Slade - Guitarist Dave Hill Discusses Christmas! Winter 2020
Slade are one of Britain’s favourite ever bands. Formed in Wolverhampton in 1966, it wouldn’t be until 5 years later that they would achieve real success. But what incredible success this was! 17 consecutive top 20 hits and 6 Number 1s on the UK singles chart. Slade’s success was of course guaranteed first and foremost by their most wonderful songs though this was hugely reinforced by the impact of their live shows. Slade had the incredible ability to do 2 things on stage. Firstly, they created a huge party. Secondly they were able to bring people together – the band and fans as a single collaborative force. The band’s latest album Crackers: The Ultimate Christmas Party Album beautifully captures what it meant to be at Slade show. Original tracks such as Cum On Feel The Noize and My Oh My reside perfectly next to covers such as Hi Ho Silver Lining and a whole host of Christmas classics… including their own Merry Christmas Everybody. This track perhaps more than any other embodies the true spirit of Christmas and in its year of release, 1973, it sold over 1 million copies. Slade reportedly still earn around £500,000 a year from royalties from this song alone, and as vocalist Noddy Holder would go on to note “it’s a bit of a pension plan”. However, many people are unaware of the tragedy that preceded the recording of this song. Only weeks before, on 4th July 1973 when Slade were at Number 1 with Skweeze Me Pleeze Me, drummer Don Powell crashed his car. Sadly his fiancee Angela Morris was killed and Don suffered horrific injuries. He broke both his ankles, many teeth, 5 ribs, and surgeons had to drill into his skull to ease the internal pressure. He was unconscious for 6 days but remarkably back recording with Slade by the need of the month. We catch up with guitarist Dave Hill to find out more about the events before, during and after the recording of Merry Christmas Everybody. Dave is in great spirits. Despite the continuing Covid 19 lockdown meaning he is missing his family dreadfully, he has been buoyed by a new creative surge resulting in him working on new music for 2021. As we open the doors of our advent calendars our conversation begins…
Of course it wouldn’t be Christmas without the classic Slade track Merry Christmas Everybody and fans will be pleased to know that this features on the new Crackers album. It’s been well documented how the band recorded this song in New York on a hot summers day but this track perhaps more than any other embodies the true spirit of Christmas. When recording the track what did you do to get yourselves in a festive mood?
Well, we weren’t in a festive mood. In fact, we were in a bit of a dull mood because of Don’s accident and the effect it had on him. Of course he did survive but at one point it looked like he wasn’t going to come through. Sadly his girlfriend was killed when she went through the windscreen of his car. We’d been on a massive high with our success and we just had Cum On Feel The Noize. We were absolutely huge. Nick Kent, a writer for the NME, said we were the most important band of our time. It felt like suddenly the carpet had been pulled from under us. We were actually Number 1 in the charts when the accident happened with Skweeze Me Pleeze Me in July. Then there was the accident and it looked as though it could all be over. It was unbelievable. That year 1973 was absolutely huge for us. We did recover and I think the Christmas song really helped. Up to the point of the accident everything was fabulous. It was straight to Number 1 and another one straight to Number 1. So that year we’d already had 2 that had went straight to the top. Everything, apart from America, was looking for fantastic for us… and then that happened. Don had lost his memory and had forgotten the songs, he’d lost his taste and smell which he still hasn’t got back. He never lost his sense of humour though. It was really tough because we had to go through intros with him to help, and it’s a strange thing with the brain where it seems like you could start him off by a reminder and then his memory would kick in somehow and he remembered the rest of it. Jim (Lea) our bass player had to stand by him he was playing and say ‘It goes like this…’ and he’d do it. It was a very peculiar time. So after all that we went to America because we were still working on trying to get somewhere over there. To try and get success we were doing an awful lot of promotionals. But once we got there a lot of American music was very sort of post – Vietnam. It was a bit of a downer with a lot of long guitar solos and people sitting on the floor and all that kind of stuff. So the music of the scene was The Grateful Dead and all those bands that were happening at the time. Maybe we were too soon for America. We might have been seen like something that had dropped out the sky and landed on the stage. So we were going through that as well, but while we were in New York it was 100° and we were in this air-conditioned hotel. Chas (Chandler - Manager) rings us and says “Tell you what, you’ve got a week off but I’ve just had a call from John Lennon. Apparently he’s decided that he doesn’t want to have the studio this week. Why don’t we stick that Christmas song down, the one you’ve mentioned?” and Chas hadn’t even heard it. Neither had I actually! (Laughs!) He said “Why not? You’ve got nothing to do!”. We thought it might be therapeutic so we went down and then of course started thinking about what Don was going to do. With Don, you start playing it, you play rhythm, it kicks off and then he starts doing it. But we thought “Hang on - he’s actually getting into it, here!”. The problem was he’d get about half way through, almost get to the end but he wouldn’t know how to finish. After that, he had to have a tape player to play something, so he could keep playing it to himself in his bedroom so he remembers what he played, and then he’s got it. Then he writes a diary which he has kept ever since about what he’s going to do the next day. Is ever so difficult, but we helped him. He needed to get through this and to survive so really I think the Christmas situation may have been a total blessing for us. The Christmas idea was that we have nothing to lose. It’s July, so we went in and of course these Americans that were coming to work heard us singing Merry Christmas Everybody and thought we were a bunch of lunatics! (Laughs!) The magical side of the record is that there is the sound of the harmonium that starts off right at the beginning, and that harmonium belonged to John Lennon, and it was in the studio because he left his gear in there and we were trying to get something that sounded a little bit Christmassy but we didn’t want Jingle Bells or other bells going on. Our song was about grannies, getting smashed, presents and families. So Jim gets on this harmonium and it’s got this really haunting sound about it. It’s almost like church music and I think at the time of Christmas you’ve got the religious aspect of course but we hadn’t written a carol. We weren’t writing Jingle Bells or Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer. It was never going to be like that. What we were doing as a working class band was playing rock ‘n’ roll. Even when Nod shouts ‘It’s Christmas!’ at the end, it’s so typical Slade – the humour. It took a week to record because we had to spend time with the drums and piece it all together, which is not so easy when you are using tape machines. We then left it with Chas and eventually went back to England, and it wasn’t until much later that Chas mixed the record and took it to the record company. He was aware that Christmas was coming and he wanted to get it out. The record company were really hot on us because we were huge. So I think sympathetically speaking, when Christmas arrived the country was in a state and one person commented that it lifted the nation. It was almost like a Churchill speech, like a recovery and of something that helped. I remember when Chas rang me up and told me 1 million records had gone out and they had run out of records which was phenomenal. We had to import them from Germany to back up the demand! This went into the new year because we were Number 1 in the first 2 weeks in January as well. After the first year we thought that was it but it keeps getting re-released and it’s all happening again!
For a song that gives so many people so much happiness, does it actually bring back some sad memories for you or was it something actually quite healing for the band?
I think when Christmas came, I remember when sorting out some fresh clothes that I was going to wear on Top Of The Pops, that it was business as usual in a way. What was interesting was that we were doing some promotional work and we were in Belgium and Jim and I had our wives with us and we were travelling on trains. The record company boss gets us in his office in Brussels. We hadn’t really heard the record by this point but he gets us in at around 10 o’clock in the morning and he says (French accent) “Dis record is good – Fantastic! Please come round, we have some drink!”. So we all went up with the wives and he sticks the record on. We’d only just had our breakfast but we were drinking champagne and all getting bombed in his office! (Laughs!) And we replied (less than sober Midlands accent) “Yeah, sounds wicked, great, dunnit!”. It was just like that. Then Chas got hold of us and said “The record company and Radio One are going bananas over this and Top Of The Pops want you on right away!”. We hadn’t even released it! So when we got back to England it was like the Apollo mission. It was like ‘this is it!’. It’s like sometimes things happen in life where you know that no matter what happens, this is going to happen. Don’t try and stop it. It was a very uplifting recovery and a great way to end the year. A phenomenal year but there was tragedy. The song took us into another wave of success in 1974, and the rest is history. There were no bands at that time that would sit down and think about writing a Christmas song, because you usually get joke records at Christmas like The Goodies or The Snowmen or something different, and those are the sort of records that tend to make it. So for a band like us, a rock band, to make a Christmas song, it could not be a Jingle Bells type obvious thing. Nod’s lyrics were on a very working class level, from a Black Country band who grew up in industry and came out with a style of rock. Sometimes the power of it can overpower the rest of the songs and yet when you really listen to a lot of Slade stuff, for example, How Does It Feel from the film Slade In Flame, that was a great song. It was never a big hit but it was a great song and it never gets dated. Noel Gallagher loves it! It’s one of his favourites.