October 13 1979. I date a remember because it’s my 21st birthday. I’m living in Nottingham now in a cold damp Victorian house in one of the less salubrious parts of the city (of which there are plenty). There’s three others in the house, I’m not sure we’ve all got great deal in common but that’s shared houses for you. I have the attic room which suits me nicely but although there’s an electric light and a gas fire there’s no actual power so I’ve had to trail an extension lead up the stairs so I can power my record player. Way below me, in what should be the front room lives Tonto.He’s far more in the thick of it as you have to pass his room to enter or exit the house. As well as the smell of cheap aftershave and cigarettes what is noticeable about Tonto’s room is the music.He loves the Jam and New Wave in general and when he gets a new single he tends to put it on repeat play and sing along until such time as he gets a new record and then the process is repeated.
I’m studying Humanities at Trent Polytechnic, my dreams of some sort of bohemian idyll for three years have been crushed by the fact that the campus is mainly populated by mechanical engineers from Rochdale and even my fellow humanities students are suburban losers like myself, if I had wanted the glittering spires experience I really should have put in a bit more work in studies when i was at school, sometimes you do get what you deserve.
Anyway, apart from The Jam and Elvis Costello and XTC Tonto’s first love is Slade. Tonto is from Shrewsbury and tonight Slade will be playing Nottingham University which means he will be going as will some of his other mates, known appropriately as the ‘Shrewsbury Boys’ who have made their way over to Nottingham. Its my 21st Birthday and I don’t want to go, my mate Alan says he will he will go out with me if I want but I know he really wants to see Slade or at least do something more interesting than go to the pub with me so lacking any other plan or the charisma to execute an alternative it I tag along.
It’s always good to go to the university, the students there just seem healthier somehow, great well fed lumps of prime beef from the home counties with glowing skin and healthy hair. We sit in our group in the student bar enveloped in a cloud of Tonto’s aftershave and try not not pick our spots. One of the Shrewbury Boys has brought his girlfriend so we both have a little laugh about how we really don’t want to be here and roll our eyes at the prospect of having to see a band who were at their height when she was 12.
Slade have of course been going since the 60’s. A product of the fertile west midlands scene. Initially the N Betweens then Ambrose Slade. They were a shit hot live band because they had to be to stay in work. Bear in mind that this was the breeding ground for Black Sabbath, The Move, Robert Plant, John Bonham, Jeff Lynn, bands tended to be ‘heavy’. Slade had two major assets. One was Noddy Holder, the last person to join the band. Holder was ambitious, he knew how to put on a show and he sang like no one else. His future songwriting partner Jim Lea was a major talent, his piano and violin playing was to give them a certain twist. His bass playing however was something wondrous. Playing the Gibson SG short scale model gave him the ability to play solo lines which gave a Slade song an unexpected lift, if there’s on thing that’s really musical about a Slade tune its the bass.Guitarist Dave Hill and Drummer Don Powell where known for being loud in the days when being loud was seen as rather big and clever. Hill’s contribution went way way beyond musical of course.
Here they are in 1969 during their bootboy phase which was initiated by manage Chas Chandler in an attempt to make them different. Its a bit like a youth club band until they get rocking
The early Slade were a bit tentative, messing about with image and cover versions but their cover of ‘Get Down and Get With it’ set the template with maximum rocking and Holder’s vocals to the fore. The follow up was an original Holder/Lea composition ‘Coz I love you’. By now the misspellings and clothes were in place. The song itself is a bit of an oddity reflecting Lea’s love of Stefan Grapelli and musically more in line with the likes of Mungo Jerry but Chandlers production complete with handclaps pointed it glamwards. It was a genuinely popular record, I didn’t know many people who actively disliked Slade, they were glam enough for the girls but without the sexual ambiguity that sometimes made the boys uneasy.
And the hits followed some of the greatest pop records ever
‘Look What You Dun’ not quite as good, with Lea now on piano. The next singles were the standard line up and they started having number 1’s again. ‘Take Me Bak Ome ‘,’Mama Weer all Crazee now’,’Goodbuy T Jayne’,’Cum on Feel The Noize’,’Skweeze me Please Me’.
The educational establishment were going Crazee (see what I did there!)about the effect on the nations learning and in fact Slade may have been directly responsible for my abysmal academic record resulting in me being at Trent Polytechnic instead of Cambridge 5 years down the line.
Here they are in 1972. Despite being an accomplished band they rarely performed live on television but at this point in their career this video shows while being in Slade was probably as good as life can ever get
So by now Slade were as big as it’s possible to be in Britain, which means they could sell out any city hall you could throw at them. As a live band they were fantastic more like the MC5 than the Rollers. There’s not a huge amount of video of them playing live from this time but here they are taking no prisoners in Manchester in 1972.
And then it started to go wrong
A car crash in Wolverhampton in July 1973 left Don Powell close to death. His 20 year old girlfriend wasn’t so lucky. When Powell recovered he was left with memory problems and no sense of taste or smell. He was faced with the task of getting back into band life by recording ‘Merry Xmas Everyone ‘. One of the greatest Xmas records (I still love it) was recorded during a heatwave in New York. Amazingly Powell was only just out of hospital and had to be constantly reminded how the song went.
Despite their biggest hit there was a sharp decline in the material.Slade (or rather Holder and Lea) were still enthralled by the Beatles and didn’t want to be the MC5 when they could be the fab 4. This meant a change in style, there was ‘My friend Stan’ ‘Everyday’ ‘Bangin Man’ ‘Far Far Away’ and so on, ballads and sing alongs.
Then there was ‘Slade in Flame’, a rather wonderful film. If you want to know what the 70’s were like watch this, its dirty and gritty and is the only rock film ever to feature racing pigeons. The soundtrack album featured their ‘Day in a Life’ ‘How Does it Feel’. I rather like the song as does Noel Gallagher but he wrote ‘Champagne Supernova’ so we can discount anything he says. It was further evidence that Slade were moving on and if its one thing the public doesn’t like its change.
The band (well Holder and Lea) thought they had accomplished all they could in Britain and set their sites on America. It was a case of bad timing America wasn’t that interested and by tailoring their material to an American Audience they lost the interest in the fans back home. They returned from America to find us listening to the Jam and XTC instead.
Slade were now floundering, with Powell now recovered they could take a heavier approach which they had developed in the states but no one cared much. They ended up performing their crap single Gypsy Roadhog on the children’s show Blue Peter only to have it then banned for drugs references. More significantly Hill had had his head shaved which was a brave look but deprived us of his iconic fringe. Unfortunately when he let his hair grow back there was less of it than before and around this time he was to jam a hat on his head would never be removed.
And that’s why they are playing Nottingham University in 1979 because its that or nothing. To my shame I cant remember an awful lot about the gig, I would rather have been watching Echo and the Bunnymen or Gang of Four rather than these guys which says more about me than them. All I remember is they were making an effort, it didn’t look like the wilderness years and the fact that Hills solo guitar spot wasn’t as awful as I had expected.
And that was me and Slade, it was an OK night out for me and them.
Slade went from bad to worse, at one point releasing a version of ‘Okey Cokey’. They asked Chandler to stop producing them and Lea convinced that the Slade name was the kiss of death started recording under the name ‘The Dummies’. Holder was asked to replace the dead Bon Scott in AC/DC and amazingly refused. Hill coped with the financial recession by driving people around in his Rolls Royce for money.
Salvation came in the unexpected form of Ozzy Ozbourne who pulled out of the Reading festival at the last minute and the only band who had that weekend free were Slade. Despite the fact that Hill was unwilling to give up a possible wedding car gig that day the band took to the stage and left heroes. What little footage I’ve seen show the band were fantastic apparently, a festival highlight. Unfortunately this convinced Holder and Lea that a heavier approach was in order this led to a run of totally forgettable singles. The exception being ‘Run Runaway’ which is memorable because its so awful with meaningless lyrics and ‘Big Country’ style guitars. By the time of their last single Lea had decided that not only could he play most of the instruments (not unreasonable) but do the lead vocals as well (unreasonable).
So Holder had had enough and Lea felt that a band without Holder was not Slade so he left as well. The other two faced with the reality of a limited income (presumably Hill had sold the Rolls Royce) formed Slade2 who eventually became Slade when no one was looking.
And thats the real tragedy, Don Powell approaching 70 is probably playing an 70’s weekend in Minehead Butlins or Krakow at the moment. For a 25 year career the band only had 3 years when they were at the top of their game but that’s more fun than most of us have.If a band is lucky, really lucky, it will have a moment when it’s talents match the moment, Slade had the talent and they had the luck, but only for a while.