Catching up with Slade guitarist Dave Hill
It’s been about 43 years since I’ve seen or spoken to Slade guitarist Dave Hill, but I sent him an email late last year about catching up, doing an interview and feature story and he wrote back to say he was game.
But before the longer Q & A – as Christmas was upon us and Slade had one of the biggest British Christmas rock songs of all time, 1973’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” – I asked about that song straight away.
“It’s an interesting note of a song that lasted so long and will not die off for another 45 years,” Hill said. “It’s about memories, it’s about family and about what we do at Christmas. Christmas in the past was more simple, but the excitement is still now as before. The song speaks to people. It’s a very simple message: It’s Christmas and look to future, but in the meantime celebrate the moment. As a father and a grand-dad, you see it their eyes. So, I once again embrace the moment of pleasure. We live in different times and not so happy ones. We need reminders and Slade’s Christmas song does that for all ages. It’s a great record, Slade at its best.”
By way of re-introduction – you know, catching up after 43 years – Dave wrote: “Life’s interesting and indeed there’s a lot of people gone I knew from our time. But the principal for me is simple: I formed a band when I was 15 and found what was right for me. I love melody. It’s a bit like the old vaudeville entertainers of years ago they kept treading the boards on stages. I’m an entertainer and guitarist. That’s what I will do as long as I enjoy it. I’m 72 and still performing as Slade. Nod [Holder, lead singer-songwriter] left some years ago, but myself and [drummer] Don Powell carried on with new people and kept the music alive. I’ve traveled all over the world making great memories with people plus I still love it.”
Last year, Hill published So Here It is: The Autobiography with the subtitle “How the boy from Wolverhampton rocked the world with Slade.” Hill wrote me: “I think it’s a great, honest story I’ve told and it covers a special time. It sort of reads like a lost Britain, but what a time in history. Someone said ‘It’s like film drama.’ I also cover some subjects of depression which I suffered, too. And I had a stroke on stage in 2010.”
Hill was hoping he may find an American publisher and, finally, sorta, in a way, crack the States: “I guess there’s plenty of subjects to get on TV and discuss my life. America should understand a working-class bloke from humble beginnings making the big time
In part 2, we’ll dig deeper with a current Q/A with Dave, continues to lead a version of Slade, initially called Slade 2, but now back to Slade.
But first, let me take you bak ‘ome, well to my ‘ome. (“Take Me Bak ‘ome” was a No. 1 Slade single in England in 1972.) In that little home – a dorm room in college actually at the University of Maine, in pre-punk 1974 and ’75 – Slade was big on the turntable and massive stereo, thus extending their turntable spins from my crappy bedroom stereo and my latter years in high school. I was both an Anglophile and a glam-rock fan: Bowie, TRex, the Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Roxy Music, Sparks, Gary Glitter, Mud, Mott the Hoople – all acts that mattered to me. For that, I credit exposure via Rock Scene, Circus and Creem magazines.
I read about the bands and I hit the record stores. Soon Slayed? and Slade Alive! were mine. I knew Slade was huge in England; I couldn’t understand why that wasn’t the case in the US – save the fact that our idea of rock (and mainstream rock radio) was horribly calcified, Eagle-ized and boringly FM-smooth – no static at all. I supposed there was something too-English, too boisterous, too good-timey about them. And too “singles-oriented,” perhaps, as if that were a negative – and it kind of was in those days.
At any rate, “Gudbuy T’Jane,” “Mama Weer All Crazee Now,” “Cum On Feel the Noize” and “Darlin’ Be Home Soon” were big hits in my little world and on my once-a-week 8 pm – midnight radio show on WMEB, our college radio station.
I’d never seen Slade live and never expected to. No one over here had. Slade was a virtual non-entity in the US.
But then, I found out Slade was coming to town …
They landed the opening slot on a US jaunt and a hard rock triple bill – ZZ Top headlining – that stopped at the Bangor Auditorium, about 8 miles from where I went to university. I was a DJ/Music Director at ‘MEB and aside from that, I was a fledgling rock writer. I wanted to do something on Slade for the radio.
Slade had played about a half-hour set. I was in heaven, foot-stomping and hand-clapping, sing-shouting along with the exuberant choruses. I won’t say I was completely alone in doing this – my little gang loved it – but mostly. Remember, this was opening band no one knew and the arena was far from full and ready for beer drinking and hell raising from Texas. Slade? Huh? Most fans were somewhere between puzzled – the singer has mirrors on his hat, why? the guitarist has these massive, chunky high heels and a bowl cut haircut, why? – and indifferent.
When the gig was over, it was time to make my move. Back then – before rock ‘n’ roll protocol got so regimented, before there were layers of publicists and multiple levels of backstage passes and security goons – I simply showed at the backstage area with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a working friendship with the concert’s promoter. That’s what got me past the curtain and into the inner sanctum of the dressing room.
I met up with the four guys in the dressing room. Noddy greeted me with a holler of “Big Jim Sullivan!” – me, not knowing then, he was referring to the great English session guitarist. (Years later, I got it and realized that as much as we got on, that welcoming intro, in part, may have simply been due to my familiar name.)
I got the tape rolling and we must have all talked and drank beer for 45 minutes or so. A jolly time, it was. It turned into an hour-long Slade special – music and interview spliced together – on WMEB, something, I’m afraid, long lost in the mist of time. Can I tell you our audience was stoked to hear this? I cannot. I’m sure the reaction was mostly: Who is Slade? And why is the station giving them so much airplay?
But the memories ah … well, thanks for the memories. My time with Slade was my entree into the world of rock journalism and I couldn’t have asked for a better entrée or backstage encounter. I think, too, that though were huge at home, they were pretty chuffed that any Yank knew anything at all about them and cared enough to do what I did.
I remember asking Noddy if he still got excited every time he was on stage and he said, “I do! Tonight. my jeans are stiff as a board!” and whether that burp was planned during the vamp on the live album’s “Darlin'”. It wasn’t, but they liked it and left it in. That’s rock ‘n’ roll to me. It still brings a smile when I play it.
For me, it was my way in the door of something I’ve done for the last, well, 43 years. I can’t say I wouldn’t have pursued it if it weren’t for Slade – I’m sure I would have – but Slade eased my way in so sweetly. It was a night hanging with pals I’d never met, who played this great concert that reverberated in my brain for years.
If ever I thought it might be intimidating talking to “rock stars,” Slade disabused me of that notion. Quickly. They were just blokes. Talented blokes, charismatic blokes, blokes whose music hit me where I lived, even if I was an ocean away from its inspiration. But no pedestals and no attitude.
It would serve me well when, in the following decade I spent time in hotel rooms doing extensive interviews with Ray Davies and Pete Townshend, songwriters who led bands that meant the world to me. Davies and Townshend both enjoyed the idea of conversation – an exchange of ideas, not worshipful star-struck softball questions. Davies talked about what he perceived as weaknesses in his personality and songwriting; Townshend about his heroin addiction and the hypocrisy of this newly-rich kid writing ”My Generation” in a posh hotel room.
So, I reconnected with Dave … (Coming in part 2)