We live in time travel times. We are told this is impossible, of course. However it most certainly is possible. What’s more, in this world of Quantum Mechanics, the case for Schrodingers’ Cat is made by our knowledge of Quanta. So is it possible to be here, there and everywhere? Well here and there for sure. Regardless of the Arrow of Time forever pointing forward, in our memories reside, for most, past times which are there to be unlocked. Nostalgia? Well yes. The means of travel? Recollections of the past triggered by sensory stimulus, sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. For this piece, it is sound and sight which will aid the journey back in time.
What is a waste?
An extraordinary description of life in the ordinary. Could this legitimately be used to describe, perhaps one of the great records of an era? The era being the late 1970’s. In my small auditorium it most definitely is. Here is an opus in the popular mode which presents to us a series of idioms, set to challenge, as we ponder its premise. It is set cleverly within the architecture of juxtaposition. A simplistic form, little more than an observational listing, but with a repeating and levelling refrain ensuring balance for the listener. There is little nudging and we may even remain on the fence to ultimately agree or disagree. This is not an overly simplistic or shallow “I don’t give a damn” rant. The nub of my question however remains in, just what is a waste?
Journeys such as this are made possible by the internet. Due to vast audio visual archives held by the Media companies, it is possible to view material from any era which has been preserved by electronic means. Clearly it is not physically possible to travel back, but it is possible to relive the emotion of the original experience. It is through revisiting the work of Ian Drury and The Blockheads that I have tried to conjure a sense of the times and describe a new appreciation of this Work of Art.
What a Waste!
On one hand there are statements suggesting there is choice. Options for roles and hopes for positions where an individual could be whatever they want. A Driver, Poet, Teacher, Sargent, Lawyer, Doctor, Writer, Ticket man, all in all an assortment of occupations to keep one gainfully employed and solvent!
However on the other hand there is realisation. Is it a dawning realisation of the reality in ordinariness? An articulated Lorry, Wouldn’t need to Worry, not all make keen Scholars. Or be in charge of Wallahs. Wallah is an Indian term and literally means “man”. So there might be Army Wallahs, or a Dabba Wallah, where Dabba is a Tiffin or lunchbox carrier.
Throughout there is a repeating sense of possible acceptance of the described lot in life. It is the refrain in that chorus which summarizes the situation. However it becomes more emphatic with each delivery. This it seems is a message worthy of reinforcement. “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, but I don’t mind.” Stum.
However there is a further breath of positive inspiration, in I could be a Lawyer, Doctor, Writer, Ticket man on Fulham Railway Station. Although again each has its downside, the conclusion seems to be in choosing to be a Joker in a Six Piece Band, his life is somehow wasted. But he again assures us he is alright with this situation.
The final verse is less a listing of occupations. It is more a revelation, as it is a set of statements or comparisons of activism and passivism. Catalyst, A catalyst that sparks a revolution, to bring about some change by social upheaval. Inmate in a Long term Institution, Put away from “Normal Life”, a prisoner and for a long period of time. Lead to Wide Extremes, Do or Die, Here there is the great sense of “Let us have a good go at living and pay no attention to any probable consequences”. Yawn and be withdrawn. This is a statement of defeat. Surrender to the many and varied overwhelming struggles of life. Take the easiest option. Watch them Gallop By. Be an observer and see everyone else progress at speed, onward and upward to a perceived better future.
But the actual truth about all of this, is perhaps only revealed in the performance of Drury himself and in the blending with the Blockheads of this song into one harmonious whole? Typical of this ensemble, is the refreshing mix of flavours. From jazz, rock and roll to the slightest of nods to swing and of course the era of ska and music hall reggae. All of which is garnished with lead vocals from a master performer. Drury is not the persona portrayed nor is he as his image on stage suggests. Here we watch an awkward individual, all nerves and sincerity in the delivery of an important message. He projects mockery, frustration and rebellion. His message is passed on as if it were a concealed concept carried on a subliminal signal. This is the essence of his gift, of his Artistry.
The rhythmic style is somewhat disjointed with a few bars introduction. Vocals begin at a laid back pace. Drury is playing his well drilled version of the “Cockney Chappie”. Though he is neither from within the sound of Bow Bells, or as often claimed, from Essex. He is in fact an out and out Middlesex man. There is some Cornish delight in there too. The opening impression seems to be that mundane is to be accepted as the norm. Low aspiration is set out in the first line. Not the excitement of say, motor racing as a driver, but rather an articulated lorry. If a poet, there would be nothing to worry about. This art form is like painting, being extra to the grind of making a living. The Art being uppermost in any poets thinking. This is the common situation with the painter too. Or making a difference in a classroom full of scholars. As a teacher the transmission of knowledge is not the sole objective. The moulding of character, The sense of citizenship, fair play and care for others and being influential in the overall education of young people are felt to be worthwhile. In contrast as a sergeant – in the military, in charge of a squadron full of wallahs, could be seen as a derogatory view of the Army occupation. However being occupied in neither of these positions, the conclusion is that life is in some way being wasted, The refrain here is what a waste. The reason? Because the narrator chose to play the fool in a six piece band and all that entails. With its first night nerves every one night stand. So life as a performer has drawbacks. There are first night nerves to be conquered at every new venue. This is worsened if the band only manages bookings for a single performance per venue. But I should be glad for doing the career I chose, however there is little satisfaction doing it. There are ongoing feelings of being capable of a more worthwhile occupation. He is not finding meaningful fulfilment in his current situation. What a waste, but he doesn’t mind. The performance to this point is relatively subdued.
Drury has superb stage presence. His physical stature is unmistakable, as an Ectomorph with a modified stance due to childhood infection of Poliomyelitis. He has resulting paralysis which affects his left side limbs. Nevertheless Ian Drury is at the top of his game and uses exaggerated characterisation in his stagecraft to enhance his imagery. Whatever costume he wears, be it 1950’s Teddy Boy Drape Coat or casual Punkish garb fashionable for the times are distraction embellishments, be they colourful scarves or hand held handkerchiefs. Drury often performs in the guise of a colourful Jester. He and the Band have appeared in Police Uniform on TV for “I Wanna Be Straight” on Top of the Pops. There are also those made up eyes. The demeanour alternates between the self conscious, introverted performer and the manic intellectual showman which Drury undoubtedly is. On stage Ian Drury is the consummate Humourist, Artist, Poet, and Minstrel whose observations are skilfully conveyed with a knowing awkwardness and sincere warmth. Interviewed some years later he admitted to loving Gigging. It certainly showed in many performances of “What A Waste”.
He moves from closed eyed narrator at the opening of the song to a more fluid performer as the second verse progresses. The Handkerchief held in his left hand is probably intended to distract the viewer from the deformity of the hand. It may have a second role as a comforter. Some of the lyrics are delivered with deliberate emphasis as in “a long term institution”, where a slight mocking delivery hints that he might possibly be a candidate in such a place. An earlier example is Drury applying definite clear pronunciation and next a slight portamento to the word, “waste”.
As the performance heads toward the final crescendo the song has an increased urgency injected. All this is overlaid with superb Sax playing carried through to the fade out. Can any of this be seriously classified as a waste? For a definitive description we can look to industry for enlightenment. Waste in any manufacturing context is described as an activity which the customer will not pay to be done. Or in a process it is an operation which adds no value. Finally, is it in truth that really the song has nothing at all to do with waste, but is actually a simple lament for a drab life lived in frustration? Here then is found its real value.
©31/10/2020 Christopher Thompson All rights reserved
There are of course other favorites:-
Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. (Two fat persons click click click).
There Ain’t half been some clever Bastards. (Lucky Bleeders, Lucky Bleeders).
Sweet Gene Vincent. (White face, black shirt, White socks, black shoes, Black hair, white strat, Bled white, died black)
Billericay Dickie. (I Got Right Up Between Her Rum and Ribena)
Album: Ian Dury – Greatest
John Turnbull, Guitar. Mickey Gallagher, Keyboard. Norman Watt-Roy, Bass.
Ian Dury, Vocals, Drums. Chaz Jankel, Guitar, Keyboard. Davey Payne, Saxophone.
Charley Charles, Drums.
Robbie Shakespeare, Bass. Tyrone Downie, Clavinet, Prophet et Steinway.
Sly Dunbar, Drums. Wilko Johnson, Guitar.
Ectomorphic: characterized as skinny, weak, and usually tall; described as intelligent, gentle and calm, but self-conscious, introverted and anxious.