Noddy Holder: Why Slade movie Flame is a cult-classic
Glam rock legend Noddy Holder tells Andrew Johnston about his classic film being screened in Belfast tonight
The Flickstock season at Queen's Film Theatre has brought the summer festival vibe to Belfast — minus mud, sunburn, stale beer and dodgy burgers.
The cultural cinema's seven-film programme ends tonight, wrapping up a week of '60s psychedelia (Tonite Let's All Make Love in London), raucous punk (The Filth and the Fury) and Madchester mayhem (24 Hour Party People).
The closing movie is Flame, starring legendary British glam rockers Slade. The 1975 film has been available on VHS and DVD for years, but the QFT showing is a rare chance to see it on the big screen.
Described as “the Citizen Kane of rock musicals” by über-critic Mark Kermode, Flame casts Slade's classic line-up — singer and guitarist Noddy Holder, lead guitarist Dave Hill, bassist Jim Lea and drummer Don Powell — as titular rockers Flame.
Set in 1966, the dark and gritty movie surprised many followers of the larger-than-life West Midlands quartet, who had been expecting a knockabout comedy.
“It was a shock for the fans,” Noddy tells the Belfast Telegraph. “The hardcore Slade audience, which was a big audience in those days, were expecting a slapstick, fast-moving comedy movie in the vein of A Hard Day's Night, and we totally went against type.
“Chas Chandler, who was our manager and producer, wanted us to make a light-hearted comedy movie, and one we were on the verge of doing was a spoof on The Quatermass Experiment, written by the drummer of the Animals. I was going to play this mad professor, ‘Quite-a-Mess', but Dave Hill didn't want to do it, because he got killed off in the first half!”
The group received the script for Flame, though they weren't convinced at first.
“It didn't ring entirely true to us,” says Noddy, “but it had got something going for it in terms of the atmosphere. So, we took Andrew Birken, the scriptwriter, and Richard Loncraine, who eventually became the director of the movie, on tour in America for six weeks to show them what life on the road was really like.
“I think they lasted two weeks, and came home virtually with a nervous breakdown, the pair of them. They couldn't believe the chaos and the mayhem of a rock 'n' roll band on tour, but they did get a taste of what it was all about and reworked the script totally.”
The plot is highly realistic, depicting the seedy side of the music industry.
“I'd forgotten how dark it was as a movie, in terms of the violence and the things that go on behind the scenes,” says Noddy.
“From our point of view, acting in it, we'd forgotten how big a message it was and how much it relates to the music business today. There was the Tom Conti figure, the manager, who was marketing the product like a tin of baked beans, much the way as people like Simon Cowell are today.”
At the time of the film's release, Noddy was concerned that fans might interpret Flame as the true story of Slade. In fact, several incidents in the movie — including a shooting, fistfights and an absurd mix-up involving a coffin — are based on things that happened to other artists.
“Every scene in the movie is true, no matter how far-fetched,” smiles Noddy, naming no names. “To some band somewhere, they're all true stories.”
Flame is now regarded as a cult classic, which is more than can be said for the likes of Gary Glitter's Remember Me This Way or Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, produced around the same time.
“It's only now, looking back, that the film has become a highly respected movie,” laughs Noddy.
“A lot of people think it wasn't good for the band's career and the band's image, but I disagree. I think it gave Slade another dimension, certainly in terms of the music we wrote for the movie.”
Flame came at the height of an immensely productive — not to mention profitable — period for Slade. By 1974, the four-piece had enjoyed 12 top-20 singles and three chart-topping albums in the UK, as well as several smashes around the world. They were the first act to have three singles enter the British charts at number one, and their 1973 seasonal anthem Merry Xmas Everybody sold more than one million copies.
But it wasn't to last, and the two singles released from the Flame soundtrack — Far Far Away and How Does It Feel? — were among the last of Slade's major hits.
The ubiquitous Merry Xmas Everybody has continued to overshadow the rest of the group's material, piped into shopping centres and high streets each December. The song, pieced together from old riffs and recorded in New York City at the height of summer 1973, also charted every year from 1980-1986, 1998, and 2006-2009.
“I would never knock the Christmas record,” says Noddy. “It was a very powerful single — still is. It's 38 years on now, and it still gets as much play and as much reaction. But you have to separate the Christmas record from the rest of our catalogue. It's a great pop-rock record, but it's not representative of what the band was all about.”
The rough-and-ready outfit also enjoyed several hits in the USA — Run Runaway got to number 20 in 1983 — but they remain most famous Stateside for their influence on other, more successful acts. Gene Simmons has said that the fledgling Kiss were aiming to replicate Slade's energy and simplicity, “American-style”.
“Kiss used to come and see us at a theatre in New York,” reveals Noddy. “They were always there, clocking what we were doing. Gene Simmons has been very open and said that they took everything Slade did to another extreme, and good on him for admitting it. In the latter part of the '70s, we even did some dates with Kiss, and they'd taken what we'd done and just blew it up to the nth degree.”
But perhaps the group who owe most to Slade are the now-defunct hair-metal mob Quiet Riot. In 1983, the US rockers had amazing success with a top-five cover of Cum On Feel the Noize. Noddy, who met Quiet Riot when Slade toured the States, remembers the dilemma this presented to the young musicians.
“The record company insisted that they covered another one of our songs [Mama Weer All Crazee Now] on the second album,” he laughs.
“They loved that they'd had a big hit, but I don't think they liked the fact that they had to keep covering our songs to help sell their product! But that's what happens in rock 'n' roll. You get your breaks where you can.”
Back home, Oasis brought Slade's music to a new generation in the mid '90s with their show-stopping rendition of Cum On Feel the Noize. And comedians Vic and Bob affectionately parodied the group in The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, in a series of what Noddy has described as “hysterically accurate” sketches.
Holder, Hill, Lea and Powell performed as Slade from 1966 until 1991, when Noddy and Jim left. Dave and Don now tread the nostalgia circuit with new frontman Mal McNulty and bassist John Berry.
Noddy gave his blessing for them to tour as Slade (the bulk of the lucrative back catalogue was penned by Holder and Lea), but is there a part of him that wishes the band had ended in '91?
“I'd have rather they didn't carry on using the name Slade, but I wasn't going to cause a stink about it,” he says. “I'm still close to Don and Dave, and I had to accept that that was what they wanted to do with their lives. I wasn't going to foist the changes I wanted to make to my life on them.”
At 64, the one-time biggest pop star in the land is content to dabble in acting, presenting and voiceover work, as well as playing the occasional low-key local gig with friends. Noddy insists the original Slade will never reunite — not even for a one-off show.
“I think too much water has gone under the bridge now,” he shrugs. “We have all found our own niche and done our own thing for the past 20 years. There have always been offers of us getting back together — really good financial offers — but I do not want to step backwards. I'm not willing to stop doing all the stuff I do now and go back doing what I did for 25 years 20 years ago.”
Flame, Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast 6.30pm tonight. www.queensfilmtheatre.com