Ace: It’s An Ace Life In The Low-Key Whacky World Of Los Angeles

SEVEN OF US leave the Ace ranch in Hidden Valley and go late night cruisin’ in drummer Fran Byrne’s ’69 Pontiac. Fran heads for ex-Chilli Willi drummer Pete Sanders’ place in Topanga Canyon to pick up some drum skins. The state of the car’s mechanics is a close approximation of the state of its occupants’ heads – highly illegal.

Halfway down the mountain side a front hub cap falls off. Fran slows down, considers going to fetch it, and then realises that the effort involved would not be in proportion to the rewards. He carries on to Pete’s and stops the car out front of the house.

Ace keyboardsman and writer of international hit record ‘How Long’ Paul Carrack waits in the back seat as the other five clamber out. Your writer remains in the front seat. Suddenly he senses that the car is rolling backwards very slowly. Suddenly he senses that the car is moving backwards quite fast. He vaguely recollects something about canyons’ tending to have steep drops. He starts wondering if he should look for the brake pedal.

As Paul Carrack jumps over into the front seat there appears to be perfect synchronization between the car’s slowing down with an unnerving shudder and the sound of splintering wood. Then there is a very large thud on the car’s trunk.

Fran’s car has rolled back and knocked out a wooden support post from Pete’s neighbour’s house. This has resulted in one side of his woodframed house sagging down onto the back of the car.

Pete’s neighbour comes out onto his porch. He looks a little like John McLaughlin. He’s remarkably cool about this slightly upsetting state of affairs. Pete reckons we’ve caught him out in the middle of his late night meditations. One feels he would be within his rights to be more than a little uptight. After all, not only is his house no longer the shape it once was, but he’s got to get up at five a.m. to work on his project at, uhh, The Land.

Pete’s neighbour works at The Land every Tuesday morning. Two weeks ago he went over to Pete’s at two in the morning and asked him could he stop practising his drums, please. And then last Monday night some friends of Pete’s came over to show him their new synthesizer, which caused Pete’s neighbour a bit of trouble too.

And today a Pontiac knocks half his house down.

Ah well, so long as it doesn’t screw up your karma. It’s all San Andreas’ fault anyway.

But these English rock’n’rollers do seem to be causing the odd disruption here in Los Angeles.

IN THE Ace ranch ‘living room a tune is coming out of the radio. “Oo’s this?” says a voice.

“Ian Matthews,” Julie, Barn’s lady, replies.

“Oo’s Ian Matthews?”

“E’s this guy ‘oo plays football down the park on Saturdays.”

“Adolph’s Hidden Valley Ranch – hunters, jumpers, equitation. Specializing in Morgan horses” reads the sign five or six miles down Hidden Valley, forty-five miles up the coast from LA. North London pub rockers Ace have rented Adolph’s ranch for sixteen hundred dollars a month.

When ‘How Long’ hit number one in the States and the Five A Side album scraped the Top Twenty, the band came over to the States. It was the first time any of them had crossed the Atlantic.

“Tony (Demitriades), our manager, was talking about coming to America before that,” bassist Tex Comer’s somewhat incongruous Burnley accent tells me, as he leans back on a couch in what is now the rehearsal studio at Adolph’s, “but none of us had ever been. We weren’t sure if we’d like it or what.

“Anyway we came over…and working over ‘ere is like incredible. Like the ‘ole thing is much more professional and much more active; it’s like a really thriving sort of industry, whereas in England it’s a case of a few big gigs and a lot of little gigs that people are just scraping a living from. So working ‘ere was like a revelation.

Here’s us in the early days down at the Dog and Lampost, where we played our first gig for thirty bob and all the beer we could drink. Actually I can’t remember much about it…

“We weren’t too sure about living over ‘ere because all we’d ever done was spend time in hotel rooms. But we kinda like the way things are done over ‘ere: the way people live.

“And in England we were just losing money all the time. A band like us really need to be working solid to cover the costs, just to pay the wages and that.

“Like we did an English tour of about twenty gigs and we lost about three or four thousand pounds. So what the record company had advanced us was just being drained.”

He pauses for a hit on a Coors beer: “But that’s still happening over here as well. Right now we’re not on the road and not bringing anything in so we’re just kinda living off money they’ve advanced to us. But over ‘ere there’s so much work that if we wanted to work 365 days a year we probably could; in a different place every day. I mean, we could spend a few months just working around California itself. What can you do in England? You can cover the main cities once and then you’ve got nothing to do for the next six months. You just saturate the market.

“Also every one of us was weaned on American music more or less. I mean, the Beatles were always a big influence as well but American music has always been the big influence. There’s so much music comes out of this country, so much really excellent music. So when we decided to stay over ‘ere was when we got down to a music level. And aside from business it seems the right thing because it was like visiting the place where it all started for us.”

AT THE MOMENT life in the land where it all started is still relatively hand-to-mouth for Ace, though, of course, it’s the grand dollar-signed version of hand-to-mouth. Sufficient, certainly, to allow them to sit here on this 1920s Spanish-style hacienda in spirit-of-Big-Pink sunshined and forested splendour, get blitzed and play for the odd ten or twelve hours a day.

They lead a very civilized existence: look, I’m probably getting as browned off as you with all this Zen and The Art Of etc imagery that’s being bandied about but the fact that the water supply is a little, shall we say, erratic does help to slow down life to a liveable pace. When just going down to the local K-Mart to score an orange juice seems an undue strain, then it quickly becomes very easy to comprehend why the swimming pool out back doesn’t work.

And having to shut the windows at night so you don’t wake up to find a rattlesnake getting amorous with you does highlight quite nicely the very uncertainty of human existence, does it not?

Course, any time you get bored with the sounds coming out of that studio window, you can just wander down to the corral and link up with John, the half-Chickasaw cowboy who looks after the stock. Wander on over to his cabin with him if you like and get bombed on his jug of wine, and feel the vibe of the place flash into perspective when you see that he really does keep a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass by his bed.

Now they’re said to be a faceless bunch of critters these Ace fellers, but this…Well, this is, in fact, thoroughly fallacious – a direct product, I figure, of inept album sleeve shots and inane TOTP footage.

Living out here in Hidden Valley they’ve moved away from all that now. Moving on in to Adolph’s seems to have presented the band with the collective self-confidence to…to find their musical identity, if you like.

They’re out here living exactly the life that was laid out for them somewhere out in the cosmos: a bunch of social misfits and general renegades who’ve thought fit to screw it to “reality” and have slugged out the existence they want. A hundred years ago they’d have been cowboys themselves, gold diggers, soldiers of fortune; in 1976 what else can they be but rock’n’rollers?

They weren’t too late to escape the scheme of things.

MIND YOU, life has not been a complete bowl of cherries since the Ace collective used up its fourteen one-way tickets to LA back in January of this year. In that way that things have of Yinning and Yanging about, two months after their arrival at Adolph’s guitarist Phil Harris – who’d started the band with rhythm guitarist Bam King – split the fold. Or, rather, he was splitted from the fold.

“It was an upset,” says Carrack resignedly. “It really was. For lots of reasons. The worst thing about it was that there was a lot that went unsaid. By the end of that second tour just before we left England we wasn’t speaking a lot to each other so perhaps we should really sort it out with him as opposed to him picking up newspapers and reading things in them.

“Apart from the fact that it’s the only thing we’ve got that’s in the slightest worth your writing about,” he adds, illustrating the constant bemused self-deprecation that characterises all four remaining members of the band.

Suffice to say that until Tony Demitriades took over the management reins just as the Five A Side album was taking off in the States, Phil was taking care of most of the management hassles. “I think that screwed him up a lot.” figures Paul. “He was very paranoid about getting ripped off. He was pretty cynical as far as the music business went.”

Although you appear pretty cynical about it, too.

Paul shakes his head: “If you get too cynical about it then you just lose all the fun.”

“We’re lucky,” adds Tex, “because we don’t come in contact with the business end of things too much, but Phil was in contact with it all the time…And he also had a very strong philosophy behind it.”

Paul: “I think it really got on top of him because he was making a lot of…what to him were compromises.”

Then there was the problem of Time For Another, the second Ace album.

With both ‘How Long’ and Five A Side slipping from the US charts, pressure was put on the band by the record company to deliver new product. After a three month tour of the States the band went to Jamaica for a two week working holiday, then returned to England and went straight into the studio.

“We needed to get another album out quick, or so we were told,” says Paul Carrack resignedly. “And we got back to England with no material whatsoever and went straight into the studio and tried to do it in the studio.

“I don’t think that physically we were in any state to do that album. Really everyone was totally freaked, mentally and physically under the weather.

“I think we made a mistake with that second album. We were all disappointed with it, and we lost a bit of ground. In actual fact we should have given ourselves time and said, ‘It’s really got to be good. If it’s going to be a couple of months longer then it’s going to be worth it’.

“But I think we’ve learnt from it. I hope we have.”

Ace also learnt a thing or two about the way record companies operate when Time For Another was put out in the States. Despite its being – when compared to Five A Side – a relatively inferior album, Time For Another entered the US album charts somewhere around the 170 spot with a bullet. The next week it was around 150 with a bullet. That week ABC records, with whom the band are signed in America, fired all its promotion staff. The next week Time For Another had disappeared from the Top 200.

Undoubtedly they’re hoping (and deserve) to do better with their new offering, No Strings, which is just released on both sides of the Atlantic.

TEX SITS outside the kitchen in the sun gazing vacantly at the mountains across the valley. Bassist Tex is the dreamer of the group, contrasting with the earthiness of Bam and Paul and the happy-go-lucky Irish boyo that is Fran.

Tex hates nuclear power and loves the Indians. Moving to London from Burnley he became so disturbed by the lack of communication in the capital that when he travelled on the tube he’d commit the heresy of deliberately turning to the person sitting next to him and trying to strike up a conversation. Tex is also a fervent believer in the power of music to change our lives.

After ’67 and all that a slightly acid-blown Tex became disillusioned with what became the rampant commercialising of the Underground. He used to hate the word “commercial”. Now, perhaps tempered by the hit process, he claims to accept its necessity. He conquered his disillusionment by starting to play rock’n’roll in the pubs where, he maintains, it seemed more valid.

Apart from the Feelgoods, of course, Ace is the only band that’s made it in any way out of the pub circuit.

Tex has no qualms whatsoever, if seems, about not needing to play the Hope And Anchor tonight: “We were lucky, I suppose, to get out when we did, because when ‘How Long’ took off we were just about at the end of our financial tether like.

“And that’s the big problem on the pub rock circuit. You earn very little money. There’s guys in there that’s content to scrape by, and there’s guys in there who are more ambitious like and they leave the circuit.

“It’s very hard to keep a band together and work in that circuit for any length of time.”

Although there was a consciousness within the band that they wanted to ride on out of the pubs with guns blazing and to really get somewhere it was never talked about but silently understood. “We didn’t discuss it, we just played the music.

“We’d just concentrate on the music and took it from there, but we wanted to get out and about and reach as many people as possible. So it’s an obvious thing: you go on to colleges and you play to a few more people and if you get the chance to play bigger gigs you play those.

“The bigger the place the better, until you’re doing baseball stadiums and then you think ‘Well, I dunno, I might fancy going back to pubs again’.”

Whatever, six months after recording their first album Ace were playing at the Hollywood Bowl.

PRIOR TO joining Ace – Ace Flash and the Dynamos as they were titled at the time – Paul Carrack was notching up credibility points by working in a North London car wash. When the gig came around he even had to go collect his organ from his father’s shed where it had been stuck away for the past three months.

“It’s me first set of wheels this…Rambler, American Motors,” he tells me as he guns the engine along the Hidden Valley road up towards the Ventura Freeway. “Not bad for four hundred dollars. Two hundred quid, knowharra-mean?”

He glances over at the weekend cottages around Lake Sherwood on our right. “Fantastic scenery, isn’t it,” he mutters, seemingly to himself.

He doesn’t seem worried about getting shot up with a little too much of the inescapable manana spirit out here. As Tex says, “You can get very laid back living in Hackney and working once every two weeks.”

“I like it,” Paul says. “The problem about being on the road all the time or living in a flat is that you don’t get time to play often enough. Whereas here I’ve just enjoyed coming and playing a piano. I think we’ve all really come on just by having a bit of time to practice not in front of thousands of people. That’s what we used to do, in fact: try and create in front of a lot of people. That can turn you on, but it can also inhibit you. But up here who cares if you fuck up?”

Nor is he convinced that ‘How Long’ came along too early for the band: “It’s been said, but if it created a problem it’s a nice problem. I mean it might have been better if it’d come a bit later but that’s pretty hypothetical anyway: it didn’t. It was then.

“I mean, it’s got us right on our feet. It’s set us up with all this,” he waves to either side of the road, “that and the first album. So we can’t complain, it gave us a very solid foundation. We didn’t capitalise on it to the best possible way but…

“But I think America,” he free-associates, “you can decide how much you want to be involved with all the crap, and I don’t think you’ve got to break your bollocks to live over here. None of us are looking at them mansions in Beverley Hills and dreaming about that. That’s not really our ambition. I think you can live over here quite well without going over the top.”

For the present Paul Carrack doesn’t appear to have experienced any direct financial benefit from ‘How Long’. The publishing royalties have gone back towards paying off the band’s advance.

“It’s about time somebody decent recorded it, isn’t it? Danny Williams recorded it,” he laughs, “and I heard that Etta James was going to record it. The Faces were going to do it at one point but I don’t think Rod Stewart can sing it actually.”

We pull up at the Ace ranch’s local liquor store and go inside and load up with booze, courtesy of a sharp-talking owner.

Back in the car Carrack turns to me: “Did you see that all the time the storeman was talking he was trying to shut the door on that champagne cabinet? He was trying to sell us some twice as expensive. What a lad, ehh? He probably shortchanged us as well.” He guffaws with laughter.

Not only did he short-change us but he also forgot to put two bottles of brandy into the boxes we’d carried out to the car.

This visit to the liquor store has not been merely a daily display of music business hedonism. Tonight Ace are having a little celebration, tonight Ace’s new guitarist is joining them.

John Woodhead – aka Woody aka Jake – is a nineteen year-old archetypal blond Californian. At the age of seven he was involved in an auto accident that cost him part of a leg. Consequently, whenever, the kids on the block were running around and playing baseball or football and generally being ail-American, Woody used to stay at home, practice his guitar, and listen to blues records. And practice his guitar some more.

It probably goes without saying that how a musician plays – or a writer writes, come to that – is generally a reflection of the state of his mental equilibrium. Woody is an incredibly nice guy. And sweet as water-melon he plays.

John Stewart (with whom Chilli’s drummer Pete is currently playing: “Living in Topanga Canyon is definitely better than squatting in Holland Road”) first took a liking to Woody’s Garcia-influenced country style. Woody played with him for over a year. Recently both the Electric Flag and Tim Weisberg and Dan Fogelberg have been after his fretboard services, but he decided to join Ace.

The Ace household get pretty ripped before the playing members disappear with their bottles down to the studio round about nine in the evening. The band gets right down to its roots and takes off on a blow filled with old Motown material – ‘Dancing In The Streets’, ‘I’ll Be Doggone’, ‘Same Old Song’.

The band’s playing is very, very mature and tasteful. Woody plays supremely sweet, edgy guitar.

It’s like a very large weight has disappeared off the shoulders of Fran, Bam, Tex and Paul. They’re still playing at five the next morning.

© Chris SalewiczNew Musical Express, 15 January 1977

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