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Fireworks Magazine Online 39 - The Dave Hill Interview
19 February 2010
THE DAVE HILL INTERVIEW
Slade are a totally unique band and though their golden years are long behind them they are still famous for having created some of the catchiest rock songs of the ‘70s, including ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’, ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’, and of course the universally played festive hit ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’. Yet true Slade fans know there are better composed and written songs in their back catalogue than a handful of hits. Though they are remembered as a singles band they released some outstanding albums, including, 1972s ‘Slayed?’ and 1974s ‘Slade In Flame.’ The original line-up with Noddy Holder and Jim Lea called it a day in the early ‘90s but Dave Hill and Don Powell have kept the name alive (under the moniker Slade II) with singer Steve Whalley and since 2005, Mal McNulty. So, Slade in 2010 is singer Mal McNulty, guitarist Dave Hill, drummer Don Powell and bassist John Berry. Over the past few years Union Square/Salvo Records have done an excellent job at re-releasing Slade’s back catalogue with bonus tracks and detailed sleeve notes. The recent addition is a new collection called ‘Live At The BBC’.
Neil Daniels spoke to Dave Hill about the band’s lengthy career and their enduring appeal.
The BBC sessions on ‘Live At The BBC’ were recorded during 1969-1972. To put the CD in context, what happened to the band during that period?
Well, we’d been together since 1966. Don and I were in a band called the N’Betweens which later became Slade. But it was the new N’Betweens which is when Noddy Holder and Jim Lea joined. Now, between 1966 through years and years of work to maybe 1968-69, Chas Chandler would have come in to the picture. I think that would be our introduction to the BBC. He would have got us some slots there... So Chas would have seen us and got us to write songs (’68-69). That’s what changed us. We took our knowledge and as Chas said: “You leant all these tunes. Why don’t you write? It’s all in your head.” So we all wrote at one point.
We used to write with each other and then Nod and Jim came together and it sort of worked from a melodic hit point of view. Our first hit was ‘Get Down And Get With It’ which wasn’t written by us – it was a Little Richard tune that we picked up on. We put our flavour on it and that started the hits in the early seventies and then it led to ‘Cuz I Love You’, our first Number 1. What would have happened at the BBC then was we were getting bits of airplay – because we used to do those shows called “needle time” which means you didn’t have to have a hit record but you were kind of [popular]. You had a slot. The only problem with our stuff was that some of the shows we weren’t suitable for like Jimmy Young and his house wives on a Sunday afternoon. We were not his cup of tea. He wouldn’t play one of our songs; that’s a good thing of course. The fact that we were different from anything else that was around. We’d got this style. Noel Edmonds and Tony Blackburn were the DJs at that time and I think we had a bit of flak but it was good in a kind of perspective that we were this noisy bunch from up North.
When we did get hits, which wasn’t over night – Chas Chandler was with us for a least a couple of years before that – he got us involved with the right people, the press, because he saw us live and liked us so much. We were like a breath of fresh air to the business. I think at that time there was a lot of progressive music about. A lot of people weren’t writing rock hits anymore. In a way, it was all that that helped us move in to this situation. We didn’t know what form it was gonna be – it just took place.
So it took years to learn your craft and acquire some kind of powerful stage presence?
Oh yeah, it was not over night with us. Don and I had been together since 1964. I used to work… I was an office boy – it was crap as well! I was playing guitar in a band at night. I used to hide me stage clothes from the office people! I didn’t want ‘em to know I was in a group because it was considered being, you know, “them lot in bands…”
In 1964 I met Don and I was in the N’Betweens and we were off doing shows at night, and I grew me hair and more or less got the sack! “Get your hair cut or leave!” (Laughs.) But it was a great time: Beatles, Stones, Who and all that was going on... It was a fantastic time in music, actually.
There was a lot happening in Birmingham back then, wasn’t there?
Yeah, there was. Roy Wood, there was Wizard, ELO, Jeff Lynn was in the Idle Race, we knew him well. We used to do the same pubs. Robert Plant was in Band of Joy and then he went on to Zeppelin in the end. The two big things from the Midlands was Noddy Holder and Robert Plant. They both had rock voices. They were doing unusual material.
It was a hard slog before the hits came along, so did you have periods of doubt and frustration?
There were no periods. I think there was times were [we] got frustrated. In those days it was trying to get the right connections and playing at [the right] places. In the sixties there were all these soul clubs and when the Beatles’ success changed there was a lot of soul and tamla motown and we were doing all that. Then we were trying to get better gigs or get seen in London. But you had to make connections and Midlands' agents hadn’t got any claims in London or up in some of the Northern scene but bit by bit we did get there. We got there by being, I think in a way, different. We weren’t playing hit records apart from tamla motown, Four Tops… We did some extraordinary stuff. There was some great music around, great melodies from America. Chuck Berry and all that. We learnt all that. I think the thing with us is that we weren’t manufactured. We were a genuine group that worked hard.
I was in groups before I met Don. I was in a [band] in the old council estate, up the youth centre and playin’ the guitar and drinking pop. I started off when I was fourteen and I had an ability, or I felt I had an attraction, towards melody. I became a lead guitarist because I loved Hank Marvin. That was my love at that time.
How did you get into wearing those flamboyant clothes and hats? Was it just about being different from other bands at the time?
The thing is with me, I always used to love old musicals. I was brought up on classic thirties and forties musicals. I was born in the forties so I heard a lot of that stuff. We used to always watch musicals when we were kids. I always noticed that people either had got some look or some certain clothing people remembered ‘em for: Charlie Chaplin with his cane and hat. I think a lot of us at that time – Eric Clapton and all them – would have all been watching similar things. But we’re all coming from different areas. I am an entertainer as well as a guitarist. I was never that confident at school. I mean, there were kids who had the right hairstyles and there were kids who had the right girlfriends but I never went to those parties and I wasn’t popular. Someone might look like Cliff Richard or Elvis or someone like that. But for me, I didn’t find my feet until I grew me hair. I grew my hair and got out of my day job because my parents let me turn professional because they knew I could play. My granddad was a musician. My dad believed in me and my mum believed in me. I thought I’d give it a go.
The Beatles had the suits and fringes and I was looking for something. It was really that post-hippie thing and everybody was getting a little bit lovey-dovey and flowery. I was doing all that because I was dressing up in kaftans and things when the Beatles went towards that with the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ era. It all started when I bought a woman’s blouse, actually. It was bright yellow. I’d wear this for a laugh. Of course the band [said]: “You can’t possibly wear that!”. I was getting this reaction. I went onstage and all these people were smiling at me.
This bloke said: “Eh Dave, that’s a great shirt you wore tonight. Where’d you buy that?” I said: “It’s not a shirt. It’s a woman’s blouse!” I couldn’t get any bright clothes. I took it a stage further and I went to London (Kensington) and there was a guy there experimenting with shoes. Well, the Beatles had the Cuban heels and I wanted something bright. I used to spray them – the black boots. This bloke was making a platform and I looked at it and went: “What’s that about?” He said: “It’s like platform coloured shoes.” I said: “How about you put two platforms on it?” And he did! The following week I shown him the others and he said: “What’s going on here?” I’d glued another one on and I had three [platforms!] Suddenly it’d become a fashion. It wasn’t general because you couldn’t buy them – I’d got this guy doing it.
Then I was experimenting with some long coats. Years and years ago Mott The Hoople used to wear these long coats. I thought it was great. But there wasn’t any colour. There was a lot of black and white TV so I saw this long coat in Kensington, it was black, and I said to the guy: “Can you make that in silver?” And he did! I wore that with the platforms when eventually we got on Top Of The Pops. Of course, on the black and white telly’s silver looks good. That was the start of my journey.
From that point onwards I just grabbed hold of it. Marc Bolan was popular with the glitter. Not the glitter as much as I wore. He used to wear a tear on his cheek and I thought “That looks great, that.” I liked Marc…with his corkscrew hair. I had me own hairstyle as you know.
But Slade were serious musicians too, right?
The music is paramountally important to Slade because we’re a serious band with musical tastes, abilities. Nod and I were always up the front there, Nod with his hat on, sideboards and his trousers and I was always the one doin' some unusual [moves]. People used to tune in to see what I’d got on next. It’s only like booking Rod Stewart or Jagger or Elton John. Elton John’s worn some really bizarre costumes. I’ve been to see him play and in fact he’s been to see us as well. He was in too all that. Freddie Mercury’s another one. Freddie was a fantastic singer and a great writer but he was also an extrovert.
You possibly might agree with me, we don’t really have the likes of us around anymore. It’s manufactured pop… there are some talented people out there but it’s the ones that make a difference. You look at the sixties and seventies, you always knew that was Rod Stewart or that was Elton John. Everybody’s got their kind of bag. That’s what we had. We had a fantastic manager, Chas Chandler. He knew a good tune. He’d already managed Hendrix and he certainly knew what guitar was all about. He believed in us.
How did people take to Slade, initially?
A lot of people didn’t like us. Chas used to be going round trying to get people to write about us and some people just didn’t like us. People in their late forties/early fifties have followed us and their kids are following us. I feel at the moment the music has reached a point were there needs a shift in consciousness in the music scene in order for us to survive. You’ve got to find the talent to move forward. People are just not getting seen. We only got found by purely hard work. We didn’t have MTV and we didn’t have a fast ticket to fame. You bought your ticket in to it but you bought it for a lifetime. We didn’t buy it for five minutes of fame. In actual fact, if we hadn’t have been ready we wouldn’t have lasted. You get your first hit but you need another. You know what it’s like these days: two years down the line, you forgot what happened. I feel very fortunate that I grew up at a time when England was getting on its feet after the war and music was written with acoustic guitars and pianos. We didn’t have great technology but we had the soul of it. If you think about the greatest songs there’s ever been they’ve always been through struggle for survival. With Slade, I think we offered the public a change and some fun back in the music business. We offered a kind of personality.
Reeves And Mortimer did this series once were they used to copy us in a rock comedy routine. It was quite flattering in a funny sort of way. You can only copy people if you can remember them! Our country in the sixties, it was a fantastic time to grow up. We sort of ruled the planet one point. The Beatles are still the biggest band in the world…four Liverpudlians. You’ve got Black Sabbath, Zeppelin… A lot of talent came out of the midlands. I’m still enjoying it!
When you look back what are your thoughts on Slade “skinhead look”?
Well, I suppose on reflection I didn’t particularly enjoy it. We all got our hair cut and all the rest of it. It had its good side. In a way we sort of grew our hair back after that. I think it got us noticed but it didn’t get us a hit. I think two years later we grew our hair. We grew it from the skinhead look and it became our hairstyle after that. I suppose in a way it helped as well. Sometimes you’re trying to be different and I think there’s nothing wrong in it but funnily enough the boots we worn then turned into platforms. We weren’t a band to wear jeans. Having said that Nod wore braces and a working man’s cap and that came from it [skinhead look] in a way. We all sort of developed something out of it.
On the whole the Americans didn’t take too well to Slade, did they?
When we first went there it wasn’t easy for us because we were very popular having Number 1’s in England. Polydor, the record company over there, were prompting us as fairly new. We went over and we didn’t have the Ed Sullivan show like the Beatles did. We had to go over and play. It’s not easy when you’re coming from such huge success. Oddly enough some of the audience were future bands. KISS with Gene Simmons – I know he’s a fan of ours, he’s a nice guy – tells a story about seeing us in New York. We played in New York and we had platforms on and they [KISS] were watching us, kind of getting the ideas in a way. They liked our sound. They’ve got a song called ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’; it’s very similar to ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now.’ Gene Simmons said: “We listened to you and watched you…” And they did!
I think in a way we were a bit soon to go there because I think there were still underground bands going on and it was still Woodstock and all that. We came across probably quite bizarre at first. We were very English and we had the look and sound. We seemed to have pockets of success in America; in St. Louis or a little bit in New York. The thing with America is they have a lot of different stations. Yet to get airplay it wasn’t like Radio 1 were you play a record and everybody heard it, you had to go from area to area. I think in some ways we approached it a bit too soon and we should have left it a while. We didn’t know. We had a good go at it. We left a mark there.
In 1984 we had a hit with ‘Run Runaway’ and ‘My Oh My.’ We went over with Sharon Osbourne and we did a few dates with Ozzy and a few dates on our own. We met up with the guys who were writing about us years and years before. It was quite nice. We haven’t been back. I’d love to have another look at it again. There’s a lot of interest over there.
What have your recent shows been like?
Playing in Slade now, we’ve been to Russia and across Europe and I’ve met fans who had difficulty getting our music because they’re not supposed to listen to it… We played a gig [in Russia] and its fifty degrees below and we’re doing this show and we’re looking at all the Russians and they were all loving it and they knew the words as well. You get hugs off them. It’s fascinating. You don’t realise how many people that you affect. They loved the image because it made ‘em laugh. That’s the thing with us. It’s like the Christmas song: 1973 and there’s a lot of strikes in England and we had this Christmas song out which went big time because it lifted the spirit of the nation. People have become very fond of it. Our band’s had a lot of Number 1’s but it seems to me that people think of us in an uplifting way.
We played the Indigo Rooms at the O2 Arena just the end of last year. It was magnificent because I’ve haven’t done a London gig in years. It’s a great room. I do shows abroad and sometimes I’m just playing to 500 people and sometimes to 15,000 people. It varies. Somebody said something to me, which I thought was important: “What do you learn on guitars these days, if you buy a guitar and want to learn something?” You’re likely to look to sixties and seventies music. It’s very true, isn’t it?
The breadth of Slade’s influence is very widespread, isn’t it?
It’s funny because Freddie [Mercury] used to work at Kensington market selling T-shirts. I used to go in there. I didn’t know him then, actually. He told a story about how he saw me knocking about for clothes. Once again with Queen you know them by the sound. Special. It’s like Shirley Bassey. Special. Comes from this country. Just made an album. Manic Street Preachers wrote that song ‘The Girl From Tiger Bay.’ It’s a great album. You’re just pleased someone has made a mark. She’s like seventy-odd and can still do it. It’s like Chuck Berry is still out there playing. It’s in your blood. When I’ve done some shows I go home and I’m a family man, that’s important to me. It’s nice. I wouldn’t have known when I was twenty-odd… I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you! I never thought we’d last. It’s like the Beatles said: “Give it five years and we’ll be over.”
The bands like Oasis, Bono/U2, I know that they’ve all listened to us – I can hear it. Even the eighties bands, Duran Duran, in particular. I met the bass player long before they made it. I met him in a pub in Solihull. He said: “Oh, I’m in a band. Just trying to make it.” I went to see James Blunt at the Civic Hall in Wolverhampton. The drummer invited me. He said: “We’ve got a surprise for you.” He sang ‘Coz I love You’ onstage! How weird is that? You couldn’t possibly think that James Blunt would listen to Slade. Yet he did a version of ‘Coz I Love You’ which was fantastic in Wolverhampton because we’re a Wolverhampton group. What I’m saying is, you don’t realise how many people actually check you out!
That BBC album you’ve got there has had quite a few good reviews. People are going: “Oh, wow, there’s more than ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ to this group.”
Does it frustrate you that your singles overshadow the albums?
Well, some people might just know one song and turn up to hear that. It’s hard to compete with something as big as that. Germany’s not so bad because they know the other songs like ‘Far Far Away’. They know ‘Goodbye To Jane’. We stick a few rock songs in there that I wrote. It’s part of the act and I get a joy out of that. I know what you mean. Sometimes success can overshadow some of the other gems. Thankfully to Union Square/Salvo when they brought this album out, I think it’s done us some real good. People didn’t know we did some Moody Blues. I just gave a copy to Mike Reid, the DJ from Radio 1. We had a lot of musical ideas amongst us. Each of us in our band are totally different. We always had a strong purpose…music! We always gelled and come together for the main purpose. We never let each other down. We were always there. I see it in Take That. Watching them talking about their introduction – nice bunch of blokes. It’s hard to see how you can put people together and be successful – it doesn’t happen that way. With us, it was just a process of meeting up along the way.
Finally, you must have been pleased with the recent Union Square/Salvo reissues?
They’re good guys. Chas Chandler – funny he’s got the name of my old manager – is a really good guy and he’s a genuine music fan.