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Bak 'Ome To The Top: Michael Hann On Slade On Stage
Michael Hann , December 22nd, 2022 10:34

In this month subscriber exclusive Low Culture essay, Michael Hann explores how the power of Slade live reclaimed their reputation from chicken-in-a-basket glam has-beens to punk metal powerhouse

Slade were on their uppers come the end of the 1970s, just like most of the glam stars of the early 70s. Where Roxy Music and David Bowie’s art-rock edge and willingness to experiment had pushed them beyond the realm of glitter and eyeliner, Slade and Sweet, the giants of the yob-rock end of glam, had spent the second half of the decade trying to be taken seriously, and failing. The hit singles dried up, and without hit singles, there was nothing to propel the albums. And without albums anyone paid attention to, there were no crowds coming to the shows.

Slade's "Superyob" guitarist Dave Hill summed up the situation in his autobiography, "We worked really hard," he wrote, "we played anywhere that would have us – clubs, universities, colleges, Meccas, even the chicken-in-a-basket places we swore we'd never do – but there didn't seem to be a glimmer of hope." Slade's last single of the 70s was 'Okey Cokey', a cover of the kids' party song; it didn't chart. That's how low Slade, the once unstoppable Slade, had fallen.

By the summer of 1980, Hill was so despondent he was considering becoming a wedding driver, using his famed gold Rolls-Royce to ferry happy couples to and from church, and had to be talked into staying for a festival booking by the band's manager, Chas Chandler (drummer Don Powell later recalled that he believed the band had actually broken up by then – and that Chandler sold the show as the chance to go out on a high). Ozzy Osbourne had dropped out of the Reading Festival, and Slade had been approached, but Hill was reluctant to appear on a bill packed with heavy metal bands, where he felt Slade would bomb. How wrong he was.

Those metal bands, and their fans, had grown up on Slade. "My first favourite band ever was Slade," Venom guitarist Mantas told me, when I interviewed him for my book Denim and Leather: The Rise and Fall of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Def Leppard's Joe Elliott adored them. So did Girlschool. John Gallagher of Raven, a huge inspiration to the later US thrash metal bands, told me how much he loved Slade and Sweet.

In 1982, Holder would acknowledge the role of metal in reviving his band, telling Malcolm Dome of Kerrang!: "I suppose we've also had a lasting effect on the kids who follow HM today. You see, about 10 years ago when we were having all those hits, these people would only have been eight or nine years old. They've obviously picked up on the band from all the exposure we had back then, and the songs have stayed with 'em. We certainly attract a very young audience nowadays – fans who just couldn't have been old enough to see us live when we first happened."

When Slade took to the Reading stage on Sunday 24 August 1980, their world and their future changed, thanks to those kids. They went down not just a storm, but a hurricane. The crowd called for 'Merry Xmas Everybody' (which was not played, though Holder made the crowd sing the refrain), and Hill recalled a road-honed quartet racing through their set at frenetic, aggressive speed (you can hear the set on a live album released earlier this year; Slade sound like a ton of bricks, heavier than plenty of putatively metal bands with whom they shared the bill). The real losers in all of this were Def Leppard, who went on after Slade, and were roundly jeered – a partisan crowd was already angry at their apparent courting of the US market, and following Slade’s run of the most memorable hits of the previous decade was a hiding to nothing.

"We stole the festival," wrote Noddy Holder in his memoir The World According to Noddy, "took the headlines on the front pages of the music papers, got another major record deal and our new material began getting played on the radio."

Well, Nod's rather condensing the story there, because Slade's big early-80s revival took a little while to catch fire, but Reading – and Slade's connection with a new generation of hard rock fans – was the start of it, especially after Tommy Vance broadcast their Reading set on Radio 1's Friday Rock Show the following month, showcasing the band's raw power not just to the crowd at the festival site, but to the listeners who tuned in to Britain's only national showcase for heavy music. The reaction to the broadcast prompted the band to release a three-track EP of festival recordings, which flirted with the lower reaches of the chart.

Slade's return to the top 10 in 1981 came not on a major label, but on the indie set up by bassist Jim Lea, Cheapskate. 'We'll Bring the House Down 'was raw and ragged – Powell's drums sound like he's playing in a huge echo chamber, miked from 100 yards away – and clearly in debt to the metal explosion, though with a huge "Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh" call-and-response chant that harked back to their glory days. It's still a breathlessly exciting single. An album of the same name – largely cobbled together from recordings over the previous couple of years that had been ignored on initial release – followed in March 1981 and reached No 25. That was enough for RCA to offer the band a deal, and another album, Till Deaf Do Us Part, followed in November 1981, to good reviews but less commercial success.

But as Slade themselves knew, it was on stage where they were truly rebuilding their audience. You can hear the strength of Slade as all-round entertainers on a 1980 live set released earlier this year as The Hucknall Miners' Welfare Club, where Holder's ease with an audience is evident from the off – "Are you feeling all right, all right, all right, all right?" he vamps in the middle of the opener, 'Dizzy Mamma’, following it immediately, in broad Yammy with "Is everybody pissed up?"

In the wake of Reading the venues had upgraded from the colleges and universities to the City Halls and Odeons again (they were also invited to appear at the 1981 Monsters of Rock festival, a recognition of their place as forefathers of modern metal), and when they visited Newcastle City Hall on the tour to promote Till Deaf Do Us Part, they recorded the show, which was released in December 1982 as Slade On Stage, the last stop before the big commercial resurgence with the singles 'My Oh My' and 'Run Runaway' in 1983 and 1984.

Slade On Stage wasn't a huge hit – it reached No 58 – but it was a statement. I'd even be willing to argue it's the best Slade album, better than Slayed? or Slade In Flame or either of their two previous live albums. It has an intensity that's almost heartstopping – like Thin Lizzy's Live and Dangerous or UFO's Strangers in the Night, it's a live album that makes it feel like you really are at the show. And like those albums, there was some production trickery to make it feel that way.

"I think we've managed to keep the excitement of the gig virtually intact," Holder told Kerrang!. "It's true we had to do a few studio bits to tart it up, but these have been kept to a minimum. However, I've got to be honest and say that I'm not one of these people who believes a live LP should go out as it was recorded – whatever the quality. You've always got to remember that somebody is gonna pay hard-earned cash for this record. And, whilst every effort should be made to preserve the atmosphere of a thing, if adding a few touches to it can enhance the final sound, then I think you owe it to the punter to do just that.

"With SOS, though, all we've done is to make up for bits where, for example, a guitar string broke or something. Oh yeah, and we had to cut out part of the audience as well, 'cos one of the microphones in the auditorium at Newcastle City Hall was set up next to a loony. He kept on shouting into it "bastard!" at the top of his voice, so obviously that had to go. But, apart from those things, everything is faithful to the show."

The album's opening trio – 'Rock 'n' Roll Preacher', 'When I'm Dancing I Ain't Fightin'' and 'Take Me Bak 'Ome; – is as exciting as the same stretch of Ramones' It's Alive, an absolutely pure burst of genuinely primal rock energy. You listen to it and think that had Slade made a record like this in 1977, then they might have had a boost from punk, because this is absolutely as raw as any punk rock – it's Stooges-like in its brutality – but with a precision that ensures the tension never relents. Following that run with the ballad 'Everyday' might be predictable, but it's necessary – without it, the first side of Slade On Stage might have been like having a pneumatic drill held to one's head.

The confidence of the record is notable, too. It would have been easy for Slade to just put together a record of their 70s hits, but it's almost evenly split between the glam hits and the newly forged metal numbers, and the two complement each other perfectly (the link between Slade and metal would be made explicit the following year, when Quiet Riot had a massive US hit with their cover of 'Cum On Feel The Noize'). They were right to be confident in the new material, too: 'When I'm Dancing I Ain't Fightin'' might be the best of all Slade singles, a rockabilly shuffle amplified and hardened to the point of being as tough as quartz – somewhere between the Pistols and Cheap Trick – and a chorus to die for. If it had been recorded in 1973 rather than 1981, it would stand alongside 'Gudbuy T'Jane' and 'Take Me Bak 'Ome'.

Unlike the US glam metal bands, though, there's something defiantly wholesome about Slade On Stage – it's impossible to imagine any of Slade ODing, or doing terrible things to groupies (whether or not they really did). For all its toughness, Slade On Stage sounds not like a punchup, but like a children's party gone berserk, where everyone has had too much Kia Ora, and the table is spattered with disassembled sandwiches, and the entertainer is goading the kids just a little bit further than the parents might like.

Come the final pairing of old hits – 'Gudbuy T'Jane' and 'Mama Weer All Crazee Now' – the listener is almost exhausted by the unrelenting power of it all, and it's slightly astonishing that the audience have the energy to join Holder in a singalong of 'You'll Never Walk Alone'.

Throughout the record, though, the crowd are extraordinary. Many musicians marvelled at the ferocious partisanship of north-eastern audiences, and their willingness to give of themselves (various members of Whitesnake have told me that the audience in Ashington, singing along at one early gig, was what gave them confidence that their version of Bobby "Blue" Bland's 'Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City' worked). On Slade On Stage, they sing along to almost every word, except when drowned out by the roar of the guitars and the monstrous drumming (Don Powell sounds like he's hitting twice as hard as Dave Grohl ever has – listen to the opening of the staggering version of 'We'll Bring the House Down', which sounds like thrash played by people with a sense of humour).

The kinds of records adored by tQ often have meaning and purpose. Slade On Stage had none. It existed only to entertain. For all its ferocity, aesthetically it had more in common with Chas and Dave (another great and underrated act, for a period at least) than it did with the records the Newcastle label Neat was releasing. Slade weren't trying to spearhead anything; they weren't staking a claim for any kind of music. They were just being Slade: big-hearted, big-voiced, big-guitared West Midlanders who wanted everyone to have as much fun as they seemed to be having. (That might, perhaps, be why early-80s Slade tends not to be the focus of long critical reappraisals: in the 70s, by being part of a wider movement, Slade represented something. By the early 80s, with most of their contemporaries gone, they represented nothing other than the joy of being Slade.)

Slade On Stage was the culmination of the path that had begun in Reading in August 1980. In less than 18 months, between that festival and the Newcastle gig, a band that was seemingly done for had regained everything: their confidence, their audience, their ability to command that audience, and their relevance. The reviewers knew it, too. In Sounds, Garry Bushell wrote: "A triumph of yob-rock, Slade On Stage recaptures the magic of our heroes’ youth totally and in doing so demonstrates convincingly that youth is more to do with state of mind than physical aging." The late Tom Hibbert noted: "Slade's live performances (captured on the 1982 album Slade On Stage) had become, if anything, more vibrant than they had been a decade earlier." According to Kerrang!: "Watching Slade live is one of the most exhilarating experiences known to mankind. It's a completely over-the-top manic and raucous package, delivered at a pace that makes even Kiss seem like old men."

Slade On Stage was also a full stop. They might have been revived by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, they might have surfed on those bands' fans to regain their mojo, but when their next studio album emerged, they were already starting to step away from being purely raucous and wild. It's not that they were turning away from hard rock, more that with RCA prodding them, they were casting their net wider to find the hit singles the label wanted: 'Run Runaway' owed an explicit debt to Big Country; 'My Oh My' was a none-more 80s power ballad.

It's hard to begrudge them, though. What Reading had done was make Slade likeable again, embedding them back into the fabric of British rock music, turning them from just a memory into something tangible. And what the 18 months or so after that did, culminating in Slade On Stage, was turn that new tangibility into a statement of currency. Even now, there are bands who would kill to sound as ferocious as Slade did that night in Newcastle; even now, listening to it sounds like falling in love with loud music for the very first time. Slade On Stage is still crazee, after all these years.