Perhaps more than at any other point in the history of popular song, the early 70s were a schizophrenic time for rock music, particularly here in the UK, with a sharp contrast between the singles and albums charts. In the album charts, heavyweights like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and a whole host of other hairy heavy rock and progressive types held sway, while in the UK it was primarily gaudy glam rock that was clogging up the charts. Those that managed to balance producing consistently great albums with regular hits singles were few and far between. David Bowie managed it. So did Elton John. Mott the Hoople even managed it on a smaller scale. Beyond these guys and the occasional ex-Beatle, rock acts were either ‘album acts’ with the odd freak hit single or ‘singles acts’ that released albums on which the hits dominated.
The most consistently successful ‘singles act’ of the era was Slade, whose raucously infectious glam-rock stomp had found favour with the kids and those older rockers who recognised a genius pop tune when they heard one. Their studio albums were certainly a cut above those of their single-centric peers, however they could be frustratingly inconsistent, leaving the myriad of compilations and best ofs the best way to experience Slade in the studio for most.
It’s a very different story when it comes to Slade’s live releases. Long before they had their breakout hit “Get Down and Get With It”, Slade had paid their dues in terms of gigs and tour miles accumulated, so by the time they hit the big time they were already a wildly entertaining live draw capable of blistering performances. Nowhere is this more obvious than 1972’s iconic Slade Alive! which was recorded in Command Theatre Studio in front of an invited audience of hundreds. Recorded before the majority of their biggest and best known singles were released, it captures the sound of a phenomenally entertaining band with immense stage presence at the point they were going stratospheric and making it known to anyone with ears that they were no mere disposable pop act, but a thunderously rocking proposition that could thrill the rockers as well as the pop kids.
Slade Alive! isn’t just about the good-time rock tunes either, as former Robert Plant roadie Noddy Holder delivers a show stopping rendition of John Sebastian’s immortal ballad “Darling Be Home Soon”. True, it features the most notorious belch in the history of pop music, but aside from this it shows that Sir Nodward of Holdershire was capable of far more soulful performances than you would expect from a bloke who habitually wore a top hat covered in mirrors. With all their skilfully controlled chaos, you can’t deny Slade’s unparalleled ability to entertain an audience, nor can you deny that for all their knockabout fun approach, that they didn’t have more raw power than any photo-punk band that you can mention. Don Powell and Dave Hill, often unfairly regarded as the less significant half of the band in comparison to the hit writing duo of Holder and Jim Lea, absolutely stake their claim as the era’s most underestimated musicians as Powell’s enthusiastic wallop underpins the whole set and Hill’s roaring guitar work quickens the pulse throughout.
Even lacking the big hits that they would record over the next few years, Slade Alive! is pretty much the last word in thrilling, over-dub free, live documents of an early 70s rock act at the top of their game. If you know a ‘serious’ rock fan who dismisses Slade as merely a novelty glam rock act who got lucky with some catchy choruses and hooks, play them Slade Alive! and ask them if their favourite act ever released an album that sounded this much fun.
Six years later and the rock music landscape in the UK was very different. The cultural tidal wave of punk was in the process of sweeping away all but the biggest or most tenacious of the ‘album acts’ and pretty much all the ‘singles acts’ were dead in the water. Mott the Hoople were a shadow of their former selves without Ian Hunter, Bowie had decided to go all art rock and Elton John was in a creative slump that he wouldn’t crawl out of for the next quarter of a century. For Slade themselves the hits had dried up, they had failed to crack the American market, Dave Hill had shaved his head and their last studio album was called Whatever Happened to Slade? What better time to release Slade Alive, Volume 2 then!
It’s fair to say that Slade Alive, Volume 2 bombed when it was released, despite their obvious influence on the punks. Whereas the original had become one of the biggest selling albums of 1972, it’s follow up registered barely a blip. Listening back to it now, it’s a good live album. The band were evidently still a staggeringly good live act, Nod’ remained a vocalist of rare power and Volume 2 featured many of their big hits that the original had lacked. Few rock fans would argue that songs like “C’mon Feel the Noize” and “Mama Wee’re All Crazee Now” weren’t crowd pleasers of the highest calibre, and here they are performed with as much vim and vigour as would befit any act at the peak of the commercial success. As performers Slade were still at the top of their game, however fashions had changed around them, so it was just a matter of timing which meant that Slade Alive, Volume 2 failed to garner the sales it deserved to. If you want to hear Slade performing their biggest hits in a live setting, then Slade Alive, Volume 2 is the album of theirs to seek out and you shouldn’t let its lack of commercial success colour your opinions on it.
By 1980 Slade were having to make hard decisions. Dave Hill was earning extra money driving his Rolls Royce on wedding days and the band as a whole were evidently considering whether it was worth their while carrying on in the face of ever decreasing success. Then Ozzy Osbourne ends up pulling out of that years Reading festival and Slade received a fateful phone call…
Sometimes there’s an obvious gig on which an acts fortunes turn around, and for Slade, Reading 1980 was that gig. Few bands can get a crowd of leather-clad long haired heavy metallers singing a perennial Christmas classic in late summer, but such was the potency of Slade that day they did. That they followed this up by getting the whole audience to sing the “’Okey Cokey” puts them at an entirely different level to any other rock act in history. This career-resurrecting performance was commemorated by a pair of EPs, Live at Reading and XMAS Ear Bender, and both are worth seeking out as an example of a band making one last heroic stand at what they considered to be the last gig of their career and absolutely blowing everyone else off stage.
Reading resurrected the career of Slade and from there their sound went in a more hard rock direction. Their studio albums started to sell in healthier numbers and there was significant interest in them for the first time in nearly five years. Having re-established their reputation as an utterly unique live proposition, it was only a matter of time before they released another live album to celebrate their career resuscitation. Slade on Stage captures them at their hardest rocking, as they cherry-pick material from their more recent albums alongside the big hits of the past. As an album it’s on a very similar level to Slade Alive, Volume 2, once again underlining how consistent Slade were when it came to live performances. Performing the old hits with a new twist in front of newly won fans seems to have re-energised the band, and the new material, while lacking the familiarity of the old favourites, is performed with absolutely the same conviction.
Since the original Slade quartet went their separate ways in the early 90s, there have been a number of archive releases of BBC performances, which are interesting enough, but just don’t quite match the potency of their other live albums. Powell and Hill continue to perform as Slade 2, Noddy Holder still regularly pops up on television and the enigmatic Jim Lea studied psychotherapy and generally keeps out of the public eye.
Slade’s reputation as a live act was always well earned, and their reputation as the most consistent hit makers of the early 70s is not to be sniffed at either, so for many rock fans, Slade are best represented by a well-chosen greatest hits collection and their trio of live albums, all of which were repackaged along with the expanded 1980 Reading performances into one handy package, which is still available if you shop around. Hours of rocking entertainment await those who take the plunge.