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Aug 08

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

FT + Popular131 comments • 10,169 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. 61
    DJ Punctum on 20 Aug 2008 #

    Still plenty of fine local shops and businesses for those prepared to trek the extra two or three minutes to North End Road, Lee!

  2. 62
    rosie on 20 Aug 2008 #

    Ah yes, a good street market. That’s one thing I really miss about London.

  3. 63
    LondonLee on 20 Aug 2008 #

    To be honest I always thought North End Road was a bit of a dump. Good fruit and veg stalls though.

    Sorry, but it’s the fate of the expat to bemoan the fact that things didn’t stay exactly the same after he left.

  4. 64
    SteveM on 20 Aug 2008 #

    we’re up to our bibs in indie eco-grocers here in Hackney so i only go to Waitrose or M&S about once a month. there’s lovely.

  5. 65
    Caledonianne on 20 Aug 2008 #

    I was never one of the ‘us’ in the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy, but I loved this at the time and haven’t changed my mind. Dury was to me a fusion of jazz and story songs, with a voice that was part calming, reassuring Jackanory reader, part Bill Sykes on acid. And all deliciously theatrical – in a resolutely un-luvvie way.

    HMWYRS just throbs with possibilities, wit and swagger, and somehow swirls you away into a vortex of unmediated music. I find it enveloping in a way quite distinct from any other record I know. I think this is the last Number One record I really love.

    To Mr Caledonianne’s then five year-old son, this was “Hit me with your riffing stick”, which we rather liked.

    Not too sure about the Capital One ads, but I suppose we were just about to enter into the reign of the Wicked Witch from Grantham/Finchley, and the Capital One chappie was one of Lord Levy’s public-spirited philanthropic Bliar donors who had Yates of the Yard on the Number 10 door, so it all makes perfect sense.

    A 10 from me.

  6. 66

    […] and read up there on it all. Just wanted to call it to everyone’s attention again thanks to this absolutely stellar entry from the other day on Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ “Hit Me With Your Rhythm […]

  7. 67
    thevisitor on 21 Aug 2008 #

    This is genuine speculation rather than anything that resembles actually knowing – but wasn’t Chaz Jankel much of the reason for the Blockheads’ ineluctable funkiness? Reading his name mentioned here reminded me of having seen the video to his single Questionnaire on (I think) Saturday Superstore and the chorus to that song came galloping back to me. Thanks to the power of GEMM, I managed to find myself a copy of his eponymous album. iTunes don’t have it, but here’s a youtube link for the audio:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8adu_dH74M&feature=related

    Shamefully, I didn’t know, prior to looking it up the other day, that he co-wrote and performed Ai No Corrida before Quincy Jones did it a year later.

  8. 68
    Waldo on 21 Aug 2008 #

    Re Fulham Broadway station – Not surprisingly, I’m with Lee on this. Back in the day of “Rhythm Stick”, when Chelsea were utter shite and ping-ponging between Divs One and Two, the station was just that, a typical District Line heap with a footbridge and nothing else other than the aforementioned barber and grocers. Dury’s ticket man oftentimes took the wise option and simply stood to one side and let the lads file through, particulary if we were playing West Ham, District Line travellers also from the other side of Earls Court. A hold up would have meant carnage. Nowadays, as Lee says, the station is a mini mall and occasionally-returning expats are bound to disapprove. Mind you, I have more than once utilised the neighbouring David Lloyds Centre since, so my squawk is probably not as loud as Lee’s.

    Rosie#59 – Ulverston. Stan Laurel?

  9. 69
    DJ Punctum on 21 Aug 2008 #

    I’ve never understood why North End Road gets such a bad press. Admittedly being tortured by Saddam’s henchmen would be just about preferable to having to live in Clem Attlee Court but I like its grittiness which nicely balances the ponciness of the Broadway end of Fulham. As Lee says, an excellent fruit n’ veg market, also plenty of good butcher’s shops, a fine used furniture market, a couple of good Italian caffs and some ace charity shops. There’s a Somerfields there as well but nobody’s perfect. Plus 2-3 minutes’ walk away there’s a hidden gem of a used record shop, Broadway Records on Dawes Road.

  10. 70
    rosie on 21 Aug 2008 #

    Waldo @ 68: The very same! 5 Argyle Street, complete with plaque and house opposite called ‘Laurel View’ despite no Laurus nobilis in sight.

    I recently made up a “Made in Lancashire” compilation for a friend in the US, with On The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine as a coda. I wonder if she gets it.

  11. 71
    Erithian on 21 Aug 2008 #

    David (#37) – I wonder if the Blockheads’ free gig was depressing precisely because it was a free gig and people turned up just expecting to hear the hits? I’ve seen them in the Jazz Café and they were terrific live, with new material going down well with those committed enough to pay to see them – and of course “Sex and Drugs” etc being riotous.

    There was a poignant sketch on a BBC comedy show a while back in which Ralph McTell plays “Streets of London” at a gig then starts another song and the audience goes “Nah, play Streets of London again” – ad nauseam. I do wonder what it’s like to be an act that has to play the same couple of songs over and over again.

  12. 72
    DJ Punctum on 21 Aug 2008 #

    But enough about Stereolab…

  13. 73
    rosie on 21 Aug 2008 #

    Erithian @ 71: Ask Francis Rossi!

  14. 74
    Waldo on 21 Aug 2008 #

    Or Janis Ian.

  15. 75
    CarsmileSteve on 21 Aug 2008 #

    erithian@71 that would be BIG TRAIN, with The Actor Kevin Eldon playing Ralph.

  16. 76
    LondonLee on 21 Aug 2008 #

    Re: 69

    You’re right about North End Road, as someone who comes from the Aintree Estate and spent a lot of time as a kid hanging around the Clem Atlee those are what I point to when people say Fulham is a poncey place full of chinless wonders. It’s not all estate agents and wine bars (which sounds a bit 80s, what’s the current equivalent of the wine bar? The Gastropub?)

    I used to buy all my Northern Soul records from Broadway Records when they were based just off the actual Broadway, opposite where the Golden Lion was. There used to be a Beggar’s Banquet record shop on North End Road too.

  17. 77
    David Belbin on 21 Aug 2008 #

    Erithian (71), you’re right, to some extent. I think there was an element of the ‘this is free so it must be crap’ to my not enjoying the Blockheads, but I liked Ranking Roger’s Beat (who followed them) more, despite their playing only hits (and one or two dodgy covers) that fitted Roger’s voice, thus avoiding the songs that made The Beat great (eg most of ‘Wh’appen’ + ‘I Confess’). I think what was particularly depressing was the audience in Nottingham’s Old Market Square that day. They were, with only a couple of exceptions, people I never see at gigs, who were there because of the act and because it was free. My generation, I fear – late forties to mid fifties – and looking decidedly knackered, as did the band on stage. Another afternoon, at a decent festival, and I might have liked the set more. But it all felt rather old.

  18. 78
    brandon_r on 21 Aug 2008 #

    I tried playing the bassline to “Rhythm Stick” the other night. Those rapid fire 16th notes wreaked havoc on my plucking fingers. I cannot believe how tight–yet full of soul–that rhythm section is.

    The first Ian Dury song I heard was from my father’s vinyl copy of New Boots and Panties!! He loved to sing along with the line “What happens next is private/And also very rude” from the opening track.

  19. 79
    pink champale on 21 Aug 2008 #

    my three year old is generally fairly uninterested in music that isn’t about trains or farmyard animals but since i bought a brilliant two cd ian dury best of a few of weeks ago (yours for a fiver in fopp) he’s developed something of an obsession with “that funny man” and happily spends hours looking at the picture of him on the front cover while listening. as you’d expect, hmwyrs is his favourite (i generally spare him “fucking ada”) and he finds it mind bogglingly comical that a grown up sings “hit me!” even though hitting is naughty. the first time he heard it, his reaction to the saxophone solo was an excited “…and this must be a mouse!”.

    my main memory of this from childhood is unwisely singing it while walking home from infants school and having my then best friend hit me over the head with a stick of rock – which i guess it a pretty british experience when you think about it.

    one thing i love about the song that i don’t think anyone has mentioned yet is the way it starts – it always sounds to me like the groove has already been going for ages and the listener suddenly walks in on it.

  20. 80
    Matthew K on 22 Aug 2008 #

    Is it just my imperfect recollection of their grooves, or could you crossfade this with the end of Blondie’s “Rapture” seamlessly?

  21. 81
    DJ Punctum on 22 Aug 2008 #

    YES! I tried this in my student disco days and ideally both are in the same key with the same bpm!

  22. 82
    Caledonianne on 22 Aug 2008 #

    #74 Waldo!

    No, no, no, no, no! In the ten or so times I have seen Janis Ian live, “At Seventeen” (while always present) has never been the highlight – or the focus of anticipation. I think that’s been true for the audience as a whole, not just for me.

    I think the back catalogue (400+ songs) is so strong, and the core audience so loyal she could skip it, and three-quarters of the audience wouldn’t mind.

  23. 83
    Lena on 22 Aug 2008 #

    At one point Ian says something in German and I don’t know what it means. Does anyone here know?

  24. 84
    Mark G on 22 Aug 2008 #

    Well, twice:

    Das ist Schon, = “That’s lovely/beautiful”

    Ist es nicht = ‘Isn’t it?”

  25. 85
    SteveM on 22 Aug 2008 #

    he says ‘ich liebe dich’ and ‘das ist gut’ too no?

  26. 86
    Waldo on 22 Aug 2008 #

    #82 Anne!

    And there was me thinking that she only had one song! Oh, well, that’s me telt!

  27. 87
    Erithian on 22 Aug 2008 #

    Two at least Waldo – “Fly Too High” shoulda been a monster.

  28. 88
    Mark G on 22 Aug 2008 #

    I was getting my Schon mixed up with my gut.

  29. 89
    DJ Punctum on 22 Aug 2008 #

    And “Society’s Child” for that matter.

  30. 90
    LondonLee on 23 Aug 2008 #

    I picked up Janis Ian’s first two albums dirt cheap on vinyl the other week, thinking she was a bit of coffee shop folky I wouldn’t have bought them but noticed they were produced by Shadow Morton of The Shangri-Las fame and thought “well, this might be interesting…” and they were great, especially the very first one with “Society’s Child”.

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