Slade’s Dave Hill: “The important thing about us is the longevity”
At the time of year when Slade are ubiquitous, and ahead of their performance at Hangar 34, Shaun Ponsonby talks to the band’s legendary super yob Dave Hill about the influence and the history of this uniquely working class band.
Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody is practically a Christmas carol. You hear it every year around this time. It’s totally ubiquitous.
“People say Christmas is not Christmas without this band,” guitarist Dave Hill tells me. “Some people think ‘The Christmas record is so successful that sometimes you forget about Cum On Feel The Noize and all that’. Well, you don’t forget about that.”
Indeed, in an old job of mine I informed some colleagues of the level of Slade’s success. In what must be one of the most unprecedented runs in chart history, the band achieved a whopping six number one singles in under two years. Despite initially receiving blank looks, once I named the songs, looks of recognition appeared on their faces. They suddenly realised how much of Slade’s back catalogue they knew, becoming part of the fabric of British musical culture. In the 70s alone, they sold 50 million records.
Slade have their roots in The Vendors, the previous band of founding members Hill and drummer Don Powell. Inspired by American blues musicians, the band changed both direction and name, re-christening themselves The ‘N Betweens, pre-dating Slade’s trademark use of poor spelling on song titles.
They soon recruited Jim Lea on bass, a multi-instrumentalist who would become the band’s secret weapon, and Noddy Holder on guitar and vocals. “The four of us ended up with a magic between us which happened on our first day of rehearsal,” Hill remembers. “We just played in this pub, never played together, ever. And we played one or two songs that all of us knew by someone else, and we kinda looked at each other and went ‘Eh, there’s something good about this’.”
From the outset, the band strived for something different, and they honed their craft on the live circuit before cutting their debut album, Beginnings, in 1969. It was during those sessions that they met their future manager and bona fide rock & roll legend, Chas Chandler.
“He spotted us in London, in a small, poxy club,” says Hill. “Chas Chandler was not on our wavelength at the time. We knew who he was, because he was one of The Animals and Jimi Hendrix’s manager. But when we found he was coming to see us, it was flipping amazing.
“We knew he was there, cos he was a big guy. But he just loved us. He came up to us and said ‘You’re a breath of fresh air’. He was looking for something at the time. I couldn’t think of anyone more perfect than him to help us, because he thought we really had something. He was very much into our looks, because of our quirky personalities. Especially me and Nod; Nod’s voice, and my kind of appearance, he used to encourage me with my clothes. He really let me do what the heck I wanted to do because he knew I’d deliver.”
This latter point is actually significant. Dave Hill is probably the reason Slade were so welcomed by the glam rock scene of the early 70s. Even in the era of Bowie and T. Rex, nobody was more flamboyant or more flashy, or more ridiculous than Hill. Adorned in silver, smattered with glitter, a bizarre hairstyle and an extroverted stage presence, you couldn’t take your eyes off him or his iconic “Super Yob” guitar. There was one episode of Top of the Pops where he appeared to be dressed as some kind of bizarre, space age nun.
But in a lot of ways it was what was needed at the time. Britain in the early 70s was pretty destitute, both politically and economically. Power cuts were a common occurrence – sometimes limiting Britain to a three day week. Even pictures from the era look drab with rubbish piling up in the street. People were poor.
The glam rock bands often provided escapism for the masses. This is a tradition that goes back centuries. In times of destitution, popular entertainment has traditionally swung to fantasy. This isn’t just true of the glam rock era, but the late 70s disco boom in the USA, straight out of Watergate and straight into recession. Hell, the 1929 Wall Street Crash was soundtracked by Leo Reisman’s Happy Days Are Here Again.
Slade were at the epicentre of this escapist rock & roll. They were larger than life both on record and on stage, but there was something altogether more gritty about them underneath the surface. They were heavy in a way that the records produced by the Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman factory of glitter rock never were.
That raw energy was captured on 1972’s Slade Alive! – the live album that changed everything for the band. “Slade Alive! was released as a watershed because we didn’t have an LP,” Hill tells me. “So we spent a couple of days recording a live album, which I think really represents what we were really all about in the late 60s. And that album is full of all sorts of songs; songs by other people – Born To Be Wild, Get Down and Get With It, John Sebastian. All sorts of stuff on that album. But it became a worldwide smash. I think it’s because it’s got energy and it was a real band.”
By this point, the band had already scored two hit singles. The first was the aforementioned Get Down and Get With It, a cover of a song made famous by Little Richard. As Hill says, “Any Slade fan knows about that song, but it wasn’t our song but we made it our own.”
Indeed they did. Get Down and Get With It announced Slade in raw, boot-stomping style. It got their sound down on record, but the next step was to write.
“The one thing Chas did that was really important for Slade, was that he got us to write our own songs. That’s the best advice he ever gave us. We used to write with each other, then Nod and Jim got together and they came up with Coz I Luv You and Chas said ‘I think you’ve written your first hit, chaps. In fact, I think you’ve written your first number one’.”
The band were sceptical. It didn’t exactly sound like anything else on the radio, and was far more mellow than what their audience had become accustomed to with Get Down and Get With It. Not to mention that bassist and writer Jim Lea played a violin solo on the track, due to the fact that he and Holder were discovering French jazz violinist Stephan Grappelli at the time. The goal was to merge Grappelli with the simplicity of T. Rex’s Hot Love. They wrote the song in an hour one afternoon in the council house where Noddy lived with his parents.
“The violin made it such a unique record on the radio stations that we got in the charts,” says Hill. He’s right of course. To this day the violin sounds fresh and different. Even though you know it is coming, it is no less surprising. “Then we got on Top Of The Pops, then it shot to number one, and that started the run of number ones with us”.
Those number ones – Take Me Bak ‘Ome, Mama Weer All Crazee Now, Cum On Feel The Noize, Skweeze Me Pleeze Me and, of course, Merry Xmas Everybody were just the tip of the iceberg for Slade’s commercial zenith. Just missing the top spot were Gudbuy T’Jane, Look Wot U Dun and My Friend Stan. The latter two seemed to have caused slight contention from Hill, who was said to have believed that piano on a Slade record meant it was destined for less success.
That said, they are two personal favourites. Look Wot U Dun is almost Lennon-esque, but with more humour (see: the heavy breathing in the chorus) and a greater hook than Lennon ever really managed in his solo career. My Friend Stan borders on the kind of music hall influence that Queen would make their bread and butter a few years down the line.
Holder and Lea had become one of Britain’s most successful songwriting teams. It was Hill’s job to go out there and perform them, once uttering to a mortified looking Jim Lea as Hill emerged in one of his outrageous outfits “You write them, Jim, I’ll sell them”.
But there was something about Slade that stayed remarkably British. This is most obviously seen in the song titles themselves. When the band released Coz I Luv You, they titled it as such because they didn’t think Because I Love You suited them. Aside from giving them a cheeky edge, it ensured that they stayed true to their roots. After all, those titles are all spelt phonetically for the band’s Black Country accent.
This really is central to Slade’s enduring appeal, more so than the flashy clothes or nostalgia. Hill’s new memoir, So Here It Is, features a short afterword from Noel Gallagher that underlines this. “It was quite short, but to the point”, he explains. “He said if there was no Slade, there would be no Oasis. As much as he liked The Beatles, Slade to him were like a bunch of guys who lived down the council houses and he felt he could relate to that. And that’s exactly what we were; like in Liverpool, or in Manchester, or in the midlands, or anywhere. Growing up in the council estate is what I did. And really learning to play and all the rest of it – I don’t know what would have happened to me if I didn’t play guitar.”
This relatable, working class ethic was probably most apparent in the 1974 movie Slade In Flame.
Hot off the heels of their string of number one hits, Chandler thought it would be an idea for Slade to make a film. A natural choice – if, indeed, Slade were practically the 70s Beatles in terms of success, shouldn’t they follow the Fab Four onto the big screen?
Most people probably expected the band to make a knockabout musical comedy. A Slade Day’s Night, if you will. But they ended up taking the complete opposite route.
The film is a dark, cynical depiction of the realities of the music industry through the eyes of a 60s pop band. Many of the events staged were based on true stories that either happened to Slade themselves, or their contemporaries. BBC movie critic Mark Kermode has called it “The Citizen Kane of British pop movies”. In his Film Club back in 2012, Kermode explained that Slade In Flame “took a group of popular, glamorous musicians and portrayed them as pawns in a great economic struggle; people who were sold just like fish fingers. It was the most downbeat portrayal of the glamour of the pop world.”
Unsurprisingly, the film received a mixed reaction from fans who weren’t prepared for such a gritty image of their heroes. But over time it has come to be viewed as something of a masterpiece. Furthermore, I would argue that the soundtrack is the greatest album Slade ever made.
Perhaps the fact that Holder and Lea were writing for a fictional band in the 60s rather than Slade themselves, there is a greater musical scope on the record than usual. Make no mistake, it still sounds like Slade. But it sounds like Slade reaching a new artistic plateau.
The first single from the album was Holder’s favourite Slade song. Far Far Away was written while the band were touring America, and it sounds equally as awestruck by the sights and sounds of the states as it does homesick. It is used masterfully in the film, in the moments before the band’s break-up as they leave the stage for the final time.
But the absolute masterstroke on the album is the opening track, and de facto theme tune of the whole movie, How Does It Feel?
Unbelievably, this masterpiece was the first song Jim Lea ever wrote – the melody dates back as far as 1963. He dusted it off for the film and re-worked it with Noddy. It is a swirling epic, as long as Bohemian Rhapsody and features an almost orchestral arrangement. It is an astonishing song, a work of true art. Between this and Far, Far Away, as well as some of the album’s more experimental cuts (This Girl) and the expected rockers (Them Kinda Monkeys Can’t Swing), the Slade In Flame soundtrack shows a band reaching the absolute apex of their artistic powers, as well as increasing maturity.
Unfortunately, though, How Does It Feel? was Slade’s first single since Coz I Love You four years earlier to miss the top 10. In fact, Slade would only score one more top 10 in the 70s – that was follow up single Thanks For The Memory.
Like when any band falls out of commercial favour, there is no one reason of this. Common explanations range from the darkness of the film, market fatigue and, like everything else in the 70s, the onset of punk.
This latter point has always troubled me. The exhilaration and energy of Slade’s early hits were certainly a precursor for punk. The heaviness, the energy, the short, sharp singles, the super yob – it’s all in punk’s plain sight. The likes of Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash and The Replacements all cited Slade as a major influence. Further down the line when alternative rock became a big deal, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins also cited Slade. Surely, if any band from the early 70s should have rode punk’s waves, it was Slade?
Ditto for the metal bands who followed in their wake. Like Slade, Kiss achieved their breakthrough with a live album called Alive (no coincidence). Although mainstream success eluded Slade in America during the 70s, it could be argued that they had the kind of effect that the likes of the Velvet Underground had on their audience; they didn’t sell many records, but everyone who did buy their records became stars later on, from Cheap Trick, to Van Halen and Twisted Sister – all of whom covered Slade at one point or another.
Let us also not forget that at one point AC/DC wanted Noddy to front the band following the death of Bon Scott.
Slade’s effect on metal in Britain was probably most obviously seen at the Reading Festival in 1980. On a bill populated by bands from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the band were a last minute replacement for Ozzy Osbourne, who had pulled out.
They hadn’t had a significant hit in four years, and here they were surrounded by new blood; Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Whitesnake, Krokus, Samson. They were sure they would get bottled off the stage. After all, it was a Reading tradition.
Hill didn’t even want to play the show. He was planning to leave the band and hire out his Rolls Royce for weddings. Chandler convinced him to play.
They aced it, performing arguably the most legendary set in the history of the Reading Festival. The young bands watched with their mouths agape, the audience were re-acquainted with the biggest band of their youth. They didn’t even rely on the hits. Sure, they played the big warhorses, but at least half of the set was stacked with their most recent material; Dizzy Mama, My Baby Left Me, Wheels Ain’t Coming Down, When I’m Dancing I Ain’t Fighting. The latter even appeared on a live EP from the festival and became a live favourite in the later stages of Slade’s career.
Word spread like wild fire, and the band were completely revitalised. Polydor rush released the gold selling compilation Slade Smashes. The venues for the band’s winter tour increased in size, and the audiences were rabid. The title track from their next album, the aptly titled We’ll Bring The House Down, rode this wave of renewed success and hit the top 10 for the first time in six years.
They even finally started to crack the US market. Hot off the heels of Quiet Riot’s hit cover of Cum On Feel The Noize, power ballad My Oh My and the Big Country-esque Run Runaway made an impressive showing on the Billboard chart, with the former going top 40 and the latter shooting into the top 20, with regular plays on the burgeoning MTV. Both songs were also top 10 hits in the UK.
But Holder’s increasing reluctance to tour meant that sales began slipping again. Run Runaway was the band’s final major hit. Despite some valiant efforts, such as Myzsterious Mizster Jones and Little Sheila, not to mention the final album You Boyz Make Big Noize, which matched their 70s style with 80s technology far more successfully than they had in the past.
They rounded their career out with Wall Of Hits – a compilation which ironically could have signaled another resurgence for the band, with the compilation’s lead single Radio Wall Of Sound, featuring a lead vocal from Jim Lea, becoming a surprising hit.
But Holder was disillusioned. He left the band in 1992 to pursue other career paths. Lea followed, believing Noddy was integral to the band.
Hill and drummer Don Powell continued to tour as Slade II, but eventually shortened the name simply to Slade, and are playing Liverpool’s Hangar 34 on Friday 22nd December – just in time for Christmas.
I put it to Hill that Slade are one of the most underrated bands of all time, a suggestion he sees both ways. “Sometimes I do get it, like maybe we were more important than we realised,” he admits. “I think the important thing about us is the longevity. Our success is in the fact that people remember us. And when people come to see us, we’re not the sort of band where you’re waiting for their hit record, which is usually towards the end of the set. We start off with a hit record and we carry on playing hit records. Now if that gives you an idea of our success, there are not many bands who could do a whole set and half of it be number ones. There are not many bands that have that calibre.
“I’m very happy that I walk around and people recognise my face, and they smile at me with joy.”
Hill has recently published his memoir, So Here It Is, in which he details his own battles with depression and recovery from a stroke he suffered on stage in 2006. He says; “I met somebody the other day who had read my book and said I’d give him hope to go back to the psychiatrist to get him well. And I was quite moved by it. There was a guy in Worthing when I was playing there and he was quite emotional with me as well. And I thought if you make a difference to one life, it’s a good thing. So I wanted people to read it to enjoy it, and there’s a lot of humour, but I also wanted to help people”.
This feels like an impetus for both Slade and Hill in the broader sense. Slade undoubtedly helped Britain get through tough times in the 70s, simply by existing. Hill is obviously determined to carry this tradition on.
“I feel like what I do, and what I’ll do in Liverpool, is I bring those memories to people.”
Slade play Liverpool’s Hangar 34 on Friday 22nd December 2017.
Dave Hill‘s memoir, So Here It Is, is out now.