Slade‘s Dave Hill is on the phone from the UK and reflecting on the feeling he still gets today before a show… but how did it start all those years ago? “Around 1963 I joined up with Don Powell (Slade drummer) in a group called The Vendors, grew my hair and turned professional, coz mum and dad let me, and dad always believed in me saying ‘you’re a natural’; my grandad was a classical pianist so the music’s always been there. Then there was a chance meeting with Nod (Holder, vocals, guitar) when Don and I were looking to reform our last band, The ‘N Betweens, but I’d never heard his voice. And Nod had been the backup singer and lead guitarist in the band I’d seen him in. So we saw him outside a club in Wolverhampton and I just went up to him and asked: ‘What you doin’?’ And he said: ‘I’ve just quit this band’, so over a chat and a coffee he agreed to give the new band a go. I told him my idea was a band with three lead guitarists: me, Nod and this guy I know (Jim Lea) who plays bass like Jimi Hendrix… he liked the sound of that. A weird combination, you couldn’t have written it down on paper. So before the first get together Jim asks ‘What’s this Nod guy sound like?’ I said ‘I don’t know, I’ve not heard him!’ (Laughs). And a lot of people didn’t like Nod’s voice and were saying ‘you’ll never make it with him!’ And at that first get together – at the local pub – we just knew. It felt exciting. There was a spark”.
And the spark kicks a career off! “Yes, but when you’re starting out it isn’t about hits – it’s about ‘ooh we got a show at Ronnie Scotts’s Jazz Club‘ – which was a big deal… although I’m not sure anybody liked us… and then years later Chas (Chandler, Slade manager) says: ‘I’ve got all these record company people coming and I’m gonna put you in Ronnie Scotts’ and we say: ‘Ronnie Scott’s? It’s a bloody Jazz club!’ thinking why would we go back there? And Chas says: ‘you play and they’ll just watch you’ – and we played our set and in Get Down And Get With It we get on the tables coz all the press people are trying to be cool and we start stamping on the tables and knockin’ all their drinks over -and they signed us! (Laughs). We weren’t sure what we had but we knew we had something. Chas had seen it. Early on we seemed to find a style, and he kind of took us forward with the uniqueness that we had, he always believed that we cut through all the snobbery in music and stuck a fist up in the air with something that was rock, but it was rock n’ roll with a difference, with a modernness for the time. Also the abilities in the group – a bassist/violin player who also played piano, Nod’s raucous voice being kind of Little Richard-ish and my style of guitar”.
Slade always had an eye-catching look – and you personally always did it one hundred per cent- what were your favourite outfits and were there ever any funny situations arising from them? “There was the outfit I wore on (British TV show) Top Of The Pops, that was sort of Egyptian but I believe it was Steve Marriott who called it my Metal Nun outfit – then of course there was the Super Yob outfit… I remember the time at Liverpool Stadium with a sell-out crowd going absolutely bananas and with my platform boots I twisted and broke my ankle so Chas came up with the idea of building me a throne- with my leg in plaster wrapped in silver bacofoil to match my outfit- it was really funny, me sitting there with my leg stuck out, girls screaming and I cannot move! So we were able to finish the tour. Then there was the time we played in New York and Kiss were in the audience, in 1973. I’ve got these massive platforms on and I go down the walkway to stir up the audience, slip and end up on my back and my feet stick up in the air with these platforms on! So I try to pretend it’s part of the act, kicking my legs around and of course the band are behind me laughing and they’re like- ‘er, bloody pillock, he fell over!’ – So I roll my guitar around, and get up and a few years later Kiss make it and I meet them and Gene Simmons says: “I saw you in New York, Dave- you came out with the big boots and you stuck a V- sign up with your fingers (which I’m sure I didn’t do but he seemed to think I did so I didn’t argue) and then you did something amazing- you got on your back and kicked your legs up and absolutely man that was great”- and I didn’t wanna spoil the story so I let him believe that I actually did it as part of the act (Laughs). The show goes on regardless”.
Listening through Cum On Feel The Hitz one thing that stands out is the overall energy and spontaneity of the songs – the band sounds like a real live band and like they were recording ‘off the floor’ as opposed to constructing a song bit by bit… “That’s exactly what Chas Chandler was all about- he understood rock and roll records played by musicians who played well together- there was no cut and pasting then- the Beatles records were two and four track! And what we did in those days was, every chorus was actually sung and differences happened spontaneously- and with my guitar parts- though I know what I’m going to play, sometimes new things appear as I’m listening back- all those lead parts on Coz I Luv You were done on my feet- or on the hoof, as we call it, coz when I was in there Chas would say ‘just do it’. You can do something by accident and everyone really likes it. And the other thing about recording that way was that the tempo of the record in those days might start at a certain pace but by the end it’s gone up a notch and that’s what gives it the edge you feel… those records… the magic is in the added nuances, like one song, Mama Weer All Crazee Now… right at the end, there’s one extra bass drum beat, and it was left in, because no way were we gonna go through the take again, and then in time little things like that become valuable. When we recorded Cum On Feel The Noize – that was never rehearsed, so we’d play it together, and then put it down, and it was just the intro chords and that was Nod warming up, adding his ‘Baby Baby Baby’ as a way of letting everyone know ‘we’re here’- unplanned. Gudbuy T’Jane – that was done totally off the cuff- we were in the studio with half an hour to go and Chas says: ‘Have you got anything else, we’ve still got half an hour’… well, yes, we have a new one, so Chas says: ‘play it then’, and instantly from Don’s drum intro it was exciting and we nailed it and that was the take that we put out- it was in the moment and it just worked. My Baby Left Me– that was the guide vocal that we kept. It just sounded so natural. And the ‘It’s Christmaaaaas’ scream at the end of Merry Xmas Everybody… spur of the moment and it lets everyone know- this is it- the last chorus. Like Nod always said, and I agree with him, Slade were a great rock and roll band. It was the fun of the stuff- not writing political songs, which might date later. What we wrote about is still valid today”.
You had a couple of pretty iconic guitars: the double cutaway SG/Les Paul guitar and of course the Super Yob guitar… how did you end up with those? “The double cutaway Gibson, which I’m actually looking at right now, it’s on the wall – dad bought me that by the way- two hundred and twenty quid-cash! It’s maple, with a Gibson neck and a kind of SG vibe but with a fatter body- with a very bright sound that cuts through with a hand-wired pickup and there’s something lived in about it. I bought that one in London coz Chas said to me: ‘You’ve got this Burns guitar but it doesn’t record very well, go get yourself a decent guitar’. So I found it in a shop and asked the guy to hang on to it for a couple of days, and I got dad to pay for it, and me and Don went down with dad in the car and it wasn’t in the window and I thought he’d flogged it but he’d put it away for me. And as soon as I started to record with it Chas said it was a really great sounding guitar -I mean it’s the sound of those records y’know?”
And the other one? The Super Yob? “And then the other one is a guitar which was a construction by me and my costume designer who said ‘You need to get a guitar that fits your clothes,’ so I got the Super Yob guitar which became a bit of a phenomenon, that was made to match my clothes, not made to play well… coz it never did play well but it did look great! And it used to be black with some chrome on the front but Chas said ‘that’s a great guitar but you’ll never see it from the audience – have it sprayed silver’. So I went back and John Birch (who also made Tony Iommi’s guitars) sprayed it silver for me. And Marco Pirroni, who was a kid and would later form Adam And The Ants saw me playing it on Top Of The Pops and fell in love with it. Years later, when all the hits dried up and I no longer had much use for it I sold it to a shop in Broad Street Birmingham where they stuck it in the window- not for sale. Adam and the Ants were playing Birmingham when Marco saw it in the window and couldn’t believe his eyes. He walked in asking to buy it – he was told it wasn’t for sale but asked the shop to name a price – they told him some ridiculous price and he bought it! And he’s still got it. He currently has it loaned out to an exhibition along with stuff that belonged to people like Marc Bolan and Mick Jagger et cetera. They tried to get Nod’s hat for it too but he wouldn’t risk it. So when I went back on the road in 1993 I went back to John Birch and asked him to remake it for me. It’s the same but I had LED lights put in the neck and it actually plays better than the original”.
During the height of your success in 1973 things were shaken up pretty seriously with Don’s involvement in a serious car crash. How did that affect the band at that point? “I read a review once where the guy talked about how we’d changed, that in 1973 we were all about Cum On Feel The Noize, Mama Weer All Crazee Now, Gudbuy t’ Jane and all those songs that year and how in ‘74 we became a little bit more reflective with songs like Far Far Away. And maybe it’s because we’d had such a year, and yet in amongst it we had a massive tragedy with Don (the car accident) where his girlfriend got killed and we went through a trauma where we were the biggest band around and then something happens – the accident happened right when we were actually number one in the charts with Skweeze Me Pleeze Me. I mean, it was such a tough time for us all because we hadn’t got a clue that he’d even live. And when he did recover he’d forgotten all the songs and we had to work hard at getting him back. It was quite an ordeal but when you look back at it, amazingly, the Christmas song (Merry Xmas Everybody) came at the end of that year and we were to have the biggest most memorable song ever! No one saw that one coming”.
LD: Merry Xmas Everybody is the Christmas song – how did that come about? “Nod said to Chas: ‘We’ve got this idea: nobody writes Christmas songs anymore and me and Jim have come up with this idea”’. A chorus idea of Nod’s about an old guy watching the world go by and then Jim coming up with the idea of ‘are you hanging up your stocking on the wall’ – so Nod went to his mum and dads’ house one night and had a few beers and came up with lyrics that touched on what everybody does at Christmas- it was just about people and that’s what made it lovable. It was like, yeah, this is a good idea. We were in New York when we went in to the Record Plant and didn’t really know the song. We sort of recorded it as we learnt it in the studio. We had our guitars but the gear we used was all borrowed studio gear. The studio was in an office block and we were in the foyer doing backing vocals at half nine in the morning with office workers coming in and out and wondering about these bonkers Englishmen singing about Christmas in July’s one hundred degree New York heat! So Chas takes the tapes back to England’s Olympic Studios and mixes them and we never heard the finished song until we were in Belgium and one morning a record company man played it to us in his office – and he loved it. And after a couple of bottles of breakfast champagne we thought ‘yeah, this sounds really great!’ (Laughs) – And that started it off. It was just right at the right time. It’s not our best song but it is a great song”.
You first visited Australia in 1973 – what do you remember best about that trip? “Yes! I’ve been to Australia three times by the way- obviously the first time when we had that phenomenal success with Slade Alive!. We came over with Status Quo, Lindisfarne and Caravan supporting us and we didn’t know what to expect. We heard there was this popularity and thought ‘What’s this all about?’ so we came over. My dad had worked in Melbourne for around seven years in the thirties so I heard a lot of stories about the place and I know he loved it. The experience of us arriving there, six o’clock in the morning, there was all this press and film crews waiting for us, imagine when you’ve been on a long flight like that- and there was all that Fosters beer there for us and we were already all a bit zombified coz we’d been drinkin’ on the flight but it was great- the hospitality…we had a lot of fun. And I believe at the time you’d had a lot of dry weather then, you had this enormous rainfall which caused floods and we came right at that time- so Randwick Racecourse in Sydney was pretty wet- and with so many people there! And our manager Chas was stunned- he said (in very credible Geordie accent-LD) ‘well I thought they said you were popular but I didn’t quite realise HOW big it was!’ (Laughs). Then we went another time (1974) and it was the best tour coz there was only us and we did theatres, which was real fun, and we’ve got all these screaming girls there coz we were obviously popular with the teenagers and all that”.
Looking at pics from the time it looks like you brought out your entire backline for the tour? “Absolutely! Yeah we did- we brought this backline, all the amps, at the time probably Hi-Watts – and had a special plane to carry all the equipment coz there was quite a lot”.
Wasn’t there another Australian tour, some years later? “Yes, the last time I came there was when I reformed the band in 1992, and, unfortunately, with the promoter we had it didn’t quite work out that well… we were going to places like Geraldton, then Darwin, then Adelaide and Perth- sometimes we’d be flying, and then we’d be on a bus for ten hours! Good job there was air-conditioning y’know? (Laughs) I mean, we went for three weeks and ended up (staying) six! The promoter ran out of money- it was all a bit complicated (laughs) but it was a good experience. We were playing pubs and you could stay at the motel and walk to the stage and at the end of this big room is the bar with not just blokes, but girls necking bottles of beer and it was all (does Aussie accent) “Yeah Slade mate ALRIGHT!” (Laughs) It was so nice. It really helped me get the new band in shape. And I caught up with Hank Marvin from the Shadows, who lives in Perth- which I must say is quite a nice place. We’ve had many enquiries to come back but at the moment of course…”
No one’s going anywhere. So after keeping a lower profile, after the hits, as you say, “dried up”, you were asked to appear at the Reading Festival in 1980- in what became a massive comeback. What lead to that? “At first I didn’t want to do it- I was struggling, you see, towards the end of the seventies I was at a bit of a crossroads- with the lack of hits, with a family, it was a difficult time- I felt I wanted to leave… but really I didn’t want to leave coz that’s my life- what I love, you know… then Nod called and said: ‘Chas has had this last minute offer to do Reading Festival- Ozzy’s pulled out, everyone else is busy and would Slade fill in? We’ll be on with Def Leppard and UFO and Whitesnake‘. I was thinking- ooh-how’s that gonna go? Will we fit in? I was uncomfortable with it and didn’t want to do it. Then Chas comes on the phone, I thought I’d got away with it (laughs), (Geordie accent again) ‘Davey man- Nod tells me you don’t wanna do the festival? I think you’re crazy man! You’ve got more hits and experience than any group on that bill- it’ll be absolutely great for you man! I can’t understand your reasoning,’ -and bit by bit he convinced me!… ‘You’ve nothing to lose man! You’re the best!’ OK I give in… being stubborn wouldn’t have been good- knowing how it turned out!”
The heady days of limos and rock star trappings were long gone- Dave remembers “We drove our hired Ford into a car park- the wrong car park – ‘where in the hell are we?’ The gate attendant says: ‘you’re Slade? What you doin’ here? This is the punters car park,’ and directed us to the right spot…where all these limos are parked and we’re in our old rented Ford. I seem to remember there was a situation where we were meant to go on in Ozzy’s slot- after Def Leppard- and Leppard insisted on going on after us- so we agreed and I can quote that’s probably the biggest mistake they made and I’m sure they’d tell you that quite frankly as truth. (Note: When Dave relates this is without a hint of arrogance or attitude). We had no idea how we would go, but we were well rehearsed from lots of club dates, and went on and opened with three hits, one after the other so as not to give the audience a chance to boo us! (Laughs). We were only announced to the audience when we went on- they had no idea- and there was a bit of a ripple, so we hit ‘em with three songs, then Nod’s ‘woaaarrrgh how ya doin’?’ and there’s a roar from forty thousand people! Then off it went- and the shouts of ‘Christmas’ start half way through the set- but Nod says ‘we’re not doin’ it, it’s not Christmas yet, you lot sing it and we’ll watch’ and that’s exactly what we did. Nod conducted them while we watched them all singing it- and then we went straight into Cum On Feel The Noize! No brainer. We drove back home through the night feeling good about it, then the following week all the papers came out with ‘Slade stormed Reading’ and so on”.
Following Reading, Slade updated their sound and found a new stream of success in the eighties with Run Runaway and My Oh My. Was that a natural progression? “You see Reading took us to another level, thankfully, and that lead to the bigger successes: RCA signed us and wanted to take us into a more up to date eighties-ish production vibe, so we came up with Run Runaway and My Oh My, and got together with a producer, John Punter, who had a more modern edge to him… I remember we mixed the songs at George Martin’s AIR Studios and of course they were an absolute smash for us”.
Jumping forward to 2020, during the enforced time off everyone’s had to endure- how have you been spending your time? “One of the things I’ve completed is the audio book version of my autobiography, which I’ve narrated myself, and rather than just repeat the book verbatim- word by word – while I did read it from the book, I added a few extra things and put a bit of emotion into it along with a little bit of guitar playing. So while the recent paper back version has an added chapter, the audio version has that and even more. I loved doin’ it- it felt like I was having a conversation, telling people stories- I hope people enjoy it”.
Sounds good. And besides that? “Besides that I’ve been enjoying doing some gardening as the weather has been great but I’ve mainly been writing and working on a solo album. Which has been great as while I wrote in the early days of Slade, once Jim and Nod got started with Coz I Luv You and kept writing hits, I didn’t really need to do so much. So once I got a hold of Logic (recording software) around ten years ago and started carting a laptop around with me on the road I was able to put down ideas in vans and hotel rooms. However it wasn’t until Covid hit that I had time to go into a proper studio to work with someone who could help refine it”.
Is the material Slade flavoured or totally different? “There’ll be elements of Slade in there but there’ll be things people don’t know about me because I play classical guitar and I play piano and lots of different things although paramountly my style of guitar playing is what I do. In a way it’s like being in a little bit of a bubble, being isolated – although obviously I don’t want Covid in my life- in a way it’s allowed me time to be more creative as I’ve never really had the time to work on it (the album). In all the years I’ve been doing this since I was eighteen- I’ve never really had this kind of time off. Ever. The journey in life is ongoing and there are some who maybe think they’ve arrived but I never think I have totally arrived coz I’m still journeying… it’s like ‘Dave how long are you gonna continue?’ and I say ‘it’s not a job”’. What I do is my life. I’ve always had that drive, I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t capable… Why wouldn’t I still want to do it?”
Slade’s new best-of collection, Cum On Feel The Hitz, releases through BMG on September 25th.