International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting • Chas Hodges Interview

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Chas Hodges Interview

Introduction by Jim Liddane
Chas Hodges was born on December 28, 1943, in Edmonton London, into a working-class family marked by a love for music and a sense of community. His mother Daisy, widowed when Chas was just four, played piano in the local pubs and clubs of Edmonton and encouraged her son when he showed an interest in taking up guitar at the age of eleven.

Growing up in North London, Chas Hodges was surrounded by a vibrant and diverse cultural scene. The area was known for its working-class populace, and Chas's family lived in a tight-knit neighbourhood where music was not just a form of entertainment but also a means of connecting with others.

In addition to his musical upbringing, Chas was also influenced by the bustling city of London itself. The capital's rich history, cultural diversity, and vibrant music scene would later find their way into his songwriting, adding depth and authenticity to his work.

Chas attended Eldon Road School and later Edmonton Higher Grade School but left at the age of 16, initially to apprentice to a jeweller, but by then, was already playing in pubs and clubs around North and East London, eventually joining Billy Gray & The Stormers in 1960. Following their break-up, Chas did session work for producer Joe Meek, and when Mike Berry needed a band to back him on tour, Meek placed Hodges with Berry's new unit The Outlaws which also included future stars Mick Underwood (of Gillan) and the Deep Purple founding member Ritchie Blackmore.

During this period, Chas also got to back many of his rock and roll heros, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Gene Vincent and Little Richard, and following the breakup of the Outlaws, joined Cliff Bennett's Rebel Rousers who hd a string of hits in the mid-sixties. In addition, he had also played on countless of Joe Meek productions including the #1 hit "Johnny Remember Me" (John Leyton), and "Tribute To Buddy Holly" (Mike Berry), before Albert Lee offered him the chance to join Heads Hands & Feet, which was being formed to open for Ritchie Blackmore's Deep Purple on tour.

After a sojourn in the USA with Heads Hands & Feet, Chas asked an old friend, bassist Dave Peacock to form the partnership which would famously become known as Chas & Dave.

Jim Birmingham interviewed Chas for the International Songwriters Association's publication "Songwriter Magazine".

How old were you when you realised how much music meant to you?
My mum played the piano and she wanted me to go to piano lessons but I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to play football and go fishing. But when skiffle and then Rock & Roll came along, I said to my mum I’d love to learn the guitar. She made me promise I’d learn it if she bought one, so I got a guitar. I suppose I was about eleven.

Did you start to write songs early on?
No not at all, that came a lot later on. I grew up watching films like "Glenn Miller Story" and in that film for example, he saw three half-empty wine glasses and he was immediately inspired - writing it down. Then, in the next scene - the whole orchestra is playing it. So I thought that was how it happened and that therefore, I wasn’t a real writer. I didn’t realise at the time that you could get 5% of it right the first go, then come back and get 20% and so on until it was a finished job. I thought if it didn’t come quickly, it didn’t count.

The writing really started when I joined a band called Heads Hands and Feet. Tony Carlton and Ray Smith were the writers. I would hear something they were starting on, and think maybe it wasn’t too good, but then hear it again a week later when they’d had time to work on it, and it would sound great. That taught me how you can work on something and get it right. And it really is true - the old adage of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. But, I didn’t start seriously writing until Dave and I got together. We decided we would write our own songs but in a Rock & Roll style and make that style our own.

Who were your earliest influences?
Jerry Lee Lewis, I was lucky enough to see him in 1958 before they sent him home. I saw him at Edmonton. I couldn’t stop talking about him.

Was that what inspired you to get on the piano?
It was in the blood. We’d always had a piano. My mum was a good piano player, but when I saw it played in the fashion that Jerry Lee played, I thought - "we’ve got a piano at home but it doesn’t sound like that". So I started tinkling about. I was with the Outlaws then, and we went to Butlins for three months and there was always a lot of sitting around, so I learned a few Jerry Lee bits - just passing the time. But it wasn’t until Dave and I got together that I decided I would get on the piano and give it some serious stick.

You were in a successful recording band in the sixties (Cliff Bennett & The Rebel Rousers). What is the biggest change you have seen in recording techniques over the years?
Well to state the obvious - the more options you’ve got to correct things, the more likely you are to use them. In the early days, the most we had was stereo. Joe Meek would overdub but that would be tape-to-tape so you could only do it a couple of times before you got too much tape hiss. But then 4 track 8 track etc. came along. The danger can be "oh it’ll turn out all right in the mix" but if it ain’t all right coming out in the first place, a mix won’t make it a hit. You need to sit back and get the basics right. Have you got a good song, regardless of whether it’s a novelty song, a ballad or Rock & Roll? That’s the first question. Always look towards the song don’t go swamping it with overdubs. I’ve always done the string arrangements on our stuff, but I’ve always warmed it up rather than doing a string arrangement so that people will say "oh that’s a good string arrangement!" I don’t want them to say that.

Almost not be noticeable?
Exactly, you’d only notice it if it wasn’t there.

You had your own string sound, what I would call a "Chas & Dave string sound", when you produced "Sunshine Of Your Smile" for Mike Berry - a very dry sound. Is that what you aimed for?
We’ve always liked a dry natural sound on instruments. Studio echo has never appealed to us apart from the vocals to create that rock-n-roll repeat echo on certain tracks.

You worked with Joe Meek at a time when he was literally pouring material out, and you played on a lot of that. Did you get to a point where you could say, “I think this will make it” or did they all seem the same until they were successful?
A big percentage of his stuff was pretty boys who couldn’t really sing and Joe would tart the tracks up with double tracking and stuff like that. Making it commercial. In general I wasn’t a fan of the Joe Meek sound - too much echo! I actually preferred the stuff he did that he didn’t like, because he would get a good basic sound. He knew how to mike drums and he would put the bass straight into the desk which was unusual at the time. He liked really to close mike the vocalists, which again was unusual back then.

You’ve done a lot of recording at Abbey Road over the years. Is it a studio you particularly like?
In the early days, there was only really Decca and Abbey Road - there weren’t many small studios. I don’t think it’s a great studio - it used to be very regimented. All these people with overalls on and they’d say “ok - red light” and of course you’d panic when the red light came on which wasn’t a great way to record. Of course, all that changed when the Rock & Rollers starting taking over and The Beatles changed a lot of the recording process at Abbey Road.

Have you had many covers done of your songs?
There’s been a few, Albert Lee did a couple and Clarence Frogman Henry and Tom Jones did “My Old Piano” Tom wanted to cover “Ain't No Pleasin’ You” but we were going to put it out ourselves in America so we wouldn’t let him at the time, but he can do it now if he wants!

Did you like Tom’s version of “My Old Piano”?
His vocals were great but the backing was a bit wimpy. You know, I always thought if Tom had sung over our backing, it would’ve been a big hit.

Do you ever write for other people?
We never have, but it would be interesting. They often ask - “which comes first, the lyrics or the music?” but actually it’s the phone call. It’s hard to just sit and write and just put it in a drawer. I’ve got to see a final result, in a shop or whatever.

You were mega with the band at one time - the Two Ronnies doing impressions of you, “This Is Your Life” etc. Did you find peoples’ attitude started to change once you stopped having the hits?
We always kept our feet on the ground and it’s important to know who your mates are. Someone said in this business, it takes you six years to make it, six years at the top, and six years on the way down and if you are still working after that, then you are good. I worked it out. It was about seven years to our first hit, then seven years later to our last hit (“Snooker Loopy”) and we’re still working well.

You were involved in a “musical” idea with Johnny Speight before he died. What’s happened with it?
It’s still under consideration. After Johnny died, there were a lot of things needed sorting out, but his family are keen for it to happen and so are we so it’s just a waiting game at the moment but it will happen eventually. It would be a shame if it didn’t.

Do you think because you’ve always been such a good time fun outfit, you’ve never been taken seriously by the music biz?
Quite likely, I’ve never understood it. Comic songs and comic actors are never taken as seriously as serious songs and serious actors. But for some reason the media in general don’t think there is as much talent in comedy as there is in serious stuff. Can’t get my head around it.

How do you and Dave operate when it comes to writing?
I might do a song and show it to Dave and he’ll change bits or add bits and sometimes we’ll sit there with a couple of guitars and work on it from scratch. No hard and fast rules.

Any favourite songwriters?
I don’t have a favourite writer, more just favourite songs. Irving Berlin wrote a lot of good songs and it’s really from that sort of period that I like stuff.

Is there a song you have written that you are particularly proud of?
Probably “Ain’t No Pleasin' You”. That came during the writing of something else. We were in the middle of a writing session and I said “hang on a minute - I’ve got an idea for something”. I just strummed it and and continued whatever we were doing at the time. Then we needed another song to finish our album, so we went back to it. When we started doing it on stage the audience really liked it but the record plugger and manager said “it’s a nice song lads but it’s not a single”. But because of the reaction we were getting on the live shows, we really believed in it so we played it on a TV show we were on and it got so much response we had to put it out and then it took on a life of it’s own. So really the audience chose that from live gigs.

Which is really how we work. We do stuff that we like and then hope that the audience like it - in that order.

Copyright Songwriter Magazine, International Songwriters Association & Jim Birmingham: All Rights Reserved


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