50 Reasons To Be Cheerful: A Conversation with Chaz Jankel

From the DJ History archives: the Blockheads’ musical director discusses key moments and tracks from his near half-century career

Chaz Jankel Courtesy of Chaz Jankel

Few bands of the punk and post-punk eras were quite as unique as Ian Dury and the Blockheads. While their contemporaries opted for noise and power, the Blockheads drew from a pool of influences that included disco, jazz, reggae and R&B. This was a reflection not of the tastes of the band’s famed lyricist and front man, but rather the band’s musical director: keyboardist and guitarist Chaz Jankel.

Before joining forces with Dury’s Kilburn and the High Roads, Jankel played in a number of other bands including folk-rock outfits Byzantium and Jonathan Kelly’s Outside. As a fan of black American funk and R&B, he frequently found himself out of step with his bandmates. After joining forces with Dury’s band as a keyboardist, Jankel suggested that the two of them write songs together. The result was New Boots and Panties, the 1977 debut album from the band’s new incarnation: Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

A string of hits followed, including UK #1 “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3,” a disco-influenced number that became popular on the dancefloors of New York’s most celebrated underground clubs. Jankel remained musical director of the Blockheads on sophomore set Do It Yourself, before taking time out to pursue a solo career.

His penchant for off-kilter blends of disco, electro, jazz, rock and pop resulted in a string of dancefloor hits, including “Glad To Know You,” “3,000,000 Synths,” “Questionnaire” and “Ai No Corrida,” a song that became a worldwide hit when Quincy Jones covered it in 1981. He briefly reunited with Dury to work on Lord Upminster in 1981, before returning to his solo career. After his deal with A&M ended in 1985, Jankel worked on a number of soundtracks for film and TV. He eventually returned to work with Dury and the rest of the Blockheads on 1997’s Mr. Love Pants. Tirk Records released a retrospective of his solo work, My Occupation, in 2007.

DJ History

In 2002, Jankel sat down with journalist and author Bill Brewster in London to talk through his near 50-year career in music. The resultant conversation touched on his early years, the Blockheads and the stories behind some of his most celebrated solo singles.

What’s your earliest memory of music?

Lonnie Donegan. I was about six or seven years old. I saw him on a record cover or magazine holding an acoustic guitar and I thought, “Wow, that looks good, I like the look of that.” Somehow I managed to get my parents to buy me a Spanish guitar. They also gave me some guitar lessons. I seem to remember my first teacher was a Spanish lady who spoke no English. It was a little tricky.

Did you come from musical family?

No, but my parents liked music. They bought 45s from Glenn Miller, Bill Haley and a few others. Later on, my cousin married Joe Loss’s daughter and then that was the first musician who entered the family. It was handy because he was very encouraging every time he came over to us at a family occasion. He told my dad to encourage me.

Whereabouts did you grow up?

I grew up in Stanmore, in Middlesex, near Wembley. I went to a boarding school in Mill Hill. It was a pretty horrendous place, but it gave me a chance to get deeper into music. I started playing guitar when I was seven and a few months later I got into piano. I’ve been playing both instruments since.

Was one easier than the other?

They both offer something slightly different. I hope I have a natural aptitude for both. With guitar, I tend to get more into the funk, Latin blues, that sort of area. With piano, I’m more sort of harmonically based these days, trying to extend my knowledge of harmony. I’ve been putting a jazz quartet together. So I’ve gone back to the late ’50s, early ’60s style of Blue Note.

What was the first record you ever bought?

Probably Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Then I got into the Beatles. When I was about 14, I heard a Lee Dorsey record called “Get Out Of My Life Woman” and it had the most fantastic drums in it. It’s what people would think of as a hip-hop rhythm now, and the whole thing started with this rhythm. I thought, “That’s it!” So I started tuning into R&B from then on and that lead onto me discovering Sly and the Family Stone. They were my heroes, that band. I think I brought that influence into the Blockheads. When I met Ian [Dury] I was heavily into Afro-American music.

Lee Dorsey – Get Out Of My Life Woman

Were you a record buyer or just a musician?

As far as my budget allowed I bought records, but I wasn’t an anorak. There were certain records that I heard that I just had to have. I’d go to record stores and thumb through the latest US imports. I’d buy things like Isley Brothers, Staples Singers, War, anything with a funky bassline basically.

What did you do when you left school?

I went to St. Martin’s College of Art. I was happy there and everything was fine. I started doing a foundation course and in the midst of it all I was offered a place to do graphics. But at the same time, I’d started to play with a band outside of college called Byzantium. They started getting gigs and got a management contract. The same management company also managed Rod Stewart and the Faces. We got a deal with A&M Records.

Byzantium – What A Coincidence

What style of music did Byzantium play?

Folk-rock, which was becoming a bit of a bone of contention, really. I was much more into soul. I remember one gig… I was convinced I was a soul brother. I had this outfit handmade in a little boutique off Carnaby Street. It was sleeveless with white satin flares and red satin inserts.

You were a one-man O’Jays!

Yeah! It would have been fine if we were all into that kit, but the rest of the band were wearing jeans and had long hair. I clearly remember doing a gig at Dingwalls and I felt great, but every time I looked across I thought, “Oh no, this doesn’t look right at all.”

How did the rest of the band feel about your sudden conversion into an O’Jay?

Slightly perplexed, really. I think they saw it coming, because every time it was my turn to select a tape for the tour bus I always used to opt for Sly and the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits or something. I didn’t only listen to that, we listened to the Band and Surf’s Up by the Beach Boys. Eventually, we parted ways. I was in them for about two or three years, from about 1970 to ’73.

After that folded, the management company also had a publishing side so they retained me at £15 a week. Post-Byzantium, I played with a few people like Jonathan Kelly’s Outside. He was really into Curtis Mayfield. I went for an audition or jam with Van Morrison. It was horrendous, actually. A friend of mine called Pete Van Hook had been touring with Van and asked me to come. We all headed for our instruments at the same time as Van. I made for the piano. At the end of the number, he got up and walked out the room. And that was it. He didn’t say hello, goodbye, nothing. Many years later, he met Ian Dury. He may have known who I was, and Ian said, “Van says hello.” I don’t know whether that was a strange sort of apology.

How did you meet Ian, wasn’t it in a piano shop?

I bought a Wurlitzer piano in a shop in Shepherd’s Bush and having purchased it, I didn’t have a gig. This must have been ’74 or ’75. I said to the manager, “If anybody needs a keyboard player give them my telephone number,” because I had nothing going on at the time. The guitar player from Ian Dury and the Kilburns went into the shop and said that their keyboard player had just left. So I got a call saying they were playing at the Nashville. I went down there and watched in awe as they played their set. It was more like a circus than music. It was cabaret, but very dark cabaret. Ian was wearing a Tommy Cooper fez, the guitarist looked like Frank Zappa. It was very offbeat. I was hypnotized.

There was one person facing the door: Ian Dury. He saw me coming and said, “Ere mate, do I know you?” I stood there like a rabbit dazzled by headlights.

After it was over, I walked like a zombie towards the stage and followed the band to where they’d gone. I was halfway down the tunnel when they told me to get back. Anyway, I went round the other way and got to the door. They’re all sweating from having finished playing and there was one person facing the door: Ian. He saw me coming and said, “Ere mate, do I know you? Well fuck off then!” And I stood there like a rabbit dazzled by headlights. Then I backed off and the guitar player said, “You’re not Chaz Jankel are you? Oh, sorry about that.” Anyway, I got the gig.

When did they go from Ian Dury and the Kilburns to Ian Dury and the Blockheads?

Well we kept the band together for about three or four months doing the pub circuit as Ian and the Kilburns, but I felt there was something ambitionless about the group. Ian was ready for a change. One day, I whispered into his ear, “Why don’t we write some songs?” He said, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.” So Ian knocked the band on the head and we started writing. We originally wrote in his flat in the Oval. We did “Sex And Drugs And Rock’N’Roll” there. Then we started to assemble New Boots and Panties.

Ian Dury & The Blockheads – Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

How did all of this come together? Did you put a band together to record the album?

Well, we were demoing material prior to New Boots and Panties. We were doing it in a studio called Alvic in Wimbeldon. Ian and I were playing everything and we weren’t world class, to put it mildly. Vic, the engineer, said, “I know this great drummer and bass player.” Next time we demoed down there we got hold of Charley Charles and Norman Watt-Roy. We listened to a playback of “Blockheads” and Charley was reading the lyric and it said, “And shoes made from dead pig’s noses.” He said, “Blimey, Ian, that’s me.” And Norman very quickly says, “Yeah, we’re the blockheads.” That’s how the name came about.

After we’d finished polishing the songs we went down to this dank studio in Bermondsey that was occupied by Philip Bagenall. We demoed all the material there, and then recorded it at the Workhouse in the Old Kent Road with Laurie Latham engineering.

Did you have a deal?

No, but Ian’s manager was in the same building as Stiff Records. He went round to the majors and nobody was interested but Stiff said they’d put it out. Then they asked us to tour so we asked Charley and Norman and they said yes, but only if they could bring the rest of their band, because they’d been playing for Loving Awareness. The other members of the band were Micky Gallagher and Johnny Tunbull, so they came and then Ian brought in Davey Payne who played sax in Kilburn and the High Roads.

There’s quite a difference between that album and onwards from “What A Waste.” The difference between the first and second albums was astounding. What happened?

Well, I didn’t write “What A Waste,” but I played on the record. I brought a bit of my skanking Hammond to it. I think Ian became more open to the musicians’ musical influences. Before that, he came in with his love of Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry and I brought in my hard funk edge with things like “Wake Up and Make Love To Me.”

Ian Dury & The Blockheads – What A Waste

The keyboards were very spacey and that style of music really stood out among the rest of punk and new wave music of the time. It was really musical.

Well I think the same’s true today. I don’t think many English bands draw from Afro-American music. The only person I can think of is Jamiroquai on a band level. Anyway, Ian had had the whole of his life to write New Boots and Panties and it got to the next album and there was pressure on us to write songs and he didn’t have many lyrics. So I would suggest little musical ideas to him and “Inbetweenies” was one of the first ones. It was quite unique on a technical level because Ian had to sing on the second beat of the bar, which was anathema to him, because what it meant was the music coming first and him fitting in on the landscape that had already been plotted.

He eventually came round to it and we sang the song for many years. I don’t think Ian was entirely happy with this. I think he was happier with the rockers, though we did find a happy medium with “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” which really brought the funk, the jazz and his wit and coalesced it. Ian was really into jazz, but like Mingus and that era, Art Blakey. At that point, I wasn’t, I was more into Latin-jazz.

Ian Dury & The Blockheads – Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (Disco Version)

Were you aware of the disco and R&B stuff of that era, because the music seems like it was influenced by it somewhere along the line?

Yes, definitely. I was really into Earth, Wind & Fire and Rose Royce. I still get a buzz when I hear that stuff now.

When you made the first solo album, Chaz Jankel, you were still in the Blockheads weren’t you? How did that come about?

One night in ’79 we played in Amsterdam and after the gig, which was amazing, we went back to the Hotel American and we’d acquired some rather attractive female company to accompany us back.

To discuss music, of course.

And poetry. As you do. Suddenly I’m in my hotel room with this beautiful Dutch model. I was feeling euphoric and the atmosphere was erotic. Next thing, suddenly, this melody pops into my head, so I went to my guitar to check what key it was in. I called Norman and said come and check this out…

And the model was still there?

Yes. Ingrid Koelhoven was her name in case she’s reading this. I realized that the melody wasn’t suitable for the Blockheads, it was getting more and more melodic. I needed time away from the Blockheads. I love Ian dearly, but he was very demanding and intense. I needed time to express my other musical ideas, which weren’t so English, more Latin and more jazzed out.

He calls me and says, “Chaz, I’ve got this great idea for your melody: Ai No Corrida, that’s where I am…” I had no idea what he was talking about.

Johnny Turnbull had a friend, Dick Leahy, who had a publishing company and Johnny’s girlfriend worked at A&M. Just prior to that, Peter Van Hook took me to meet Kenny Young, who’d co-written “Under The Boardwalk.” He was from Brooklyn originally, but living in Oxford. I took him a couple of melodies on cassette and one of them was “Ai No Corrida.” Anyway, he calls me from MIDEM: “Chaz, I’ve got this great idea for your melody: Ai No Corrida, that’s where I am…” I had no idea what he was talking about. So he told me all about this movie by Oshima which was a true story about a geisha who fell in love with the madam’s husband but because of the class system there was no chance they could have a relationship.

The movie was called In The Realm Of The Senses, and the Japanese name was Ai No Corrida. Kenny Young had seen this movie and this phrase happened to fit with my melody. In their sexual encounters, the woman would strangle the chap to the point where just before he passed out. One day, in their depression at the fate of their relationship she kept pulling on the knot and he died. She was so distressed that she cut off his meat and two veg and put it in her pocket. She was wandering the streets, completely off her head and got locked up and stayed incarcerated for about 30 years. She became a feminist icon and when she came out in the ’70s Oshima made a movie about her.

Chaz Jankel – Ai No Corrida

That was the premise for the lyric, but I tried to dumb it down. Funnily enough, I was in Spain around the time it came out doing a promo and a photographer puts his arm round me and says, “Chaz! I love bullfights too.” And I’m like, “What?” It turns out that “Ai No Corrida” means “No More Bullfights” in Spanish. So anyway, back to Dick Leahy, Rod Temperton was the boyfriend of the girl working for Dick Leahy and he was looking for material for Quincy Jones’s last Warner Brothers album.

Ah, so Rod’s the link.

Yes. Did you know Quincy calls him Worms?

Really? Why?

Because he used to live in a town in Germany called Worms.

So that was a bit of a stroke of luck for you?

Well, to be honest nothing ever happened with it. I’ve never had any other songs covered. But I haven’t pushed it. I got to meet Quincy though and he took me to a Jacksons concert where my hero, Sly Stone, was sat right behind me at the LA Forum.

Quincy Jones – Ai No Corrida

What was the inspiration for “3,000,000 Synths”?

I was just playing around with synths at the time, Oberheim synthesisers, and I just followed my instinct on that. There was no real plan. There were a lot of synths that ended up on that track.

But not three million though surely!

Not three million. A&M had signed me on the strength of “Ai No Corrida,” and their advance combined with the royalties I’d got from working with Ian to build a studio. Together with Philip Bagenal we started this studio, Eastcote Productions. Because we needed a bar count all the way through, just so we’d know where we were in the song, Phil counted, “One, two…” I thought it was quite Kraftwerk-esque to leave the counting in, so we left it. So it was the counting and number along with the synths that gave us the title.

Chaz Jankel – 3,000,000 Synths

When you did, what were your expectations of it? its very odd and leftfield.

I’ve always been heavy into the groove and it was based on a fat groove. And then we played about with the synths on top.

It reminds me of a bizarre “Funkin’ For Jamaica.”

Yeah, the bassline does sound like “Funkin’ For Jamaica.” I remember hearing it in a bar in New York. It was on a jukebox, which was quite a surprise.

Did you realise it was big in clubs at the time?

I knew “Glad To Know You” was big. Going back to Lord Upminster, I was in the Bahamas and Sly Dunbar had a copy of Music Week. He says, “Hey Chaz, there’s a song of yours in the dance charts.” And “Glad To Know You” had gone in the dance charts. It got to number one and stayed there for nine weeks. I flew to New York and went to Studio 54 and hung out with the DJs. It was a good time. I knew that “Questionnaire” and “3,000,000 Synths” were also on the single, but I never actually heard them play “3,000,000 Synths.” “Glad To Know You” I heard a lot, but not that.

Chaz Jankel – Glad To Know You

When did you go to Studio 54?

It must have been after “Glad To Know You” had been released, 1981 or ’82. I was given an award, “Dance Artist of the Year,” by Music Week. It’s that phallic looking thing over there.

Who actually played on “Glad To Know You”?

Pete Van Hooke played drums, although they’re programmed. It was one of the first Linn drum machines that we were using. I played guitar and piano. I played bass on the break. I played everything in those days. I was a busy bugger. I think Prince saw me and thought, “Yeah, maybe I could play everything as well.” And possibly Stevie Wonder(only kidding). Tessa Niles and another singer are singing backing vocals as well as Ingrid Mansfield Allman. After we’d finished that track and there was talk of putting out an EP in the States, we did two mixes of that track and we put a delay on the guitar on the second. After we’d mixed it, Philip said, “Well, actually Chaz, I have to say that I think the delay is really rather vulgar.” So I took both copies to New York and I asked the cutting engineer and he said he liked the delay.

How did “Rêve De Chèvre” come about?

We used bizarre titles for our records and I’m desperately trying to remember which one that was!

It sounds like an odd proto-house record with dubby piano.

Ah, it was a remix of “Questionnaire” with all of the music taken out and the percussion left in.

Chaz Jankel – Reve de Chevre

What was the inspiration for these tracks, because they’re very odd, especially since they’re nestling between more pop-oriented things.

I suppose I was trying to make my records accessible, but when it came to doing the 12" or a B-side, the pressure was off, so you could let your hair down a little and have fun. I think my stuff was always quite soulful. Ian would co-write with me – for example he co-wrote “Glad To Know You.” There was a song called “Boy,” which apparently was a rare groove record. I was working with this woman called DJ Elaine at the time about 15 years ago.

What were you doing from your last album up until [Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ 1997 album] Mr. Love Pants?

In the early ’80s, I did the music for a movie called An Unsuitable Job For A Woman. That was the first score I did. Then in the mid eighties I did another movie Making Mr. Right with Susan Seidelman who did Desperately Seeking Susan. In 1985, A&M decided they didn’t want any more albums.

What stuff are you really happy with?

“Rhythm Stick” has got a groove to it; I really like that. I really like “Dance Little Rude Boy.” There’s a piece on my new jazz album called “First Day Of Spring,” which I’m happy with.

What about making modern dance records, does that appeal to you?

Yeah, it does. I’d really like to put together a heavy duty R&B thing and I might rope in some of the Blockheads for that. I’m also working with a really good songwriter called Alex Watson. You know since Ian’s passed away, I’ve got myself a publishing deal with Famous Music and they put me in contact with another writer. She writes great lyrics and is a brilliant singer. She wants to make her own record now. We’re co-writing for other artists and for her album. She’s also in another band called Iron Eye, who are about to put out their first record. So I’m very energized on the dance tip. It won’t be house. I’m more into mid-tempo grooves and R&B.

This interview took place in London in February 2002. © DJ History

By Bill Brewster on January 8, 2019

On a different note