August 31, 2023

Alive! At Reading is a gift for the vinyl aficionado. It has all the ten tracks that the CD does, nice big artwork and a really rather splendid orange and black splatter disc, and is a very nice thing. However you choose to consume them though, Beginnings is a fascinating set for the curious while Reading is quite simply essential for anyone who has ever enjoyed a bit of Slade. And, if we’re honest, isn’t that almost all of us?

The Slade reissue campaign continues, this time alighting on a seemingly unlikely and unrelated pair of bedfellows, though there is more of a connection here than might be at first apparent. Beginnings goes right back to Day One, being the 1969 debut released when the band were still named Ambrose Slade and were a rather different proposition than that which emerged fully formed a couple of years later. Alive! At Reading, on the other hand, offers their astonishing resurrection from an almost-forgotten band about to split up into one with a whole new chart career in the 1980s, which all stemmed from a last-minute guest slot at the Reading Festival 1980, filling in for the unavailable Ozzy Osbourne. Two very different listening experiences, then, but each representing the very genesis of the band’s two career arcs.

Beginnings is one of those albums which, while selling hardly any copies on first release (and with original copies being sought-after collectibles), was naturally re-released in different formats by record company men sensing money like sharks scenting blood in the water. In America it appeared under the ghastly title Ballzy (the cover featuring a drawing of – naturally – two balls), while a later UK budget-label reissue under the title Beginnings Of Slade (with the word ‘Slade’ in huge letters and the familiar 1970s font) was shamelessly accompanied by a photo of the band quite obviously taken around 1972 or 1973. All rather tacky of course – but here you get the original artwork and, on the CD version at least, a new essay about the making of the album and a bonus track. How is it as a listen today though?

Well, as you might expect, it’s a somewhat patchy album, formative and exploratory, indicative of a band unsure of exactly what direction to pursue. For the most part it’s agreeably rocking fare, albeit with a few touches of psychedelia and proto-prog lurking around the edges. The opening track Genesis is perhaps the most overt example of this, being an instrumental which is all phased guitars and rather too much studio trickery in what would be the chorus, but it’s entertaining – sufficiently so for the band to rework it with lyrics into Know Who You Are a little later. Most of the remaining twelve tracks are covers, though there are three more originals: Roach Daddy is a somewhat forgettable bluesy stomp, but Pity The Mother and Mad Dog Cole are both better; the former a sort of social commentary tale of injustice and misfortune, and the latter another rather interesting instrumental. The covers meanwhile are a real mixed bag of the familiar and the obscure. Looking at the surprises first, Everybody’s Next One is a Steppenwolf track from their debut album which is a very odd one to pick, being entirely forgettable, while Jeff Lynne’s Knocking Nails Into My House is a blink-and-you’d miss-it B-Side of a 1968 single by The Idle Race, though in actual fact it’s pretty entertaining. Frank Zappa gets the cover treatment, but few would have expected Ain’t Got No Heart, found lurking in the corners of the Mothers Of Invention 1966 debut album Freak Out! – unlike the Jeff Lynne track, however, it wasn’t really worth seeking out as it fails to get near Zappa’s original and drifts by without making much impression. Much better is Justin Hayward’s Fly Me High, which I had never even heard of before, and investigation reveals to have been the first single recorded after he and John Lodge joined the Moody Blues, released in May 1967 before the recording of the Days Of Future Passed album, and unsurprisingly a failure. It’s actually excellent, however, with the sort of propulsive yet uplifting feel of the Moodies’ later Lovely To See You or Ride My See Saw tracks. Well worth unearthing, for sure. There is also a stab at a Marvin Gaye B-side from 1967 called If This World Were Mine, which might be more familiar to fans of that genre than myself, but it made little impression on me to be honest.

For the three closing tracks we get to more familiar ground. Martha My Dear is a brave stab at a cover of a rather unexpected Beatles song, and while they deliver it well enough, it has to be said that something more forceful such as Helter Skelter or perhaps Good Morning Good Morning might have played to their strengths better. The next track, however, certainly does, as they visit Steppenwolf for the second time with the hoary old Born To be Wild (which we must remember of course wasn’t half so hoary or old in 1969), and they give it a good pasting, getting properly stuck in to a hard rock groove for almost the first time on the album, and to great effect. It would, of course, survive into the later Slade stage set, appearing notably on the Slade Alive album, but continuing to get an airing long after that. Closing the original album is perhaps the most successful track here, an absolutely top-drawer cover of the Amboy Dukes psych-rock classic Journey To The Centre Of Your Mind, which even gives the original a run for its money. Again, the band are at their strongest when letting their hair down and rocking out – something they pretty soon learnt of course. Finally, there is a bonus track, the single version of One Way Hotel, which cropped up on the next album Play It Loud. A track which made its way into the collections of many Slade fans when it appeared on the 1973 compilation Sladest!, it’s a genuinely unsettling account of what may be an asylum, or may be something much darker and less well-defined. Delivered brilliantly by Noddy Holder, it’s a song which stays with you long after hearing it, and it’s the best thing here. One notable bonus is the original cover art, showing the band looning around in a very late-’60s bare chested way, and managing to look so un-photogenic that a career in ‘glam rock’ would have appeared impossible! A marvellous time-capsule, before the temporary and ill-advised skinhead-and-bovver-boots image they were talked into for the next album…

Let’s fast forward a decade now, however, and get to the altogether bigger stage of the Reading Rock Festival in 1980. Slade are in disarray, having disastrously left the UK for a couple of years to attempt to ‘crack’ the US market, failing, and consequently losing their traction at home as well. So low did their profile drop that they actually released an album called Whatever Happened To Slade? in 1977. A 1979 album Return To Base was so comprehensively ignored that the band were planning to give up and split when Ozzy Osbourne pulled out of Reading and they were invited onto the bill for a nostalgic performance, which they agreed to, while still planning to make it their farewell. On the contrary, nostalgia was left in the mud as the band grabbed Reading by the scruff of its collective neck and delivered one of the performances of their entire career, remaining together on the back of it, releasing a live EP from the show and even, ironically, making the upper reaches of the US charts in the following years. As comebacks go, it was a close run thing between them and Lazarus, though if Lazarus had released Return To Base before expiring he might not have bothered to come back. Put simply, this is such a milestone performance that the occasion seeps into every pore of the recording, and even without the benefit of visuals it is utterly apparent the extent to which the band, and Noddy Holder in particular, holds the vast field of humanity in the palm of his hand, like a top-hatted Black Country messiah. The whole band are so fired up that there must have been fire extinguishers positioned on hand, and it’s a sheer wall of energy. It would have been easy for them to stroll on, run casually through a list of Number Ones and then go off into retirement in a blaze and haze of nostalgia – but not a bit of it. After an opening blast through Take Me Bak ‘Ome, newer songs When I’m Dancin’ I Ain’t Fightin’ and particularly the true-life tale of Wheels Ain’t Coming Down leave the crowd in no doubt that, unbelievably, this is not a bunch of cabaret circuit has-beens, but rather a vital, hard and heavy rock band with energy to spare. The main set ends with a double-header of Mama Weer All Crazee Now and an absolutely wild Get Down And Get With It (spoiler: everybody does), and after the crowd deliver their own rendition of ‘the Christmas hit’, the band encore with Cum On Feel The Noize and – in a nice connect with the Beginnings album – Born To Be Wild still present and firing on all cylinders. These two get the remaining couple of people out of the thousands who weren’t on their side already to give in with utter abandon, and the return of Slade is complete. Thank you and good afternoon.

How you choose to get these is a matter of preference – both are available on CD or coloured vinyl. personally, I would go for the CD for Beginnings, as it gives you One Way Hotel and also the informative booklet for context, but Alive! At Reading is a gift for the vinyl aficionado. It has all the ten tracks that the CD does, nice big artwork and a really rather splendid orange and black splatter disc, and is a very nice thing. However you choose to consume them though, Beginnings is a fascinating set for the curious while Reading is quite simply essential for anyone who has ever enjoyed a bit of Slade. And, if we’re honest, isn’t that almost all of us?