Slade Interviews: 1970's | 1980's / 90's | 2000-13 | 2014-17 | 2018-20 | 2021

Slade guitarist Dave Hill: ‘I’d come out of work, put on my costume and suddenly I’d be Superman!’
Simon Hattenstone for The Guardian
Mon 8 Mar 2021

Half a century after his first hit single, Hill has survived a stroke, depression and the departure of all three of his former bandmates. The glam rock ‘yob’ relives the days of glittering faces, mighty stacks and timeless anthems.

It’s half a century since glam rock first dazzled Britain, and Slade had their first hit, Get Down and Get With It. All four members of the original lineup are alive and kicking, but Dave Hill is now the only one who trades under the name Slade. As is the way of rock bands, there have been sulks, tiffs and the odd tempestuous row. But today Hill is the very picture of Zen calm.

While singer Noddy Holder is remembered as the one with the rasping voice, bassist Jim Lea as the creative one (he was classically trained and wrote the songs with Holder), drummer Don Powell as the one who had the terrible car crash that killed his girlfriend and left him in a coma, lead guitarist Hill was always the crazy one. He was famous for his pudding-basin fringe, glittering face, gold capes, mighty stacks (disguising his diddy, 5ft 4in stature) and ray-gun-shaped guitar called Super Yob. In his heyday, he drove a silver Jensen Interceptor and a gold Rolls-Royce with the number plate Yob 1. Hill was marketed as the yob’s yob.

He may not have sung the songs, but Hill was very much front of house as Slade became huge in the 1970s – six No 1s, most of the titles deliberately misspelt; the first band to have three singles enter the charts at the top spot (Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me, Cum on Feel the Noize and Merry Xmas Everybody); more than 20 Top 30 hits. They were as famous for their inane feelgood lyrics as their raucous pop-rock. Later on, they wrote a number of poignant ballads (Everyday, How Does It Feel, In for a Penny) that weren’t quite as successful, but may well be their finest songs.

Hill, 75 next month, is still as Dave Hillish as you could hope for: thick Black Country twang, buck-toothed, grinning, garrulous, long hair covering his ears, though the fringe has receded into yesteryear. He Zooms from the studio at his Wolverhampton home. I can see eight guitars on the wall and a keyboard to his side. This is where he has been creating throughout the pandemic. He is working on a solo album, writing a book on glam fashion to mark the genre’s 50th anniversary, and waiting for the relaxation of lockdown rules so that he can get Slade back on the road – even if it will be without Powell, with whom he acrimoniously parted company last year.

I show him an old, faded photo: me at the age of nine, with two framed pictures of Slade behind me. “Do I take it you’re a fan?” he asks, delightedly. For many people in their 50s, Slade were the band. Noel Gallagher is a huge fan. In the afterword for Hill’s anecdote-packed memoir So Here It Is, Gallagher wrote: “No Slade = No Oasis. It’s as devastating and simple as that. The Beatles? Well they were undeniably great … but Slade? I felt their songs could’ve been written at the end of our street … in a house just like mine.”

The Slade boys were quite different from their uncouth image. Holder and Lea were upwardly mobile working-class boys, while Hill had a fascinating background. “I was certainly not a yob,” he says. “We all came from very good families. Each one of us had mums and dads who stayed together.”

Hill’s mother, Dorothy, came from a refined middle-class family (her father was a doctor of music and classical pianist), was supremely bright and had a very successful secretarial career. At the age of 17, Dorothy became pregnant, and had a girl called Jean. The father was never named, and Jean was brought up by the family’s housekeeper. Dorothy ended up living on a Wolverhampton estate with Hill’s father, Jack, a mechanic, and it was here that the young Dave grew up. He says that his mother never overcame the shame of having Jean out of wedlock, had severe depression, spent time in psychiatric hospitals and died in her 60s. After her death, Hill discovered she had kept another secret. “We didn’t know she was a war-cabinet minister’s secretary.” Your story is made for the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, I say. He grins. “Jean’s father was a married man, we believe – it could be a politician for all I know.” The cabinet minister? “It could be.”

Hill learned to play guitar at 13, dossed at school, and at 15 got an office job at Tarmac that he hated. A couple of years later, he left to become a professional musician, and played with Powell in a band called the Vendors. Hill and Powell met Holder and Lea, invited them to join the band (by then known as the ’N Betweens), which was renamed Ambrose Slade in 1969, and then simply Slade.

It was when they discovered glam that things really took off. But this was glam with a difference – working-class, cloth-capped glam. Why does Hill think they became so big? He says they were the perfect contrast to what had just gone before – the introspective, dark end to the 60s. Slade were loud, extroverted and happy. “When you think of the essence of Slade, it’s more about a smile than looking at the floor and being super-serious about politics. Our songs reflect the audience – Cum on Feel the Noize, Mama Weer All Crazee Now.” They peaked in 1973 when three of their four singles entered the charts at No 1. “I remember being driven through London in 1973 and thinking: life cannot get much better than this,” he says.

Was this his happiest time in Slade? "No", he says. "Success is wonderful, but it brings problems – you’re too busy in TV studios and jet-setting to actually live your life, and there is the pressure of expectation. Success is not natural to any human being. It is a learning curve of coping. A songwriter can be miserable when he can’t write a song, or can’t come up with the one that sounded like the one that worked.”

His best memories go back to the beginning: his last days at Tarmac and first as a professional musician. “I used to come out of Tarmac dressed in a suit then this J2 van comes round to pick me up to take me to a show, and I’ve got my change of costume in there. So I’ve suddenly become Superman. I’ve suddenly become an extrovert.” Growing his hair was a life-changer, he says. “When I had short hair, my ears used to stick out like Spock. I had a complex about the size of my ears. So when the Beatles made it, I felt confident that I could grow my hair, and suddenly you felt more attractive. Girls noticed you. I didn’t get girlfriends before that. I was a little bit odd at school. I was shy, believe it or not. My sister said I was a loner.”

What does he think was his main contribution to Slade’s success? Well, he says, he was a decent guitarist, but the unique thing was his personality. “I let Nod and Jim get on with the writing and concentrated on my playing and my appearances. We used to have a saying in the group: you write them, and I’ll sell them.”

In 1974, they tried to break the US. Their record label, Polydor, thought it was inevitable – after all, they were the biggest band in the UK. They were presented as the new Beatles, which was overegging it somewhat, and the US didn’t buy it. “America was getting over Vietnam, and a lot of the hit songs were post-Woodstock.” The Americans were mid-existential crisis, and weren’t ready for good-time glam rockers singing badly spelled songs about noise, squeezing and craziness. They did have their fans, though. Bruce Springsteen turned up at one of their shows and tried to meet them backstage, Hill says. “One of our roadies didn’t have a clue who he was, and escorted him out. He wasn’t that well known at the time in England.”

When they returned in 1975, Britain had moved on. Their tunes were more melodic, the lyrics more mature, but only one of their four singles reached the Top 10 that year. In 1976 only one song reached the Top 30, then none in 1977. And that was the end of Slade. Or so it seemed.

Was it a shock when they fell out of fashion? “No, it was inevitable. Towards the end of the 70s, punk came along.” Actually, Hill says, he was perfectly content when they stopped making the charts. It just presented a new challenge. “We played the difficult gigs, the gigs where people have chicken in a basket and then go on the dancefloor. People might say: ‘Oh dear, that’s a big decline,’ but we had an armour of fantastic songs so nobody was going to argue with us. We managed to survive that.”

Then, in 1980, they were invited to play the Reading festival as a last-minute replacement for Ozzy Osbourne. While the headliners turned up in their Rollers, Hill says, they turned up in a Ford. Had he lost his money by then? Well, he says, he was never super-rich because he didn’t write the songs (Holder and Lea are said to earn £250,000 a year for Merry Xmas Everybody; in 2009 it was estimated that 42% of the world’s population had heard the song.) Did it bother him that he and Powell earned so much less than Holder and Lea? “It didn’t bother me in the slightest. We were a team, and Nod and Jim were doing the work on the songs, we were getting on great together. There was no issue.”

Nobody thought they stood a chance in front of the heavy-metal audience at Reading. But they were received rapturously, the crowd demanding Merry Xmas Everybody and singing along in the middle of summer. It heralded a mini Slade renaissance, with new hits, such as My Oh My and Run Runaway.

By the end of the 80s, they were old hat again. In 1992, Holder left to pursue a career in acting and TV presenting, and Lea to study psychotherapy. But Hill and Powell added new members to the band and continued for another 28 years. Hill says that by and large he has had a ball. “I may be with a different set of blokes, but the actual experience is the same. It’s the moment of the connection with an audience. What better way could I feel?” He talks about the last gig Slade played before lockdown, at Butlin’s in Skegness. “There were 2,000 people, and everybody was dressed up. They’ve got top hats on, they’ve got funny hairstyles – some look like me, some like Bowie, some like Alice Cooper, and all they want you to do is walk on stage and hit them with the big ones.”

He’s been lucky in so many ways, he says. He and his wife, Jan, got hitched in the 1970s, and they are still happily married with three adult children. And there’s not been a day since he left Tarmac that he’s had to do non-Slade work. Of course, he’s been through bad times. There have been sustained periods of depression, but he has always managed to climb his way out of the pit. He talks about one of his worst episodes, when he even lost his love for music, until the soundtrack of a rock’n’roll jukebox musical intervened. “I’ll tell you when the light came. One day, I put on The Best of Dreamboats and Petticoats, and it sounded great. And I went: something’s happening here. And I rang up my psychiatrist, and she punched the air and said: ‘YES!’”

In 2010, during a concert in Nuremberg, he had a stroke while on stage. “I woke up in hospital all wired up. I was tearful because I felt I’d let the band down. I thought, is this it after all these years?” He feared he would never play guitar again. “The surgeon said it would take time, but it would come back. He said: ‘Drinking coffee is really good for you; I recommend 10 cups a day.’” Sure enough Hill drank his coffee and taught himself to play the guitar again.

Last year, there was another crisis when Powell, who had leg injuries that prevented him performing at Slade’s most recent concerts, released a statement saying Hill had sacked him by email after 57 years together. Hill disputed Powell’s version. “Our parting of the ways has not come out of the blue, and his announcement is not accurate,” he said.

Today, I ask Hill whether he really did sack Powell by email, and, if not, what did happen? For the first time, he clams up. “That was untrue – that’s all I’ve got to say on it. My lawyer said: ‘Do not get involved.’ I know the reasons, and it was painful. And I still have a love for Don, I really do. I don’t really want to get into any discussions about it because it’s personal.”

Do they still talk to each other? “No.” Is there any chance of them getting back together? “No. No. No. I’d rather say to you that I’ve moved on from that. I feel happy at the moment, and I’m looking forward to getting back with the band as it is now.” Powell has since set up his own band.

Hill is keen to change the subject. He reminds me he doesn’t like negativity. One of the things that has kept him positive, he says, is discovering the Romantic poets at the age of 40, and reading Wordsworth for the first time. Ever since, he has been obsessed with him. He closes his eyes and starts talking, rather beautifully, about a poem he can’t remember the title of. “Wordsworth talks about a star that travels with you and refers to it as your soul. ‘Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: / The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star.’ And the poem talks about how ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing boy’, but the growing boy still perceives ‘the light, and whence it flows’.”

The point is, he says, that however far the light moves, you can still see it. He pauses, and opens his eyes, smiling. “Ah yes, it’s called Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” Music, he says, is his light; his life’s star. He talks about how it helped him with his depression and then with his stroke. “I realised then that music is a healer. It’s so much a part of me. And maybe that’s my life purpose until I depart from this place.”

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Don Powell on life through lockdown and missing Slade
By Andy Richardson Published: 15.5.2021, Express & Star.

He’s travelled all over the world but Slade legend Don Powell is in no doubt that the Black Country will forever be in his heart and mind.

He emails five minutes after the interview ends. He always does.

Don Powell, Slade legend, all-round good bloke, keeper of beats, says this: “Thanks for, calling mate…. Really enjoyed it. Don’t forget, next time I’m in, Wolves, we’ll go out for a cuppa. Once again, thanks mate. Don…”

Not all interviewees engage so thoroughly. In truth, most can’t wait to get off the phone. Promo is a bore. They want to be making new music, counting their money, switching off from the madness or basking in the adulation of fans and peers.

The few who exhibit social skills seldom really mean it: ‘Come and say hello when we play our next gig,’ is a one-way ticket to an awkward encounter with a promoter who’ll refer you back to the box office.

Don, however, means every word. He does meet for a cuppa – or a fizzy water, or a steak and chips. He walks it like he talks it. There’s never any side. He is, without question, one of the nicest men in rock. And, for all of the toxicity surrounding the Black Country legends that were Slade – and as pleasant as Mr Neville John ‘Noddy’ Holder is; Don has always been the nicest of the lot.

We’ll get the fall out with Dave Hill later – or, should we say, we’ll touch on the way Dave Hill sacked him by email after a friendship/partnership stretching back 50-odd years. But first, there’s more important stuff to talk about.

Rock’n’roll has been decimated by Covid-19. The live music industry ground to a halt. With the exception of a few pilot shows in Liverpool recently, gigs haven’t taken place since March last year and there’s still no guarantee that the summer’s festival programme will go ahead. The industry used to provide a living by generating cash through album and single sales. The advent of streaming, however, means that’s no longer the case and bands end up subsidising new releases to give them an excuse to get back on the road. Except there is no road.

Don has been sitting at home during Covid. He’s worked on his new project, The Don Powell Band, which he put together with a former member of Slade (the second incarnation) after exiting that band. Don’s experience of Covid has been somewhat different to the experiences of others. He’s been out in Denmark during lockdown and that nation’s response was more organised and less error-strewn than the response in the UK.

“I can’t complain about Covid,” he says. “The vaccine is here. They started the lockdown in Denmark about a month before the rest of the world so it’s not been so bad. We’re allowed out, that’s not a problem. There’s quite a few cafes open and things like that. It’s still down to wearing masks and keeping distances. In general, everyone’s a little bit closed off, but it’s not too bad. The travel situation is still a bit iffy. The German border is still closed and the flights to England have stopped. I never thought I’d see the world like this to be honest. I’ve just been doing general things and catching up around the house. Seeing the kids and grandkids has been hard, but it’s not too bad.”

There’s been a charity project to raise a few quid for the roadies and technicians who have found themselves completely out of work or driving vans for Amazon since the pandemic began. As bad as things have been for working musicians, they’ve been even worse for the crew. They’ve had nothing to fall back on, no occasional royalty cheques and nothing in the bank – let alone the prospect of Government support. Don, typically, has done his bit. He always does.

The Don Powell Band enlisted 18 of the UK’s finest drummers to create an epic and dynamic reworking of the classic drum feature: ‘Let There Be Drums’. His old mate, ELO and The Move legend Bev Bevan, was the first to sign up.

After that, there was no shortage of other drummers, both young and old, who were excited to record their solos for the project. The result is a powerful new version of the classic instrumental featuring epic playing by drummers from The Shadows, Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams, Jamiroquai, Nazareth, The Stereophonics, Jason Donovan, Magnum, Robert Plant, EMF, James Blunt and other award-winning drummers and percussionists.

All profits from the release will go to We Make Events, which helps studio crew, engineers and technicians.

Don put the project together with Craig Fenney, previously bass player with Don in Slade II and the man who recently helped form the Don Powell Band, a concept they discussed in their touring days together.

The production was done remotely, using several commercial studios and many home-recording studios. The drummers come from all points on the stylistic spectrum, from Prog to Funk, Hard Rock to Jazz, Classical, Pop, R‘n’B and Soul.

“Craig and I decided to do this. It was Craig’s idea because of the pandemic. We wanted to do something to all the technicians and crew who’ve been hard hit. It’s been great to work with some of the drummers who’ve signed up, even though we’re not in the same studios and it’s all done remotely. There are so many drummers who’ve wanted to help out. It’s amazing how things have changed. They recorded their drum parts in their own studios and put it together. I put my drums on and send it back.”

For all the good faith, however, sending computer files via email is no substitute for playing live in sweaty clubs with hundreds of adoring fans. Don knows that all too well.

“I can’t wait to play gigs again. It’s been great doing the drum stuff in the studio but you can’t beat playing live. There’s something magical about that, it’s special.”

Don, of course, has spent his adult life doing that in Slade. That came to an abrupt end in February last year, just before lockdown, when Dave Hill send him a “cold email” informing his that his services were no longer required. Hill claims the break-up was amicable – though, speaking to Don, it’s clear it was no such thing. The rejection clearly still stings. There were noises off that Hill thought Don wasn’t fit enough to carry on, another piece of misinformation.

“I just got an email from Dave Hill saying he didn’t want me in the band any more. I’d been in a band with him since 1963. He didn’t have the nerves or guts to phone me up...”

But what happened with Dave doesn’t matter, in a sense. Dave Hill wasn’t – and isn’t – Slade alone. Slade was Nod, Jim, Dave and Don. And for all the work that people have done in the intervening years – from Steve and Steve and Trevor and Dave to Craig and Mal and John and Russell on to Alex – there’d never come a time when the hearts and minds of fans would change. Because Slade was Noddy, right? Hollering into the mic stand like some tormented banshee; it was Jim, the guy who made good on the maxim that you have to look out for the quiet ones; it was Dave, with his lunatic fringe, rock star cars and stream of conscious babble and it was Don; the keeper of the beats, the man who escaped death in an horrific car accident and the guy about whom nobody has a bad word to say.

An indelicate email from Dave, therefore, doesn’t really change all that. Nor does the ending of an enduring friendship. Stuff happens. But Don does miss the band. He’d been an ever-present since 1966. He’d invested his entire life into making the band the biggest since The Beatles and he’d loved the gipsy lifestyle, being in a different town every night.

“It doesn’t matter what happened with Dave. I just miss the band. We’d been together since 1966 and I have lovely memories of being back in Wolverhampton. A lot of places are closed down now but I remember those places so well.”

One of his old haunts was the Connaught Hotel. “We used to play there on Sunday nights. It’s amazing how small that room looks now, it’s like a front room. The history with the band will never go away.” Though communication between members of Slade is patchy – a position that Noddy has spoken about with considerable regret – there’ll always be the memories. “Occasionally me and Nod get together in London. There used to be a big lunch for about 35 of us, which I really enjoyed.”

Slade went through numerous eras. From 1966 to 1970, they were getting themselves together. “At that point, it was juts the fun of playing. You always think you want to be successful but it’s a different world when it happens; it’s a different life. In them days, we didn’t know the pubs and clubs beyond Wolverhampton and Bilston. When we started to make a record, that was another step up the ladder. We were lucky to meet people like Chas Chandler, who managed us. We moved up and up and up.”

The hits came from 1971 to 1974, when they were the biggest band in Britain. “It was absolute mayhem with the touring and recording. It was amazing. I always quote this one: I think people in bands will understand. We’d just done a 6-week tour of Europe then we were off to America to do 8 weeks. It was non-stop. The states was flying every single day to meet the schedules, because the cities were so far apart. At the end of each show Nod always gave the town or city a namecheck: thank you Chicago. We’d been on tour for eight weeks and I can’t remember where we were and we got to the end of the show. Nod shouted ‘thank you very much’ to the audience – then he turned round to me and said: ‘Don, where are we?’ We’d been on the road so long that we literally didn’t know where we were. But it was amazing. I always say I have the best job in the world, travelling and doing what I’m doing.”

There were wilderness years, a comeback, an American breakthrough, another comeback, a break-up, an aftermath. Slade was an episode of Eastenders, with more ups and downs than a yo-yo. Eventually, Don and Dave came back with Slade II. Nod and Jim had had enough. Nod was onto pastures new; acting, broadcasting as a DJ, still making music, hosting his own radio shows. The world was his rock lobster. Jim didn’t fancy it if it meant replacing Nod – because, of course, nobody ever could. Besides, he’d written most of the songs and was the musical polymath able to continue his own musical journey.

“When me and Dave went back on the road it was great because we played places like Russia. They’d been starved for so long of western bands that the reaction was incredible. We’d play a small club in Moscow and then play the Olympic Stadium. The whole situation was fantastic. We flew from Moscow to Vladivostock, which was 13 hours. That place was huge.”

It wasn’t all good times, of course. In 1973, at the height of the band’s popularity and when Slade were number one in the singles chart with Skweeze Me Pleeze Me, Don was badly injured in a car crash on Compton Road West. His fiancée, 20-year-old Angela Morris, died, after his car hit a hedge and smahed into a wall. Don fractured his skull, broke both his ankles and five of his ribs. He was unconscious for six days.

“After the accident, it was pretty hard to get back. I remember being in hospital in Wolverhampton. The surgeon looking after me said he wanted to kick me out and get me back on the road. That was the last thing I felt like doing. I had two broken legs and a broken arm and a fractured skull. It was the last thing I wanted to do.” But he did. “It was hard work. They used to have to carry me on stage and carry me off and put me on my drums – it was painful. But telling me to get on with it was the best advice that the surgeon gave me. If he hadn’t said that, I don’t know how I’d have got back on the drums again.”

He’d hung around with so many other stars, including fellow Black Country legends Led Zeppelin. “Robert Plant was great. I remember doing the Queen Mary Ballroom at Dudley Zoo. Robert came in one night and we hadn’t seen him for ages. We’d used to hang out, we’d buy hot dogs at Snow Hill Station, in Birmingham, at the caravan. Anyway, Robert came in and told us Jimmy Page had asked him to join The Yardbirds. The rest is history.”

Zeppelin drummer, the late John Bonham, was another pal. “He was in a cabaret band before Zep. But he used to play in the cabaret band the way he later played in Zeppelin. He was wild. I remember the one night, Slade were in Dallas on an American tour. We were doing a gig and people were throwing fruit at us. Afterwards we found out who it was – it was Led Zeppelin. They were in the States at the same time as us and they were throwing fruit at us for a laugh.”

There’s time for one final refection: home. “The Black Country is everything, It will never leave me. That’s where we started. I still see a lot of my old school mates when I get back to Wolverhampton. We always have a good laugh about the early days of playing The Ship and Rainbow. I was in Canada once, in Toronto, and one of my old pals came up and asked me what I was doing there. The same happened in Australia, when my old mate, Alan, came up and said hello. People from the Black Country never forget a friend.”

They don’t, Don, nor do they forget a drummer and rock star who’s one of their own.

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