The Blockheads

We caught up with the Blockheads 15 years after Ian Dury's death to speak about the history of the band

The formation of Ian Dury and the Blockheads was forged through two paths.

For Newcastle-born keyboardist Mick Gallagher and guitarist John Turnbull, the story took shape in London 1974 with the Loving Awareness band, which they formed with bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Charley Charles to create jingles for Rohan O’Rahilly’s show Radio Caroline. In 1976 the band released their only album Loving Awareness and split a year after.

A couple of years before, Ian Dury had also split from his group Kilburn and the High Roads and had begun writing songs with guitarist Chaz Jankel. They then brought on Watt-Roy and Charles and released their first single ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock’nRoll’ and debut album New Boots and Panties!! on Stiff Records in September 1977.

A blockhead is Mr Normal, the guy who goes out with shoes like dead pigs noses

A month after, the group brought on Gallagher and Turnbull and embarked on the hugely successful UK Live Stiffs Tour, with Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis. During the tour, they adopted the name Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

In the following years, the Blockheads reached Top 10 with ‘What a Waste’ and then No 1 ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’. After the release of their albums Do It Yourself, in 1979, and Laughter, in 1980, the group disbanded and reformed on several occasions.

In 1990, Charles died from cancer and in 2000 Dury passed away from metastatic colorectal cancer – he was aged 57.

Just over 15 years after Dury’s death, the Blockheads are still together and have released five albums with their original members Gallagher, Jankel, Turnbull and Watt-Roy, as well as the likes of Derek Hussey on vocals and John Roberts on drums. The group also have plans to release a feature length documentary – with the working title Beyond The Call of Dury – on the history of the band later this year.

We caught up with Mick Gallagher, on the anniversary of Dury's death last Friday, to hear more about their history...

How was Loving Awareness formed?
I had been in a band in the 1960s with John in London called Skip Bifferty, and known him since he was 16.

It stared in Newcastle with the Chosen Few, I think it was in 1965. We then changed the name, got a new band together and came down to London with our manager Don Arden. As Skip Bifferty, we did a couple of years, released one album and the single that got to Bubbling Under, outside the Top 20 and we got to joint No 21 with a band called the Herd with Peter Frampton. They went up and we didn’t. We realised we hadn’t made it and rang Don Arden telling him we didn’t want to do this anymore.

We then tried to get a deal with Island Records and recorded 'I Keep On Singing That Same Old Song' with the producer Guy Stevens to show them what we could do. Island decided to release it under a new name, Heavy Jelly. Then Don Arden got wind of it and said that he was going to sue him. The record was only released on a compilation called Nice Enough to Eat by Island Records, but people didn't know who the band was. Rumour was that it was Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood – they thought it was a super group.

We were shoved into the backroom by that time, when people wanted to know about it I think we made about £2.50 each from that record.

After all that it was very disappointing being ripped off by the business and we went our separate ways. John Turnbull and I formed a little band through the publishing company Robins Music, who were attached to MGM. The secretary there took us under her wing, and gave us some work to do, doing vocal work on Get Carter starring Michael Caine. We did covers for Tim Hardin, various things but it wasn't going anywhere.

At some point I went off with Peter Frampton to America for a few years and John went off with a band called Glencoe. After a couple of years that petered out, I came back to England and decided to play with John again. We linked up with Norman Watt-Roy, who John had met through Glencoe, and were looking for a drummer.

I remember coming in to the lights of Piccadilly – we were on our way

Ronan O'Rahilly who ran Radio Caroline, was looking for a band to get involved for some jingles. We linked up with him, found a rehearsal space and started holding auditions for drummers. Eventually we spotted Charley Charles on TV, sitting in Norman’s flat watching midday TV [BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test, 1975].

Link Wray was playing with a band. As the camera was moving during the credits, it went out to this drummer with a big old tooth, smiling away and playing fantastic funk. Norman went, that's the sort of drummer I want to play with.

We rang them, Charles came down to London, popped his head into the studio and that was it. Love at first sight.

Was that in 1974?
Yeah around then. We were sort of working outside of the music business, making enough to put food on the table.

Then we decided that we wanted to make an album and told Ronan. We went out to California, in the desert in Palm Springs in a mobile for six weeks and made the Loving Awareness album [1976].

We came back to London and tried to get a deal through Ronan. We had this magnificent scam that we did at the Hilton, Amsterdam – where John Lennon did his suite in. We hired a conference room there with a satellite link up for half an hour and Simon Dee the DJ. Him and Ronan did the intro, and then asked questions to this band that no one knew.

Ronan had all these outtakes that we had done in brown tape cans and put a whole load of them in the safe at the Hilton Amsterdam and said, this is what it's all about, this is the collateral.

No one had paid a bill but they thought that they had the album in the safe. Then, when we finished this interview, got out of the conference room and straight into the taxi, straight to the airport and boom, we were gone.

We thought it was a great sting, but the record company that we were involved with got very upset and dropped the album and everything fell through the floor.

And then you split?
Yeah, well we did a few gigs but found out that our audience were mostly Radio Caroline listeners. Most of them were busy shimmying up trees, putting aerials up there and doing their own broadcasts. They were radio buffs more than music buffs. So, we started looking elsewhere.

Charley and Norman went out and one of the sessions that they did was with Chaz Jankel and Ian Dury. They had both been writing Ian Dury's album, he just left the band Kilburn and the High Roads, so they needed a rhythm section. Charley and Norman had been playing for years together and Ian and Chaz loved them. So they made the New Boots and Panties!! album.

We were all still hanging about together and John and I heard it and were like, that’s really different. Ian was something off another wall at that time

It was as if I had known Ian all my life, we had an immediate affinity

Suddenly Ian wanted to go on the road with the album and needed a band. Charlie and Norman said, we already play with a band, we’ve got a keyboard player and a guitarist. So we went along and joined the band.

It was on the Stiff Tour that we got the name Blockheads, ostensibly off one of the titles of the song on the album. The MC on the Stiff tour, Kosmo Vinyl used to go out every night and introduce us as something different, Ian Dury and the Numbskulls or something like that

One night he went out and called us Ian Dury and the Blockheads and I think it was Norman who said, yeah that’s us.

A blockhead is Mr Normal, the guy who goes out with jeans with the crease in them and the little turn-ups and shoes like dead pigs noses. It was about those sort of people, which was mostly our audience. They were all blockheads.

Before Loving Awareness, you had been with quite a few groups in the 1960s, like the Animals?
Yeah well, I was fortunate enough to have been in the right place when the original keyboarder Alan Price left at the last minute – he just didn’t get on a plane to go on a tour through Scandinavia. They needed a keyboard player and had to ring back to Newcastle, where I happened to be playing a gig with the Chosen Few at their base the Club A’Gogo. So they came running looking for me.

They gave me a haircut, a wash and a suit and flew me out. I got there 20 minutes before they went on, had a quick run through behind the stage and then played in front of 20,000 screaming drunk Scandinavians. I was only 18 at the time and full of bravado.

Growing up in Newcastle, how did you get interested in music?
Well I suppose it was the local people. My family were big church-goers and we always went to what they called the social night on a Sunday. Various talent in the district used to get up and do certain things.

I think I must have been 14 or 15, and a group of us got together and formed a band called the Wayfarers for this social night. We had these tan sports tops and a brown 'W' on the pocket that my mum embroidered. That was my first taste of it. Then we started going out to do a few working men’s clubs as the Wayfarers, and those bands, like the Unkown, just developed until the Chosen Few started.

What sort of age did you meet John?
He was 16, so I must have been 21.

And what made you want to move to London?
The excitement of the 1960s. We thought we were the bees knees in Newcastle and thought, the next step’s London.

We had been to London before. In fact with the Chosen Few we had 15 minutes every Saturday night on Radio Luxemburg with a producer called Cyril Stapleton, who was a bandleader at the time, and we would do 15 minutes of original songs.

Where were your haunts?
Don’s offices in Carnaby Street. We first got a band house in Putney. We’d hang about in Soho in flower power gear. It was a wonderful time, free parking and loads of drugs.

What were your first memories of coming into Soho and Carnaby Street?
It was just a long road from Newcastle. I remember coming in to the lights of Piccadilly – we were on our way. We were going to Wardour Street to this club called Le Chasse. It was a sort of muso’s club and we were going down there to meet an agent with Don Arden.

And your memories of meeting Dury?
In 1976, at the rehearsal for the Stiff Tour. We met and had an immediate affinity. It was as if I had known him all my life. He had the same thing with all of us; it was a very spiritual meeting.

Once the lyric is complete, which is usually in secrecy, you would be graced with the first chorus

How was that early period with the Blockheads?
We were on an up. From the moment we got with Ian, his solo album New Boots and Panties!! made a big dent – it sat in the charts for about nine months.

On top of that we had the Stiff Tour, which was a novel idea at the time sending a load of bands out on a bus – and was just debauchery and craziness. We were just lapping up the music business.

When that happens, bands and musicians are so busy trying keep on top on everything and to keep their gig together, deliver, travel; you don't know what’s going on behind your back in the office or what the record company is doing or who is making all the decisions. Then of course at the end of the day, when it all finishes years later, you wonder where all your money is.

It's business. But when you’re young it's hurtful, especially when you’ve suffered for your art.

One thing I have always found incredible was the diversity in the music that you played and the quality of the musicians. There's that Charlie Haden bass solo incorporated into ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll’.
Well Ian was very into jazz, he was steeped in jazz – probably because he was limited as a player. Chaz and Norman had am empathy for funk, pulling away from the complete jazz element. I’m more rock’n’roll and John’s rock’n’roll and a bit of country. We’ve also got a bit of soul with the sax player. It all comes together in the Blockheads, it's a mesh with all those styles in there. And of course with Ian, there’s a touch of music hall.

And it wasn't just Ian heading up the group?
Oh no, Ian was very important lyrically, his stimulation came from the lyric. What a musician searches for all the time is a good lyric. We all used to write great lyrics but when we met Ian we just thought that he was a different league. Once the lyric is complete, which is usually in secrecy, you would be graced with the first chorus to work with. It was a very organic way of working.

Ian used to feel it was more creative if there was tension there, he was good at creating tension

Towards the end of the 1970s, what was affecting the group?
After Do It Yourself, Chaz went off to LA to do music for films. The band sort of faltered a bit, we got Wilko Johnson in who had just left Dr Feelgood and the whole thing took on a different aspect to it.

Ian wanted to move on but he had one more album to make with Stiff Records, so he got us all into the studio. I had gone off with the Clash for a while and when I came back, the Blockheads had moved into a studio on Fulham Road to do our own stuff. Ian then got wind of it and came down and looked at it and went, aw I fancy a bit of this, let’s do an album here. He waded in with his money, hired the studio and we made Laughter. There was his third album and then he said, I’m gone. He was getting voice-over jobs for some product – getting £500-£1000 just to get out of bed. We were working musicians and that wasn’t helping us.

We did a tour of Australia in 1981 and then we broke up.

Was that when you played with Don Cherry?
Yeah, Neneh Cherry his daughter was a friend of ours. She said Don was a big fan. We met up and got him involved. He was wonderful.

After Australia, it petered out. We reformed the band in 1985 for Japan and, after Ian decided that he wanted to take his daughter to Japan for her 21st birthday, we booked another tour and did that – probably in 1987.

Then we came back and kept on breaking up again. It wasn't until Charlie Charles, the drummer, got diagnosed with cancer that we decided to do a couple of benefits for him, that was about 1995.

We did the benefit gigs but Charlie unfortunately didn't live to see that. They went ahead and we used Steve Monti, a drummer friend, and thought let’s make an album.

We went out and did some gigs but then Ian got diagnosed too.

He’d come out on stage and you’d see a dying man

In 1997, we did the Mr Love Pants album which was a real joy to make. We then went out on the road to push that but Ian didn't last much longer after that and in a few years he was gone.

Why was it such a joy to make?
Well we decided to really splash out and use a good studio – Air Studios, London. Plus, Ian was always a character in the studio, everything was a bit tense when he was there. He used to feel it was more creative if there was tension there. He was very good at creating tension.

You said in an interview once that he puts an ambience into an atmosphere?
Well, he would bring an atmosphere into an ambience too. When he got diagnosed with cancer, he came to find that music was the balm that he needed. It was so relaxed in that studio. On Mr Lovepants, you can really hear him singing. He wasn’t a great singer, but you can actually hear him singing sweet as a nut.

Do you remember where you were when you heard that Ian passed away?
I was at home when I got the call. I used to be around Ian a lot, we used to hang about and he’d take me for walks in the day.

When he got really ill I told him, I can’t do this anymore. I’ve been around you when you were alive and I can’t be around to watch you die.

His son Baxter Dury (featured in Issue 12) started looking after him and it was him that told me he’d gone.

Those five years before, the quality of life went down – it get’s harder and harder to do things every day. He’d come out on stage and you’d see a dying man.

It was ghoulish the way people turned up, he was selling out everywhere. I used to think, oh this is awful, a dying man singing ‘Wake Up and Make Love With Me’.

Then I suddenly realised, the guy’s dying but for those two hours on stage every night, he can forget it.

It must have been hard losing both Ian and Charlie to cancer. My dad was recently diagnosed and you soon realise it becomes as much of a mental game as a physical challenge.
It’s a weird one cancer because you can see the bus coming. Wilko got diagnosed two years ago and was told he had six months to live. A year later, he was still around. He survived and he’s back out on the road.

The thing is, you can't give up. If you give up mentally that’s it. You have to have the strength and the support around you to fight it. You have to have a real lust for life.

Did you always take walks with Ian?
He’d had polio from aged seven. With post-polio syndrome though if you don’t exercise enough it can kick back in later in life.

We used to walk around Richmond Park or some woods in west for three hours and it was always a creative mood. It would be a time to talk about things and then go back to his place and do a bit of woodshedding, playing.

It has always been a full sort of life but it was a bumpy ride at times.

But it's been a long duration?
Yeah well right it’s taken on another life. Now we’re doing a documentary of everything we’ve talked about.

We’ve been working on it for two years now but hopefully we can bring it in this year. We’re involved with Free Seed Films, which is run by my son, Ben. He really knows the history of the band and anyway, we couldn’t get an outsider to do it.