Tuesday, September 11, 2012

One Side vs. the Other: Slade: "Look Wot You Dun"

There are certain times when the transatlantic chasm, so to speak, makes itself known; the other night I was listening to a UK chart countdown show that culminated with Slade, and was looking online at the equivalent American chart – where the top spot was held by Al Green.  That chasm – which I have mentioned already in previous posts – could not be more glaringly clear, though just how to explain it isn’t as easy.  Current events and sociological trends can only take us so far.  There is something of a fundamental difference here, one of aesthetics, not to mention who is buying singles in the first place.  What Al Green was doing was understandable to the US public, admired, and needed.  The warmth and laid-backness and quietly astonishing aura suit a time when so many young people (read:  baby boomers) were falling in love, wanting to stay in love, and so on.  They heard Green and knew instantly that he knew what he was talking about. 

Slade, though, in the US?  Apart from fans like Lester Bangs, they remained a cult band at best, the kind I imagine a young Joan Jett heard hanging out in L.A., the kind other young kids would have heard while waiting for, say, Aerosmith to hit the stage.  Singles were released, but didn’t really get anywhere, and in part that is because the raucous, recorded-in-a-meat-locker last-day-of-school scene (cornered by Alice Cooper anyway) was hobbled by Noddy Holder’s holler of a voice.  Never mind the spelling – what is he singing?  Why does he have to be so loud, why do the band have to be so stompy and strange at the same time?  What’s the big deal here?   

Slade were thus politely ignored in the US, a nation that needed a cuddle far more than a rebellious howl.  That they were the voice of the working class in the UK, from the Midlands, and deliberately spelt words incorrectly to upset those who thought rock ‘n’ roll was about looking up words in dictionaries (as if) didn’t matter much.  If you can’t understand the singer, even in a basic way, the song isn’t going to get very far.  (I have heard more than one Slade album and confess that there are a lot of lyrics I don’t understand, and even when I do understand them, I don’t always get them.)  This song  (an NME #2) is putatively a love song, but notice how menacing it is; how the guitar snarls, the piano pounds, the ooof-ooof borrowed from Mungo Jerry turns from a happy-go-lucky exhale into something a bit darker and complicated.  This is positively intimidating and disturbing to an American ear, and even though the song’s lyrics are decipherable, in this case, the rough chips ‘n’ malt vinegar tone to Holder’s voice sounds (again, to an American ear) unromantic, his gruff amiability and the band’s glam silliness are lost in the mix. Slade were a band best understood live, but who would go see them based on this in the US, when Grand Funk Railroad and Three Dog Night were the party bands of choice? 
Fans like Bangs would have appreciated their no-nonsense qualities and essential rocking-out vibes, but for the most part Slade were home country heroes, on every teenager’s imaginary rebellious jukebox, representing so many things which were against the Establishment, from their clothes onwards.  This was the sheer stomp and attitude that didn’t have to have vulnerability or finesse, because none were needed nor expected.  Rock ‘n’ roll was most definitely alive in the UK, still loud and threatening, still able to represent those who don’t fit in and don’t really need to, let alone want to.  This is like opening a door to a whole world that is the opposite of Green’s; a world where noise rules, where having fun is #1.  It’s far from the peaceable groove that Americans wanted, but in the UK, where things were tough, it was the new thing – Glam.  (And yes, glitter. For those of you wondering if I’m going to; the answer is yes.) And where Slade charmingly intimidate, others will follow*.  Yes, British rock lives, and sticks out its tongue at The Man.  But elsewhere...

Next up:  the long time that isn’t actually all that long ago, if it ever was at all.
*Slade were originally called Ambrose Slade and made music that was a bit less scary than this; in some way this scariness/silliness is intrinsically British, unlike, oh, say, KISS (who clearly heard them and other glam bands of the time) were never truly scary the way Slade were, despite all their stagecraft.  Ridiculous and lovable for it in some way, sure; scary, no.



MikeMCSG said...

Interesting perspective Lena ; Slade were my least favourite of the glam acts ( at 8 years old ) and I think it was because I too found them a bit scary. Perhaps the beginnings of class-consciousness, the perception that the loud, beery world around me ( we lived a bit below our means at that time ) which Slade represented well wasn't really mine.

Of course we got our revenge for Slade's US failure by ignoring Kiss until they dropped the make-up and even then only allowing them a couple of top tenners.

Robin Carmody said...

Perhaps I'd have liked Oasis a bit more, as a teenager, had I not felt the same way - that the equivalent world (such as it still was, ravaged by Thatcherism and, beneath a misleading facade, making the final Faustian pact) wasn't really mine. This lack of atavistic feeling I have - other than for an ideal of "the working class" represented by, say, Bugzy Malone, which I don't have to see in the flesh every day - is one I've gone into at greater length in my "The Cat Crept In" comment, and more explicitly on Facebook after Cilla Black died, but whatever I can or can't feel, the class element is essential to Slade's narrative because their ascent was, of course, a period when the ruling class felt genuinely afraid and frightened, quite possibly more than at any other time in British history.

At the same time, they were also not unconnected to the forces which would distract the working class (and which the bourgeois Left would never forgive for it); Wikipedia mentions that they ran a competition with The Sun. So it's all about multiple forces competing for their class loyalties, with the eventual victors initially being quite marginal. But this song is the sound of the lights going off, without question, and in the process the door slamming on the mid-1960s' ideal of classless pop.