Place August 15th, 1970A portrait of the Myzsterious Myzster Lea
John Haxby interviews James Whild Lea
The cover drawing for Jim Lea’s new album ‘Therapy’ was made in 1976 by a Spanish artist while Slade were over in the States (the name of the creator eludes Jim). It may seem to be a strange choice for the cover of an album that has been recorded some 31 years later and, I have to confess, I had only glanced at it. On closer inspection the eyes of Jim’s youthful (almost angelic) face seem to be windows into a troubled and introspective mind – the image is both beautiful and menacing. In white Helvetica Bold the name ‘James Whild Lea’ strikes the same serious and confident tone that permeates his first solo album since the original Slade disbanded some 16 years ago.
SLADE : 1966-1991
The youngest member of Slade was born in 1949 and to this day looks far younger than his years. “My son and myself both had a problem with looking very young for our age… I used to get thrown out of pubs – when I was 16 they thought I was 13… I had to join a band and be professional so I could get into gigs!!” His artistic and musical talents were recognised at a very early age and he was soon playing violin in the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra. “I am a creative person and I walk around with this creativity going on and often I don’t know what I’m doing! But I’ve always been like it… I was like it when I was at school. Funnily enough my ex-art teacher came to my house and he said to me “I’ve taught thousands of kids, some really great artists, but I’ve never had anybody like you… you had an understanding of space and form when you were 11 when I first saw you, and I thought ‘What on earth have we got here!’… and you didn’t do a thing with it!!’”Jim may have turned his back on being an artist but he successfully used his creative talents to drive one of Britain’s greatest rock bands on a journey that lasted 25 years.
Jim joined Slade (then known as the ‘N-Betweens’) in 1966. I ask him directly, Was Slade the right band for your talents? His one-word answer is quick and assured “Absolutely.” “When I joined, particularly Nod was taking the piss out of me, y’know, but it took me two weeks to sort that out! And I was telling them all what to play anyway, so… er… it was don’t play that play this! I was immediately working out all the music and learning from the records.” Initially the N’Between’s played covers (arranged by Jim) but their debut album ‘Beginnings’ (1969) (recorded under the name Ambrose Slade) contains the first Holder/Lea composition Pity the Mother which was composed in Nod’s kitchen (Jim’s then girlfriend Louise – later to become Mrs Lea – was there and helped in the writing). “Our arses were first kicked by Jack Baverstock who signed us to Fontana for our first album. And then our arses were kicked by Chas who split us off, and I wrote with Don and Nod wrote with Dave… obviously Don and I were coming up with all the stuff… Don was dead keen, y’know. But when we had ‘Get Down & Get With It’, Chas said ‘You’ve got to think of a follow-up’.” Jim teamed up with Noddy again to write the bands first No.1 single Coz I Luv You (October 1971) and with that the Slade songwriting hit-machine was born. Jim happily acknowledges that the simple melody owes a large debt to Stephane Grappelli & Django Reinhardt. “I went over to Nod’s with Lou’s (Louise’s) toy guitar – any ideas I’ve wanted to translate or work-out have been on this toy-guitar – and we just cooked it-up… I write in my head, I don’t need gear… I remember talking to Andy Scott from The Sweet on Top Of The Pops, and he said “Well, I can’t write at the moment because my tape-recorder’s broken down.” I said “I don’t understand, why?” He said “Because I can’t record it, DUMMY.” I felt like hitting him y’know. I just thought everyone was just like me and didn’t realise they needed to write things down!”
The fame that came with chart-success proved to be a poison-chalice for Jim. “Fame? Well, I hate fame. I don’t like it, I think it’s a mistake for people to seek it because they don’t realise that it’s a double-edged sword – then they get upset when the darker side of it comes along. Certainly I wanted to be famous when I was a kid, then we had our first hit and it took me about a fortnight to decide that this was bad. Dave picked-up a guitar because he wanted birds, y’know, and he succeeded big time! That’s the normal drive with teenagers… if I’m in a band I’ll get women… that’s how it used to be, but with me it was the opposite – women got in the way – I wanted to be with people who’d got record players and loved music.”
For the next five years, Slade were virtually unstoppable with Jim and Nod churning out hit after hit. In terms of chart success, Slade’s popularity peaked in 1973 when they chalked-up three No.1’s and the rather odd-ball No.2 hit My Friend Stan. Jim relates that this single was chosen by Chas and that he would have preferred When The Lights Are Out, which later appeared on the album Old New Borrowed & Blue – he also imparts that Chas was always worried that he would leave the band and want his own career, but he insists he would never have left.
By 1974 the songwriting duo were turning-in more wistful songs (How Does It Feel?, Far Far Away, So Far So Good, Heaven Knows) that became part of the soundtrack to their highly-respected film Flame. 1973 may well have seen their biggest sales but 1974 was certainly a year when the group reached its creative zenith. Jim agrees and wanted to go further in this new direction – employing greater use of keyboards, orchestration and brass. “How Does It Feel? was the first song I ever wrote – it was waiting for the right time to be used. Then the film came along – I wanted to make a serious film and though I was disappointed when it first came out – I like it now. About a month ago, 11 o’clock in the morning, we had Radio 2 on… it was 5-to-11 and the DJ Ken Bruce said “Can we do Slade? Have we got time?”He said “Yeah, we can. Go on, we’ve got time, come on let’s do it. Here we go.” ‘How Does It Feel?’ came on, and it was the album version and I stood there, (and I’m getting goosebumps now just thinking about it), and it’s the first-time I’ve ever heard anything that I’ve ever done on the radio that’s stunned me. And I just stood there in front of the radio and the volume went down and down with the fade-out… and at the end he said… “Slade at the towering moment of their success.”and then he said “Excellent, excellent.” I was knocked-out.”
But Dave wasn’t happy with this musical shift. “The more wistful thing wasn’t paying off in sales and popularity – we sold like 150,000 albums in England of Flame whereas we would normally have done 250,000. Particularly Dave didn’t like it – ‘No piano, we don’t want any keyboards – we want guitars and we want the row because that’s what made us successful.’” After 1974 there came a period of searching that is evident as Slade’s style changed across Nobody’s Fools (76), Whatever Happened to Slade? (77) and Return to Base (79). “Chas’ thing was to keep working and everything will be OK.”
Slade’s creative nadir came in December 1979 with the release of Okey Cokey – I pull Jim’s leg about this one and he half-heartedly defends himself “The phone call was ‘If you don’t turn-up in the studio we’ll make it without you.
Q:“You didn’t want to do it then?
A:“God, you must be jokin’!!”
At the end 1979 through to 1981 Jim’s brother Frank cajoled Jim into releasing three ‘solo’ singles under the moniker of The Dummies – and then further singles under various pseudonyms (The Clout in 1990, Gang of Angels and Jimbo in 1994 and finally Whild in 1999). “All that was my brother (Frank) kicking my butt to get into the studio to do something, that’s how it was – it was all dressed up NOT to be me. Even The Dummies was that. All the things you’ve just mentioned have not been driven by ME at all, it was my brother kicking my backside. I don’t count any of that stuff – they were just throwaway things.”
Slade’s performance at the 1980 Reading Festival became the springboard to further success in the 1980s. A new ‘metal’ audience began to wave the Slade banner and with it came higher and higher chart placings culminating in My Oh My reaching No.2 in 1983. Although Jim was happy to ride the wave and write to the ‘metal’ crowd he, like Nod, wasn’t happy with the way production was taking over the creation of records – “The Americans in particular wanted production … it was the time of The Producer, and ‘rough’ was not the thing, y’know, punk had gone.” Jim continues to be uncomfortable in the studio enviroment – “I hate recording studios! I can’t plug anything in! Producers drive me mad – always messing around with it, like rabbits going down holes! I’m a one-take wonder y’know… but they’ve gotta have a day fucking around with it. (They’re going to love me at the studio for saying that!). I was always frustrated in the recording studio – if I’m doing a vocal, often I’ll have never sung it before – it’s in my head. I’m not really a singer, I just walk up to the microphone with the headphones on – and you make friends with what you are doing and then you go ‘OK, let’s roll it’ and it’s really pleasurable – and I start singing – really it’s the first take we use. I’m a first-take bloke.” Even today he remains a self-confessed technophobe having no wish to carry a mobile phone, use e-mail or the access the internet – infact the best way to contact him is by sending his wife a SMS!
By the end of 1991 Slade finally fizzled out and, as Jim puts it, “I drifted into drifting.”
THERAPY : 1991-2007
Following the demise of Slade, Noddy chose to stay in the public eye evolving into a British institution annually wheeled-out as ‘Mr Christmas’. Dave and Don formed Slade 2 in 1993 managing to produce only one derivative album in the past fourteen years and cashing-in with a Christmas Tour usually supported by tribute bands T-Rextasy and Mud. And Jim? Well, until his performance at the Robin, Bilston in 2002 it seemed as though Jim had quietly slipped-out of the music business by the backdoor and retired to the seclusion of his home in Brewood away from fame and the glaring limelight that he’d never felt happy or comfortable standing in. But those ensuing years acted as an important musical sabbatical that gave Jim both space and time for “… quite a bit of internal tinkering.”. Tinkering that, by 1997, had brought Jim to study psychology at Regents College’s School of Psychotherapy, Regent’s Park, London. “I really enjoyed it but I didn’t go there to ‘learn’, I went there to be ‘in’– if you like, I just went for a ‘swim’ in it. People think I’m a psychotherapist but I’m not. I did the first year and then… um… the course leader, she said ‘Have you decided whether you’re going to take the Psycho-Dynamic or the Existential route?’And I said ‘After this year I’m gonna form a rock’n’roll band!! She was a bit shocked about that!! I said I would go back but I’ve never got round to it. I sort of fell through this self-journey that I’ve been on – it sounds selfish but it’s not. It’s… er… I’m extremely happy. Sometimes absolutely blissfully happy!”Jim elaborates further on this new found passion for life – “It’s not in the obvious beautiful things in life, sunsets and all that, it’s just in… Bloody hell, it’s amazing that everything exists… that I exist and that one day I’ll have to go from this… and this is absolutely the most astonishing thing that one could ever contemplate. Maybe I’ve just woken from whatever crap I was in for the whole of my life.”
Through 1998 Jim was beginning to write and record again, but as the new millennium was ushered in he put everything on hold to help his mother care for his ailing father who passed away in November 2002. In the same month, Jim took to the stage for the first time since 1991 with a quickly assembled band ‘Jim Jam’ (with Dave Catlin Birch on bass and Mike Tongue on drums) at the original Robin in Bilston for a one-off charity show. Referring to the fact that he was a shy man fronting a band composed of guys he didn’t really know whilst playing lead guitar rather than his preferred bass, Jim comments “I wanted to jump off a cliff to find out if I was existentially sound (laughs)! Am I going to be alive when I get to the bottom?… And of course I was! I tell you what, I was wishing I hadn’t done it before I went on but I’m glad I did it… and they keep asking me and asking me and asking me to do it again which I don’t want to.” The gig was recorded though never released as a CD album (yet) though tracks from the performance can be purchased as downloads from Jim’s website. He claims it to be one of the loudest gigs ever performed at the Robin and having heard the desk recordings I can vouch for that – the whole show hits you like a Sherman tank!! “None of the audience could hear after that! We had amps plugged into amps! When we started up it scared the crap out of me! It was like World War III!”
And then there was Therapy…
“When I came to do this, I’d looked after my dad for two years, helping my mother out… I gave up the time to do it, then here I was sort of free of anything, and it was a bit like rolling a dice. I should have made a solo album years ago but I hadn’t found myself, although I didn’t know that that was the case at the time.” I ask Jim if he feels that with Therapy he has finally discovered the true voice of Mr Lea? “Absolutely.”
The first demos for Therapy were made around about the death of his father, which he believes contributed to the album’s ‘coming-of-age’ feel. He acknowledges that many of his peers have produced albums in a similar vain – Bob Dylan, Ray Davies, Robert Plant, Elton John and Lou Reed, to name but a few. As Jim honed down the tracks for the album he realised that many, if not all, had a basis in psychology, thought and reflection. “I’d got so many tracks… hundreds of tracks… I said, ‘Look I’ve got to start honing these down’ and I looked at them and I said ‘Hang on, these are all sort of psychologically based, y’know, there’s something in there’… I hadn’t realised I’d been doing this. Then the engineer said to me ‘Why don’t you call it ‘Therapy’?’”
The final thirteen tracks chosen for Therapy cover a myriad of emotions wrapped-up within Jim’s own distinctive sound and style that happily acknowledges the influences of his many musical heroes from The Beatles to Oasis and beyond… Content within his own voice he reflects on fame (Deadrock UK, Go Out In Style, Your Cine World), insecurity (The Smile of Elvis), wisdom (Heaven Can Wait, Why is Youth Always Wasted on the Young?, Notice, Time & Emotion), women (Could God Be a Woman), domesticity (Big Family) and relationships (Universe, Let Me Be Your Therapy). Powerful lyrics and strong melodies fuse with an intensity and a humour which successfully lighten an album that could have been unbearably heavy. He deftly switches between ballad and rock compositions as easily as an artist switches from pastel to paint. The only passing glance Jim gives to Slade is with the re-recording of the band’s very last single Universe (originally written by Lea without Holder) which was only added to the album at the twelfth hour. And finally, as if to debunk the Jim Lea of old, and certainly to show that Therapy is a personal and confident statement, the album is attributed to James Whild Lea (his full name).
Jim was going to take Therapy to Polydor (the label Slade had been signed to in the early seventies) but before the arranged meeting could take place he realised that they would never understand the project. “They were going to want to know: what the hit was going to be, how do we market it, when are you going to tour.” Uninterested in this rather archaic approach, he decided to release the album on his own terms – by mail order and download. To some degree the technophobe has at last embraced technology and, by doing so, discovered a new creative freedom – “Record shops are closing down big time. There is no music business anymore; it’s falling to pieces. For me I’m doing something because I want to do it, it’s my art gallery if you like. If somebody wants to have a look – fine, if they don’t – it doesn’t matter.”
Sadly, Jim has no inclination to tour again as a solo artist or with a band. He doesn’t see the point of performing the songs from the album live – “I can’t see why anybody would want to watch me doing it, y’know.” Jim sees Therapy as just that – therapy – and never envisaged the songs being taken on the road. He certainly has no need to tour as the twenty-five years he spent with Slade have left him financially secure giving him the enviable freedom to ride his new creative wave free of any monetary constraints. With a new found enthusiasm and a feeling that he is free of the many restrictions that the music industry once imposed, Jim has already begun to assemble his second solo album under the working title of ‘String Theory’. “I write about just whatever comes into my head and I write really quickly… I think of the idea and I’m off, that’s it, it’s on the page and it’s done.”
Somehow I have the feeling that Therapy is more of a new beginning rather than a final postscript. The once shy boy in the red lame suit has finally emerged as the only original member of Slade still actively creating new music and pushing forward with a new voice. Welcome back Jim, you’ve been away for far, far too long.
© 2007 John Haxby
Thanks again to John Haxby (Haxby.net) who carried out this interview (around December 2007) with Jim Lea intended for use, once again, in Rock 'n' Reel magazine but unfortunately it remains unpublished. John is also the man behind Kula Productions 'Bringing Live Music to North Yorkshire' among many other things. The shots of Mr. Lea were supplied by himself.