Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Chaz Jankel - Reasons To Be Cheerful


When Chaz Jankel walked into Ian Dury's dressing room in a pub in 
Shepherd's Bush one night in the mid-1970s, he wasn't exactly welcomed 
with open arms. Almost forty years on, however, the legacy of that 
first meeting between the two men who a couple of years later would 
take their unholy mix of jazz-funk music hall to the top of the charts 
with Ian Dury and the Blockheads is still going strong. This should be 
made doubly clear when Reasons To Be Cheerful, Paul Sirett's play for 
disabled theatre company Graeae, arrives in Dundee next week as part of 
its current UK tour.

Set in 1979 not long after Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government 
has been elected, Reasons To Be Cheerful (not to be confused with 
Martin McArdie's play of the same name for 7:84 Scotland inspired by 
comedian Mark Steel's book) finds a gang of die-hard Blockheads fans 
locked out of a sold-out gig at Hammersmith Odeon. Over the course of 
the night, however, things turn out somewhat differently. As indeed 
they did for Jankel all those years ago in Shepherd's Bush.

It had all started the day before, when Jankel had been purchasing a 
Wurlitzer keyboard at a local music emporium, where he left his 
telephone number in search of a gig. This was picked up by guitarist Ed 
Speight of the Dury fronted pre-cursor to the Blockheads, Kilburn and 
the High Roads. Speight contacted Jankel and invited him to watch the 
High Roads the following evening with a view to auditioning for the 
band. After the show, an impressed Jankel made his way towards the open 
door of what passed for a dressing room, where he was stared out by the 
band's somewhat defensive vocalist.

“'Ere, mate, do I know you?” said Dury, without waiting for an answer. 
“Well, fuck off, then.”

Jankel backed off, but was invited to a rehearsal by Speight the next 
day anyway, whereupon “I got the gig. Ian was a bit wary, because he 
was king of the pub circuit, but it was as big as things were going to 
get, and it wasn't going anywhere beyond, but we stayed together for 
nine months.”

After the split in 1975 ,and, despite such inauspicious beginnings, 
Jankel started writing with Dury, and within a few months of the 
Blockheads being born, both debut single Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, 
with it bass-line ripped off from Charlie Haden's on jazz saxophonist 
Ornette Coleman's Change of the Century album,  and it's follow-up, 
Sweet Gene Vincent, were in the bag. Part of the appeal of a sound that 
eventually charted with What A Waste and debut album, the saucily 
titled New Boots and Panties, was the glorious counterpoint between the 
band's sophisticated musical backing and Dury's cockney geezerish 
demeanour.

“Ian was labelled the godfather of punk,” remembers Jankel, from his 
home studio where he's writing and rehearsing new Blockheads material 
with Derek Hussey, aka former Dury minder Derek The Draw, who has sung 
with the band since Dury's death of cancer in 2000. “His lyrics were 
anarchic, and I think he was the first person to hang a razor blade 
 from his ear, but musically we were way ahead. Punk had no light and 
shade, which was fine for a while, but Ian loved subtlety in music, 
whether it was jazz, blues, country, all of it. His lyrics were just so 
incisive and colourful, and he wrote a lot about people who didn't get 
on the balance sheet as it were. Ian felt quite disenfranchised 
himself, because of growing up in this institution with autistic and 
disabled kids where they were all thrown in together. But he was very 
intelligent. There are so many people out there who think they write 
good lyrics, but they just don't address the people who are on the 
edges of society. Ian had an empathy with these people, your Billericay 
Dickie or Plaistow Patricia, who are where they are, not because it's 
their fault, but through circumstance, and he did that with humour.”

These songs and more are played live in Reasons To Be Cheerful, which 
is the latest treatment of Dury's back catalogue following another 
stage musical, Hit Me! The Life and Rhymes of Ian Dury , in 2009, and 
the big-screen biopic, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll the same year. In 
truth, though, Reasons To Be Cheerful sounds more akin to the mini-wave 
of fan-based musical plays kick-started by mini Edinburgh hit, Meeting 
Joe Strummer. Either way, Jankel, who isn't directly involved in the 
show, maintains he hasn't seen anything like it.

“It's probably the most special theatrical performance I've ever seen,” 
Jankel enthuses. “It's got attack, and it's got humour, and Jenny 
(Sealey) the director is deaf, so it's a remarkable feat in itself that 
she's directing a musical, literally getting into the vibrations of it 
all. I was talking to her the other day, and she's a punk at heart. 
She's really anarchic, and is cut from the same emotional cloth as Ian 
was. That's why she gets him.

“The play also captures a time that's very similar to now, but when 
you're in the middle of it you can't really see that. There was a 
Conservative government and mass unemployment then, and that's what 
you've got now as well. The only difference I can see is that then 
there were a lot more platforms for discontent. Now, it's more diffuse. 
Back then you had the eccentric old pub acts telling it like it was. 
That's where Ian came from. But now, it just seems like we're not very 
good at revolutions. The French are a lot better at it, but it's never 
been the British way. The songs we were writing then were full of 
discontent and contempt, and that comes through in the show.”

In some respects, Dury is the perfect pin-up boy for the disabled 
lobby. Having been struck down with polio aged seven, Dury spent some 
time in the school for disabled children mentioned by Jankel before 
studying at at Walthamstow Art College, where he was taught by pop 
artist Peter Blake. Dury walked with a stick, and even worked it into 
his stage act as the likely inspiration for the Blockheads 1978 number 
one, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. If 1980's I Wanna Be Straight 
hinted at a hidden yearning to be able to stand upright by Dury, the 
following year's Spasticus (Austicicus) was a provocative howl of 
defiance, which, even if it hadn't been banned by the BBC, in 
Thatcher's Britain was a commercial kiss of death anyway.

“Ian never really identified with being disabled,” Jankel admits, “even 
though he knew people could see that he was. He never really identified 
with just one group in that way, but I think he'd admire the spirit of 
Graeae. Ian was clever, and when he got ill with cancer, he became very 
humble. All those rough edges he had rubbed off, and he became a much 
more sympathetic person. The anger had been tamed out of him towards 
the end. Ian loved writing lyrics, and even when he got tired playing 
live, he loved the apres show, back at the hotel with a couple of pints 
of Guinness. He was the gang boss, and we were the gang.”

Reasons To Be Cheerful, Dundee Rep, March 20-24
www.dundeerep.co.uk
www.graeae.org

The Herald, March 13th 2012

ends

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