Interview with Don Powell – Slade
by Steve Grantley
We had been thinking of including Slade drummer Don Powell in our Great British Drum Heroes section for some time. As Steve Grantley, drummer with Stiff Little Fingers and The Alarm, co-wrote a book titled Cum On Feel The Noize – The Story Of Slade for Carlton books a few years ago, he seemed the perfect person to interview the man himself. Steve agreed, so here we pass over to him to give us a brief overview of Don and Slade’s enduring career.
Don Powell is the drummer with Slade, who are arguably the greatest glam rock band ever! Don was a working class boy playing local clubs and pubs when he first started with the band, but he went on to achieve huge chart success and all the fame, fortune and madness that goes with it. Slade became a ‘70’s phenomenon and one of Britain’s most successful pop acts of all time. Their good-time-vibe anthems and scarves-in-the-air sense of rock balladry has lasted them throughout their entire career and they’re still going strong.
In the early ‘70’s Slade were simply massive – they notched up hit after hit and seemed to have a permanent slot on the TV show Top of the Pops. They stomped all over the competition; bands like Mud, Sweet, Roy Wood’s Wizard, T Rex and even the masterful David Bowie or the prolific Elton John couldn’t keep up with Slade’s runaway success. The band also featured in their very own movie ‘Slade In Flame’, which has subsequently become a seminal classic of the glam genre. Film director and movie critic Mark Comode claimed that ‘Slade In Flame’ was “the greatest British rock movie ever.”
Slade have many varied and unexpected fans including the comedian and writer Ben Elton and Goth rockers The Mission. US heavy metal band Quiet Riot and Brit-Pop kings Oasis are also huge fans; both have covered Slade songs. Punk rock star, Ramones singer Joey was a dedicated follower; he stated, “I spent most of the early 70s listening to ‘Slade Alive’ thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do.’ A couple of years later I found myself at CBGB”s doing my best Noddy Holder.” Shock-rocker Alice Cooper announced proudly, “Slade was the coolest band in England” and Kiss mastermind Gene Simmons said that his band based much of their act on Slade. The band was a massive influence on generations of musicians including, surprisingly, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain who was a fan commenting on their refusal to compromise by saying, “Slade, a band that would never bend over.”
Their legacy remains and matures with each passing year and reveals them as true pop legends. At their peak in the ‘70’s they sold 50 million records worldwide and had 6 No.1 singles – a record equalled only by Swedish music phenomenon ABBA. They’ve recorded 20 studios albums, made an influential film, forged an unrivalled ‘live’ reputation, plus made a surprising but triumphant comeback in the ‘80’s. Most of all they became much-loved heroes – not only household names, but also part of the very fabric of British life itself.
Drummer Don Powell has constantly been at the very heart of this veritable ‘hit machine’ legend and he’s still there today. I caught up with him for a couple of chats whilst we were both promoting Stick It To MS in 2009; I found him to be open, friendly, funny and down to earth, you know – like a typical drummer.
When did you first start playing drums?
I started playing drums in the Boy Scouts when I was 13. Originally they gave me the bugle to play but I was having none of it. (Laughs)
Were you using traditional grip at that point?
Yes, I began playing with traditional grip because that’s how they taught you but I changed to matched later because I discovered you could play louder that way.
How old were you when you received your first ‘real’ drum kit?
I was about 15 and I borrowed some drums from a school friend. It was an old Olympic kit. It was white, well, off-white because of its age. I’ve no idea just how old it was but I actually kept it for about 3 years – my friend didn’t seem to mind.
What first attracted you to the drums?
The noise . . . guitarist’s seemed so lightweight to me – I loved the NOISE! (Laughs)
What was the pivotal moment when you knew you were going to be a drummer?
The first time I ever sat behind a kit of drums – that was it!
Did you have a drum teacher?
Yes, briefly. I think his name was Mac, but I felt I knew more than he did! At first I wanted to learn to read music, but then I thought . . . WHY? I had only one lesson. Really, I learned by listening to records and watching other drummers.
Who were your early influences?
Sandy Nelson, Brian Bennett, Jerry J.I. Allison and D.J. Fontana.
There were no drum machines back in the ‘60’s – how did you develop your rock steady time feel?
Don’t know! I don’t think any drummer can really answer that!
A lot of great bands came from The Midlands – who were your drumming contemporaries as a young man?
John Bonham, we used to play the local pubs together with our bands, way before Zeppelin and Slade.
So you and John were good mates then – what did you think of John when you first saw him?
I thought he was the loudest drummer on the planet! (Laughs) He didn’t need microphones – he was so loud. I admired him greatly and he was a big influence on me; John Bonham is my all-time favourite drummer. Cozy Powell was around too, I met him a few times when he was playing with Ace Kefford – this was way before his solo hits (Dance With The Devil) or (the band) Rainbow.
What about Bev Bevan from ELO, he was from your neck-of-the-woods; did your paths ever cross?
Yes but much later, I didn’t meet Bev until we did some shows with ELO in America during the mid-‘70’s.
What was your first paid gig?
It was a wedding at the Pipe Hall Hotel in Bilston in 1962. We were paid £4.00 plus all the food and drink we could take. The band was called The Vendors. We were a little three piece, with me on drums, a singer and guitarist – no bass player. We played the hits of the day so we would do stuff by Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. This was before Dave Hill (Slade guitar player) was with us. He joined us after our manager at the time Chalky Whight [sic] saw Dave in a local cabaret band – he brought him along to meet us because he felt that we needed another guitarist.
How did you meet the other guys in Slade?
Well, as I say, I knew Dave first, from when we were in The Vendors together in ’63. Noddy Holder I knew from a local band that was quite big at the time called Steve Brett & The Mavericks and when they broke up he was the obvious choice. My band had been on the bill with Nod’s group many times, so I knew how great a singer and front-man he was. Jim Lea came and auditioned for us and soon as we heard him play we knew that was it. There was magic, a spark with us four, right from the start.
Slade had been working for many years – how did it feel when you had what seemed like overnight success in the early ‘70’s?
Success is a wonderful feeling but ours certainly wasn’t overnight. (Laughs) We had been playing anywhere and everywhere for 5 years before our ‘overnight success’ arrived. We’d slogged around the country in the back of a van but we always had confidence in ourselves. We were freaked out when success finally arrived – it’s weird because all of a sudden our independence was taken away from us – everything was done for us, arranged by managers, all we had to do was turn up and play.
As a professional, what drums and cymbals were you using at this point?
I was using Hayman drums for a while and Zildjian cymbals – then I moved on to Ludwig drums. I always wanted a big Ludwig kit but could never afford one. On our first US tour supporting Humble Pie, Jerry Shirley’s drum roadie had to go to Ludwig when we were in Chicago. He took me along and introduced me to Bill Ludwig the, 1st and the 2nd – I met Bill the 3rd later and we remain friends to this day. Anyway, they made me a Ludwig endorsee there and then, and I remained faithful to them until the company was finally sold on. I now use Pearl and I still play Zildjian cymbals. The kit I use is very basic – I prefer piccolo snare drums and I use a 22” bass drum with a 13” rack tom and a 16” floor tom, that’s it. I use a 22” ride with an 18” crash with 14” hi-hat’s plus I use Shaw ‘C’ sticks, I’ve been using them for years.
Is it true that on some Slade records you double-tracked the entire drum kit?
That’s true . . . with the drum kit recorded in the toilet! I double-tracked the whole kit on ‘We’ll Bring The House Down’. There wasn’t a problem until half way through a really good take the automatic toilet flush went off. (Laughs) We had the water system shut down so we could carry on recording; I did many tracks in the toilet.
Did you have any problems sync’ing up with the first take? Was it difficult avoiding flamming; were any of the early hits recorded like this?
We first started to use this method with ‘We’ll Bring The House Down’ (1981). When I did this there wasn’t much flamming at all… no, not at all! I only had the original drum-track in my headphones when I overdubbed so it was OK sync’ing up. Of course there was a little flamming until I got into the track but this fattened up the sound, which was the desired effect!
Was it your idea to record in the loo?
Yeah, I was in there and realised it had this great natural echo – it was all tiled and stuff so I said, “Let’s record the drums in the toilet” – and it worked!
I listened to Led Zeppelin. They came to our show in Dallas and brought fruit to throw at us while we were on stage
How many takes, on average would it take you to ‘nail’ a Slade song?
We would always try and get something in 3 takes – if not, we would move onto something else. We would go back to the other track later with fresh ears, this always worked for us.
What was the high point of the bands career for you?
Meeting Jack Baverstock, from Fontana Records.
Why is that – I would have thought it would’ve been your first No.1 record – something like that?
Well, Jack Baverstock was the first guy to really believe in us! He gave us a chance and put us in the studio. He also got Chas Chandler (Slade’s manager who went on to manage Jimi Hendrix) to come down for a listen. He was the high point because everything changed for us with Jack.
How many times did you appear on Top Of The Pops in the ‘70’s?
At one point it seemed like it was more or less every week . . . they called us the resident band! We did that show . . . a lot! (Laughs)
What is your favourite drum performance on a Slade record and why?
I love ‘My Oh My!’ The rest of the guys recorded their parts first to Jim Lea playing piano then I put the kit on and over-dubbed Roto-Toms doing all the drum-fills. I like that track. I also like the ‘Nobody’s Fools’ album, it was different – not a huge success but I like it.
Did you enjoy acting in the bands seminal and innovative rock movie, Slade In Flame?
I loved it! The only thing is it spoils you! When you watch movies you know how things are done but I loved it. We were just being ourselves; we simply acted naturally. We had no problem being in front of the cameras – by that point we were more than used to it.
What bands were you listening to when Slade were at the height of their career?
I listened to Led Zeppelin. They came to our show in Dallas and brought fruit to throw at us while we were on stage. I like The Eagles; they’re probably my favourite band. They supported us at a festival in the US in ‘73 and I’m still trying to find a poster from that show. I like ZZ Top and we also toured with them. They were just great guys to tour with. They never did sound checks so we could spend as much time checking as we wanted.
Progressive rock was popular in the ‘70s. What did you make of the likes of Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes and Genesis?
We all went to see ELP in concert when they first formed – loved the musicianship but couldn’t really get off on their material. We supported Yes many times at the Marquee club in London in the very early ‘70s when we were skinheads – strange bill eh? It was the original band with Bill Bruford on drums and Pete Banks on guitar; we loved their arrangements especially The Beatles songs they used to play. I never saw Genesis with or without Peter Gabriel but I never really got off on their early stuff. I liked it with prog-rock that the guys could play but there were no real songs as far as I was concerned.
You had a horrific car crash which led to short-term memory loss – do you still suffer with this condition?
What was the question? (Laughs) Yes I do still have short-term memory loss and I do sometimes need a prompt every now and then. Everyday I wake up and it’s like my ‘slates’ have been wiped clean and I have to start again – but I manage fine.
How did you feel when Noddy decided to quit the band?
I respected his decision, and understood why: Dave and I decided to carry on. Jim didn’t continue with us but we’re all still great friends. We all went through so much together, we’re like brothers.
Slade are still a huge live act – what kind of gigs do the band play now?
We play anywhere and everywhere – The Olympic Stadium in Moscow to 18,000 people one night and a small restaurant to a select audience the next. You never know – but it’s always fun.
Have you ever played sessions with any other bands or artists? If so, who and what?
Yeah, I’ve done a bit. I played percussion on Sue Wilkinson’s track ‘You Gotta Be A Hustler’. Also, when a group called The Pleasers broke up I played drums on the lead singer, Steve McNerney’s solo album; but he had trouble with management and his record company – the record was never released.
What did you think of the Oasis cover of ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’?
I like Quiet Riots version better. I just like the whole feel they have on their version – I prefer that one.
When Slade had a career resurgence in the ‘80s drum machines and click tracks were the order of the day. Did you record with a click track and if so, how did you get on with it?
I tried and didn’t have a problem with it, but it takes away the soul! I much prefer the natural feel of the band playing together, you know, the human element.
How do you get along with producers: any ‘nightmare’ experiences?
Yes, I once spent 3 days getting a drum sound… we got a huge thunderous sound in the studio but when you hear the record it sounds like a pile of shit! The track was ‘Love Is Like A Rock’ and the producer was… Roy Thomas Baker. [early Queen producer]
You wear gloves on stage, which is fairly common these days but you also wear a gum shield? Is that in case the guitar player gets a bit stroppy?
(Laughs) I started using gloves because the sweat always made the sticks fly out of my hands. I actually use ladies gloves because they’re smaller and tighter so I can feel the sticks. The gum shield is there to stop my teeth from breaking! Really! (Laughs) I always grind my teeth when I play and I would literally break my teeth. My dentist suggested the gum shield as he was sick of repairing my teeth. He actually made one for me and it worked. I do get some funny looks from the front row some times though. (Laughs)
What drumming advice do you have for all the young drummers out there?
Just listen to as many drummers as you can because you can learn from everyone – you’ll soon find your niche. Also, you must keep at it and play with whomever you can, whenever you can, wherever you can! Learn your craft.
Who are your favourite drummers now?
I like Simon Phillips – he has a great feel and I love his technique.
Did you like what he did with The Who? I thought he did a sterling job but I was a bit surprised by his appointment – any comments?
Well obviously no one can ever replace Keith Moon. We have to realise that it’s a new band now – but any replacement has a lot to live up to.
What music are you listening to these days? Are there any contemporary bands you like?
I listen to anything and everything. I love the Foo Fighters also The Mavericks but really there are too many to list.
The Slade set is a tough work out for you, where do you get your energy from? Do you stick to a keep fit regime?
Yep, I spend an hour in the gym every day. That keeps me in shape.
Can you ever see yourself retiring?
They asked me that 20 years ago, and I’m still here! I love playing so much I never want to stop. I also feel so lucky to be doing what I do and still be enjoying it. When we started I said I’d give it 5 years and here I am all these years later still doing it – not for the money but because I still enjoy it. I’d stop if I didn’t – I’ll never just go through the motions.
Is there anything you would like to say to finish?
Well, yes – drumming to me is something VERY special! Being able to express yourself on a kit is wonderful and being in a band has been my education in many different ways! I urge all ‘would be’ drummers to stick at it and most of all – believe in yourself!
Thanks for your time Don.