The exclamation mark in biography is a peculiar thing. It leaps from the page like a spark from a bomb, but it is jollier, perkier, desperate to diffuse any tension, any suggestion of pain. Dave Hill uses them frequently, as befits the attitude you’d expect from a member of Slade, one of the 1970s’ smiliest, sparkliest, most successful glam-rock groups. (Hill is the toothy one with the short, scalpel-scooped fringe, mimicked memorably by Bob Mortimer in the 1990s, alongside Vic Reeves as Noddy Holder. Even more than Holder, Hill is the band’s figure of fun.)
This comes eight pages in. “Dad comes upstairs to find mom in their bedroom with a scarf round her neck and a bottle of pills on the floor… He comes in and says, Get up, you silly bugger!” A page later: “Carol was kidnapped.” That’s Dave’s younger sister. “She was four at the time… she was found by another woman walking around in Wolverhampton town centre… Carol got brought home in a Panda car, which she loved!”
At 26, with three number one hits to his name, Dave Hill is still living in his childhood bedroom in a council house in Wolverhampton, albeit with a gold car parked outside. His book begins here, his mother in a psychiatric hospital, his father blind after an accident at work, his epileptic half-sister long dead after collapsing while pregnant in sole charge of her seven-year-old son. (Mercifully, Carol, despite the childhood kidnap, is OK.) Hill never wanted to leave his home town, he tells us, and indeed he still lives there now, married to local girl, Jan, for the past 44 years. His is a rock narrative without bluster and bravado, grounded to a ridiculous degree. That fringe and those outfits took all the flamboyance.
So Here It Is is the opening line of the chorus of Slade’s evergreen Christmas hit, “Merry Christmas Everybody”, but as a book title it suggests an air of casualness too, and a man happily being apart from fame, a mood which runs through the pages that follow. This tallies with the glut of other pretension-free rock memoirs that have arrived in recent years: take the autobiographies by the Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, or Viv Albertine from the 1970s all-female punk band, the Slits, both of which exposed the everyday mundanities behind the myth-making. Take Dave on the style decisions behind his first Top of the Pops appearance in July 1971: “I wore a boiler suit and a woman’s pink coat. I’d wear women’s coats because they were long and made me seem a bit taller.”
Hill’s isn’t a writerly book by any means, if that bothers you. It was crowdfunded by the publishing company Unbound, and many stories trail on too long; they’re the kind that friendly, ageing strangers tell you in pubs as they nurse pints to kill time. Some of the early ones are good, though, including one about Slade’s 1968 trip to the Bahamas, before they were famous. Without spoilers: they’re met by a man called King Sniff in a Mustang. They discover air conditioning for the first time (“back then most of us didn’t even have a fridge”). They perform three sets a night with a snake charmer and belly dancers, then share one room with four beds, a fridge and a toilet. “It sounds horrendous,” Hill says, correctly, “but I think that was what made the band.”
Then came the capes, the TV performances, the first royalty cheques (these arrive when Dave and Jan are getting engaged, Dave still living at home). Hill wasn’t really a songwriter, though, which has financial implications for him later (“My attitude to it at the time was, ‘You write ’em, I’ll sell ’em!’”, he writes, gamely). When Slade’s success fades by the mid-1970s, you really feel for him; returning from an America which they have comprehensively failed to crack, they find punk on the rise. Hill shaves his head, buys a leather jacket. It’s no use. They play “chicken-in-a-basket places”. Hill thinks about setting up a wedding car company.
Slade have a second wind of success in the 1980s, and Oasis cover “Cum On Feel the Noize” in the 1990s; Vic and Bob, too, remind the nation of a band they once loved. These moments offer glimmers of relief for Hill, whose later life hasn’t been particularly easy. Still, his book is at its best in its poignant, ordinary details. These stick in the mind: his dying dad being lowered onto a hospital bed, after suffering two strokes, telling the doctor his son is in Slade. Hill talking candidly about his depression (“I’ve lost my joy, I can’t listen to music, I can’t cry, I don’t want to do the garden”). Hill suffering a stroke himself on-stage; not being able to brush his hair, but being able to rest his hand on the hotel piano, and play it.
So Here It Is is a story of how some adversities get conquered, and how others still require conquering, with pop music, jolly and perky, helping that process along. Rather sweetly, near the end of the book, Hill likens it to “the transformation of a rigid, grey world”. Into that environment came Slade: “We brought colour.”
Jude Rogers is a music critic and broadcaster
So Here It Is: The Autobiography
Unbound, 288pp, £20
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special