Christmas was way into the distance when I tracked Don Powell down in Denmark, but the legendary drummer – on a rare break from the live circuit – soon brought the subject up.
As I properly introduced myself and mentioned interviewing long-time Slade bandmate Dave Hill around the same time of year in 2015, he butted in, asking, “You mean about that song?”
What could this genial 71-year-old drumming legend possibly mean? Surely not a certain seasonal ditty that became the legendary Black Country outfit’s third No.1 of 1973. I’m surprised anyone even remembers that track. It’s hardly got any airplay since.
“That’s what we call it – ‘that song’. It’s amazing, y’know, Malcolm. We’ve had something like 24 hits, but people only remember that one! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not putting it down. It’s just so funny.
“I don’t know if you know the story, but when we recorded that in 1973, we were on a world tour, in New York in a heatwave, around 100 degrees. Yet there we were, recording that song.”
I understand it started life as one of Noddy Holder’s more hippy numbers, Buy Me a Rocking Chair.
“It was, and it’s amazing how these things come about. I love stories like that, but never knew that until a few months after we recorded it.”
At that point, Don – a big Beatles fan – got on to how Lennon and McCartney often helped each other out with songs, sometimes fusing them together, giving the example of 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night, with John stuck part-way through and Paul suggesting a tune he’d been working on as the bridge. And with that, I suggested there were clear Beatles influences on 1969’s Beginnings, when his band were called Ambrose Slade.
“Yeah, especially with the harmonies. But I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been influenced by The Beatles. Recently I was re-watching the Anthology DVDs, and talking a while ago to Gerry Marsden at a charity show, he was saying how people didn’t realise all that incredible worldwide success came in such a relatively short space of time. What they did in seven years was unbelievable!”
There’s another parallel between The Beatles and Slade – you both had those amazing ‘apprenticeships’ in Germany.
“Yeah, it happened to us twice. The first time with a group Dave and myself were in, doing a month in Dortmund, playing eight hours a night – 45 minutes on, 15 off, starting about eight o’clock, going on ‘til four in the morning. But that’s the way it was in those days.”
The second stint was in Kiel in early ’67, by then with Noddy and Jim Lea also involved. That whole experience must have sharpened them up as a musical unit, I suggested.
“I think so, but the biggest thing for Nod, Jim, Dave and myself was when we got stuck in the Bahamas. That really brought us together – our four personalities. We were stuck with an incredible hotel bill, which we didn’t realise we were going to pay for, and no money. All we had were our return flights, and our equipment as excess baggage. We were still paying for it. We couldn’t leave that. It was on HP. We had to get that back.”
I should fill a gap there, explaining how Don and Dave were with club circuit blues band the Vendors, later renamed the ’N Betweens, while Noddy with The Memphis Cutouts then Steve Brett and the Mavericks. But the trio met on a ferry to Germany en route to separate engagements in November 1965 (Dave and Don to Dortmund, Noddy to Cologne and Frankfurt), and not long after their return to Wolverhampton, a chance meeting led to Nod deciding to take up Don and Dave’s offer – at the second time of asking – to join them.
Bass player and classically-trained multi-instrumentalist Jim Lea, three years younger, was already on board by then, with history in the making, the band soon down to a four-piece, in time becoming Ambrose Slade, then – with ex-Animals bassist and Jimi Hendrix manager Chas Chandler in charge – simply Slade, going on to enjoy stratospheric success.
While we’re talking history, the ’N Betweens actually saw chart-topping success five years before Slade, albeit on a local level, with December ‘66 single, You Better Run a No.1 for six weeks in Wolverhampton, keeping Tom Jones’ Green, Green Grass of Home off the top. But it’s clear that they worked hard to reach the top.
“Yeah, but that’s how it was in those days. We were just playing anywhere and everywhere, just to play, basically. When we first started we were doing birthday parties and weddings, youth clubs, and that just carried on really.”
By the end of 1971 they’d truly broken the UK and much of Europe and Australia, their summer cover of Bobby Marchan’s Get Down and Get With It cracking the top-20 and followed by first UK and Irish chart-topper Coz I Luv You that autumn. Usually, I’d go into a potted biography there, but it seems pointless with Slade. Surely you’ll know all that. I’ll add a few more UK chart facts though, because they speak volumes.
In just over 20 years, Slade amassed six UK No.1 singles, the last of which was ‘that song’, straight in at the top this week in 1973 and staying there five weeks. In fact it was in the top-40 come February, and has returned many times since. As I finish this piece, it’s No.62 in the charts, 44 years on.
That was their third single entering at No.1 that year, and on their own shores they’ve had 16 top-10 singles and 24 separate top-40 hits, managing 20 weeks at the top and 213 in the top-40. You can add a few LP stats too, with three No.1 LPs and 12 top-40 hits and a total of 153 weeks on the chart.
The original Slade story ended in 1992, chief songwriters Nod and Jim moving on to other projects. But Dave and Don were soon touring again, initially as Slade II and since 2002 back under the old name. And they haven’t stopped rocking up at venues all over the world since. It’s now been 25 years in this format, the pair joined by Mal McNulty (vocals, guitar, ex-Rockin’ Horse, Paddy Goes To Holyhead, Sweet) since 2005, and John Berry (bass, vocals, violin, ex-Mud) since 2003.
But let’s go back to the early ‘60s. Am I right in thinking Don, who started out playing drums with the scouts in the late ‘50s, was 15 when he first sat in with The Vendors?
“Yeah. I was a member of this youth club, and Johnny and Mick from The Vendors came down, asking me to join. I hadn’t a clue about anything, but borrowed some drums off a schoolmate, Dave Madeley. I don’t think he had them back for about five years! Come to think of it, Malcolm, I don’t know what happened to those.”
Don’t say that. Someone’ll have them on EBay as soon as this goes out.
“Maybe. I’ve got a picture of me playing them, probably when we were doing a wedding.”
You were at school with Swinn (long-time Slade associate and road manager, Graham Swinnerton, who inspired 1974’s The Bangin’ Man, and died in 2015 after battling cancer), weren’t you?
“Yeah, in the same class. We went through together. I met him when we were 11, at secondary modern school. Many years later, when Slade came off the road, he went on to tour-manage Saxon and a few American bands, and occasionally we’d bump into each other. That loyal thing between us never waned. We always had that. We were the best of mates.
“Apparently (when he grew ill) he didn’t want to see anybody, but I said to his wife, ‘I don’t care what he says, I’m going to see him.’ And we had a laugh. It wasn’t long after that. He was poorly. It was the worst thing I ever experienced when the doctor at the hospice said, ‘Will you help me put him back to bed?’ I never thought I’d be doing that. It was only about two days later that his wife called and said he’d gone.”
At least you got to see him.
“That’s the thing, and my wife instigated that. His spirit was fine but he was very poorly, and my wife said, ‘Why don’t you go and see him one more time?’ He was a different person that time, and was gone within the space of a week, but I’m really glad I went.”
Talking of key components of your success, I was thinking of another who’s been gone since 1996, Slade manager, Chas Chandler.
“That was another sad case. I went to see him too, not long before he went, and he also looked pretty poorly. But we’ve a lot of lovely memories with Chas, and he was so integral in what happened to us. He really believed in us, even though it took a few years before it happened. He kept on slogging away.”
I’m guessing his experience with The Animals taught him a few lessons about the industry.
“And with (Jimi) Hendrix as well. He’d been there, done it, got a t-shirt.”
Don’s been based in Denmark for around 12 years, which on the face of it seems at odds with his long-term dream – as shared with music writer George Tremlett in 1975’s Futura band biography The Slade Story – saying one day he wanted to run a small farm in the Staffordshire countryside, not so far from his Bilston roots.
“It almost did. I found a small place, on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, perfect for what I wanted, but basically got ‘gazumped’. I went back to sort a few things out and there was this guy there with a big sheepskin coat on and a Range Rover. I could tell by the people who lived there, he’d probably offered a little more than me. I’ve seen it since and there’s a new house, but it’s still got all the land.
“As it was, after that we were touring non-stop and never at home, so I just bought myself a flat in Wolverhampton. I could just lock it up and forget it, as we were away around nine months of the year.”
So where’s home now?
“Just on the outskirts of Silkeborg, quite central. It’s a beautiful place, near Aarhus, with two airports close by. I can go more or less anywhere in the world. The world’s become a small place today, with four or five flights available from here to the UK every day. It’s become so open now, with travel.”
Slade always went down a treat in Scandinavia while touring.
“It was great. Also, and not a lot of people know this, our very first hit was in Europe – in Holland with Get Down and Get With It, before the UK.”
It’s clearly a rarity to be home for Don, whose busy 2017 included a spell touring Australia and recording with side-project QSP, alongside fellow ’70s glam stars Suzi Quatro and The Sweet’s Andy Scott (with loads of details of that on Don’s website) to be home. Can he describe his surroundings there in Silkeborg?
“I’m right on the lake, with a forest behind me and the lake in front. And (Don’s wife) Hanne bought me a lovely motorboat for my 70th birthday, so we spend a lot of time up and down the lake. It’s wonderful, I tell you. Beautiful.”
Remind me how you got to meet Hanne, and ended up moving to that part of the world.
“It was actually when we played Silkeborg. She came up to me to get some things signed and said, ‘I got one of your drumsticks when I was 14 years old.’ And we just hit it off.
“She has three children from a previous marriage, two girls who were teenagers when we got together, and a son who was seven. They were willing to move to England, but Andreas didn’t know any English then and I thought it would be easier to move here.
“And when she can, Hanne comes with me a lot when we’re traveling in Europe, getting the overnight train or driving down.
Do you ever get back to Bilston?
“Yeah, my two sisters are still there, and my parents are buried there. Every time I get back, I see old schoolmates and all the others, have a walk round, see if I can find Mick, who was in the band when I first started. In those days it was me, Mick Marson and Johnny Howells. We’d keep our equipment in the hallway at Johnny’s place, shared with his father. Across the road from there was a chicken bar, always open late.
“We were playing pubs and clubs, and as we were getting back they’d be getting ready to throw stuff away, so we’d buy it all for pennies, with loads of chips. And it’s still there! When we played The Robin last year I went across and got myself pie and chips, and that brought back a lot of memories.”
Word has it that Don, Dave and Nod visited Jim Lea at home in Codsall on March 12th, 1966, to invite him to join their quest, going on to the Three Men in a Boat pub in Walsall to seal the deal, his official debut following a week later at Walsall Town Hall. Meanwhile, Mick Marson had left by mid-March ’66, and three months later Johnny Howells was also out, ahead of that following month’s booking at the Star Palast, Kiel, where the newly-slimmed band shared the bill with a certain Paul Raven (if I put his later stage name, Gary Glitter, in brackets, will that be more acceptable?).
Don has a great archive of his live performances through the years, and much more, on his website, his information also suggesting Dave and Don’s first gig together was also at the Three Men in a Boat, in early January ’64, and that the band first went out under the name The ‘N Betweens at the Ship and Rainbow, Wolverhampton, that November. I’m always fascinated, I tell him, by the Pete Best type characters who just missed out on the big time, and Johnny – as the last man out – was perhaps the closest Slade had to that.
“He was, and it was very sad when Dave and myself decided to make the break. It was very hard, because I’d started with Johnny and Mick, to break away. But while I haven’t seen Johnny for a few years, me and Mick often see each other and have a laugh. I understand Johnny looks after a school for under-privileged children in that same area.”
Incidentally, for far more detail of Don’s amazing career, I recommend his excellent Look Wot I Dun autobiography (Omnibus Press, 2013), lovingly put together with help from his Danish friend and established writer, Lise Lyng Falkenberg.
“Ah, Lise did a great job there!”
I mentioned George Tremlett’s earlier biography of the band, and his dates don’t always tally up. For one thing the party line was that you were born in 1950, four years later. Were you all pretending to be younger?
“I think that was the case in those days, for things like Jackie magazine. The usual things – we didn’t have girlfriends and we didn’t smoke or drink!”
Which was true, of course.
“Oh, of course!”
Then there’s confusion over the date you met Noddy on that boat to Germany. He suggested 1967, while I got the impression it was October ‘64, outside a snack bar somewhere between Ostend and Dortmund …
“I think it was November ’65, and we’d got our old van, when Nod was with Steve Brett. They were going to Frankfurt and we were going to Dortmund. We were driving overnight from Ostend, all the way through Belgium to Germany. And no SatNav in those days!”
I’m guessing you already knew each other by then.
“We would have known each other, but were on the same boat. Probably had a cup of tea together, know what I mean? But we did bump into each other again in Wolverhampton in early ’66, when his band were breaking up and Dave and myself were disillusioned. We headed to this coffee shop and started talking about getting together. But we had to continue with Johnny as lead singer. We still had quite a lot of bookings for the band.”
You’ve been in bands with Dave for nearly 54 years now. Did you hit it off right away?
“I tell you what, we used to rehearse in Johnny’s front room, and it was Dave who reminded me of this – I don’t think we even spoke to each other for a few weeks! It’s strange when you think back.
“But we did hit it off, wanted the same thing, and were getting a bit disillusioned with what was going on. That’s when we decided to break away. I remember Nod in the Memphis Cut-Outs, then with Steve Brett, and it worked out he was disillusioned too. Soon we were auditioning for a bass player. That’s when Jim (Lea) came along.”
Was that the audition at the Blue Flame Club?
“That’s it! It became the Lafayette Club after, a late-night drinking place. The Blue Flame was more like a village hall.”
I understand Jim was already a fan, and guess you were already big news as a local band by that stage.
“Well yeah, apparently Jim would come and watch us at different places. We’d play quite a lot of blues in those days, and he was a big blues fan.”
While I was only six the year that song first topped the charts, my older brother loved Slade and got me interested at a very young age. I finally got to see you – aged 15 – in December 1982 at Hammersmith Odeon on the We’ll Bring the House Down tour. And what a night that was.
Yet somehow 35 years have passed since, while it’s been 25 years since Jim and Nod went their own way.
“I know, it’s frightening. I can’t believe how quick the time’s gone. Unbelievable.”
And I see Dave’s followed you down the autobiography road now, having published So Here It Is in time for Christmas.
“Yeah, he’s taking a different tack to mine. I don’t really understand that pledge situation.”
I look forward to reading that.
“Yeah, so do I!”
And you’ll be able to get a copy of that on Slade’s ‘Christmas Shindig’ tour as well as online, talk of which prompted Don and I to talk about their North West dates – at Manchester Academy 2 and Liverpool’s Hangar 34.
“Actually, I was in Manchester a few weeks ago, for a big drum event. You can imagine what that was like, with drums bashing around all over the place! It was deafening! I was just showing my face and saying thanks to a few of my sponsors. But I met a few nice people I hadn’t seen for long time, like Paul (Burgess) from 10cc.”
We talked about your work ethic before, and I was thinking how taking that chance of being with a band professionally must have been a big decision. You could easily have given up that dream and settled for the 9-5 world.
“Well, I was scared. Dad had to sign the papers, because I couldn’t afford to take on the HP payments and was too young. But I told him, ‘I tell you what, Dad. I’ll give you my first gold record.’ He just laughed, but I kept the promise – giving him that first gold in 1973.”
And when it mattered your parents supported your dream. That counts for something. Dad was a steelworker, wasn’t he?
“Yes, he was on the factory floor, working there all his life, basically.”
If you’d stuck with your job at the local iron foundry, you’d be retired by now, or most likely laid off many years before.
“Yeah, and I’d probably have about 20 grandkids by now! Then again, if you’d have told me even 20 years ago I’d still be doing this, I’d have laughed in your face. And the thing is, over those last 20 years we’ve been able to go to places like the old Eastern bloc. We’d never been to Russia in the original years, but have quite a few times since.
“It’s been fantastic. It makes you realise how big that place is. We flew from Moscow to Vladivostok on the east coast and it took us 13 hours. That’ just one country! That’s like flying from London to Los Angeles.”
Of course, a lot of column inches have been devoted to Dave Hill over the years and his fashion sense …
“Ha! Now, if I said to you he was colour-blind, would that make more sense to you?”
Well, I was going to bring up your own natty dressing. There was a lot of velvet in that wardrobe of yours, for a start.
“Oh yeah – a lot of velvet and satin trousers, y’know!”
But there just happened to be someone stood in front of you, who the cameras went to first. You were a couple of peacocks, really.
When was the last time you watched 1975’s Slade in Flame? (which included starring roles for all four band members as the fictional band in the title).
“Erm, that’ll be some time ago now.”
It’s stood the test of time for me, its appeal growing over the years, despite its gritty take on the glam rock era largely being seen as a failure at the time.
“I’ll tell you what – it has, and it’s had a lot of great reviews, especially from the Barry Normans and people like that.”
Indeed, including fellow film critic, Mark Kermode. Who called it ‘the Citizen Kane of pop films’.
“Yes, at first we thought it would go against us, with how true it was. But you’re right, it has stood the test of time.”
While clearly fictional, there were a few stories in there pretty close to things that happened to you.
“Oh yeah, like with the management situation and being manipulated, all that sort of thing.”
You certainly came over as a natural on camera (although it would be 25 years before his next role, a small cameo in a BBC TV adaptation of Lorna Doone).
“I really enjoyed it. I loved every minute, and didn’t mind the early mornings or anything like that.”
There must have been a lot of hours standing round, getting cold, waiting for filming to start around Sheffield.
“It’s amazing. About two minutes’ shooting takes about five hours, what with the setting up and all that. I was okay with that though. The only thing is that it spoils you for going to see a film, seeing how things were done and hearing stories from the crew about previous films they’d been involved with. It completely shatters the illusion.”
Lots of great stories tend to have two-thirds points where everything briefly goes awry, and for Slade that twist came at the height of their fame, three days after a show at Earl’s Court on July 1st 1973, just after Skweeze Me Pleeze Me became their second single to go straight into the UK charts at No.1 (becoming the first band to achieve such a feat since The Beatles in 1969).
On July 4th, Don was in an accident in his white Bentley S3 in Wolverhampton, with his 20-year-old girlfriend Angela Morris killed and the Slade drummer in a coma, serious multiple injuries leading to a long stay in intensive care, finally coming round to major short-term memory and sensory issues, which remain with him to this day.
Later that month, Jim Lea’s brother Frank filled in on drums as the band played two pre-arranged shows they didn’t want to cancel on the Isle of Man, and by the end of the summer Don was back, first having to be lifted on to his kit, playing dates in America and recording that Christmas single out there.
As it was, the diaries his doctors suggested he wrote to aid his memory would provide a rich archive when it came to his autobiography and website. And the interest generated by that tragic story proved how much love there was out there for Don, the world eagerly following his recovery. Is that whole period still a blank?
“Do you know, that concert (Earl’s Court) means nothing to me, Malcolm. It was actually filmed, and I still want to see if I can get a copy of it … just so I can see what it was like.”
How’s the memory these days?
“It’s still sort of the same. I mean, I still have to keep the diary. That’ll be for the rest of my life, I’m afraid. But it’s part of my life now. It’s like my bible, if you like.”
Those diaries must have proved a great help for Lise when she was working on your book. Few people in your position have such meticulous records of that period.
“Great for her, and for me as well. We were sat down for about a month before, and she said, ‘You’ve got to open up for me, Don, otherwise people who know you will know there’s things you‘re missing out. So I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Lise, I’ll give you all my diaries. Take them all, and everything’s in there, and that’s the way it was.”
There were plenty more painful memories to come, alongside the many further highs in the years that followed, not least Don’s battle with the bottle. Does he drink at all these days?
“I haven’t for 32 years now. I know, it’s incredible. I stopped drinking when Sharon Osbourne came after me and Ozzy with a shotgun. And she actually fired it at us. We just managed to get out of the way. You can imagine, can’t you, when your drinking partner is Ozzy Osbourne, it’s like … say no more.”
I’ve said it before on these pages, but for me you had a boys-next-door feel that Bolan, Bowie and Ferry – much as I loved them – couldn’t quite pull off. You were far removed from the art school acts and the more self-important songwriters of that era.
“I think we were. We couldn’t be anything else, Malcolm. Our manager, Chas, tried to make us a little bit like Rod Stewart and the Faces. But we ain’t like that. We couldn’t do it. It wasn’t in us. We were just who we are and that’s it. We were always first to a party and last to leave.”
So has Don still got the best job in the world?
“What? Traveling the world? I always say I’m doing what I always loved doing, playing drums. It’s incredible. I’ve been round the world four times, especially over these last 20 years with the amount of times we’ve been to Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic and places like that where we couldn’t go in the ’70s. It’s been an amazing rollercoaster ride. and it still shows no sign of waning.”
Slade’s December 2017 tour continues tonight on Saturday, December 16th at Wrexham William Aston Hall (0844 888 9991), then moves onto Manchester Academy 2 (Sunday 17th, 0161 832 1111), Oxford 02 Academy (Thursday 21st, 0844 477 1000), Liverpool Hangar 34 (Friday 22nd, 0844 477 1000) and Hull Welly (Saturday 23rd, 0844 477 1000). For more details head to http://www.slade.uk.com/ or follow the band via Facebook. And for more about QSP, try here.