Slade drummer Don Powell talks ahead of anniversary shows
No man is more Black Country than Don Powell; Slade's drummer has an accent thicker than the fat on KVE pork scratchings.
His vowels are rounder than the wheels of a JCB.
And the absence of ego and airs and graces makes him sound more like a metal basher who's just done a shift on the production line rather than a rock star who helped ship millions of records.
In short, or, as Don himself might say: 'heez a top bloke, ay ee. Proppa bostin''.
The kid from Bilston who showed promise as a teenage boxer and runner but gave it up all for sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll – and, let's face it, who wouldn't – is celebrating 50 years behind Slade's drum kit. He developed his interest in music after joining the Boy Scouts. And no, I'm not making this up. The Bilston-born rocker sat behind a kit at his local Scouting group and the die was cast.
Having left Etheridge Secondary Modern School and studied metallurgy at Wednesbury Technical College, he found work in a small foundry. His love of music remained and during the early 60s he formed his first band, taking a hat into the audience after shows to collect a few bob for his drinks.
It all started in Bilston.
And on December 16, Don and fellow Slade mainstay Dave Hill will return to where it all began. They'll headline the Robin 2 to mark the band's golden anniversary and belt out such classics as Get Down & Get With It, Coz I Luv You, Look Wot You Dun, Take Me Bak 'Ome, Mama Weer All Crazee Now, Gudbuy T'Jane and Cum On Feel The Noize…, among others.
"I'm looking forward to it," says Don, down the line from Prague.
"There used to be an old theatre which is now the car park next to the Robin. There was a big theatre there and our original singer, Johnny, his parents had a B&B. We used to rehearse there in the front room. That would have been 1963.
"At the time it was just me, Johnny and Mick, the original rhythm guitarist. There was only the three of us in the band. They were listening to Eddie Cochran and Billy Fury and Buddy Holly. I'd never heard that stuff before I met them. They turned me onto rock'n'roll."
He never looked back. Don learned to play Buddy Holly songs and he was on his way. The trio were approached by a manager, Chalky White, who told them to add another guitarist. He knew a kid playing with a showband, Dave Hill.
"He came along one Sunday morning and was in."
Jim Lea came next. "Our original bass player, who was also called Dave, wanted to leave to settle down with his girlfriend. So we auditioned for a bass player and that was Jim Lea. He was the obvious choice."
Noddy Holder was the final piece in the puzzle. Don and Dave wanted to form a band with two lead guitarists and Nod was playing with a group called The Mavericks. "We'd met Nod at the Park Hall and the Ship And Rainbow. We used to work together there. Then one day we saw him in Beeches Coffee Bar, in Wolverhampton. We just got chatting and he was on about leaving The Mavericks.
"We said we could get this group together and he joined."
It was 1966, the year England won the World Cup, and excitement was in the air. The band took to the road, slogging around the toilet circuit to play anywhere and everywhere. "We were the best of mates – but we'd never buy each other a drink." How Black Country is that? "We had a great relationship really. It was quite unique. And it was wild, of course it was.
"We were four lads out to have a good time. We were just kids. We were playing all the pubs and clubs around the county. We were living it."
They met a guy, Jack Baverstock, who signed them to Fontana records. And then something strange and brilliant and unexpected happened. Slade, four snotty-nosed kids from the wrong side of town, found themselves on a plane to the Bahamas. As you do.
Don laughs. "It was 1969. We got stranded there. We'd had this thing come through to go to the Bahamas. You imagine that, four scumbags from Wolverhampton going there. We'd never been outside Wolverhampton before. It was through this guy who used to watch us at St Giles Youth Club, in Willenhall. His sister had married this guy out there and they had an outlet in the Bahamas for an English band to entertain people. That's how it came about.
"It was for eight weeks and we'd get US$100 each per week plus our hotel and food. But it wasn't like that. The club was making no money and the hotel bill wasn't being paid. After six weeks, the hotel owner came up to us and gave us a US$35,000 hotel bill. We weren't being paid and we were just living on room service, thinking it was all being paid.
"He told us we couldn't leave the island until the hotel bill was paid. So they did a deal where we were paid US$100 per gig and he took US$75 of that. After three-and-a-half months we'd had enough so we decided to sneak home. Dow get me wrong, what a fantastic place to be stranded. It was incredible. But in them days, we hadn't a clue about anything. We didn't know what room service was until it was explained to us."
When Slade touched down in the UK, they had the bit between their teeth because they'd been through so many difficulties. They met their new manager, Chas Chandler, who signed them to Polydor. For a while, they became skinheads. That was Chandler's idea because he wanted to get them noticed. But pretty soon they followed their own path. Suddenly, they were unstoppable.
Don laughs. "It was chaos. It was mayhem. We couldn't go anywhere because of the mania. We were at No1 in the charts and we were all still living with our moms and dads. You'd get crowds of people outside your parents houses wanting to see you.
"It was a fantastic feeling. They used to call us the resident band at Top of the Pops because we were on there so many times.
"It was like a rollercoaster. Our feet didn't even touch the ground. We were in demand all over Europe. It was the rock'n'roll lifestyle, basically. It was a fantastic time. I'll deny any artist or band to say they didn't have a great time if they did that.
"Nod and Jim were coming up with great songs and everything was like a big whirlwind. We didn't get back home much. We still lived with our parents and it wasn't until '73 that we started to get our own places."
By then, they'd been to No1 with Coz I Luv You, Take Me Bak 'Ome, Cum On Feel The Noize, Skweeze Me Please Me and Merry Xmas Everybody.
"From '71 we were just non-stop on the road. In those days it was great. Each country in Europe had their own currency, there were no Euros.
"It was so busy that I only knew where I was by looking at my money. If I'd got Deutsche Marks, I knew I was in Germany. If I had Guilders, I knew I was in Holland. That's how crazy it became.
"In those days we never knew where we were: it was just airport, concert, hotel. Very rarely would we have the chance to look around. We never saw anywhere. It was hotels, concerts, airports. I've always promised myself that when I stop, I'll have to go around the world again to see all the places I missed the first time."
The pressures of fame were easily dealt with. Make another joke, grab another drink, play another tune, meet another girl.
"We were all mates before we'd made it so we knew each others' likes and dislikes. We knew when to leave each other alone. There was never a problem."
They rubbed shoulders with the biggest names in rock, from The Beatles to Led Zeppelin and all points in between.
"We met a lot of people. Ringo Starr was a great down-to-earth bloke. He came to a gig in LA and just stood on the side of the stage. It was great. John Lennon was a bit sarcastic, but yeah, we knocked about with a few of them.
"We knew Robert Plant from the early days, even before Zeppelin. Robert was a great bloke, he still is. I still see him now. He's a good 'un.
"We did a lot of work with Status Quo in the early days and they're still the best of mates now. It was the same with Cream. We used to see them a lot in the mid-70s. We'd basically meet up with people at Top of the Pops or when we were on the road.
"It was great being on the road. It was the best part of it. Who else can look back and say they've been round the world? And we're still doing it now. In the past few years we've been out to the old Communist states that we couldn't visit before."
The good times came to an end, of course, and Don looks back with equanimity. There are no grudges, no axes to grind. He's sanguine about his time in the band, just grateful it happened.
"The thing is we still enjoyed playing live on stage so we just kept on going when we were no longer in the charts. We weren't worried we couldn't play the big concert halls, we just loved playing. We just swallowed our pride and played wherever we could. We had no ego. We just loved playing.
"When Nod and Jim left, Dave and I kept going. We wanted to carry on. There were still places that wanted us to play. I've got to tell you, it's been fantastic.
"I've got more than 50 gold and silver discs on the wall in my home. I look at those and tell my son he can have them one day – as long as he doesn't bloody sell them."
Don keeps in touch with his old bandmates. "I catch up with Nod two or three times a year. A big gang of us get together at this pub-restaurant in London and we have the upstairs room and we have food and drink and we all put a few bob in. It's a fantastic afternoon.
"Some of Quo and The Shadows come as well as a load of actors and musicians. We all swap stories and have a great time. Nod and myself are always the first there and the last to leave."
He's formed a new band, too. And at the tender age of 70-years-young, he's got a record deal with Sony and being asked to tour Australia. The band is QSP and comprises Suzi Quatro, Andy Scott and Don. "We have a great time. Sony have signed us and we're off to Australia. We'll just have a great time doing it."
Don chronicled his stories in Look Wot I Dun, his well-received autobiography, and after 50 years with Slade he sees no end in sight.
"When I was 14, it was all boxing and running for Bilston Harriers. That was great. It was no women, no drink, nothing, just training. But everything went out the window when I found the drums."
And then things got a little bit crazee.
Slade, featuring Dave Hill and Don Powell, are on at the Robin 2 in Bilston on Friday, December 16. Tickets cost £20 in advance and £22.50 on the door. Visit www.therobin.co.uk or call 01902 401211 for details.
By Andy Richardson
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