Chas and Dave were the stuff of legends for most of my childhood. Up there with Greek gods and King Arthur for mythical status, never glimpsed, only ever heard on vinyl, tucked between the Hooked on Classics, softcore-model covered Top of the Pops and Mrs Mills albums of my childhood. I missed them for decades at record store openings and family-friendly PAs growing up in the East End, until finally, in my late 20s, I caught them at a Cricklewood bingo hall one New Year’s Eve, and with chicken in a basket replacing loaves and fishes, and plenty of water that became wine over several hours, I had a religious experience (and a killer hangover the next morning).
Now in their 70s, and after a short burst of retirement, they are touring again, this time to promote their new album (a live double album plus DVD), ‘Not Just Anuvver Beano‘, released 40 years after their first record. Out they come, dressed as if they’re going to B&Q for the afternoon, pork pie hats ready for the raising, and the auditorium, which is rafters-full, roars. ‘Ow are yer?’ They bellow. We bellow affirmatively back. ‘Thas bettah! Are yer ready to av a good time?’ Absobleedinlutely, we are.
The set up is the same as it’s always been. No bells, whistles or flash lighting rig, just Chas on keys, Dave on bass, and Nik Hodges, Chas’ son in impeccable Watney porter flat cap and waistcoat more than adequately replacing the late, great Mick Burt (who was as unflappably dapper as Charlie Watts, keeping breakneck time at the back).
There is much swaying in the aisles, and waving of pint pots, with not a wine glass to be seen anywhere. This is essentially a pub gig writ large, and ale is in order, as it always has been, as they belt out ‘All By Myself’, ‘A Man Without A Woman’ and cover songs from their youth and early career. ‘Dem Bones’ gets everyone singing along, as does Clarence Frogman’s hit ‘I Don’t Know Why (But I Do)’, and there’s a sweet cover of the Mills Brothers ‘My Little Grass Shack’ where they both pick up and play the ukelele.
Throughout, they namedrop songwriters rather than artists, a telling nod that they are actually, secretly, musicians’ musicians (prior to their hitmaking days, they were consummate session musicians), recognising songcraft as the backbone of what they do. Their songs are so familiar, so workaday (literally – who hasn’t worked a garage or pub shift between the 70s and 90s without ‘Gertcha’ or ‘Rabbit’ coming on the radio or jukebox at some point?) that it’s easy to overlook the fact that boogie-woogie played like this is a form of virtuosity – that lyrics which acutely observe the visible details and emotional dynamics of old-school, working class life are cleverer than Keats.
It strikes me that in other voices, many of their deceptively intelligent hits could have been international blockbusters. The universal heart-on-sleeve anguish of ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’ – the cockney ‘I Will Survive’ – was always crying out for Dusty Springfield or Dolly Parton to cover it. Other songs are simply uncoverable. Nobody could do full justice to ‘Rabbit’ with its alternating semiquavered ‘rabbits’, nor the diddley scat of ‘The Diddlum Song’ – second-nature vocal exchanges honed over a lifetime; nor the endless list of delights, all of which strike a nostalgia chord stronger than a patisserie factory full of Proustian madeleines, in ‘That’s What I Like Mick (The Sandwich Song)’. It’s the technicolour, up to eleven version of Julie Andrews’ ‘My Favourite Things’.
The second half is a non-stop rollick of hits: ‘Wallop’, ‘London Girls’, ‘Down To Margate’, ‘Snooker Loopy’, ‘That’s What I Like Mick (The Sandwich Song)’, ‘Rabbit’ and ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’. A few blokes start dancing in the aisles to ‘London Girls’ and get ushered back to their seats. By ‘Rabbit’, the stewards haven’t got a chance. The whole theatre is a rockney mosh pit of arm-waving, group-hugging teens, nans and middle aged kids reliving childhood knees-ups. And you know what? That’s what we like.