Slade - Biography
By Bob Fagan
Slade emerged in the mid-to-late 60s from the English city of Wolverhampton, an industrial city of maybe 200,000 people in the Midlands area of England. The band began life as the N’Betweens, a club band that played a mix of rock and soul covers. Vocalist/guitarist Noddy Holder was initially unsure of his vocal abilities, and for a brief time the band courted future Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant. The band released one 45 as the N’Betweens, the Kim Fowley-penned “You Better Run” (1966 Columbia).
Signed to Fontana Records, the band changed their name to Ambrose Slade, at the behest of a label executive. The first album, Beginnings (1969 Fontana), is an eclectic, somewhat psychedelic collection of mostly covers, ranging from Frank Zappa and Ted Nugent, to Marvin Gaye and The Beatles. Holder’s voice evinces a strong Lennon influence, but with a rich throaty scream all his own. (Lennon himself is said to have remarked on the similiarity). The record was released in the US but titled Ballzy, presaging the band’s later gimmick of misspelled words in their song titles.
The band came to the attention of Chas Chandler, former Animals bassist and manager and producer of Jimi Hendrix. He had recently parted ways with Hendrix during the recording of the latter’s Electric Ladyland, and was looking for a new act to manage. He shortened their name to Slade, gave them buzzcuts and dressed them in skinhead outfits – rolled up jean cuffs and Doc Martens. Their second album, Play it Loud (1970 Fontana), featured nearly all Holder/Lea originals with only three covers, most notably “Angelina” (written by Bonzo Dog Band alumnus Neil Innes), and the Mann/Weil song “The Shape of Things to Come,” from the soundtrack of the teen takeover film Wild in the Streets. The latter was released as a single but failed to chart.
Quickly abandoning the skinhead look that had taken on undesirable associations with right-wing working class hooligans, the band grew their hair and turned to a heavily made-up, somewhat clownish adaptation of the glam look pioneered by Mark Bolan in England and, a bit later, the New York Dolls in the US. Buck-toothed lead guitarist Dave Hill cut his hair in razor straight bangs across his forehead, and collaborated with his clothing designers on a series of increasingly hilarious and outlandish stage outfits. The oversized boots remained, though, giving the band a somewhat working class interpretation of the glam look, and Slade lacked the androgynous aspects of glam personified by the New York Dolls. Beneath the costumes, they were still clearly yobbos more comfortable looking for a fight than a kiss. It could be said that the Dolls drew their inspiration from The Rolling Stones, while Slade took their pop sensibility from the Beatles.
The gimmick of misspelling song titles was also Chandler’s idea, which brought them the disapproval of English educators. Despite their bad influence on a the spelling abilities of a generation of schoolchildren, they took off with a run of top five UK hits. Their first big hit was a cover of “Get Down and Get With it” by Bobby Marchan, whose vocals had graced the Huey Smith and the Clowns’ hit “Don’t You Just Know it,” and who, as a female impersonator and drag queen, could himself be considered a forerunner of glam.
The band had become an awesome live attraction, and their next album Slade Alive! (1972 Polydor) capitalized on their growing popularity. The record established their propensity for foot-stomping anthems, and Noddy’s belch during a quiet moment in their fiery, dramatic cover of the Lovin Spoonful’s “Darling, Be Home Soon,” could be said to summarize their approach to their craft - keeping a sense of humor about themselves while rocking as furiously as any band of the time. The band’s stirring version of the Rogers and Hammerstein song (and unofficial Liverpool United soccer club’s anthem) “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was, unfortunately, left off the album, only appearing much later on their third live record (Slade On Stage, 1982 Polydor).
Their next album (Slayed?, 1972 Polydor), is considered by many to be their finest effort. Like it’s predecessor, it rose to number 1 in the UK charts, and produced two top five UK singles – “Mama, We’re All Crazy Now,“ which went to number 1, and “Gudbye to Jane,” which reached number 2. Sladest (1973 Polydor) was a compilation of earlier tracks and most of their chart hits, as well as the smash #1 songs “Cum on, Feel the Noize” and its fellow chart-topper and near-twin brother, “Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me.” The record, a deluxe gatefold package, was intended to break the band in the American market, but the band never did make a dent in the US charts. The foot-stomping soccer hooligan sound was alien to American ears, and impatient fans waiting for headliner acts, may have been put off by the band’s badgering the audience into dancing and stomping their feet. Their style of heavy pop and outrageous costumes wouldn’t catch the attention of American audiences until the emergence of super-hero/cartoon rockers Kiss, who readily acknowledge Slade as their greatest influence. In that same year, Slade also released what would become their all time best-selling single, “Merry Xmas” (1973 Polydor) an engaging, minor key sing-along masterpiece. Since its release the seasonal hit has charted numerous times right up to the present day.
Old, New, Borrowed and Blue (1974 Polydor) and Slade in Flame (1974 Polydor) found them exploring a more pop and ballad-oriented sound. The latter LP was the soundtrack to the film of the same name. Ignored at the time, the album showed the band at their Beatlesque best, with deeper emotions and lyrics taking over from the more modest “Let’s party” ambitions of the earlier material. The film, a grim look at a club band quickly chewed up and spit out by the music industry, has come to be recognized as one of the finest rock films made. The band members all make more than credible acting debuts, and the songs run the gamut from stomping rockers to acoustic-tinged ballads
The band’s momentum, already slowed somewhat with the last two releases, came screeching to a halt in 1974, when drummer Don Powell was nearly killed in an auto accident. It took him many months to recover, and his short term memory was severely disabled. Although they managed a few more top twenty hits, Slade’s reign at the top of the charts had effectively ended, as they found themselves trapped in an image that had begun to seem dated, with the advent of pub and punk rock bands in England. With typical good humor, the band released the LP Whatever Happened to Slade? (1977 Polydor) and all but ceased performing.
Fate, however, still had a few surprises up its sleeve for the band. The band was offered the headlining spot at the 1980 Reading Festival, filling in for last minute cancellation Ozzy Osbourne. At first unsure whether to even accept the offer, the band was the surprise hit of the festival. They responded with a series of studio and live albums that leaned more directly in the direction of heavy metal, in keeping with their newly discovered fan base. Their last top ten hit “Run Runaway,” (which actually made the top 40 in the US) shamelessly cashed in on the Scottish/electric bagpipe sound of new wave band Big Country. The most successful of the latter day LPs was Crackers – The Christmas Party Album, (1985 Telstar/Castle) which contained “Merry Xmas” as well as a mix of originals and Christmas-themed covers. Though much loved by fans, the record only made it to number 68 on the charts, and a few weaker albums later, the original band retired for the second and final time.
American band Quiet Riot had a huge hit in 1983 with their cover of “Cum on, Feel the Noize.” Besides their influence on Kiss, the band’s sartorial style was also echoed in the loud plaid pants and mismatched sport jackets of indie rockers The Replacements. They inspired punk rock bands from The Ramones to the Sex Pistols, and post-punk acts from Nirvana to Oasis. Noddy Holder has become a familiar figure on English television commercials. Bassist Jim Lea returned to school and works as a psychotherapist, while Hill and Powell, not party to the financial rewards enjoyed by the Holder/Lea songwriting team, keep a touring version of Slade on the road, with Holder sound-alike Steve Whalley and an assortment of bassists. They initially toured as Slade II, then reverted to simply Slade, with the somewhat grudging permission of Holder. “Merry Xmas” is an English Christmas-time perennial.