I hadn't heard Slade's music in 38 years when I was surfing Amazon and stumbled on CD reissues of Slade Alive! and Play It Loud (the latter included on a single disc with their debut Beginnings, originally released under the moniker Ambrose Slade). How misguided, I wondered, had I actually been when I owned these records at age 15?
I first got wind of Slade via Greg Shaw's "Juke Box Jury" column in Creem back in '71. It was around the time the Who, whose youth cult-fueled early success Slade sought to replicate, were releasing the detritus of their aborted Lifehouse project on singles ("Let's See Action" through "The Relay") prior to unleashing Quadrophenia, and the Move, whose vocal harmonies the upstart foursome audibly mimicked, were cranking out their own last run of great singles ("California Man" through "Do Ya") prior to morphing into ELO and Wizzard. For their part, Slade were just beginning their run of hits titled with the most atrocious misspellings until Prince and hip-hop happened ("Look Wot You Dun," "Take Me Bak 'Ome," etc.). A kid I went to school with, who'd just spent a year in the UK with his parents, pulled my coat to both Slade and Monty Python, to my eternal gratitude.
I'd seen an ad for Play It Loud in Rolling Stone a year earlier, when ex-Hendrix manager Chas Chandler was still dressing them in skinhead gear before someone made him aware that real skinheads didn't like rock 'n' roll; they liked ska, blue beat, and beating the shit out of Pakistani immigrants. So the Doc Martens and braces went away, replaced by platform heels and what was surely some of the most bizarre attire ever worn by a rock band -- if Brit audiences rejected MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith's superhero costume, how to account for their embrace of Slade guitarist Dave Hill's silver spacesuit, especially when its wearer looked for all the world like a chipmunk with a pudding-bowl haircut? The mind boggles.
His bandmates were no less extreme in appearance. Leather-lunged frontman Noddy Holder (later a TV personality and MBE; go fig) looked like a full-size version of the diminutive actor David Rappoport (Randall in Time Bandits) sporting massive muttonchops, with a fondness for hats and garish plaids. Once his hair grew back, hard-hitting drummer Don Powell looked like Alice Cooper, and I don't think he was trying to. Jim Lea, the bassplayer, was the "good" musician in the band. Like John Entwistle, he had some classical tuition and youth orchestra experience under his belt, and his violin occasionally decorated Slade recordings the way Entwistle's French horn and trumpet did the Who's.
Slade Alive! was the first record of theirs I got. After Live At Leeds and Humble Pie's Performance (not to mention Hendrix at Monterey and Stones Ya-Ya's), I was extra super double geeked on live albums, and thisun seemed to fit the mold. Originally I had these guys pegged as something like sloppy-but-lovable Midlands populists Mott the Hoople, whose lengthy and shambolic live "Keep A Knockin'" on Wildlife was echoed by the second side of Slade Alive! I didn't know enough about Brit culcha back then to understand the whole football hooliganism thing that Slade (and later, Gary Glitter) played to. Today, the high Chuck Berry quotient of side two insures that those three songs won't be a regular spin at mi casa, but I still dig side one fine, particularly the opening Ten Years After cover "Hear Me Calling" and Noddy's bombastic take on John Sebastian's Lovin' Spoonful hit "Darling Be Home Soon."
This points up a key problem with early Slade: at the point in time captured on Slade Alive! -- which includes only two originals out of seven songs, one of which ("Know Who You Are") appeared in different forms on all of their first three albums -- these guys were just figuring out how to write songs. I mean, they covered "Born To Be Wild" _twice_! Their debut as Ambrose Slade, Beginnings (inexplicably retitled Ballzy for Stateside release; it wasn't, really), included not one but two Steppenwolf covers, along with songs by Idle Race, the Mothers of Invention, the Moody Blues, Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, and the Amboy Dukes. "All over the map" covers it pretty nicely. So does "grasping at straws."
By the time they cut Play It Loud, things were coming along in the songwriting department, with Lea and Powell the most frequent writers. The results incorporated elements of hard rock, country blues, and English music hall via the Beatles and Kinks. "Dapple Rose" and "Pouk Hill" were sappy ballads, the former with lyrics about an old horse; "One Way Hotel" a clever blues-based oddity with a major-minor change in the bridge; and "I Remember," "Dirty Joker," and "Sweet Box" rockers of varying quality, showing them casting about for a direction. I used to listen to this record a lot when I was stealing my dad's liquor and playing records -- particularly this one and the Velvet Underground's Loaded -- on his stereo at extremely low volume, late at night.
I shared my affinity for Slade with one other kid that used to come in the record store where I worked, whom I knew only as "Slade kid." He used words like "coalescence" in talking about their music. I think his parents were teachers or something. In spite of our common bond, it never crossed my mind to try socializing with him away from my work. Even then, I realized that liking the same music is not, by itself, a good basis for a friendship.
When I finally saw Slade, um, alive, opening for J. Geils and Peter Frampton at the Academy of Music in NYC, everything about them seemed designed to piss off the surly Noo Yawk crowd, from the ear-piercing shrillness of Noddy's voice to the shafts of light shooting, laser-like, off his Telecaster's mirrored scratchplate. When they cranked up the goddamn siren for the finale of "Born To Be Wild," you could feel the crowd's hostility swell. They were THE LOUDEST FUCKING BAND I'VE EVER HEARD, bar none -- louder even than Boris when I stood 15 feet in front of Michio Kurihara's chained Twins at Rubber Gloves in Denton a couple of years ago. And that's really saying something.
In time, Noddy Holder and Jim Lea found their feet as songwriters and became an unstoppable hit machine, placing 17 consecutive singles in the Brit Top 20 and topping the charts there no fewer than six times. Their Christmas song "Merry Xmas Everybody" still gets revived annually and charts again every holiday season. Glam duly died its death, but as fortune would have it, Slade got tapped to take Ozzy Osbourne's place headlining the 1980 Reading festival, and they were back on top again for a minute. They kept at it, too. Holder and Lea bailed in '92, but as far as I know, Hill and Powell are still pounding the boards in the UK and Europe, cheerfully spreading tinnitus wherever they go.