First in and last out, they are the unsung heroes of the rock trade and some of them become as important as the lead singer, not that you’d know it or get the group to admit it. The famous ones – Neil Aspinall, Ian Stewart, Richard Cole – get mentioned in biographies but that’s because the groups they worked for became legends and so did they. Most ply their trade conscientiously and stay out of the limelight, often finding themselves without a job when the group breaks up, and often without much to fall back on either.
One of the best of this hardy breed was Graham ‘Swinn’ Swinnerton, Slade’s tour manager throughout their career, who became a victim of cancer on Monday after a long period of illness. A schoolfriend of Don Powell, Swinn helped hump the gear for The Vendors, Powell and Dave Hill’s first band, beginning in 1964, juggling this with his job at Woden Transformers in Bilston until Chas Chandler took over Slade’s management in 1969 and offered him £18 a week to work full-time for them. Swinn thus took charge of a road crew that supported Slade for the next 15 years and included their sound man Charlie – “Full poke, Charlie!” – Newham, Johnny Jones, known as JJ, Hayden Donovan and Scotsman Robbie Wilson, “whose wilful disregard for conventional behaviour became a constant source of amusement for the touring party”, as I put it in my Slade biography Feel The Noize. Somehow or other Swinn – like all the best roadies a big, genial, unflappable bloke – kept them all in order.
I interviewed Swinn for that book and he was hilariously indiscreet, recalling tales of life on the road that involved guns, jail, groupies, mad dashes from one gig to another and, of course, rivers of alcohol. A firm believer in the parsimonious economic principles that always kept Slade’s feet firmly on the ground, Swinn drove the band around in an ageing Vauxhall Velox long after they’d topped the UK charts, picking them up from their family homes in the Wolverhampton area and dropping them off in the early hours when the gig was done.
Slade were amongst the hardest working bands of their era – a key factor in their rise to prominence – and this meant their road crew had to work hard too. Not for them the modern-day routine of an album and a world tour followed by a year off; no, there was no slackening off of the pace in those days, so Swinn and his merry men travelled the world with Slade, from all the points of the compass in the UK to all over Europe, behind what was then known as the Iron Curtain, to America, Canada, Japan and Australia, a relentless grind that lasted until the end of the seventies. Swinn was there when The N’Betweens played to a handful of punters in Walsall pubs, he was there when Slade drew 20,000 fans to Earls Court in 1973 and he was there when Nod, Jim, Dave and Don stole the show at the Reading Festival in 1980, ever watchful, ever dutiful to their needs. The road-weary lyrics to Slade’s 1974 hit ‘The Bangin’ Man’ were inspired by Swinn’s relentless efficiency in waking them up in hotel rooms in time to hit the road for the next show.
When Slade went to live in New York in 1975 Swinn went with them, taking up residence in an apartment on the East Side, not far from where Jim Lea and Dave Hill lived. Don lived downtown and Noddy became a permanent resident at the Mayflower Hotel and, as he did in Wolverhampton, he picked them up and drove them to gigs, this time all over America. In the doldrums years after they returned to the UK and found themselves disdained by punk rockers Swinn drove them to cabaret shows at Baileys in Leicester and Watford. Nod and Don didn’t mind the cabaret shows but Jim and Dave hated them, and they travelled separately, the former pair in what became known as the Happy Car, the latter two in the Hospital Car. Swinn insisted on driving the Happy Car.
Swinn stuck with Slade during the eighties, taking on other work when his preferred clients were becalmed. When Slade first cut down on their touring at the end of the seventies, Swinn went to work for Saxon, taking other members of Slade’s crew with him, but his most consistent employers after Slade were Southside Johnny & The Asbury Dukes, Slade fans one and all, which brought him into contact with their pal Bruce Springsteen. “Bruce would come on stage and play with them at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park,” Swinn told Jim Lea, “and he was usually pissed, so I had to lead him off. Southside told Bruce that I used to work for Slade and Bruce said he loved Slade. I reckon Bruce nicked a bit of his showmanship from Nod.”
He also worked for Ian Matthews and for The Damned and, pressed into service against his better judgement by Chas Chandler, tour managed the reunited Animals in 1983. “Chas was as bad as the rest of them when it came to arguing,” he told me when I interviewed him for Feel The Noize. “He once had Eric Burdon by the scruff of the neck.” Another regular employer was The Fugees, followed by solo stints for both Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill. “Swinn said they all had $10,000 Rolex watches but were always late on stage because they couldn’t tell the time,” says Jim. “He was amazed that when Lauryn Hill went over to do German TV she had an entourage of 27. When Slade did it, it was just us and him.”
The last time I saw Swinn was in November 1996 when Noddy appeared on This Is Your Life, filmed at the Granada TV studios in Manchester. The final guest at this show was always supposed to be the biggest surprise of the night – a long lost relative flown in from Australia or a childhood friend unseen for 30 years – but on Nod’s show it was the Slade road crew, all five or six them, assembled by Swinn who, in later years, became especially close to Nod.
“Our crew were feared all over the world,” says Jim, who’d alerted me to Swinn’s condition earlier this year. “When we went to Poland, they said we couldn’t go back. So I said, ‘Didn’t you like the group then’, and the promoter said, ‘Group fine. Road crew, no, no, no!’”