Dave Hill can’t half talk, and he’s got a good memory for anyone who’s ever complimented SLADE, the band he’s played guitar in for 51 years and which he’s fronted since 1992.
“Gene Simmons from Kiss once told me they used to use Slade Alive! to get in the mood for rehearsals.”
For a man who licensed his own likeness to make money off prophylactics, that’s a surprising way of getting ‘in the mood’ (not that it bears thinking about). But it’s testament to just how big Slade were in the early 70s, and how (relatively) edgy they were for a chart-topping band. Punk was yet to come, but for ordinary people outside of London, on council estates (like Hill himself), where fashions didn’t immediately snap to with the changing decades, teenagedom and its music were still a fresh and threatening phase. Telling people about doing this interview, I heard a lot of similar responses, particularly from my parents’ generation, saying the first album they ever bought was Slayed? or (1972’s concert recording) Slade Alive!.
“Slayed Alive! really shows what we were into before we made it,” Hill remembers. “We knew everyone had a copy at the time. We filled the top three slots in the charts at one point, just like The Beatles had. We loved rock ‘n’ roll, Little Richard, all the same stuff they’d been into. Chas [Chandler, Animals bassist and Slade manager/producer] thought we were similar to The Beatles in that way. John Lennon reckoned Nod sounded like his younger singing voice, had a similar power.”
Slade formed in the late 60s with Hill on guitar, Noddy Holder doing most of the songwriting with bassist Jim Lea, and Don Powell on drums. Not-so-quietly aligning themselves to glam rock, a fashion with too little about itself to be truly considered a movement, but with stage presence enough for it to be believable, they had their first success. Four-inch platform boots will do that for you. Onstage flamboyance, Holder’s rasping vocals, and hooky songwriting gave them six No.1 singles out of 23 Top 20 records. Even by today’s standards and subtler network of charts and releases, it’s still impressive. As well as that Christmas No.1, they released Cum On Feel the Noize and Coz I Luv You, the provocative orthography of which belied their balance of style and substance.
“I grew up during the time of rock ‘n’ roll. My dad bought me a guitar from a catalogue. I was crap at school but the ultimate band with potential – The Beatles – inspired me. They brought a window of hope to this country. They had the same sense of humour and fun as Slade when we started out. I remember we’d come up to Liverpool and play in the pubs and I was asking every other person if they knew George Harrison. I was interested in him, being the guitarist of course! I agree with John Lennon when he sang ‘There are places I remember’. I grew up in post-war Britain, a Britain we’ve lost much of.”
Many of those things lost about the 50s weren’t ones to be missed. Despite social mobility the likes of which hasn’t been seen since, it was all too easy to remain stuck in a rut for a lifetime, and many people, despite relative comfort, were unable to follow their aspirations. Worse still, those opportunities were often denied to minorities, and there were life sentences for many in poor health, with mental health patients receiving little sympathy.
“Mum’s dad had been a classical pianist, so perhaps she saw me as following on from his career. She had bad bouts of depression. She had to have electric shocks to help her sometimes. When I got successful, I buried my head in the band. Dad looked after her. An aspect of depression hit me after we split in the late 80s. I was in the doldrums.”
Holder left Slade in 1992 after too many years jumping through hoops to make potential hit records, but Hill and Powell would shortly reform as Slade II with the former frontman’s blessing. “It was odd without Noddy, because he was no ordinary frontman. But he didn’t want to do it, and I respect that same as he respects me. Of course, by now I’ve played more years without him than we did together. We got better and played bigger venues, until we were playing places we never even played when we were massive.”
As well as coming to Liverpool’s Hangar 34 as part of the tour he does every December, Dave is also celebrating a 45th anniversary re-release of Slayed Alive! on vinyl and the publication of his autobiography, So Here It Is.
“Writing a life story is something I’ve left for a long time. There is stuff to tell early on, but what’s happened since makes a better read. I was trying to group the good stuff with the difficult times, for a good reason, not doing it for money. I take the opportunity to show that it’s not all about Christmas. I met someone the other week who said the book’s helped him, and it inspired him to go back to a psychiatrist. I wanted to write about the important things. The ghost writer is from my area, so he writes how I talk and understands it.”
And Hill hasn’t just suffered with his mental health. “I also had a stroke onstage in 2010, but I recovered. It made me decide things – out with this, I’m not carrying on with that. Enjoy your life, it’s a one shot. I’m now a patron of the Stroke Association. [Amongst stroke survivors] you might see someone who was absolutely fine, becomes debilitated, but then they turn that new life into a positive. And stroke survivors can use their experience to help others.”
One of Slade’s many resurgences came after a last-minute decision to fill in for Ozzy Osborne at the 1980 Reading Festival. It gave them currency with the heavy metal community, normally devoted to those bands who, yes, had copies of those early Slade albums among their Desert Island Discs. They’re still held in high esteem by the surviving acts who replicated that Top 40 success, and were probably the last to do so in any meaningful way. “Noel Gallagher has done a really nice, honest piece [for the book] about working class blokes from estates who made it big. He makes the point that if there hadn’t been any Slade, there’d be no Oasis.”
High praise indeed. Talking to Hill, you get the impression of a stoic who’s still capable of having fun. Even when people had jobs for life, you didn’t get many working for 50 years, let alone still enjoying it. Having been as big as it was possible to get in pop, during that brief period when there was a means of measuring it, and having come back repeatedly from obscurity must give you real perspective on what matters. “Before success, I was already having the time of my life. Being on the road, growing your hair and trying to play music. I’m 71 now, but I still listen to my younger self.”
Slade play Hangar 34 on 22nd December. Get your tickets here.