Old music: Ian Dury and the Blockheads – Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick

In the midst of a winter made dreadful by more than weather came a blast of aural sunshine from the Essex suburbs

It was the winter of 1979 – the famous winter of discontent – when the great British public decided they'd had enough of trade unions. The weather was severe; Denis Howell, previously minister for drought, then floods, was now the minister for snow. But in the midst of the gloom came a chart-topping song of surreal lyrics and funky music that provided the perfect escape: Ian Dury and the Blockheads' Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.

Dury's message in Rhythm Stick was roughly the same as that popped in Jim Callaghan's mouth by the Sun. Crisis, what crisis? In the deserts of Sudan, and the gardens of Japan … Forget blizzards and the TWGU, there was a whole world out there. Dury's only No 1 combines a travel agent's dream tour of locations – Tiger Bay, Mandalay, Bombay, Santa Fé, to name but a tiny, random selection within the song – and frenzied phrasebook stabs with wild playing from the Blockheads, led by music writer, guitarist and keyboards man Chaz Jankel, and including Davey Payne playing two saxes simultaneously. It was refreshing, funny, and uplifting, but also driven by the barely suppressed fury that was a keynote of Ian Dury's unique talent.

Dury had a lot of pent-up fury. You can hear it in his working-class character studies Clever Trevor and Billericay Dickie, the explosiveness of Sweet Gene Vincent and Blockheads, and more overtly in songs such as Dance of the Screamers and Spasticus Autisticus. As he told Michael Parkinson, the polio that struck him down as a boy hadn't stopped him becoming a star, but he felt for all those out there for whom things hadn't turned out so well, and wanted to cut through the patronising cant that he saw as surrounding disability.

In an excellent recent BBC4 programme, the argument was that punk inevitably swept away pub-rockers such as Brinsley Schwarz and Ian Dury's earlier band Kilburn and the High Roads. In reality, some of those pub-rockers never went away. And Dury in particular came back, bigger and angrier than any punk, with the Blockheads, on the crest of the new wave that succeeded spiky hair and safety pins.

His dark, Dickensian aura won him stage and TV parts; but, generally, it was the lighter side of Dury that folk warmed to the most, with other "list" songs like Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3 often becoming a headline writer's first resort, and the poignant job opportunity of being the "ticket man at Fulham Broadway station" just one of life's missed chances/pitfalls in What A Waste. Thank you, Ian – and Chaz Jankel, of course – for music to warm your hands round the brazier to.


Greg Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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