There aren’t many other bands who could lose an iconic, irreplaceable and legendary frontman 23 years into their career, carry on for another two and a half decades (thus far) whilst releasing very little new material indeed, and yet still sell out their hometown venue on an annual basis. In fact, I can’t think of any. Generally speaking, it’s not the conventional way of doing things…
But, then again, Slade have never been a conventional band. Right from the moment they first burst onto the scene in 1969 – initially as an outfit purveying the Skinhead look most popularly adopted by ska and reggae fans, yet playing an essentially psychedelic-tinged form of heavy rock – they looked, sounded and played like nobody else. Likewise, their subsequent evolution into the stackheeled Yob Glam godz of their ‘classic’ era was very much, despite what producer-manager Chas Chandler later claimed, of their own invention. Sure, in their wake, a multitude of imitators including Crunch, The Jook and Renegade (aka ex-Sorrows men Rog & Pip) in the UK, Quiet Riot in the US and Aussie “’sharpie’ rockers Coloured Balls and Buster Brown (later themselves to evolve into Rose Tattoo) soon proliferated worldwide- but nobody did it quite like Slade.
And, 48 years on, despite the retirement of the (some may say essential) songwriting duo of Noddy Holder and Jimmy Lea, there’s still nobody quite like them especially in front of a sold-out hometown crowd at Christmas. Cynics may scoff, but barring a miracle reunion of all four originals (which simply isn’t going to happen) this is the best it’s going to get: on a night like this, a fiery antidote to this week’s bitterly cold, almost Arctic climes is required, and the sight and sound of Dave Hill, Don Powell and their eager cohorts, revved up, lairy and ready to rock, is precisely that. Powell simply walks onstage and the place goes apeshit: by the time he starts battering out the intro to Gudbuy T’Jane, soon heralding the successive entrances of the other three, I’m having visions of something akin to the spit n sawdust atmosphere of late 70s clubland period, and while that still may not have been their heyday, it’ll do me just fine.
A few further lineup changes in recent years have actually worked to their benefit, now enabling them to share lead vocals equally between two frontmen. Of the pair, Mal McNulty (on hand since 2005) who naturally pitches his range closer to Noddy’s, occasionally tries a little too hard to ape his mentor, but when he doesn’t, is revealed to be in possession of a fine husky growl of his own: John Berry (who also doubles, like Lea before him, on violin) certainly has the melodic advantage, especially on gentler fare like Everyday, My Friend Stan and an all-too-brief How Does It Feel, but is also more than capable of belting it out on the far heavier Look Wot You Dun. They also swap instruments with similarly casual abandon: both are equally adept at guitars and basses alike, although if there’s one instrument that is missed from the classic days it’s Lea’s pounding piano, which always added a well-needed touch of Vaudevillian jaunt to their proto-Metallic bootboy stomp.
Nonetheless, it’s undoubtedly founder members Hill and Powell that most have come to see, and they don’t disappoint. The former still stands atop his stacks for every solo with hat, hair, spandex, boots and wiggling arse intact, cranking out riff after killer riff as if it were 1972: the latter, for a man with a progressive hearing defect and several irretrievable pieces of shattered automobile still lodged in his anatomy, is a revelation. Sure, he now attacks the once subtly shuffling beats of Mama Weer All Crazee Now, Cum On Feel The Noize and Tak Me Bak Ome in a more straight ahead, four-four style than before, and there’s the occasional fluffed fill or slipped tempo, but I’d still rather take one Don Powell over a dozen of today’s sterile, over-clinical, unnecessarily technical click-track jockeys. Like Charlie Watts, Kenney Jones, Phil Rudd, Bun E Carlos, Peter Criss and Paul Cook, his drumming epitomises the essence of rock’n’roll: it doesn’t need to be perfect, because it’s already great.
All that said, it’d be exaggerating wildly to claim that this is one of the year’s most outstanding gigs: there’s the odd duff twin-lead part, the intro to Run Runaway is milked for far too long, McNulty’s vocals on Get Down And Get With It leave much to be desired, Hill’s announcements often verge on the non-sequential, and many other greats (Bangin Man, We’ll Bring The House Down, Let’s Call It Quits, Skweeze Me Pleeze Me) are ignored altogether. However, when they’re on form, they’re incredible: the renditions of Far Far Away (the first single my parents ever bought me, incidentally) and Coz I Luv You are possibly the best I’ve seen them do live, My Oh My fair brings a tear to the old eye, and the inclusion of deep cut My Baby Left Me/That’s Alright Mama is an inspired choice. Then again, they probably play it because it’s in public domain (they weren’t too hot on ‘rights’ back in Arthur Crudup’s day) so don’t get over-excited and start sending in loads of requests next year for obscurities like All The World’s A Stage, When Fantasy Calls, Know Who You Are, Wild Winds Are Blowing, Good Time Galz or One Way Hotel. Well, not until after I’ve sent mine in…
Obviously, they finish with that song – yet, whilst its presence may now be ubiquitous to the point of redundancy on radios, televisions, adverts and mix-discs aplenty during the Yuletide season (in this country anyway; in America they still don’t really know it) witnessing Merry Xmas Everybody actually performed by the band – or at least half of the band – who originally recorded it somehow makes everything fall into place. Given proper perspective, and without any of the drunken buffoonery so redolent of a British December to colour the view, it remains what it is: a great song. And, by that same yardstick Slade remain, especially here in their native Wolverhampton (but, in truth, anywhere) a great band. The only outfit in history to have influenced Kiss and Twisted Sister as much as Oasis and The Lightning Seeds, their achievement is writ large, in full Yam-Yam dialect, on the walls of rock and roll – yet, despite all four original members now having published autobiographies, their final chapter is far from concluded. So there it is.