Not many people can claim to have had a 50-year relationship with anything: a house, their teeth, a spouse… But for ‘rockney’ duo Chas & Dave five decades have flown faster than you can say Rabbit.
It’s a partnership that’s spawned nine bestselling albums, an unmistakable musical sound – capturing the best of boogie-woogie, early rock ’n’ roll and East End pub banter – and a diverse legion of fans, among them many of today’s most prolific musicians. They recorded at Abbey Road before The Beatles and earlier this year sold out the Albert Hall. Now, the musical mavericks are back with their first studio album in 27 years, That’s What Happens. And plenty has.
“It only seems like we’ve been together a few years. Time flies.” I’m on the phone to Chas Hodges, the slightly bushier of the two (“We answer to both,” he chuckles) ahead of the duo’s appearance at the Corn Exchange. Is it still just as great playing music today, I ask, as when you first started?
“Even more so really. We love performing. Because it’s honest music, that’ll always stay the same, but there’s always something extra going on behind which keeps it fresh. And whatever happens, be it the iPod, CDs or downloading, people will always want to go out and see a good show.”
Putting on a good show is something they do very well indeed. Their Albert Hall gig in April received a gushing four stars from the Evening Standard who praised their ‘preconception-shattering musicality’ as much as their ability to conjure a mass knees-up with classics The Sideboard Song and Gertcha.
“When we first started, we were asked what market we were aiming for, and we said, ‘What d’you mean ‘market’?’ We play music from the heart so it’s for everybody,” says Chas. “It goes right across the board from little kids to old-age pensioners. That’s just how we like it.”
Chas and Dave were playing in different bands when they met in the early 1960s, but they soon bonded over their shared musical leanings.
“I’d started going out with this girl, who’s now my wife, Joan,” Chas explains. “I was thumbing a lift home from hers, ’cause I’d missed the last bus, and a mate of mine pulled up in his car with one of his mates in the back. He said, ‘This is my bass player.’ I was a bass player too, so we struck up a friendship. We had almost identical taste in music: we both loved rock ’n’ roll, the blues and people like Hank Williams. But, unusually for our age, we also loved old music hall performers. When I decided to go on piano, that’s when we got together.”
Their debut album, One Fing ’n’ Anuvver, was released in 1975 and celebrated their blue-collar East End roots with wryly wonderful songs sung, unusually, in their own accent.
“I remember ringing up Dave when I came back from America, when I was in another band, before we got together. And we’d been singing in an American accent. I felt a fool – I thought, hang on, this is wrong.”
By the mid 1980s their chirpy tunes about beer drinking, night shifts and getting in trouble with the missus were part of British culture, reviving old Cockney slang and sayings.
“Gertcha was our first Top 20 hit,” says Chas, “and something my granddad used to say.” He sings merrily: “When the kids are swinging on the gate… Gertcha! When the paperboy’s half an hour late…”
Contrary to popular myth, the pair didn’t write or sing the theme tune to Only Fools And Horses. They were asked, but they were busy in Australia promoting Ain’t No Pleasing You (their softer, more serious ballad). Nor, strictly speaking, are they true Cockneys: both were born in North London.
Explains Chas: “I was brought up in Edmonton, but all my family came from the East End. They were all very witty people.”
Chas & Dave owe a great deal in particular to Chas’s mum, Daisy, a pub piano player.
“She knew all the pop tunes of the 20s and 30s, and the not-so popular ones,” recalls Chas. “There wasn’t a song she didn’t know. She was a big influence on both me and Dave.
“She had a good ear for music but no one to teach her because her mum couldn’t afford to send her to piano lessons. It was only when I started playing guitar at about 13 that I’d tell her she was playing in G or F… she had no idea. In the pubs, someone would start singing, and she’d just find that note and join in. So we helped each other out.”
Chas was raised by his mother after his dad committed suicide – the day before his fourth birthday. “She brought us up, me and my brother, by playing the piano. So piano means a lot to me, it means happiness and also food on the table.”
Chas’s next teacher was king of the ivories Jerry Lee Lewis himself, with whom he toured as a session musician in 1963.
“My mum wanted me to be a piano player, but I weren’t particularly interested till I saw Jerry Lee Lewis. When I was about 13 he came to our town on tour. That was in 1958, then in 1963, when I was in The Outlaws, we got to go on tour as his backing band. He was my piano teacher. I remember watching him every night then trying it out afterwards. I just wanted to be like Jerry Lee.”
“Piano means a lot to me, it means happiness and also food on the table”
Chas has since played with The Beatles (spontaneously, at Eric Clapton’s wedding) and sat in for the bassist for Deep Purple. When they came to record That’s What Happens, Chas and Dave hand-picked their favourite musicians to join them at Abbey Road – all of whom said yes.
“It was a great week, playing and having a good time,” says Chas. “We got some old friends on board: Albert Lee and JI Allison, who used to drum for Buddy Holly, Jools Holland, Hugh Laurie… We’re all like-minded musicians; someone would spark something off and we’d say, ‘OK, do that one!’ I think we did about two songs that we’d planned.”
Reflecting on his eventful career, Chas cites Ain’t No Pleasing You as his biggest personal achievement. “I wanted to write a serious song, sung in, for want of a better word, a Cockney accent. It’s probably our most popular song, and now when we play it on stage we stop singing in the second middle eight and people just belt it out. Wherever we are in the country, they all know it,” he beams. “It’s great.”
Chas & Dave play Cambridge Corn Exchange 24 September, 7.30pm (£27/£29)