In making the cult classic Slade in Flame, the titular band derailed their primary-coloured pop career at its peak. Through the late 60s and early 70s they had clawed their way to the top, first as struggling garage band The N’ Betweeners, then, under the tutelage of Animals bassist Chas Chandler, they had a stint as skinhead troupe Ambrose Slade, before finally dropping the Ambrose, growing their hair out, chucking on the glitter and finding immense success as the clown princes of Glam Rock.
By 1974, Slade were a handful of very clear things in the public imagination. They were loud. They were brash. They weren’t too clever (misspelt song titles such as Cum on Feel the Noize infuriated school teachers the length of Britain). They were goofy -- even their accents were goofy, coming from the working class estates of Wolverhampton -- an area mocked in England for its country bumpkin burr. Most of all, they were all about the Good Times. No one, not the teenage fans who loved them, or the high brow critics who disdained them, expected them to deliver Slade in Flame -- a sour, broken rock n roll movie distinguished by bitter class division, poverty, ego, violence and failure. Imagine Rebecca Black remaking Platoon and you’re getting somewhere near the mark.
Over the years, the myth Slade in Flame's genius has ballooned larger than Dave Hill’s bell bottoms. When respected film critic Mark Kermode called it ‘the Citizen Kane of rock n roll movies,’ we can only assume he was angling to get quoted on the DVD artwork1 because, to be honest, there’s plenty about the film that's utter crap. Most of the dodgy stuff comes in the opening half, with Slade playing to their pop demographic with a ‘wacky’ mix of car crashes, lascivious guitarists, a delusional has-been singer and numerous incidents of crap slapstick. Luckily the performance of all of this naffness is convincing, and the band are comfortable playing goonishly exaggerated versions of themselves. Noddy Holder is particularly good as the brash star with the fog horn voice, and Dave Hill is either a comic master or thick as a brick—either way he’s utterly convincing in his role as dickhead of the band.
However, once SiF has got the lame look-its-a-man-falling-over jokes out of the way, it evolves from knockabout pop romp into something quite unexpected; a bleak meditation on the fleeting nature of fame, and a scathing commentary on the British class system. Flame are set up, perhaps simplistically, as the archetypes of working class heroes. Noddy spends his time racing pigeons and hawking goods on a market, whilst drummer Don Powell lives in a cramped fleapit with his parents. Their agent, Ron Harding, is a shark, a crook and a bully with a crummy office above a granny filled Bingo Hall. In contrast manipulative svengali Seymour (a first major role for the much loved Tom Conti) lives in London amidst refined splendour. He doesn’t smoke cigarettes but ‘he’s sold of lot of packets’. His is a world of board rooms, ornamental gardens and old boys. He plucks the band from obscurity, plays with them, makes a fortune out of them and has them parade, clad in the spangly outfits of latter day jesters, in front of his friends. The gulf between the two worlds is immense, and insurmountable. Despite the riches Flame amass from sales, they never break through the glass ceiling. Instead, they raise eye brows trying to buy expensive cars, won’t move out of their crappy low rent houses and are only ever a moment away from the violent thug who used to manage them.
When Seymour decides in a moment to drop the band, to return them to their life of bingo halls and wilting social clubs, the message is clear; This was a holiday in the sun- now back to your pigeons and your cobbled streets and your cheap lives. The final moments of the film are as bleak as any movie made with pop stars has dared to show- in some ways accounting for the films latter day lionisation.
There have been many films from musicians wanting to show ‘the dark side’ of the music industry, but few of them have been so unexpected. When Slade delivered the ultimate feelbad conclusion, Christ knows what the reaction would have been in cinemas up and down the land. Presumably it wasn’t great, as the soundtrack, excellent though it is, charted lower than Slade’s previous hit packed albums, and is generally considered the beginning of the end of the bands run of glory. Credit, then, to the band for being brave enough to deliver such a strange and uncomfortable picture. It could have all been so different, as Dave Hill told the Slade fan club some years later:
1 Fairly successfully as it happens, with his rhetoric emblazoned across adverts for the 2007 reissue, albeit rejigged as the slightly less grandiose "The Citizen Kane of British pop pics."
2 For American readers unacquainted with the finer details of English comedy, Ronnie Corbett is a sporadically funny old school comedian who makes fairly weak sub-Benny Hill mush. The film Dave Hill is talking about would have almost certainly been appalling.
Ian McQuaid writes for www.offmodern.com. He is a tiny despot. He has vice like gripping claws. He owns a chain of dry cleaners and a life size sculpture of armageddon. Last week he 'cracked a funny', as he calls it, and a deathly silence gripped the room. He lives in London with an aggressive wife and an angry dog.