What can you say about Slade or Dave 'Superyob' Hill? Despite everyone else on these pages and despite all the other superstars - Bowie, Elton, Rod - they were the British singles act of the 70s: six #1 hits, including three straight in at the top (the first band to achieve this), a string of best-selling albums and a reputation for being the best live band of their generation. Oh yeah, and the ultimate Christmas rock & roll record. At the time I can remember them being cited as potentially the new Beatles, but that never seemed quite appropriate. The missing link between the Small Faces and Oasis - that's more like it.
The story of the band is covered elsewhere (check out the Links page), so let's just try to sum up. The creative force behind the music was always the twin axis of bassist Jim Lea and vocalist Noddy Holder, but Dave Hill make an equally vital contribution in two areas. Firstly, his guitar lines are masterpieces of melodic understatement - 'Far Far Away' and 'Coz I Luv You' leap to mind as records that wouldn't make sense without his contribution. And secondly, this is the man who took care of the visuals: 'I used to say: you write 'em and I'll sell 'em.'
There's some truth in this. Holder was one of the great frontmen in British rock but, just like Jagger needed Richards and Bowie needed Ronson, so even Noddy needed a foil: Dave, with his ultra-pudding bowl haircut, his absurdly high-heeled boots and his hand-painted silver capes, was the perfect visual side-kick. This is where the Beatles comparisons fall flat - George Harrison was never this entertaining or this much fun.
The other problem with the analogy is that, although Slade started off with a joyous shouting brand of rock & roll that recalled the best of the early Beatles, they didn't exactly progress in the same way. Dave remembers that people used to say, '"You've had all these hits like The Beatles did, when are you going to do Sgt Pepper?" Unfortunately we haven't got songs about pilchards climbing up the Eiffel Tower.'
As glitter faded and the public's taste for glam-stomping gave way to a funkier disco sound, Slade did make attempts to modify their style. The 1975 singles 'Thanks For The Memory' and 'In For A Penny' showed a much softer, more groovy side to the band. Sadly they were much smaller hits than the band had been used to, and it was clear that - along with virtually all their contemporaries - they were on the slide.
The difference between Slade and most of the others is that they came back. Their appearance at the 1980 Reading Festival - at a time when punk had run out of steam and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was being heavily championed in the music press - revived their career. At their commercial peak, they were merely the most popular band in Britain; now they were icons, venerated as one of the great groups of all time. There was no kitsch associated with their revival, just a recognition that a band this good is a rare thing, to be treasured and cherished not to be discarded in the name of fashion. So great was their return to favour that in the early-80s they even had hits in America, where they had tried so hard and failed just a few years earlier.
Key to the rediscovery was not only Noddy's showmanship and the timelessness of the songs, but a respect for Dave's guitar-playing. The fact that they won over a metal audience - traditionally dedicated to the guitar-is-god version of rock - is testament to the continuing appeal of his style. They even forgave his crime of shaving his head in the late-70s.
Eventually the band split in two, with Noddy pursuing an acting and TV career, Jim Lea trying out other music and Dave and Don Powell keeping the Slade flame alive. I saw the new band towards the end of 1997 and I have to say they were damn good. The idea of someone replacing Noddy was a bit worrying, but Slade II (as they were known in Britain) make no attempt at pretence: this was effectively a new band who just happen to have one of the great back-catalogues in British rock. Dave Hill said that if he was eighteen, it'd still feel right playing this music; more than that, if he was eighteen there'd be a queue of A&R men from his dressing room door right back to Wolverhampton.
click for photo
click for hit singles