In 2005 I was commissioned by Polygram to write liner notes for a 'new' Slade hits CD. I'd done this many times before, the first time for the Slayed album in 1972. Noddy once told me they put out a new hits album whenever they get a big tax bill.
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It’s July 1971 and I’m with Slade in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark where they are shortly due to perform on a bandstand in the centre of a small lake. Chas Chandler, the group’s Geordie manager, a man cut from the same cloth as Jimmy Nail’s Oz character in Auf Wiedersehen Pet, is bristling because a tree obscures the sightline between the audience and the stage.
“Tell the promooter to get rid of that tree… mon,” he growls to an interpreter who scurries off with an anxious look on his face. The response, when it arrives, is negative.
“Then tell him if he doesn’t cut down the tree I’ll throw him in the lake and cut it down mysen’… mon.”
Nothing like hands-on management, I thought to myself as Chas despatched a roadie with an axe to attend to the problem. A little later, Slade having performed their usual raucous set to a wildly appreciative audience who could see them from all angles, Chas explained his management philosophy. “It’s all about being seen,” he said. “You can be the best band in the world but if nobody can see you might as well be the worst. You have to be seen… mon.”
You couldn’t avoid seeing Slade in their glory days, the early Seventies. They were seen on stages everywhere, from pubs and clubs to the London Palladium and Earls Court Arena, on Top Of The Pops, on the covers of magazines, and in the music, national and regional press. They were seen when they pretended to be skinheads and they were seen even more when Noddy Holder put on his top hat with reflective trim and Dave Hill, so far ahead of fashion that it still hasn’t caught up, stepped forward in the kind of outfit more suited to a bit-part player in Star Trek.
Chas Chandler’s philosophy was fat to the fire for Noddy who, more than any of his contemporaries, always believed in putting on a show, even back in the Sixties, in Wolverhampton, before they made records, when Slade were ripping up the local scene as The N’Betweens. “Noddy used to dress as a vicar for the Sunday evening shows at the Connaught,” says Dave. “He’d come on and say: ‘Welcome brethren to the N’Betweens Sunday service and give them a blessing. Then he’d do a Max Miller gag.”
“That’s true,” says Noddy, grinning at the memory. “I used to wear a vicar’s outfit with a dog collar and black hat, like some Southern preacher, and I’d come on and say, ‘We are gathered here to worship rock’n’roll’… it was billed as the Sunday service. I resurrected it in 1982 and we called it the Rock’n’roll Preacher Tour.”
The group that Noddy fronted came together as The N’Betweens in 1966. The four lads from the Black Country were already leading lights in other local bands by this time, Dave having joined The Vendors with drummer Don Powell before this pair broke away to become The N’Betweens. Seeking to improve the line-up this pair recruited Noddy from Steve Brett & The Mavericks and, shortly afterwards, Jim Lea from… well nowhere really. “I went for an audition at the Blue Flame Club in Wolverhampton,” he says. “I’d seen The N’Betweens twice and thought they were great. I didn’t want to be in any group but theirs.” Many tales are told of rock musicians finding employment through the quality of their equipment but the opposite was true with Jim. “I had a tatty old bass in a bin liner and no amp to speak of,” he says. “There were all these guys with Fenders and Marshall amps. I didn’t think I stood a chance.”
It was Jim’s natural musical skills – he played piano and violin too - that impressed Dave and Don but what they didn’t tell him was that the old N’Betweens were disintegrating and they had recruited Noddy. “Jim thought he was joining their group which was a blues group which he liked,” says Noddy. “Then Dave and Don told him they were splitting up that group and joining up with me. I’d only agreed to join them on the condition they would be visual, as Dave and Don both wanted to be more visual. Jim didn’t realise what he was getting into. We all went to Birmingham for some stage gear… Dave was pulling outrageous stuff off the racks. Jim didn’t know what to think but the seed was planted and Jim had to go along with it.”
“Nod put this check coat on, really loud and when he bought it I nearly died,” says Jim. “Then Dave puts on this horrific pair of tartan trousers. I was on the floor banging my fists. I thought… I can’t go on stage with them looking like that. All the things that they did, all the silliness… it was with them for ever.”
At this time there were sufficient venues on the local circuit for determined young rock musicians to make a reasonable living solely by performing live and The N’Betweens learned their craft playing cover versions around the Midlands, building up an enthusiastic live following long before the charts beckoned.
Influenced as much by Al Jolson, the American entertainer whose catchphrase was “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet”, as he was by Fifties piano-pounder Little Richard, Noddy’s sense of showmanship brought something special to a group that was nothing if not industrious. “In the Sixties we were playing these clubs and ballrooms and we used to have a vast repertoire. We had to think up new gimmicks as the audience was the same every two weeks. All these things we did we kept for later… we did it on trial and error and if something worked we’d keep it and if it didn’t we’d ditch it. All our audience participation stuff came from the time we played clubs and ballrooms between 1966 and 1969.”
In the modern era, all it takes for a band to hit the charts is a few TV appearances and a well-connected PR but in Slade’s day it took hard work. “We worked very hard right from the beginning,” says Noddy. “We were playing four or five nights a week, and rehearsing the rest of the time. We’d always had this very confident attitude, that we would be colourful and that we would be the best, that we were going to make it. What we didn’t know was how to make it, not until Chas arrived anyway.”
Chas Chandler proved to be the missing ingredient. A brawny idealist raised in Newcastle, Chandler worked as a turner in shipyards before he joined local R&B addicts The Animals on bass guitar, an apprenticeship in the pop business that gave him a keen insight into the way the music industry operated and an instinctive feeling for the way cash flowed. Then he became the manager and producer of Jimi Hendrix, the legendary guitarist from Seattle, before happening on Slade when they auditioned for Philips Records.
“At first, before Chas, we were too clever for our own good,” admits Noddy. Certainly there was a lack of focus, their first album in 1969 offering cover versions of material by, amongst others, Frank Zappa, Marvin Gaye, The Moody Blues, Steppenwolf and The Beatles. “We hadn’t found a musical identity. Chas saw the potential and knew we had to focus ourselves. It took us a long time.”
Noddy isn’t exaggerating. It would be a further two years before the tide turned but Chandler, too, believed in hard work and under his guidance they continued to tour the UK, gaining a footholds in Scotland and the West Country as well as their home patch. A second album came and went, as did a questionable episode in which they were promoted as skinheads, the fairly unpleasant youth cult of close-cropped lads who liked nothing better than to bully peace-loving hippies. This didn’t sit too well with the band. “Chas got us in the office and brought out a bottle of Scotch,” recalls Don. “I thought, ‘Aye aye, what’s going on here’. He didn’t usually offer us a drink.”
Noddy and Don went along with the idea but Dave and Jim weren’t convinced. “I was horrified,” says Jim, who was a Pink Floyd fan. “But Chas had a very eloquent way of putting things.”
“It was a move made from desperation,” says Noddy.
In the event the skinhead period came and went without really advancing Slade’s cause, although there was a typical tabloid hoo-ha which blew over fairly quickly. Of far more importance in the long term was Slade’s growing confidence as a live band, and a song they’d introduced into the stage set which was popularised by Noddy’s idol Little Richard. “We used ‘Get Down And Get With It’ as a blueprint for our sound,” he says. “It was perfect, a fantastic rocker with scope for audience participation. I’d yell, ‘Everybody stamp your feet…’ and they did, and that stamping, the boot stamping became our identity. That was our focus. We’d found it at last.”
‘Get Down And Get With It’ was released in May, 1971, and reached No 16 in the UK charts, their first Top Twenty placing, which enabled Slade to appear on Top Of The Pops, the principal weekly TV chart show. The momentum was building but there was one further hurdle to overcome that Chandler brought to their attention, and quite forcefully too. “He said our next single had to written by us,” says Noddy. “He demanded it.” Indeed, Noddy was worried that if they didn’t write a decent song together Chandler might drop them, a fate that would almost certainly consign them to history. “We’d have done anything to avoid that,” he says.
Up until this point there had been some rather half-hearted attempts at writing original material amongst themselves with varying credits, usually Jim and Don working together, and Noddy with Dave. Now, in the autumn of 1971, they hit on the combination of Noddy and Jim as principal composers, Noddy focusing on the lyrics and Jim, the group’s tunesmith, coming up with the melodies. “It wasn’t until me and Jim started writing that we made it. We sat down and wrote ‘Cos I Love You’ in 20 minutes. As soon as we put on the boot stamping it came alive. That became the Slade trademark, a focus, a sound, an indentity… that and my voice. Plus the big chords and Don’s shuffle beat.”
‘Cos I Love You’ became Slade’s first Number One. “It took off like greased lightning,” says Noddy, who is keen to emphasise that despite the subsequent prominence of himself and Jim, Slade was always a four-man group. “Everyone had a role to play. Although it was Jim and me that wrote the songs, Slade would never have been what they were without Dave and Don. Dave had an amazing guitar sound, loud, boosted guitar, and Don’s shuffle beat was a key thing and he was as solid as a rock. Everyone had their own strengths and could cover whatever weaknesses there were, and that includes Chas. He was strong and he was strong at dealing with the record company. He had so much confidence in us it wasn’t true.”
‘Coz I Luv You’, the first Holder-Lee composition, was also the first to introduce the phonetic spelling which would become a trademark for Slade, causing a great furore among teachers at schools up and down the country as well as some useful publicity. It was also the first in a glorious run of hit singles unequalled in the Seventies: 17 consecutive Top Twenty hits, including six Number Ones, between 1971 and 1976, and 39 chart entries in all. At the same time three of their albums also topped the LP charts in an 18 month spell between 1972 and 1974.
Thus it was that Slade became famous and, as a newly appointed staff writer on Melody Maker, then the country best selling music weekly, I got to know them well. I first saw them in a club off London’s Regent Street, Samantha’s, having been coerced there by Chas who bought me several drinks and spent two hours telling me how good they were. “A breath of fresh eayer... mon,” was a recurring phrase that reverberated in my ear. Dissent would have been both futile and incomprehensible as it dawned on me almost immediately after they started playing that here was a terrific live act, hard, pugnacious, confident, well-drilled and masters of the stage. The interplay between them was such as could only have materialised over a long period of time.
It also dawned on me that Slade were a bit different from their contemporaries in their attitude towards beckoning rock stardom. Not for them the delights of London’s honeypot clubs and fancy hotels, expensive restaurants and garish limousines. When they came down to London from Wolverhampton where they continued to live they stayed at a small hotel near Paddington Station which charged £4 a night and where supper could had for £1, and they travelled around in a Vauxhall Velox, all four of them, with tour manager Graham Swinnerton behind the wheel. “We were an enigma,” says Jim. “No-one knew what to make of us because we hadn’t changed at all. I still used to meet my girlfriend Louise [to whom he remains married] during her lunch break and take her for coffee. Our lives didn’t change expect that we were busier.”
If any of them was an enigma it was Jim. While Holder, Hill and Powell were born extroverts, hell bent on enjoying their fame, albeit in a less flamboyant way than their peers, Jim Lea seemed perpetually worried, pondering the significance of the group’s success with a knotted brow, and less inclined towards the outlandish attire that became de rigueur for Slade as the hits rolled off the production line.
In contrast, Noddy was brash and outspoken, seen by all as Slade’s natural leader and he played up the image, at least on stage and on TV. As the skinhead look gave way to a more colourful image of dazzling, over-the-top outfits, Noddy donned red check pants and yellow tops, grew out his sidewhiskers and crowned the look with a top hat festooned with mirrors. As if entering into a spirit of competition, Dave Hill went even further, generally wrapping himself in silver foil, adding glittery make-up and, of course, a famous space-age looking guitar that carried the legend ‘Superyob’. On occasion Dave would change in the dressing room toilet to avoid jokes from the rest of the band. Moments before Slade appeared on Top Of The Pops promoting ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’, he emerged in his spectacular ‘Metal Nun’ costume. Faced with Jim’s open-mouthed amazement, he retorted: “You write ‘em. I’ll sell ‘em.” Had he not been stranded behind his kit, Don Powell would have been equally hard to miss.
This huge hit, Slade’s seventh in a row, became only the fifth record in chart history to go straight in at number one, a feat that they accomplished three times in all which remained a record until it was matched by The Jam in the early Eighties and finally eclipsed by Take That in 1994, after which it became commonplace. “Chas had a good relationship with Johnny Fruin, the head of Polydor, and they planned how they could make our records go straight to number one,” says Noddy. “That doesn’t mean anything today but it did then.”
Their third single to hit the top in the first week was ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, probably their best known recording and a perennial favourite at Christmas time. It has also charted consistently ever since, while the number of cover versions are too numerous to mention.
Though Slade’s roller-coaster ride was now well under way, Chas maintained a firm grip on his charges. “Our recordings were made very quickly,” says Noddy. “Chas would never allow us to go into the studio before we had written the song. That was wasting money. Me and Jim would write the song, then the four of us would rehearse it, then we went into the studio and Chas would always do it very fast, with all four of us playing together live. I used to love doing it live like that. The amps were partitioned off… we’d have two, three four takes and generally we’d get it in the second or third. We usually used my live vocal too, and then we’d patch in the odd error. That was the way to make records as far as I was concerned. We’d put some things on later but the nuts and bolts of the track was us playing live in the studio.”
Slade were of the old school in other ways too. “We were touring for 10 months of the year and we had to make one album and three singles a year, so there simply wasn’t much time to record. It was hard work… up to 1978/9 we did 200 gigs a year. We made Slade Alive over thee nights at a recording studio in Piccadilly, and almost all of it came from the second night. The Slayed LP was recorded and mixed in less than a month.”
The Slade phenomenon just grew and grew, their songs becoming anthems of an era, heard on juke-boxes in pubs up and down the land, in school playgrounds and on football terraces. They were a people’s band, pure and uncontaminated, a ‘breath of fresh eayer… mon’ as Chas Chandler would tell anyone who would listen, time and time again until he was hoarse and red-faced, their true champion. “He would walk through walls for us,” says Noddy who, at Chas’s funeral in 1996, recalled how when the touring party stayed at the Miyako, a Japanese-themed hotel in San Francisco, he literally did just that. “They had these paper walls and Chas walked through one. In the morning when we were checking out, they had all these replaceable paper walls that people had walked through and you could see the shapes of people… Chas’s was the biggest shape. I’ll always remember him that way… the biggest.”
Slade’s career stuttered a bit in the late Seventies when punk took over, though in reality they had much in common with the generation of rockers that sought to topple the old order. Their image wasn’t right for the time and they were ignored by a hawkish music press keen to advance the punks. There was even some disquiet in the ranks, with in-house concern over their future. Deep down inside, though Slade still had what it took, a legacy of 15 years playing together, and in what now ranks as one of the triumphs of their career, they made an extraordinary comeback at the 1981 Reading Festival. Chandler had to spend some time persuading a reluctant Slade to appear.
Like all Reading Festivals it was scheduled for the last weekend of August and Slade were scheduled to perform early in the evening on the closing Sunday. Jim’s brother Frank drove them down from Wolverhampton in a small rented car. “We’d lost our backstage car park pass and had to park in the public car park,” says Jim. “We actually had to pay to park our car. Then there was a hassle getting backstage. It seemed no-one wanted to know us.”
The scene that greeted them was all too familiar. Young bands lounged around record company hospitality tents with a gaggle of impressionable girls and there was a fleet of limousines, Rolls-Royces and Daimlers, awaiting their convenience. “We were carrying our own guitars,” says Jim. “We didn’t even have a roadie with us. We felt like gun slingers at high noon… we were strutting through this area in a line and holding up someone’s Roller behind us. I refused to move. Why should I? I’d written more bloody hits than all that lot put together.”
There was no record hospitality tent for Slade, no retinue of hangers-on, no interest from the press photographers. Slade, it seemed, were yesterday’s men. “Tommy Vance came up to us and wished us luck,” recalls Don. “He said he knew were going to do well.”
Jim Lea, who always relished being the underdog, had the bit between his teeth and was brimming with confidence. “I looked at those posers and knew we could do it. Everybody was staring at us. I wanted to hammer them all into the ground.”
That year’s Reading Festival was later remembered for just two reasons: the almost unceasing barrage of can throwing and Slade’s extraordinary performance. It was no coincidence that only during that performance did the can throwing die down. In the gloaming of a Berkshire afternoon Slade produced that special touch of magic that Chas still likened to a breath of fresh ‘eayer’.
They took the stage just after 6pm and by 6.15 had the unruly crowd in the palm of their hand, hushed in their admiration for Slade’s unbridled professionalism and showmanship, qualities evidently lacking elsewhere on the bill. At 7, when they left, the delighted crowd took it upon themselves to bellow an unaccompanied chorus of ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’, their only hit that Slade declined to play. It was probably their greatest achievement ever, and it signalled the beginning of a comeback that lasted for ten more years.
Chas watched from the side of the stage and at one point locked eyes with Dave, the member of the group least eager to play Reading. “Old Chas was smiling at me like he was saying, ‘What did I tell you?’” says Dave. “I couldn’t help but laugh back at him. It was the happiest day of my life.”
Buoyed by the spectacular appearance at the Reading Festival, Slade found a new rock audience and, eventually, their career spanned three decades, two rock generations and several leaps of fashion. Their influence was felt at home and abroad, and their sound – fat and pounding – would cross the Atlantic and re-emerge a decade later under the guise of Glam Metal. In 1983 a cover version of ‘Come On Feel The Noize’ by Quiet Riot became a Number Five hit in the US, while in the Nineties Oasis released a cover of the song, as well as featuring it as the climax to their concerts.
Their Eighties comeback coincided with the beginning of the video age which is probably why they had to wait until then to secure their only US hit in 1984 with ‘Run Runaway’, which was accompanied by a high-rotation video. “We’d have been perfect for videos,” says Noddy, with only the tiniest hint of regret. “If we were to have done it ten, fifteen years later… we were before our time in that way, being colourful and having the right image for the small screen. We did well live in America but struggled to get a hit, then we had one with a video, and then Quiet Riot’s hit was a note-for-note copy.”
“But I’m so proud of Slade,” he says. “So proud of what we did together. I am still proud of the body of work we did. We were together with the same line up for 25 years, and U2 aside that’s some kind of record I think. That’s 25 years spent on the road from having all those hits in the Seventies. We sold more singles than any other band in the 70s. I’m really proud of that.
“People might once have thought of us as a novelty act because of ‘Merry Christmas’ but that’s not true, and it’s turned. There was more to us than that… much more.”
Chris Charlesworth, September 2005.