Ace gotta play their cards right

When you’ve spent your life on the breadline, one hit single doesn’t mean a financial freakout. Our economics correspondent ROY CARR reports.

AS THE saying goes: old golfers never die — they just lose their balls.

Rock musicians, on the other hand, cling onto theirs for dear life when the going gets rough, in the unshakeable belief that one day a fairy A&R man (with the emphasis on the A&R, preferably) will wave his magic contract and rescue them from squalid obscurity.

While awaiting such miracles, patience and morale have been known to degenerate from worse to hopeless. Few bands manage to stay the full distance; only the most stubborn can hope to survive.

For the members of Ace, things deteriorated to so noisome a nadir that they very nearly capitulated entirely.

“I suppose before ‘How Long’ clicked,” recalls guitarist Phil Harris, “you could say that we were just a bunch of has-beens.

“Before we formed Ace,” he continues in a voice that never rises above an intimate whisper, “I hadn’t been in a regular working band for nearly seven years.

“Tex (Comer) hadn’t touched his bass for almost 18 months, ’cause both him and Paul (Carrack) had been involved in one of the biggest hypes of all-time — called Warm Dust.”

In time-honoured rock tradition, Carrack had resorted to washing cars, while Alan “Bam” King went into enforced retirement. The only member with anything remotely resembling regular work was drummer Fran Byrne who was holding down a gig with Bees Make Money prior to descending voluntarily to the breadline with the rest of Ace.

‘How Long’ — one of the tastiest singles of ’74 — enabled Ace to butter their bread, but before that they were still existing on a day-to-day basis.

“We were literally living on nothing,” says Harris. “We just spent all our time hustling, begging and borrowing.”

This, unbelievably, had been their mutual lifestyle ever since they chose to join The Professionals way back in the mid-60s. And, as there was little left to lose, they reached the unanimous decision that Ace was to be their final make-or-break operation.

UNLIKE MANY similar bands who cut their teeth around the London pubs, Ace didn’t take the easy option of cranking out revamped oldies, but chose to make their task doubly difficult by performing a resolutely all-original repertoire.

“For the first hundred or so gigs we went down like a brick, simply because audiences weren’t familiar with our material. But because of the single we’re now packing out just about every place we play.”

Obviously, a hit single means more and better-paid gigs, but — newly plucked from the dole queue or not — Ace aren’t about to start living beyond their means.

The reason? They simply can’t afford to. And indulging in the policy of ‘live now, pay later’ usually means a band remains skint for the remainder of its natural.

Harris laughs, grimly. “We’ve all been through that one, ain’t we? And it’s a joke. Each of us has spent half our lives in other bands doing precisely that — and what did it get us?

“What we’re trying to do with Ace is to consciously avoid running up an enormous debt. If, like (group name deleted to protect the record) you have this debt for many thousands of pounds hung around your neck, you’ll never feel the real benefit of any success you might be fortunate enough to achieve.

“We don’t want to fall into that trap. Quite often, a band goes mad and asks a record company for much more than it really needs to get it on its feet and, in the end that’s what destroys it.

“Money has destroyed more potentially brilliant bands than anything else you care to mention.”

Harris reveals that, due to the fact that Anchor Records bossman Ian Ralfini has shown enough confidence in the band to become personally involved in their career, they are only in the red to the tune of around seven grand — quite a minimal amount for any band in their position.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to wipe that out very quickly. Things are looking quite good. I mean, some bands are in the hole for at least 60 grand, so what chance do they stand? None!”

For the time being, Ace still travel to every gig with their equipment. Thus, when their wagon decides to pull a moody, they frequently don’t get back to town until after the milk’s been delivered.

Until such time as they’re solvent enough to invest in a car, they’ll continue to chance their arm with the roadies. (Even so much as having roadies is still quite a novelty for these guys.)

© Roy CarrNew Musical Express, 11 January 1975

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