341. Slade – Merry Xmaƨ Everybody (1973)

‘IT’S CHRISTMAAAASSSSSSS!’. It’s not. It’s currently mid-August 2020 and we’re coming to the end of a blistering heatwave, which, if you know the story behind Slade’s final number 1, you’ll know is how the song was recorded. Little did they know it would become not only the most famous of their six number 1s, it would become perhaps pop’s greatest festive staple.

And yet, in summer 1973, the future of the band looked in doubt. While Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me was at number 1, drummer Don Powell was in a car crash that killed his girlfriend Angela Morris and left him in a coma for nearly a week. Luckily he successfully recovered, although he still suffers acute short-term memory loss and sensory problems.

Back in 1967 when Slade were The ‘N Betweens, Noddy Holder had written a song called Buy Me a Rocking Chair, with the very psychedelic chorus ‘Buy me a rocking chair to watch the world go by/Buy me a looking glass, I’ll look you in the eye’. Despite liking the chorus, the verse needed work, so they scrapped it. Speaking to the Record Mirror in 1984, bassist Jim Lea recalled he was taking a shower in New York in 1973 when he came up with ‘Are you hanging up your stocking on the wall?’. Lea remembered Holder’s chorus and thought the two could fit together well, and producer and manager Chas Chandler had been nagging them to write a Christmas song. Holder thought the idea had legs, and penned the lyrics at his mother’s house in Walsall in one draft. They played the finished song to Chandler on acoustic guitars.

As hinted at earlier, Slade recorded Merry Xmaƨ Everybody in the middle of a September heatwave in New York while on tour there. Powell had returned to the fray at the Power Plant, where John Lennon had just finished recording his album Mind Games. Lea didn’t look back on the recording fondly, claiming the others weren’t as interested in him at rehearsing, though he did acknowledge Powell was still recovering and his memory was shot. Lea put in the most work, laying down the bass, piano and harmonium (the latter on loan from Lennon). They weren’t happy with the first completed mix as they wanted a bigger sound for the chorus, so they re-recorded it down a corridor, getting baffled looks from passers-by (Slade were virtually unknown in the US). After five days, the song was complete.

With several months to go until they could release their hopeful festive number 1, Slade released a compilation, Sladest, and new single MY FRIEИD STAИ (which looks slightly satanic). For the first time since Christmas 1972, they didn’t get to number 1. It was a departure from the usual Slade formula, but they had to change tack at some point, and it’s a nice little song. So, were they going to miss out on the Christmas top spot for the second year in a row?

Of course not. Merry Xmaƨ Everybody became the first Christmas-themed Christmas number 1 since Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child in 1957, and couldn’t have come at a better time. As everyone knows, the UK was going through a particularly grim time in late-1973. You’ve only got to look down at the ‘Meanwhile…’ section to see the Three-Day Week was about to begin, and the first post-war recession had started. Plus there was the OPEC oil crisis, and the IRA could strike at any moment. Glam acts like Slade and Wizzard were sorely needed to keep spirits up, and they did the job then and still do close to 50 years later. ‘Look to the future now, it’s only just begun’. How we could do with some of that optimism in winter 2020.

One of the most important factors that explains the magic of Merry Xmaƨ Everybody is its inclusivity. It’s less rocking and more poppy than previous material. It’s aimed at all the family, with mentions of Granny ‘up and rock and rolling with the rest’. ‘ In 1971 Lennon asked ‘So this is Christmas, and what have you done’, in 1973 Slade said ‘everybody’s having fun’. There’s a nod (pardon the pun) to Christmas songs of old with the reference to ‘momma kissing Santa Claus’.

In 2017 I listened to every Christmas number 1 in one sitting and wrote about it here, and came to the conclusion Merry Xmaƨ Everybody is the best festive chart-topper of all time. I pointed out the production is lacking all the trimmings such as sleigh bells etc, and I think that’s another reason it’s stood the test of time so well. It doesn’t need them, as Holder’s ‘IIIIIITTTTT’S CHRIIIISSSTTTMMMMMASSSS!’ at the song’s conclusion gets the childhood joy of Christmas Day across like nobody has before or since.

Slade won the chart battle with Wizzard, who actually only reached number four in Christmas week, but nevertheless the sense of competition between the two glam rock outfits helped to create the battle for christmas number 1 that the media have latched on to ever since. The singles chart for Christmas week was now an event, and that’s thanks to Slade. Which is entirely appropriate, when you consider how glam’s low-budget sense of fun, bordering on the tacky, is Christmassy like no other genre.

Slade’s biggest seller was also a great way for the band to finish their run of number 1s. Six within just over two years is pretty impressive and puts them up there with some of the biggest acts of all time. Their fall was slow and steady, but there were also unexpected twists and turns.

1974 began with the release of the LP Old New Borrowed and Blue, which showcased a more piano-led sound and even a ballad as a single, Everyday, which went to number three. Much of the year was spent filming their film Slade In Flame, a surprisingly gritty drama about the rise and fall of a fictional group called Flame, played by the members of Slade. It was released in November, and although it was critically acclaimed (it has gained somewhat of a cult following in recent years), and the first single from the soundtrack Far Far Away reached number two, the theme song How Does It Feel only made it to number 15. Thanks for the Memory (Wham Bam Thank You Mam), in 1975, was their last top 10 hit of the 70s.

Understandably feeling they had peaked in the UK, in 1975 Slade decided to move to the US and try and hit the big time there. They toured with rock acts like Aerosmith and ZZ Top, and released an eclectic album. Nobody’s Fool, but not only did they fail to make much of an impact, their UK fans accused them of selling out.

By the time they returned to the UK in 1977, punk and the subsequent new wave rendered Slade very unfashionable. Their contract with major label Polydor had ran out and instead they signed with Chandler’s Barn Records. They performed single Gypsy Roadhog on Blue Peter and found themselves banned by the BBC due to its drug references, but the notoriety couldn’t help them up the charts. The next album, Whatever Happened to Slade, was an all too appropriate name.

As the band slid into irrelevance they would release singles based on football chants (1978’s Give Us a Goal) and covers of cheesy party classics (Okey Cokey in 1979) and some material failed to even reach the top 200. Disagreements between Lea and Chandler resulted in the former and Holder producing their back to basics album Return to Base in 1979. It was another failure, and the band briefly went their separate ways. Lea formed a new group, The Dummies, with his brother Frank, poor Hill resorted to driving couples to their weddings in his own Rolls-Royce to make money (it didn’t work), and Holder was briefly considered as AC/DC’s new singer following the death of Bon Scott, but he still thought Slade may have a future and reportedly turned the Australian rockers down.

In 1980, Slade had some luck at last when Ozzy Osbourne cancelled his headlining appearance at Reading Festival late in the day. Organisers rushed around looking for a last-minute replacement, and asked Slade. All but Hill were keen, but the only way he could be persuaded was when Chandler visited him at home and pointed out it could be their big farewell gig. To Hill’s surprise, they went down a storm. The split was forgotten about, and they acted fast to keep the momentum going. Showcasing a sound more in keeping with heavy metal, therefore pleasing the Reading Festival crowd, 1981’s We’ll Bring the House Down (title track to their next album) became their first top 10 hit in six years, and they returned to larger venues after years of touring small clubs and universities.

Slade and Chandler finally parted ways and they signed with RCA Records, who released their heaviest material yet, Till Deaf Us Do Part. That Christmas saw the first of many re-releases of Merry Xmaƨ Everybody, which reached 32. RCA began to demand hits from the band, and set them to work with producer John Punter. The resulting album, The Amazing Kamikaze Syndrome, was released in December 1983, and featured two decent tracks. Power ballad My Oh My very nearly gave them their second festive chart-topper, but was held at bay by The Flying Pickets’ version of Only You. It was followed by Run Runaway, a fair stab at a Celtic-flavoured, Big Country-style sound.

Unfortunately, Holder wasn’t keen on Punter, and troubles in his private life resulted in a cancelled tour. They tried again for another Christmas single, All Join Hands (an inferior retread of My Oh My), but it couldn’t crack the top 10. And the final decline began, with a mainly synth-led album in 1985, Rogues Gallery, followed by a cheap Christmas cash-in LP, Crackers – The Christmas Party Album, along with the umpteenth release of their final number 1. It would take more than returning to deliberately mis-spelling their material to return Slade to form, and You Boyz Make Big Noize, released in 1987, was their final album. They did (sort-of) return to number 1 with Wizzard and lots of other festive hits, courtesy of Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers’ sampling them on Let’s Party in 1989.

In 1991 the Slade fan club organised a 25th anniversary show, and it was the last time they played live. Radio Wall of Sound, recorded for a compilation, was their final chart hit. In March 1992, Holder finally called it a day, and Lea, his much underrated songwriting partner, couldn’t see a future for Slade without their singer. He retired too, leaving Hill and Powell to form Slade II.

Slade II have continued since with various other members, and made the news in 2003 when convicted serial killer Rosemary West announced her engagement to bassist Dave Glover. Glover claimed this was a misunderstanding and he had only written to her about her case, but Hill of course sacked him. In February 2020 Powell claimed he had been sacked by Hill via a rather cold email, which Hill denied. He was all set to start Don Powell’s Slade but suffered a stroke, and with live music practically comatose post-lockdown, it remains to be seen if we end up with two separate Slades on the road.

Lea has largely remained out of the public eye, other than making solo album Therapy in 2007, and revealing he had been treated for prostate cancer.

Holder became a national treasure following Slade’s demise, taking up acting and making a decent job of it in ITV comedy drama The Grimleys. He has presented radio shows, documentaries, and made numerous cameos on TV. He reportedly loved Vic Reeves’ portrayal of him in the Slade at Home sketches on The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer in the early-90s, but Hill wasn’t so fond of Bob Mortimer’s portrayal of him as a disapproving mother figure.

All four members of Slade attended Chandler’s funeral in 1996, and in 2010 had a group meeting to consider a farewell tour, but nothing came of it. It’s unlikely they will ever play together.

Slade deserve more credit. Yes, this final number 1 is the best Christmas chart-topper of all time, but before then they released some excellent singles too. Holder had one of the best rock voices of all time, and together with Lea, they wrote several classics. The flamboyant Hill was mainly responsible for their showmanship, and Powell fought back from a near-death experience and continued to belt out the beat. They may have lacked in innovation, but like all the best glam acts, they sparkled and rocked the nation during stormy years.

1973 was by and large very similar to 1972 for number 1s, but better. There was still some old-fashioned pop doing very well, and Donny Osmond and David Cassidy catering for the teens, but there were also glam classics that have stood the test of time.

Written by: Noddy Holder & Jim Lea

Producer: Chas Chandler

Weeks at number 1: 5 (15 December 1973-18 January 1974)

Births:

Historian Lucy Worsley – 18 December
Comedian Paul Foot – 24 December
Matt Tebbutt – 24 December 1973
Spice Girl Melanie C – 12 January 1974
Radio DJ Edith Bowman – 15 January
Model Kate Moss – 16 January

Deaths:

Princess Patricia of Connaught – 12 January 1974

Meanwhile…

19 December: The 17.18 Paddington to Oxford express train was derailed between Ealing Broadway and West Ealing. 10 died and 94 were injured.

31 December 1973: As a result of coal shortages caused by industrial action by the miners, Prime Minister Edward Heath’s energy-saving measures, the Three-Day Work Order, came into effect at midnight, making for the darkest New Year celebrations for decades. Commercial consumption of electricity would be limited to three consecutive days, TV broadcasts would end at 10.30pm on alternate nights for BBC and ITV, and most pubs were closed.

1 January 1974: But it wasn’t all bad news, as New Year’s Day was celebrated as a public holiday for the first time.
Also that day, the Northern Ireland Power-sharing Executive is set up in Belfast.

333. Slade – Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me (1973)

Those number 1s just kept on coming for Slade in 1973. Fresh off the success of Cum On Feel the Noize, this was their second chart-topper in a row to go straight in at pole position – a rare feat, unsurpassed for over 20 years.

Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me was recorded by the band at A&M Studios in Los Angeles. Bassist Jim Lea had been inspired to write the call-and-response chorus after visiting the Trumpet pub in Bilston, Wolverhampton, where local pianist Reg Kierle was performing.

Earlier in 1973, the flamboyant Dave Hill debuted his ‘Superyob’ custom-built spaceship-styled guitar, and it’s this you can hear, triple-tracked, in the intro.

Unfortunately, Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me is a bit mediocre, especially compared to Slade’s other number 1s. It’s better than Take Me Bak ‘Ome, but that’s lukewarm praise. The chorus gets very repetitive, and for once, Noddy Holder’s vocal is veering into irritating territory. The lyrics are a bit iffy, too: ‘And I thought you might like to know/When a girl’s meaning yes she says no”. That wouldn’t get through in 2020, that’s for sure. But the reference to their female fans not knowing how to spell is a nice sly dig at those critics who hated Slade misspelling their song titles.

To be fair to the Black Country boys, they must have known this particular well was running dry, as this was the last single with a critic-baiting title, and next single My Friend Stan saw Slade take a new tack.

But on 4 July, during Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me‘s first of three weeks at number 1, Slade nearly lost drummer Don Powell. A car crash left him in a coma and his girlfriend, 20-year-old Angela Morris, dead. Instead of celebrating, the future of Slade hung in the balance.

Written by: Noddy Holder & Jim Lea

Producer: Chas Chandler

Weeks at number 1: 3 (30 June-20 July)

Births:

Comedian Peter Kay – 2 July
Actress Emma Cunniffe – 3 July
Golfer Bradley Dredge – 6 July

Deaths:

Soldier Charles Ernest Garforth – 1 July
Cricketer Wilfred Rhodes – 8 July
Scottish soldier John Brown Hamilton – 18 July
Actor Jack Hawkins – 18 July

Meanwhile…

1 July: The British Library was established by the merger of the British Museum Library in London with the National Lending Library for Science and Technology at Boston Spa, West Yorkshire.

6 July: The James Bond movie Live and Let Die was released in British cinemas, with the spy being played by 45-year-old Roger Moore for the first time. I’m no big Bond fan, but Moore would always be my favourite.

10 July: The Bahamas gained full independence within the Commonwealth.

319. Slade – Mama Weer All Crazee Now (1972)

In 1972 Slade were becoming wise to the glam rock movement springing up around them. They were already changing from their skinhead look, growing their hair out again, but they also began wearing increasingly outlandish outfits – particularly guitarist Dave Hill.

They also became obsessed with the idea of entering the charts at number 1 in week one, a feat that hadn’t been achieved since The Beatles and Billy Preston with Get Back. Last single Take Me Bak ‘Ome had been number 1 for a week earlier that year, but… well it wasn’t great, really. They needed something stronger. While recording it, as stated in the accompanying blog, Noddy Holder ad-libbed halfway through, and bassist Jim Lea liked what he heard… but asked him to save it as it had given him an idea for a new song.

The tune for Mama Weer All Crazee Now was for the first totally written by Lea. In a 1984 interview with Record Mirror, he recalled he had attended a Chuck Berry gig in 1972 where the legendary guitarist kept stopping his songs to let the crowd sing them for him, and he decided to write a readymade anthem where they could do the same. Combining it with the aforementioned ad-libs and recalling Holder’s comment after surveying the aftermath of one of their own gigs at Wembley Arena (‘Christ, everyone must have been crazy tonight’) he came up with My My We’re All Crazy Now.

And thus, the Slade formula was finally born. And what a formula it was. Holder letting rip over a simple but memorable riff, a simple ear-worm chorus fit for a stadium with crowd-like backing vocals, lyrics about having a good time… that’s all there is to it. But it hits that sweet spot so well. There were even better number 1s to come, but Mama Weer All Crazee Now is great fun. Ok, not a lot going on lyrically – it’s basically about wanting to get pissed on whisky. But what’s that bit about filling up ‘H’ Hill’s left shoe – is that a reference to their guitarist?

It doesn’t matter, it’s about the energy, and the climax, where Don Powell hits the drums repeatedly and Holder shouts ‘MAMA MAMA MAMA MAMA’ is brilliant.

Slade didn’t quite go straight in at number 1 this time around, but they did enter at two, and they got there in the end.

Written by: Noddy Holder & Jim Lea

Producer: Chas Chandler

Weeks at number 1: 3 (9-29 September)

Births:

Newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky – 9 September
Oasis singer Liam Gallagher – 21 September
Breaststroke swimmer Richard Maden – 21 September

Deaths:

Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher – 15 September

Meanwhile…

11 September: BBC One broadcast long-running quiz series Mastermind was broadcast for the first time, with Magnus Magnusson asking the questions until 1997. John Humphrys has been presenter since 2003.

12 September: The second Cod War was triggered when two British trawlers were sunk by an Icelandic gunboat.

13 September: 20 years after their debut in France, hypermarkets came to the UK when Carrefour opened in Caerphilly, South Wales.

18 September: On the orders of dictator Idi Amin, thousands of deported Ugandan Asians arrived in the UK.

19 September: A parcel bomb killed a diplomat at the Israeli embassy in London.

306. Slade – Coz I Luv You (1971)

“Get down and get with it!” Wolverhampton glam rockers Slade are one of the most fondly remembered bands of the 70s. Six number 1s between 1971-73, 17 consecutive top 20 singles, and according to The British Hit Singles & Albums, they were the most successful British group of the decade for singles sales. And I’m only just getting round to mentioning Merry Xmas Everybody, which I picked as the greatest Christmas number 1 of all time here.

All four members of Slade grew up in the Black Country area of the West Midlands. In 1964, drummer Don Powell, born and raised in Wolverhampton, was in a band with Dave Hill (born in Devon) called The Vendors. Meanwhile, Walsall’s Noddy Holder was guitarist and occasional singer with Steve Brett & the Mavericks. who released three records on Columbia in 1965.

The Vendors became The ‘N Betweens and gained momentum, supporting The Hollies and The Yardbirds, among others. Meeting on a ferry on the way to separate gigs in Germany, Powell and Hill tried to persuade Holder to join The ‘N Betweens, but he declined. Once they were all back home though, Holder changed his mind and became their lead singer. They had recently recruited multi-instrumentalist Jim Lea on bass, too.

By 1966 The ‘N Betweens had moved on from blues to a more R’n’B sound. They released their first single, a cover of The Young Rascals’ You Better Run, in 1966, produced by Kim Fowley, arranger of Nut Rocker.

They didn’t return to a studio for a few years, but in 1967, with flower power at its peak, Holder worked on an unnamed song with a chorus that went: ‘Buy me a rocking chair to watch the world go by/Buy me a looking glass, I’ll look you in the eye’. Six years later it became Merry Xmas Everybody.

A local promoter alerted the band to Jack Baverstock, head of A&R at Philips. After spending a week recording their debut album Beginnings in the label’s studio, he offered them a deal with Fontana Records – if they changed their name. Despite misgivings, they became Ambrose Slade, inspired by Baverstock’s secretary, who had named her handbag ‘Ambrose’ and her shoes ‘Slade’… as you do…

Beginnings and instrumental single Genesis sank, but on the plus side, they found a new manager in Chas Chandler, former bassist with The Animals, who helped Jimi Hendrix rocket to fame. It didn’t mean instant success, but Chandler did set them on the right path, telling them they needed more original material and a new image. They adopted the skinhead look in an attempt to keep up with prevailing trends and as The Slade they released the single Wild Winds Are Blowing, which tanked.

A new decade, a new name: Slade. They featured on Top of the Pops in 1970 with their cover of Shape of Things to Come, but to no avail. They added lyrics to Genesis and reworked it as Know Who You Are, but neither that nor November’s LP, Play It Loud, got anywhere either.

Finally, their fortunes changed. In 1971 Chandler suggested they record one of their most popular live numbers. Their cover of Bobby Marchan’s Get Down with It (later covered by Little Richard) – retitled Get Down and Get with It, came out that May, and it climbed to number 18 in August. And for good reason, it’s an electrifying performance, particularly Holder’s raw vocal, and really captures an infectious, fun, live sound.

Slade were already growing their hair long once more when Chandler demanded they come up with a follow-up themselves. One evening Lea turned up at Holder’s house with his violin and an idea for a simple song, along the lines of T. Rex’s Hot Love, and half an hour later, they had written their first number 1.

They played Because I Love You acoustically to an enthusiastic Chandler the next day, who confidently predicted it would be their first chart-topper. He booked them into Olympic Studios in Barnes. Slade were less keen on its chances, thinking it too soft and poppy, until they were allowed to add foot-stomping to the rhythm. They also decided to change its title, and Holder came up with the idea to misspell it to fit in with their dialect. Thus, Coz I Luv You, the first of their songs littered with spelling errors, was born.

Coz I Luv You is a nice signpost to the full-on glam sound Slade would develop. It doesn’t have the immediate ‘wow’ factor of Hot Love or Get It On, but it’s a great introduction to what was to come. It’s interesting that they all thought it was too lightweight, and maybe the footstomping really did make the difference, but this track actually has a bit of a sinister edge to it, thanks to Holder’s vocal styling. Inadvertently or not, he makes ‘Don’t you change the things you do’ sound like a threat, and Lea’s violin at times adds to the slightly uneasy feeling.

Soon Slade developed their more raucous, straightforward take on Bolan’s glam rock. They were never bothered with maintaining a cool mystique like he was, and began to also be known for their ridiculous glam outfits, before going on to become national treasures. For now though, they were just a slightly weird rock band who had finally made the big time.

Coz I Luv You would later be covered by fellow Black Country musicians, indie band, The Wonder Stuff.

Written by: Noddy Holder & Jim Lea

Producer: Chas Chandler

Weeks at number 1: 4 (13 November-10 December)

Births:

Olympic rower Cath Bishop – 22 November
Actress Emily Mortimer – 1 December
Triple jumper Ashia Hansen – 5 December

Deaths:

Actress Gladys Cooper – 17 November

Meanwhile…

22 November: Five children and one adult die after becoming stranded for two nights in blizzards on the Cairngorm Plateau. It is still regarded as Britain’s worst mountaineering accident.

2 December: The Queen’s yearly allowance was increased from £475,000 to £980,000. I’m sure millions of republicans were very pleased for her.

4 December: The highest death toll from a single incident in The Troubles to date took place when 15 people were killed and 17 injured in the McGurk’s Bar bombing. The Ulster Volunteer Force are believed to have been behind the bombing.