Back in 2009 Jim Lea, Slade’s multi-instrumentalist and chief songwriter, released an album of his own called Therapy which, in his own words, was ‘the product of a notoriously tricky journey into midlife and its incumbent crises’. If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, think again. Therapy was a thoughtful record, crafted with skill and imagination, a collection of 13 songs that only rarely echo the glam rock wham-bang of Slade. Painstaking recorded with immaculate attention to detail and a complement of strings, brass and woodwind, it would have exasperated Slade producer Chas Chandler, a firm believer in the in-and-out-as-fast-as-you-can style of recording.
Therapy was released on Jim’s own label, Jim Jam Records, which didn’t have access to decent distribution so it slipped by largely unnoticed except by a few Slade fans, though it’s sold consistently over the years through word of mouth. I don’t recall reading any reviews, and had Jim not told me about himself – and played me a few tracks in his car parked in the West End one lunchtime – I’d have been none the wiser. I was particularly taken with a song called ‘The Smile Of Elvis’ and though I wasn’t too keen on tracks that incorporated recitations, I warmed to the record as I listened to it while commuting. It was an album that could only have been made by someone who’d seen rock from the inside and now felt the need to comment as an outsider, and though I don’t think Jim intended it to be a concept work, there is a theme to the songs insofar as it does indeed reflect a journey into midlife, a bit deeper than most albums and certainly deeper than being all crazee now. This isn’t say it’s a moody trip – some of the songs rock out – but there’s a trace of maturity, of contemplation in the lyrics, that’s like an aged malt whisky.
I wasn’t aware until last week (when Jim told me) that Therapy has been re-released, along with three additional tracks. Its title is no out-of-thin-air whim for after Slade Jim enrolled in a psychotherapy college in London and trained as a therapist, though he has never practised. Throughout the Slade years he was alternately bemused, untouched and slightly exasperated by the impact of fame. While the other three members of the group seemed to enjoy being famous, Jim turned his back on unwelcome intrusions into his life, retreating to his home in Staffordshire to raise a family with his wife Louise, his childhood sweetheart. They are still married and still live in the same house.
Although Noddy Holder is widely assumed to be the cornerstone of Slade, the truth is that without Jim they’d have got nowhere. Noddy had – and probably still has, though we never get to hear it these days – a fantastic rock’n’roll voice, a cross between Little Richard, John Lennon and Rod Stewart, and he could come up with a nifty lyric when called upon to do so, but it was Jim’s innate skill in the creativity department that was the key element to the group’s success. Without him they’d have remained a covers band with no songs of their own, a damn fine bar band mind you, but still making a living belting out songs like ‘Born To Be Wild’ and ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’ in pubs around the Midlands, as they did for five years before ‘Get Down And Get With It’, another cover, reached the charts in 1971.
Jim played bass on stage and like all bassists in bands that became enormously successful – McCartney, Entwistle, Bruce, Jones – he came from a musical background. Born and raised in a pub where music was a source of laughter and merry-making, Jim played the violin from an early age, just like his grandfather, and it was soon discovered that he had a natural flair for music. Although he learned to sight read, he remains convinced that his musical skills are not something that came from dedicated practice – that’s not his style – but from something in his genes. He’s one of those slightly lopsided musical masterminds who can get a tune out of any instrument he turns his mind to, guitar, piano, strings, probably the bagpipes for all I know.
There is something else, too, in Jim’s make up. He is partially dyslexic. He doesn’t like to read books – he hasn’t even read my 1984 ‘official’ biography of Slade, which if I didn't know him as well as I do might have displeased me – and has trouble concentrating. There is a school of thought that believes dyslexia is a gift and not an affliction, and I’m inclined to agree. It might explain why Jim sailed through art classes a year ahead of his age group at college and looked set for a brilliant career in design until he answered an advert in the local paper placed by The N’Betweens, a Wolverhampton band that needed a new bass player. As I wrote in the liner notes to accompany a Slade hits CD in 2005, many tales are told of rock musicians finding employment through the quality of their equipment but the opposite was true with Jim. He brought his cheap bass to the audition in a bin liner and his amp was sub par too. Nevertheless, although he was just 16 – three years younger than Noddy, Dave and Don – his skills ensured he got the job over a bunch of hopefuls with Fender basses and Marshall amps. Gear means nothing to him – he wrote most of Slade’s hits on an old Spanish guitar that belonged to Louise.
Once Slade became popular, Jim hated dressing up in the glam rock outfits of the era. Neither was he impressed by the trappings of fame or the stars he came across – he had memorable fallings-out with Ray Davies and John Bonham – and found the challenge of making it far more satisfying than being successful. When the hits came off the production line with the regularity of 1-2-3, Jim felt it had become too easy so, unlike the others, he became frustrated, discontented, pondering on the emptiness of success. As Slade’s star lost its shine during the second half of the seventies, he was certainly up for a second trial of strength but like Noddy he knew when to call it a day, and now has no interest whatsoever in joining Dave Hill and Don Powell in their Slade II touring band.
Jim, of course, was half of Slade’s song writing partnership – perhaps the least well known half – so his royalties, alongside wise investments and disinclination towards self-indulgence, mean he has no need to exert himself. The PRS cheques for ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ alone could feed a family of four for a lifetime. He still maintains the lowest of low profiles, believing that “a low profile led to an easier life”. Nevertheless, his contribution to Slade’s catalogue ought not to be underestimated. “For every new song I wrote for them, I also wrote some lyrics but I left it to Nod to finish them or rewrite them,” he says, adding that his role in the band went some way further than simply writing the melodies and playing bass. “After a few weeks with the band it became natural for me to do all the musical arranging for them,” he tells me. “It was never an imposition, more an enjoyable encumbrance.”
Finally, I should mention that Therapy comes with a second CD taken from the one and only solo gig Jim Lea has ever performed, at the Robin 2 R’n’B Club in Bilston in November 2002. Fronting a trio, singing and playing lead guitar as opposed to bass, Jim called his band Jim Jam and rocked out without mercy, probably as loud as Slade in their day and, believe me, Slade could be blisteringly loud. The set list includes covers, a handful of Slade hits and a couple of his own songs, one of them a tribute to Keith Moon called ‘Over The Moon’ which segues into ‘Substitute’, as good a cover of this Who masterpiece as I’ve ever heard. More importantly Jim shows off lead/rhythm guitar skills I hadn’t imagined existed, a touch of Hendrix on ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Wild Thing’, a hint of jazz in the slippery chords of ‘Far Far Away’, a punk onslaught on ‘Pretty Vacant’ and an overall mastery of feedback whenever the mood takes him.
Jim also handles the introductions, anecdotes, self-effacing wit and a few dollops of homespun wisdom. “Nowadays bands take a year to make an album and tour for three weeks,” he says at one point. “In our day we had two weeks to make an album and toured for three years.”
Far be it for me to say which method produces the best results.
Far be it for me to say which method produces the best results.