THE STORY OF THE CHORDS
The Chords were a singles band of rare exception. They may have released one fine album, but they existed in an era when seven-inch vinyl was king and their brief roller coaster ride through rock history can be defined by the singles they issued, seven in just under two years. With an aggressive, spunky guitar sound, they were at their best over three minutes of punk mod pop. They were blessed with a songwriter of great talent and fronted by a good-looking and charismatic singer who looked every inch the star on Top Of The Pops. From the off it looked like The Chords were destined for a long and successful career, but by the time they finally broke into the Top 40 with ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ in February 1980, they had already been under starter’s orders for almost a year, their career dogged by false starts and bad luck.
With ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ it looked like these boys were finally going places, like their good pals The Undertones. That they didn’t achieve a bigger degree of success says more about the fast-changing era in which they existed, than the tightly crafted rock gems they issued. It had been a revival of interest in mod, the smart dressing Sixties youth cult, that brought them to public attention, but in time it also proved to be their undoing, as tastes moved on to the dance stance of Two Tone and the remoulded soul of the New Romantics. However, there was so much more to The Chords. When Mojo magazine selected ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ for inclusion on the Made In Britain compilation in 2005, they were placed alongside a generation of rock musicians – The Jam, The Ruts, The Damned, Sham 69 and Billy Bragg – who should have been their peers rather than merely their contemporaries.
For The Chords, their adventures in rock music may have been shortlived, but the catalogue of fine music they bequeathed stands as a testament to the battles they endured to create it in the first place. Four strong and opinionated characters, it was their clashing personalities that resulted in the magic they committed to vinyl, but the very thing that made them special was ultimately the thing that pushed them apart.
“We were all pulling in different directions and that was what helped create the tension I think you’ve got to have,” says drummer Buddy Ascott. “As you get older you need to be more collaborative but when you’re that age you need a certain degree of confrontation. Back then it was us four against the world but it was also us four against each other a lot of the time.”
Although The Chords didn’t complete their line-up until January 1979, they had been a band some time in the making. The young Billy Hassett and his cousin Martin Mason were both classically trained and had a wealth of experience in the world of schoolboy orchestras, but it was a shared love of The Beatles that first made them invest time and energy in learning the instruments of rock. It was the coming of punk that legitimised the idea of performing and they soon formed their first band, playing Sixth Form parties, before advertising in early 1978 for a guitarist. “I wanted to sing,” recalls Billy. “I didn’t want to be messing around with guitars”.
Chris Pope was exactly what they were looking for. Although a year younger, the cousins were impressed that he owned a copy of ‘Anarchy In The UK’ on EMI, and more than that, he had a desire to write songs too. Together they threw themselves into rehearsals, a mutual passion for music making all the effort worthwhile. At night they would frequent the rock clubs of London, keeping their finger on the pulse of what was happening. “We didn’t have any money but we seemed to be out all the time: looking at bands and getting ideas,” recalls Billy H. His interest in the music of the Sixties collided with the modish new wave fashions of the day and, as with many of his generation, a love of The Who’s 1973 ‘Quadrophenia’ LP helped shape his outlook and that of his band.
Like other groups of the time, Billy, Chris and Martin were excited to see an advert in the music press placed by The Who in mid 1978, looking for a band to appear in the movie version of ‘Quadrophenia’ that was currently in production. Recording a demo that included Chris and Billy’s ‘Dreamdolls’ and a cover of The Who’s ‘Naked Eye’ in a studio near London Bridge, they eagerly submitted their tape, to no success. Acquiring the name The Chords (they had called themselves The Action up until this point), they were starting to play the occasional local gig in South London, at venues like the Thomas A’Becket pub on the Old Kent Road. Chris was starting to flourish as a songwriter, introducing numbers like ‘Now It’s Gone’, ‘Something’s Missing’ and ‘The Deadly Underground’ (later ‘Maybe Tomorrow’). But one ingredient was still missing – a first-rate drummer. Chris Pope’s friend Paul Halpin had been helping out behind the kit, but he wasn’t the solution.
An advertisement in Melody Maker – “Keith Moon-type drummer required” – brought The Chords in touch with the man tailor-made for their band. On January 15, 1979, a parka-clad Buddy Ascott strolled into the Tooley Street rehearsal room, sporting a target T-shirt that he’d bought from the Last Resort on Brick Lane. If they’d wanted Keith Moon, that’s exactly what they got. During the audition he managed to break the Pretenders’ drum kit, ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere in the rehearsal rooms, and he was offered the gig on the same day!
For The Chords it was always all about the music, and the four band mates hit it off straight away. After a year of rehearsing, Billy, Chris and Martin were pretty tight already, but Buddy was the final piece of the jigsaw. “The dynamics were there immediately and that continued until the end,” recalls Buddy. “You can have the four best musicians but if there isn’t a dynamic between them, it just won’t work. It was just something to do with the way Chris played, the way I played, and the way Martin played. Martin was definitely the gel that held it together.”
After two months of rehearsal the band debuted on March 15, 1979, at the King’s Head in Deptford. Chris Pope arrived at the gig straight from Sixth Form, expecting to play to a sparse audience of regulars, but Billy H had been working the emerging mod grapevine and the venue was packed. Billy had been one of the small numbers of teenagers across the capital whose interest in mod had been growing through the previous year. In the late summer of 1978 he had travelled to Brighton to watch The Jam in the hope that other likeminded teenagers might make the journey. Only a handful of mods turned out, but with a nod of recognition they naturally banded together and after the gig they hung out with Paul Weller, Billy H telling him all about his band, to encouraging words.
As far as The Chords knew there really was no mod scene in the UK. Billy may have had a growing involvement with the style, but it was a shared love of The Who that gave the four members their common ground, Chris having been first moved to take up the guitar after hearing ‘5.15’. It wasn’t until The Jam’s gig at the Music Machine in December 1978 that the small groups of mods that had been evolving in complete isolation from one another across London, finally came together in one place. “It was just full of mods,” recalls Chris Pope. “I thought, ‘Wow, where did this come from’. Billy was involved with his own little scene but it wasn’t really until that gig that you realised that something was happening. But I still didn’t connect it to us and when we were going to play.”
Two days after their first gig, The Chords played at the Wellington in Waterloo, having persuaded the landlord they were a covers band. They played in front of an audience of 200 drunken Southampton football fans, but by the time they returned to the venue a fortnight later, they had a full house of mods, and the audience also included representatives of Polydor Records, plus Paul Weller, who had remembered Billy telling him of the band.
Two days after Polydor had watched them at the Wellington, The Chords were in the studio recording a demo for JP Records, the Polydor-funded label of Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey. Along with studio engineer Pete Wilson, Pursey produced the recording of five songs, including ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ and a cover version of ‘Knock On Wood’. “It was the first time we met him,” says Ascott. “Of all the famous people I’ve ever met, he was the most charismatic. When he walked in a room everyone looked at him and listened. He was very tall, very engaging and he could be quite scary, but he did try and get a performance out of Billy vocally.”
“He took me to one side and he got me to think about my approach to a song and what my feelings were,” recalls Billy. “Usually he’d be shouting at skinheads and here he was talking about feelings and emotions.”
Confidence in the band was high. On April 4, two days after recording the demo, and less than three weeks after their first gig, they were back in the studio with Pursey and Wilson, recording ‘Now It’s Gone’ for single release. There was a growing sense that something was happening on the street, and although their songwriter was sceptical of the idea of being so closely aligned to a single youth cult, The Chords were definitely seen to be a part of the new mod, with Billy the main focal point of the attention.
Pursey had sensed the mood and he was keen for his JP label to exploit it. To that end he was planning the release of ‘Now It’s Gone’ as a 12-inch target picture disc. His gut instinct was confirmed on April 11, when the NME appeared with a striking cover of a scooter-riding mod from 1964. The feature inside included a roundup of the emerging young mod bands, including The Chords. Chris may have still been worried that the band would be limited by the connection, but it was hard to fight against all the interest that it was bringing. The underground buzz about mod was sending shockwaves through the British music industry. Record Mirror proclaimed “a massive mod revival is imminent” in a review of the band’s gig on May 3, election day, at the Acklam Hall. “The Chords are not part of a revival,” continued the review, “they are an original, tuneful group. This is energetic Seventies music – the natural successor to punk”.
The band signed their deal with JP Records on May 9. Two days later they were supporting The Jam at the Rainbow and the following week they set off on a series of dates supporting The Undertones. For Buddy Ascott the gig at the Lyceum in London, on May 20, was the most memorable. “When the Undertones were on stage the entire audience seemed to be going up and down. I said to my girlfriend, ‘That’s unbelievable’ and she said, ‘It was the same for you’.”
On tour the two bands became firm friends. The Undertones were young lads on their first visit from Ireland and they immediately identified with Billy, Martin and Chris, all from close-knit Irish families. With ‘Jimmy Jimmy’ racing up the pop charts, The Undertones were fast becoming a hot ticket and The Chords, with ‘Now It’s Gone’ almost ready for release, looked certain to follow. But it took Jimmy Pursey, two of the Sex Pistols and a riot at the Guildford Civic Hall to put a sudden end to those dreams.
After coming offstage at their gig in Guildford on May 27, the Chords watched in stunned silence and utter disbelief as Jimmy Pursey – their guest for the evening – led a mass stage invasion during a set by The Undertones, whose only crime had been to decline the offer of an encore by the Sham 69 singer. Pursey had been looking to road test his mooted punk super group with Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Pistols, and on his home patch, he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
“Looking down from the balcony, at the back of the hall I saw a mob getting together,” recalls Buddy. “It was Pursey, Paul Cook and Steve Jones, and about 40 skinheads, proper hardcore skinheads. They walked the length of the hall, barging everyone out of their way. They pushed past the bouncers, onto the stage, and at that point chaos broke out.”
“A lighting tower fell and it just missed Mickey Bradley by centimetres,” says Billy. The Undertones ran for cover to the safety of the dressing room, while Pursey and the two Pistols commandeered the equipment and started to play. The police finally called time on the gig but for The Chords, their close friendship with the Irish band meant they had no option but to pull the plug on their association with JP Records. Buddy Ascott’s diary entry for the night was unequivocal: “I want out of the contract with Pursey,” he wrote. When he made it clear that he would quit if The Chords stayed with JP, he found the others in agreement. It was an easy decision to make, as there was already a certain level of dissatisfaction with what they believed to be Pursey’s clumsy marketing ideas for the band. “I felt that the way he wanted us to be moulded was more of a reason to leave than what happened in Guildford,” says Chris, “but that was probably the catalyst.”
“If Jimmy had been given full license to do what he wanted, maybe ‘Now’s It’s Gone’ would have gone Top Ten,” says Billy. “The first mod single would have been ‘Now It’s Gone’ instead of ‘You Need Wheels’. He was really pushing the mod thing and the guys hated his ideas. Maybe we did shoot ourselves in the foot a bit, as it certainly made us go right back to square one again.”
Without the guiding hand of an experienced manager to talk them round, the four Chords entered a series of lengthy negotiations to free themselves from their contract. With a single almost ready for release it was a bold decision to take, and ultimately, without the patronage of Jimmy Pursey, the interest from Polydor seemed to go stone cold overnight.
Just when it seemed their career was about to take-off, when they had got themselves a head start on the other bands of the mod revival, The Chords were left treading water without a record deal. It was another seven weeks until interest was renewed and that followed directly on from the broadcast of their first Radio One session on the John Peel show on July 9. “The Peel Session started a bidding war again,” says Buddy.
With interest from several record labels, and with a deal on the table from Virgin, without a manager to advise them The Chords baulked at the long-term contract offered by Richard Branson’s company and on July 25, they finally said yes to the renewed interest of Polydor, who had exercised their option on the band. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” admits Ascott. “Not getting a manager was the worst decision we ever made. We turned down offers of management from John Weller, Andy Ferguson of the Undertones and Tony Gordon, Sham 69’s manager. We just didn’t trust anyone but ourselves.”
Having recorded ‘Now It’s Gone’ with Jimmy Pursey and Pete Wilson, Polydor sent the band back into the studio with Pete Wilson to record the song once more, but there wasn’t a lot of satisfaction to be found when they’d finished it. In their minds, having already closed the book on the song when they recorded it three months earlier, this version lacked much spark or imagination. “I guess we were fed up with the song by that time,” says Billy. Released on September 14, 1979, it was backed by Martin Mason’s ‘Don’t Go Back’. “Chris was not a prolific songwriter and each song was a labour of love,” recalls Martin. “As we’d only really just started gigging we didn’t have a lot of original material and we sometimes started the set with ‘Don’t Go Back’, which was a good warm-up number.”
The chart performance of ‘Now It’s Gone’ matched the band’s own opinion of the recording, peaking at number 63. Confidence was still high, however, as they knew they still had their best song to come. Going into the studio to record ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ with producer Andy Arthurs (suggested by Buddy, because of the drum sound on his work with 999), The Chords knew this was the song most likely to deliver a hit. A response to the rising tide of right wing activism in the South London area where Chris had grown up, it was always the stage favourite. “It had been around for a while,” recalls Billy, “but we knew this was the crown jewels for us. ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ was the one. We originally called it ‘Duh-Dun Duhdah’, but it was special even when it didn’t have a name.”
The song was painstakingly worked and reworked in the studio until, at the last minute, Dennis Munday of Polydor pointed out that it didn’t actually contain the title phrase. Chris stood by the recording but ultimately lost the heated debate. The band were sent back into the studio to add the “maybe tomorrow” backing vocal refrain at the song’s fade and it was released as a single on January 16, 1980, backed by Martin’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ and a cover version of the Small Faces hit ‘Hey Girl’.
After feeling that their career had stalled with the release of their first single, February 1980 proved to be a good month for The Chords. With ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ heading up the pop charts, crowded into their transit van en route to a gig, it was the first time that the four of them had heard one of their records on the radio while they were all together and it seemed that everything was finally back on track. ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ had already been accorded the status of single of the week in Sounds and on Kid Jensen’s Radio One show, but now the NME had given it the same accolade. “The solid wall of trebly buzzsaw guitar lies closer to the heart of The Buzzcocks and The Undertones than more obvious mentors such as The Who and The Jam,” wrote Adrian Thrills.
Next the band were booked to perform on Top Of The Pops and in a world before multi-channel television, this was the Holy Grail! Sandwiched between the progressive pop of The Regents performing ‘7teen’ and AC/DC’s ‘Touch Too Much’, a spunky three minute warning about the rise of fascism could have been too much for prime time pop telly, but photogenic singer Billy H ripped through the number with vim and vigour. The camera loved him and strangely, for a group built on the democratic principle of one member, one vote, on the TV screen his charismatic performance made it seem as if the others weren’t there at all. But he was the one who knew what to expect, having been a guest of The Undertones in the BBC television studios seven months earlier when they performed ‘Here Come The Summer’ on the show.
The following night the group were in the North West of England for a gig just outside Chesterfield. They watched their Top Of The Pops performance with animated enthusiasm in the TV room of their hotel, but their behaviour alienated the locals in the small family-run establishment. In the early hours of the morning they found themselves evicted, following a visit from the police, who arrested one of their road crew on drugs charges.
Having to drive back to London through the night, The Chords arrived in the capital in time to play the first of their two sold-out gigs at the Marquee. For Buddy Ascott, who had always been certain that his life would turn into the kind of rock’n’roll fairground ride lived by his hero Keith Moon, it seemed that his moment had arrived. But for Billy, success wasn’t proving to be quite what he had expected. “We were looking at ourselves on Top Of The Pops and then looking around and saying, ‘That’s not our life, it looks completely different’. On the TV we looked like stars but off it we were not living the star life, we were in this terrible B&B.”
‘Maybe Tomorrow’ peaked at number 40 in the charts. By this time the band had finished the recording of their first album, having returned to the studio with Andy Arthurs. Polydor were keen to issue a single from the album and Chris was determined that it should be the title track, ‘So Far Away’, even getting as far as finishing a shorter radio-friendly edit of the song. Dennis Munday remained unconvinced by the songwriter’s protestations and decided to pluck ‘Something’s Missing’ from the album. “It was probably the best produced song we did,” says Chris now. Released as their third single on April 18, 1980, it was backed with the Tiswas-inspired group composition, ‘This Is What They Want’.
Sounds made the record single of the week and called them “the Pistols of mod”. After a poor review in Record Mirror, the same publication performed a sudden volte-face and made it single of the week seven days later. “The Chords are one of Britain’s most exciting young bands,” wrote future Manic Street Preachers manager, Phillip Hall. “Its tidy wall of sound, rolling drums and multitude of hooks make it inspiring bedroom listening.”
Another Top Of The Pops performance and an appearance on Cheggers Plays Pop helped to keep their profile high, but the single halted at number 55 in the charts. Released on May 15, the album did slightly better, reaching number 30. “Frankly I’m surprised,” wrote Dante Bonutto in Record Mirror. “Surprised that an LP of this quality has emerged from a movement as inert as the recent mod revival.” Fans had an incentive to buy the LP promptly, as early copies came with a free single, Martin’s ‘Things We Said’, coupled with yet another version of ‘Now It’s Gone’, re-recorded by Andy Arthurs during the album sessions. “We only wanted two singles on the album,” recalls Martin, “but we wanted to get a definitive version of ‘Now it’s Gone’ out, so the idea of a free single was mooted. At the start of the sessions ‘Things we Said’ was a bit incomplete. I managed to finish it with Bill in time to put it down, but it didn’t make the LP as there were three songs vying for two slots and ‘Things We Said’ was too long.”
In early June 1980, the band went into Park Gates Studio in Catsfield, near Battle, where they spent four days with Andy Arthurs recording ‘The British Way Of Life’ and its flipside, Billy’s ‘The Way It’s Gotta Be’. “That was a missed opportunity,” says Chris Pope. “After ‘Something’s Missing’ had flunked I started losing confidence in the company, in the band and in myself, and I didn’t realise how catchy the chorus of ‘The British Way Of Life’ was. I was probably very disinterested in it. Andy Arthurs had a right go at me. He said ‘It’s a great song’ and I said ‘It’s shit’. It’s a tepid production but it was probably my fault because I wasn’t on the ball enough to listen to what was going down.”
Working with a band as high-spirited as The Chords could not have been easy, and it would be their last session with the long-suffering Arthurs. “It was a great week,” recalls Billy, “but by the end of the week I think we all knew enough was enough – and I think it was him who’d had enough.”
As they prepared for release of ‘The British Way Of Life’, The Chords busied themselves on the road. Their first gig abroad, in Paris, was followed by a slot at Loch Lomond Festival in Scotland, playing on the bill with Stiff Little Fingers, The Tourists and The Jam. They also played at The Rainbow, as Special Guests of The Vapors, who had opened for The Chords just ten months earlier.
Released on July 4, 1980, ‘The British Way Of Life’ was not helped by a strike at the BBC that knocked Top Of The Pops off the air, and when the single ground to a halt at number 54, it was a bitter disappointment. The mod revival that had swept them to prominence had peaked and in the battle for the high street fan, the dance-friendly Two Tone movement had won out.
In September 1980, The Chords went in to the Townhouse in West London to record two potential A-sides. Chris had been unable to decide between ‘In My Street’ and ‘Empty Dreams’ and the band had been given the go-ahead by Polydor to record both. For this single they were teamed with producer Mick Glossop, whose work with The Skids had impressed them. “He was a real disciplinarian,” recalls Buddy. “He came in and he made us play the same thing a hundred times, but we did the B-side [a cover of the Marvelettes’ ‘I’ll Keep On Holding On’] in one take.”
At the end of recording, the band were split on which A-side to release. Dennis Munday had the deciding vote and, taking the safer option, ‘In My Street’ was selected. Released on October 10, 1980, it entered the charts at number 50, its peak position.
With the band on tour, the lifestyle was taking its toll on morale. Chris and Buddy had maintained their heady hotel-trashing lifestyle on the road, while Billy and Martin were, by nature, less inclined to join in with these rock’n’roll antics. “Bill and I had our moments but Buddy and Chris were louder,” recalls Martin. “A lot of it was accidental anyway, but another factor was boredom. There wasn’t much to do and alcohol became a way of spending time during soundchecks and gigs and that may have contributed.” Billy’s marriage earlier in the year had also unsettled the laddish dynamic of the band and an argument before a gig in Leamington Spa, on October 23, left a deep rift.
“I started to get fed up with it all,” remembers Billy. “The whole Who bit, the chucking tellies in the bath. I wanted to know when we were going to grow up, when were we going to realise it was our career we were fucking with.”
“After the gig there was another row with Billy,” recalls Buddy. “He went home with the road crew and he started travelling with them to gigs after that. We couldn’t talk to him.”
On November 14, 1980, The Chords headlined the Music Machine in Camden and although Buddy, Martin and Chris had decided it would be Billy’s last gig, they hadn’t yet told him and it took another three days before they rang him from the offices of Polydor to break the news. “We had a meeting because we couldn’t go on,” recalls Buddy. “We couldn’t communicate with him. He probably needed an arm round him but we didn’t know how to do it and we had no management to sort it out.” For Billy, the rejection was too much to take and he moved to Ireland, his confidence having taken a shattering blow. “It was like being divorced,” he says. “That’s how it felt to me and I just had to get away.”
Chris, Martin and Buddy threw themselves into the frustrating search for a new singer, eventually recruiting Kip Herring, who had already served a similar role for The Vibrators when replacing Knox for two singles in 1980. In January 1981 this new Chords line-up went into the studio to record demos for a second album, playing their first gig on March 12, as special guests to The Vapors in Brighton. The singer might have been different, but the tour antics remained the same. “I think the first thing that happened when we got to the hotel was Buddy threw everything out of the window,” recalls Kip.
The following month they set about recording ‘One More Minute’. Chris had grown increasingly disillusioned at their failure to dent the Top 30, but knowing the end could be near, he threw himself into developing a new sound. “When I saw Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran on Top Of The Pops I felt we were from a bygone era,” he says. “Although I didn’t like New Romanticism, you need a new culture for a new decade and music was changing. The way I wanted to go was like U2 or the Bunnymen, ethereal but with some balls.”
With producer David Batchelor, who would later work with Oasis on Definitely Maybe, the band laboured over ‘One More Minute’. Chris was more actively involved in the sound than he had been before, instructing his singer to take on a near falsetto approach. “He was very precise about how he wanted me to perform it,” recalls Kip. “It was his baby and although it was my voice, it is very much how Chris wanted it done.” Pleased with the result, the band left the studio convinced they’d just recorded a hit single. “We thought it was the most commercial thing we’d done,” says Buddy. “I remember playing it over and over again, thinking it would explode on the radio, but no one played it.”
Released on May 8 and backed by ‘Who’s Killing Who’, ‘One More Minute’ failed to make the impact that the band had hoped for. Without any promotional push from Polydor, the single entered the charts at its highest position, number 87. A fantastic single, it was a snapshot of what the future could have held for The Chords if they had been able to make a second album, but British rock trends were moving away from their guitar pop. Even worse, the band had always been able to rely on a solid fan base to catapult their singles into the Top 75, but the sacking of Billy H had alienated many of their hardcore supporters. Whatever the qualities of the single, the odds were stacked against ‘One More Minute’.
Unfortunately Polydor were offering the band just one more chance, a final single to turn things around before their contract would be up. For better or worse, The Chords had been cast as a singles band and it was with a single they announced their farewell, however obliquely: a simple black cover emblazoned with the song’s prophetic opening line, ‘Guess you never thought it would end like this’. ‘Turn Away Again’ was their most expensive single to record and although it wasn’t intended to be an epitaph, that’s exactly what it proved to be. Backed by ‘Turn Away Again Again’, a reworked version of the A-side, the single reached just number 139. The band knew it was over, and on September 11, 1981, nine days after playing their final gig, they called it a day.
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2008