On the weekend BBC4 rightly celebrated the festive glory that is Slade – with a dusted-off documentary, songs from the Beeb archive songs, and the first terrestrial screening of the wondrous Flame for many moons – writewyattuk decided it was time to bang Don Powell’s bass drum again for Wolverhampton’s finest …
My daughters have already learned a valuable lesson in life. It’s not officially the festive season until you’ve heard Noddy Holder shout ‘It’s Christmas’ at the top of his lungs at the climax of Merry Xmas Everybody. For my seasonal blog this weekend I’ll happily shout from the rooftops that ‘Tis the season to hear Slade songs. And thankfully I’m not alone in that sentiment.
As I was only born in 1967 – the year Noddy and the Memphis Cut-Outs met ‘N Betweens Don, Dave and Jim on a slow boat to Germany – I can’t pretend I’ve been a Slade fan right from the off. I can’t say I shelled out for the Ambrose Slade album first time around, can’t remember where I was when Coz I Luv You topped the charts, can’t kid you I turned up for the press preview of Slade Alive at Ronnie Scott’s, and can’t hoodwink you into believing I was at Earls Court for that momentous gig so many fans get dewy-eyed about.
I did work with someone who went to the Sheffield premiere of Flame, but personally my love for the band has been largely unrequited. Yet Slade have always been important to me, as well as an almighty influence on many of the bands I went on to follow in later years.
I had a wide grounding in music from my older sisters – from Buddy Holly to David Essex and from Rod Stewart to Mud and Pilot (you won’t mind if I leave my appreciation for the Glitter Band in brackets). Young as I was, I knew the difference between street credibility and Showaddywaddy, and certainly didn’t appreciate Abba’s musical worth until I saw Elvis Costello’s blinding version of Knowing Me Knowing You at Glastonbury in the late ’80s.
Yet while my sisters’ tastes alternated, my brother – seven years older – was more focused. And with him it was Slade first and foremost. He also honed an appreciation for the likes of The Beatles, T Rex, Wizzard, Steve Harley and Wings, but at the time seemed to have little time for anyone but Slade. Then again, you didn’t really need anyone else with the Black Country Four.
In later years I discovered – albeit 15 years too late – the power of Mott the Hoople and early Roxy Music. But there was only one Slade. And no matter how many times my bro tells his tale of listening on the school field on a transistor radio to Johnny Walker one lunchtime when Slade went straight in at No.1 for the first time, their appeal will not fade.
I was only six when Merry Xmas Everybody was first released, but I’ll always equate the first half of the 1970s with climbing trees, endless summer days, The Big Match and Slade. I only remember the odd Top of the Pops performance and cuttings from the teen mags lovingly glued into his scrapbook. But between trips into the girls’ bedroom to listen to Hold Me Close, The Bump and Oh Boy, I would return to ours to hear Mama Weer All Crazee Now and Cum on Feel The Noize, or Everyday, Far Far Away and How Does It Feel at more reflective moments. And all those songs sound just as relevant today.
Slade were first and foremost about stonking live shows but then hit singles, and in the case of the latter few came close until The Jam, Squeeze, Buzzcocks and The Undertones’ own top-notch 45s some two years after In For A Penny, after which came an inevitable burn-out. But there were hidden gems too, not least anthemic b-side She Did It To Me. And what pre-pubescent kid could have resisted Noddy’s live belch on Darling Be Home Soon? More to the point, their influence was still rubbing off a quarter of a century later, as reflected in the ’90s by fellow working-class inspirations Oasis.
The appeal of their film, Slade in Flame, also seems to have grown over the years, and to this day esteemed critic Mark Kermode raves about it as ‘the Citizen Kane of pop films’, despite the fact that this grittier, downbeat vision of the glam rock era was largely perceived as a failure at the time. And the soundtrack itself is spot-on, not least the wonderful singles it featured.
It’s always dangerous to analyse, but I suppose in retrospect Slade had that unmistakable council house feel that Bolan, Bowie and Ferry couldn’t quite pull off. Like many punk and new wave bands that followed, they showed you didn’t need an art college place or electronics degree to make it in a band. If you had enough talent and were committed enough to do something about it, you were halfway there. And you didn’t need a doctorate in sociology to realise Slade were just four ordinary lads from Britain’s industrial heartland.
I got to see them eventually, albeit not until mid-December, 1982 – exactly 30 years ago – during the heavy metal phase they were flirting with. But they never pretended to be anything they weren’t, and I was proud to be there with my brother and another close mate for their festive show at Hammersmith Odeon, a year after We’ll Bring the House Down rocked the charts. That night passed into our own folklore history, not least as it was the first time I got slightly rat-arsed, albeit only aged 15, courtesy of the Britannia pub over the road from the venue itself. What really went on that night is a bit cloudy, but it certainly involved a heady mix of hippies, rockers, skins, punks and new wave fans.
I remember a ginger-haired guy leading the singing in the pub, his voice strong enough to offer him the chance of a stand-in if he ever wanted to take Noddy’s place. I also recall a biker pouring beer over a complete stranger’s head 50ft below him and getting nothing more than a few swear-words. Then there was the skinhead who said: “Oi hippie – buy me a pint!” and afore-mentioned long-haired dreamer doing just that in a scene straight out of The Young Ones, the anarchic comedy series first aired that year. I threw up on the tube home and distinctly remember people changing carriages at the next stop. But it was a cracking night and all part of growing up and being British, I guess.
As far as I know, Don and Dave still tour in a tribute band, and unlikely as it is I’d still like to see the whole band back together again one day. Jim Lea gave us a glimpse of how good that would be in a recorded 2002 live show in Wolverhampton (available on 2009 release Therapy). Age will not sully them, and it would be so good to see Don chewing a 40-year-old piece of gum, hear the power of Nod’s voice used for something more constructive than advertising, and see if Jim is still embarrassed by Dave’s sartorial elegance and stage antics all these years on.
In the meantime, I’ll just have to make do with the records – thanks to some rather splendid re-issues from Salvo in recent years – and the odd TV re-run, plus occasional Neville Holder appearances, memorably in The Grimleys with Alvin Stardust a few years ago, and in more recent years on BBC 6’s Radcliffe and Maconie Show – always a blast. In fact, this week Noddy seems to have been popping up everywhere on the radio, not least alongside Nicky Campbell on Radio Five Live’s Breakfast Show and playing the ‘sausage sandwich game’ with Danny Baker (with a seasonal twist, of course).
And there’s always Christmas. In fact, it wouldn’t be the same without them. I love a lot of festive songs, from Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and his duet with David Bowie on Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy to Freddie King’s mournful blues number Christmas Tears and The Greedies’ Merry Jingle. I also love the Phil Spector Christmas Album, and of course The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl on Fairytale of New York. But I still love Merry Xmas Everybody, however many times I’ve heard it before. And it still seems hard to believe that first came out 39 years ago.
The flag-waving, swaying days of My Oh My passed me by (cracking anthem, mind, and I love Noddy’s solo swing version), but there’s still some sort of seasonal pull the boys have on me which brings a lump to the throat when I hear it on a pub jukebox or on the radio.
There were some less than great singles in later days, but Slade made perfect pop for a few years and left an indelible impression on me and many others. That legacy should never be forgotten.
While in this mood, I’ll take this opportunity to wish all this blog’s readers – not just from myself, but from the festive spirits of Neville, James, David and Donald too – a very merry Nodmas and a rockin’ new year. And remember … It’s Christmas!