THOUGH IT SOUNDS like a song about a stale love affair, ‘How Long’ is the story of an English band struggling to stay together.
Founded early in 1973, Ace – originally keyboard player Paul Carrack, guitarists Alan “Bam” King and Phil Harris, bassist Terry “Tex” Comer and drummer Steve Witherington – avoided the usual British pub practice of playing only cover versions of standard dance tunes, concentrating instead on original numbers that showed off its blend of Poco-like country rock and Motown R&B. With roots in quasi-anonymous groups like Warm Dust and Mighty Baby, the band started slowly, building a London following that gradually spread to the provinces.
Just about a year ago, though, Ace was nearly trumped by a series of internal difficulties. Drummer Witherington quit the band and no work was forthcoming. “We were really at the bottom, quite down with various problems,” Carrack said. “Then, on top of it all, the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver asked Tex to join them.”
Tempted by a proposed American tour, Tex met with Carrack to talk about his options. When he decided to stay on with Ace, Carrack wrote ‘How Long’ about the incident. Local musician Fran Byrne became the group’s drummer and the single was recorded as part of the Anchor Records album session that resulted in Five-a-Side (titled for the band’s devotion to English football). Everybody except Byrne sang background harmonies while Carrack’s vocals described the band’s growing pains:
Well you said you was never intending
To break up our scene in this way
But there ain’t any use in pretending
It could happen to us any day
The lyrics, Harris’s guitar and a strong rhythm section made the song seem more like a lament for a lost romance than a tale of a rock group’s woes.
Released in England last autumn, ‘How Long’ soon won Ace a guest spot as “Britain’s Brightest Hope” on the BBC’s New Year’s Eve TV special, Old Grey Whistle Test. But success created new problems, pulling the band out of its familiar club scene into the strange tackiness of ballrooms usually reserved for teen idols like the Bay City Rollers.
“We got all types of people coming to the show ’cause the song appealed to everyone: mums, dads, soul freaks. None of them knew what to expect,” Carrack said. “We used to just go onstage and rock from beginning to end. Now we’re concentrating more in bringing the show up and down. We didn’t have a visual front.”
Tex and the others are about to fulfill a dream and work in the U.S. “Just going to the Continent was a new experience for us,” Carrack said excitedly about Ace’s spot as the opening act on the Yes tour. “America,” he concluded happily, “is something that’s been promised for so long.”
© Barbara Charone, Rolling Stone, 5 June 1975