BACK in 1973, stunt rider Evel Knievel was the man of the moment, the Ford Cortina was the nation’s most popular car and The Wombles were on a mission to make Britain tidy. Big hair and even bigger flares were the order of the day and, in the fickle world of pop, Slade were at the height of their fame.
With their dodgy mullets, outrageous stage costumes and Noddy Holder’s bellowing vocals the stomping glam rockers were one of the biggest bands in the country. But as they headed into the studio to record what would become their most famous song, they faced an uncertain future. Their drummer Don Powell had been seriously injured in a car crash in which his girlfriend was killed and didn’t know if he would be able to play again.
“Don had been in hospital for six weeks and was still on walking sticks when we went into the studio,” recalls Holder. “It was very traumatic, his memory was shot and he couldn’t remember the songs so we had to record the drums separately.”
They managed to record the song, Merry Xmas Everybody, which went on to top the charts later that year since when it’s become as much a festive institution as turkey and mince pies. “Not only was it an important record because of the huge success it became, but it was also important personally for us as a band,” he says.
“No way did we think that 40 years later it would still be such a big record, but I get little kids stopping me in the street and talking about it, which is great. It’s perhaps overshadowed everything else we did but that’s fine because it still sounds fresh and I’m really proud of it,” he says.
It’s now more than 20 years since Holder quit Slade to embark on his TV and radio career and next week he’s appearing at Leeds City Varieties and Harrogate Theatre when he will be talking to broadcaster Mark Radcliffe about his life and career. “I’ve known Mark for years and he’s been badgering me to do this for a long time. Every time we went out I’d tell him a story that he hadn’t heard and he kept saying I should do a show because people would enjoy it,” he says, in his unmistakable Brummie lilt. “Also this year it’s 50 years since I became a professional musician and 60 since I first went on stage, so I thought it was a good moment to do it.”
Holder was born in Walsall and grew up in the Black Country. While it’s perhaps not the most glamorous of beginnings for a future pop star it proved to be an important one. “My dad was a singer who used to perform in working men’s clubs. He was a big fan of people like Al Jolson, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and big bands and he would bring records home for us to hear.”
Then in 1953, the young Holder clambered up on stage for the very first time. “It was the Walsall Labour Club and I sang the number one record at the time which was I Believe by Frankie Laine,” he says. “I was a seven year-old soprano and I brought the house down. It was my first taste of applause and it’s been downhill all the way,” he says, laughing.
A few years later he “discovered” rock ‘n’ roll and formed his first band, The Rockin’ Phantoms, playing gigs in youth clubs, pubs and at weddings. It was here that his trademark singing voice emerged. “I was a big fan of Little Richard and I got that singing style from listening to him, so it was always there.” His voice is actually more versatile than he’s often given credit for. “People know me for those raucous Slade type vocals, but I could also sing the blues and ballads like How Does It Feel.”
Holder left school in 1962 and became a professional musician the following year, not that his parents approved of his career choice. “They didn’t stop me, but I could see they were worried because there was no guarantee I was going to make a living. In those days being a professional musician was seen as the lowest of the low. It was frowned on and you were seen as some kind of beatnik.”
Britain had a thriving music scene during the 60s with bands popping up all over the place. Among them was a group called the ‘N Betweens formed by friends Dave Hill and Don Powell, who were joined by bass player Jim Lea. “We’d all known each other from working in different local bands and I bumped into Jim in the street one day and he said he was in a new band and asked if I fancied joining. So I went along and from the very first rehearsal we clicked and we knew something was there,” says Holder.
The future Slade line-up was complete, although in the early days it was far from a glamorous life. “When we started out we’d play two-hour sets and we’d get paid a fiver, most of which went on petrol for our van. It was a pretty hand-to-mouth existence and I even used to ferry Robert Plant around in my dad’s window cleaning van,” he says.
They were spotted by former Animals bassist Chas Chandler, the man who brought Jimi Hendrix to England. He wanted them to change their image and it was decided they should go for a skinhead look – a bold move at a time when everyone else was growing their hair. “We’ve always been a colourful band, especially me and Dave, and we took the skinhead thing and coloured it up. So instead of Doc Martens we started wearing colourful platform shoes.”
As well as changing their image they changed their name to Slade, just as glam rock was taking off. The band’s rise was steady rather than spectacular but their big breakthrough came with Coz I Luv You, which topped the charts in November, 1971. “That was a big rung up the ladder for us because not only did we have our first hit record, we had our first number one hit.”
Next came their album Slayed? featuring two of their biggest hits Gudbuy t’Jane and Mama Weer All Crazee Now, which topped the charts in 1972. By now they were household names, although Holder says fame didn’t go to their heads. “We stayed in the Midlands, it’s where we’d all grown up and I think that helped keep our feet on the ground because we weren’t part of the London set.”
During the first half of the decade Slade were a regular fixture on Top of the Pops. “That was the TV music show at the time and we were like the house band for about five years. We’d have one song going down the charts just the next one was coming up.”
In its heyday Top of the Pops regularly pulled in 15 million viewers. “Everyone sat down to watch it, grandparents, mums and dads and kids, it was a family show with something for all music tastes. It was a big deal and we knew that if people were talking about us the next day in the pub then we’d done ok.”
Along with T-Rex, David Bowie and Roxy Music, Slade were at the top of the tree during the glam rock era, amassing 17 consecutive top 20 hits and six number ones.
However, all good things come to an end and their run of hits was abruptly halted by the arrival of Punk. “We missed the Punk explosion because we were over in America but when we came back suddenly we were old hat.”
By the end of the decade they considered calling it a day. “It was a difficult time, we went back to playing smaller venues and we wondered if we’d had our time.”
But in 1980 they played at the Reading Festival having been brought in as a last minute replacement for Ozzy Osbourne. “We were on the verge of breaking up but our manager convinced us to go out with a bang and we went to Reading and we tore the place apart.
“We were playing to a new audience who knew the songs but had never seen us playing live. That show revived our career overnight.”
They were showered with praise by the music press, who until recently had dismissed them as has-beens, and signed a new record deal. “It gave us another 10 years together,” says Holder.
But by the early 90s he was ready for a new challenge away from the band. “We’d been together 25 years and I’d been offered the chance to do other things and I thought I can either keep doing this year in, year out, or I can do something else.”
He chose the latter and went on to have his own radio show star in the ITV comedy drama series The Grimleys. For most people, though, he will always be Slade’s frontman with the mutton chops. Which is fine by him. “I love music and I still play with mates, now just without the pressure,” he says.
Not that he regrets his rock ‘n’ roll past. “We were four working class kids from the Black Country who found themselves thrust into the limelight. We got to swan around the world travelling first class and staying in posh hotels. It’s the kind of thing dreams are made of and I loved every minute.”
Noddy Holder is appearing in conversation with Mark Radcliffe at Leeds City Varieties, May 16, and Harrogate Theatre, May 19.