Good old dayz

John Walsh meets Noddy Holder
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The Independent Online
There were four of them. The singer resembled a carnival barker from a minor Dickens novel, with mutton-chop side-whiskers, his curls- fronded head surmounted by a top hat festooned with circular mirrors, his trousers a ludicrously uncool display of Rupert Bear yellow checks. The guitarist affected a long silver wig and grinned with goofy bonhomie, possibly to distract piss-takers from his suicidal nine-inch platforms. The bassist was a foxy, intelligent-looking Ganymede whose clothes (uniquely in this galere) looked as if they might belong to him. The drummer chewed gum, looked like a Millwall fan and walloped the skins with an air of abstracted aggression - he might have been lost in some mental synthesis of Free Will and Predestination, but you wouldn't have bet on it.

Slade were a curious-looking bunch; and between 1971 and 1976, they conquered the known world with a string of brilliant, if orthographically-challenged, three-minute singles ("Cum on Feel the Noize", "Coz I Luv U", "Look Wot You Dun"). Slade was the rock band about whom students like me tried to feel snooty, even while dancing ourselves stupid to "Mamma Weer All Crazee Now". We didn't approve of them (my dear, the clothes! and the spelling!), but we couldn't resist them. When the music world divided into heavy metal and sobbing singer-songwriters around 1971, Slade were the noisy Jack- the-lad brigade that didn't muck about with million-watt riffs, or concept albums or with dithery Neil Young introspections. They were just the fun tendency and England lapped them up until her attention was distracted by punk. Meeting Noddy Holder, the band's charismatic front-man, you're instantly pulled back to the time when he was one of those figures who transcend working-class culture and become popular icons, like Henry Cooper, Gary Lineker, Barbara Windsor...

"It wuz a bit of a blur, really, them days," says Holder now, in his unreconstructed Brummie contralto. "All we saw of the Seventies wuz hotels, dressing rooms, airport lounges, the inside of aeroplanes and coaches, the stage, television studios, recording studios... We didn't have mooch sense of the outside world. Any time we did have off, we'd run back home to Wolverhampton and go down the local poob, because that's the one place you'd get a sense of reality. We wouldn't get mobbed there. In fact, if we ever got big-headed, they'd soon pull us down to soize. Because we still knew everybody, and everybody knew uz...".

Everybody - ah yes, that word. The secret of Slade's success, in my humble submission, is that they gave the impression that they spoke, or sang, for everyone, enveloped the whole world of Brit-rock in a fond, beery embrace and told them to have a good time. It's that boundary-crossing feelgood factor that explains why, for instance, Harvey Nichols, the ritzy department store in Knightsbridge, should have thrown taste to the winds two years ago and featured, on the festive wrapping paper given away with their glossy magazine, the image of a beaming Noddy, endlessly repeated a la Warhol's soup cans, with the legend "Merry Xmas Everybody", after the band's ubiquitously best-selling seasonal yell. And now everyone seems to want a piece of him. "Even Max Bygraves did a cover version of `Merry Xmas'," he says proudly. "And the guy who's the Japanese Cliff Richard brought out "Cum on Feel the Noize" and went to No 1 with it". And so, famously, did Oasis, the nation's most influential band. Noel Gallagher sang "Feel the Noize" on Jools Holland's Later TV show last year and it sounded pretty damn good. "They sent me tickets to their homecoming gig at Maine Road, Manchester," Holder recalls, "and played the song as an encore. It were a great ego-boost for me, 40,000 kids going crazy over a song I wrote 23 years ago. I were dead choofed. It proved that those songs were good. Put in the roight environment, they're still valid today."

Valid? Environment? These sociology-degree formulations aren't what you expect from such a guitar-drubbing crowd-pleaser. But then we are having lunch in the Groucho Club, surrounded by a whole roadshow of media analysts, and The Grimleys, a one-hour Granada TV film by Ged Mercurio, is about to be released on a critical world. It's an extremely funny rites-of-passage story of a precocious teenager in Dudley, 1975, who falls in love with his English teacher (the gorgeous, wide-eyed Samantha Janus) and battles for his future with both his sofa-becalmed slob father (Nigel Planer) and his sadistic PE teacher and love rival (Jack Dee). It's on tonight and you mustn't miss it (but the video will be in the shops on Monday). Noddy Holder appears, under his real name of Neville, as the school's classical music teacher, amusingly named "Noddy Holder". "It's a bit of an in-joke really," he says genially. "Ged wrote the part specifically for me. He's a Midlands lad, and it's a bit of a piss-take, to put me in as myself, but as far removed as possible from popular notions of me."

The screen Holder is a nice guy, the kind of teacher to whom the troubled adolescents confide their problems. Given that the real-life Noddy was an accomplished musician when barely in his teens, I wondered what his own music teacher was like. "When I think of school back then," he says, "all I can remember us doing in music was stand up and sing 'ymns. There was a teacher and a piano, but all we did was 'ymns. But I was singin' in public from when I was six years old." He used to accompany his father to Walsall Labour Club where his father sang "You Made Me Love You" in the haze of roll-ups and brown ale. And Noddy? "Me, I'd sing summat like `I believe for every drop of rain that falls/ A flower grows...', but don't forget, it were a little Michael Jackson treble before me voice broke." He sang the line again in a demented falsetto that made all the windows in Dean Street quiver. "So heartfelt. Big ballads, tear-jerking stuff for the working men after they'd 'ad a few pints. You can't go wrong. Know what I mean? It's that old trick of showbiz - make 'em laff or bring a tear to their eye. I was too yoong to make 'em laff, so... You learn all the tricks that way, performing on stage."

Manipulation and showbiz are recurring themes in his conversation. Many people have underestimated Mr Holder, thinking him a Midlands hayseed with a shouty voice and a funny wardrobe, who sang a few decent songs and amused working class teenagers. They're quite wrong. I've rarely met a performer so full of gleeful calculation about his and his band's image, their performance, their career path. Slade, for instance, started out as a skinhead band, then called "Ambrose Slade", a name fatally suggestive of an Edwardian ballet critic. Were they - boots and braces apart - ever real skinheads, as in "bovver" and queer-bashing? "Ooh now," said Holder with an affronted yelp. "We did the skinhead thing because we wanted an image to set us apart from every other band around at the time, all the long-hairs. And skinheads - well it wasn't a political thing in those days, just a fashion thing. We never encountered any violence." But booking agents were justifiably apprehensive. "It did put a lot of people off booking us, and TV and the media," he concedes, "so we changed it after we had our first hit. We still had the platform boots and shortened trousers, still wore braces and those shirts. But we had the hair feathered differently, and wore more colours. As soon as you get some colour, you're less threatening. People accepted us over night as a different band."

Their new incarnation was as part of the "glam rock" phenomenon, a couple of years of sequinned lunacy when (inspired by David Bowie, T Rex and Gary Glitter) large truck-driving heterosexuals minced about unconvincingly in blue eye-shadow and stuck gold and silver WH Smith merit stars on their clothes. Slade were far too tough and street-wise to look good in Bacofoil (especially the drummer). So, if they weren't skinheads and weren't really glam rockers, what were they? Music hall throwbacks? Amazingly, the answer's yes. "Music hall. That wuz it. I got it all from me dad. His favourites were Al Jolson and Max Miller. And I got all the hand movements from Jolson and the clobber from Miller. The clothes I was wearing were straight from the Max Miller handbook."

My God, he's right. Slade was a direct descendant from The Good Old Days... "Oh it's obvious now, when I tell yer, but nobody realised then. Everybody nicks stuff. It's the old showbiz tradition, isn't it? I've always watched people on stage, seen how they do it. I loved the way Max Miller would walk on stage and people would be rolling on the ground before he even told a gag, just because he looked the business. Get them on your side, before you open your mouth and you're home and dry. That was my adage, even when I was a little kid." But surely he was too young (at 51) to have seen the Cheeky Chappie in person. "Of course. But I've seen the pictures, and me Dad had the records. When I first heard him, I cracked up. I didn't understand the gags, but it was his delivery. I couldn't believe it. And when I was old enough to understand, I realised it was something you could take into rock 'n' roll. Nobody'd done it. All you had to do was take what he had and make it Seventies. Instead of the white fedora Max had, I had a top hat with mirrors on..." The idea of the hat came to him while watching a mirror ball on a stage. During Slade concerts, they'd kill the lights, then shine a spotlight on the Noddy titfer, and send searchlight beams all over the squealing auditorium. "It was just 30 seconds out of every show, but people never forgot it. They went berserk. 'Course," he says modestly, "you only need three or four tricks like that in a show and you've got them suckered right away. And with a lot of hit songs to back it up, you were home and dry. We were a top live attraction for years and years around the world, purely on the strength of those tricks."

He was once an accomplished guitarist, with a special fondness for Django Reinhardt, after whom he has named his youngest child, now two and a half. At 11, Holder was playing jazz guitar. Then he adapted the pop tunes on the radio to what he'd learned from his Django-loving teacher. "But I wouldn't say I was a great musician. In fact, I got worse as a technical musician, the more successful I got playing pop. I wasn't doing any difficult stuff like I did when I was young. I concentrated on being the singer." This was aided by a dumbing-down process insisted on by their manager and producer, Chas Chandler, who used also to manage Jimi Hendrix. "Chas always said, keep it short. No solos. Me and Jim , the bassist, we became kings of the three-minute pop song because Chas pushed us into it. Left to ourselves, we'd have been doing 10- or 15-minute songs. But he said, `No way. You can say all you wanna say in three minutes. Get the first 30 seconds right, get the intro and the hook into the first half-minute and you've got a hit record. If you're going to put a guitar solo in, make it short and memorable, so people can even sing the solo, and it becomes an extra hook.' And he was right."

So that's how it's done. Becoming a rock star, having a hit, having 20- odd other ones, conquering the world - Noddy has a sweet but slightly exasperating way of suggesting that success is about following a few simple rules. He's a man, I think, of enormous optimism, seemingly impervious to negative thoughts. Listening to him talk about his and the band's fortunes since 1976, when punk swept glam rock aside, you'd swear they'd been chart- topping stars right up to last week. In fact, they've been up and down, ignored, feted, gone on nostalgia tours, metamorphosed into a heavy metal combo, been plagiarised (by Kiss, for instance), been rediscovered, anthologised, had their records re-released, turned up in Viz comic and been lampooned by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. Noddy now sits, a slightly bewildered but lovable figure, pondering offers of acting work, invitations to TV quiz shows and similar signs of iconic status. Whatever the truth of the past 25 years, in Noddy Holder's hindsight, everything - and everybody - has been for the best. Everything's turned out just fine all round.