Music

Noddy Holder on possible Slade reunion and defying cancer: 'I'm still alive, thank god'

The former Slade singer and voice of Christmas is playing shows again, five years after being told his had six months to live

Noddy Holder in 2011

Noddy Holder in 2011

Neville John ‘Noddy’ Holder was born in June 1946 in Walsall. He formed his first band, The Rockin’ Phantoms, at the age of 13 and left school after O levels to take a job in a car parts firm while pursuing a music career. The band became The Memphis Cut-Outs, who became popular enough on the local scene for Holder to quit the day job. He went on to join The Mavericks, who were signed by Columbia in 1965, and were signed to the same management company as The N’ Betweens, who included future Slade members guitarist Dave Hill and drummer Don Powell. The two bands shared bills and bonded, laying the foundations for Holder’s next move.

In 1966, Powell and Hill convinced Holder to join their new group, along with multi-instrumentalist Jim Lea, which they named Ambrose Slade. After their debut album, 1969’s Beginnings, flopped, they changed their name to Slade and adopted a skinhead image for the following year’s Play It Loud. When that failed to catch the public’s imagination, the band turned to glam rock and swiftly became one of Britain’s biggest bands, with Slayed? (1972) reaching No 1 after their breakthrough single Get Down And Get With It. The next few years saw Slademania take Britain by storm with a run of classic, hit singles (mostly chart-toppers) that gave English teachers the nation over sleepless nights including Coz I Luv You, Take Me Bak ’Ome, Mama Weer All Crazee Now, Gudbuy T’Jane, Cum On Feel The Noize, Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me and Merry Xmas Everybody.

Noddy Holder left Slade in 1992 but remained a familiar figure on our TV screens, most notably as a team captain on BBC1’s music series A Question Of Pop and playing the music teacher Neville Holder in the ITV comedy drama The Grimleys. In 2000, Holder was awarded the MBE for his services to showbusiness. In October this year, Holder revealed to The Big Issue that he’d been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2018 and had been given six months to live, after which he underwent experimental chemotherapy treatment. Holder said, “I kept it very low key because I didn’t want people to just think of me as a cancer victim – though I don’t call it a victim because that’s the wrong word.”

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Noddy Holder reflected on his determination to make it as a musician and revealed that he’d been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2018 and had been given six months to live, after which he underwent experimental chemotherapy treatment.

At 16 I was just about to leave school. I’d done pretty well, I’d got six O levels. And all the teachers were pushing me to stay at school. But by the time I was 16 I’d already formed a semi-professional amateur band at school, and I’d been gigging constantly on weekends around working men’s clubs, youth clubs, weddings, anywhere we could get a gig really. So my heart was set on becoming a professional musician. Now back in 1961, 62, if you chose that as a profession, you were a black sheep, wasting your time, throwing it all away. Especially in the working-class area where I come from. Being a professional musician was not looked on as a bona fide job. People thought you were a bit of a beatnik.  

My dad used to sing around the working men’s clubs. He was a great singer but he never had any aspirations. When I was seven, I was sitting with my mum in the audience one Sunday night and he called me up to sing. He called out, “come on Neville”, and I sang a song by a country and western artist called Frankie Laine in my little soprano voice. It was the first time I’d ever sang into a microphone and it brought the place down. That was my first taste of applause. After that I used to get up every week. Then I founded a very basic little rock’n’roll band at school. So when I got to 16 I said to my mum and dad, “I want to leave school. I want to go out and try to make a success as a musician.” And they didn’t try to stop me. They said, “give it a couple of years, he’ll get it out of his system then he’ll get back to his studies.” The teachers were mad at me. They said, “You’ll never do anything as a musician.” And for years I was just scrambling around trying to make a living – until I got my first hit record. And then I was sending my mum and dad postcards from Tokyo and New York.   

Slade in 1973 in London
1973: Noddy Holder at London’s Savoy Hotel for the Melody Maker awards

In 1966 I joined a band called The ’N Betweens, who eventually became Slade. I knew Don [Powell] the drummer, from the clubs in Wolverhampton but I didn’t really know [guitarist] Dave [Hill] at all. They were looking for a new singer and Don knew I could sing. He asked me if I’d join. I turned him down a couple of times because I was still with my band, working in Germany, earning really good money, £25 a week. A hell of a lot of money. But eventually they talked me into it, and we had a couple of rehearsals. One afternoon we went in and played a couple of numbers together, and we knew we’d got something going. It all seemed to slot into place magically.  

Chas Chandler was the guy who discovered us and gave us a proper record contract. He’d looked after Jimi Hendrix until he went back to America, and he was looking for a new band. He loved us because we were different to anybody else. He signed us up, but it took him two years before he got a hit. We had a hit with a cover version, a Little Richard number. It got us on Top of the Pops and people started to take notice of us. Chas said he wanted the next release to be our own song. He said, come back to me with a catchy, catchy three-minute song. So Jim [bass player and co-songwriter Jim Lea] came over to mine with his violin and we messed about with a rhythm and a very simple chord progression. I ad-libbed a melody over the top. And within 20 minutes, we’d written a song called Coz I Luv You. We played it to Chas and he said, I think you’ve written your first number one. We didn’t think for a minute it was number one material. But within two weeks of release, it was number one on the charts. We just couldn’t believe it.  

The early ’90s was a weird period for me. We’d had 25 years together as a band. I had things going on in my personal life – I’d just got divorced. My dad was very ill; he was dying. I’d been on the road for 30 years. It’s a long time and I just felt I was getting stale. It seemed to be getting repetitious. And I never was into that. I’m a positive thinker and I always have been, even from when I was a kid. I don’t hanker in nostalgia. Not my bag. I always want to look to the future. And I just felt at the end of the ’80s we had pretty much achieved everything that we set out to do. We’d lost momentum in America – it didn’t work out. The band weren’t getting on; we’d had so much time together living in one another’s pockets. I had to face up to the fact that this was not working the same way. We weren’t that gang any more. I thought I’d leave and maybe in a couple of years’ time we’d reconvene and get back to where we were, but it didn’t work out that way.  

Noddy Holder with son Django
2000: Noddy Holder with son Django at Buckingham Palace to receive his MBE

Slade were offered a lot of money several times to get back together. We didn’t have any major fall-outs or anything like that. We’re still on te speaking terms. I mean, there’s a lot of business hassles between the four of us – it’s always difficult where money involved. But when we had business meetings, within half an hour we argued about the same things we’d argued about the day we split. So the thought of being at least two years on the road – which is what it would take to make real big money – I thought, well, we’re never going to last that long. We could have all travelled separately and stayed in separate hotels, as many bands do, but I didn’t want to live like that. I remember when we were four guys having a laugh together, going out drinking together. But obviously it was never going to be like that again.  

The reason I’ve just been on the road doing shows with [boogie woogie pianist and singer] Tom Seals and his band is that, five years ago, I was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. And I was only given six months to live. I kept it very low key because I didn’t want people to just think of me as a cancer victim. Though I don’t call it ‘victim’ because that’s the wrong word. But at the Christie Hospital in Manchester I was offered a trial of a new drug. I was a sort of guinea pig for this drug that was four times stronger than normal chemotherapy. The consultant said, we’ve never given this to anybody your age, but we are getting some success with younger people. So, I thought, what do I have to lose? I only had six months left anyway. And I’ve always had this positive mental attitude, and he said that could be a big bonus. So I’m still alive, thank god. They never tell you you’re cured. You’re never cured, you just carry on being checked on. But then I thought, I’m still around after five years, why don’t I go and do some shows? So people can see that I’m still standing and I can still sing a few tunes and tell a few stories. I didn’t do a full two hours as I would have in the old days. But I think people were surprised at how well I could still belt out a tune.  

Noddy Holder on Tour with Tom Seals
2023: Noddy Holder on Tour with Tom Seals. Image: Ron Milsom

If I could re-live one time in my life I’d have to say it would be when I had my first number one record. That feeling, after waiting so long and thinking you’d never achieve it, it was a hell of a feeling. Being on Top of the Pops! After that I knew anything was possible. I was a scraggy-arsed kid from a Black Country housing estate. Nobody ever thought I would make anything of myself. In 1996 they did my This is Your Life. Until then, my mum had still been asking me, when are you going to get a proper job? But then she met Michael Aspel, which was the highlight of her life. Then about four years later, I got the MBE. I think that rang a bell in her head, that I hadn’t been messing about my whole life. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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