Slade’s Dave Hill talks to Northern Life about life on the road, ‘the Christmas song’, and John Lennon
by Jim Coulson
With winter around the corner, a 71-year-old man in the West Midlands is dusting off his gold lamé jumpsuit, polishing his six-inch platform boots and trimming his fringe into a perfectly straight line, all ready to hit the road.
It’s generally the singers in bands, who take the limelight with their outré dress sense, and Slade’s Noddy Holder was certainly a commanding presence, with his gigantic mutton chops and glitter ball top hat, but even he seemed as straight-laced as Jacob Rees-Mogg when sharing a stage with lead guitarist Dave Hill.
Noddy no longer tours with Slade, leaving Dave as the driving force behind the glam metal juggernaut, which travels the country every year in the lead up to the festive period, belting out an impressive array of hits, including one of the finest Yuletide tunes of all time, Merry Xmas Everybody.
Ahead of appearances in Manchester, Sheffield and Wakefield, Dave talked to Northern Life about life on the road, what he only refers to as ‘the Christmas song’ and how it might not have happened if it were not for John Lennon.
“People ask me what’s my longest stretch in the band,” says Dave, in that instantly recognisable Black Country drawl, “I tell them I’m still on it! I’ve been there since the start, when we changed from Ambrose Slade to just Slade. That was the early 1970s, so I guess I’m pushing 50 years now.”
However, his love affair with music began way before that, inspired by the Beatles in the early 1960s. His isn’t one of the typical tales of rebellion, where the young rocker appals his parents by throwing away the chance of a steady accountancy career to head off up and down the trunk roads of Great Britain in the back of a beaten-up, rusting and barely road legal Ford Transit.
“Being in a band is everything I wanted to do as a kid, and mum and dad let me try it because my first job wasn’t great and I didn’t enjoy it,” he recalls, “As soon as I got that guitar and grew my hair, I knew this was exactly the way forward – being part of the journey, travelling, playing guitar, dressing up and jumping around the stage.”
Is being in Slade as much fun as it looks, though? “I don’t want to take away from the fact we were very seriously musical as a band,” says Dave, “but we were free-spirited. We liked being different. There were bands who got a lot more work than us because they played hip music, but we did our own thing.”
“We were serious about the music and we learnt the songs well, but we all had this rock ‘n’ roll energy from watching people like Little Richard. The Christmas song, Cum on Feel the Noize, Mama Weer All Crazee Now, they’re all about having fun, but we were careful to write something serious too, like Everyday or Far Far Away. I’d say we were musically minded, but entertainment conscious.”
And part of that entertainment came from the way the band, and in particular Dave, dressed. Even by the standards of the 70s, when Slade were in their most productive years, the guitarist stood out. Masses of face glitter, 40 years before the kids at Glastonbury discovered its joys, tight plastic cat suits with full-body-length fringing, and gigantic superhero shoulder pads were all wardrobe favourites for the flamboyant axe man.
“I used to work on those costumes and plan them and I knew that, when people saw you, they remembered you. It’s important to have a great product, but you’ve got to know how to sell it as well. I think we learnt that from performing in pubs and clubs and making people smile.”
Even as one of the elder statesmen of the rock ‘n’ roll scene, that is still Dave’s goal when he plays shows. “I like to think that when I come and play, whether it’s Manchester, Sheffield, Wakefield, all those places that we played in the old days and that we still visit now, I just want to entertain people and see them have fun in a time, at the moment, when people need a lift. And the Christmas song capitalises on that feeling too.”
With its verses setting out the typical Christmas Day up and down the country, Merry Christmas Everybody is still one of the most–played festive hits of all time.
Thanks to streaming and digital downloads now allowing new generations to access the tune, not to mention the royalties from the hundreds of radio stations that continue to blare it out through the entirety of December, it is said to earn the band half a million pounds a year, although it is likely that the majority of that haul goes to Noddy Holder and co-writer Jim Lea.
The familiar tale of death-trap homemade sledges, the perennial Christmas headache of accommodating too many family members in too small a space and the saga of the granny who suddenly bursts into a song and dance routine after seven hours of imbibing sherry on a continuous drip, has a special place in the hearts of the British public.
“That really does happen with grans,“ laughs Dave, “I guarantee, if there’s a granny in at a show, she’ll be up and dancing at the end of the night.”
In fact, it was a granny who inspired the song in the first place, back in 1973. “This old lady told our bass player ‘no one writes Christmas songs anymore, they’re all old fashioned, like Jingle Bells, or Bing Crosby. There’s no rock ‘n’ roll Christmas songs.’
I seem to remember that Nod had this chorus that was about something else, and Jim had this verse and they cleverly put them together. Nod, I think from memory, went to his dad’s, had a beer or two and wrote these lyrics about stockings and grandmas and all that”.
However, nothing happened with the tune until they were on tour in America later that year. Despite the song’s celebration of all things wintery, Dave remembers the day they recorded it as being anything but. “It was very hot and sticky – 100 degrees – and Chas, our manager, rings us up and tells us that John Lennon’s just cancelled a week of studio time and he suggested we go and get that Christmas song down while we had the time.
It’s July 1973, we’re in a boiling hot office block, working on the song and no one’s feeling Christmassy. But it has this great rhythm and I put the guitar chords on it. Then Nod sings that wild bit at the end, ‘It’s Chrrrriiitttsstttmmmaaassss’ and it just smacks in your face of rock ‘n’ roll.
There were these Americans who heard it in the corridor and wondered what on earth these crazy Englishmen were doing, signing about Christmas when it’s 100 degrees outside.
We mixed it and then left it for a few months and then, I remember, we were in Belgium and the record company had started to send it out. The boss at the Belgian label called us in and said he loved it and that we should crack open some champagne.
So it’s ten in the morning and we all got a bit drunk and he sticks the song on again and we’re listening to it, going ‘flipping hell, it sounds great, that.’”
They returned to the UK to find the record label back home thought the same and that radio and TV were on board too. The song was released in early December 1973 and shot to number one. It remained there for the rest of the month, beating Wizzard’s I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day to the coveted Christmas Number 1 slot.
“The rest is ruddy history,” exclaims Dave, “we didn’t think people would still be listening to it in 1974, let alone wanting to hear it in 2017!”
If you’d like a full-on blast of Merry Christmas Everybody, then you can catch Dave and the Slade boys at the Foundry in Sheffield on Friday 8th December, Warehouse 23 in Wakefield on Saturday 9th and Manchester Academy on Sunday 17th.