The spectacular story of Slade: glamour, tragedy and beyond

Noddy Holder remembers the exact time when he finally realised how massively – make that unbelievably – popular Slade had become in Britain.

It was the morning of July 5, 1973, and the story made front-page headlines on just about every UK national daily newspaper: Slade drummer Don Powell had been seriously injured after crashing his Bentley the night before. A passenger in the vehicle – Powell’s girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife, Angela – had been killed. Powell had to be dragged from the mangled wreckage and taken to intensive care.

“We were at the pinnacle of our career,” Holder recalls today. “We’d had a string of hit records, and we were just at the end of a big British tour. That year we’d had both Cum On Feel The Noize and Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me come in straight in at No.1. Our tour had ended at Earl’s Court, and there were 18,000 people in to see us. We had a stormer of a show, and we were really riding on the crest of a wave. Then a week later Don had his crash. He was given 24 hours to live. It all came crumbling down in one day.”

The story of Slade starts with Powell. The Bilston, Staffordshire-born drummer had originally been a part of The Vendors, a band that guitarist Dave Hill soon joined. The Vendors changed their name to The ’N Betweens, and bass player Jim Lea, a trained musician who was also skilled at playing violin and cello, was brought in after a successful audition.

A little later, Powell spotted Noddy Holder in a band called Steve Brett & The Mavericks. Powell and Hill persuaded him to join the ’N Betweens. They regrouped as Ambrose Slade, and released an unsuccessful album called Beginnings in spring 1969. After a rethink, they shortened their name to Slade… and that’s where their boisterous, belligerent, rollick’n’roll success story begins.

After a bunch of low-key singles and an album – the prophetically titled Play It Loud – in May 1971 Slade struck gold with the Top 20 smash Get Down & Get With It. The single reached No.16, and heralded a succession of Slade hits that lasted for nigh on 20 years.

With their over-the-top appearances on Top Of The Pops and their rowdy-as-hell music, Slade created a glitter-stomp revolution. The nation took them to its heart and the band became part of the fabric of British society – even though that fabric was part calf-length tartan trousers, part silver spandex spacesuit.

To hardened rock fans at the time, Slade came as a raucous relief to the feeble shang-a-lang sound of the seemingly omnipresent Bay City Rollers. Noddy and co. might have been a mainstream chart act like the Rollers, but Slade weren’t fey in the slightest – they were ferocious to the max. They were a resolutely working-class lads’ band, and their stage shows combined the experiences of cheering at a football match from the terraces with a ruck in the pub car park at closing time.

“Even now when we meet people and they tell us of the effect we were having at the time, we can’t believe it,” marvels Holder. “We were in our own little bubble in our real heyday. We couldn’t go out to the cinema or go shopping anything like that. It was just us, our roadies – our entourage, if you like – and Chas [Chandler, Slade’s late manager/producer]. We didn’t really get see everyday life, we were either on the road or in the studio.”

But when Don Powell’s terrible car crash made front-page news, the sheer scale of Slade’s popularity suddenly hit home. “Don survived, but his memory was wrecked. His taste and smell had gone – he still can’t taste or smell anything now, in fact. We didn’t know how the band would carry on.” .

But carry on Slade did, as Powell was nursed back to some semblance of health. “Slade was always all about us four people – four people who really gelled. Take away one of those people and that’s the end of it. Don slowly but surely got better. Within six or seven weeks his strength began to return. I remember Chas saying to Don: ‘Do you think you’re well enough to play live?’. Don was suffering from severe memory loss, but we took him on the road anyway.

“We found out that once we started a song, Don could remember how it went. So while I was doing the introductions to the audience, Jim would be whispering in Don’s ear: ‘It starts like this: tippety-tap, tippety-tap-tap’.

“Then it would all come flooding back. So that’s how we did gigs for the next two years. We coaxed Don back into a way of playing. It was either that or get another drummer – and if that’d happened I’d’ve quit the band.”

After an atypical hit called My Friend Stan, at the end of 1973 Slade released Merry Xmas Everybody. Whatever momentum the group had lost through Powell’s car crash and subsequent mental problems had been regained – in spades.

Holder: “We’d already done 500,000 of Merry Xmas Everybody before it was released. Then we got 300,000 reorders on the first day it came out. So we sold 800,000 copies in two days. We were probably the biggest thing in the UK at that time.”

In 2005 it’s easy to forget just how enormous Slade were in the 1970s. Classic Rock is sitting talking to Noddy Holder in the restaurant of the five-star Landmark Hotel, an imposing edifice on London’s Marylebone Road. Piped muzak wafts in the background but otherwise the atmosphere is hushed. We’re drinking mineral water and eating Caesar salad with tiger prawns. Crazee it isn’t.

Nevertheless, we’re here to celebrate the forthcoming release of The Very Best Of Slade on both CD and DVD. The CD contains all the hits and more, right up to the ‘classic’ band’s final single release, 1991’s Universe. The DVD features a wealth of video tasties, including promos and television appearances (not only from Top Of The Pops; there are also obscure clips from the Russell Harty Show and Supersonic). But the highlight is a six-song set from Granada TV in 1971 that catches Slade early in their career, showcasing the energy and sheer yobbish exuberance of their live performance.

Noddy is an amazing raconteur. For a man who’ll be 60 next year he’s still as bright as the panels on his famous top hat – those glittering mirrors that used create their own mini-lightshow back in the day. We talked for the best part of two hours but still only really skimmed the surface of Slade’s illustrious career. Here are the choicest moments from our chat with the singer whose surname really shouldn’t be Holder, it should be Hollerer:

You quit Slade in 1991. How did that come about?

That was when we had our last decent hit single, Radio Wall Of Sound. Most people don’t realise we had a 20-year span of hits, starting in 1971 with Get Down & Get With It. People always remember the singles from 70s, but we also had a whole string of hits in the 80s after we made our comebacks at the Reading Festival [1980] and Donington [1981]. But by 1991 I felt given my all to the band. I thought: “I’ve got to do something for myself now”. Dave and Don are obviously still working together as Slade II, but 1991 was the last special time for the four of us together.

You’ve never been tempted to re-form the ‘classic’ line-up?

I think the others would have done. I’m the one that’s probably put the spanner in the works. We get offers every year, very good offers, especially at Christmas time, obviously.

Would anything ultimately tempt you?

I have no inclinations. Slade did everything it set out to do. I didn’t want to carry on touring, doing Cum On Feel The Noize night after night. Now I’m doing something different every day – a bit of acting, I’ve got my own radio shows, television work, voiceover work. I did 30 episodes of The Grimleys on TV. It’s good, I feel like I’m stretching myself again.

Years ago, you once roadied for Robert Plant’s pre-Led Zeppelin band, Band Of Joy. How did that happen?

The keyboard player in Band Of Joy used to live opposite my mum and dad’s house. And I knew Robert when we were kids growing up. When Robert got kicked out of home he went to stay with a mate of mine from school, Roger Beamer, who was in a band called Listen. Then when Robert formed Band Of Joy he went to live with the keyboard player across the road from me. My dad was a window cleaner – he had a big window cleaning van. So I used to borrow the van to roadie for Band Of Joy.

With your tousled hairstyle and Brummie accent, did you ever get mistaken for Plant?

Robert Plant stole my look [laughs]. We might’ve had the same dad, in fact. You never know, our dad might have got around a bit.

What’s the story behind Ambrose Slade, when the band had a skinhead image?

Chas [Chandler] wanted to set us apart. He said: ‘There’s no skinhead bands around, why don’t you try that sort of image?’ Because back then being a skinhead wasn’t political, it was purely fashion. So we had our hair cut short. And that infuriated Dave, who was dead set against it. We had skinhead haircuts and we got the braces, the Doc Martens, the Sta-Prest [smart Levi’s pants] and the Ben Sherman shirts. The look and everything.

But the skinhead style didn’t last long.

We got a lot of flak for being a skinhead band. Television and radio were very high- handed in those days. It wasn’t an image we could sustain and get mass acceptance with. So, gradually, we changed. But even when we had our first hit with Get Down & Get With It we were still a skinhead band. After all, it was the perfect stomping record for skinheads. But eventually we grew our hair down the back, a bit like the skinhead girls – the feather-cut thing. We replaced the Doc Martens with platform boots. We became more colourful. And then it went more and more berserk, obviously. Dave went into all his mad phases – Superyob, the spacesuits and all that. It was a great laugh.

When glam rock metamorphosed into glitter rock, it was basically a rip- off of the Slade sound.

Slade, Marc Bolan and Dave Bowie were the glam rock originals, I suppose. But as soon as Slade’s records started to take off – with that thudding beat, that wall of sound – all the producers and record companies saw how successful it was, and they began to do it with their own bands. Slade did pave the way for the archetypal glitter rock sound.

Can a band ever captivate the nation again like Slade did in the 70s?

Oh yeah, I think it’s been done since us. There’s some great music around now, but the thing that’s lacking is that bands don’t seem to have what I would call a showbiz image. It’s all very ‘street’. You don’t see anybody on Top Of the Pops smiling any more. Everybody wants to be cool. Too cool, I think. You’ve got to let rip and have fun. That’s why The Darkness are such a success – it’s tongue-in-cheek. And in a way they’re harping back to the colourful outrageousness of the past. That’s a big part of their success.

Like The Darkness have done with their new album, Slade once worked with Roy Thomas Baker as their record producer.

Roy did a couple of tracks on our last studio album, You Boyz Make Big Noize [1987]. The idea was to bring him in to update our sound somewhat. He did a perfectly fine job. Jim liked working with him, but I didn’t. Roy took three or four days to get the drum sound alone. It was like a jigsaw, the way Roy wanted to put our songs together. It wasn’t the way I saw Slade. Slade were spontaneous. None of our classic singles was made that way. That was one of the reasons why I didn’t want to carry on in the band.

Slade are best known for their bashalong anthems, but there was more to the Holder-Lea songwriting partnership than that.

People remember us for Merry Xmas Everybody, Cum On Feel The Noize, Mama Weer All Crazy Now… they’re all of an ilk. But what people often don’t remember are Everyday, Far, Far Away, How Does It Feel, My Friend Stan and all the other stuff we stuck in-between. It was a very mixed bag. We didn’t just churn out rock records all the time, we did all sorts of things. But the rock ones were the rowdy ones, and that’s what people remember the most.

Your 1975 movie, Slade In Flame, was unexpectedly dark.

We didn’t go in and make a knockabout comedy movie, which everybody thought we would. We came out with a solid, credible rock film about what went on behind the scenes in the rock business. There were some laughs in it, but a lot of people came out of the cinema shocked. If you ask Dave, he’ll probably say the biggest mistake of our career was …Flame. He thinks we should’ve have done a comedy spoof. But I fought tooth and nail at the time not to do that. I said: “We’ve got to go for shock tactics”. Throughout our career it’s always been shock tactics, to be honest.

Slade toured America extensively, but – despite influencing the likes of Kiss and Kurt Cobain – you never quite cracked it over there. What are your best memories of playing in the States?

We toured with loads of bands: Humble Pie, ZZ Top, J Geils Band, Black Sabbath, Santana, you name it. The best shows were with ZZ Top – but this was before beards, when they were just a down-home Texas boogie band. Tres Hombres, Fandango, Rio Grande Mud, they were such great albums. It was a fantastic time to be on the road with ZZ Top. When we first went out to the US, Aerosmith were our opening act a lot of the time. But when Aerosmith’s Toys In The Attic album broke big we ended up as their Special Guests.

Back home in the UK, Slade used to support Yes at London’s Marquee Club. That sounds like a bizarre pairing.

It was the very first incarnation of Yes, with Peter Banks on guitar. They had a residency at the Marquee and we used to open for them every month or so.

You must have had many encounters with fellow midlander Ozzy Osbourne over the years.

We used to knock around with him a lot. I remember one occasion in the 80s, when Sharon had started managing him. Ozzy was always completely out of his tree. He was in the office, slumped in a chair, saying: “I can’t fucking do this any more, fucking hell, fucking hell.” Sharon goes: “Oh, come on, boo-boo.” Ozzy says: “Don’t you fucking call me boo-boo in front of these people. I’m the prince of darkness!”

Ozzy used to go AA meetings with Don, our drummer, at lunchtimes. At half past two they’d say: “Oh, hang on, the fucking pubs are shutting in a minute [70s licensing hours].” We went into the pub one lunchtime, and there’s an Arab guy sitting next to us reading the newspaper. The newspaper is in Arabic. Ozzy leans over to him and says: “Here, mate, what’s my horoscope?”

Ozzy’s the funniest bloke in rock. Everyone thinks his brain’s gone, but no way.

Do you still have any of your old Slade stage clothes?

I’ve given them all away over the years. I’ve got no stage clobber left. It’s been more than 20 years since I’ve done anything on the road. I’ve given it away to charity auctions and things like that. Gradually, bit by bit, everything goes.

Where’s the mirrored hat?

Oh, I’ve still got the hat. It’s in a safe deposit box. I’ll never part with the hat. No way.

Looking at the Slade footage on the DVD, does it seem like yesterday, or a lifetime ago?

Another life. Definitely, yeah.

This feature was first published in Classic Rock issue 87.

10 Slade Songs That Prove They're Bigger Than Just Xmas

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is a British journalist who founded the heavy metal magazine Kerrang! and was an editor of Sounds music magazine. He specialised in covering rock music and helped popularise the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) after using the term for the first time (after editor Alan Lewis coined it) in the May 1979 issue of Sounds.