Straight From His Own Gob
interviewed by Andrew Darlington
"Stephen Fry told me this. He calls it his 'Noddy Holder' joke, right?" Right. So right here, right now, Noddy gleefully re-tells the story against himself. "It's set in 1974 and I'm playing the Pop Star, shopping in a trendy boutique. I try on a pair of gold lame loon pants, and I'm admiring them in the mirror when the assistant asks if I'd like to try on a silver shirt too, which I do, and that looks fantastic too. The outfit's really taking shape. Then the assistant says "would sir like a kipper tie?" I reply "Not 'alf, I'm parched. Milk and two sugars, please."
The secret, of course, is in the telling. In the accent, all the way from Walsall - just north of Brum - which transmutes 'kipper tie' into 'cup of tea'. And although today Noddy's sideboards might be sparser, his outfit less flamboyant - purple shirt, long black drape jacket, stretch-side black boots, with his gold-rimmed spectacles worn Larry Grayson-style on black expander-twine around his neck, when he says "I was born being rowdy... I was screaming when I hit daylight," - that accent is still as distinctively rich across the years. You hear that same engagingly self-mocking voice in his tell-all book too, in stories about travelling from his childhood in the Black Country, through his pre-Slade scuffing bands during the 1960s - into his vital role in the over-the-top sartorial excesses of glam-rock, and its aftermath.
I join him on a literary tour designed to promote Who's Crazee Now? through local radio chat-slots, bookshop talks and signings. Right now we're in Leeds. And we're sat face-to-face. So come on Nod - be honest, with this book you're writing yourself into history, which must seem a little strange. Surely, writing your 'life and times' is generally accepted as being the final full stop at the end of a long and distinguished career? Neville 'Noddy' Holder merely grins, "the most recent book I read was the Bob Monkhouse autobiography Crying With Laughter, which is absolutely fantastic" he explains. "So if my book is 'alf as good as 'is I'll be very happy. But this is not just a history of Slade. That's been well-documented in the past anyway. What I really wanted to write about was why I wanted to get into the music business in the first place. The reasons why I wanted to be a singer. And how I achieved it. That's the point of an autobiography..." So what follows are further excerpts from the Noddy Holder autobiography. And yes - they're every bit as 'absolutely fantastic' as... er, Bob Monkhouse.
During your long early days of small-time bands and failed singles was there ever a time when you thought it wasn't going to happen, that you weren't going to make it?
NH: We-e-e-ell, it obviously crosses your mind. But we always had amazing confidence in ourselves. It was only a matter of time. We knew we'd got the goods to do it. It was just a matter of having the luck to have the right record at the right time to get the breaks, that was the only thing we ever doubted. But we had no doubt in our minds that we would break through at some point. And that when we did break through it would snowball for us. We had that sort of youthful cockiness to think that we were the best in the land. And you've got to have that confidence in the band. You've got to have that level of self-belief.
As Blur say it, 'Confidence is a preference'. But Slade always came across as a highly motivated band.
NH: We were very highly motivated. But you have to be if you want to get into the rock 'n' roll business, and if you want to look at it as a long-term career. If you want to do it as a quick killing - nothing's going to happen. It certainly wouldn't in those days, and I don't think it will today. If you just go in with the intention of making a fast buck, it's not going to work. We always looked on it - me in particular, as a long-term thing. It wasn't going to be an overnight thing. It was looked on as a long-term proposition. And that's why we stuck at it as a band for so long. We had the same line-up together for 25 years. No band has ever achieved that, with the same line-up for that long. There's none. There's bands that've been going for 25 years - but not with the same line-up.
Many of Slade's 1970's 'glam' chart contemporaries had also been active throughout the 1960s, but - like the various early incarnations of Slade, failed to make their decisive career breakthrough until that decade was over. Alvin Stardust (as Shane Fenton) and David Bowie were both 1960s' one-hit wonders. Elton John and Rod Stewart had been 'around' in Soul bands for years. Gary Glitter and Marc Bolan too.
NH: You have to remember that in those days you didn't have overnight success through making videos. You had to pay your dues as musicians. From when I started out, the music business has changed a hell of a lot. It's very corporate now. It's all down to marketing. It's very much more market-strategy based. I mean - the pop business always was about marketing, but even more so now the video situation is so dominant. Today you have to have a hit video on MTV to sell the record. You can manufacture a band, give them the right look, get the right producer and the right song, record the album, then you make a great video, and you take off. Overnight the record can be in the charts through marketing. The pretty boys and the pretty girl bands are the ones that take preference. It's just another marketing scam. But I'm used to the old rock 'n' roll approach where you had to work your way up. We paid our dues on the road. We had a big live following before we had record success. We worked our way up by building a massive live following before we ever had a record deal. That's the way it was in those days. And I love that old-time approach. You had to work live on the road, and hopefully get a record deal, and then hopefully you'd get a record out that would be played. And in our case it took us five years. Just with the line-up we had as Slade. But I was working in bands even prior to that. But it took us five years with the line-up of Slade that we know today before we had our first sniff of the charts. We'd done a lot of groundwork before we got a hit. The hits were the icing on the cake. Now, for some reason the bands of the 1970s - ourselves in particular, are having a resurgence. I think it was inevitable it was going to happen. Because throughout the 1980s we were frowned on. All during the 1980s people were slagging the 1970s off, saying that nothing of any real value happened. According to the media, neither the music or the fashions were happening. They were slagging the music off. They were slagging the fashions off. Even the television shows. But now that's all turned round the other way and it's sort-of having its day again. Now it's far enough away for everybody to look on it with a lot of affection. To see really what it was. And I mean - it was all a big piss-take really. It was all done in fun. And it was a lot of fun. That's what's missing in a lot of today's entertainment. So that's why people are falling back on it now.
Regarding musical inputs, on a recent Radio Leeds 'Desert Island Discs' type-show you selected a record by Aretha Franklin.
NH: Oh well - Aretha is my favourite female singer of all time, without doubt. She is phenomenal. I've got so much of her stuff on record at home. Not only on CD but the old warm-sounding vinyl stuff. Gospel albums. All sorts of stuff. To me, Aretha never has made a bad record. Some - not as good as others. But never a bad record. She's got an absolutely fabulous fabulous voice. She was always dubbed 'The Queen Of Soul'. To me she still is. And Respect is just a record that makes me feel... if that record don't move ya and get you up to dance, you ain't got no soul. I really love it to bits.
Many Rock stars claim to have been influenced by Elvis Presley, or Buddy Holly, or Chuck Berry, but I can't remember anyone else quoting Screaming Lord Sutch as an influence, as you do in the book.
NH: Well, you see, it wasn't so much that he was an influence. It was more that he was one of the acts I saw when I was a young kid, one of the British touring bands that were doing nitty-gritty rock 'n' roll. I mean, a lot of the other bands going around were Cliff And The Shadows clones. But Screaming Lord Sutch And The Savages were real rock 'n' rollers, with a very very raw R'n'B rock 'n' roll sound.
Did you ever get to see your future-manager Chas Chandler when he was touring in his previous incarnation as bass player with The Animals?
NH: No, I wish I had. Obviously I saw them on TV, stuff like that, but I never saw them live. I'd have loved to have done.
I saw them playing at Bridlington's Spa Pavilion. Did Slade ever play there?
NH: We played there, yes. We played everywhere with Slade at some point or another in my career.
Chas comes across as being a very strong influence in your book.
NH: Oh, well, he was. Certainly in the very early days when he first signed us he was. Because he'd been through the successful stage as an artist in a band in The Animals. Then he'd been through being a manager-producer with Jimi Hendrix. So he'd seen both sides of the coin. And we got the benefit of his experience from those two sides, really. So he did steer us clear of pitfalls that could have happened to us - because he'd already dropped into them pits a few times. So he was very influential in that way. And he also - he was probably one of the main reasons that pushed us into songwriting. We didn't consider ourselves that strong as writers, but he said you've got the talent to be good writers, particularly myself and Jimmy [Lea]. And he pushed us in that direction. He said "you must start writing, you must write, write, write..." And we did. Once we could knuckle down to it we did churn them out then. We needed our first hit record to be with our own song - which happened ! The first #1. we had (Coz I Luv You - November 1971) was our own song! That gave us fantastic confidence. Once we'd done that, once we'd written a hit, and it became a #1 record we thought 'well, we can do it!' It was at that point that we became writers as much as anything else. Chas was the turning point in our career. He wouldn't hear a word said against us. We were his 'Lads'.
Stepping back in time for a moment, before meeting Chas Chandler you actually recorded with the 'legendary' eccentric producer Joe Meek, the man responsible for Telstar and the Honeycombs.
NH: Not with Slade. With a band I'd had many years before (Steve Brett And The Mavericks). But although we never had anything released that Joe Meek produced, we certainly had experience of recording in his bathroom and all that up there, his particular sound-rooms that he had.
Then you worked with that other 1960s' wakko Kim Fowley, resulting in a now-highly collectible single You Better Run (as the 'N'Betweens).
NH: Kim Fowley was a totally different kettle of fish to Joe Meek. Kim Fowley was totally over-the-top outrageous. He wanted to get you buzzing all the time. Kim Fowley was a larger-than-life character. Totally different to Joe Meek.
Strange that you should have got to work with two such figures from 1960s' rock mythology.
NH: Oh yeah. Not the same sort of characters at all, though.
In your book you describe Slade's first assault on the nation's tabloids - your brief but notorious 'Skinhead' phase, as nothing more than a 'fashion statement'.
NH: Well it was.
Did you ever get any personal abuse about it?
NH: N-o-o-o-o. Not at all. No. You've gotta remember at that time - in the late 1960s, it was just a fashion thing. Nobody took it seriously at all. It was just another 1960s' teenage fashion phase, and nobody looked back on it with any - I mean, if you ask most people today, they'd probably even forgot about it. Until I brought it up in the book. Most people would never even remember we went through that stage. At the time it was a shock tactic, because there was nobody else around doing it. Bands were just considered to have long hair, and whatever sort of wild fashion clothes you were into. But no bands had cropped hair or that look until we came out with it. Everybody was totally shocked by it. But it got our foot in the door. It got us our name known. That was the object of the exercise, really.
There were no later Skinhead recriminations about your 'ripping off' their culture?
NH: No. Never. Even that generation of skinheads later down the line wouldn't even know that we were Skinheads when we started out, I'm sure.
Then came the glam hits. Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople once told me that when he was doing the glam thing on Top Of The Pops he always felt like a "Brickie in gilt".
NH: It probably was a bit like that for him. Ian was a bit of a different sort of character to us. He was a bit more intense than us about it. We looked on it as a lot of fun. I think Ian wasn't like that. He hadn't got that same sort of outlook on it. He just went along with the flow because that was the thing at the time. With us it was just all a mickey-take, all along the way.
Wasn't there ever a time when you looked at yourself in the mirror and thought 'what the hell am I doing dressed like this!?'
NH: No. Never.
Guitarist Dave Hill always projected an image as the most outrageously flamboyant member of Slade. And according to Noddy's book his excessive sartorial taste started long before the official inauguration of the 'glam' era. From the earliest days, when it came to clothes, he was "never one of the lads, and he never wanted to be". And then - where hits were concerned, he tells Noddy "you write 'em, I'll sell 'em". So Dave, in particular, enjoyed the dressing-up aspects of fame?
NH: Yeah. He was a constant source of amusement for us. We used to take the mickey out of one-another. We never looked on it as anything... it was never intended to be a great fashion statement, as you can image.
I always interpreted the lyrics of Cum On Feel The Noize (#1 in March 1973) as an answer to your critics. You're saying 'well, it makes me money... you should know better'. Was I right?
NH: Erm - no, it was more of a statement than a comeback to the critics. It's never bothered us what the critics said. It never did. Critics meant not a thing to us. As long as the records were selling, and the public liked us - that's what we were concerned with. We weren't concerned with having critical acclaim. Probably the only one in the band who wanted that critical acclaim as a 'serious musician' type thing was Jimmy. With the other three it was different, we weren't interested in it at all. But certainly Jimmy was very much more interested in having the critical acclaim than the public acclaim. He wasn't into all the selling and the dressing up and all that. It wasn't him at all. He went along with it because he had to. But it wasn't his bag. And he'll admit it.
There's a lot about rock 'n' roll in your book, but very little sex and drugs. Does that mean that the sex and drugs didn't happen, or just that you're not admitting to it?
NH: There wasn't drugs in our career. We weren't a druggy band. We were a boozing band. So we never - er, y'know, we never got into that side of the business. One of the reasons was because we saw too many fatalities amongst our mates that were doing it. I mean - they were dropping like flies in the 1970s. We were - in a way, too professional to go that same way. We never partied until the job was done. When we were doing an album, or be it a gig or whatever, we were always on the money, we were always very focused on what we wanted at the end of the day. And then we'd go overboard afterwards. But we certainly wasn't going to let the partying be the main part of our life. The partying came after the work was finished.
Did you ever throw a TV out of a hotel window?
NH: No. And I've never met a band that has thrown a TV out of a hotel window. It's just a myth. We did our fair share of damage, and wrecked rooms now and again. We used to call it 'tour madness'. Halfway through a tour you'd finally get to a stage where you'd been away from home for so long that you would want to let off steam now and then, so we did a fair amount of damage. But we always paid for it. But I've never met anyone who threw a TV out a hotel window. It's obviously happened. Probably younger bands do it now because they read somewhere that bands used to do it, so now they think that you're supposed to do it as a band. But I've never met anyone that's actually done it.
So what was your greatest rock 'n' roll extravagance?
NH: Purposely you mean? Or not on purpose?
Whatever makes the better story.
NH: I drove a car into a swimming pool once. Not my own I might add [raucous laughter]. And not on purpose. It was a mistake, an accident. I was a little bit drunk, under an excess of drink, in this hotel car-park thing, and the throttle slipped, and I went over a grass-bank, and the car ended up in the pool. That was probably the worst thing that happened to me. But I wasn't doing it on purpose.
Until now I'd always associated cars in swimming-pools with Keith Moon.
NH: Yes. In fact Keith Moon actually did it at his own house with his own car! And Kevin Godley - or was it Lol Creme?, anyway - one of Godley and Creme bought Keith Moon's house, and it had a Rolls Royce still stuck in the swimming pool. He'd left it there as a sort-of sculpture!
Famous names drift in and out of the Noddy Holder story. A friendship with Ozzy Osborne ("Ozzy wouldn't hurt a fly - a chicken maybe, but not a fly!"). And a Slade tour with Phil Lynott's band Thin Lizzy.
NH: Yeh. Thin Lizzy supported us a couple of times. On a tour in Britain - them and Suzi Quatro. Her first tour of Britain. Suzi had just come over from America, and her producer-manager Mickie Most asked us to take her on the road for six weeks just to get her into playing gigs. She hadn't even got a band when she came from the States. So she put a band together and she opened the show and then Thin Lizzy were on the bill, and then we closed. So it was like - our tour. And it was Suzi's first sorta break playing in front of British audiences. After she'd finished the tour she had her first record out, which got her first #1 - Can The Can. Thin Lizzy also did a tour with us in America, and well, erm... he was a bit of a madman, Phil Lynott.
In the book you write movingly about the problems surrounding the aftermath of drummer Don Powell's car crash in July 1973.
NH: Oh - it was a big problem. We were at our height at that time. We'd just had a no.1 record with Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me - the second one to go straight in at #1. We'd just done a gig at Earls Court. We were the first rock band to do Earls Court. And we were really at our height - until Don had the car crash. His girlfriend (Angela Morris) was killed, and the doctors gave him 24 hours to live. I went to see him with Don's brother (Frank - who replaced Don in Slade during his recuperation), the next morning after the crash, and I thought there's no way he's going to survive. He was just lying there in this big oxygen tent, with all pipes coming out of him. They'd shaved all his head and everything. His body was just a wreck. And that really came as an incredible shock - three days earlier we'd been doing Earls Court! We were on top of the world. And that brings you down to earth with a big bump. None of that sort-of mattered anymore. We really didn't know what was going to happen - we didn't know whether he was ever going to be able to play again. But within six weeks he was back in the studio making a record with us. He had great determination. We had to go in the studio and start recording with him because the doctor said the sooner you can get him playing again, the better. So we took him in the studio. He'd lost his memory. He couldn't remember any of the songs. He'd lost his taste and smell. So we were doing new songs. And I was in the vocal booth doing the singing, and I had to cue him for all the bits that were coming up. He still can't taste and smell today. Even his memory is still sticky short-term. It was only his own force and strength of will-power that brought him out of it.
NH: Merry Xmas Everybody is probably your most enduring contribution to chart history (#1 in December 1973).
NH: It just goes on and on and on. It's been on sale continuously for 26 years. Funnily enough Merry Xmas Everybody never actually gets re-released. It's just never been deleted. And I don't think there's any other record that's been on sale for 26 years - ever! Funnily enough, if you want to try, you can buy it any time of the year. You just have to order it.
Is it true that during Slade's lean period - after the first run of hits, but before your chart comeback following your massive success at the Reading Festival, that you were approached to front AC/DC when Bon Scott died (in February 1980)?
NH: Yes. It is true. I was approached. AC/DC did offer me the job, and I turned it down - so they went and got the guy from the band Geordie, Brian Johnson, who sounded exactly like me anyway.
Over the years since then there have been many covers of Slade songs, but is there a recent song by somebody else that you wish you'd written?
NH: The one main song that I wish that I'd written and recorded is Addicted To Love by Robert Palmer. To me, that's a perfect pop song. Everything about it really hits the nail on the head.
Have Slade ever been sampled?
NH: Oh yeah - we've been sampled. A few dance acts have sampled us - I can't remember the names. A black girl duo from Manchester sampled the "everybody stamp your feet" bit from Get Down And Get With It. Jive Bunny sampled us. I don't mind that so much. It's OK. It's a compliment.
And will there be new Noddy Holder recordings?
NH: Erm - I don't really know. I would like at some point to go into the studio and record some new stuff. People keep asking me all the time, especially after I did a couple of songs - y'know, the acoustic stuff I did in the last series of The Grimleys (the TV series in which he plays a teacher). But I haven't had time this year at all. I'm hoping next year I'll have some time to write, and then maybe record it the year after. A sort-of solo project. Maybe some bits of acoustic stuff - but what I would like to do as well, is go right back to my roots. With the first bands I started out with I had - like, Soul bands that had saxophones and keyboards in. I would like to go back to that, and maybe do a couple of numbers with a sort-of Soul line-up, with saxs and pianos. Do a couple of original songs like that. But I haven't really decided yet what to do, because I'm just happy doing the things I'm doing at the moment. I still love music and I still have a good time when I want to, but music is not the biggest part of my life anymore. It was probably the biggest part of my life for a long time. I was doing that for over 30 years. That's a long time. But I don't look on myself as doing that now. Now I've got lots of other things I do. Now I'm doing acting (with The Grimleys, plus his guest appearance in Peter Kay's Max & Paddy's Road To Nowhere). I've written the book. I'm doing a lot of music for TV-adverts. I'm doing voiceover stuff. I've got my own radio show in Manchester (..while he's the regular TV critic for Mark Radcliffe's Radio 2). So I've got lots of other strings to my bow. And I know what makes me feel right. Be it make a record, write a song, do a bit of acting, make an advert, whatever it may be. It's not necessarily how many records I sell or whatever. It's if I think at the end of the day I've done that job well. If I think I've done the job to the best of my ability - and it's turned out good, that to me is successful. Even if it didn't sell one copy or not one person watched it. I can't help that. That's out of my control. But if I think the work I've done is good, then - to me, I'm successful...
Right now we're in Leeds. We're sat face-to-face. And the interview is slowing to a natural end. We've travelled all the way from Neville 'Noddy' Holder's childhood in the Black Country, his pre-Slade scuffing bands during the 1960s - through his role in the over-the-top sartorial excesses of glam-rock, and into its aftermath. So come on Nod - you must get annoyed with people repeatedly asking you about Slade re-forming and etc, etc? "Well, yes," he admits carefully. And that's a valid attitude.
NH: It's the attitude you have to take if you want to go off and try something else. There's another big world out there I want to try.