As guitarist and visual foil to Noddy Holder he helped make Slade a rock phenomenon. And while Dave Hill might not share his ex-bandmates’ annual windfall for Merry Xmas Everybody there are more profound rewards, he tells Teddy Jamieson
The Slade guitarist on healing rifts and platform shoes
IN the bar of the Mount Hotel in snow-smothered Wolverhampton this December afternoon there’s a Christmas soundtrack playing on the public-address system. Carols and pop tunes go around and around. Old songs, familiar songs, overfamiliar songs, the odd newish song. And yet by the time Dave Hill arrives – a little late, but who’s keeping time? – I tell him that Merry Xmas Everybody still hasn’t come on. “It will,” he replies.
In fact, by the end of our couple of hours together we still won’t have heard it. It might be the longest time this December either of us has gone not hearing it, to be honest. But I guess he can probably remember how it goes.
“Dave of Slade.” Is there any phrase more likely to plunge you back into the 1970s than that one? For those of us of an age, it is a pop madeleine plugging us directly into childhood, the three-day week, Top of the Pops on the telly, Tony Blackburn on the radio, Fab 208 on the newsstand.
In person Hill is, at 71, a little jowlier than in his silver-haired, silver platform-booted prime. But he still has that haircut, a kind of inverted U that has been cut by unfeeling, uncaring robots. The straight-across fringe may have migrated a little further up his forehead these days, but even now, and even in his civvies (puff jacket rather than old man’s cardie), he is still recognisably “Dave of Slade”.
And yet … And yet over the next couple of hours he will talk to me about vulnerability, about depression, about guilt. He will also tell me much he loves the poetry of William Wordsworth. I don’t remember any of that getting much coverage in Fab 208. Rather like the memoir he has written, Dave Hill can be a bit of a surprise.
The cover of So Here It Is has a picture of the guitarist wearing a cape, thigh-high boots, a mandala of glitter on his forehead and holding a guitar labelled “Super Yob” (famously, he also once had a car bearing the number plate “YOB 1”). This is the Dave Hill we remember, the Dave Hill that Reeves and Mortimer would later turn into a comedy sketch.
Yet while he does tell the Slade story inside, it’s also the story of the dreariness and social confines of post-war Britain in a way, the story of how childhood marks the man and how patterns of behaviour are passed down from generation to generation. With a chorus of Cum On Feel the Noize thrown in for good measure.
Hill has always lived in Wolverhampton.
He tells me his daughter married in this very hotel. Indeed, Slade, before they were Slade, played here too.
That was in the days before they were scoring six number ones, of course. In 1973, their annus mirabilis, I was 10; the perfect age to love their teacher-baiting song titles, their glitter and tat look, Noddy Holder’s Dickensian sideburns and their devotion to the three-minute single.
Managed by ex-Animal (and ex-manager of Jimi Hendrix) Chas Chandler, Slade were a people’s group, Hill reckons. The Oasis of their day, perhaps. But less derivative.
“If you think of Slade, you’ll think of some happiness,” Hill suggests. And much of that was down to his own, shall we say, eccentric stage gear. In the NME in 1973 Keith Altham (who doubled as the band’s PR) describes Hill as coming onstage looking like “an over-decorated, perambulating Christmas tree”. And that was one of his more conservative looks.
“I know I am an extremely strong part of that visual image of Slade,” Hill agrees. “I don’t have to be told that. Nod and I quite accept our positions. Who are you going to remember? It will be me and him.”
That said, he adds, “We did take our music seriously. Chas was pro my guitar playing. And after all, he managed one of the best guitarists in the world.
“I’ve always loved melody, but I know there is something in me that can make people move. It’s a driven sound. We had a passion for it and Nod was a good lyricist. He was a clever bloke. But his lyrics to the Christmas song … It’s clever in its simplicity. We’re probably the only band at that time who could have written a song like that.”
MERRY Xmas Everybody remains a cash cow of a song. There are stories that Noddy Holder and Jim Lea, Slade’s songwriters, each earn in the region of £250,000 every year (some reports put that figure much higher) thanks to Merry Xmas Everybody. Hill and drummer Don Powell don’t. Such is the nature of music publishing. I must ask, Dave. Does it rankle?
“My best answer to it is that is the way it is. Really, a lot of people are having a tough time. They don’t want to be hearing about blokes in groups whinging about something they haven’t got. I sense what I’ve got, what is right for me. And it’s not based on a financial achievement. The benefits of the Christmas song is the bigger picture of joy. People come to me and go: ‘It’s your time of year, Dave.’ That is enough for me. If someone said: ‘It’s your time of year, but someone else is making the money,’ it wouldn’t mean anything. You benefit in a different way.”
How long has it taken him to reach such a level of equanimity? A lifetime perhaps.
David Hill was born in a castle in Devon on April 4, 1946, but grew up on a Wolverhampton council estate. The castle can be easily explained. The local hospital had been bombed in the war and a wing of
Dave Hill’s image during Slade’s heyday was sufficiently outlandish to inspire Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer to lampoon him on television
From top: Don Powell, Jim Lea, Noddy Holder and Hill in typically subtle garb; Hill with a silver disc for the 1973 album Sladest; platform shoes a-gogo as the band appear on BBC Television