D J Taylor
"I think we were before our time"Jim, Dave, Noddy & Don were once the clown princes of Seventies Glam. But where on earth are Slade now? Big in the Ukraine, apparently.
Noddy Holder, September 1995
A balmy late summer evening finds me seated in the foyer of a plush-ish hotel 20 minutes or so as the taxi rides from Gatwick airport. Before long a blue estate car pulls into the forecourt, and a clutch of roguish-looking blokes - long hair, sawn-off jeans, cigarettes mandatory - jump out and start heaving guitar cases out of it. Supervising these endeavours is a smallish man in scarlet shorts and trainers, with an odd but faintly recognisable hairstyle: receding at the front, drooping into lanky fronds at the sides.
I do a double take. The hair. The toothy grin. The strains of a Wolverhampton acccent drifting through the open door. It is, indisputably, Mr Dave Hill. This, heaving its gear towards the reception desk, stretching its legs after a five-hour crawl from the Midlands, searching desperately for somewhere to extinguish its fag stubs, is the entity known as Slade.
Twenty-four years is a long time, especially in pop music. I discovered Slade on a Thursday evening in October 1971 when, sitting down to watch Top Of The Pops on my parents' black and white television set, I found them launching into Coz I Luv You, a classic piece of early Seventies stomp - bass drum thumping like a metronome, eldritch violin flourishes, a voice like a cut-throat razor bawling 'I won't laugh at you when you boo-hoo-hoo, coz I lurve you'.
Quite as extraordinary was the ensemble performing it. There were four of them: a cheery-looking, bug-eyed front man who seemed to have stepped from the pages of Oliver Twist, a boyish violinist, a solid drummer and an extrovert guitar-player who was teetering around the stage on four inch heels. Noddy, Jim, Don and Dave.
Prompted by the first ineluctable stirrings of what the New Musical Express used to call 'a pop sensibility', I decided to buy it. Was it going to be a hit? my mother wondered with suitable middle-class concern, as I plonked down the 50 pence piece on the counter of the record section in Jarrold's department store, Norwich.
Of course it was. Coz I Luv You stayed at Number One for four weeks, and was still hanging around the charts at Christmas. I started buying a pop paper called Disco 45 ~ which printed the lyrics and revealed, among other things, that Noddy's real name was Neville. A whole new way of life had begun.
Between 1971 and 1975 Slade were the biggest pop act in England. Sixteen of their singles made the top five. Their live album, a no-nonsense effort with the grounding title of Slade Alive, graced the Top 30 for 17 months. Three of its successors went to Number One. There was even a film, Flame, in which the boys starred as the pop group of the title.
And then, unaccountably, Slade blew it. They spent three years and several hundred concerts failing to conquer America, in the meantime releasing a series of steadily more inferior singles for the home audience. By the time they came back their original audience had vanished, and Top Of The Pops was full of spiky tops in leather jackets. Even so, Slade never quite disappeared.
The re-releases of Merry Xmas Everybody, their yuletide smash from 1973, kept on coming. In the early Eighties they re-emerged as something very close to a heavy metal band and played the festival circuit. Even as recently as 1991, they made the Top 30 with a new number, Radio Wall Of Sound. And Merry Xmas returned in 1993.
Nothing special, perhaps, in the pop longevity stakes, as the career of Sir Cliff Richard reminds us, but not bad for a gang of early Sixties Wolverhampton teenagers fixated on The Beatles and Tamla Motown who even now, 30 years later, are checking into their hotel prior to the flight to Denmark and another European mini-tour.
Fifty per cent of them, that is. In fact, this is Slade II (a designation that concert bills and record sleeves are scrupulous in maintaining). Noddy Holder and Jim Lea are gone now. Noddy, who has houses in Cannock and Cheshire and whose 'hobby' is cooking, is pursuing a career playing Seventies music on Manchester's Piccadilly Radio. Jim, apparently, is training as a psychotherapist, though this is something he's muttered about all down the years - at least since he parted company with the bottle. 'I didn't exactly have a nervous breakdown,' he said in his last public statement, when Slade released a greatest hits album in 1991. 'I just began to feel a bit weird.'
Check-in conviviality notwithstanding, a certain amount of segregation seems to be in order with Slade II. S0 'Mr Hill' - somehow it seems unreasonably funny to hear Dave introducing himself thus at reception - dines in the restaurant, while the new, young members disappear for a bag of chips. Whatever the hierarchies thereby exposed, Dave and Don are anxious to commend the contributions of their new side-men. 'We had to look for them,' Dave reveals, 'use our experience.' This may mean that the selection process was unusually complex, requiring the reckoning up of all manner of talents and temperaments. Or it may just mean that nobody turned up for the audition.
And so, here we are in an all-but empty hotel restaurant, fussed over by a brace of teenage waitresses who have an idea they're in the presence of celebrity without quite knowing what that celebrity consists of. With all the abandon of the escaping family man (Mrs Hill and kids are back in Wolverhampton), Dave tucks into a gargantuan plate of steak and chips. Don, whose wife is elsewhere in the hotel, sticks to coffee.
But then, as a result of a car accident in 1973, which killed his fiancée, Don has no sense of smell or taste. 'I can't taste a thing, and eat purely out of necessity. I still don't eat the things I never used to like, but that's purely out of nostalgia. I can't taste them anyway.' Nor does he have much of a memory: he can only recall what happened yesterday by consulting his diary.
Twenty years on from their TOTP heyday ('They used to call us the house band') they look like ... Well, actually they look hugely like what they used to look like two decades back: Dave an amiable goblin, Don a more humane version of Alice Cooper.
Dave Hill, 1974. He later sold his guitar for £3,000
The departure of Messrs Holder and Lea, it transpires, simply returned the band to its antique state. Both nearing their half century (the reference book I consulted turns out to have taken six years off Dave's age and four off Don's), the boys started getting things together in 1962, back in a world made radiant by Hank Marvin's guitar.
Subsequently augmented by the song writing talents of Noddy and Jim, The In-Betweens (sic), as they were then known, started out playing the pubs of the West Midlands. At this point their repertoire consisted of Beatles covers, Motown approximations and early Holder-Lea originals. A three-and-a-half-month residency in the Bahamas ('It was supposed to be six weeks but the hotel bill hadn't been paid') exposed them to the kind of contemporary Americana being played by Steppenwolf and John Sebastian, tributes to whom appear on Slade Alive. An offer to audition at Fontana Records was accompanied by an order to change their name. In a competition organised by a more or less notional fan club, 'Ambrose Slade' won out. Their debut album, Beginnings, features one of those wonderful late Sixties covers - the boys, shirtless, weaving around in a kind of collective trance and looking desperately unhappy (the torment was physical rather than spiritual, the consequences of Arctic weather and an avant-garde photographer).
Beginnings failed to propel Slade - they'd dropped the 'Ambrose' early on - out of the Midlands four-ale bars and into the pop firmament. By this time, though, the boys had managed to hook up with a powerful mentor, Chas Chandler, formerly bass player with Sixties behemoths The Animals and subsequently Jimi Hendrix's manager.
Their manager told them to become skinheads, 1970.
He instructed them to change their image. Out went the hippie shirts and shoulder-length locks; in came hair cut to the regulation eighth of an inch, Sta-prest jeans and DM’s. Pictorial records of this period in the band's career are not prepossessing. I take it, I say, that the skinhead thing was contrived. Heads nod.
But promoting Slade as a bunch of raucous working-class hooligans (even the titles of the early singles were punctiliously misspelt) paid immediate dividends. A rabble-rousing version of the crowd-pleaser Get Down And Get With It, featuring a Holder vocal calculated to shatter glass, made the Top 20 in summer 1971. Shortly afterwards, the boys found themselves dropped on that loud, lonely planet of hit singles, endless tours and mental and physical exhaustion. 'The world we lived in wasn't real,' Noddy once said. 'I just got up, flew to the next gig, played, got drunk, slept and did it again.' Do you remember any of it? I ask Don. 'We never knew where we were,' he says.
Oddly, perhaps, Slade suddenly found themselves in the vanguard of a movement they knew next to nothing about - Glam Rock, that odd combination of high camp, eye-liner and Spandex trousers that somehow ganged up and captured British pop in the early Seventies.
Unlike the Sweets and the Mud’s, though, who were merely front men for conveyor belt song writing teams, Slade wrote (and played) their own material. More important, perhaps, unlike many a pop contender, they tried to retain a precarious hold on their own destiny. Noddy recalls meticulous career plans. 'Things didn't happen off the cuff for us. You know, we wanted a hit record, and when we got a hit record we wanted a Number One record, and then when we had a couple of Number Ones we wanted a record that would go straight in at Number One on the first day of release.'
The early singles were exemplary pieces of Seventies rock 'n' roll. Influential, too, as anyone who has ever played a Slade single side by side with the Rolling Stones' 1974 'comeback' It's Only Rock 'n' Roll will appreciate. Yet somehow, their appeal managed to encompass both the average (male) teenager who regarded them as guitar-ing football hooligans and the family audience without ever quite alienating the people who bought the records in the first place.
Watching Noddy Holder manipulate an audience, lemur eyes bulging out from beneath his flat cap and the explosion of foxy hair, you were conscious of a great many older, pre-pop personae coming together: the fairground barker, the vaudeville entertainer, the music hall comedian. (Noddy’s father had brought him up on a diet of Max Miller and Al Jolson.) Marc Bolan had designs on your daughter; Slade simply wanted you to have a jolly good knees-up. As Noddy cheerfully remarks, 'We couldn't be cool if we tried.' Regular blokes in fancy dress, in fact? 'Exactly.'
And then it all turned sour. By 1975 the singles were going Top 20 rather than Top Five;· America, mapped out in half-a-dozen gruelling coast-to-coast tours, remained resolutely un-crack-able. With hindsight they admit that the US was a mistake. 'I think we were before our time,' says Noddy.
Returning to England in 1977, they found themselves on a different musical planet. Watching The Jam play at a club in Wolverhampton, Don realised that the old order was in retreat. Slade singles stopped charting. Even Dave Hill's new get-up shaven head, Star of David earring, leather jacket - failed to halt the slide. Hammersmith Odeon rapidly gave way to Working Men's Clubs in the North of England.
There were personal consequences as well. While Noddy reckons that years on the road and the break-up of his first marriage are unconnected, the others are less sure. By August 1979 things were at a low ebb: the band had no record deal, hadn't played a concert in months and the finances were becoming a problem - the huge nest-egg of English royalties had gone in paying motel bills in Nowhere, Nebraska.
Then, in one of those magical transformations that occasionally enliven the average pop career, the organiser of the Reading festival called up. A fairly low spot on the bill, previously occupied by Ozzy Osbourne, had fallen vacant. Were Slade interested?
What followed has all the trappings of myth. Having rehearsed in a village hall, proceeded to Reading under their own steam and finessed their way past disbelieving security guards ('Noddy who?'), Slade blew every name band off the stage, played their greatest hits to the delight of an ecstatic crowd, and concluded the proceedings with a gang show version of ‘Merry Xmas’. As chance would have it, the gig was recorded by Radio One. A four-track EP of Reading selection’s put Slade back in the charts for the first time in two-and-a-half years.
After which, in a muted and slightly more low-key fashion, the whole business began again. With slight misgivings, Noddy and Jim sat down and started writing songs with titles like We'll Bring The House Down and Lock Up Your Daughters, interspersed with a nice line in Christmas sing-along’s. 'We resurged ourselves,' says Noddy. Back on TOTP, they seemed much the same: Noddy's mutton-chop whiskers, Dave's thigh boots, Don crouched mercilessly over his drums - elemental symbols to set against the New Romantic posturing of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.
Gradually, though, by the end of the Eighties things began to wind down again. Noddy was dabbling in radio; there was dark talk of 'other interests'. In the end, it all fell apart. Don: 'Noddy just dropped out.' Dave: 'I don't know what his current opinion is. I haven't spoken to him for a long, long time.' And Jim, the trainee psychotherapist? Don: 'He really left because Nod wouldn't do it.'
The Holder position is that 25 years is enough. 'I just thought, you know, enough is enough. I didn't want to be doing the same thing for the next 10 years. It's not to say I'd never go back on the road again, but I'd just had enough.' Now into his second marriage, with a nine-month-old baby boy to add to the two teenage daughters from the first, Noddy is broadly tolerant of youthful foibles. 'I don't take any notice of what they wear. Who am I to say, "You can't wear that"?'
The mirror-covered hat is Noddy's sole souvenir from these turbulent years. 'It’s just a bit of memory for me that. Everything else I gave away to charities to auction off. But it was a symbol of the time.'
Dave was a Jehovah's Witness and refused to sing Merry Xmas Everybody. Now he's with Don in Slade II.
All of which brings us to Slade II, and their whistle-stop rampage around Europe (festival in Denmark, Saturday, festival in Germany, Sunday, fly home Monday).
Noddy and Jim, the songwriters, are financially secure - no doubt doing rather well out of the back catalogue reissues and occasional cover versions. (Merry Xmas alone has sold three million and rising.) The situation of the other two is more precarious. Dave, for example, did at one time feel pushed to part with his star-shaped guitar (sale price £3,000) and YOB1 Roller (£16,000), though he was, at that time, a Jehovah's Witness and was even declining to perform Merry Xmas. 'It would have been hypocritical. '
So when Noddy and Jim opted to 'retire', that left Dave and Don in something of a position. 'Don and myself,' says Dave, 'we've put our lives into this band, and your lives can be so misshapen when somebody else in the band doesn't want to do it.'
Fortunately help was at hand. Len Tuckey, a name familiar to Seventies glam fans as the burly guitar-playing husband of Suzi Quatro, now detached from Ms Quatro and well into music management, put Slade out on the continental nostalgia circuit. They are, apparently, big in Germany (where 23,000 people turned out to see them in Berlin, along with Suzi Quatro and Shakin' Stevens) and huge in the Ukraine where, in the dark days of the Cold war, listening to Merry Xmas Everybody on pirate radio counted as the height of subversion. Do they enjoy it? Dave: 'For the last two-and-a-half years Don and I have been playing together, and I think we can both agree that it's never been better.' Don: 'I've always said that as soon as I stop enjoying it I'll pack it in.'
Two 49 year-olds who ought to be at home minding their children maundering on about bygone glory, a place on the Euro-Glam revival express with Suzi and Shaky, surreptitious continental recordings (at least I couldn't find anything by Slade II in the Virgin Megastore): it should all be unutterably hilarious. But somehow the sight of Dave and Don in the hotel restaurant (where Dave decides that, no, a single glass of wine will suffice) bears no relation to traditional framings of a pop career on the slide.
One reason for this is Messrs Hill and Powell's immense politeness, affability and lack of egotism, the feeling that they genuinely enjoy what they do, are pleased to have been allowed to go on doing it for so long, and take a pride in these labours.
A second reason is that the contract sealed between Slade and the Great British Public all those years ago remains unbroken. Reeves and Mortimer are still running off their 'Slade go Camping' spoofs (Dave and Don think these are 'brilliant'; Noddy reckons Reeves and Mortimer are 'good lads' and is appearing on their new quiz show). Noddy, who turned up not long ago in a Viz cartoon strip, has a caricature version of himself & starring in a. TV ad for Bank's beer. And now Dave is considering an offer to appear in a Barclay’s ad. Thirty-three years on from its forging in the Wolverhampton backstreet's, Slade has become an indestructible fragment of pop history. 'You see,' Dave Hill confides at one point, a look of transparent ingenuousness on his face, 'this has been our life!' Around them the tribulations of a third of a century on the road - all those identikit hotels, night-flights, bleary-eyed mornings after the gig, all the wreckage of the spent showbiz career - slide effortlessly away.
The Download Link is here: Download Filename: October 1995.pdf Filesize: 26.00 MB
18th November 2007
The Mail On Sunday free CD
This album is well-worth owning for the three previously-unreleased live tracks 4,8 and 9, which were all recorded live in London, in 1975.
All of the other tracks, however, had been previously released on various live albums.
To see whereabouts exactly, click on 45 Worlds.