There was chaos at Birmingham New Street station. It’s not unusual in Britain. Privatisation has cut and carved the rail infrastructure so that no one knows who owns what anymore. I needed to get back to London after the previous night’s Charlatans gig in Wolverhampton so I dived into a carriage.
And there he was. Forty-five years on from his pop pomp, still unmistakable. It was the Superyob, Dave Hill.
He kept us rapt for the journey. Approachable and quick with a story, I swear if he had a guitar handy, he would have gladly led a few choruses of Cum On Feel The Noize.
It was December 2017 and Hill had just published his autobiography, So Here It Is. It’s an easy read and the years fly by as it captures a Wolverhampton that I can just about remember. The nightspots were the places my Mum and Dad and their friends might have headed down to on a Saturday night. Dave worked at Tarmac (where his mother also worked, another Black Country tradition). He talked Nod into forming a band with him after he’d bumped into him outside of Beatties (a Wolverhampton Institution which I wrote about here).
For a few years at the start of the seventies, the band were poptastically enormous. Noddy Holder and Jimmy Lea wrote the songs and were the musical focus. The quality of Slade’s material outstripped their peers and in the days when a song’s position in the Hit Parade truly was something of national significance, they ran the Beatles close in terms of consistency of hitmaking.
Hill’s role in Slade is often trivialised. He was the court jester. He was the takeaway from the regular Thursday night appearance’s on Top of The Pops. Whether a metal nun or dressing in an orange boiler suit, if the song didn’t get you, the Superyob did. He didn’t do the dressing up under sufferance. The book reveals that he loved being the centre of attention, upping the ante. I get the impression that his off-stage attire was only marginally less flamboyant. He must have turned heads on the mean streets of Wolverhampton or salubrious suburban Solihull, where Hill bought his obligatory rock star pile.
But he wasn’t only a clothes horse. His spare guitar playing perfectly meshed with Holder’s. Whilst he didn’t contribute often to the songwriting, he came up with sonic ideas that added to the off-kilter appeal. Have a listen to Coz I Luv You (and when I say listen, really listen). The enduring qualities are due to its subtlety, a phrase you don’t readily associate with Slade. Lea’s mesmerising bass line, the spare arrangement that slowly builds – it’s clever stuff. And those whipcrack sounds around 1:05 in – that’s Dave mucking around in the corridor outside of the studio, but it gives it almost a Morricone soundscape next to Jimmy’s violin solo (and you didn’t get many of those on Top of The Pops either).
Hill’s not been without his demons and problems though. His mother suffered from severe depression which plagued Dave all his life, causing anxiety during the peak of the band’s success and darkness once the split with Holder and Lea happened in the eighties. He’s had a stroke in recent years. Cash has been an issue. The publishing money went to the two primary songwriters, Holder and Lea. Hill lived beyond his means during the first flush of success. He moved to Solihull in the early years of his marriage, isolating his wife whilst the band hit the road. When the money started to dry up, he moved back closer to Wolverhampton and the domestic situation improved. Their determination to carry on plugging away on the road playing wherever they could between their doomed American sojourn and their 1980 comeback kept food on the table.
Hill now is settled and happy with a large extended family. He and drummer Don Powell have kept the band going, gigging around Britain, Northern Europe and even as far afield as Russia and Australia. He is self-aware, particularly around the band’s failure to crack the USA. In 1974, when pigeonholed radio programming was the norm in America, Slade didn’t fit into the cookie cut hole. Not heavy enough for rock, too heavy for pop, not smooth enough for FM – the band were everywhere and nowhere baby. And lord only knows how the Black Country accents went down.
He also doesn’t seem overly perturbed by Reeves and Mortimer’s gentle and affectionate pastiche of them either. He is a man who can never be accused of taking himself too seriously. He knows his limitations and has created a life that he now recognises as somewhat blessed. The irony of the Superyob nickname is that he was pretty much a mild-mannered bloke blessed with an outrageous dress sense. Bob Mortimer pretty much nails it.
There is a sense of what might have been with the band. The tragic car crash that seriously injured drummer Don Powell and killed his girlfriend Angela Morris in 1973 was somewhat brushed aside at the time. Records needed to be sold and despite breaking both ankles, comatose and losing his sense of smell and taste, Powell was up and drumming again in a matter of months. It is redolent of how Ian Curtis’s death was handled by Joy Division and Factory a few years later.
The band’s legacy endures. Slade In Flame, for all (or maybe because of) its darkness, remains a benchmark for rock’n’roll movies. The sophistication of their music ensures it is still listenable, not trapped in some glam timewarp.
I’ll leave you with my favourite Slade tune, How Does It Feel from the In Flame album. Reflective, intelligent with another wonderful bass part. Jimmy Lea also wrote the gorgeous melody. Nod doesn’t take the vocals up to eleven and there are some beautiful harmony parts too. The woodwind, brass and string arrangement add another dimension. It really is the band’s crowning glory.
So as we approach the festive season, reflect on the wonder of Slade.