With its distinctive 16-notes-to-the-bar bassline and unashamedly honky sax solo (played on two saxes at once), Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ signature hit was certainly one of the more idiosyncratic Number 1s of the 1970s. The same could be said of their inimitable frontman, who exemplified the post-punk era’s particular ability to allow unlikely and extraordinary characters to infiltrate the mainstream.
Ian met Chaz Jankel after a Kilburns gig – Ians previous band. The Kilburns disbanded, and the pianist-guitarist’s tunes and Dury’s words provided the foundation for a new group, the Blockheads (including Kilburns saxophonist Davey Payne). Dury’s fortunes were transformed: they produced such classic singles as Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll and What a Waste, along with the 1977 Top 5 album, New Boots and Panties!!
“Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” was first released as a single on Stiff Records in the UK on 23 November 1978. Written by Dury and the Blockheads’ multi-instrumentalist Chaz Jankel, it is the group’s most successful single, reaching number one on the UK Singles Chart in January 1979 as well as reaching the top three in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, and it was also a top 20 hit in several European countries.
The song was recorded in The Workhouse Studio on the Old Kent Road, London, the same place Dury’s debut album New Boots and Panties!! had been recorded. It was produced by Laurie Latham, who had been producing Dury’s records since his debut solo single “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” in August 1977, although Latham is uncredited on the single. The song was recorded live with all the Blockheads placed in different positions in the studio’s live area, with Jankel playing a Bechstein grand piano, Mickey Gallagher playing the Hammond organ, and Dury sat on a stool in the centre singing into a hand-held microphone.
At least 11 takes of the song were recorded before one, reportedly an early take, was chosen for the single release. Gallagher remains jaded about this method, and much of the band as well as producer Latham remain unhappy with the chosen take’s mix, claiming it to be too dominated by piano and vocals.
Just three years prior to reaching the top spot in January 1979, the edgy singer-narrator-wordsmith dubbed “the Count Dracula of vernacular” had been the thirtysomething, struggling frontman of Kilburn and the High Roads, a seemingly washed-up, chaotic, bedraggled bunch of misfits and miscreants. Left with a severely withered arm and leg following a childhood bout of polio, Dury had already overcome disability, taunts and school days he described as “heavy-duty sadism” and “unmitigated hell” to become an unconventional but riveting live performer.
“Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” was named the 12th best single of 1978 by the writers of British music magazine NME, and best single of 1979 in the annual ‘Pazz & Jop’ poll organised by music critic Robert Christgau in The Village Voice. It was also named the 3rd best post-punk 7″ ever made by Fact magazine. By September 2017, it had sold over 1.29 million copies in the UK, making it the 114th biggest selling single of all time in the UK.
Watch the video below to learn more about Ian Dury and his hit song Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick!