Head Blockhead, Chaz Jankel, has his A&M albums reappraised
Release Date: 27th November 2020
Label: Cherry Red Records
Formats: 5CD Clamshell boxed set
There can’t be many people around who don’t know, and love, Chaz Jankel. Best known as the musical director and co-composer in Ian Dury’s Blockheads, Chaz is a songwriter, guitarist, keyboard player, arranger, vocalist, producer and art director of vast capability and a renowned collaborator. Between the years 1980-1986, Chaz released a string of four mature, melodic, funk-laced solo albums on the A&M label; time wasn’t kind and, as the years passed, conspired to shroud those albums in its enveloping mist, but now, thanks to our friends at Cherry Red Records, we can roll back the years and enjoy, once more, Chas Jankel, Chasanova, Chazablanca and Looking at You, plus a specially compiled disc of remixes and rarities. And it’s all lovingly packaged in a beautiful clamshell box, along with a 24-page booklet with an essay by DJ and writer Bill Brewster that details Chaz’s career and contains extensive quotes and recollections from the man himself.
Born in 1952 in Stanmore, Middlesex, Chaz was a music obsessive from the word Go. An early infatuation with Lonnie Donegan inspired him to start guitar and piano lessons from the age of seven and, during his school days, he developed what would turn out to be a lifelong love of funk after hearing Sly and the Family Stone for the first time. Whilst studying at St Martin’s School of Art in 1972, he hooked up with the prog/folk band Byzantium for a year before leaving to join Jonathan Kelly’s Outside then, later, Ian Dury’s mighty Kilburn And The High Roads.
We all know that The Kilburns morphed into The Blockheads with the recruitment of drummer Charley Charles and super-bassist Norman Watt-Roy (surely Britain’s funkiest ever rhythm section) to sit alongside Jankel, Dury, Davey Payne, Micky Gallagher and John Turnbull. The world started to pay attention as Chaz co-wrote and arranged such classics as Sex and Drugs And Rock And Roll, What A Waste, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Reasons to Be Cheerful Part 3. A key feature of the Blockheads’ output was the vast range of musical styles they incorporated – from the music hall swagger of Billericay Dickie and My Old Man, via the straight-ahead punk of Plaistow Patricia and the cod-reggae of This Is What We Find to the smooth disco of What a Waste and that versatility remained a hallmark of Chaz’s compositional and arrangement styles and in the Glad To Know You boxset, prog rock, music hall, pub-rock, post-punk and straight pop all have their moments alongside the expected funk, disco and R&B.
By late 1979, Jankel realized that many of the musical ideas he was having did not match up particularly well with Ian Dury’s vocal style and he took the decision to leave the Blockheads, although his close working relationship with Ian Dury was to continue for the rest of Dury’s life. He’d come up with the tune for what would become his keynote song, Ai No Corrida, and he invited New York Songwriter Kenny Young (co-composer of Under The Boardwalk) to write lyrics for the song, which he did, and what lyrics they are too! Quincy Jones picked up on Ai No Corrida and recorded a hit version; Jones’s record company A&M had their interest piqued sufficiently to then offer Chaz a recording contract and his solo career was up and running.
The eponymous Chas Jankel album was released in 1980 with Ai No Corrida featuring as the album’s centrepiece. Follow-up album, Chasanova, (released as Questionnaire in the USA, as A&M didn’t believe that Americans would understand the Chasanova pun) included the disco hit Glad to Know You, which, along with several other tracks had lyrics by Ian Dury, and the album also featured inputs from that magnificent Blockheads rhythm section of Charley Charles and Norman Watt-Roy. Chasanova is probably the most accessible and best remembered of the four albums included in this set.
1983’s Chazablanca was partly co-written with Chaz’s then partner, Laura Weymouth (sister of Talking Heads’ Tina) and for his 4th album, Looking At You (1985) Chaz engaged the services of famed German producer Zeus B Held. Looking At You was particularly notable for the inclusion of the Jankel/Dury song Number One, which featured in the comedy/sci-fi movie Real Genius but, despite this boost and generally positive reviews for an album of “classic mid-eighties funk” Looking At You turned out to be the final Chaz Jankel release on A&M. A fifth album was recorded but was rejected by the record company and Chaz’s contract was terminated. Now, thanks again to Cherry Red records, a taste of this lost album is now available on the fifth disc of this boxset.
As for the music, Disc 1, the Chas Jankel album, finds an artist with a lot of ideas trying to find his solo feet and exploring a number of directions accordingly. Funk dominates on the album’s two best-known tracks – Ai No Corrida and the 15-minute epic Am I Honest With Myself Really? Ai No Corrida is classic late 70s/early 80s disco/funk and Kenny Young’s lyrics, inspired by the Japanese arthouse movie The Realm of the Senses add a further dimension. Am I Honest… is pleasant and hypnotic, saved from over-repetitiveness by some inspired guitar, sax and trumpet breaks and by the enjoyable vocal interlude.
But funk doesn’t have all its own way. Peace At Last is a beautiful short piano instrumental that sounds almost pastoral in this particular setting and demonstrates Chaz’s versatility and talent, Just a Thought is a slice of restrained jazz/funk that wouldn’t be out of place on a Steely Dan album, Lenta Latina is sweet, sophisticated and beautifully restrained and album closer, Reverie, sees Chaz donning the guise of a concert pianist. An interesting start to a solo career that probably left Chaz pondering which direction would be the most fruitful.
That question is answered emphatically on Chasanover, Disc 2 is this boxset. Chasanover is an altogether more confident album; the musical direction is clear – it’s a continuation of the route that the Blockheads had so successfully navigated – and that confidence is, no doubt, greatly aided by inputs from Ian Dury, who provides lyrics on no less than five of the eight original tracks and from THAT Blockheads rhythm section who add their magic on Glad to Know You, Boy and Questionnaire.
The new confidence is evident from the outset and opening track 109 gives a solid indication of what to expect – disco/funk, with a clear, upfront vocal, sung in an unashamedly English accent. Johnny Funk is the first of the album’s Dury co-compositions, and it shows, in the song’s strong Blockheads feel. The same can be said of the raucous Now You’re Dancing and particularly Questionnaire, with its percussion break that could have been lifted bodily from Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3. Magic of Music, another song with an Ian Dury lyric, sees Chaz and the boys tackling reggae – it’s a fantastic song with some marvelous Caribbean-flavoured trumpet and trombone fills.
Glad To Know You was, of course, the album’s ‘big hit’. It’s loud and funky, with organ taking the lead lines and, once again, it’s a slice of pure Blockhead magic, and Boy, a co-composition between Chaz, Norman Watt-Roy and Charley Charles is compulsive and smoulders nicely. We have to wait until the closing track for the album’s oddity. 3,000,000 Synths is a fascinating piece of proto-electronica, fairly typical of the things that were starting to happen in 1981 and, as Chaz suggests, quite ‘Kraftwerk-y’ in its way. Chasanova is an excellent album and certainly deserved much more recognition than it actually received.
For 1983’s Chazablanca (Disc 3) Chas adopted a slightly pared-down approach. Using a six-piece band and relying heavily on synths to reproduce much of the instrumentation, particularly the brass and saxophones that were such a feature of his first two albums, he came up with an approach that actually worked pretty well. The music has held up well and it’s easy to see why Chaz saw fit to assemble a touring outfit, The Johnny Funk Band to take the music on the road. Production is smooth and tight and the album is almost entirely disco/funk.
Prior to recording Chazablanca, Chaz had traveled out to join Ian Dury at Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point Studio in Nassau, and it was here that he met Laura Weymouth, who would become his principal co-writer for the album, as well as a co-performer and romantic partner. The album’s songs are all pleasant enough, with the reggae-flavoured I Can Get Over It and the funky, synth-laden Without You making an early impression. Thank You Very Much hits a deep funk groove and features some excellent twangy bass playing from Compass Point’s resident maestro Kendall Stubbs, but, whilst the songs are all well-structured, well played and well-produced, they seem to lack the focal point that Ian Dury’s lyrics added to Chasanova. With hindsight, it is, perhaps, detectable that despite his immense talents and musicality, Chaz was never destined to be a major funk star.
Zeus B Held was brought in to produce 1985’s Looking At You, Disc 4 in this collection, and he delivered a solid-gold example of mid-eighties electrofunk. Ian Dury was back on board, providing lyrics for three of the album’s strongest tracks – the light and airy Little Eva, the quirky, intelligent Number One and the soft and contemplative The Boy On The Bridge. The Boy On The Bridge differs radically from anything else within this set – a sensitive lyric, sung to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar.
Other highlights of Looking At You include Rhythm In My Life, a subtle (yet still funky) number that edges towards MOR, Eastern Light, an excellent co-write with Kenny Young and Looking At You, a poppy piece of blue-eyed soul, with Chaz providing what is possibly his best-ever vocal. Looking At You is actually a very good album – in some ways a mid-eighties time capsule maybe – but an album that showcased a mature artist, ready to take his next step.
It’s a pity, then, that A&M decided to inhibit that step by pulling the plug on Chaz’s contract. As indicated above, Chaz had already recorded his next album and now, at last, some extracts from that blocked project are seeing the light of day. Disc 5 – the Remixes and Rarities collection features such delights as Rêve de Chèvre (literally – ‘dream of the goat’), You’re My Occupation (here featuring guest vocals from Detroit R&B singer Brenda Jones) and the enigmatic To Wou Lady Wong each of which give us a welcome taste of what we missed first time round. Elsewhere, Disc 5 does an admirable job of filling gaps and otherwise highlighting Chaz’s achievements over the five-year period covered by this anthology, and interesting alternate takes of 109, Am I Honest With Myself Really, Number One, Johnny Funk, 3,000,000 Synths and Tonight’s The Night help drive home the message of Chaz Jankel.
There’s a couple of interesting pieces of trivia associated with this boxset. Firstly, if you’ve noticed an inconsistency in the spelling of Chaz’s name within this review, that’s deliberate. For the first two albums in this collection, he spelt his name C-H-A-S; for the latter two, he reverted to C-H-A-Z, the spelling he had used during his Blockheads days and the name he uses today. Secondly, the artwork on the non-playing sides of the five CDs all feature examples from Chaz’s scarf collection. Fascinating.
Of course, Chaz’s career didn’t end with the termination of his A&M contract – he continued to work with the Blockheads and played a key role on the final two albums of Ian Dury’s life – Mr Love Pants and Ten More Turnips From The Tip and he continues to tour with The Blockheads to this day. If you haven’t seen them, they’re every bit as good as they ever were. Since 2003, Chaz has also released a string of albums on his own CJ label. I’ve a feeling that there still a lot more to come from Chaz Jankel!
Watch the video for Glad to Know You by Chaz Jankel here;