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Aug 08

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

FT + Popular131 comments • 8,367 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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Comments

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  1. 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.

  2. 122
    swanstep on 19 Apr 2010 #

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

  3. 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/

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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

  9. 129
    Larry on 21 Nov 2014 #

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

  10. 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!

  11. 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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