Some year in the early seventies, while Crotchety Student was wasting a few years studying biochemistry, he was dragged along to a pub in the suburbs of London to see a band called Kilburn and the Highroads. That young man had no idea what to expect from the gig. He had never heard of the band or the venue. His friends, though, assured him that it would be an evening to remember.
And it was, indeed, a memorable occasion. The room was crowded and buzzing when we arrived some half an hour before the band was due. We had nearly finished our first beers when, peering through the throng, we could see movement on the stage. It was my round so I elbowed my way to the bar and was waiting my turn when the room shuddered with a thunderous explosion.
Ears ringing, heart pounding, I looked back to where my friends had been standing expecting to see a pile of rubble strewn with bleeding bodies. But the ceiling hadn’t collapsed, beer glasses hadn’t shattered and no-one was lying injured on the floor. The deafening noise was just the band getting their show on the highroad.
Wincing with pain and willing my ears to fill with sound-deadening wax I turned back to the bar. “Two pints of bitter and one of lager”, I shouted at the top of my voice. I heard not one syllable of my order. The barman turned his head slightly and mouthed, “What?”. I took a lungful of air and balled out my order again like a Sergeant Major on the parade ground, while pointing frantically at the pumps on the bar.
The barman gave a slight nod, filled two pint glasses with bitter and one with lager. We seemed to be communicating more by telepathy than with words. He yelled the price at me but he might as well have been performing a Marcel Marceau mime as far as I was concerned. Words were a complete waste of time. I produced a banknote large enough to cover the likely cost and received some change.
Turning back to my mates I eased my way through the jostling fans, handed out the drinks and gave my attention to the music. Well, I say music, but it was really just a barrage of shapeless sound. The bass guitar notes had no pitch; they were indistinguishable from the bass drum. The guitar (or was it a keyboard?) fired artillery rounds of concussion across the room. I thought I heard some vocals, but it might have been a fusillade of saxophones and trumpets.
And yet the band was as tight as a Victorian corset. By some unholy magic the musicians must have been able to hear each other. Perhaps, I conjectured, they would sound really good if we stood in the street outside the pub.
Someone touched me on the arm and then put his hands over his ears as if to say, “It’s too loud, isn’t it?”. A nod and a grimace indicated my agreement. After a couple of songs from Kilburn and the Highroads our little party drained our glasses, left the pub and went sadly home. They were probably a good band, possibly a great band, but we’d never know. And we’d never know how much damage had been done to our listening organs standing there in a London pub for around 15 minutes of aural battering.
A few years later I heard that Kilburn and the Highroads were, in fact, Ian Dury and his pre-Blockheads band. The Highroads made one album, Handsome, which illustrates the song writing skills and laconic lyrics that Ian Dury brought to the Blockheads. And it has given Crotchety Man a taste of what he couldn’t hear for the noise that evening in the early seventies. Here’s the whimsical Pam’s Moods sounding a lot like a Madness track:
But, for my Track of the Week, I’ve chosen to commemorate Ian Dury and that wasted night in a London pub with one of his best known singles, What a Waste.
As usual, it’s the lyrics that grab the listeners’ attention.
I could be the driver of an articulated lorry.
. . .
I could be a lawyer with stratagems and ruses.
. . .
I could be the catalyst that sparks the revolution.
. . .
What a waste! What a waste!
. . .
Because I chose to play the fool in a six-piece band.
First night nerves every one-night stand.
I should be glad to be so inclined.
What a waste! What a waste!
Rock ‘n roll don’t mind.
But forget the words for a moment and listen to the instruments. What a Waste was released in 1978, when punk music was in full swing and bands like the Sex Pistols were churning out raw, aggressive and deliberately unpolished songs. The Blockheads, though, come across as thoroughly professional musicians performing intelligent, sophisticated songs – the very antithesis of the punk ethos. Without the rough diamond of Ian Dury out front to give them a modern, down to earth image I don’t think the band would ever have built the following that propelled them into the pop charts. What a Waste peaked at number 9 on the UK singles chart.
Ian Dury is remembered for his limp, his ostentatiously non-conformist clothes, his don’t-mess-with-me attitude and his sardonic wit. He was also a fine songwriter. His career was cut short by cancer and that, says Crotchety Man, was a terrible waste of talent.