The passing of Chas Hodges, aged 74, brings to an end the run of one of the most underrated musical acts of the last fifty years. Chas and Dave fan Dave Fawbert explains just why they were so loved by so many
I’ve been lucky enough to watch virtually every legend of the game - alive and active since I turned 14 anyway - play live. The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Bob Dylan, Elton John, The Who, Prince, James Brown, Metallica, Beyonce, Muse, U2, Paul McCartney, Prodigy, Stevie Wonder - I could go on. My, objectively ranked, top ten greatest live acts will stay unpublished for reluctance to cause an argument, but I am entitled to state my top three from that list of ten, because I pick them for their personal impact on me.
And so, I would choose Sigur Rós - a truly unique, incredible, utterly transcendental live experience, Rammstein - as discussed here, a phenomenal combination of brutality and stage theatrics and thirdly: Chas & Dave.
“Yes, that’s right, Chas & Dave,” I have regularly had to repeat to people who look at you, waiting for the punchline. But there isn’t one, because this most magnificent of duos were perennially underrated. But see them once, and you were hooked.
When news of the death of Chas Hodges, singer and piano player of Chas and Dave, reached me, it was something of a shock: he’d been ill with cancer for the last couple of years but had seemed to be in a recovery phase. He’d often pop up on my Twitter feed with some astute observation about gardening, some Spurs news or a bit of music chat with a fan.
But it was actually when I was searching through the photo archives for this article that it really hit home: seeing photo after photo of Chas, smiling away, playing his piano alongside his best mate Dave Peacock and realising that never again would I be able to witness the two of them in action, doing what they did so brilliantly for 50 years. I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear or two.
Some people didn’t get Chas and Dave.
Were they a joke band? Songs about ‘more rabbit than Sainsbury’s’ and strange words like ‘Gertcha’? ‘Snooker Loopy’? Indeed, in 2013, a Guardian reviewer wrote, about their album That’s What Happens: “During the 1980s, Chas & Dave committed sins against pop music of such magnitude that it’s difficult now to countenance the idea that they might have made an intricately detailed album whose chief characteristics are delicacy and grace.”
It’s a good statement to deconstruct.
“Sins against pop music”. No. If you cannot appreciate the pop genius of songs like ‘Rabbit’, ‘Gertcha’, ‘London Girls’, ‘Margate’ and ‘The Sideboard Song’ then you don’t understand what pop music is. Catchy hooks, genius melodies, memorable lyrics, in and out in under four minutes: the building blocks of great pop writing. Sure, they were humorous, but that does not take away any of their inherent value.
But most tellingly, the second half of that sentence: “…they might have made an intricately detailed album whose chief characteristics are delicacy and grace.”
Well, if you knew anything about Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock, you’d know that they were supremely talented musicians.
They were respected session musicians for 20 years before their partnership found success in the late-seventies, with Chas playing alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Gene Vincent and Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore, originally as a bass player, as well as guitarist and pianist. You don’t get to play with those guys unless you have serious chops. Meanwhile, both of them played on the Labi Siffre song ‘I Got The…’, later sampled on Eminem’s breakthrough single ‘My Name Is’. That’s right, Eminem’s career was launched off the back of some seriously funky playing by Chas and Dave.
The full scope of their musicianship was actually seen towards recent years, when they released their first new album in eighteen years (That’s What Happens), followed by their final album A Little Bit of Us, which came out earlier this year. Both on the record, and playing live on the likes of Jools Holland and The Royal Variety Performance, after years of touring as a classic three piece (first with drummer Mick Burt, then with Chas’ son Nick on kit), they allowed themselves to indulge in backing brass sections and to mix up their own instruments from their time-honoured piano, bass and drums.
But the Chas and Dave story is really about the live experience.
My first taste of it came in 2007 when I was informed by my mate Tom that we would all be going to see them at the Hackney Empire. At that time, I knew ‘Rabbit’, but nothing else, but it sounded like it would be a laugh so off we went.
In an audience comprised mainly of seated ‘older patrons’, shall we say, we stood at the back of the venue as the duo performed the first half of their set, full of old standards, music hall songs, boogie woogie and old-time rock and roll. We didn’t know any of them, but it was so energetic, fun and instantly entertaining. We supped away at the back and just enjoyed it. The end of the set though, saw the big finish: the hits. Suddenly, people on their feet, people in the aisles down the front: well, we had no choice but to join them, finding ourselves dancing away with the folks up the front, completely lost in the music other than to look up at the stage and find the boys grinning away at us all. We waited outside after the show to say hello to them as they left and I got a photo with each one of them: Dave and Dave, and, of course, Chas and Dave (mark II).
And so began a love affair with Chas and Dave that lasted a decade. I saw them live at least 20 times, every single performance a total and utter joy. At Glastonbury 2008 - three years after their ‘comeback’ show there (of course, they’d never really been away), described by Chas as one of his proudest moments, which came off the back of them being asked to support The Libertines in 2003 - I dragged three doubtful friends along to come and see them on The Park stage, which became a mass singalong, creating three new converts to the Chas and Dave fandom instantly. Imagine my joy when, later that night, wandering around the late night, after-hours area of the festival named Shanrgi La, I suddenly heard the faintest sound of a song I recognised - “is that?… no, it must be a record… surely not? Is that… ‘Rabbit’??” and followed it to find Chas and Dave performing an unlisted secret gig to a delirious audience on a tiny stage, just for the fun of it.
I saw them several times at the 100 Club: rowdy, beer-soaked gigs to a few hundred people, with moshpits and a fevered atmosphere. And then, at the other end of the scale, I saw them only this April when they played no lesser venue than the Royal Albert Hall, which saw 5,000 fans turn the place into a massive knees-up.
Two shows in particular stand out though: through an old friend at their new label Warners, who had signed the duo to make a new album (the previously mentioned That’s What Happens) to celebrate 40 years together, I managed to get myself and some friends onto the guestlist for the launch gig. We arrived to find the place full of Important Industry Executives who didn’t necessarily seem to be fans, but also: a free bar. We were initially unsure how to behave; we desperately wanted the gig to be great and for the boys to get booked for TV appearances and radio play and the like, so we politely stood there and nodded away for the first portion of the gig, resisting the temptation to cut loose, thinking that maybe it wasn’t ‘that sort of an evening’.
But as litres of free wine and beer disappeared down our gullets, we could resist the primal reaction that Chas and Dave’s music inspired in you no longer and, when they brought out some old classics, we instinctively went bananas, so much so that we were mentioned in a Guardian feature:
“A couple of days after we meet, the pair play an album-launch show in central London. At the very front are a score of young men who know every word to the old songs. They sing along to ‘Rabbit’, ‘Gertcha’, ‘Brother-in-Law’, ‘London Girls’ and ‘Margate’ (pronounced Margit, to rhyme with target; and in which “rahver” is rhymed with palaver and Costa Brava), Dave beaming at them as they do. In fact, both say they’re more popular on the live circuit now than ever before, and Dave still sounds astonished by their reception at Glastonbury in 2005. ‘They all sang ‘Snooker Loopy’. They all sang ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’. Forty, fifty thousand of them. We were knocked out.’”
Reading that remains one of the proudest moments of my life, although it didn’t feel like it, nursing hands-down the worst work hangover I have ever had, the following day.
But why were they so brilliant live?
Simple: the oldest two ingredients in the book. Talent and hard work.
Talented in two ways though; when you saw Chas and Dave play live, it was clear that they were truly gifted musicians. Chas’ right hand dashing around the keyboard like a ferret on speed, while his left thundered out those rock and roll riffs; meanwhile Dave’s effortless slinky bass playing (complete with the odd bit of harmonics and some reverse fingering for good measure) was endlessly creative, playing melodies of its own in the lower sonic reaches. Meanwhile, the rhythmic vocal dexterity they demonstrated on parts like the end section of ‘Rabbit’ and ‘The Sideboard Song’ was astonishing.
But they also had the talent to create something unique. In all of the many tributes to them, you’ll see the same quote from Chas popping up about the creation of their ‘Rockney’ style:
“I was singing in an American accent. I thought, ‘You’re being a fraud, you should sing in your own accent’, and that’s when I started to work on the idea.”
It was a revolutionary idea at the time and it meant that they sounded like no one else. And it’s an oft-unappreciated fact that the same revolutionary thing happened again in 2003 when the Arctic Monkeys began what has become a truly stellar career. As Chas put it when I spoke to him for an Ultimate Playlist feature in 2013, he clearly saw them as something of a kindred spirit, saying: “I loved their honesty, I loved their energy and I loved the way he sung in his Sheffield accent.” All qualities that you could equally apply to Chas and Dave (needless to say, subbing London for Sheffield).
And the hard work? Well, Chas and Dave toured relentlessly throughout their career. No gig too small, any place, any time. Whether they were in fashion, out-of-fashion, they did the same thing: got out there, played their arses off and put on the best, most entertaining show they possibly could. They were an unbelievably tight live act, they knew exactly how to get a crowd going and not once did they ever take their audience for granted. They knew their job: to give whatever audience was watching them pure, unadulterated joy and escapism from their everyday lives for the hour or so of that live gig, by connecting with them and lifting their spirits in a way that only music played, from the heart, and from their very bones, could.
It bears repeating once again that Chas and Dave were criminally underrated musicians and songwriters. But no one could deny them their crowning glory: ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’. As Chas told me, the song was “a real big personal achievement for me… I thought, ‘I’ve got to write a song that will taken seriously, and sing it in my own accent’. And ‘There Ain’t No Pleasing You’ was the one… And it was also me and Dave’s biggest hit. It was No.1 in the Melody Maker chart and reached No. 2 in the BBC chart - I go by the Melody Maker chart!”
Dave has previously mused whether their foray into light entertainment - which gave us the incredible Christmas special, which has now found an annual festive home on Channel 5 - might have led to some perceiving them as a novelty act, saying: “If Jerry Lee Lewis came on Crackerjack [a long-running children’s TV show] you wouldn’t care. Someone you love, you don’t care what they’re on. I remember reading a write-up in the Independent once, and it said: ‘If Chas & Dave had been doing the colleges instead of Crackerjack, they’d be right up there with Madness and Ian Dury.’ He might have a point.”
But it doesn’t matter. Anyone who ever saw Chas and Dave live will know what they were about: the power of music to uplift you and make everything better, if only for a short while.
And I’d like to think that Chas knew how much he was appreciated. I’ll never forget seeing them play in Hyde Park at the British Summertime festival last summer; their first gig back after Chas’ cancer treatment. As ever, for the underdogs, they didn’t play the main stage, or even the second stage, but instead the bandstand, which normally saw crowds of around 100 people to see some up-and-coming act finding their feet. I wandered over just before the set started to find the entire area completely mobbed - and when the boys came onstage, Chas resplendent in a cream suit, the reception they got was breathtaking; a complete outpouring of love and affection, the entire crowd dancing and jumping, hugging strangers, singing along and making new friends in the process.
It summed up what Chas and Dave was all about, and what a very special thing it was to be a part of for so many years.
Thank you for everything Chas.