Graded on a Curve:
Slade, Slayed?

So there I was, listening to Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and being all jazzbo pretentious and shit, when really deep down inside I was miserable when it hit me—what I needed at that moment was not the chill vibraphonic rebop of Bobby Hutcherson, but the atrocious spelling, abominable haircuts, and abysmal glitter gear of those inimitable Black Country lads, Slade. It may be easy to make fun of ‘em, but the quartet ruled the UK charts in the early ’70s, with artists like Roxy Music and David Bowie eating their dust. And vocalist Noddy Holder and the boys have been cited as an influence by everybody from Twisted Sister and Nirvana. Not bad for a couple of skinheads-turned-glamsters from Wolverhampton, whose misspellings, I kid you not, led to protests by an entire nation’s worth of outraged school marms.

The band’s classic line-up (Holder on vocals, guitar, and bass; Dave Hill on guitar, vocals and bass; Jim Lea on bass, vocals, keyboards, violin, and guitar; and Don Powell on drums and percussion) was formed in 1969 as Ambrose Slade. Their first album tanked, and they abandoned their skinhead look due to its negative association with football hooliganism. The “Ambrose” went too, and following the release of some poorly spelled hits and a well-received live album the band blew out the pipes with LP #3, Slayed? Filled with anthemic sing-alongs, Slayed? remains one of glitter rock’s seminal albums, despite the fact that the toughs in Slade looked about as absurd in their Glam clobber as Mott the Hoople looked in theirs. Holder wore a mirror top hat, tartan pants with suspenders, and striped socks, while Hill sported an ungodly Prince Valiant haircut and silver outfits that made him look like an alien with a retarded Venusian hair stylist. But who cares? The kids ate it up.

Slayed? might not have been the high-water mark of Slade’s success, but it’s indisputably Slade’s best LP and the one you want to own. It includes all the songs beloved by American listeners but “Cum on Feel the Noize,” which was never released on a non-compilation LP. It’s included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, but even a fan like me—I owned a copy of Slayed? on 8-track—wouldn’t put it in the top thousand. They must have included that final ‘1’ so they could sneak Slade in there.

Forgive me, I jest. Slayed? is an excellent LP because Slade kept things brutally simple. No fancy vocal arrangements ala Sweet or Queen, no saxophones, no string sections—just a bunch of crudely simple songs with great hooks that sounded great at maximum volume. Slade may have renounced their skinhead origins and the hooliganism associated with it, but their songs retained echoes of football’s terrace chants. And they were macho chants at that—despite their outfits Slade was having none of this thin-as-a-wafer androgynous business, as you can tell by looking at the shirtless Dave Hill on the album cover. Bloke looks like a bricklayer, who if provoked at the local would gladly throw down his pint and proceed to put the boot in.

Slayed? opens with the great “How D’You Ride,” which accentuates Holder’s grainy vocals and includes a chorus that I defy you not to sing along with. Meanwhile Holder writes off revolution just like Mott the Hoople does in “All the Young Dudes,” and boasts about his “rock hard reputation” while the guitars make quite the ruckus. The song’s so simple you’ll kick yourself for not having thought of it first, which is part and parcel of the band’s greatness—no rock operas, much less complex song arrangements, for the boys in Slade. Meanwhile, “The Whole World’s Goin’ Crazee” opens with a buzzsaw guitar riff, includes some great call and response and one whale of a blunt force guitar solo, and as the song goes on Holder goes crazy, as crazy as the world he’s singing about. Sure, its lyrics are your typical “we’ve come to drive you crazy with our rock” tripe, but what do you expect from Slade—a song spelling out the more esoteric aspects of the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein?

“Look at Last Nite” undermines everything I said before; a ballad, it includes some almost delicate vocal harmonies (with shades of the Beatles) that not even Powell’s mad lashing of the cymbals can toughen up. It’s not wimpy, per se, but it’s certainly not what one expects from the rough’n’tumble lads in the greatest band to ever hail from Wolftown, as residents affectionately refer to Wolverhampton. “I Won’t Let It ‘Appen Agen” features some fantastic percussion and a thundering bass, over which Hall and Holder play some lead-heavy riffs. Once again the chorus is irresistible, there’s a great guitar solo, and Holder is defiant. I especially love the ending, when the guitarists go mad to the accompaniment of Powell’s excellent drumming and Lea’s bass.

I’m astounded by Slade’s bass-heavy cover of Janis Joplin’s “Move Over,” both because Holder gives Joplin a run for the money in the vocals department and because I didn’t expect to like it, seeing as how I’ve never been mad about Joplin’s version in the first place. Slade’s guitarists crush everything in their path, and Holder kicks out the jams on the chorus before Lea plays a brief bass solo, which is immediately followed by some heavy metal thunder from the guitars. Even the slow section doesn’t bug me too much, although if I had my druthers it would take a hint from the title, move over, and be gone. But it’s almost worth it, because when it ends the guitars come in with some mighty power chords while Holder frays his vocal chords screeching just like Joplin used to. As for “Gudbuy T’Jane” it’s my album favorite, thanks to its super-catchy melody, great drumming, and addictive sing-along choruses. The damn song is simply irresistible, to quote Shakespeare I think, especially when the boys with the guitars go about their business of rattling all those little bones in your ears. This fine number gives the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” and Jane’s Addiction’s “Jane Said” some competition, and that’s saying something.

“Gudbuy Gudbuy” is slower and a real skull crusher—it pounds its way inexorably into your consciousness, thanks to the repeated “Bye bye, I just want you to say gudbuy” from the screeching Holder, some lurching T-Rex-heavy power chords, and the fluid guitar lines that predominate when the lads aren’t trying to split your skull with their axes. I like the way the song grows more intense as it goes along, with Holder going at it like a madman. “Mama Weer All Crazee Now” is another classic, thanks to its heavy riffs, fantastic terrace-friendly sing-along chorus, and hand claps. This is a song for the ages, and a football chant if ever I’ve ever heard one, as is made clear by the seeming hundreds of voices that stutter-sing the title over and over as the song fades out.

I not so crazee for the slow and bluesy “I Don’t Mind,” despite its memorable inspirational lyric, “I danced on your face/It seemed the best place.” But it gets better as it increases in volume, with the guitarists tossing off great licks and Holder, a great vocalist if ever I’ve heard one, increasing the urgency. “Am I being cruel?” he sings, and if he really does partake in face dancing, the answer seems an obvious yes. So why does he sound so aggrieved? Album closer “Let the Good Times Roll,” a cover of the Shirley and Lee 1956 hit, is suitably frantic, opening with a great bass and drum tattoo before Holder comes in to prove that he’s a bona fide rock’n’roller, and not just some poor speller in a mirror top hat. Midsong he counts off “1,2,3,4” and the guitarists play a classier than usual instrumental. Then Powell does his stuff, playing perhaps the only drum solo in history I can tolerate, while an unnamed pianist tosses in some thrilling runs, and hey, it may not be the greatest cover to ever come around the bend, but it more than gets the job done.

Slade had their run, faded from view, and then returned in triumph following a memorable performance at 1980’s Reading Festival, where they were last-minute fill-ins for Ozzy Osbourne and effectively stole the festival. They’ve had their ups and downs since then, but sadly Holder and Lea (their chief songwriters) have left the fold, so I can’t recommend you run out and see them. They could well suck. How does anyone fill the mirror top hat of Noddy Holder? Or his tartan trousers? Gudbuy to Slade, gudbye to Slade, they made a noize like no one else has ever made. And that’s the bloody bleedin’ truth, is wot it is.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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