It was a grey and overcast day in Silkeborg, but Don Powell wasn’t overly bothered about that.
“It’s just grey skies here, a bit overcast, but whatever. We’ve been pretty lucky here really, and after spending quite a bit of time in Russia over the years, this is like the Bahamas!”
It’s been a strange year for us all, but the 74-year-old Slade drummer seems to have taken it several steps further, his confirmed departure from the legendary rock band earlier this year followed by a stroke later that month, bouncing back to record and rehearse with two other bands, and announce future dates with his own band and guesting with another, followed by another emergency medical setback in recent weeks. So how’s the health right now?
“Pretty good, mate, I go up the gym every morning. There’s a special program the physiotherapist worked out for me, and it’s working well.”
How are people taking the coronavirus restrictions there in this Bilston, Staffordshire-born 74-year-old’s adopted Danish homeland?
“We started a lockdown here about a month before the rest of the world. Consequently, it hasn’t been that bad really, although it keeps rearing its head every now and again. People are pretty good about it, with distances, wearing masks, and what have you. It’s just that I don’t know when’s it going to end.”
What happens when the vaccine arrives there? Will you be heading for the front of the queue?
“More than likely! I will get there to get it sorted out. I think it’s pretty important. I tell you what though, I never thought I’d see the world like this.”
And how about the dreaded Brexit? I guess you’ve got co-nationality status, but …
“It hasn’t really hit yet, but I’m not really looking forward to it.”
The sheer amount of paperwork involved promises to be a right mess, enough to make a lot of musicians reconsider if they can afford to tour in Europe.
“Oh God, yeah. It’s incredible, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Shouldn’t you have been out on the road with the Don Powell Band (also featuring Bob Wilson, guitar/vocals, formerly with Steve Gibbons, the Idle Race and Ruby Turner; John Briscoe, guitar, who was in a Slade tribute band and hard rock outfit the Juggernauts; Ian ‘Curly’ Davis, vocals, who has a West End show background and was with Desolation Angels; and Craig Fenny, bass, part of the original Slade II and the Redbeards from Texas)?
“Yeah, but of course, everything is on hold now, so that’ll have to be whenever it starts again. I really don’t know when.”
There were plans for Christmas dates with the Ex-Men too, another of Don’s live projects (members including Lancashire-based guitarist Pete Barton, hence one date being not far off my patch at The Grand, Clitheroe), announced in May, including dates across Europe but also the 100 Club in London and on Don’s old Black Country home ground at the Robin 2, Bilston.
“Funnily enough, we should have been in London tonight. We were set to do three shows in Holland then come to London, but it was knocked on the head. And the 100 Club brings back lots of memories. I remember a press thing there back in about 1970, with the original line-up.”
Speaking of which, your website’s list and details of all the dates you’ve played down the years still amazes me – from initial days with Dave Hill in The Vendors to The ‘N Betweens, the outfit that became Ambrose Slade then simply Slade.
It was the latter’s classic line-up of Noddy Holder, Jim Lea, Hill and Holder that managed six No.1s and 24 top-40 singles and three No.1s and 13 top-40 LPs in the UK alone. But it’s the small detail of those classic and early year shows that always stops me in my tracks. And the morning I called Don I saw that 55 years ago – on the run-up to Christmas 1965 – he was between ‘N Betweens dates at Tito’s and Silver Blades in Birmingham, then the Harold Clowes Hall, Bentilee.
“Ah, yeah, Bentilee was like a youth club gig, and Silver Blades in Birmingham was always a great gig, part of an ice skating rink. We’d be playing to the skaters going round, and when they got around to us they’d stop and have a look, then carry on skating. Then, after Silver Blades we’d go and play a late-night drinking place, open till about four in the morning.”
Also, 50 years ago – just after the release of Play It Loud, the first LP released under the name Slade, he was between dates at Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre and closer to home at Walsall’s George Hotel.
“Oh yeah, fond memories. The Tricorn was great, but we had no roadies then and we had to drive the van up into this multi-storey car park, get the gear in that way through a door that was part of the car park.”
And those dates were before a Boxing Day gig at the Temple in Soho, London.
“Ah yes, that was a tiny little club in Wardour Street, and sometimes we’d play the Marquee first, pack the gear away then do an all-nighter at the Temple.”
For someone who’s suffered with short-term memory issues for 47 years since the horrific July ’73 car crash that killed his fiancée Angela and left him with a fractured skull, broken ankles, several broken ribs and no sense of taste or smell, he has an amazing sense of recall. And maybe that was helped by the fact that he was encouraged to keep diaries as part of his recovery to remember each morning what he’d been doing the previous day.
Lo and behold, despite six days unconscious – he was out of hospital within four weeks and back recording with Slade after six weeks, partway through an east coast US tour, dropping by at the Record Plant in New York, where John Lennon had just finished working on his Mind Games album. And among the recordings was a certain ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, the song that ensured Slade became the first band since The Beatles to see three singles go straight in at No.1 on the UK charts. But we’ll get back to that shortly.
First, I mentioned how 45 years ago the band was between stateside dates in St. Louis, Missouri, on the build-up to Christmas 1975, part of a year-long, ultimately unsuccessful bid to ‘crack’ America, between the ‘In For a Penny’ and ‘Let’s Call It Quits’ singles, their popularity at home about to take a slide, the last of 17 straight top-20 UK singles.
“That was a good gig for us, and a good place to play. I often go back through my diaries, read some of the places we played. We travelled all over America, touring and everything. In fact, I must tell you this. On our first American tour we were in Philadelphia and I remember watching this group on before us. I couldn’t believe this band – they were incredible, I thought blimey, who’s this? And it was The Eagles!
“I’ve now managed to get a poster to prove to people that was the case, and actually Billy Preston opened the show, then came The Eagles, and we topped the bill. I kept telling people The Eagles supported us, but nobody believed me. Now I’ve got the proof! I told some guy in America and after many years researching he found a poster.”
I could have kept going down the anniversary line, for instance 40 years ago he was between dates at Hull City Hall and Rotter’s Club in Manchester, Slade’s fortunes picking up again after the band’s wilderness years, on the back of that summer’s Reading Festival, a new heavy metal following behind them. Or that on December 18th, 1982, they played Hammersmith Odeon, supported by Jimmy Barnes’ Australian outfit Cold Chisel, with your scribe there, barely a few weeks after my 15th birthday. A Christmas night out to remember for sure.
But time was against me, Don had the floor, and as he’d mentioned Billy Preston I moved on to The Beatles, knowing he was a big Ringo fan, telling Don I’d recently had the pleasure of speaking to fellow drumming icon, Simon Kirke, of Free and Bad Company fame, who’s featured with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, and – like Don – clearly retains his love for drums and his drumming heroes all these years on.
“I don’t know if you know the story, but two or three times a year, around 40 of us get together to have a lunch – musicians, actors, writers and others – and there’s always this drummer there by the name of Clem Cattini, who started with The Tornados, best known for ‘Telstar’, which was a No.1 all over the bloody world! He then went into session drumming, and played drums on over 200 hit records, including 55 No.1s. What a record!
“He told us once he played on ‘Lily the Pink’ by The Scaffold in the morning, never knowing where he was going to next but having been booked for another session, packed his drums away then went to another studio and played on ‘It’s Not Unusual’ for Tom Jones. Clem’s incredible, and such a humble man as well. When you talk to him about certain records, he’ll say, ‘Yeah, I played drums on that’. Yet in those days it would just be like a union fee, so he got paid nothing really.”
Simon Kirke told me, I continued, about receiving a call from Ringo, inviting him to tour with the All-Starr Band, saying how grateful he was for that opportunity, having just gone through rehab after his own drinking problems, something both Ringo and Don could relate to.
“Yeah, that’s amazing, and I’ve also played drums with Ringo’s band. I was talking with this guy who dealt in vintage kits in Seattle, mentioned how Ringo was one of my favourite drummers, and he told me one of his friends was playing drums with him and had just started this tour.
“We then discovered he was doing a gig in Denmark, not far from where I live, and it was arranged for me to go along. And I got up on the night and played on ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance’, the last two songs … and I’ve got the photographs to prove it, mate!”
For someone brought up on The Beatles and who still loves them, that must have been special.
“Yeah, they’re my favourite band. Ringo was great – just one of the lads. I didn’t really know how much he wanted to talk about The Beatles, but we got on to them playing places like the Shea Stadium, Ringo saying how there were no monitors in those days but you just played as a band.”
Getting on to Don’s current health, his first stroke was on Leap Day, February 29th, thankfully with his stepdaughter Emily – a doctor – at home when it happened.
“Yeah, that was a weird thing. I was just watching TV, had a cup of tea by my side and couldn’t pick it up. I said to my wife I feel really strange, and luckily Hanne’s daughter was here. She said you’ve had a stroke, did some tests, and said to her Mum, ‘If he was my husband, I’d send him to hospital’. So they sent for an ambulance.”
Don classed that as a ‘small stroke’, and certainly seemed to confound the specialists – not for the first time – with his swift recovery. As for his latest episode in recent weeks, he was only kept in overnight.
“Well, I felt great, and the doctor said, ‘You’re not normal’. I don’t know what he meant by that! He just kicked me out, and I felt really good. But there’s no reason for it. It’s just one of those things.”
At this point, I hear a voice in the distance, and Don sheepishly feels he better rephrase that.
“My wife’s just said it was stress-related … whatever that means.”
In fact, that second health scare was diagnosed as a TIA (Transient Ischaemic Attack). But whatever the medical disgnosis, I told Don he seemed to be the ultimate rock’n’roll survivor, what with the tragic events of ’73, his battle with the booze, surviving those two episodes this year, and many more hospital visits down the years.
As for his old bandmates, Dave Hill suffered a stroke in 2010, and Jim Lea’s had a major cancer battle. But Don, Dave, Jim and Noddy are all still here to tell the tales, an amazing five decades-plus after the band formed. They clearly constructed these Black Country boys well back in the post-war years.
“Yeah, there must have been something in the water!”
Do you feel 74?
“No! Not at all. But I tell you what, I never thought I’d get this far. I haven’t drunk alcohol since 1985 or 1986. I don’t think I’d have been here now if I had, especially (after my days drinking) with Ozzy (Osbourne).”
I’ve told many people the anecdote Don told me three years ago about how the day he gave up drinking was the day Sharon Osbourne, Ozzy’s wife, came at her husband and Don with a shotgun at their place, sick to the back teeth of their drunken antics.
“That’s it, yeah … but I will say that if it wasn’t for her, I think Ozzy would have been dead a long time ago. I know they’ve had their fights, but theirs is a great marriage, a very strong marriage.”
Meanwhile, another year, another Slade compilation, and another chart hit, the latest collection – Cum on Feel the Hitz – cracking the UK top-10. Clearly the appetite’s still there for the band and their music.
“Yeah, it’s amazing. You see all this stuff and think, ‘How much further can you go?’ But people still want to hear it. And you forget how much stuff we recorded until people come up and mention they’re doing a compilation, me thinking, ‘I’d forgotten all about that song!’”
And it’s nice that all four of you were behind the release. I won’t dwell on the fall-out (Don initially announcing he’d been ‘sacked via email’ by friend and bandmate of 57 years Dave in February, the particulars of which Dave soon insisted were inaccurate), but when was the last time you spoke direct to the others?
“Like I said, it must have been some time ago now. We’d have had one of our lunches at the beginning of December … but because of this crap that’s been going on … I’d have seen Nod there. I haven’t really spoken to anyone for a while now, but nothing’s been going on really.”
There was a photo on your website, showing a display of the latest compilation in an Australian record shop, and among the greatest hits sleeves was a copy of Slade Alive, which was apparently the biggest-selling LP in Australia in the 1970s. Is that true?
“Yep, it actually outsold Sgt. Pepper. We did our first tour of Australia in 1973 and were trying to find out what we meant to people down there before, which was more difficult to find out in those days, without the internet and all that. When we landed in Sydney, all these cameras and photographers were waiting, and we were looking behind us wondering who was on the plane with us – who were they waiting for? But it was because of the success of Slade Alive, and it was non-stop from there – a great tour. There was us, Status Quo and Lindisfarne …”
Our mutual friend, another Dave Hill, the North East publicist, was talking to me recently about that tour, having heard a fair bit about it through his past conversations with Lindisfarne (Dave Ian Hill, as he calls himself in print to avoid any confusion, wrote Fog on the Tyne: The Official History of Lindisfarne in 1998. He told me Caravan were on the tour too. That’s a fairly eclectic mix.
“It was incredible. We were travelling on the same tour bus and they (the radio) was playing Slade stuff all the time, all the other bands saying, ‘Oh no, not you lot again!’. But it was a great tour and us and Quo have been mates ever since.”
Back up to date, we had some sad news recently about Dave Kemp, a friend of the band since the Summer of 1972 who went on to work closely with yourself and Jim Lea and was involved with a couple of Slade websites and fans’ pages, as well as more recently managing female tribute band Slady.
“Yeah, very sad, He was very poorly. We’d been mates since the ‘70s. It just so happened that we lived near each other in London. I remember going to the supermarket one day, he was there, and that was it.”
I only had a couple of dealings with Dave, but he seemed a lovely fellow.
“Yes, a lovely bloke, and like you say he was looking after my website and did a great job. And he’s been over here (in Denmark) a couple of times, him and his wife. Yeah, very sad.”
Within six months of your first stroke this year, you were playing drums on a cover of ‘Far Far Away’ with Danish band The Glam in August. There’s clearly still plenty of love for Slade on your doorstep.
“That’s it, and I was with them recently as well, doing a couple of gigs. Lovely blokes. They’ve got their own studio, not far from where we live. I’ve been down there a few times. Really nice guys.”
It got a bit confusing earlier this year, because we’ve got the Don Powell Band now, we’ve already mentioned the Ex-Men, and there’s also Don Powell’s Occasional Flames, releasing a single this summer.
“Yeah, and the stuff we recorded some time ago, I think that should be coming out sometime around now, another album we’ve done.”
What name will that go out under?
“I don’t know at the moment. It’s just going to be an online sort of thing.”
Don’s certainly kept himself busy, and was back at the drum kit by early June after his first stroke. As stepson Andreas put it in a family statement, ‘And they said he would never play drums again … honestly I think our neighbours hoped the doctors were right!’
Meanwhile, it’s now 50 years since Play it Loud was released. When was the last time you listened to that LP all the way through?
“Recently actually, as someone else mentioned the same thing. That was the first time we went into a proper studio with Chas Chandler (The Animals bass player turned Jimi Hendrix Experience then Slade manager). In fact, it was the old Olympic Studio in Barnes (South West London), where the Stones used to record. And Hendrix. It’s sadly closed down now.”
You were co-writing some great songs with Jim Lea then. The credits suggest all nine originals among its 12 tracks, including four of my favourites on that record – ‘One Way Hotel’, ‘Pouk Hill’ (an account of the band’s first album cover photoshoot), and both sides of the single that pre-empted that LP, ‘Know Who You Are’ (a reworking of instrumental ‘Genesis’, the opening track of Beginnings, the previous LP, credited to Ambrose Slade) and ‘Dapple Rose’, written by Don about an old horse he recalled from his days living with his folks. Oddly, another Don-penned lyric was ‘I Remember’, its lyric about amnesia (‘I take a long deep look at the things that I took, but it still isn’t clear’) pre-dating his memory issues a few years down the line.
I often wondered, I put to him, why he didn’t carry on with the songwriting to that same extent.
“Well, yeah, and me and Jim basically wrote that album, but when Nod and Jim came up with ‘Coz I Luv You’, we realised they could do it. And it just worked out they could do it quicker and better, so soon enough I handed over to them.”
Put it that way, and you see the logic, that October ’71 single the band’s first of many UK No.1’s, the die cast. And five decades on, I’m probably as surprised as Don watching via his website and social media pages how many tickets, posters, reviews and old pictures have been unearthed from gigs back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, be those for Slade, The ‘N Betweens, or The Vendors … quite a treasure trove.
“Yeah, it’s amazing really, and it still only seems like yesterday.”
Now the hard-hitting question … and surely he knew it was coming at some point. Has he switched on the radio or TV and heard that song these past few weeks?
“Yeah, it’s amazing really. We always called it ‘that record’. I’ve said this many times before, but we’ve had 24 hits, yet some people only remember us for that one! But it’s great really. I’d have never thought it would still be out there.”
I guess you’ve been home-based lately, so maybe haven’t heard it so much, but do people still call and say, ‘It’s on the radio again!’
“Yeah, or I’m in the supermarket and it’s playing over the system, or if I’m in a garage somewhere. I think the worst thing is when I’m in a lift with a lot of people, and it’s playing in there!”
More or less proving his point, I told him how I was listening to Sara Cox on BBC Radio 2 the Friday teatime before our Monday morning interview, driving back from the chippy while the host was talking to a woman from Staffordshire – based around 15 miles from Don’s Bilston roots – whose hubby, incidentally going by the name of Don, had retired from the Prison Service that day. And somehow I instinctively knew what song she’d request, the first time I’d heard it this year. I was only a couple of minutes from home, but had to sit on the drive on arrival until Sir Nod had declared his annual ‘It’s Christmas!’ announcement to the nation.
“Brilliant! And I still remember the day we recorded that song. I think I’ve told you before. It was a heatwave in New York, around 100 degrees, and there we were recording that record!”
So what’s the plan this Christmas for you? Will it be a quiet one at home with Hanne and the family?
“Yeah, all the kids will be round, and Hanne’s parents. We’ll have a massive Christmas lunch here, there’ll be kids and grandkids opening presents, and what have you – it’s gonna be a big family situation.”
And what were your family Christmases like in the Black Country, growing up. Were those happy days?
“Yeah, fantastic. It’s always been a family thing. Mum and Dad always insisted we were all there for Christmas lunch, and all that kind of thing. Dad would go to the pub at lunchtime and have a couple of pints before he came back, and then we all had Christmas lunch together.”
And after all you’ve been through – again and again, as your old Quo mates put it – maybe you should let us in on the secret. What’s the Don Powell recipe for survival? The love of a good partner and family, and walks through the forest?
“Yeah, a bit of all that really. We live right by all the lakes here, which is fantastic, so it’s all that and time with the family.”
Until he’s back out there making ‘noize’ again of course … hopefully very soon.
For a link back to WriteWyattUK‘s December 2017 feature/interview with Don Powell, head here. And for Don’s official website, head here, for his official Facebook page try here, for the Don Powell’s Occasional Flames page try here, and for the Don Powell Band’s Facebook page, head here.
For December 2018’s feature/interview with Dave Hill, head here, for July 2018’s feature/interview with Jim Lea, head here. And to catch up with this website’s first feature/interview with Dave Hill, from December 2015, head here. You can also check out the lowdown on Noddy Holder’s live show with Mark Radcliffe in May 2013 via this link, and a WriteWyattUK appreciation of Slade from December 2012 here.
Think that’s about it for now, folks. Keep on rockin’, and Merry Xmas Everybody!