Looking at the extensive list of past shows on Don Powell’s website, it’s clear that Slade are old hands at this touring lark. An impressive archive of on-stage engagements runs from March 1963, and it’s fair to say Don’s diary remains relatively chock-a-block to this day.
Back in those early days Slade were two separate entities, with drummer Don and guitarist Dave Hill in club circuit blues band the Vendors (later the ’N Betweens) and guitarist/ singer Noddy Holder with Steve Brett and the Mavericks. But the trio – all now aged 69 – met on a ferry to Germany on their way to separate engagements 50 years ago, and not long after their return to Wolverhampton, Nod decided to take up Don and Dave’s offer to join their band.
By that time bass player and multi-instrumentalist Jim Lea, three years younger, was also on board, and history was in the making, this newly-honed four-piece in time becoming Ambrose Slade, then – with ex-Animals bassist and Jimi Hendrix manager Chas Chandler in charge – simply Slade, that classic line-up going on to enjoy mesmeric world success.
While the original Slade story ended in 1992 and chief songwriters Nod and Jim moved on to other projects, Dave and Don were soon touring again, initially as Slade II and since 2002 back under the original name. And they haven’t stopped rocking up at venues all over the world since, as Dave told me on his return from one such trip to Scandinavia earlier this week.
The old band occasionally gets together for the odd event, but live it’s just been Dave and Don of the originals for 23 years now, the last decade alongside Mal McNulty (vocals, guitar) and John Berry (bass, vocals, violin). And while every interview with the band still seems to include that inevitable question about the chance of Nod and Jim rejoining, Dave’s happy carrying on as things are.
So, five decades after that fateful meeting which ultimately led to the classic four-piece, does he ever ponder on what might have happened if Noddy had missed that ferry?
“I think in life it’s like that film Sliding Doors, where there are two outcomes, depending on your decision.”
Any idea what yourself and Don would have done for a living if the music hadn’t paid off?
“No idea! Music is in me.”
I should explain here that ours was a two-part interview, with an initial questionnaire I forwarded last weekend – returned a couple of days later – followed by a midweek morning chat on the phone from his office in Wolverhampton. So while some of the answers are a little more concise (those penned by Dave), others were more in-depth and philosophical in places (those transcribed by myself after our call).
And you’ll be pleased to know – as those who’ve met Dave over the years already knew – that the David John Hill I had the pleasure of catching up with this week was every bit the amiable, genuine rock legend I’d hoped he would be. There’s certainly no front to this fella, just plenty of down-to-earth, straight-forward honesty … as well as that occasional impish laugh and those distinctive Black Country tones.
Dave also proved to be refreshingly laid-back and somewhat pensive as we covered a wide array of subjects, from making best use of all the waiting around between shows and his on-going world travels to inspiration for songs, the band’s relationship with their loyal fans, and much more. And we also got on to his current project, following in Noddy Holder and Don Powell’s footsteps in writing an autobiography, although full details remain under wraps at present.
So Dave, seeing as I’ve caught you at something of a non-rock’n’roll hour, I should ask if you’re an early morning person these days?
“Very much so. I’m up in the morning, out for a walk, then breakfast, and it’s been like that for years. It sets me up for the day and keeps me moving. I always carry the phone with me too, as it has a recording device on it. When I’m out walking sometimes things come into my head. It could be a melody or words, so you need something to capture the moment. I find words often come to you when you’re away from racket or noise, and very often I come back and start work after something I’ve heard. And it seems to work for me.”
It’s a good idea. How many times have we had perfect melodies at times only to forget them when something else happens or we’re interrupted some way or other.
“Well, sometimes you’ll think of a perfect melody in your sleep, then you wake up and try to hum it. It may not turn out quite as good as you heard it, but could turn out to be a hit record.”
Dave knows a fair bit about hits, Slade having more than 20 top-20 singles and seven top-20 albums in the UK alone, with six of those singles and three of those LPs reaching No.1. between 1972 and 1974. Knowing he’s a big Beatles fan, I mention a certain Paul McCartney dream that he turned into Scrambled Eggs and ended as Yesterday.
“Yes, and there was that Blackbird singing in the dead of night, saying he nicked this tune off a bird, but altered it. It could just be something you hear from a distance, which you get the vibe from if not necessarily the melody. I wrote something once while delayed waiting for a plane. I was in an electrical shop in Brussels, something incessant going on over the tannoy sparking an idea. And because I was delayed several hours it ended up totally occupying me.
“And funnily enough, I answered most of the questions you sent me while sitting in at the lounge at the airport too!”
After all these years, I’m guessing the trips between gigs, checking-in to hotels, sound-checking and hanging around doesn’t get any easier. I wonder how many of those hours you’ve lost over the decades while waiting or travelling between engagements.
“I think it was Charlie Watts of the Stones who said it was 10 per cent live shows, 90 per cent hanging around. But the way I view it is of the process of the journey you take in preparation for a show, which then epitomises what you’ve actually travelled out to do. For example, I was in Lapland the other day and it was awesomely snowy and beautiful, but we’d travelled quite a way. You can get into a mindset of moaning about all the ruddy travelling, but for me it’s about a process of engagement while you’re being checked in, and all that.
“If you weren’t travelling to do my job, you may just be sat around at home, which is alright for a period of time, but … Anyway, after 50 years of ‘travel, gig, hotel’, I make a point of seeing a town these days, whereas in the ‘hit’ days we whizzed from one place to another. I see far more of what’s going on these days, often travelling out a day earlier. We were only 20-something then. I’ve seen a lot more in the last 20-odd years than I saw in the entire career of the original band, visiting more interesting places.
“John Lennon talked about getting to meet your fans and knowing them by name, and that’s how it becomes – especially the loyal ones, such as those travelling over from Germany and other countries for this show we’re doing at the Robin 2 in Bilston (Thursday, December 17th, so apologies if you’re only reading this now), where we formed.
“But we work in their countries too, and people over here don’t always realise the amount of people we play to in big venues out there, sometimes packing arenas out. It’s nice that people here talk to me about that Christmas song, but there are all the others from the albums too, not just the ‘70s stuff but our ‘80s hits too.”
You mention Lapland, having just played northern Finland, and it seems that you’ve always had a great affinity with Scandinavia.
“There’s a deepness when I go to Norway, and I’ve always known it. Whether it’s rooted in my genealogy or not, I don’t know. I might try and find out one day. I wouldn’t mind approaching the people at Who Do You Think You Are? Maybe next year.
“But there is an affinity, in Finland, Sweden and Norway, all fine countries and all nice to visit. We’re there for the purpose of entertainment, but when you’re approached in a street by Norwegians who recognise you, it’s different again from being approached in England.
“My son grew up in the ‘80s so didn’t know so much about how it was before, and when he came with me on the road he saw all these foreigners besotted with the image and the music, thanking us for all the pleasure we’ve given them. Yes, it’s about playing and being on stage, but it’s also about all the other things that enhance your life while you live, and the travel’s been a big part of what I’ve done.
“A lot of artists decide not to continue touring and become studio-based, but I’ve never lost my love for it, and neither has Don. To me there’s nothing like the experience of standing on a stage and getting involved with the audience, seeing their reaction to it all. One of my daughters came to Belgium to see us, bringing her partner, and they were both amazed at the reaction and how people knew all the words. Yet people who see me around Wolverhampton might end up asking what I’m up to these days, and I have to tell them I’m still doing the same!”
Which is a nice way of bringing me back to Don’s online diary of past engagements, where I see there were very few days off in those early days. Take for example 1965’s festive season, with shows on the doorstep on Christmas Eve (Harold Clowes Hall, Bentilee), New Year’s Eve (Mossley Youth Club) and New Year’s Day (Sedgley Parish Hall). And as far as I can tell there were few breaks over that period from then until around 1972, by which time they’d moved on to wider touring, TV, promo and recording commitments.
By then the itinerary shows the band had moved further afield too, and – seeing as my excuse for talking to Dave was Slade’s last show of 2015 at Preston Guild Hall (Saturday, December 19th), I’ll mention that venue’s predecessor, Preston Public Hall, where they played on December 21st, 1971, the penultimate night of a tour (followed by the finale at London’s Marquee) in the year of their first three chart hits and debut No.1, Coz I Luv You. And they were back at the same hall on November 4th, 1972, four weeks before the release of their first No.1 album, Slayed. But I’m guessing it’s too much to ask that Dave would specifically recall that venue.
“To be honest, especially around then, we must have knocked on most doors in our country, and certainly did in Manchester, Liverpool, Preston … it becomes a haze. We were a young bunch of guys travelling in an Austin J2 van, then a Transit when we could afford it, travelling up to your neck of the woods, whether it be playing a ballroom, a Mecca, a pub … we covered a lot of ground.
“That included Germany of course. We were booked for a month there. Mind you, we didn’t last a month! The boss of the club didn’t like us, and we cleared off actually. We wouldn’t play pop hits for him, you see. He wanted us to play chart hits, but we were never that sort of band.
“I can’t actually think of what Preston was like then, and there was an awful lot going on at that time. We’d already been in the ball park a long time, but by the time we actually started to score a goal – as in our first hit with Get Down Get With it and with Coz I Luv You reaching No.1 after that – we were everywhere. Certainly by ’72 and ’73 we were the biggest thing of the time, like The Beatles of the ’70s. That’s definitely the impression I got from our Russian fans about us, and that from a nation that’s very loyal to rock fans from working class backgrounds.”
As it turns out, 44 years after Slade’s first Preston appearance, the current line-up are back this weekend, with the 2015 version of Mud supporting. Is this Dave and Don doing their charitable bit for the Lonely this Christmas?
“The Preston show and the previous one at the Robin 2 will be an absolute pleasure for all, I hope, with non-stop classics plus a certain tune – ha ha! And Mud are really nice chaps.”
I’m guessing there were occasions back in the day when you were on the same bill as the original Mud, at least on the same Top of the Pops. Any memories spring to mind?
“Yes, those involving Les and the boys, and bottles of champagne. Oh yes, we supped some stuff and had a laugh … as you did in those days.”
Meanwhile, Slade remain in great demand to this day over the festivities, unsurprisingly seeing as we hear the mega-selling Merry Xmas Everybody almost daily from around October. So has it historically been a case of the band having to put off their own family festive celebrations until they’re free?
“I never missed any such events. Being with family and friends, that’s most important to me.”
And what do family Christmases involve these days for dad of three Dave – who also has grandchildren aged six and five – and his wife Jan, once the shows are over?
“Home is where my wife and kids are … and now my grandkids too.”
Are the little ones aware of what Grandad Hill does for a living yet?
“They’re not quite switched on yet. There will come a time when they’ll come and see a show though. And when my second children were born in the ’80s, I was Dad rather than anything to do with being a pop star. They didn’t know I was famous. They’re definitely their own people too. They’re three great children. We’re really lucky.”
Has Dave calmed down with the stage costumes these days? And is there a costume or a haircut he thinks – on refection – he wished he hadn’t gone with?
“I still wear colourful clothes. I invented the haircut, the boots and the costumes, and I’m proud of it. And I know people tuned into Top of the Pops to see what I’d wear next.”
Speaking of which, what became of that infamous ‘Metal Nun’ outfit he previously sported on stage? And how about the original YOB 1 number plate?
“I have great memories of everything I wore, and the Metal Nun is always around – ha ha! YOB 1 is still alive too.”
We use the term ‘branding’ now, but in Slade’s 70s heyday it was just plain marketing, and you definitely had some innovative ideas with regard to the Superyob fashion range. Was that a lucrative sideline?
“I think with the guitar it was something of an extension to the stage clothes, wearing the silver and glitter and high boots, all very spacey and very big shoulders. My designer who worked with me felt it would be great to have a guitar to go with all that. Everyone else was just using a Gibson.
“So the fashion designer sketched out a guitar which looked just like a cosmic raygun, and the Yob thing came from my car registration, deciding to call this guitar the Superyob. We had it made by John Birch, a guitar-maker who designed for Tommy Iommi of Black Sabbath, made by John Diggins. And we chose silver, which was Chas Chandler’s idea.
“But when I went on Top of the Pops with it, little did I know that a young Marco Pirroni, later in Adam and the Ants, was watching, and decided, ‘I want that guitar!’ He said it was like nothing he’d ever seen, and he was right. And Marco did end up getting the original, because I sold it and he bought it, but he loans it out now and again.”
As he did to Madness, ‘Chrissie Boy’ Foreman playing it in the video for their 1981 hit Shut Up.
“That’s right … and he leant it to me as well. I had one remade too, and the one I use now also has lights up the neck. But I didn’t get it made because it was a great guitar to play, but to use for a couple of songs then put to one side – as I do now. And to this day that’s all part of the imagery of what we do.”
Forty years on from the band’s critically-acclaimed feature film, Flame, I get the impression you all had differing views. For me it’s definitely stood the test of time, depicting the music scene better than any rock film from that or any other era.
“Flame is a good film, but it’s timed in the seventies. I reckon we should have had a Slade Hard Day’s Night caper, with Midlands humour. People like to see fun and humour.”
Staying in 1975, George Tremlett wrote in The Slade Story, ‘Hill is an extrovert, hard-working, superstitious, more sensitive than he cares to admit, perhaps over-conscious of his working class background – and at the same time warm in his personal relationships, an easy person to interview because he appears to enjoy relating anecdotes’. Did he get you about right?
“Yeah … background-wise. And I’m still in Wolverhampton, aren’t I.”
Absolutely, and while you’ve clearly always been ambitious and always wanted to make it big, you’ve never shunned your working class roots, coming over as very loyal to the area and those who helped break the band.
“My first drummer, when I was 14 or 15, told me later, ‘You knew what you wanted right there and then’. And I think I did. I found from a cheap guitar out of a Kay’s catalogue the beginning of something for me at a time when I wasn’t very good at school. The guitar came into my life and from then …
“My mother’s father was a classical pianist, so the music thing was around, but it must have been a shock to Mum and Dad when I was 18 – after doing a job for three years in an office – at a time when The Beatles were huge, telling them I wanted to go professional.
“But they’d seen me play several times, and there wasn’t really an argument. Mum was cautious, as she was quite business-like and wanted me to be a doctor to something – but that was never going to happen! I think she also recognised a musical ability, and they looked at each other, then went, ‘Well, give it a go’.
“From that, the next great thing my Dad did for me was to buy me a very special Gibson guitar, because our manager Chas Chandler wanted me to have a better one. That cost him £220 and in those days it was a case of him getting the cash and going down to London to buy the guitar. That guitar’s on some of the biggest hits we ever had, and hangs on my wall now.
“As far as the personal thing is concerned, I’ve a side to me that runs quite deep – poetical but also probably spiritual in a sense, without putting a finger on anything I do. I think a lot of musicians have a faith or purpose or a feeling that runs alongside what the power of music is, and that gift. I’m not spouting this to anyone, but when I had a stroke five years ago I think it changed me a lot and shook a lot of the debris out. I’m now half-way through writing my life story and there’s a lot there where the journey I’ve been on all these years has been re-lived.”
While priorities may have shifted – Don Powell also suffering a couple of health scares – the live shows carry on apace, 23 years after the very first Slade II gig on December 11th, 1992 at Mora in Sweden. Did it seem a little odd going back out there again without Nod and Jim?
“Yes, it was exciting and nervy too, to be honest. Having new people made it seem like the excitement of a new band.”
Mal McNulty has been with you 10 years now, and John Berry for 12 years. I guess they’re not just the ‘new boys’ these days.
“Definitely not new boys! Mal and John are in the Slade band now, simple as that.”
The line-ups have changed, but I make it 23 years since Nod and Jim left, after 27 years alongside Don and Dave. I guess they don’t plan too far ahead now, but it’s feasible that there will be a Mk. II silver anniversary by the end of 2017.
“All things are possible if you believe … a wise proverb.”
It’s been a sad year for Dave and Don with the loss of their good friend, Graham ‘Swinn’ Swinnerton to cancer, the former Slade tour manager who was immortalised in 1974 hit The Bangin’ Man having also been associated with their previous bands.
“Swinn was the first guy I met when I joined the Vendors. He was a great guy, funny, awkward, smart, well-read. My Dad liked him a lot too, which is a compliment. I will miss him and his ways. He was very much like a fifth member of the band. He wasn’t one for self pity, I have to say – he got on with it. He was an excellent tour manager and mate, and he was one of us.”
There must have been times – not least as those record sales fell off in the late ‘70s – when Dave wondered just how long this would all last. But he’s still out there. That’s some achievement, isn’t it?
“Swinn said to me when we last met, ‘It took some guts to go out without Nod’. I appreciated that thought, but more than anything I’m glad Don and I did what we did and the pleasure it’s brought to me and audiences worldwide. Being in it and keeping the music alive is our life. And I bought the ticket for a lifetime.”
I thoroughly enjoyed Don’s Look Wot I Dun (2013, written with Lise Lyng Falkenberg), and before that Noddy Holder’s Who’s Crazee Now (1999). And now Dave’s working on his own memoir. What can he tell us at this stage?
“I’m working with a guy called Anthony Keates, and we’ve found a nice way to work, recording the stories. I really enjoy his company, and he’s from Walsall, and also a big fan of Slade, so knows all the background. Without saying too much, there will be interest. It’s about finding the right publisher. But I’m not concerned, not in any hurry. And at the moment I’m enjoying it.”
It sounds like you’re taking the same approach as you do with your time on the road – it’s about the journey as much as the arrival.
“A lot of people may want to read about the success of Slade, but a lot of that’s already been told through Nod’s and Don’s books. Some fans will want to see pictures of us with famous people – the way I am with The Beatles. But when you really look at it, it’s about what’s a person’s like before all that, and what makes the story.
“Yes, it’s not about the arrival – it’s about the journey. I might even say I haven’t arrived yet. Some might disagree when they look at what’s been achieved, but I don’t see it like that. The initial thing I did when I formed a group is still the same now. Otherwise, I wouldn’t still be doing it. It all comes back to why you did it in the first place, and that’s usually the joy of playing guitar and making music.”
I’m guessing it’s proved a cathartic experience, thinking back on certain memories.
“There’s a lot in there I don’t want to talk about at the moment, but the journey I’ve been on all these years is being relived through that whole experience. George Tremlett, in the book you mentioned, got some of it right, but hadn’t known me long enough to really know me.”
That’s true, and I have to say the author had you down as being born on April 4th, 1952, with the same discrepancies over the ages of your bandmates too.
“That was probably based on the original story, when we knocked five years off our age! If that was the case I wouldn’t be approaching my 70th now. He was probably somewhat misled!”
Dave’s trademark cackle follows, and it’s good to hear – taking me back, in the same way that his book project has taken him back home.
“I’ve wanted to do this book for a long, long time, but think it’s a lot more interesting now than if I’d written it back then. After my stroke I was doing talks for the Stroke Association and engaged with people who also survived strokes. I can relate to them, and they to me, and I have this natural ability to talk. In fact, I probably talk too much sometimes!
“People can initially be taken by your success, but once we meet and start to talk, they realise I’m just like them, and haven’t really changed in that area. I understand the fame thing and I’ve had to live through that. But round here these days it’s mostly people out walking their dogs, saying, ‘Morning, Dave’, rather than me being in some other town and people seeing me as that bloke from Slade.”
Again, I don’t want to pre-empt the book, but I was always intrigued by the fact that you were born in Devon, at a castle serving as a maternity home, but very soon relocated to Wolverhampton. What was the story there?
“I think you’ll have to read the book, but it’s quite a story, and it’s very interesting how my Mum and Dad came together. There is a reason why they were down there, something I didn’t know until later life. But yes, I was born in a castle and moved to a council house … that’s a good start, isn’t it!”
Well, they say every Englishman’s home is his castle.
“Something like that! I did actually go back, knock at the door and say, ‘I was born here!’ as if I was about to claim it back! And the guy who answered the door – in another strange set of circumstances – happened to have designed an amplifier which Slade used. And I was with Don at the time! It’s a lovely place too, 500 acres – very nice.”
Moving on a few years, I believe you also had a science teacher who helped you learn the guitar.
“Yes, Brian Close. He didn’t so much teach me as start me off. He’s now living in Australia, and gave lessons to some of the boys at school. I had this guitar and he told me it was dreadful and I needed something better. He was a jazz guitarist. I’d go around his house and sit there with a sheet of music. One of the first pieces I learned was Tell Laura I Love Her.
“He also had quite an influence on me switching over the way I played. I was left-handed and had my guitar upside down. He told me, ‘You can’t have it that way! You’ll have to play it right-handed. You’ll get used to it.’ He was right. I did get used to it, and he may have done me a big favour.
“I later met someone in Middle of the Road who was left-handed, He said that was the best thing I could have done, saying, ‘I’m left-handed and play left-handed, but I think it’s a weakness, because my left-hand is on the fretboard and my right’s on the rhythm’. It works for some, and a lot of left-handers like Jimi Hendrix, who had his guitar upside down, and Paul McCartney play left-handed. But there’s a lot of power in my left hand, so it works well for me.”
All these years on, who does this left-handed, right-handed axe hero rate as his personal guitar favourites?
“The players I love are Hank Marvin, Paul Kossoff, Billy Gibbons, Carlos Santana, Peter Green, Eric Clapton of course, and Keith Richards.”
I read somewhere you gave music lessons at a local school in recent years.
“I did for a couple of years and really enjoyed it, and have a lot of experience of working with special needs children. Should I ever be called upon to do that again, I would at the drop of a hat. The school I helped out also helped me. One or two of those kids are not alive now, so it was sad in some ways, yet I touched base with some personal feelings, and that’s something I’ll always remember. It’s all part of doing things for one another.”
Yourself and Don are clearly survivors. What advice would you pass on to the next generations out there hoping to follow in your footsteps?
“I think the next generation of bands as we see it involves a different set-up, but longevity is about early experience and great songs, which Slade have.
“But most of all are the reasons you’re doing it. That’s what counts. I love what I do, and if you love what you do and people still want to hear it, that’s great.
“Take your legacy out there! Good wine lasts … and so does good music and entertainment!”
There must be nights when you find it hard to play certain songs after all these years though, especially those a crowd expects every night. But I guess there are also certain tracks you rediscover from time to time and feel justifiably proud of.
“I don’t get tired of our songs. They live on, and yes there’s a few cheery numbers around, and the ones I wrote are great in the act on stage too.”
I spotted a photo of Don with Nod at a ‘Scribblers, Pluckers, Thumpers and Squawkers’ lunch in Barnes recently. Is it always good to catch up again, despite the fall-outs?
“Those lunches are a nice way to see guys who’ve done the rounds and are still alive to tell the tale. And of course there are some useful people there who can help you with advice and experience, and funny stories.”
And if you had a quid for every time you were asked about putting the old band back together again, would that come anywhere near the royalties that come the way of the Holder/Lea estate every year for that big Christmas hit?
“That’s a good question … I won’t comment on that! But I’m happy where I am and what it’s done for me in life. I give a lot out there and feel a lot of love back – it’s infectious and fun. It’s what we do, and let’s face it – we all need some good times right now. Be in the moment and be happy with what joys we have. That’s the way for me now.
“I’d never have known the journey I’d take, the places and people I’d meet and the success I’d enjoy in the pop world, and just how big we’d became and the effect on the world we’d have when I started playing my £7.50 guitar from a Kay’s catalogue, when I was 13. And I’m still on that journey.”
Slade, supported by Mud, wrap up their 2015 dates at Preston Guild Hall on Saturday, December 19th. For tickets and further details of a VIP Christmas Party package call 01772 804440 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For this blog’s review of the Noddy Holder and Mark Radcliffe show at Preston Charter Theatre in May 2013, head here.
And for writewyattuk’s Slade Are For Life – Not Just For Christmas appreciation from December 2012, head here.
- With additional thanks to Abbie at the HCO for helping track down Dave.