Express & Star

Interview: Don Powell on life through lockdown and missing Slade

He’s travelled all over the world but Slade legend Don Powell is in no doubt that the Black Country will forever be in his heart and mind.

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Don Powell

He emails five minutes after the interview ends. He always does.

Don Powell, Slade legend, all-round good bloke, keeper of beats, says this: “Thanks for, calling mate…. Really enjoyed it. Don’t forget, next time I’m in, Wolves, we’ll go out for a cuppa. Once again, thanks mate. Don…”

Not all interviewees engage so thoroughly. In truth, most can’t wait to get off the phone. Promo is a bore. They want to be making new music, counting their money, switching off from the madness or basking in the adulation of fans and peers.

The few who exhibit social skills seldom really mean it: ‘Come and say hello when we play our next gig,’ is a one-way ticket to an awkward encounter with a promoter who’ll refer you back to the box office.

Don, however, means every word. He does meet for a cuppa – or a fizzy water, or a steak and chips. He walks it like he talks it. There’s never any side. He is, without question, one of the nicest men in rock. And, for all of the toxicity surrounding the Black Country legends that were Slade – and as pleasant as Mr Neville John ‘Noddy’ Holder is; Don has always been the nicest of the lot.

We’ll get the fall out with Dave Hill later – or, should we say, we’ll touch on the way Dave Hill sacked him by email after a friendship/partnership stretching back 50-odd years. But first, there’s more important stuff to talk about.

Rock’n’roll has been decimated by Covid-19. The live music industry ground to a halt. With the exception of a few pilot shows in Liverpool recently, gigs haven’t taken place since March last year and there’s still no guarantee that the summer’s festival programme will go ahead. The industry used to provide a living by generating cash through album and single sales. The advent of streaming, however, means that’s no longer the case and bands end up subsidising new releases to give them an excuse to get back on the road. Except there is no road.

Don has been sitting at home during Covid. He’s worked on his new project, The Don Powell Band, which he put together with a former member of Slade (the second incarnation) after exiting that band. Don’s experience of Covid has been somewhat different to the experiences of others. He’s been out in Denmark during lockdown and that nation’s response was more organised and less error-strewn than the response in the UK.

“I can’t complain about Covid,” he says. “The vaccine is here. They started the lockdown in Denmark about a month before the rest of the world so it’s not been so bad. We’re allowed out, that’s not a problem. There’s quite a few cafes open and things like that. It’s still down to wearing masks and keeping distances. In general, everyone’s a little bit closed off but it’s not too bad. The travel situation is still a bit iffy. The German border is still closed and the flights to England have stopped. I never thought I’d see the world like this to be honest. I’ve just been doing general things and catching up around the house. Seeing the kids and grandkids has been hard but it’s not too bad.”

There’s been a charity project to raise a few quid for the roadies and technicians who have found themselves completely out of work or driving vans for Amazon since the pandemic began. As bad as things have been for working musicians, they’ve been even worse for the crew. They’ve had nothing to fall back on, no occasional royalty cheques and nothing in the bank – let alone the prospect of Government support. Don, typically, has done his bit. He always does.

The Don Powell Band enlisted 18 of the UK’s finest drummers to create an epic and dynamic reworking of the classic drum feature: ‘Let There Be Drums’. His old mate, ELO and The Move legend Bev Bevan, was the first to sign up.

After that, there was no shortage of other drummers, both young and old, who were excited to record their solos for the project. The result is a powerful new version of the classic instrumental featuring epic playing by drummers from The Shadows, Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams, Jamiroquai, Nazareth, The Stereophonics, Jason Donovan, Magnum, Robert Plant, EMF, James Blunt and other award-winning drummers and percussionists.

All profits from the release will go to We Make Events, which helps studio crew, engineers and technicians.

Don put the project together with Craig Fenney, previously bass player with Don in Slade II and the man who recently helped form the Don Powell Band, a concept they discussed in their touring days together.

The production was done remotely, using several commercial studios and many home-recording studios. The drummers come from all points on the stylistic spectrum, from Prog to Funk, Hard Rock to Jazz, Classical, Pop, R‘n’B and Soul.

“Craig and I decided to do this. It was Craig’s idea because of the pandemic. We wanted to do something to all the technicians and crew who’ve been hard hit. It’s been great to work with some of the drummers who’ve signed up, even though we’re not in the same studios and it’s all done remotely. There are so many drummers who’ve wanted to help out. It’s amazing how things have changed. They recorded their drum parts in their own studios and put it together. I put my drums on and send it back.”

For all the good faith, however, sending computer files via email is no substitute for playing live in sweaty clubs with hundreds of adoring fans. Don knows that all too well.

“I can’t wait to play gigs again. It’s been great doing the drum stuff in the studio but you can’t beat playing live. There’s something magical about that, it’s special.”

Don, of course, has spent his adult life doing that in Slade. That came to an abrupt end in February last year, just before lockdown, when Dave Hill send him a “cold email” informing his that his services were no longer required. Hill claims the break-up was amicable – though, speaking to Don, it’s clear it was no such thing. The rejection clearly still stings. There were noises off that Hill thought Don wasn’t fit enough to carry on, another piece of misinformation.

“I just got an email from Dave Hill saying he didn’t want me in the band any more. I’d been in a band with him since 1963. He didn’t have the nerves or guts to phone me up...”

But what happened with Dave doesn’t matter, in a sense. Dave Hill wasn’t – and isn’t – Slade alone. Slade was Nod, Jim, Dave and Don. And for all the work that people have done in the intervening years – from Steve and Steve and Trevor and Dave to Craig and Mal and John and Russell on to Alex – there’d never come a time when the hearts and minds of fans would change. Because Slade was Noddy, right? Hollering into the mic stand like some tormented banshee; it was Jim, the guy who made good on the maxim that you have to look out for the quiet ones; it was Dave, with his lunatic fringe, rock star cars and stream of conscious babble and it was Don; the keeper of the beats, the man who escaped death in an horrific car accident and the guy about whom nobody has a bad word to say.

An indelicate email from Dave, therefore, doesn’t really change all that. Nor does the ending of an enduring friendship. Stuff happens. But Don does miss the band. He’d been an ever-present since 1966. He’d invested his entire life into making the band the biggest since The Beatles and he’d loved the gipsy lifestyle, being in a different town every night.

“It doesn’t matter what happened with Dave. I just miss the band. We’d been together since 1966 and I have lovely memories of being back in Wolverhampton. A lot of places are closed down now but I remember those places so well.”

One of his old haunts was the Connaught Hotel. “We used to play there on Sunday nights. It’s amazing how small that room looks now, it’s like a front room. The history with the band will never go away.” Though communication between members of Slade is patchy – a position that Noddy has spoken about with considerable regret – there’ll always be the memories. “Occasionally me and Nod get together in London. There used to be a big lunch for about 35 of us, which I really enjoyed.”

Slade went through numerous eras. From 1966 to 1970, they were getting themselves together. “At that point, it was juts the fun of playing. You always think you want to be successful but it’s a different world when it happens; it’s a different life. In them days, we didn’t know the pubs and clubs beyond Wolverhampton and Bilston. When we started to make a record, that was another step up the ladder. We were lucky to meet people like Chas Chandler, who managed us. We moved up and up and up.”

The hits came from 1971 to 1974, when they were the biggest band in Britain. “It was absolute mayhem with the touring and recording. It was amazing. I always quote this one: I think people in bands will understand. We’d just done a 6-week tour of Europe then we were off to America to do 8 weeks. It was non-stop. The states was flying every single day to meet the schedules because the cities were so far apart.

“At the end of each show Nod always gave the town or city a namecheck: thank you Chicago. We’d been on tour for eight weeks and I can’t remember where we were and we got to the end of the show. Nod shouted ‘thank you very much’ to the audience – then he turned round to me and said: ‘Don, where are we?’ We’d been on the road so long that we literally didn’t know where we were. But it was amazing. I always say I have the best job in the world, travelling and doing what I’m doing.”

There were wilderness years, a comeback, an American breakthrough, another comeback, a break-up, an aftermath. Slade was an episode of Eastenders, with more ups and downs than a yo-yo. Eventually, Don and Dave came back with Slade II. Nod and Jim had had enough. Nod was onto pastures new; acting, broadcasting as a DJ, still making music, hosting his own radio shows. The world was his rock lobster. Jim didn’t fancy it if it meant replacing Nod – because, of course, nobody ever could. Besides, he’d written most of the songs and was the musical polymath able to continue his own musical journey.

“When me and Dave went back on the road it was great because we played places like Russia. They’d been starved for so long of western bands that the reaction was incredible. We’d play a small club in Moscow and then play the Olympic Stadium. The whole situation was fantastic. We flew from Moscow to Vladivostock, which was 13 hours. That place was huge.”

It wasn’t all good times, of course. In 1973, at the height of the band’s popularity and when Slade were number one in the singles chart with Skweeze Me Pleeze Me, Don was badly injured in a car crash on Compton Road West. His fiancée, 20-year-old Angela Morris, died, after his car hit a hedge and smahed into a wall. Don fractured his skull, broke both his ankles and five of his ribs. He was unconscious for six days.

“After the accident, it was pretty hard to get back. I remember being in hospital in Wolverhampton. The surgeon looking after me said he wanted to kick me out and get me back on the road. That was the last thing I felt like doing. I had two broken legs and a broken arm and a fractured skull. It was the last thing I wanted to do.” But he did. “It was hard work. They used to have to carry me on stage and carry me off and put me on my drums – it was painful. But telling me to get on with it was the best advice that the surgeon gave me. If he hadn’t said that, I don’t know how I’d have got back on the drums again.”

He’d hung around with so many other stars, including fellow Black Country legends Led Zeppelin. “Robert Plant was great. I remember doing the Queen Mary Ballroom at Dudley Zoo. Robert came in one night and we hadn’t seen him for ages. We’d used to hang out, we’d buy hot dogs at Snow Hill Station, in Birmingham, at the caravan. Anyway, Robert came in and told us Jimmy Page had asked him to join The Yardbirds. The rest is history.”

Zeppelin drummer, the late John Bonham, was another pal. “He was in a cabaret band before Zep. But he used to play in the cabaret band the way he later played in Zeppelin. He was wild. I remember the one night, Slade were in Dallas on an American tour. We were doing a gig and people were throwing fruit at us. Afterwards we found out who it was – it was Led Zeppelin. They were in the States at the same time as us and they were throwing fruit at us for a laugh.”

There’s time for one final refection: home. “The Black Country is everything, It will never leave me. That’s where we started. I still see a lot of my old school mates when I get back to Wolverhampton. We always have a good laugh about the early days of playing The Ship and Rainbow. I was in Canada once, in Toronto, and one of my old pals came up and asked me what I was doing there. The same happened in Australia, when my old mate, Alan, came up and said hello. People from the Black Country never forget a friend.” They don’t, Don, nor do they forget a drummer and rock star who’s one of their own.

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