The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 18, Ian Dury and the Blockheads – Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick

<span>Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

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 No 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.

Just three years prior to reaching the top spot in January 1979, the edgy, twitchy 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.

Then he met Chaz Jankel after a Kilburns gig. The latter 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!!

Released in November 1978, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick typifies their ability to draw on everything from music hall to reggae to rock’n’roll to create what Jankel dubbed “punk jazz”. Rhythm Stick throws in funk and disco to create an oddly disorienting, almost stoned groove. Dury had the lyrics up his sleeve for years before the song was written in a jam session. Biographer Richard Balls suggests that the line “It’s nice to be a lunatic” was probably inspired by a caustic remark from one of Dury’s teachers.

Related: New punk for old: Ian Dury's debut album reviewed - archive 1977

The title is generally thought to refer to the singer’s walking stick and disability. Otherwise, the song is a mischievous celebration of (ahem) physical activity. Dury envisages this in all manner of locations and takes audible relish as he joins French and German (“Je t’adore, ich liebe dich!”) and takes the listener on an exotic tour of getting it on (“In the deserts of Sudan / And the gardens of Japan / From Milan to Yucatan / Every woman, every man ...”), the violently yelled “Hit me! Hit me!” subverting the woozily seductive groove. NME named it the 12th best single of 1978; when it charted in the US a year later, the Village Voice named it single of the year. With 1.29m sales it is the 114th bestselling British single of all time.

Dury told chatshow host Michael Parkinson that he wanted his success to dispel society’s discomfort with and patronising attitudes to disability and provide hope to those for whom things hadn’t turned out so well. Today, his best-known tune still sounds fresh and wonderfully off-kilter, a beacon of pop’s ability to embrace oddity and celebrate the other.