Saturday, 26 September 2015

Far, far away... Slade in Flame (1975)

It is a feature of getting older that your memory of cultural events is much more precise in youth than in middle age or maybe you just pay less attention? It’s not that one doesn’t try, there is always new music on my media devices, but am I able to place the works of modern artists in their place and time as precisely and easily as I can the music of the seventies?

I can easily tell the year for say a Pink Floyd LP or for Echo & the Bunnymen and even for bands I’m less attached to I know my 1974 from 1978 but it’s not so easy for Sonic Youth and certainly for Plaid, Mogwai and The Unthanks. Glam rock was an early teen experience and as a genre probably only flowered for less than a couple of years. At the time of this release, 1975, Glam was on the way out as the decade reached it exhausted mid-point.

Jim, Noddy, Don and Dave
Slade were perhaps the greatest exponents of Glam but with a gritty edge that under-lined all of the best acts: these guys may have worn make up and glitter but they were all hard as nails: call Steve Priest an artiste and he’d probably give you a bunch of fives. Slade were, at one point, a “skinhead act” and, much like Oasis in the 90’s, they were working class lads who just loved The Beatles. Unlike the Gallaghers though, they brought their own songs…

Stoker and Paul debate the addition of more "balls" to How Does it Feel
Slade had peaked by the time they filmed Slade in Flame and were in search of the new challenge it bought, at least their manager Chas Chandler (ex-Animal and Hendrix management – creative life was much faster in those days…). Several daft ideas were mooted – The Quite-a-mess Experiment being quickly dismissed not least because Dave Hill would have been despatched in scene two…

The lads and the most excellent Sara Clee
In the end the band followed the Hard Day’s Night route but, rather than just mimic the actuality of the band’s existence the team devised a harder-edged drama that was loosely- based on their career and, crucially, their characters but one that was also drawn to the cynical end of the pop machine. This wasn’t Slade’s biography but it was an amalgam – amal-glam! – of theirs and many other bands experience in the dingy, cut throat, beer-stained, bingo halls and working-mens’ clubs of provincial Britain.

Remember places like this?
Released in 1974 - it is pure 1974 - the last time Slade would produce material of the quality of Far, Far Away and the sublime How Does it Feel (dream on Noel Gallagher!).

The result may have confused audiences and critics at the time (Barry Norman apart – he loved it) but now is amongst the best-regarded of its genre: the "Citizen Kane of rock musicals" as Mark Kermode calls it. As if The Monkees had been from Wolverhampton and decided to film Head not just in Sheffield but also using Alan Lake as technical advisor and not Jack Nicholson…

Alan Lake not holding back...
Flame is raw-edged and not just because of the four main leads. The scripting from Andrew Birkin, matched their personalities to their on-screen personas to make it easy for Jim, Noddy, Dave and Don to perform as naturally as possible and was informed by the group taking both Birkin and director Richard Loncraine on tour with them to the US: the pair lasted a couple of weeks before retiring exhausted.

The story takes place in a netherworld of the North being filmed in Sheffield, Nottingham as well as London and Brighton.

One of Sheffield's seven hills
This may have been Loncraine’s first film but that doesn’t stop him opening the film with a single take shot from the bathroom down the stairs and into the garden at a wedding party that Robert Altman would have been proud of. At the end of the sequence we find the disturbing sight of Jack Daniels (Alan Lake) and his Elvis Presley-stylings fronting a band with a bored bass player Paul (Jim Lea) and a cheeky guitarist Barry (Dave Hill) who sparks off a riot after lifting a girl’s skirt with his foot.

Alan Lake is superb throughout with a manic energy tempered by genuine acting skill, here in this opening scrap he doesn’t look out of place at all as you’d expect from a man who’d just finished a prison sentence for GBH.

Johnny Shannon and Alan Lake: they knew y'know...
The band is eking out a living on the club scene and following the wedding fracas has to replace their drummer. Don Powell plays Charlie a metal worker – one of a number of Wolves let lose in South Yorkshire – and he easily gets the gig after rocking up with a full drum kit.

The band is “managed” by local bingo-magnet Ron Harding (Johnny Shannon, a man with genuine “connections” who had played the hard man music agent before in Performance) who isn’t that convinced by Daniels’ band but has him on a lock-tight 10% all the same.

The Undertakers get ready to rock
The band is in competition with another band, The Undertakers, who dress up in Halloween gear whilst their leather-lunged singer Stoker (Noddy Holder) performs from within a coffin. Barry slyly adds a padlock and Stoker gets trapped. Out for revenge the Undertakers chase after the boys and Barry’s girlfriend (Sara Clee – who does a splendid job as the long-suffering, gum-chewing, feather-cut Angie – absolutely the kind of girl I had a crush on in 1974!).

Sara Clee and Dave HIll
The band’s car crashes and after being pulled out by the Undertakers they’re all thrown in clink for the night. So it is that ace singer and lyricist Stoker pals up with ace tunesmith Paul and a new band is formed out of adversity…

The lads enjoy a night in the cells...
The new band has something more and after one gig are spotted by everyone – not least Ron, but also a detached businessman Tony Devlin (Kenneth Colley) who follows up his interest by posting a note through Paul’s gran’s letter box. Tony is employed by a wealthy advertising executive, Robert Seymour (the studiously-laconic Tom Conti in only his second film although already well established on stage) who sees a market ripe for exploitation and believes that this is a band he can monetize.

Tom Conti and Kenneth Colley
The boys are made an offer they can’t refuse and gratefully swap Ron for the Home Counties’ comforts of Robert who has plans… A single is cut and the band begins the carefully orchestrated PR circuit beginning with Radio City a pirate radio station based on one of the abandoned sea fortresses in the Thames Estuary.

On their way to meet Tommy Vance!
This sequence is well filmed and the sight of the boys gingerly climbing the rusted metal steps of the fort is not entirely the results of acting – Dave Hill in particular was terrified of heights and had to be supported on his way up by Loncraine. Once in the studio the boys are interviewed by one
Ricky Storm (Tommy Vance) before gunfire is heard and the station is attacked by unknown assailants… Apparently this had happened during the pirate wars but, on this occasion at least, it looks like cynical PR from Robert.

Real radio from TV
Naturally it works, and the band goes from strength to strength in spite of cracks already appearing between the moody perfectionist Paul and garrulous improviser Stocker… none of this too far from the truth.

Culture clash
There are wonderfully-observed moments of discomfort between the band and their social betters – not least Robert’s family and "friends". Then there’s a touching exchange between Charlie and his old boss Harold (Patrick Connor) by a canal in which the latter used to fish and swim but which is now a polluted mess. This sequence is all the more remarkable when you consider that Don Powell was still suffering short-term memory loss after a crash a year before. He had to learn his lines immediately before the scene yet plays a blinder.

Harold and Charlie down by the cut
He invites Harry to a party with his record company friends and yet Robert dismisses him with contempt…

Another guest at the party gets taken a little more seriously, it’s Ron here to claim his winning ticket by informing Robert that he’s still the group’s agent. The two agree to meet to discuss the way forward… Then Robert meets Jack who is still in search of his opportunity… calculating the odds very quickly Robert works out how he and Jack can quickly help each other…

Flame on stage
Now things get messy as the band go from big to huge and a battle begins over the rights to their royalties… it’s a familiar story and one not too far from the truth for many bands if perhaps not Slade.
Tempers frayed back stage
Dusty verdict: There are times when the dialogue is muffled and events rush along just a bit too quickly but Flame is still a triumph. All four members of the band perform well which not only shows the value of writing their parts so closely to their own characters but also their native ability to be authentic – the very foundation of Slade’s appeal.

Stocker and Paul exchange vews
Slade in Flame is available with the soundtrack CD included from Amazon and others.

Nina Thomas plays Paul's wife

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