They’re both in their late 60s and have been performing loud, snotty teen rock & roll anthems for most of the last 50 years.
Some of their former band mates are dead, others have retired or gone on to different adult pursuits. But for close to 100 times a year on stages around the world, British guitarists Dave Hill and Andy Scott deck themselves out in glitzy outfits, probably minus the platform shoes or tights (deemed a bit too treacherous and constricting at their age), and plug in.
Audiences sing along to “Gudby to Jane” “Ballroom Blitz,” “Cum Feel the Noize” and a couple other dozen classic glam rockers that their bands – Slade and Sweet – made famous and that continue to strike power chords for subsequent generations via classic radio and film soundtracks.
Both Slade and Sweet have continued to influence future generations of rockers, from punk pioneers like The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, and latter-day alt rockers Smashing Pumpkins and Oasis, to the more metal glam sounds of Def Leppard and Quiet Riot, who enjoyed a 1983 hit with their cover of Slade’s “Cum On Feel the Noize.”
“Because of our 70s and 80s success, I’ve been given options I never thought I would have. Whether it’s due to nostalgia or a renewed interest in our music, we have a nice, varied audience – fans over 50 and their children as well,” said Hill, in a phone interview recently from Kiev, where Slade was appearing that night.
Hill, who grew up in Wolverhampton, where one of his school mates was Robert Plant, co-founded Slade in the late 1960s with vocalist Noddy Holder, drummer Don Powell and bassist Jim Lea. Managed by Jimi Hendrix’s manager (and former member of The Animals) Chas Chandler, the foursome emerged as one of England’s top sellers in the 70s, with a string of working-class sing-alongs featuring deliberately misspelled titles and a thrift-shop, fashion-challenged sense of dress and hairstyle that set them apart from the pack.
“I learned early on that you had to be noticed,” said Hill, who sounds similar to Monty Python’s Eric Idle. “I used to experiment with one or two colorful items and once I bought a blowy, silk ladies’ top – from a distance it looked like a satin shirt. Someone told me it looked great and it gave me an idea. People look at you when you play, so you should give them something to look at.”
Hill hired a seamstress to custom design stage wardrobe, featuring silver suits and big-shouldered glitter tops and began wearing platform shoes. And then there was his hair, short page-boy on top and long on the sides, contrasting with Holder’s plaid outfits and unkempt locks.
“I did have an unusual hairstyle, but it became popular – girls used to copy it. But that’s what worked. It all became about sounding good, but looking great,” said Hill, paraphrasing the rock & roll philosophy of Viv Savage, mythical keyboard player for Spinal Tap.
Slade enjoyed only a modicum of mainstream success in the US, where their broad accents, bawdy behavior, weird clothes and raw music made more of an impact on young, aspiring bands.
“I know we didn’t make it so big in America but we made it big with other bands, like Kiss and Aerosmith. They told us they used to listen to our first record all the time,” said Hill.
In England, however, Slade became a household name, and later a national tradition thanks to their 1973 holiday song “Merry Xmas Everybody.” It was an accomplishment duly noted by Andy Scott, who, as guitarist for Sweet, was touring the same circuit and lumped into the same “glam rock” banner as Slade, T. Rex, David Bowie, Queen, Suzie Quatro and other 70s British rockers.
“Slade was huge in England. We were popular, but our territory was mainland Europe more – Germany, Austria, Scandinavia,” said Scott from his home in England.
WITH HITS like 1972’s “Little Willy,” 1973’s “Ballroom Blitz” and 1975’s “Fox on the Run,” Sweet, which also included lead vocalist Brian Connolly, bass player Steve Priest and drummer Mick Tucker, also helped put glitter rock on the map with their pounding sound and androgynous looks.
While the band members loved the heavy music of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, they deliberately hooked up with the successful songwriting team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn in an effort to produce pop-oriented hits.
“I had come to The Sweet from a more progressive rock band, and I understood immediately that the material was extreme pop – the kind of songs you hear and then can remember and sing 10 minutes later,” said Scott. “I wasn’t really used to that, and we had a discussion straight away, where I said ‘you do realize if we go into it this way, we may not get out.’ But we decided that some success would be better than none.”
It proved to be a sound decision, as the band scored 13 Top 20 hits during the 1970s, winding up with their last international success in 1978 with “Love Is Like Oxygen.”
“Ballroom Blitz” has become a classic rock radio staple and the band’s hits, as Scott proudly pointed out, regularly pop up in movies ranging from Wayne’s World to the latest addition, Guardians of the Galaxy II. Still, Scott said that he realized The Sweet’s music may not carry on for many more generations.
“I doubt we’ll be in the history of rock & roll when it’s written in 100 years, but I’m naturally such a cynical and sarcastic person,” said Scott, before laying down a gauntlet usually reserved for schoolyard. “But, if we’re on a gig with somebody else, I wouldn’t want to be the band that goes on after us.”
The challenge will come to fruition when both bands perform in Israel for the first time, on November 20 at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv. Aging rockers singing timeless songs – it could be heartbreaking or it could be euphoric.
“We’ve had the same lineup for about 12 years,” said Scott, who competes with another Sweet touring band fielded by bassist Priest, the only other living member of the original quartet. “We have an extra guy coming with us to Israel who has an incredible voice so the vocals are going to be quite stunning.”
Slade’s Hill, who has original drummer Powell still on the road with him, said he never thought that he’d would have carried on with the band after their breakup in 1989, but he received the blessing of Holder, who went on to become a TV host in England.
“Noddy had reached the point where he felt we had taken it as far as we could, and I thought we could take it further. But I’ve always been respectful of our success and won’t attempt to do something like carry on with the band without discussing it with him,” Hill said. “I’m grateful that we worked together – it gave me a future and a chance to keep playing, which is my passion. There’s nothing like being in a group and traveling to play to people.”
The touring schedules for both Slade and Sweet are sporadic these days, depending on whether one of their old songs enjoys a resurgence due to a cover version, being used in an advertisement or a film.
“It’s no longer a question of working too much, but a question of doing good work, and pacing it,” said Hill. “It’s not like we’re 20 and can play every night.”
But the point for both Hill and Scott is that they can still play at all, and considering some of the grimmer options, it’s not a bad one. Even if it means squeezing into tights and platform shoes.
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