When, a few days ago, the BBC showed a music documentary, there was a sniffy online reaction from a resident of Twittertown.
‘What is it that bothers me about this? Am I a music snob, an art snob, a massive something else snob? Culture snob? Dunno. I just don’t see this as a BBC Four kind of programme. I shall avoid it like a plague of flying pickets. Or crickets.’
The documentary in question was about Chas & Dave. The obvious answer to her questions was ‘Yes to all of the above’, but none of her followers posed it. In fact several of them agreed with her. Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock are not quite our class, darling. Culturally speaking, they’re below stairs.
Not for the first time, the duo had prompted a peculiarly English form of snobbery. If they were traditional bluegrass players from Appalachian Mountains or a musette duo from the Marais, they would be hailed in their home country and abroad as keepers of the flame, honourable upholders of a great national musical tradition.
In England, it’s different. We tend to be embarrassed about our popular culture. This is roots music: the songs of Chas & Dave represent a straight line (rather too straight a line, some might say) from music hall to 1950s pop to seventies pub rock. They have remained doggedly faithful to the sound they created while the rest of the pop world went American.
As a result they are now the sort of national treasure (like George Formby or Les Dawson) which is loved but in a slightly patronising way. They are a bit naff.
The TV documentary Last Orders, made in 2012, was terrific, pointing up not only why they were so good and original but also, between the lines, why they were never taken seriously by people like the snotty lady on Twitter.
First of all, they never had any pretensions. Their songs had no subtext or hidden depths. They never went through an experimental phase. They were not ironic. At no point did they play with the form. They started as musos – talented, versatile, professional – and never really changed. Having established their sound – a thumping piano, a solid bass line, drums, bog-standard one-third harmonies, singalong melodies – they stayed with it.
But in their way they were revolutionaries. While the most of the pop world, led by the Stones, was singing in American, and essentially aping American culture, they, like Ray Davies, Joe Brown and a very few others, celebrated Englishness.
The world they sang about was the one in which they lived and, more importantly, the words they sang were like the words they spoke.
I always loved their novelty songs, the cleverness of their lyrics, their brilliantly tight playing and singing, and more recently, when I started exploring early twentieth century music, I found that their cover versions were treasure-trove of old music hall songs.
When I compiled a show of politically incorrect songs of the past, called Taboo-Be-Do!, it was a Chas & Dave who provided me with ‘I’m Not All There’, an early take on the theme of mental health, rarely played on the radio these days.
My favourite Chas & Dave songs, though, are not the novelty songs, brilliant as they are, or the revivals, but their gentler stuff from the early 1980s: Dave Peacock’s simple but affecting ‘Where Am I Gonna FindYa?’, ‘There in Your Eyes’, and that anthem to English awkwardness ‘I Wish I Could Write a Love Song’.
Best of all, of course, is Chas Hodges’ great song ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’. Apparently, the tune emerged while Chas and Dave were working on songs for Mustn’t Grumble and, when they needed one last song, Chas remembered his brother telling him a story about being criticised by his wife while putting up some curtains. ‘There ain’t no fuckin’ pleasing you, is there?’ he said.
However it was written, the lyrics for ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You‘ should be taught in songwriting courses to show that you don’t need elegant rhyme-schemes and clever words to write a great lyric. Almost every line is secondhand, the cliché-count is through the roof, and yet it’s a genuine heartbreaker.
‘And if you think I don’t mean what I say and I’m only bluffing
You’ve got another thing coming, I’m tellin’ you that for nothing…’
This version, with two guitars, is nice, and Dave Peacock singing it at a tribute to Chas Hodges (with Albert Lee, Joe Brown, Eric Clapton and assorted rock dinosaurs) will bring a tear to your eye. But the original version with the great Fats Domino-style piano is still unbeatable.