An interview with Noddy Holder.
It’s strange to find myself sitting in the bar of the Manchester Malmaison waiting to meet the man whose voice I first heard 34 years ago on Top of the Pops. Outside the steadily falling northern rain keeps me company as I reflect on the 25-year career of Slade stretching from 1966 to 1991. Slade’s first chart run of seventeen consecutive hit singles (that included six number ones) began in May 1971 when Get Down and Get With It broke them into the Top 20 and ended in January 1976 with the appropriately titled Let’s Call It Quits. During this period they also had six hit albums (three of which went to number one), made the highly-acclaimed film (‘Flame’), continually toured Europe and the world and wrote one of the best loved Christmas pop records of all time. And then the fairytale ended… the hits dried up, America refused to be conquered and Punk exploded across the British music scene leaving Slade as yesterdays working-class heroes – it was all summed up by the title of their 1977 album Whatever Happened to Slade?
By 1980 the group were on the very verge of splitting when a chance offer came to play at the Reading Festival. Slade’s legendary performance gave birth to an amazing comeback that lasted until 1991 and a final chart single Radio Wall of Sound (No.21) – which became their 34th Top 100 single. And then Noddy Holder left the band along with his writing partner Jim Lea – since which time the original Slade have never reunited on stage or performed together. Dave Hill and Don Powell went on to form Slade 2 and still tour to this day playing the Lea and Holder penned hits to an ever-ageing audience.
Noddy arrives on time sporting a mustard jacket and long paisley scarf. We greet each other and settle into a corner with a pot of Earl Grey tea. At 61 he looks dapper, cheery, relaxed and healthy – a man who seems content and settled in his years – a far cry from the rock icon of yesteryear who strode the stage in tartan trousers, black mirrored top hat and red platform boots.
For the past twelve months he has been giving interviews to promote the reissue and remastering (by Tim Turan) of Slade’s entire back-catalogue (including B-sides and 12” versions) on CD by the Union Square label Salvo – who have done a wonderful job repackaging the albums with many rare photographs and extensive liner notes. Noddy begins by telling me that the release programme was timed to coincide with Slade’s 40th Anniversary (1966-2006), and that he has overseen each stage although the track selection was left largely up to Union Square – “If we’d done it we’d have all been squabbling over which ones to choose or whatever! So we left it to the people who know and they obviously researched what the fans wanted… We knew what we wanted on, I certainly wanted on stuff that had never been on CD before – B-sides… various other stuff off ‘Return To Base’. Fans had been squealing for years about having them… Everything pretty much that we’ve ever had out on vinyl has now been released on CD. Union Square have done a fantastic job.”
I take this opportunity to raise a question concerning the master tapes. Having detected that many of the tracks – particularly single A and B sides – were lifted from vinyl (this has been confirmed to me by Salvo), I had wrongly assumed that the original masters must have been lost. “We’ve still got the masters but we actually found that on some of our records, especially in the old days, the way we use to mix them – we use to test them through little transistor sized radios to see how they’d sound on radio… that’s the sort of sound we wanted… Oh yes, it was a deliberate policy to master off vinyl – we compared what we got off some of our master tapes with what we got off our vinyl where they’d been compressed. We wanted the sort of sound that we had in our old days.”
When the compilation album ‘Sladest’ was released in 1973 it pulled together all of Slade’s hit singles to date – it sold extremely well (No.1) because up until that point many of the 45s had not appeared on albums: Get Down & Get With It, Coz I Luv You, Look Wot You Dun, Take Me Bak ‘Ome, Cum On Feel The Noize and Squeeze Me Pleeze Me. Nod elaborates further: “We never had singles from albums… and if they were on albums the singles had already been out. That was a deliberate thing… We had the best of both worlds… we sold tons of singles, we sold tons of albums… Now, we didn’t want to short-change the fans on records or on touring – if you look at some of our old ticket prices we were really cheap to go and see! We purposely kept the costs down, we subsidised it out of our own money (and our own royalties) – we kept the cost down of the tickets to see us live and you got twelve or so brand new tracks on albums.”
Nod’s lyrics during this period were often misunderstood and are actually quite cutting and astutely observant of success and fame. “I’m not saying we didn’t change at all but we certainly kept our feet on the ground probably more than a lot of people because we were still based in the Midlands, we still had a lot of our old mates – but we saw a lot of our contempories totally changing. Fame changing them, money changing them – I’ve seen it happen all through my career. I didn’t wanna be them… People use to think the lyrics were flippant, but they’re not flippant – a lot of trouble was taken over the lyrics. It’s very hard to put across in three minutes a good solid message in a song, and things that probably sound flippant on the surface are not flippant at all if you actually listen properly. I never do interviews where I discuss the lyrics of songs, I think it’s up to the listener to judge and get out of them what ever they want.”
Throughout 1973 the Slade juggernaut seemed unstoppable – Cum On Feel The Noize and Skweeze Me Pleeze Me went straight to No.1 and My Friend Stan made No.2. On July 1st they headlined the Earls Court Exhibition Centre for a concert that was seen as a celebration of their success. The show was filmed for prosperity but Noddy tells me “We never filmed and recorded it for public consumption, we did it for our own keepsake.” and, although the film is in good condition, the soundtrack is very poor and not up to the standard required for a commercial release. They closed a memorable year holding down the No.1 slot for four weeks with their perennial Christmas hit Merry Xmas Everybody – little realising that it would be their last chart-topping single.
The ‘glam-rock’ tag pinned to Slade and their flambouyant stage attire may have initially helped their success, but in the intervening years it has gone a long way to detract from, and trivialise, their musical legacy. When Union Square proposed the re-launching of the back-catalogue it was clearly with the intention of establishing the credibility of the music – “I knew at some point the tide would turn in our favour. It started to happen a bit in the 90s when Vic & Bob did the mickey-take of us ‘Slade In Residence’, Oasis covered ‘Cum On Feel the Noize’; things like that were happening. We were getting songs in movies, some of our songs were used in adverts – the tide had started to turn and people started to look into the back-catalogue. Union Square said to us “You’ve not got the credibility you deserve from the music point of view.” Most people associated us with this wacky band they saw on Top of the Pops every week – ‘Merry Xmas’ topping all that off – but it is also ‘Merry Christmas’ that has kept us in the frame for thirty-odd years.”– reflects Nod. “Me and Jimmy are not the first two you think of as us up there with the big songwriters… but we’ve written more than forty-odd hits and over twenty-odd albums – it’s a big body of work.”
The release of ‘Old New Borrowed & Blue’ (1974) marked a distinct shift in the writing style of Lea and Holder – a deliberate move away from the foot-stomping rockers of the previous three years. The disc opens with the superb-cover Just A Little Bit which Mr Holder tells me he first heard in 1964 when The (Liverpool) Undertakers released it (The Undertakers name was later used for one of the bands in ‘Flame’) and finishes with the Stonesy Good Time Gals. Sandwiched in between are ten tracks that cover a pot-pourri of styles – the ballads Everyday and Miles Out to Sea; the honky-tonky Find Yourself a Rainbow; the pure-pop of When the Lights Are Out as well as the fearsome rockers We’re Really Gonna Raise the Roof, Do We Still Do It and Don’t Blame Me.
Nod insists it was important for the band not to get bored – “The fatal thing for a band is to tread water. We probably could have had more number ones than we did – we got robbed on a couple of occasions!” He recognised that the groups desire for new artistic and creative challenges would, to some degree, be at the expense of the 3-and-a-half-minute hit. “We knew we could not survive in terms of longevity just churning out Slade anthems – and as writers we didn’t want to just write Slade anthems, I didn’t as a singer. I knew I could sing all sorts of songs – ballads, country songs – I didn’t just wanna be a ‘shouter’ as I was called.”
Salvo label manager Chas Chandler (no relation to Slade’s long-time manager!) believes that the movie ‘Slade In Flame’ is the jewel in the legacy. It has now been released on DVD as a widescreen presentation – the new print is cleaner and brighter and the sound (although in mono) has been much improved. Shot and released in 1974 the film is now garnering praise and has been acclaimed as one of the best of its genre. In a way it was the film Slade shouldn’t have made but fortunately did! This gritty motion picture takes the varnish off the music industry and exposes its darker underbelly as it follows the fortunes of a fictional pop-group called Flame. Nod continues: “We could have done a slap-stick comedy, and pissed through that, and people would have loved it… We wanted to make a serious movie – none of us had ever acted but we knew the sort of movies we liked. What was the use of doing a movie we just fooled around in but we didn’t like?”
Flame’s style harks back to the British ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas of the late fifties and early sixties epitomised by (amongst others) A Kind of Loving, Saturday Night Sunday Morning and Room at the Top. It starred a young Tom Conti, the late Alan Lake and Johnny Shannon – quality British actors that gave the film real backbone and much needed support to Nod, Dave, Don and Jim. “It would have been no good us doing an arty-farty film because we are not arty-farty type people – it sat perfectly with our working-class background.” Unfortunately the hard-hitting storyline left critics and fans less enthusiastic and somewhat baffled as it was unexpected and didn’t sit well with the band’s goodtime ‘glam’ image. In many viewers eyes the identity of ‘Slade’ and ‘Flame’ became blurred and this seems to have had a knock-on effect as Slade’s popularity began to wane through 1975 and 76. I ask Nod if the response to the film had affected the group – “Dave and Jim certainly were deflated. Dave more so but Jim was as well (at the time) because it was a kick-in-the-teeth really because we knew it was good… Dave thought it was a mistake but he always said it; you gotta give Dave his due – he said it when we got the script, he said it when we were filming it and he said it when he saw it – so he didn’t change his mind! He thought it was too near the mark, too near the knuckle of exposing what goes on behind the rock industry – and he’s entitled to his opinion. The teen audience didn’t get it – we half expected that to happen but it was no good us catering for that audience. Making a movie was a totally different ball game to anything we’d done before – we could not make a credible movie and expect it to entertain that young market of ours.”
The accompanying soundtrack ‘Slade In Flame’ is arguably Slade’s finest 40 minutes. The record is tight and cohesive and filled with well-honed ballads and rockers from the exquisite How Does It Feel? (clocking in at just under six minutes), wistful Far Far Away, reflective So Far So Good to the hard-pumping rock of Standing On The Corner, Them Kinda Monkeys Can’t Swing and OK Yesterday Was Yesterday. The album’s a corker – buy it!!
Nod’s personal favourite the superb Far Far Away became the first hit single from the film but it galled him when it was held off the top slot by crooner Charles Aznavour’s She – (at the time the theme song for the ITV series ‘Seven Faces of Woman’). The follow-up How Does It Feel? stalled at number 15 – the first Slade 7” not to make the Top 10 since 1971 – which was extremely disappointing as it is without doubt one of Jim and Nod’s most ambitious and finest compositions. It was also a portent of things to come.
Having first visited the States at the end of 1972 Slade returned to tour in ’73 and ’74 with little success. In 1975 they began the real American offensive by relocating the band to New York – a base from which to work and tour the continent over the following two years. By neglecting the home market they risked losing popularity in the UK and this appeared to be happening when In For a Penny and Let’s Call It Quits both only managed No.11. The 1976 Nobody’s Fools album (which features Nod’s favourite Slade sleeve) was clearly aimed at the American market and it was the first Slade album since ‘Play It Loud’ (1970) not to get into the UK Top 10 (it made No.14). The third single off the album, the title track Nobody’s Fool was the last single to be released on Polydor before Slade moved to Chas Chandler’s newly formed Barn label. The single didn’t chart.
“We gave up two years from the rest of the world to try and crack America because it was the only market, up until that point, that hadn’t happened for us. We were getting stale we thought in Europe anyway… we’d done the movie… it was the only market left we hadn’t cracked. We proved ourselves around America live on many tours, many times… New York we could headline. LA, San Francisco we couldn’t headline – they didn’t get us… In the Midwest we were storming it… The acts that you mentioned earlier like Black Sabbath, Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, those ilk of acts were album acts in America and considered so – but they worked America over and over. Fleetwood Mac were there six years before they had a hit… now, we couldn’t afford to spend that amount of time there away from the rest of the world… It was crippling financially…” Without a big hit single stateside from Nobody’s Fools the album didn’t sell even though it was critically well-received. Noddy is more sanguine and likes to emphasise the achievements that Slade had in the States and lists many cities where they could sell-out 20,000 seater venues – Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas, Cleveland. “We had a mass following over there but not enough to become massive. Quo toured America and couldn’t even catch a cold!” It is worth noting that many of Slade’s peers also failed across the Pond – Bolan, The Sweet, Roxy Music and Thin Lizzy to mention just a few.
When Slade returned home in May 1977 to promote their new album Whatever Happened to Slade the musical landscape in the UK had changed considerably under the onslaught of Punk. Even though the band were tighter than ever and the album was a stunning return to form (often hailed as their best), audiences and sales were moving in ever decreasing circles. Through ’78 and ’79 the group were kept afloat on publishing royalties and sales from the back-catalogue along with touring in Europe where they were still successful. But by the end of 1979 Dave Hill had effectively left the band and Jim had started his own off-shoot with The Dummies. The decline would have been complete had it not been for an offer to play the 1980 Reading Festival as a replacement to Ozzy Osbourne. Dave didn’t want to play it and Noddy failed to talk him around – but Chas’ persuasive powers were too much and on the 31st August Slade took to the stage for what was expected to be the last time. Their storming performance that day has passed into rock-lore as they trounced the other acts and catapulted themselves back into the arms of the British public and back into the charts for a comeback that would last until the end of the decade.
When asked “If Reading had not happened, was there a game plan?” his answer is remarkably candid – “We would have finished. I would have carried on as a solo artist, made a solo album and got a little band and gone back on the road. I would have probably started accepting some of the work I was getting offered in TV and stuff like that, and I was also getting offered work from the West End stage. That’s what I would have had to have done.” I then seize the moment to ask Nod if he writes anymore – he frankly replies: “Occasionally when I get commissioned but not as a matter of course, no.”
Although Noddy finally left Slade in 1991 the seeds to that decision were sown back to 1984. “The point at which I knew I had to approach things in a different manner – I didn’t want to leave the band – we couldn’t just be doing album-tour-album-tour round and round and round and round was when we went out to America on the strength of ‘Run Runaway’. We’d done six warm up shows on our own, top-of-the-bill, small venues – 5,000 seaters – we’d sold them all out, we’d played great. Then we had to join the Ozzy Osbourne tour and, um, Jim got hepatitis after the first show in San Francisco. We came of stage, Jim collapsed – so we obviously had to come home. We stayed on for another couple of weeks because he was too ill to travel and we stayed in a Sunset Marquee in LA while I went out on the road doing promotions for radio… On the way back the record company had set-up a showcase in Cleveland which was absolutely disastrous… and basically when we got on the plane to come home after that I thought I’m not going back and doing this anymore. It’s not what I want to do anymore… I got home and my marriage was pretty much on the rocks because of the pressure – my Missus didn’t think I’d be going back out to America and spending months there again which would have happened, so she wanted to call it a day. All these things were spiralling all at the same time. My dad was very ill at the time as well – plus the fact that I didn’t want to go back to being the opening act again in America after all that time – I didn’t want to go back ten years and do the same thing all over again… It didn’t feel right. Nor did I want to go out on the same treadmill doing ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ for the next ten or twenty years.”
Once Slade had stopped touring the band continued to record albums up until 1987 – Rogues Gallery, Crackers and You Boyz Make Big Noize – “I think we made some great albums in the Eighties but it wasn’t what I was in a rock’n’roll band for. When we worked with Chas Chandler it was very much four blokes in a studio playing as a rock’n’roll band and bringing out records – very fast. When the CD revolution came everything took forever – it took three days to get a drum sound, everything was done separately, in layers – we didn’t really play together in the studio… I used to call it “recording by numbers”… I have no interest in sitting around in a studio for three days listening to Don getting a snare drum sound! The essence of Slade to me was ‘feel’. I had been in the band at that point for twenty-two years, same four blokes… we were beginning to get stale…”
Towards the end of the interview Noddy added: “It would have been no good the four of us staying together anymore, we weren’t getting on like we used to when we were a young gang – I’m glad I left and I’m glad I did it at the time I did it… if I had to be truthful I should probably have done it five years before, maybe even ten years before, because the offers I let go by I sometimes regret – I did have some very good offers for television stuff and that, which I let go by-the-by. I never really saw myself going past forty in rock’n’roll bands anyway… after twenty-five years I didn’t want to carry on working with the same four guys anymore. They got miffed when I said I was finishing but I’m sure, if they’re truthful to themselves, they too wouldn’t have wanted to play for the rest of their lives as the same four guys together… So Jim’s happy doing what he’s doing now and I’m sure Dave and Don are happy with what they’re doing.”
Unhappy with the drift of the band Noddy felt that it was time to investigate the offers of work being made to him from out with the Slade bubble. He finally cut the cord in 1991 after the single Universe failed to chart (though Nod liked it) – this was probably due to poor promotion and to the fact that it had already appeared on the 1991 Wall of Hits compilation some months earlier. “With the failure of ‘Universe’ I decided it was time to knock-it on the head.”
Sixteen years later Noddy appears to be a very relaxed and contented man. “If I had still been with Slade there’s no-way I would have done the stuff I’ve done since… which I think has been good for me and it’s been good for Slade. It was a great period of my life but twenty-five years is a long time… I would never have had the chance to do things like The Grimleys, I was in the live episode of Coronation Street (40th Anniversay) and I’ve done about ten advert campaigns in the last ten years… I get offered a lot of acting stuff – a lot of it is playing rock stars who top themselves and I don’t wanna go down that route! I do enjoy acting but I wouldn’t want to be a full-time actor – no way. I love doing radio ’cause I’ve always been a radio buff since I was a kid – radio is my first love really. And I keep in touch with the music scene through working in radio as well. I’ve probably got to the stage in my life where stuff gets offered to me all the time and I pick and choose which ones I wanna do and which ones I don’t wanna do… I get offered all these reality shows but there’s no way I’m gonna do any of them.” Nod tells me he’s been offered Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity, in fact he gets offered them every year! “Basically I’m still what I was when I was a seven year old kid – I’m an entertainer. I don’t want my work load to be heavy anymore, I’ve got a young lad now that I want to see growing-up which I missed with my first two kids. My life is very, very balanced now.”
As Noddy leaves I find myself shaking the hand of a man who rode the rock’n’roll rollercoaster for far longer than many but knew when to get off and choose a new direction – and I admire him for that. I do miss Slade though… and often hear the refrain of Cum On Feel The Noize echoing down through the decades reminding me of a time when rock was a wonderful cocktail of passion, energy… and, most importantly, fun.
© John Haxby 2007
Download Noddy Holder by John Haxby.pdf 1.37 MB
Many thanks to John Haxby at Haxby.net for this excellent interview (carried out around April 2007, originally published in Rock 'n' Reel magazine, Vol 2 No5, in September 2007) but most of for some great shots of Mr. Holder that capture the normal man at the heart of a mighty myth. John is also the man behind Kula Productions 'Bringing Live Music to North Yorkshire' among many other things.