Slade are without doubt one of the most exciting bands to come out of Great Britain. With their unique blend of perfect pop-rock'n'roll, outrageous flamboyance and pure fun, the Midlanders scored no less than 23 Top-20 singles, of which 6 were No.1 smash hits. The band have become a firm favourite in the hearts of fans all over the world, so the release of latest compilation ‘Cum On Feel The Hitz’ - The Best Of Slade' is a timely reminder of their brilliance. We caught up with Jim Lea - multi-instrumentalist and co-writer of all of the band's biggest hits - for a chat about their glittering career. Crazee now; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Jim, how are you today?
Yeah, I’m okay, thanks. I’ve had my trouble for the last decade, but you know, I’m ahead of it now. I was suffering from prostate cancer, but they’re telling me I’m cured, which, apparently, is a word they never use. But they used it in my case! They’re all very proud of themselves.
Congratulations on that! It must feel equal to any achievement that you ever had with Slade.
Absolutely! Yeah, it is, but you know, the band, we’re all getting old now. I’m 71, and I was 16 when I joined, the they were all 19! I was a very young 16. I looked like a boy, but played like a demon!
In those early days, you were described as the ‘cherub’ of the band!
[Laughing] Well, they were a well-known band, The ‘N Betweens [Slade forerunners], in the Wolverhampton area, and they were like Wolverhampton’s Rolling Stones. I’d seen them a couple of times in 1965, and I thought they were absolutely great. They really had something unique. So this was in 1966, and I was at school, and someone at school said; “you know that group you went to see? Well there’s an advert in the paper saying ‘The ‘N Betweens require a bass player; vocals an asset”.
What was the audition like?
On the day of the audition I went and I didn’t tell my mum or my grandmother because they wanted me to be a violin player in an orchestra, or they wanted me to go to art college, and I’d got into a lot of art colleges around the country at that time, but I saw this advert, and I couldn’t believe it! So I went to the audition , and, like a blonde Mick Jagger was playing bass, and singing ‘My Girl’ – Otis Redding - and I thought; “crikey! He’s good!”, and then I went up on stage, and Dave said; “here, son” – because I was not fully grown, and the bass was as big as me, and was in a polythene bag!
What happened next?
They asked me about equipment, and I got my bass out of the polythene bag, and they said; “you can’t have a polythene bag in a professional band!” So, I’d got a plan. Because I’d saw the guy play ‘My Girl’ when I came in, I thought; “all the soul songs have got great riffs, but they’re not going to show off my playing”, so Dave Hill, said; “shall we play Mr. Pitiful?”, and off we went, but I didn’t play what was on the record; I played so that they could see that I was some sort of virtuoso - that type of end of things. I was doing a lot of stuff that no one, to be quite honest, in that day and age, had seen.
‘Mr.Pitiful’ is such a great song for an audition!
Yeah, the Otis version, it just grooves along, doesn’t it?!
As a bass player, you incorporated a lot of lead licks into your playing, which didn’t get in the way of the song or the melodies.
Yeah, well, I was always very dexterous about the whole thing. I’d seen Jimi Hendrix in ’66, and I saw how he was playing, and that only drove me on further.
How did your style develop?
Chas got us to write songs. But it wasn’t that successful at first, but by the time we got into the glam era, and once we were having hits with glam records, I’d got this beat, between myself and Don [Powell, drums] which we’d found from jamming together, just messing about at the end of a rehearsal. Don was doing this shuffle – he wasn’t doing ant fancy drumming – and I was just going [sings basic crawling bassline], and he was so bloody powerful!
With you in, the classic Slade line-up was born.
I know that when Chas [Chandler, manager] saw the band he thought that we were great, and he was looking at each one of us. He looked at Dave [Hill, guitar] first, and then he looked at Don – he was rock solid, a really loud drummer, and he reminded him of John Lennon. Then he told me that he looked at me, and for the rest of the set he just watched me, and he said; “there’s the brains of the band” He said; “I’ve seen the others, but you were obviously the guy that was putting it all together”.
What do you remember about the band’s early song writing sessions, specifically, the one that led to ‘Cos I Luv You’?
I went over to Nodd’s [Noddy Holder], because we used to jam Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt stuff, and he said; “what are you doing here?!” [laughing]. I said; “we’ve just had a hit record [‘Get Down and Get With It’, 1970], we need a follow-up, and I’ve go at idea!” So, he let me in. So I said; “I’ve got this verse, and it goes like Django Reinhardt” [sings verse riff], and I had the verse melody, and I said; “what about some lyrics”, and he went; [sings] “'cause I loveeeee you”, and we’d got the whole thing. It was really quick. I was dead chuffed.
You and Noddy wrote the vast majority of Slase’s catalogue; when did it become apparent that you would be the song writing team to lead the band?
Well, when ‘Cos I Luv You’ got to No.1, I said to Nodd; “have you written anything?” and he said; “no”, and I said; “well, we need a follow-up to the follow-up” And he said; “well you write with Don, normally”, and I said; “but I’ve written with you, and we should carry on, because this is obviously something that’s worked well”. But we went with the next song [‘Look Wot You Dun’], which was written by myself and Don, and that got to No.4, for four weeks consecutively, which wasn’t too bad. So then the next time I went over to Nodd’s, I said; “okay Nodd, what have you got?” And he said; “I haven’t got anything!
So how did you get Noddy to work with you again?
I had this thing, which was 'Take Me Back 'Ome', which was going to be our next - lo and behold - No.1 record. I'd got a load of lyrics myself to it - this thing about being 'alright', and that type of thing - so I said to Nodd; "you fill in the lyrics", I said, "but we're going to need a lot more songs; we've got b sides, we've got albums, and you've got to be coming along with it". And he said; "well, you're better at it than me!" So, we jut kept it as it was. I wrote the song, he'd record it on a tape recorder, and then I'd bugger off! And eventually, that's just how it was; I'd put on his tape what I'd got, and I'd say; "keep this lyric, keep that there", and that's how we did it.
Was that consistent right throughout your career, even as far as something like 'Run Runaway', in the 1980s?
It was the same. I'd got that song, I'd got the tune; [singing] "I love black and white dreaming of black and white / You love black and white run runaway / See chameleon lying there in the sun /All thinks to everyone run runaway", and I said; "right, there's a verse", and then he came back, filling in the gaps, and that's how it was. It was exactly the same. I done a lot more with it; I was writing the lyrics, because I wanted it to be abstract; I didn't want it to be about anything in particular, almost like 'I Am the Walrus' or something; it's up to you what you think it's about.
It was followed with 'My Oh My', which was another huge hit.
That, we were doing a gig at Leeds University in what we called the 'duff' years. We had a shit load of hits, and them for whatever reason, it just disappeared. But we were just about to go onstage, and I shouted over to out tour manager, I said; "have you got a pen and paper?", because I had it in my head, and I had to put it down because if I went on stage I'd forget it during the gig! So I wrote it down, that that was 'My Oh My'. Things just come. That's what I had that Nodd didn't have; they would just come.
In the '90s, you had another hit with 'Radio Wall of Sound', and that was a song that the band, reportedly, weren't that keen on.
No, no, what happened was, we'd had some hits with RCA [Records] - that was 'Run Runaway' and 'My Oh My' - and then we went into a bit of a lull. I was always writing - and still am, to this day - so I've always got stuff. What had happened then, was I was in that solo period, and I wrote 'Radio Wall of Sound', and 'Universe' - which are actually on the new Best of compilation. So, 'Radio Wall of Sound', I'd got it in the can anyway, and the record company said; "look, they're [Slade] in the doldrums again. We'll put out a greatest hits album, and we want two tracks to go on it that can be used as singles." And I just said; "well, I've got them".
What do you remember about the recording session for 'Radio Wall of Sound'?
I came to record it with the band, and Nodd couldn't sing the low part; [singing] "I'm in trouble, I'm in deep", but he could do the chorus. It was late at night, and it was just the two of us at the studio in Birmingham, and he was trying to sing and he said; "we've got to take the key up", and I said; "we haven't got time - they want it finished by tomorrow". So, I said; "look, we'll keep my vocal for the verses, and we'll all sing the chorus together. You and Dave can get up there; I can't". So that's how it ended up with me singing the verses on it.
It seems ludicrous that at the time, Polydor declined to follow it up with a new studio album from Slade. Does it sadden you that the band never released another piece of original material?
Yeah, it did yeah. It's corporations, and it's business, so they wanted to sign x, y and x, and I think they thought we were old hat now. But that's record companies for you.
Moving on to the band's live shows, and you appeared at the 1981 Donington Monsters of Rock festival with AC/DC; how did that come about?
Everybody thought that Slade didn't exist anymore, and we did Reading Festival and blew the thing apart - we walked on the stage and everybody was like; "wow!" And this was a heavy metal crowd! We won them over, and that was that, and we had a new career. And then we were off in the '80s, and we were playing rock festivals, so we did Donington the next year. And the same thing happened all over again. I think we got the better of AC/DC at that gig. Nodd told me that he was talking to Brian Johnson, and he said; "I don't know what happened on that gig. It was a really odd gig for us. We didn't do as well as we should have done". But it doesn't matter, because it's AC/DC, and they do what they do, and they're bloody brilliant, and I'd bow down to them any day of the week.
AC/DC were fans of yours, weren't they?
AC/DC used to come and watch us in Australia. There's a Slade track called 'Good Time Gals', which is on the 'Old, New, Borrowed and Blue' album, and you'll hear where AC/DC got their thing from [laughing]. But they just kept going with it. I mean, what a band! I saw AC/DC when they were thrust in the sort of punk area, for some reason. We were in Copenhagen, and Sabbath were playing there, and we had a night off, and then we were playing the same gig as they were, the next night in Copenhagen, and the support band were this band AC/DC. I always used to check out all the support bands, no matter who they were. So I got there on time because I wanted to see this band AC/DC. And they took off, and the rest is history. And old Bon Scott was there, bless his cotton socks! He liked the bottle, but they were fantastic. And then Sabbath went on after them, and then Sabbath and AC/DC came to see us the next night. So we all met up in the bar afterwards.
There seems to have been a real camaraderie between Slade and Black Sabbath, and a lot of the Midlands' acts at that time.
Yeah, absolutely, and with Judas Priest too. Glenn Tipton and The Flying Hat Band, they supported us a couple of times, and they were really heavy as well. I was talking to Glenn about it, and he's a really nice chap, and he said; "I'll never forget when we played with you, and you were skinheads! Bloody hell!" Anyway, then I heard about this band Judas Priest that were playing in bars around Wolverhampton, and I thought; "wow, a metal band? Metal's finished", you know? And the next ting I knew, they were happening in America.
When you look back at the track list for ‘Cum On Feel The Hitz’, you must thing to yourself; "yeah, we did alright!"
Well, to tell you the truth, when I looked at the track list, and I looked at all the No.1s, that sets you up, doesn't it?! A No.1, then the next one No.1, then 1, 2, 1, 2... and I looked at it and I thought; "bloody hell, look at that!" Anybody would be proud of that, never mind the whole shebang. And there's things that tickled in the charts, because we were always touring, and so we'd get in the top 40, and if you got in the top 30 you got on Top of the Pops.
What are your memories of appearing on Top of the Pops?
We were certainly the big favourites down there. In 1991, when we went down to do 'Radio Wall of Sound', all the people on the floor, the camera guys and the floor manager and so on, they all all came and said; "blimey, it's great to see you back, to put some life into the place!", because things were getting really dull.
The band's influence is incredibly far reaching, isn't it?
I was watching the ZZ Top documentary recently, and they changed it all after they toured with Slade; all the movements - they just copied us! They didn't do anything like that before, and they became showmen. They copied us, and it was different. And The Ramones used to come and see us, and Kiss came to see us. In fact; [adopts US drawl] "we came to see you, and we thought; that's what we want to do!" - Gene Simmons! "We saw Slade, and every song we ever tried to write, we wanted to write a song like 'Mama Weer All Crazee Now". So it seems like we left a lot of influence behind, and we played with so many people.
That's quite high praise, coming from your peers like that, isn't it?
It is, and when you were talking about putting in licks, when I was talking to Paul McCartney about this, we had a lengthy conversation. We were both in AIR Studios in London, and he was dead keen on talking to me, and I didn't want to talk to him because I was too bloody frightened! And he told me afterwards he was frightened to talk to me! [Laughing] It's weird, isn't it? He said [doing spot-on Paul McCartney impression]; "Jamesy, there's something I want to ask you; at the end of one of your songs, somebody told me there's a Beatle riff in there", he said; "don't worry, I won't sue you"! 1985, this was, and I said; "oh, that'll be at the end of Mama Weer All Crazee Now", I do 'Day Tripper', just one round"!
Moving on, and one of the best decisions the band ever made, surely, was to change the lyrics to 'Buy Me a Rocking Chair', for the song that became 'Merry Christmas Everybody'.
Chas rang up, and we were in America supporting ZZ Top down south, and I was ill, and he just said; "I'll ring in a few days time, but if you could come up for something that would be great, to have something out for Christmas, like". And there we were in the sort of Rio Grande places! So anyway, Nodd had got this 'Rocking Chair' song, but it had this bit "...body's having fun", which had a Bb chord in it. Nodd had added that, but we had it in 'Cos I Luv You', we had it in 'Look Wot You Dun', and we had it in a song called 'In Like a Shot', when I first came up with the Bb chord. You don't expect that drop, you know?
It's a fantastic piece of composition.
I'd done the chorus, but then I wanted to put that in, that drop, so I went and told Nodd, and he said; "we're not doing a bloody Christmas song! We're a rock and roll band!" So then Chas rang me up and said; "If you can come up with something it would be great, because I have the studio booked in New York, and John Lennon's finished his album on time, so there's two weeks they've kept for you", and he said; "I really want you to go in the same studio as John Lennon!" It was the Record Plant in New York.
The band must have been excited to get to the studio to record the track.
The band did not want to do it, even Don. Don would always go along, he would always support me, and he blanked out. Dave didn't even want to learn the chords. So, it was all done on the day. And poor old Don had had his accident [Powell was badly injured in a serious car crash in Wolverhampton, on 4 July 1973, in which his 20-year-old fiancée Angela Morris was killed], when we were recording that. So, I was playing the piano, Nodd was singing, and Don just had to play the bass drum, and a few rolls. And I couldn't get any magic out of it. So then I got the acoustic guitar, and then I chucked a harmonium in there.
Why did you want to add the harmonium?
I thought John Lennon had recorded 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' in there, and the harmonium was there, so I said; "let's put this on as well!", and Chas hated it! I said; "it would be really good at the beginning; it would be like a chapel!" [hums intro].
So that was the final piece in creating a timeless classic.
Yeah, and at least everybody sort of said they'd get onboard with it, but it was a real battle. But it was real battle. It was a big battle, and the only big battle I ever had when the band went against me; that was the only time.
The song has become a part of popular culture now; it'll be around long after the band have gone, won't it?
it will. It'll never go away. I always wanted to write something like 'Happy Birthday'; something that would remain in the consciousness of the Western world forever, and I didn't know that I'd actually done it! But it was a fucking mess, the track was, an absolute mess. We'd got John Lennon's engineer there, and he was loving it, but it sounded like a mess, so we went off to play in Canada or somewhere, and we came back and there was an acetate of the album 'Old New Borrowed and Blue', and Chas opened the album with it, and I said; "Chas, we don't want a Christmas song opening the album. If somebody's playing this album and a Christmas song comes on every time they play it, in the middle of the sun?" I said; "stick it on at the end, or something". So in the end, I said; "just take it off and have it as a stand alone single, like the Beatles used to do".
It has to be asked, did the band ever, at any point come close to reuniting? There had to have been offers made, especially with the boost in popularity in the '90s due to Oasis.
Erm... no. It didn't. We were offered Donington with Bon Jovi [presumably, Monsters of Rock 1987], and we were offered 3rd on the bill, and Nodd said he didn't wat to do it. He said; "I don't want to sing. I don't want to tour anymore". And I said; "Nodd, that leaves us just in the studio. We're a live band. If we don't tour, it'll finish us". I said; "imagine this; you're about to play snooker, and you put the red balls where they're supposed to be, and they're tight, and they're together, and they're a phalanx, until you get the white ball, and you hit it, and it just goes all over the place - that's what'll happen to us".
That's a very serious conversation, and the end of the band.
He said; "well, I don't see why that'll happen to us". Anyway, it did. That's what did happen, and I don't know, it just fell apart. I do regret, I became ill, and we were supposed to go back to America , and the manager of our label CBS was ringing me up all the time, saying; "how's your health, Jim? We will definitely break you in America." And, I don't know, just the wind had gone out of us. So I'm sure that offers would have gone to the office, but I didn't hear about them.
Finally, and having once asked Noddy Holder this, I have to ask you; what flavour Cup-a-Soup have you had today?
[laughing] Always vegetable! When I first saw that, I didn't understand it at all! I didn't know what they [Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer] were doing, or what they were supposed to be getting up to. But sometime afterwards, when it came out on DVD, somebody showed it to me, and it was hilarious! I felt very honoured to have comedy sketches written about us! [Laughing] And H with his bees! And Slade go camping, and the Slade at Christmas thing! Dear, dear!
Noddy said that he thought the impressions were spot on.
Yeah, well his was like that, Vic doing that. But Paul Whitehouse did me, but it was nothing like me at all, whereas Nodd's was that face, that Les Dawson face! But Don's was great, and Dave's was like him, so I sort of missed out, I suppose because I wasn't always putting myself forward. So yeah, I enjoyed it, I thought it was good. I didn't mind it at all.
Slade's ‘Cum On Feel The Hitz’ - The Best Of Slade' is out now.
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