We were on the road a few weeks ago, listening to one of the soft-rock stations on Sirius — The Bridge, or maybe Yacht Rock, compromise listening for Jeanne and I — when “How Long” came on.
The hit by the British band Ace is one of those pleasant, anodyne mid-70s FM standards: a nice hook, a good groove, etc. So non-threatening, that I’d never really listened to the lyrics before. But more about that later.
The thought that came to me when the song started, as it usually does, is the One-Hit Wonder thing. (I’ve been meaning to blog about that phenomenon, and will eventually.) When I hear that Ace song, I ask myself, what the heck else did they do?
Turns out, not much. The band was formed in 1972, from bits of several Sheffield, England-area groups, as Ace Flash and the Dynamos. It folded five years later, although lead singer/keyboardist Paul Carrack played with other bands and also had some success as a solo artist.
The original name must have been too much of a mouthful, because their debut album was released by just Ace. Five-A-Side — yes, there were 10 songs, evenly divided between the two sides; how inventive! — came out in 1974, and included “How Long.”
The single was released in March of ’74, but it wasn’t an overnight sensation. It didn’t enter the Billboard Hot 100 until the following March, at No. 89 — one spot behind Marie Osmond’s “Who’s Sorry Now,” and 15 behind Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” both those 45s also making their chart debuts the week ending March 8.
“How Long” peaked 12 weeks later, at No. 3, where it remained for two weeks, before going into free fall and dropping out of the Top 40 by the end of June. Who kept it from No. 1 the last week of May and the first week of June ’75? “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” by Freddie Fender; “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” by John Denver and America’s “Sister Golden Hair.”
(Interestingly, there were two other songs in the Hot 100 around the same time with the words “How Long” in their titles: “Toby/That’s How Long” by the Chi-Lites, and “How Long (Betcha’ Got a Chick On the Side)” by the Pointer Sisters.
(The latter’s subject matter appears to be what many assume the Ace song is about: cheating on your significant other. But that’s not the case — Ace’s “How Long” concerns its bass player surreptitiously performing with another rock band.)
That would be Ace’s only stint in the Top 40. The band’s next single, “I Ain't Gonna Stand for This No More” —off their second LP, inaptly named Time for Another — failed to chart in the U.S., although it was a No. 51 in their native U.K.
For their third single release, Ace went back to their first album. “Rock & Roll Runaway,” like “How Long,” was one of the Five from the first Side; however, it peaked only at No. 71 in the U.S., and didn’t chart in the U.K. Two more 45 releases failed to chart anywhere, making Ace One-Hit Wonders indeed.
They didn’t do much better on the album front. Five-A-Side, no doubt boosted by “How Long,” was a No. 11 on the Billboard LP chart, but neither Time for Another and No Strings cracked the Top 150.
The third album was released in January 1977, but the band must have seen the writing on the wall. Ace disbanded six months later, but the voice that helped make “How Long” a success showed up on later hits.
Carrack went on to perform solo and with Roxy Music, Squeeze and Roger Waters’ backing band, singing lead on tracks from Radio K.A.O.S. and The Wall — Live in Berlin. But his biggest post-Ace success came with Mike + the Mechanics, the band formed by Genesis bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford.
In Mike + the Mechanics, Carrack shared lead vocal duties with the late Paul Young, singing lead on hits like “Silent Running” and “The Living Years.” Cowriter of “How Long” and other Ace songs, his compositions have been covered by the Eagles, Tom Jones, Linda Ronstadt and Diana Ross. He also has worked as a session or touring musician with Eric Clapton, Elton John, B.B. King, Ringo Starr and others.
But while Carrack had success as a songwriter post-Ace, “How Long” wasn’t his best stuff — and that was the “Aha” moment I had on the road earlier this month. The song has basically one verse; the same verse is sung twice, with a bridge of “How long has this been going on” repeated twice in between — and ad nauseam at the end.