It starts around late October every year—the loop of Christmas songs played out over sound systems and tannoy in department stores and shopping malls across the UK. Songs by one-hit-wonders and novelty acts that somehow found a place in the nation’s heart rub along nicely along with festive number ones by artists like David Bowie, Bing Crosby, The Waitresses, Wham and Wizzard.
These Christmas compilations are a good little earner for the songwriters’ pension fund. The only downside being that some of these artists are now best known for their Christmas number one rather than the quality of their back catalog. It’s a fate that could almost have happened to Slade whose festive stormer “Merry Xmas Everybody” is now “credited” with starting the seasonal race for the Christmas number one.
But Slade aren’t just for Christmas—they’re for all year round.
Slade were Noddy Holder (guitar, lead vocals), Jimmy Lea (bass, violin), Don Powell (drums) and Dave Hill (lead guitar). They were according to Paul McCartney the heir apparent (along with T.Rex) to The Beatles and The Stones. From 1970-1975 Slade had seventeen top twenty singles, six number ones—three of which went straight to the top of the charts—and sold over six-and-a-half million records in the UK alone—a feat not achieved since the days of the Fab Four.
I was first introduced to Slade by my older brother. As kids we shared a bedroom which meant anything one of us played on the record player both of us had to hear. This is how I was introduced to a lot of music I might never have tuned into—it was a shared experience unlike the i-pod users today who dwell in their own little jukebox. Slade may not have started off as one of my favorite bands—but I sure as hell grew to like them and appreciate why they were brilliant and in their own way, very very revolutionary.
The album that started it all off was Slade Alive—one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. A garish red gatefold LP that everyone seemed to own. One listen to that whole album explains why Slade were such an influential and revolutionary band—go on just stream the sonic armageddon at the climax of last track side two “Born to be Wild”—it’s eight minutes and twelve seconds of Slade delivering the future of rock ‘n’ roll music.
Slade Alive was a statement of intent. It was followed by a string of hit singles that changed rock music. Just take a listen to the opening riffs for “Cum on Feel the Noize” or “Mama Weer All Crazy Now” and it’s like listening to something by the Sex Pistols or a host of punk bands that followed in the late 1970s.
The Pistols understandably were fans—guitarist Steve Jones once said:
Slade never compromised. We always had the feeling that they were on our side. I don’t know but I think we were right.
But it wasn’t just punks—Mod-Father and frontman for The Jam Paul Weller claimed:
The whole punk rock thing really happened because of bands such as Slade and the like; rock bands that wouldn’t back off.
And it wasn’t just the paint-stripping sound of two guitars, bass and drums, but the powerful un-fucking-mistakeable vocals from Noddy Holder that made Slade so visceral and unforgettable. Ozzy Osbourne rightly described Holder as possessing “one of the greatest voices in rock music.” It was the voice that gave Joey Ramone the inspiration to change his life:
I spent most of the early 70s listening to Slade Alive thinking to myself, ‘Wow - this is what I want to do. I want to make that kind of intensity for myself.’ A couple of years later I found myself at CBGB’s doing my best Noddy Holder.
Slade may never have looked cool but that was never the point. Holder looked like the Artful Dodger while Dave Hill could dress up like a Christmas tree or an aluminum-wrapped turkey at Thanksgiving. It wasn’t the look—Slade was all about the music. They were four young lads out for a good time and they wanted you to have a good time too.
But having a good time can only last so long and when Slade started to grow musically—to experiment and write songs that showed great maturity beyond three minutes of pop—the party started to end.
In 1973, tragedy struck when drummer Don Powell was seriously injured in a car crash that killed his girlfriend. It left Powell with memory loss he still suffers with today. The band nearly split, but somehow managed to carry on.
In 1974 Slade released Old, New, Borrowed and Blue. It was great album, a chart number one that spawned hit singles but a hit album that marked a change in direction for the band—a progression some fans did not like.
Next came the even better Slade in Flame the soundtrack to their one and only movie Flame—a movie that received mixed reviews at the time but is now rightly recognized as “the Citizen Kane of rock musicals.” The album is a stormer and contains the band’s greatest rock ballad “How Does It Feel?” and uptempo rockers like “Them Kinda Monkeys Can’t Swing,” “Standin’ on the Corner” and lighter songs like “Heaven Knows” and “Summer Song (Wishing You Were Here).”
Where Slade may have gone wrong was in their attempt to conquer America—which used up their time and talent and gave them very little in return in terms of chart success. By the release of the album Nobody’s Fools in 1976 Slade were on their way out. Nobody’s Fools is Slade’s equivalent of the Beatles Rubber Soul—an album that showed Holder and Lea’s talents as songwriters. It should have sent Slade off onto a new and greater success. It didn’t. Which was a great shame for their next album asked the very question many fans wanted to know the answer to Whatever Happened to Slade? It some respects this was one of Slade’s very best albums but no one seemed to care. The album shows a split in directions between more experimentation with tracks like “Be” and the start of songs meant to break the American market like “Gypsy Roadhog.” That Slade chose to follow the latter rather than former answers the question whatever happened to Slade?
In 1977 Slade were invited to travel to the East German town of Erfurt where they performed a selection of their greatest hits to an invited audience for a youth TV program. This was the German Democratic Republic pre-Perestroika—when the Stasi encouraged its citizens to spy on each other.
Though Slade are recognized as one of the great live bands for some odd reason they performed the whole set lip-synching to backing track—in a way you could say it was almost symbolic of their waning star. However, it still a memorable romp through nine classic tracks: “Cum On Feel The Noize,” “Mama Weer All Crazee Now,” “Coz I Luv You,” “Gudbuy T’Jane,” “Gypsy Roadhog,” “The Bangin’ Man,” “Far Far Away,” “When The Lights Are Out,” and “My Baby Left Me.” The film also contains interviews with the band voiced-over in German.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
Slade: Proto-punk heroes of Glam Rock