Slade, self-isolation, world tours and Walsall: An interview with Noddy Holder

He was one of the faces of the 70s. Today the Slade frontman speaks candidly both of his fond memories of that time as well as his regrets.

Noddy Holder lived on the Beechdale Estate in Walsall before finding fame
Noddy Holder lived on the Beechdale Estate in Walsall before finding fame

He’s got a new album out, or, rather, his band have.

Though Noddy Holder quit Slade in 1992, he remains their biggest draw, the frontman synonymous with a band who were as big as The Beatles by 1973.

Curious, then, that the one thing we don’t talk about until the very end is Cum On Feel The Hitz, Slade’s new greatest hits album, which was released eight days hence. But perhaps that’s no surprise. Noddy’s far too entertaining to work as an ad man. He is at his best when you just let him fly. Our hour is the most entertaining, hilarious and insightful 60 minutes of lockdown. Truth be told, I think we’d still be talking now had we not politely drawn the conversation to a close after 60-odd minutes of rambunctiousness.

Noddy is a God. That much we know. The man with the stupid hats, curly hair and voice louder than Brian Blessed changed the course of pop music. A foot-stomping, good-time-loving ringmaster able to whip a crowd into a frenzy like Mary Berry whips eggs and cake mix, Noddy had it all. Still does. During the early 1970s, his band had enjoyed six number one singles and shipped millions of records. And that was at a time when people still bought them.

Today, he’s at home in Cheshire. He’s been self-isolating since March and though we’re seven minutes late for our call, he’s more welcoming than a wood fire in winter.

“It’s good to hearing an accent like that,” he says. And then he doesn’t stop for more than an hour. He used to spend most of the year in Portugal, but he’s not been out there since March. At 74, he can’t afford to take chances with his health, so he dutifully mows the lawn, plays his guitar, spends time with his wife, Suzan, and keeps himself to himself.

“I haven’t been out much. I’ve been going out for walks but I’ve got to protect myself at my age.” There’s been gardening and reading, box sets and his guitar. “I play every day. Even when I left the band I played guitar regular.” Ah, it’s great, isn’t it. Noddy says he played regular, rather than regularly. Old habits die hard and his Black Country brogue is as pronounced as ever it was.

Slade in 1973

His guitar has been alive with the sounds of the 1940s and 1950s. He’s been playing jazz, country and be-bop, just as he did when he started.

“That’s where I started. That’s how I learned. I’m going backwards. It’s been good in that respect. I’ve rediscovered my roots. A couple of years, I did a tour of the Deep South, in America, a road trip, which I hadn’t done for a long time.” He went between Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans, discovering music along the way, rooting out authentic tunes the way a dog sniffs out truffles.

His old man was into music, of course. Jack Holder was a singer around the clubs. He used to take Noddy with him and drag him up on stage. The first time was in 1953. Noddy was seven. He sang the Number One record from the Hit Parade, I Believe, by Frankie Laine at Walsall Working Men’s Club. The crowd went mad. Noddy never looked back.

“Back then, they had something called Free and Easy. Today you’d call it karaoke. You had a piano player on the stage then and my dad dragged me up. I sung it pretty good and it was downhill all the way after that. I got the first taste of applause, I wanted more and more.”

Jack loved Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Al Johnson, among others. He’d get old 78s from Taylor’s Record Store, on Bridge Street, in Walsall.

“When I first discovered rock’n’roll, it was ’55/’56, with Elvis, but my big breakthrough was Little Richard. When I first heard his records I flipped. I liked a lot of the black artists, like Big Joe Turner.”

Noddy Holder

Noddy would go and watch films at the Savoy Cinema, in Walsall, or the ABC. He was too young for some of them, but his neighbour, who worked on the fire door, would let him in. He saw the film The Girl Can’t Help It, with Little Richard and Eddie Cochran, and when he walked home, he knew he wanted to be a rock’n’roll star.

“Little Richard had his shiny silver suit and big pompadour haircut. The thing that struck me was that he stood up to play the piano. It had never happened before. It was like an epiphany for me. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a rock’n’roll star. I wanted to learn guitar and form a band, which I did.”

He did the rounds with his dad. The crowds in the working men’s clubs would shout for Noddy to get on stage. Sometimes he’d do duets with his cousin, Pauline. By ’59, he’d formed a band, The Rocking Phantoms. They’d play youth clubs and working men’s clubs all around the Midlands.

Noddy lived on the Beechdale Estate and across the road was a pub called The Three Men in a Boat. He’d watch gigs there, when he wasn’t playing himself.

“I love the applause. Once I’d got a taste of being a rock’n’roller, it’s all I wanted to do.”

He did his O-Levels and his teachers pushed him towards university or college. They wanted him to be a teacher, an accountant or a bank clerk, a profession that was safe, steady and secure. “I told them I wanted to be a musician but that was taboo. You were the black sheep or an outcast then if you had ideas like that.”

His parents, Jack and Leah, supported him. They were scared for him that he wouldn’t earn a regular wage but they didn’t put obstacles in his path. Jack was the window cleaner at Noddy’s school, in Bloxwich, and the teachers would give him grief for not sending his son into an office job. “They’d go mad at him. It wasn’t until I had hits in 1971/2 that they relented. I was sending postcards from Sydney and Tokyo and New York that he was able to tell them to f- off because he’d made the right decision for me to follow music.”

His mum, bless her, didn’t really understand it. She didn’t think singing was a proper job. “She’d always say ‘when you gonna get a proper job, Neville?” The penny dropped in 1996 when Noddy was collared by Michael Aspel on This Is Your Life. “She adored Michael Aspel. She thought he was the bee's knees. That’s when it clicked with her. When I got my MBE in 2000, I think she realised I’d done something with my life rather than just p-ing about in a rock’n’roll band. She had no airs and graces and didn’t put up with anything starry. She got names mixed up, too. If she saw Suzi Quatro, she’d say ‘I’ve seen your mate, Suzi Cointreau’. She was mad on Marti Pellow when they come out, too. She'd say ‘He’s lovely, that Martin Pillow.’”

Noddy opening a record shop in Darlaston in 2019

Jack was a character. During the 1950s, he’d barter with his window cleaning clients. “My dad would clean the butcher’s windows and come back with a bag of chops or scrag ends. He’d clean the barber’s window and get our hair cut for nothing. I’d see him coming home with bags of strange things from the window cleaning. He was a character round Walsall. He was a great singer but he had no ambition to go professional.”

Noddy was a grafter. You had to be, if you wanted to succeed. Nothing changes. That’s still true now. He’s still in touch with some of his old pals, including a drummer from his first band who went onto become a world-renowned chemistry professor. “I still see him and he told me he’d found a load of Rocking Phantoms stuff when he cleaned out his loft.

“I was a control freak and I used to give the rest of the band a list of rules. They weren’t allowed to see the audience before a show, they had to set their equipment up in a certain way, there was no lounging about.”

Noddy was always on the money. When the band had no cash, he’d clean windows to buy guitar strings. “I’d do people’s gardens. I always needed more dough for the petrol for the van or a new valve for the amp. We never made money doing gigs round the pubs. We’d spend it on hire purchase, you’d pay it off each week.”

After some work with a TV presenter called Steve Brett, Noddy met Don Powell and Dave Hill, who had their own band. They asked him to join them, but Noddy said no. Don thought Noddy sounded like John Lennon and was keen to sign him up. But Noddy had his own band and was earning a fortune, £25-a-week, doing gigs in Germany. A few years later, Noddy had left his band and he met Don and Dave in Wolverhampton, outside Beatties. “They asked if I fancied joining them. We went and had a cup of tea in Beatties. At that time, they’d auditioned for a new bass player and got Jim.” Noddy scheduled a rehearsal at The Three Men In A Boat, across from his mum and dad’s house, and everything clicked. It was the birth of Slade.

They got a manager, Chas Chandler, who’d overseen the career of Jimi Hendrix, the world’s greatest guitar player. “He’d produced and managed the best guitar player in the world. He wanted to find a nitty gritty rock’n’roll band. He put us in this gig in New Bond Street, at Rasputin’s club. He came down the stairs halfway through our first set and the audience were literally dancing on the stage. Chas couldn’t believe it.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Noddy Holder helping to switch the Christmas lights on in 2014 at Walsall Manor Hospital

Four Black Country kids had the world at their feet, within a year or two. “We started getting success but we’d grafted five years for it. We’d been doing five nights a week, sleeping in the bloody van on Shap Fell when there was snow, fog and ice. We’d park up on the top of Shap, huddled together for warmth, f-ing starving. It didn’t happen overnight. We’d trod the board for years and years.

“The fame came out the blue but we enjoyed it. Travelling first class around the world, having a right old time. You’ve got to do that, you’ve got to let rip after all them years of struggle.”

At the peak of their fame, Don nearly died. He crashed his car four days after a colossal gig at Earl’s Court. For a while, it looked like the end of the band. “We were at the height of our success, people were travelling on the tubes dressed in top hats and mirrors, it was like aliens had landed round London. Then, four days later, Don had his car crash. They only gave him 24 hours to live. His dad called me at 4am in the morning. I was sleeping at my mum’s that night. He told me Don had had an accident. He was tearful. He told me he’d only got 24 hours to live. It was a bolt from the blue. I went up the next day with his brother. He was in this bloody big tent in the hospital with pipes out of every orifice. They’d shaved his head and he’d got a huge gash on his head when he’d been thrown through the windscreen. His girlfriend, Angela, died when she’d gone through this windscreen. His car was like a tank, a huge Bentley, but it was concertinaed. His memory was totally shot.”

They got through it and had a Second Coming in the 1980s, after a storming gig at Reading Festival. But the dynamic had changed. Noddy had once hung out with Don, but never much with Dave and Jim, other than when they were recording or playing. “We didn’t socialise. We were very different characters. The 1980s should have been the time of having a second bite of the cherry and we should have been enjoying it. But for some reason it wasn’t enjoyable. We weren’t getting on on the road, we weren’t getting on in the studio. People wanted different things in the band, people wanted more control. I’ve always said what splits bands up is five things – egos, we had four of those; it’s money, that’s a big thing; drink and drugs; women; and the inevitable, creative differences. And in Slade’s case it was probably all five of those things at some stage. That’s not just normal for Slade, that’s what every single band on the planet goes through, some bands survive it.” Slade didn’t. They’d lost the gang mentality. Noddy quit. Jim followed him out of the revolving door. Don and Dave limped and made good money. But even Dave fired Don last year. A sad end for a sensational band. A one-legged dog that ought to be put out of its misery.

“My dad was dying and I was going for a divorce. I expected to have a couple of years off and then go back on the road and people’s attitudes might have changed. But it never worked that way. It just seemed to get worse.” Noddy had other offers. He began his second career.

Dave Hill, Jim Lea, Don Powell and Noddy Holder collect their honorary followships from the University of Wolverhampton in 2002

“It was a total shame. I regret it now, even. It’s the one thing in my life that I regret. There’s nothing else in my life I regret, even my career after, I’ve loved it all. For 25 years I worked with the same guys, 24/7 – that’s hard. But it’s a regret that we can’t get together round a dinner table with our missuses and laugh about the old days. We’d be p-ing ourselves laughing.

“There’s stuff that only we know. The fans think they know everything about us but they only know the tip of the iceberg. They don’t know the 2/3s under the sea, good and bad. You know, we’d have a good laugh, talking about it.”

He doesn’t come back to Wolves too often. But when he does he pop’s round to see Dave for a cup of tea. They’ve had their arguments over the years but are good buddies now. “H – you know we call Dave ‘H’ – he’s eccentric. He’s a lot calmed down now, he’s come down to earth, he’ll have me on the floor laughing.

“I was round there one day and his missus, Jan, she was there. We were chitter chattering away and we were talking about promotion. He was saying to Jan and my missus, Suzan, that the thing I was good at was promotion. He said: ‘That’s basically what Nod’s job was in the band.’ And Jan says: ‘Yeah, and he was a pretty good singer.’ And it was like Dave had forgot. We just fell about laughing. He lives in Dave Hill World and he always has.”

Nod went onto pastures new, making a success in radio and TV. He toured theatres with Mark Radcliffe, who each night posed this question: ‘Suzi Quatro – did ya?’

He never had the appetite to form a new band. “If I wanted to do music and promotion, I’d be best doing it with Slade. I didn’t want to get on that merry go round again and start again from fresh. I didn’t want to do a solo thing, I always said I’d do other things, which is what I’ve done. The thought of me going out touring, it has no appeal at all.”

We’ve been talking for an hour when the conversation starts to end. Suddenly, Noddy remembers what we’re supposed to be talking about. Ah yes, the greatest hits. “It’s been remastered. They sound bloody great and there’s a double vinyl out as well. The record company wanted to do it. They wanted to make it a definitive collection, which it pretty much is. In this time of lockdown, I think people need a bit of Slade. We always put a smile on people’s faces. This is the perfect time to cheer people up. Hopefully it’ll reach a new generation too.”

Yeah, that’s Noddy Holder. These days, not so good at promo. But, man, what a singer.

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