1978: Ain't half been some clever bastards
Ian Dury, the Blockheads and some reasons to be cheerful
Strange how potent cheap music can be. Like a whiff of Blue Stratos on the night air, all it takes is a few bars and there we are, forty years ago, dripping extruded ice cream product on the vinyl seats of a Morris Marina while the rain falls on a pebbled beach. Year by year, these are the songs that have soundtracked our lives.
A side: Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick
In the wilds of Borneo
And the vineyards of Bordeaux
Move their body to and fro
In 1978 I thought ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ was a comedy song, or at least a novelty song. There was a lot of that about in the ‘70s: that year alone we had ‘The Floral Dance’ and ‘Matchstalk Men’, ‘The Smurf Song’ and ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’? The charts were insistently stupid.
The title held a promise of schoolboy-friendly slapstick violence, and the phrase ‘rhythm stick’ was pleasingly meaningless. The music was fundamentally comic, upbeat and resoundingly squelchy, combining the jangling pub joanna of Chas ‘n’ Dave and the tipsy boogie-woogie of Squeeze. I knew what hip pop music was supposed to sound like; copies of Tubeway Army and Kings of the Wild Frontier were beginning to circulate at school. I knew the noise you made playing along with the art school boys, and this was not it.
Dury’s distinct London accent seemed inherently comic too. (In ‘Move their body to and fro’ he pronounced the ‘fro’ as ‘fwo’.) While Gary Numan was trying to transform into a Philip K Dick android and Adam Ant was being whatever the hell he was being (a Burundi pirate fop?), this was just a geezer chattering away in the corner of a pub. A London pub. A London geezer in a London pub, making London jokes.
We weren’t used to hearing London accents in the charts. Northern working class accents, especially Scouse, had been mythologised, and all those ‘70s rock berks - Rod Stewart and the like - sung in blurry transatlantic drawls, but this was a clipped, staccato Cockney, chanting out a simple, singable chorus:
Hit me with your rhythm stick
Hit me! Hit me!
C'est si bon, ist es nicht
Hit me! Hit me! Hit me!
Hit me with your rhythm stick
Two fat persons, click, click, click
Hit me! Hit me! Hit me!
The phrase is, of course, ‘Two fat ladies’: the bingo call for the number 88. But this is the late ‘70s and Dury is too sophisticated to be that sexist. Because Ian Dury is one of the art school boys - he studied at the Royal College of Art under Peter Blake - and ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ isn’t a novelty song.
It is funny, though; that ‘Arapaho/to and fro’ rhyme is delightful. And it is splendidly odd; the saxophone wails into a high note of hysteria after the second verse before resuming its honking, prodding riff.
And then that final verse:
In the dock of Tiger Bay
On the road to Mandalay
From Bombay to Santa Fé
Over hills and far away!
Our vision clouding into a distant blue, the whole world opening before us. It’s like those chapter closings of which Thomas Pynchon is so fond, as rambling paragraphs, full of fractal sub-clauses, slowly run into each other, fading into a hypnagogic sense of a meaning felt but not yet quite apprehended.
You find this tension between the matey vernacular and the revelatory in all those pub rock/New Wave London bands: in Difford and Tillbrook’s poppy potted lives in songs like ‘Up the Junction’, and Madness’s grimy cheerfulness in ‘House of Fun’. Songs that cram the banalities, horrors and delights of everyday life into three minutes of pop genius.
It is a tone quite different from the pretentious sixth form poetry of the New Romantics and Goths I went on to idolise as a teenager; a frank, crafty songwriting style that doesn’t wear its brains on its sleeve, which is perhaps why I didn’t spot them at the time.
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B Side: There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards
Noël Coward was a charmer
As a writer he was brahma
Velvet jackets and pyjamas
‘The Gay Divorce’ and other dramas
One night in the mid ‘90s a friend brought his father home to our shared house in North London. They had been out for the evening and weren’t yet ready to stop drinking. In an effort to keep his father amused we played him some records, including the b-side of ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’: ‘There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards’.
At which point my friend’s father became furious. Why had this been kept from him? Why was he only hearing this now? Why had he been forced to live for twenty years in a world that he didn’t know contained Ian Dury and The Blockheads?
Like ‘Rhythm Stick’ and the following year’s ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’, ‘Clever Bastards’ is a list song full of smart patter. Pairing ‘Brahma’ - Cockney non-rhyming slang for ‘very good’ - with the cocktailed languour of ‘pyjama’ is a genius miniature of knowing bathos. ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ is a list of, well, reasons to be cheerful, a gloriously eclectic and generous itemisation of everyone from the Marx Brothers (in the right order: ‘Harpo, Groucho, Chico’) to indie queen Nico and obscure B-movie actor Bonar Colleano. Dury is playing curator, offering up names and ideas to chase down and get acquainted with.
He does the same in ‘Clever Bastards’. Here, he’s measuring out cleverness: Coward, van Gogh, Einstein. Entertainment, art, science. Cleverness is not just intellectual capacity, but also wit, artistic talent and - in an aside, as he remembers halfway through the sax solo - craft, in the shape of guitarist Andres Segovia.
Remarkably, Dury does this without appearing to show off. This isn’t the heavy-handed pseudo-intellectual references of Sting (‘He starts to shake and cough / Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov’). This is light-footed and wittily self-deprecating. He’s simply offering up these names and ideas for our edification and enjoyment.
Einstein can't be classed as witless
He claimed atoms were the littlest
When you did a bit of splitting-em-ness
Frightened everybody shitless
What I caught on to between the ‘70s and the ‘90s - between me thinking that this was a comedy record, and passing it on to a man two decades my senior - was something my friend’s father grasped immediately. Glee.
Dury wrote ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ after his roadie was almost killed in an on-stage accident. He was literally trying to cheer the band up. And us. He lays out before us an ordinary world that is full of extraordinary things. It's there in the Blockheads’ music, the cheerful funk and the sudden lurches into jazz; it’s there in Dury’s lyrics, the rattling rhymes, the jaunts into French and German when his enthusiasm escapes the English language. His determinedly non-U enthusiasm for learning contributes to the sense that this is a fundamentally democratic enterprise: a hummable tune, comprehensible lyrics, a cheerful, welcoming sound.
Underneath it all, he emphasises that cleverness, like rhythm, can come from anywhere: ‘the deserts of Sudan / And the gardens of Japan / From Milan to Yucatán / Every woman, every man’. A boy from an ordinary family from an ordinary London suburb can become a nationally beloved entertainer, a purveyor of witty little ditties and singable songs. Still, probably got help from his mum.
For more lyrical examinations: