Plenty of bands were hailed as the new Beatles
, but Slade was not one of them, despite having more of a claim than most. Slade were stylistically nothing like the Beatles
at all, indeed they were often derided as a crude, philistine degradation of the high ideals to which the Beatles had aspired. But in terms of popularity, they were the next big thing, owning the British pop charts from 1971
. It would not be until the collapse of the singles market, thirty years later, that bands would routinely enter the UK pop charts at number one not once, but several times in a year. From 1971 to 1973 Slade had six number one singles, something which is meaningless nowadays - as I write these words, Westlife
have had fourteen - but it was a heck of a thing at the time. Only the Beatles and the Rolling Stones
had been to the top of the charts more often.
Slade achieved the rare feat of selling huge amounts of singles in Britain whilst being a proper rock band, one that wrote and performed its own songs. In this respect they were a curious ancestor of Duran Duran, a decade later, and they received just as much derision from the press. Whereas Duran Duran were lambasted for aspiring to be art, Slade were criticised for aspiring to be neanderthals, at least musically (unlike their harder-rocking peers, none of Slade's members killed themselves with drink and drugs). Their musical style was unsubtle, unsophisticated rock. Their frontmen were deeply ugly people, "brickies with makeup" as the phrase went. Dave Hill, in particular, was balding, pot-bellied and possessed of a weak chin. The only presentable member was the drummer, and he was the drummer. Slade's very normalness remains unusual. All of Britain's major rock groups have been qualified in some way; only Oasis have avoided dabbling with hyphens. (Technically, Slade was a glam rock band, but the "glam" was just fashion. Slade was not ironic and did not hang out with modern artists). There are very few British equivalents of the kind of straightforward, no-gimmicks rock of American bands such as Boston, Kansas or the J Geils Band. Even during the height of Britpop, at a time when musical conservatism was making a comeback, bands such as Ocean Colour Scene, Cast and so forth seemed normal in a calculated way.
Slade hailed from Wolverhampton, a town famous for its football team, the Wolverhampton Wanderers, and also for being the birthplace of Slade, or The 'N Betweens as they originally called themselves in the late 1960s. The group consisted of Devonshire-born Dave Hill, who played the guitar, Jim Lea, who played the bass guitar, Don Powell, who played the drums, and Neville 'Noddy' Holder, who also played the guitar and sang. He was born in Walsall. Lee and Powell came from Wolverhampton and Staffordshire respectively but you don't care. Most of these places are in the area of Britain which is north of London.
As with many of the success stories of the 1970s, Slade were failures during the 1960s, their early days spent building a reputation as a diverting live draw which did not translate into pop success. Nonetheless, by 1969 Fontana Records were interested enough to give the band a pop, provided they changed their name to Ambrose Slade, which was felt by label A&R man Jack Baverstock to be sufficiently in tune with the times. Catchy, meaningless two-word band names minus the definitive article were all the rage; the two most apt comparisons were Mungo Jerry and Pink Floyd, but see also Atomic Rooster, Led Zeppelin, Spinal Tap, Moby Grape and so forth. Whether the name was a reference to Ambrose Bierce, American Horror writer, and Felix Slade, founder of the Slade School of Art, is lost to time and memory. When I think of Slade I think of Slade Prison, the fictional setting of Ronnie Barker's late-70s sitcom Porridge.
Under the Ambrose Slade name the group recorded one album, now a desirable collector's item. Beginnings, it was called, and it combined original r&b numbers written mostly by Lea and Holder with covers of songs by Frank Zappa, the Moody Blues, the Beatles, and Ted Nugent's Amboy Dukes. It was about a year too late to capture the post-Sergeant Pepper buzz and failed to make an impact, hence its modern collectability. In retrospect, the attempt to turn Slade into a flower-power love'n'peace band seems laughable, doomed, and indeed it was.
Fontana were very disappointed, Dick, and decided to get rid of Ambrose Slade. But, but, the group had come to the attention of a man called Chas Chandler, who had played bass in The Animals and latterly had donned a suit in order to manage Jimi Hendrix. Chandler knew a thing or two about the rock music business. He got the band to ditch 'Ambrose', which they did gladly. Thus the band became simply Slade, and within a few years there were lots of bands with one-word names. Chandler came up with a new image, one that also seems odd in retrospect. The new model Slade was a skinhead band, bedecked in bovver boots, braces and Ben Sherman shirts. Although the skinhead 'movement' is generally associated with late-70s punks it actually dated to the end of the 1960s, whether as a continuation of mod or a reaction to hippies I know not. As with New Romantic, punk and essentially all youth movements, the skinhead movement was doomed by fashion and had no impact on the wider world, but attracted lots of press attention due to its association with violence, or 'aggro' as the English called it.
After touring the UK and Germany with lots of new material, the band landed a deal with Polydor Records, releasing their next album in late 1970. Play it Loud sold more copies than Beginnings, the group having hit upon the musical style with which they would shortly achieve success. It was a style without style. "Wild Winds are Blowing" - on which Noddy Holder's vocals were almost literally shouting - failed to enter the singles chart, although it would have been a success if the band had released it a couple of years later. Further singles also went nowhere and the skinhead image was quietly retired. A cover of Little Richard's "Get Down And Get With It" - released in 1971, independently of any album - reached the top twenty, after which the band took off. "Get Down and Get With It" revelled in its simplicity, its rhythm base a militantly four/four jackboot stomp. Slade nonetheless managed to avoid accusations of fascism, partially because society was much less sentimental in the early 1970s, and also because the group seemed cheerful enough, with outlandish clothes and lyrics which praised only the most socially-acceptable vices, and then in cartoonish terms. Live album and fan favourite Slade Alive (from just before the band's peak) reached number two, whilst the subsequent albums Slayed, Sladest (an early compilation) and Old, New, Borrowed and Blue topped the album charts.
Mention must be made of the band's distinctive sartorial style. Whilst Dave Hill's straggly hair and chest-revealing jumpsuits are best forgotten - although, alas, they cannot be forgotten - Noddy Holder's engorged sideburns, top hat and whiskers were positively Dickensian in scope and breadth. Slade were instantly thrust to the forefront of the glam rock movement, an unfathomable period in which ugly, beery, absolutely heterosexual construction workers donned makeup and tights for the platonic pleasure of young boys, tapping a need nowadays sated by American wrestling.
Mention must also be made of slapback echo, the earliest studio effect. Originally it was not really a conscious effect as such, but rather a natural consequence of recording songs in an empty dance hall. By the time of Sam Phillips' original recordings with Elvis Presley the effect could be achieved with a tape delay, although it was just as feasible to run the sound through a large metal pipe. The history of pop music is also the history of musical technology, whether that of the percussive pig bladder, the dynamic piano or the Alesis Quadraverb. Slade's sound, indeed that of the whole glam rock movement, was a conscious throwback to the rock'n'roll of the 1950s. Rock and pop have always been nostalgic; sometimes for decades past, sometimes for the hits of last summer. The Beatles themselves started off writing pop songs in honour of their musical idols, and their last three albums had all been coloured with nostalgia; on Abbey Road the Beatles were even nostalgic for their past selves.
"Coz I Luv You", Slade's next single, introduced the group's secret weapon, and the thing which caused them the most controversy; deliberately poor spelling. Slade's previous releases had been characterised by flawless grammar and chart failure. "Coz I Luv You" clearly hit a nerve amongst kids who had been mangled by the progressive, socialist education policies which were so fashionable at the time, and the single became the group's first original composition to reach number one. It wasn't quite like the Slade we remember nowadays, sounding remarkably like Marc Bolan's T Rex. The lead instruments were violin and piano, the former played by bassist Jim Lea.
From then on the band owned the charts. Through 1971 and 1972 their singles "Take Me Bak 'Ome", "Mama Weer All Crazee Now", "Cum On Feel The Noize" and "Skweeze Me Pleeze Me" went to number one, whilst three other singles hit the top ten ("Look Wot You Dun", "Gudbye t'Jane" and "My Friend Stan", which could not plausibly have been misspelled). Along with this success came criticism that the band were sticking too closely to a successful formula, and indeed it is easy nowadays to confuse some or all of the aforementioned. The choruses of "Gubye t'Jane" and "Mama Weer All Crazee Now" are essentially identical save for the lyrics. Whilst "Take Me Bak 'Ome" was and remains a masterpiece, "Skweeze Me Pleeze Me" was disposable and anonymous. In 1973 the band released "Merry Xmas Everybody", of which more later. During 1974 and 1975 the group had four more top ten singles, "Everyday", "The Bangin' Man", "Far Far Away" and "Thanks for the Memory", and that was that for Slade's initial run. By 1978 the band were struggling into the top fifty and they didn't reach the charts at all again until 1980, disastrous for a group which had flown so high. T-Rex had also been criticised for sticking to a formula, and it is to David Bowie's credit that he recognised the danger in this; by 1978 he was in the midst of making the idea of Germany's Weimar Republic fashionable again.
Backing up slightly, Slade's last number one single hit the top in December 1973. "Merry Xmas Everybody" was Christmas number one that year, a coveted spot, and remains the group's most enduring testament. It is impossible to overstate its popularity as one of the classic Christmas singles. Every compilation of Christmas songs has "Merry Xmas Everybody" as one of the first three tracks, usually jostling for position with Wizzard's "I Wish It Could be Christmas Everyday". It is a superbly-constructed song, an epic verse leading naturally into a singalong chorus of surprising musical complexity. It has some clever chords. Subsequent re-releases have ensured that it will persist at least as long as Christian monotheism in the UK. For this reason it is also a prime candidate for censorship at the hands of left-wing governments, and it is particularly notable that the Labour Party has not yet issued an official statement of position with regards to Slade. On the one hand, the group appealed to the working classes from which Labour originally drew its popular base; on the other hand, Hitler had the SA slaughtered when they no longer suited him. Any government would do the same.
As was the fashion, at the height of Slade's fame the band starred in a film, Slade in Flame. A fictional account of a Slade-like band, "Flame", scraping around during the 1960s, the film went nowhere at the time, but has subsequently become a cult for its period detail and grim, Sweeney-esque atmosphere. I have not seen it.
As with David Bowie, Marc Bolan and so forth, Slade's lengthy formative period stood them in good stead during their wilderness years. Whilst later bands would have immediate success and then fall apart when the cold winds blew, Slade simply carried on, their singles charting lower and lower, their albums even more inconsequential. Unlike punk but as with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the post-glam Slade benefited from not being fashionable at all, indeed being entirely unconcerned with fashion. In this respect the group's career paralleled that of Status Quo, who neither reached the heights nor the lows of Slade's chart career, and inspired very little affection, but who nonetheless continued to be successful throughout the 1970s and 1980s despite being absolutely unfashionable and unbendingly consistent. Although the late 1970s punk movement was indifferent towards Slade, the post-punk NWOBHM] was much more tolerant, and Slade enjoyed a career revival in the early 1980s. Not a spectacular one, but it paid the rent. A popular appearance at the Reading Festival in 1980 brought the band back into the headlines, and there was a sense that people were finally allowed to admit liking Slade. The group had three top ten hits during 1981-1982 ("We'll Bring the House Down", "My Oh My" and "Run Runaway", all spelled with the Queen's English), even managing to enter the American charts, something which they had failed to do during their heyday. In 1983 the American hair metal band Quiet Riot released a well-received cover of "Cum On Feel The Noize", and according to Mister X of Minneapolis, MN, in his Amazon review of Quiet Riot's Metal Health dated January 3, 2005, Quiet Riot "were ... the first pre-hip-hop group to basterdize (sic) the spelling of their song", which just goes to show how effectively Slade managed to break America, i.e. not very.
Nonetheless, when people write about the 1980s they do not write about Slade. Slade did not use synthesisers, they did not care about the rain forests, they did not play at Live Aid - unlike the aforementioned Status Quo, who opened the show - and they had not gone to art college nor, as I have stated, did they collaborate with Brian Eno. The band managed a freak top twenty single in 1991, "Radio Wall of Sound", after which they released one further original single before splitting in 1992. From 1996 Dave Hill and Don Powell returned, with two new members, as Slade II. In contrast to other reformed 70s glam rockers this group is a going writing concern, although they have so far had as much impact on the British public as The Madness or BAD II, i.e. none whatsoever. The lack of Noddy Holder must be a savage disappointment for casual fans.
During the mid 1990s the group enjoyed a revival, helped greatly by Oasis' decision to perform a cover of "Cum On Feel the Noize" on the popular muso programme Later with Jools Holland. Oasis didn't release their version on a single until 1996, when it was the b-side to "Don't Look Back in Anger", but the song was familiar by then to anybody who had stepped into a record shop, listened to the radio, or gone to the group's micro-era-defining concert at Knebworth. A compilation album of Slade's most popular singles was released, Feel the Noize, which had the good fortunate to emerge in a post-Abba Gold musical climate in which consolidation was popular. The compilation went on to sell more copies than their last half-dozen albums. It remains the best way to enjoy the group today. Oasis and Britpop brought Slade back into the public eye, helped along by Noddy Holder's frequent appearances on the rock quiz show Never Minds the Buzzcocks, and also by a bizarre recurring sketch in comedy show The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer which cast the band in an unlikely war with Duran Duran. Holder is also a popular radio presenter, and received an MBE in 2000.
Nowadays Slade inspire a great deal of residual affection. They are a national institution, particularly Noddy Holder, still famous for his top hats, big hair, and for being called Noddy. As with most other iconic rock survivors Slade's back catalogue will forever outsell any new work they release, and there is a sense that they are only a step away from being a package-tour nostalgia act, although they have not yet crossed the divide of shame which separates Depeche Mode from The Human League and ABC. "Merry Xmas Everybody" will continued to be a staple of Christmas for as long as Britain's airwaves are allowed to celebrate Christian festivals, whilst "Cum On Feel the Noize" appears to have become a rock standard.
Slade are not to be confused with Salad, an early, minor-league Britpop band whose name used some of the same letters.