ribbon on the end, and that the song was somehow rude. Why would adults hit each other with sticks? Ian Dury vanished from my life until he died. YouTube has some old live performances on “Revolver”, which are splendidly funky. You can divide people into two kinds; those who say “ian jury” and those who say “ian dew-ree”.

    No, that’s it – a few years later he contributed vocals to a computer game called “Deus Ex Machina”. It was an ambitious rock opera, and there is a bitty picture of Ian Dury in the opening credits. In retrospect I think, as a child, I always mixed him up with Madness, even though he had nothing to do with Ska. I reckon he might have been a good subject for a Look-In comic strip, nestled between Adam Ant and Dangermouse, but with the swearing taken out.

    I wonder how many copies this sold in the US? Was he a complete unknown over there, or an underground novelty from the land of Monty Python and Benny Hill?

  17. 117
    Mark G on 14 Oct 2008 #

    “Deus Ex Machina”

    Jon Pertwee! Frankie Howerd! Ian Dury!

    A stoner classic, true…..

  18. 118
    Erithian on 23 Apr 2009 #

    And what links Dury to Martin Hannett, Ian Brady, Einstein and Gollum?

  19. 119

    death and drugs and rings and time

  20. 120
    swanstep on 17 Apr 2010 #

    I’ve heard HMWYRS all my life but never really given it much thought – never really listened to it – until recently, when I noticed for the first time what the bass guitar was doing. Holy f***ing s***. I then get on line and, of course, it’s one of those widely-discussed Everests that every bass-player has to try to climb at some point! Then I find out that Norman Watt-Roy also provided the bass samples for Two Tribes and Relax. Suddenly the whole 1979-1984 pop period, which I thought I knew pretty well, sounds a little different to me.

    Anyhow, I enjoyed Tom’s essay and reading everyone’s comments. This is truly a great left-field #1 isn’t it? For me its musical ferocity and strangeness looks forward a bit to Ghost Town and also Underworld’s Dirty Epic, but also back to The Doors’ Light my Fire (not sure I can explain that one, but that’s a connection I make so I thought I’d toss it out there). 9+(note to self to listen, really listen to more Dury).

  21. 121
    Conrad on 18 Apr 2010 #

    Swanstep, the bass playing is wonderful isn’t it? If you haven’t checked out James Jamerson’s work before, have a listen to Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Was Made To Love Her’ for a fine example of the fluid, bubbling bass style that NW-R’s nimble fingers bestow on Hit Me…an Everest not reachable to most mere mortal bass players.

  22. 122
    swanstep on 19 Apr 2010 #

    @conrad. Thanks for the tip, I’ll definitely check that out.

  23. 123
    wichita lineman on 23 Apr 2012 #

    Something I wrote on sweet Gene Vincent (the man, not the song) on my blog: http://croydonmunicipal.blogspot.co.uk/

  24. 124
    Brendan on 25 Sep 2012 #

    Again, coming late to the party, everything’s been said. As a 7 year old I was more amused by the concept of being hit by a rhythm stick and all those strange namechecks, many of which I’d never heard of before. Later I was able to appreciate the music too, which, with its blend of funk and free jazz clearly set this apart from any other number 1. However, the ‘novelty’ aspect of it has always remained in my mind so for that reason I can only give it a 9.

  25. 125
    Lazarus on 25 Sep 2012 #

    Waldo called it at #96 there!

    One of Dury’s titles has outlived him by a decade: the phrase ‘reasons to be cheerful’ (and variants – tearful, fearful etc) appears in the press on a regular basis. Saw it twice in Times headlines a couple of weeks back.

  26. 126
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 25 Sep 2012 #

    Ditto “sex and drugs and rock and roll”, at least as a formula to vary.

  27. 127
    Erithian on 10 Jan 2013 #

    The most appropriate place, I think, to note the very sad news that sometime Blockhead Wilko Johnson has been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. As with Dury, however, he’ll have a swansong – a farewell tour which (let’s hope) will be a great experience for all and a fond leave-taking/thanksgiving.

  28. 128
    hectorthebat on 30 Jul 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1970s (2001) 101
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 32
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 1
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 12

  29. 129
    Larry on 21 Nov 2014 #

    I’ve enjoyed the discussion of pro tennis and London food stores (and some great music criticism)

  30. 130
    Andrew Farrell on 23 Nov 2014 #

    #127 – Also an appropriate place to note that he’s survived it, to everyone’s surprise including his own!

  31. 131
    Neil C on 2 Apr 2016 #

    Exploring the UK#1 archives via Popular made me realise that this song has never failed to lift my mood, send a thrill down my spine and grab my attention for the full 4 minutes. I can’t think of another chart topper that sounds anything like it.

    The band are playing out of their skin, aren’t they? The bass, piano and the sax “non-solo” are what always grab my attention, but listening back now I’m noticing the wonderful shimmering organ for perhaps the first time – what a difference it makes! The globetrotting lyrics are terrific fun, with Ian Dury’s none-more-committed performance lifting them from the great to the sublime (although I can’t help thinking he sounds a little tired in the final verse). What with this, Sex and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll, Wake Up And Make Love With Me, and Reasons To be Cheerful Pt 3, this is one artist I really, really need to explore further.

    A nailed-on TEN.

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