Saturday, February 13, 2010

"Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick"
/ "There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards"

Ian Dury & the Blockheads


Uncle E called it -- there were bound to be some Stiff records on my 100 Best Singles list. But in 1979, when this record came out, I'd stopped buying singles -- the only reason I possess this 7" bit of vinyl is because it was a bonus demo thrown into the Blockheads' LP Do It Yourself.

I have no idea what possessed me to buy that album. I'd like to say it was the Barney Bubbles cover, which looked like it was covered with a leftover bit of wallpaper from your Aunt Maude's remodeled lounge. But I suspect it was just an impulse lunch hour buy at Crazy Eddie's, in that brief period when I knew anything released on the Stiff label was likely to be worth listening to. In this case, I couldn't have been more right.

New Wave was a convenient catch-all label for music that wasn't quite punk, wasn't quite rock, wasn't quite pop. But in the case of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, the term was more of a stretch than with other artists. The Blockheads' sound was a funky stew of jazz, reggae, and music-hall cabaret, quite the opposite of the back-to-basics sound most Stiff artists favored. (Compliments of house producer Nick "Basher" Lowe.) You couldn't ignore the brilliance of Ian Dury's subversive lyrics, delivered in a flagrant Cockney accent, but let's not forget, there was a tight, complex, sophisticated instrumental track beneath those lyrics that never got sufficient credit.

I loved the album so much, it was ages before I listened to the single. In fact, I didn't even know it was in there for weeks, until it slipped out by accident. I'll bet my work mate Susan Roberts was there with me. She didn't last long at Scholastic Publishing, but those few months coincided with the height of my Stiff Records infatuation. Every evening after work we'd repair to her apartment or mine to get high, crank up the tunes, and celebrate the end of the work day. So just imagine our delight when this extra pair of tunes literally fell into our laps.

What a great surprise "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" was! The lyrics -- half-spoken, half-sung, in Dury's raspy con-man style -- are like a travel brochure of exotic destinations around the world ("From deserts of Sudan / To the gardens of Japan / From Milan to Yucatan"), interspersed with the punchy refrain "Hit me with your rhythm stick! Hit me! Hit me!" and ecstatic responses in various languages ("Das ist gut! C'est fantastique!"). Dury claimed this was an anti-violence song, but the sado-masochistic subtext can't be denied. Okay, the rhythm stick could just be a drumstick, but that implicit leer in Dury's voice always the dirtiest possible interpretations spring to mind. We coast along on the copasetic groove of the backing track (god love Norman Watt-Roy's bass) in the verses, until stabbing keyboards and emphatic percussion underscore the "hit me's." And when Davey Payne's sax lets loose its wail of protest -- well, no one emerges without a bruise or two.

"There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards," on the other hand, goes for pure music-hall patter -- just the thing for an old Kinks fan like me. Listen to Dury croon his way through those cheeky verses, with typical Cockney understatement praising a string of history's geniuses. My favorite verse: "Van Gogh did some eyeball pleasers. / He must have been a pencil squeezer. / He didn't do the Mona Lisa, / That was an Italian geezer." The farther-fetched the rhymes are, the funnier this is (and you cannot tell me that a "pencil squeezer" isn't a wanker of some kind). "There ain't half been some clever bastards," Dury croaks approvingly, while the Blockheads chant "Lucky bleeders! Lucky bleeders!" (later in the song they scoff "probably had help from their mums"). And oh, those debonair keyboards (Mickey Gallagher? Chas Jankel?) trading off with the suave alto sax. It's a right charmer.

Though this was the B-side, it was always my favorite. In fact, it may be my favorite Ian Dury song ever, and that's going some. I know it's not for everyone -- how many 100 Best Singles list would include this single? But in 1979 -- in the first flush of being a writer in New York, armed with a cool friend who had the same deviant sense of humor -- this was exactly what I needed. I'll always be grateful to Ian Dury for this record.

PS Check out Will Birch's new biography of Ian Dury!


Uncle E said...

I always thought that Ian Dury was underrated, and it's a shame all most folks know of him is Sex and Drugs and R&R, although that's a terrific little tune. There was even a rumor goin' round that the Blockheads played all the instruments on the debut from Frankie Goes To Hollywood. But we won't hold that against them...

Holly A Hughes said...

The Blockheads were just an insanely great band -- too bad Dury ended up pissing off everybody he knew. I've got my copy of the new Will Birch biography of Dury on order already, should be getting it any day now; I can't wait!