If it’s December, Slade must be doing the rounds again, in the post Holder/Lea configuration they’ve worked in for 25-plus years.
And it’s not long after ‘Super Yob’ guitar hero Dave Hill calls me from his home in the Black Country that he mentions ‘that song’, as bandmate and fellow original, Don Powell, puts it, the festive classic that’s come to define Wolverhampton’s finest at this time of year.
All I did, by way of an ice-breaker, was ask whether Dave (guitar, vocals) was looking forward to his latest festive live outings with Don (drums), Mal McNulty (vocals, guitar) and John Berry (bass, vocals).
“Yes, it’s something that’s always a pleasure and I’m comfy to be doing. And not just because we have the biggest Christmas song ever. I think also it’s all to do with the history of the band.
“It’s 45 years now since 1973, which gives us an immense history in existence as Slade. And I’m still performing – really I never stopped – carrying on regardless … like an old Carry On film. Ha ha!”
That yuletide smash was of course ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, one of six UK No.1 singles and 16 top-10 hits for Slade (added to three No.1 and five top-10 LPs).
In fact, 45 years ago Slade became the first band since The Beatles to go straight into the UK singles charts at No.1, a feat they managed three times in ’73. The first time was with ‘Cum on Feel the Noize’ (four weeks at the top), followed by ‘Skweeze Me Pleeze Me’ (three weeks), and then – having just missed out with ‘My Friend Stan’, which peaked at No.2 – for five weeks with a Christmas ditty recorded in New York City the previous summer, shifting half a million copies in the first week of release. And there wouldn’t be another British chart-topper until The New Seekers got there on January 19th, 1974.
What’s more – and these were the days that record sales really counted for something – that ‘straight in at No.1’ feat wouldn’t be repeated again until The Jam managed it – also three times – with ‘Going Underground’/’Dreams of Children’ (1980), then ‘Town Called Malice’/‘Precious’, and their swansong, ‘Beat Surrender’ (both 1982).
But let’s get back to Slade, and last time Dave and I spoke was three years ago, when he told me he was working with Anthony Keates on a project that would became So Here It Is: The Autobiography, sub-titled How the boy from Wolverhampton rocked the world with Slade, published by Unbound in 2017. So a lot’s happened since, I’m guessing.
“It most certainly has, and in a very good way. Anthony was a brilliant choice. It wasn’t on my radar, but it’s a bit like so many things that have happened to me in life. You’re going one direction, when actually it’s the other way. And what Anthony did was help me find my way as to exactly how I would do it.
“I’m quite a good talker and people like listening to me, so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to have a book that sounds like me having an evening with you where I tell you a story’. I’ve got my own accent, and people like that, and I thought that was the way forward. I could record it all, and I had quite a journey with Anthony. We spent quite a lot of time finding people out to help with their personal stories of me at the time. And there was a lot to get through and a lot we discovered.”
It sure beats therapy, and it’s probably a lot cheaper than having your own shrink.
“Well, I think it is therapy. There are some things that weren’t quite explained, like the business of finding your Mum and Dad had a fake wedding, trying to make it look right for the pair of us (Dave and his sister Carol) when they couldn’t actually get married. But I find it quite romantic actually, what they did.”
I’ve only recently read the book, and while I’m familiar with a lot of the back-story, I learned a fair bit about you that I wasn’t aware of.
“And it’s out in paperback now too.”
Ah, good plug, Dave. With an extra chapter too, I see.
“Yes, and two different covers. Sainsbury’s have got an exclusive silver cover for their shelves, and there’s the red version – like the version you’ve got – elsewhere. Red’s always nice for Christmas, and silver’s nice as well … part of my stage clothes were silver, of course.”
Indeed. As Stuart Maconie put it in 2004’s Cider with Roadies, he had a ‘jumpsuit made of the foil that you baste your turkeys in and platforms of oil-rig-derrick height’.
While we were on the book, I also mentioned to Dave the number on the spine of my hardback version, wondering what it related to, prompting him to look at his copy, then admit, ‘I don’t know what the story of that is mi’self!’
So how would Dave best sum up his 2018?
“Well … how can I put it? It’s been a year of playing the regular places I do, but also Israel, doing a show in Tel Aviv. That’s not a place that was on my radar either, but it turns out there’s a promoter out there who’s an absolute fanatic of us. And I couldn’t believe they knew the songs.
“I didn’t particularly think of Israel having Slade’s music pumping out of the radio, more associating it with religion, tourism, and all that. But when I got there, Tel Aviv was like any other city, a very vibrant place, and so enjoyable.”
So was there a love for your music there back in the ‘70s?
“It definitely had an impact, as it did in Russia, where they weren’t supposed to listen to our music. It was frowned upon. Western rubbish, I suppose. But I’m afraid the Russians didn’t listen (to that advice), and thankfully we have many thousands of fans there too.
“It was interesting hearing from this Israeli person discussing with me his memories of the past. And he knew so much about me, not just the regular questions, but probing back to my first guitars, obviously having done his homework. It was great.
“Having said that, I went to the Falkland Islands many years ago, wondering how that would work too, playing to the troops. What would we do? Would we be ‘entertainers, playing to the boys’?”
Dave writes about the band’s South Atlantic visit in So Here It Is, and I seem to recall it was quite soon after the Falklands War.
“It was still tender, a subject you didn’t really bring up with them. Not so much, ‘Don’t mention the war!’ It was more personal than that. Someone had lost his friend, and there was that sort of feeling.
“Our job was to play their club for a full week, staying on the base while they entertained us, taking us out on the helicopters and all that. It was a hell of a long flight, but it was worth it.”
That’s the closest Slade got to playing South America, it turns out. But who knows, maybe they also have a big Argentine following that they’ve yet to discover.
“Possibly. It’s never cropped up.”
These days, is it a family affair when you tour? I don’t mean the immediate 21st century Slade family of yourself, Don, Mal and John. I know your son has travelled with you in the past. How about your beloved, Jan? Or do you prefer to keep those parts of your life separate?
“With regards my wife, you’ll see a picture in my book of us and the whole family, and that’s the greatest achievement we could ever really have. In a sense, my wife met me before fame, so she’s been through it all, and she’s more private.
“I’m a very tactile person, so people approach me and I’m very friendly, while my wife’s a lot more reserved and cautious about people.
“I suppose my real answer would simply be that there are two sides to me. There’s the man who walks on the stage, and for that period of time I’m more focused than in anything else I do. That’s when I lose myself in it, the actual experience of entertainment.
“Then, when I come off the stage, I go back to the hotel and go to bed, looking forward to the next date. I treat every show as if it was my first. I don’t under-play and don’t go through the motions.
“When I come home with bits of stories, I send pictures of the action we got, but then it’s usually, ‘That hedge needs cutting down there!’ And when I go out walking locally, people see me and it’s like, ‘Morning Dave. Alright? Where you been?’”
I should imagine that’s what always kept you grounded, and the same goes for Nod, Jim and Don too by all accounts.
“Yeah, Noddy and myself are the most recognised, but I think people see us as friends as well as famous people. Also, we’re not a band people associated with politics or making a point. It’s nothing to do with music being used for a purpose of opinions or reactions. Our music has come from the stable of good records and meaningful songs – a rock’n’roll band.
Over the years you were perhaps seen as an escape for people from everyday concerns, I suppose.
“Well, I’ve probably been escaping the system ever since I got out of that job!”
He’s alluding to his time at Tarmac in their offices in Wolverhampton there, when Slade’s predecessors The Vendors, later known as The N’ Betweens, were starting to make an impact. If 72-year-old Dave had stayed in the day-job, how long does he think he would have been retired by now?
“Well, let’s put it like this. It’s no longer Tarmac. It’s now an Indian school (the Ettingshall site is now home to a vocational training centre and the British Sikh School). I did for a period of time before I made it see people still walking the same walk though.
“And let’s not be wrong here – my place was not there. It never was. But I had to have a job and had to start somewhere, and it was a fiver a week. I was an office boy, and three years later I still was. I hadn’t improved. It was a bit like a school report. ‘If he could concentrate … he’s disruptive in the class …’
“The thing is, life is life, and I can’t say what’s right for anybody else, but being involved in something which is not just about the money – if money was the reason I did it, I would have failed dismally on that score, as there was never a great deal of money. It certainly never came my way anyway.
“But I see it now the same way as when I first went professional – it was about a freedom of travel, and the journey continues, and I’ll take it as far as I can in this life, because the purpose is still important to people. If they didn’t want it, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Some of those you worked with at Tarmac probably saw you on Top of the Pops and told their mates the next day, ‘I see Dave Hill’s still got that same job. Did you see him last night on telly, wearing that metal nun get-up?’
“Well, yeah! Probably saying, ‘Get a proper job!’ At Tarmac I was told, ‘Stick with the job, it’s a proper job, musicians don’t always make it’. That was true, but years and years later I was in the Tarmac monthly magazine!”
Dave’s had his health battles in recent years, and my most recent interviewee was with his old adversary-cum-ally, Andy Scott of The Sweet, who’s had his own run-ins as well as losing two bandmates far too early.
“Oh yeah, Andy’s a mate.”
So how’s your health these days ?
“Well, I’ve experienced serious depression, but got over that, and the stroke was not planned, but is it ever? I’ve always been a jogger and things, but who knows what led to that? I really don’t know. That was quite a time ago now – 2010. I’m eight years on and on medication for that, but quite happy.
“Andy had prostate cancer, something our bass player, Jim Lea, had too, and of course Jim suffered some bad health towards the end of the original band. We were in America and he caught hepatitis. That knocked him around. In fact, we never worked together again really. We were having a hit record at the time.
“I’ve not seen anything of him. I see more of Nod, even though Jim only lives up the road, while Nod’s in Manchester. But the point is that I’m thankful to Jim, Nod and Don for their contributions to my life. Without each other … it certainly wouldn’t have happened in the configuration we had.
“I’ve had a brush with stuff, and my wife’s had a brush with cancer this year – a minute form of breast cancer – the surgeon said if anybody was going to have cancer, she had the best type.
“That was something that happened that we dealt with together, and marriage is a friendship and a partnership, and it’s about supporting each other … until you pop your clogs, I suppose.”
If he sounds rather dismissive of his issues with depression and his stroke in that answer, I can assure you that’s not the case. He goes into it all in far more detail in So Here It Is.
And again, we come back to Dave and his bandmates all being very grounded. What’s more, the time he’s been with Jan and the time Jim’s been with his wife Louise seem to defy the cliché about rock’n’rollers, temptation, and long-term relationships.
“I don’t think we were quite like that. There were bands spending lots of money, being flash, and while we were flash in the clothes, I felt quite uncomfortable with some of it.
“When I bought my first house in Solihull I thought, ‘Do I deserve this?’ Going from a humble council house across to that situation felt a little unreal, where people weren’t really like those I grew up with. It felt sort of empty somehow. Nevertheless, it was a good experience, living there, and I certainly did work for it.”
Fasten your seatbelts, dear readers. Dave’s about to get philosophical, even quoting a line from William Wordsworth’s Sonnets from The River Duddon: After-Thought.
“I walk across the meadows in the mornings and think about those things, poetry and all that. We all need to earn money, but there are so many things that give you the trueness of life and what really matters in life. It’s about family and it’s about yourself. As Wordsworth put it, ‘We feel that we are greater than we know.’
“I read a book by a Norwegian explorer (Erling Kagge) who crossed the Antarctic and wrote, Silence: In the Age of Noise (2017), about stillness of mind, a very spiritual thing in a way. And there’s a Tyrone Power film, The Razor’s Edge (1946), where a guy goes up to the mountains, up to a teacher. He leaves him there for months, where he has an experience with the morning sunlight and something touches him in a way that sends him back to civilisation a completely different man, and he starts to help people. And that also struck a nerve in a way.”
You mention Erling Kagge, and you mentioned in our last interview how there’s something about Norway that draws you in. Meanwhile, Don has his special link with Denmark, where he’s based with his wife and family.
“Yeah, I love it in Norway, and my son proposed to his wife there. It’s a love affair with a country where the scenery is awesome.”
Dave also reiterated that now he’s finished the book, he’s hoping a Who Do You Think You Are? appearance might reveal even more about his family roots, saying, ‘There are one or two subjects that still haven’t been uncovered.’ And he’s got plenty of other future plans.
“I also know they possibly want me to do an audio version of the book, and I’d like to do ‘an audience with’ type format show, playing a bit of acoustic guitar. The book has opened up a few doors for me, and there was also talk of a movie, a drama. I’ll be promoting the book well into next year. But right now there’s work to be done with this tour.”
“I think so. And it’s not selfishness, as some might think. You’re the only person who can help yourself, although people can help you along, give you kind words … as my parents used to do. But when it comes down to the existence of us all, it’s more about an inward contact, rather than talking about God and religion and being dictated to. It’s about self-discovery.”
He might even have a solo album project lined up somewhere down the line.
“It might be a bit too personal, but then again it might be an important journey for me, never mind anybody else.”
Interesting. Would we hear H’s singing voice?
“I’d attempt that. I don’t particularly like my voice, but often you get guitar players – even Clapton – who have a feeling in their voice, not trying to be anyone else. Mark Knopfler’s the same, a guitar player with the voice around it.”
For the first time in a dozen or so years, I watched Flame all the way through over the weekend. It still makes for great viewing, 43 years on, and not just because of that cracking soundtrack. But one thing that’s struck me today and last time we spoke is that you’re definitely not Barry, the character you played in that film. He was a bit of a diva, and a moody one at that.
“Well, I suppose I’ve been a bit of a negotiator. I’ve never been a businessman, but I’ve been someone who probably talks people into something. The idea of manipulating to get hold of a van for the band in that film … well, gosh, I think we were all a bit like that.
“Dad would call me a jammy bugger. He said, ‘If there are no spaces when you come around the car park, there would suddenly be one there!’ I’ve never thought of myself as lucky as such though, and I don’t think anything’s ever come easy. I saw this all as a ticket for a lifetime. It’s not about money, and it’s more than a job. It’s a way of living.”
You’ve shared bills with Status Quo too, and I recall the late Rick Parfitt mentioning in his XS All Areas joint-autobiography with Francis Rossi about occasionally driving back to his childhood home in Woking and sitting outside, contemplating his past.
“I’ve done that.”
And I don’t mean going back to Flete Castle in Devon, where your story started, but Rindleford Avenue, the old estate in Penn, Wolverhampton.
“Yeah, I do. I sometimes park outside, where nobody knows I’m sat in the car, with this vision in my mind of the boy from Wolverhampton sat on the grass in front of the house, as it was, this boy with a wind-up record player, putting the needle on. I can still see it all.
“Because you live in an area where you grew up, as John Lennon said (‘In My Life’), people and places, ‘Some have gone and some remain.’ That’s basically what it is to me. The cinema’s gone, where I had my introduction to movies, but the youth centre’s still there, the old school’s been pulled down, and supermarkets have come along and spaces have become car parks. But in my memory it’s all still there, in that personal computer in my head.
“And because I wrote this book in Wolverhampton, I was surrounded by the memories of it. I could walk around this council estate and see the kid that got his first guitar. He might not still be alive, but I’m still here and I still walk around the streets where I rode my bike. Ha ha!”
You did move house at one point, mind, as we discussed earlier … all the way to Solihull.
“Yes, I did. Ha! That was a brief encounter!”
And where will Dave and the Family Hill be spending this Christmas?
“There’s only one place to be … ‘Take Me Bak ‘Ome’!”
And does anyone dare put that song on over Christmas dinner?
“Well, I’ll keep the radio off. I usually put the Ronettes on!”
Slade’s December UK tour continues at Liverpool 02 Academy (Saturday, December 8th, 0151 707 3200, and online here), Wrexham William Aston Hall (Sunday 9th December, 0844 888 9991, and online here), Oxford O2 Academy (Friday December 14th, 0844 477 1000, and online here), Hull Welly (Saturday December 15th, 01482 221113, and online here), Leicester O2 Academy (Sunday December 16th, 0116 223 1181, and online here), London ULU (Friday December 21st, 0844 477 1000, and online here) and Manchester Academy 2 (Saturday December 22nd, 0161 832 1111, and online here). Mud2 are the support for Oxford, Hull, Leicester, London and Manchester, with more details via www.vmstickets.co.uk.
For July 2018’s WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Slade’s Jim Lea, head here. To catch up with this website’s previous feature/interview with Dave Hill, from December 2015, head here. And for our conversation with Don Powell from December 2017, try here. You can also check out the lowdown on Noddy Holder’s live show with Mark Radcliffe from May 2013 via this link, and find a WriteWyattUK appreciation of Slade from December 2012 here.