Sunday, 16 October 2011

SLADE: Old New Borrowed And Blue

(#140: 2 March 1974, 1 week)

Track listing: Just A Little Bit/When The Lights Are Out/My Town/Find Yourself A Rainbow/Miles Out To Sea/We're Really Gonna Raise The Roof/Do We Still Do It/How Can It Be/Don't Blame Me/My Friend Stan/Everyday/Good Time Gals

"How can a daydream change to a has-been?"

A successful rock band generally has two long-term aesthetic options. It can either expand and develop what it has already done, or simply carry on doing what they know they can do, and if they have any nous they will subtly tweak their music every so often such that they never fall behind the times. Among the latter I would include Status Quo, ZZ Top, the Ramones and AC/DC, and I wonder whether Slade would have been happier in this category, although they had strong ambitions to go beyond the holler-stompers which they felt might still entrap them. They had plenty of opportunity to think; Old New Borrowed And Blue was their first album to be completed following Don Powell's car crash, and I think there must have been a general feeling of, well, if we're going to go anywhere else or do anything else, now is the time to do it and go there.

This is not to say that the record represented an especially radical detour from the Slade blueprint, more that it intensifies what we already knew from Slayed? and the hits and cautiously sticks out its feelers in other directions. The group had already wrongfooted their fans with the post-crash single "My Friend Stan," which climbed with some effort to number two and which in its way was as much of a test of its audience as "Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In The Shadows"; it reappears here and remains impassively strange, Holder welding together various double entendres over a backing of tack pub piano and Dave Hill's unexpected forays into country rock (it may well have a subtler political subtext at its heart with its talk of blacking eyes and fixing ties, but I will leave that for Lena to analyse when its turn comes).

From this stem comes at least two other tracks; Hill's "Jessica" quotes on "How Can It Be" - lyrically one of the record's more wistful songs, not that you'd know it from Holder's delivery - suggest more moves in the country rock direction although Powell's flat beat and the track's general make-do-and-mend buskerdom come down more in favour of Don Partridge (but watch that odd vocal coda; CSN&Y re-orchestrated by Morton Feldman). Whereas "Find Yourself A Rainbow" is a straightforward music hall singalong, with jangling Russ Conway piano and no side ("Don't forget...April showers"), which was later covered, again without apparent irony, by Max Bygraves. In Noddy there has always been the latent need to be an all-round family entertainer, but it's worth pondering what some of the 500,000 fans who placed advance orders for this album would have made of it (is this what we queued up and paid for?).

The rest of the album is devoted to rockers and mid-tempo rock-pop lopes. The record kicks off with the group's take on Rosco Gordon's "Just A Little Bit," previously a minor hit in 1964 for Merseybeat group The Undertakers (featuring a young but already very confident Jackie Lomax on lead vocals) and covered by many other beat groups including Them and The Animals (although the latter did not record the song until their ill-fated 1977 reunion record Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted) - so Chas Chandler must have recommended the number directly. If anything, Slade appear here to be inventing AC/DC. All the elements are there: the brutally straight guitar riffs and astute use of pauses and silence, and of course Holder's Bon Scott/Brian Johnson-anticipating hoarse shriek ("TURN YER LIGHTS DOWN LOW!"). Clearly a stage favourite, the group effectively turn the volume down, to the point where they seem to be playing with muffs on their speakers, and indeed their fingers are barely touching their instruments. Holder goes down, relatively quiet, developing his mutters of "teeny weeny" into abstract grunts and purrs, before the volume is suddenly jacked up again and they aim for the Zep bravura finale ("NOT 'TIL THE END OF TIIIIIIME!" followed by a bark of "Lo-o-o-o-o-o-ove!") but land nearer a proto-punk ending of messy guitar tunings and cymbal crashes.

On "When The Lights Are Out," one of the rare Slade tracks featuring Jim Lea on lead vocals, they appear conversely (or logically) to be inventing Oasis, their "Merry Xmas Everybody" setting settling into a rolling lope ("Let me feel your warm breath on my neck/It makes me hit the sky"). Slightly too poppy to qualify as pub rock, it nevertheless seems to be a song about the group's gradual disillusionment with the crowd and with unquestioning adulation ("We'll be sitting pretty/Scream a pitiful scream"). Much the same approach is used on "Miles Out To Sea" and the music's relatively restrained arrangement works in the song's favour; such a strange, dissociated song it seems too, with its floating out to the bay, its ghostly tropes of cabaret and red-haired monks - the song is performed as though the group already knows its game is up. As with roughly half the songs on the album, it's notable that Lea's piano is markedly more to the fore than Hill's guitar.

"My Town," hitherto buried on the B-side of "My Friend Stan," is one of Slade's strongest, and in my view least acknowledged, songs - it failed even to make the 4CD Slade Box retrospective - and, also in my view, one of their most heartfelt; it begins in hard rock cliche territory with its "hot shootin' mama," but the latter is only a peg on which to hang one of the hoarsest and aggressive choruses Holder ever screamed: "THIS AIN'T YOUR TOWN! THIS IS MY TOWN!" he repeats. "GET ON YOUR WAY NOW!!" he grunts and snarls. Meanwhile the music inclines towards early Beatles but there is something about Lea's wavering, close-picked, fluctuating bassline which suggests a previously unexplored missing link between Eddie Cochran and My Bloody Valentine. The song's implications go far beyond small-town matters; this seems a clarion cry, a warning from the working class to their interfering "superiors" to stay the hell away, a proud reclamation of working class culture. Did the group consider it too near the knuckle, too close to a truth, to risk putting it out as an A-side?

"We're Really Gonna Raise The Roof" is the nearest the record comes to a standard Slade stomper but there is an unsettling extra luminosity to Holder's screech; already quoting Bob Marley ("Get up, stand up!") and spitting out those "Go, go, go!"s with all the fervour of 1969 Barry Ryan, and the band at points struggle to contain this sometimes terrible power. "Do We Still Do It" continues in the same vein, with a spectral echo in the group's shouted responses, words like "corruptible" and a mantra of "Come on!"s repeated to the point of dervish insanity, or (and I do not use such words loosely) nirvana (and feel free to capitalise that last word; there are roots here too).

On "Don't Blame Me," however, Holder is in danger of blowing himself out of this world. Offering diarrhoeic yells against some scruffily-defined wrongdoing or injustice, Holder's astonishing vocal performance - is it ADT, or multiphonics? - gets the response of a violent, frustrated, wobbling solo from Hill (the furthest out the latter ever went on record). Despite the brief Robert Plant parody near the end, the primal screams on offer far exceed those of Lennon's; this is a pain beyond rational expression. As the track plays out Holder's scream is comparable with the tenor of Pharaoh Sanders or Gato Barbieri, ululatory, completely overwhelming its surroundings; when the ending comes, it sounds as though Holder has literally squashed the rest of the band. It is a terrifying performance.

Then come the strange singles, the already mentioned "Stan" and the highly uncharacteristic waltz ballad "Everyday." The latter is a more unsettling listen than is generally acknowledged; the song itself sounds like something that Gerry and the Pacemakers would have dropped midway into their set to take the pace down (and Holder's vocal, when controlled - in the "And you know that I know" sections - sounds uncannily like Gerry Marsden), but again and again Holder breaks into his holler; and the lyric (in part made up impromptu by Lea's wife Louise) must be the most abstract, haiku-like lyric to any love song this side of "True Love Ways." "One little wave/To say you'll behave"?

Such endeavours may reveal why Slade, despite great and sustained effort, never really broke America; Holder's voice, though capable of scarifying intensity, is not the most flexible of voices. Every song, be it country rock or vaudeville or MoR ballad, involves a swift ascent to scream mode; he lacks Plant's capacity for tenderness, and in truth, even over a modest album length of thirty-one minutes, his unceasing bullroarer, because unwavering, does become more than a little wearisome; it is like standing at the other end of a megaphone of a rabble-rouser at Speaker's Corner. The closing "Good Time Gals" attempts a cowbell-driven "Honky Tonk Women"/"All Right Now"-style return to normal business but it doesn't quite convince; Holder finally dives straight into smutsville ("I wanted to suck your candy - UHH!") and worryingly beyond ("I wanted to wear your clothes"). Despite the attempted climax of four straight "GIMME!"s, the heart is, I suspect, already out of it.

On the positive side, Holder's voice, despite its sustained tone of hectoring, does appear to be slightly more comprehensible than previously; and added to this should be the fact that the likes of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie - not to mention the slightly older likes of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry - were assimilating Slade's example and using it as a template for their own subsequent adventures (the first Runaways album is almost exactly a midpoint equation between Slade, the Sweet and Suzi Quatro). If you don't worry too much about subtexts, then as a rock record Old New Borrowed And Blue is a fine, varied and lively listen. But it is pretty unmistakably the work of a group who know that they have just passed their peak and want a last, loud say before bowing out, or down. Their next move was towards cinema; Slade In Flame is a harrowing and frequently ugly (but more or less truthful) picture of a rotten music industry and what it does to people at the bottom of its bucket, but the crowds were expecting slapstick and laffs; likewise, the film's downbeat and frequently bitter songs were too cold a bucket of water for fans to stomach - despite one final big hit ("Far Far Away") and one of the best songs and performances they ever recorded ("How Does It Feel?," written by Lea as far back as 1968), the soundtrack album stopped at #6, and by mid-1976 their singles were beginning to miss the Top 50; it took a long, slow process of rebuilding their reputation on the heavy rock circuit to enable their comeback in the eighties. Now a version of Slade continues to tour, without Holder, who, sick of touring and stress, has long since switched to broadcasting and occasional acting. Their best music survives, and remains loved, as indeed do the musicians themselves; and Old New Borrowed And Blue - you decide which songs are which - is best viewed as a cheerful last wave before everyone, musicians and fans alike, goes off and gets on with the rest of their lives.