Slade started life as The N’Betweens in 1966 and enjoyed modest local success, before recording a single – the excellent Kim Fowley-produced Young Rascals cover, You Better Run. The single did not chart and the band did not record again for well over two years, although they continued to build a powerful reputation on the live circuit.
By 1969 they had changed their name to Ambrose Slade, at the suggestion of Fontana’s Jack Baverstock, and become a bunch of threatening skinheads from Walsall.
By 1971, they’d lost the ‘Ambrose’ and Noddy Holder was giving it loads on Top Of The Pops with his top hat covered in mirrors.
“The first time it was for a stage effect,” said Noddy. “I wanted it to be like a mirror ball and light up the audience. But I ended up wearing it for two years, 1972 and 1973.
The idea was that when we went on Top Of The Pops we wanted to stand out. We wanted people to say in the pub, “Did you see them Slade on Top Of The Pops last night? They’re mad, they are”.
As ambitions go, that was a fair ambition. The only thing was that Slade weren’t mad. They were sharp tunesmiths who had a gift for a gag and an eye for the main chance.
First spotted by Chas Chandler, a man who’d proved his pedigree with his previous managerial charge, one Jimi Hendrix.
When Chandler got hold of Slade, they were still Ambrose Slade and about to become skinheads.
In the very late Sixties being a skin was quite a smart move. It was big constituency, ready to be exploited, but when they got going they found that they weren’t the ones being exploited.
Skins used their gigs to launch all that violence nonsense that they liked so much. Every time the Ambroses tried to get going, out would come the Doc Martens and the knuckle-dusters.
For a young group on the make, it wasn’t so much a reputation as a noose.
“Hey, we’re better than that,” thought the boys. So they lost the Ambrose, grew their hair and had a look around. “Hey, who’s that bunch of poofs singing about that geezer wot invented the phone?”
It didn’t take long for the shrewd Chandler to reposition his boys as Glam rockers and – hey ho, here we go – they released Get Down And Get With It, a good old stomp from their old days that was now dressed up with a bit of fairy dust. It was, strangely enough, a Top 20 hit.
Noddy Holder, the lead singer and the owner of that mirrored top hat, was so pleased he wrote a letter to his mum. ‘Deer Mum, Gess wot weev dun…’
Chas Chandler happened to be passing by as Noddy was writing and saw the letter. “Oi, Nod, I think I’ve got an idea” – Well, it might have been like that.
Slade had themselves a gimmick. It was to pretend that they hadn’t been to skool. They spelt all their song titles wrong. Coz I Luv You, Look Wot You Dun, Take Me Bak ‘Ome, Mama Weer All Crazee Now, Gudbye T’Jane, Cum On Feel The Noize.
Slade had a huge run of hits. Each time they appeared on Top Of The Pops they were more and more outrageous. Or rather, guitarist Dave Hill was.
One of the great Glam figures, Hill looked like no one else on earth: huge platform boots – I’ve a sneaky suspicion he was about four foot tall – costumes to dye for in colour to die in, the trademark Cleopatra haircut and the cutest buck teeth.
That haircut was the crowning glory. Long all round, except at the front where it was cut in a kind of circle. It was well odd. He looked like a comical posh chipmunk who’d been off nicking peanuts when they were giving out a good taste. A proper Glam Liberace, Hill was a permanent fixture of the early Seventies.
Sparkling hair and glamtastic clothes alone wouldn’t have done it for the Sladesters. Their tunes were catchy, rocky, infectious, so much so that they’re still living.
A rabble-rousing leader of a rabble-rousing outfit, Noddy Holder’s voice was a raspy growl, obviously, the perfect voice for an effeminate-looking (oh yeah?) Glam rock outfit.
Like The Sweet, Slade made some timeless classics. And like The Sweet their look seemed totally at odds with what they were.
Coming from the Black Country of Wolverhampton – Black Sabbath country – it was only natural that their tendency should be toward the macho, but you just felt with Slade that half a yard underneath the bucket loads of glitter there were two tattoos that said ‘love’ and ‘hate’. Maybe it was their background.
Slade were dealt a near-fatal blow on 4 July 1973, shortly after a triumphant show at London’s Earls Court. The Bentley in which drummer Don Powell and his girlfriend, Angela Morris, were travelling crashed into a wall. Angela died, and Don sustained life-threatening injuries.
When he returned to the band two months later, he’d lost his memory (and his sense of taste and smell) and had to re-learn all his drum parts.
That summer, the band booked into New York’s Record Plant to record Merry Xmas Everybody which became a Christmas #1 and has remained a British staple at Christmastime for over four decades.
Then Slade made a film, Flame (1975) – aka Slade In Flame – that was all soft focus and backlit. Listen, if Slade In Flame had been a kosher item, it would have been called Slade In Flaym. The accompanying album was to be the group’s last Top 10 LP.
Punk was taking off in the UK and Slade were considered old farts and had to begin playing smaller venues again, such as Birmingham’s Rum Runner and Bailey’s in Watford.
A skint Dave Hill even considered becoming a wedding chauffeur and hiring out his gold Rolls-Royce – “Hire a pop star for your special day”.
By the summer of 1980, Slade were on hiatus. Then Ozzy Osbourne cancelled his slot at the Reading Festival and Slade stepped in with just three days’ notice and stole the show.
Sharon Osborne then booked the band as an opening act on Ozzy’s 1984 US tour but they managed just one date (at San Francisco’s Cow Palace on 28 March 1984).
It would be the last concert they ever played together. Bassist Jim Lea was diagnosed with hepatitis and the rest of the tour was cancelled.
Unhappy in the band and with his marriage breaking up, Noddy refused to tour but continued making Slade records. But Lea wanted creative control, Powell was boozing heavily and Hill had become a Jehovah’s Witness.
Noddy quit Slade in 1991. Lea called time soon after. Hill and Powell wanted to continue the brand and were allowed to do so as Slade II, and have since performed all over the world.
Noddy Holder received an MBE in 2000 and the Freedom of Walsall in 2014.
Bass, piano, violin