Rockney geezers: A knees-up with Chas & Dave

No one could ever accuse them of being cool. But with their 'Very Best Of...' album riding high in the charts, sell-out shows across Britain, and Pete Doherty in tow, Chas & Dave are enjoying a bizarre renaissance. Susie Rushton joins their annual Christmas 'beano' for a bit of rabbit, rabbit, rabbit...
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The Independent Culture

It's Thursday night at the Electric Ballroom, the venerable punk venue in Camden, north London, that has in its time hosted the Sex Pistols, Public Enemy and The Smiths, a cockney-themed fancy-dress stag do is in full swing. Big blokes in boots and braces dance lumbering jigs, neo-skinheads are draped with plastic Union flag bunting, and, as the headliners stroll onstage, five teenagers in matching flat caps drain their pint glasses.

Along with 800 more fans 90 per cent of them men they're here to see and sing along to Chas & Dave, Britain's foremost (some might say only) proponents of "rockney", a genre that jumbles together pub singalong, music-hall humour, boogie-woogie piano and pre-Beatles rock'*'roll.

Now in their sixties, pianist and lead singer Chas Hodges and bassist Dave Peacock haven't charted a bona fide hit since 1986 (that was the comic number "Snooker Loopy", with backing vocals from the Matchroom Mob of Steve Davis, Dennis Taylor and Willie Thorne). Their heyday was the early 1980s, when they released jolly, shouty records like "Rabbit", "Gertcha" and "Margate". Even back then, they were a nostalgia act. They got really famous thanks to jingles for Courage Best TV ads and theme tunes to Crackerjack, In Sickness and in Health and the kids' cartoon Bangers & Mash.

Chas & Dave were never, and are not, cool. They haven't been given the critical rehabilitation of, say, Ian Dury or Madness. And yet, in the age of The X Factor and punk foursomes who weren't even born in 1977, Chas & Dave sell out live dates across the UK. Pete Doherty, a long-time admirer, says he was inspired to pick up a guitar thanks to their music and Doherty supported them at a rowdy Saturday night gig in Chatham, Kent, waving a flag as he accompanied Chas on vocals for "Ain't No Pleasing You", an insanely catchy ballad of wounded male pride, which reached No 2 in 1982.

This year, they had three slots at Glastonbury, their second appearance at the event. Their Christmas Beano has become a festive tradition, not only for Libertines fans but also for self-proclaimed "geezers" who identify with the band's working-class values and find authenticity in their trad music and un-Americanised accents.

The geezers are men like John Swan, a 23-year-old from Essex who works in finance, and is drinking in a pub near the gig. "They're cockney legends," he says. "They're like Only Fools and Horses." Or 27-year-old Reece Biggadike, a mortgage broker from London, who discovered them via Tottenham Hotspur football club. "I reckon I've seen them at least six times."

Dave Brooklyn, a 27-year-old sales manager from Crouch End, sports an asymmetric haircut and a pretty girlfriend on his arm. He doesn't look like the grizzled old dog you'd imagine to be down the front at a Chas & Dave gig. "I was brought up on them," he says. "The lyrics are sensational. I know The Libertines are fans of their songs, but I liked them before that. I know all the words." Is he being ironic? "No, not at all!" he insists.

If the uninitiated still struggle to tell Chas and Dave apart both have beards and wear tinted, rimless glasses to present a cohesive band "image", says Chas their attitudes to their current revival are markedly different. Chas, born Charles Nicholas Hodges in 1943 in Edmonton, is the driving force musically. "I'm more of the lyricist and the musician. I play it to Dave. He's a bit like the expectant father. He paces up and down and smokes. And I have the baby."

We talk in a caf on Marylebone High Street a few hours before the gig. Chas, who gave up drink and smoking after a recent health scare, arrives without Dave, who prefers to talk in a pub.

Where Dave is laconic, Chas likes a story. He'll tell you about how he learnt piano from Jerry Lee Lewis, in that as a 19-year-old member of Lewis's backing band he watched the star's left hand as it worked the keyboard and committed what he saw to memory. How he's doing solo work (blasphemy!) in his studio at home in Staffordshire; how they and Doherty became mates; how he never wants to retire; and how he thinks that his piano-playing is better than ever.

He doesn't use rhyming slang once, disappointingly. His wife, Joan, joins us later (she's best friends with Dave's wife Sue, and they go on cultural holidays to Florence and Venice). Chas drinks cappuccinos, drives a 1947 Willys Jeep and wears dark-green Crocs ("I 'ad them before anyone else").

Chas thinks that the audience take them more seriously than before, and see their revival as much-deserved. "Kids now say, 'I love your piano-playing.' I never used to get cheering for a piano solo. They weren't really listening. Now they are." His four grown-up children and his granddaughter all play and write music.

Later, after a cursory soundcheck (Chas likes spontaneity and there's no set list "The most boringest thing in the world"), Dave and Sue head for the pub for a pre-gig stiffener. When we walk into the bar, a dozen Arctic Monkey-alikes turn around and say: "Dave!" in unison, so we're forced to cross the road to a marginally quieter venue.

Born David Peacock in 1945 in Ponders End, Dave learnt to play the ukulele and banjo at the age of five. One of four kids, his dad worked in the rolling mills. His grandparents were Romany, and he can speak a bit of the language. His mother died when he was 13, "so she never saw the success me and Chas had".

Dave wears a fedora, braces and brogue boots "I always wear boots; thick soles for everyday, thin soles for funerals". Unlike Chas, he seems slightly bewildered by the attention the pair have received in recent years. "Glastonbury well, it was a bit of an eye-opener to see how many people came to see us," he starts, not trying to keep the amazement out of his voice. He gave up writing new material two years ago and prefers to spend his spare time on his 20-acre estate in Hertfordshire.

What's the best thing about Chas, Dave? "Piano-playing, I suppose. I don't know. When you've been with somebody for 35 years, you don't really study them. He's just Chas." They will never split up, they both say. Their partnership resembles most long and reasonably happy marriages: not much conversation, few rows. "We get on fine," Chas says, neutrally.

The pair met in their early twenties when Chas was hitching back from his sweetheart (and now wife) Joan's house and Dave picked him up. "I went round Chas's house and he had all the records I liked," Dave says "Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, all that Fifties rock'*'roll."

Chas was a bass player in a band called The Outlaws: "I was the first in north London to own a bass guitar," he claims. Dave also played bass, in a band called The Rolling Stones "We hadn't heard of the other group." Apart from rock'*'roll, they both liked the "old-fashioned songs". Chas's father, a lorry driver, died when he was three. His mother Daisy was a professional pub and club pianist who'd taught herself and could pick up any song in seconds. His grandmother had busked with a clarinet.

"We started going to parties together," recalls Dave. "His aunt had a pub in Essex and his uncle was a bit like Harry Champion [the 19th-century cockney music star whose best-known songs included 'Any Old Iron' and 'I'm Henery The Eighth, I Am']. He used to sing along to old-fashioned songs. My sister used to have parties at her house and we used to get our families together it was fantastic. We never actually said, 'Let's learn these songs,' we just heard them a lot and they would've become extinct if we hadn't have learned them."

When the pair started writing their own material in 1972, they decided to sing in their own accents, not American drawls. It's not put-on cockney, Chas says: "It's natural. It's just me."

In the early days, they built up a fan base by working the pub-rock circuit, travelling the UK in a Mini. From 1974, the duo has actually been a trio with the drummer Mick Burt, now a white-haired gent. Dave thinks that the piano confused early audiences. "A lot of people perceived us as a novelty act. I think it was the piano. I think some youngsters then had never seen one before."

Their self-produced debut album One Fing'*'Anuvver, whose tracks included "Ponders End Allotments Club", was released in 1975 and picked up by John Peel. One night at a pub in Bethnal Green, an EMI A&R saw them and signed them up, releasing Rockney in 1978. But they made no impact on the charts until another lucky meeting in a pub, two years later, when an ad exec saw them do "Gertcha" and asked them to record it, speeded up, for a Courage Best commercial. That song became their first Top 20 record. They followed up with "The Sideboard Song (Got My Beer in the Sideboard Here)" from their third album Don't Give a Monkey's. In 1980, they released "Rabbit", a tune that includes the good-naturedly sexist lyric: "Now you're a wonderful girl/ You got a wonderful smell/ You got wonderful arms/ You got charm/ You got wonderful hair/ We make a wonderful pair/ Now I don't mind 'avin a chat/ But you have to keep givin' it that."

What lady inspired that, Chas? "My wife!" Joan smiles as Chas rattles on. "It was just a bit of fun. It was based on an American song; we did a version of how a bloke in London would tell the story."

Two years later, they released "Ain't No Pleasing You", inspired by Chas's sister-in-law. "He was putting up some curtains and his missus said they weren't straight. He said, 'There ain't no fucking pleasing you, is there?' So it was planted there in my head. They ended up splitting up." Despite them both being happily married, women come off badly in Chas & Dave lyrics. "Well, it's just because I'm embarrassed to write love songs," Chas offers .

In the early 1980s, they developed their "look" of hat, braces, beards and boots. "When we got a manager, he said, 'You need some sort of image. Have a think about it.' So I did, and sometimes I would have a beard, and sometimes Dave would. I think it was to look like brothers. Braces, boots and beards."

When they recorded their first live album, Live at Abbey Road, for EMI, they converted the famous Studio One into an East End pub. "Margate" and "London Girls" were hits.

Did they ever throw tellies out of hotel windows, party with hookers, have lost weekends? "Nah," they both say. "I have, however, found people who drink or take drugs to be quite entertaining," Dave goes on. "We once toured with Eric Clapton when he used to like a drink; he used to make me laugh."

The early 1980s saw them record six songs for Tottenham Hotspur FC, none of which are in their current live show, for fear of provoking internecine rivalry.

But after "Snooker Loopy" got to No 6 in the charts 21 years ago, Chas & Dave fell off the map. The 1990s were hard: "Any money we had got swallowed up," Chas says. They toured, including in the US, where fans think they're Australian. They opened a pub together. "We got ripped off," says Chas, although it seems more likely that the novelty of running a bar, rather than holding a knees-up in one, wore off.

But the boom in live music ticket sales in recent years has revived the most unlikely of musical careers. In 2005, EMI released The Very Best of Chas & Dave. That year, the duo played Glastonbury for the first time. Carl Barat and Pete Doherty started talking about how influential the band were. Next year, Chas is immortalised by Ralf Little in Telstar, a movie about the producer Joe Meek.

Their current fans just appreciate that they put on a good show. They play all their hits, and look pretty much the same as ever. And yes, they've made enough money "Eventually," Chas says.

Still, Chas & Dave aren't exactly modern. Chas admits he doesn't know much about whether fans can download his music. Dave is content to spend his spare time on his estate looking after his three horses and pursuing his hobby: "Lining out", or painting, gypsy caravans. "I did a trade class trolley at the Windsor show and the Queen herself admired my paintwork," he says.

You suspect that a lot of the audience at the Electric Ballroom might be mockney, but Chas & Dave are the real thing. Do they mind being described as working-class heroes? "It doesn't matter to me," Chas says. "But if people say, 'Oh, Chas & Dave, it's down the old pub, knees up Mother Brown,' Dave gets wild. I look down on people who criticise us. They don't know what they're listening to, they've got no soul. All I say is, come and see our show, and if you don't go away as a Chas & Dave fan, there's something wrong with you." Dave agrees: "We like think we were and are a great rock'*'roll band."

Nik Hodges, Chas's 33-year-old son, also a musician, is watching the gig. By the time they do "Ain't No Pleasing You" as their final number, it all resembles a rowdy New Year's Eve party at the local boozer. "I think the appeal is that youngsters have grown up with it, their mums or dads used to sing 'Rabbit' to them, it's a nostalgia thing," Nik says. "Most people are looking backwards these days. And a lot of English youngsters want something they can call their own. It's a link to pre-war sing-songs and that kind of piano music that doesn't exist any more a simpler time."

Touring to: Horns, Watford, 20 December; Base Bar, Purley Way, 21 December; Robin 2, Wolverhampton, 22 December; Bitter End, Romford, 29 December; Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch, 6 January (