I entered their story in October 1970, as things were getting desperate. Identifying them immediately as a terrific live band, well-drilled and bursting with energy, I wrote about them in MM accordingly. This was eight months before they had their first chart hit, so I was in at the beginning of their rise to glory if not the formation of the group, which can be traced back to 1966. Once within their orbit, however, I clung on for a topsy-turvy ride that lasted about five years. I don’t think any music writer wrote more about them than myself. I observed their extraordinary chart success, watched them grow as performers and saw them on stage many times in the UK, Continental Europe and America. I became their ‘official’ biographer in 1983, and contributed sleeve notes galore for both vinyl and CD albums, all the way up to 2005.
The four members of Slade, Noddy Holder, Jim Lea, Dave Hill and Don Powell, and Chandler, became good friends of mine insofar as music writers can become friends of musicians, but it always seemed to me to be more meaningful than a mutually beneficial relationship contingent on my support in the media. (They were, incidentally, the only group of note ever to visit me in my homes, both in the UK and US.) However, I always knew that if I crossed an unspoken line the relationship might wither, as it may have done more recently, albeit not from the point of view of everyone involved, that is all four members of the group and their current management.
I mention all this to set the record straight; an explanatory preamble to reviewing Whatever Happened To Slade?, the first biography of substance since my own which, in the meantime, has been joined by Holder’s two volumes of anecdotal memoirs and one each from Powell, which I commissioned and edited, and Hill. Whatever Happened To Slade? is bigger and better than any of them, far longer, far more detailed, far more considered, with far more attention paid to their music, and it is bang up to date, having been completed earlier this year after a lengthy gestation*. Furthermore, I was interviewed by its author, sent an early draft of the manuscript to ‘fact-check’ and my name appears in it 97 times.
So, I’m hardly impartial, but I can state without hesitation that what we have here is not only the nearest thing we are ever going to get to a definitive Slade biography but a book that, unlike my own, gains immeasurably from having been written with the benefit of hindsight; that takes into account perceptions and trends in popular music that did Slade no favours in the long term. Having worked within the music business as well as writing extensively about those who create the product on which it depends, Easlea knows how it operates and is therefore well placed to analyse the highs and lows of Slade’s frankly bizarre career. He’s also good at setting the scene, placing them (and how they dressed) within everything else that was happening in the 1970s, political, social and musical. Although the book isn’t ‘authorised’ per se, I happen to know that two members of the group, sympathetic to its aims, assisted in its research, and he’s spoken to numerous people who observed their ups and downs, several fellow musicians, some of whom appeared as support acts to Slade in their heyday, others who admire them greatly as well as present-day music critics and industry figures. Nevertheless, the two most important support staff who might have helped his inquiries, manager Chandler and long-serving tour manager Graham ‘Swin’ Swinnerton, died in 1996 and 2015 respectively. Specialist music industry accountant Colin Newman, who has handled their business affairs since Chandler gave up the reins in the early 1980s, has not been involved.
It’s unnecessary for me to go into detail about their career, but Daryl Easlea covers all the bases: how the four eventually found one another from among the West Midlands beat group scene of the mid-sixties, bonded while playing hundreds of semi-pro (and then pro) gigs as The ’NBetweens, including a four-month season in the Bahamas that has echoes of The Beatles in Hamburg, and stumbled into an early record deal that went nowhere. In 1969 they were taken on by Chandler and, two years later, had a minor hit with ‘Get Down And Get With It’, a raucous cover of a Little Richard bone-shaker. Once they’d got their foot in the door, however, there was no stopping them. With Chandler producing, Lea composing the music and Holder the lyrics, a glorious run of stomping hit singles with calculatingly misspelt titles followed: 12 top ten placings between 1971 and 1974, including six number ones, and three number one LPs, which positions them statistically and unequivocally as the top UK chart act of the era.
Simultaneously, their five-year stage apprenticeship ensured scores of concerts were not only instant sell-outs but knees-ups that raised the rafters in theatres of ever-increasing size throughout the UK and elsewhere. Holder, with his powerful voice, and the never-underdressed Hill were zealous OTT showmen; Lea, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, and sturdy drummer Powell, a strapping, unswerving backbone. The sum of it all was one of the UK’s greatest ever rock’n’roll showbands, unforgettable performers to their legions of fans. Easlea covers all of this in fine and entertaining detail.
Slade’s ascent reached its apex at that legendary 1973 Earls Court concert, almost immediately after which Powell was seriously injured in a motor accident in which his girlfriend was killed. By a slightly macabre quirk of fate, this event marked a turning point in the group’s fortunes and, thereafter, things would never be quite the same. Slade In Flame, their movie, was brave but uncharacteristically bitter and hit the wrong note, and no sooner had Powell recovered, at least partially, than they opted to relocate to the US in a forlorn attempt to replicate their UK success there. When after 18 months they abandoned their American dream, the UK had gone cold on them.
The period that followed is, to my mind, more interesting than their rise, and was certainly more appealing to Lea, a theorist distrustful of the celebrity thrust upon him. With their backs against the wall, Slade fought doggedly against a tide of indifference, heroically refusing to concede defeat. In the eyes of many, this perseverance was as impressive as their run of hits, and Easlea tracks their bumpy progress well, not least in terms of analysing the music they continued to produce, much of which, he correctly points out, was as good as anything they’d recorded earlier. Trouble was, Slade was passé and few were listening.
Then, out of the blue, there was the renaissance that followed a barnstorming appearance at the 1980 Reading Festival, bringing about a resurgence in popularity that didn’t quite match their earlier triumphs but was certainly well earned. By this time their influence was being felt by others, most notably Kiss and Cheap Trick (and possibly even Bruce Springsteen), who saw in them a template for mixing rock chops with high-spirited showmanship. All of this might even have translated into success in America at last were it not for a bit of bad luck, bad timing and ill-health.
Slade last toured in 1984 and though new records, some produced by Lea, continued to be released for the remainder of the decade, enthusiasm in the ranks was on the wane. While no official announcement was ever made, the group ceased collective endeavour following an impromptu appearance at a fan convention in Walsall in April, 1991. Holder, who hadn’t wanted to do it, was furious at being coerced into appearing on stage and, ever since, has resolutely opposed a reunion.
The final chapters cover all of this and beyond and, in part, answer the question posed by the title: whatever happened to Slade? But the reality is far more complex and, after covering the post-Slade activities of the individuals, Easlea concludes his book by dipping further into the Slade quandary, drawing an astute analogy between their fate and the name by which they were known before they became Slade, The ’NBetweens. “[It is]… exceptionally apt for the group they became,” he writes, “in between genres, in between fan groups, too English for America and when they ‘got serious’, they were in between the sombre music heads and their teenybop fans; their film was too grim for the majority of their followers, yet unseen by those who should have seen it; in between the class divide of the music industry; they were the real thing, and, as a result, somehow almost totally eclipsed by others who were far less popular than them in the day.”
If the book has a flaw, it is the author’s tendency to downplay anything disreputable or contentious. There’s plenty of rock’n’roll in the book but not much sex and drugs, and while Slade were hardly in the same league as Led Zeppelin or The Who when it came to on-the-road indulgences, there were occasions when their behaviour was maybe less than saintly. Perhaps more significantly, in a commendable attempt to remain impartial, apart from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Lea playing guitar parts in the studio, Easlea has side-stepped any mention of the division of labour within Slade, a prickly issue that has plagued inter-band relationships in recent years. In the 1990s Lea told me, “They didn’t play a note I didn’t tell them to,” a quote that appears elsewhere among Slade posts on this blog (which the author was invited by me to reference at will in his book), and the fact that Lea wrote almost 100% of the music while Holder the lion’s share of the lyrics, is not made clear. Similarly, there is no mention of Lea’s ongoing displeasure at newspaper articles in which Holder is invariably described as the ‘writer’ of ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’**, nor of his spats with Ray Davies and John Bonham, both of which Lea has talked about in the past. Also unmentioned is the disparity in wealth – Holder and Lea are rich, Hill and Powell aren’t – that has driven a wedge between them in the past two decades. Furthermore, unlike disappointed fans, he declines to comment on the merits or otherwise of ‘Slade’ groups fronted by Hill, of which both Holder and Lea have been dismissive in the past, and the two eight-page picture sections, which lack images of Chandler and Swinnerton***, are miserly to say the least.
Of greater significance, however, is the book’s crucial contention, which I share, that a profound injustice has been perpetrated upon Slade. They have never received a Brit Award, let alone a Grammy. Holder and Lea have never been nominated for an Ivor Novello Award, traditionally given to hit songwriters but also to those who have made an outstanding contribution to British music – like having 25+ top thirty singles, not to mention penning the country’s favourite Christmas song, perhaps – and the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland has stubbornly ignored them (despite attempts on my part to bring Slade’s achievements to their attention). Some lesser awards may have gone their way but apart from Holder’s MBE, awarded in 2000, they have been persistently snubbed by the music industry establishment.
Whatever Happened To Slade? does its best to rectify this. It’s a terrific read, in-depth and thoughtful over 480 pages, with an extensive discography and bibliography, index and an afterword by Jim Moir, aka Vic Reeves, who impersonated Noddy Holder in Reeves & Mortimer’s hilarious Slade spoof. Most importantly, the book bestows upon Slade the long overdue re-appraisal this great British rock band unquestionably deserves. Finally, I should add that Slade fans, as loyal a group of fans anywhere, anytime, ever, now have a new bible. They’ll know what I mean.