Interview: Slade's Jim Lea talks ahead of band's 50th anniversary show

It’s the most frequently heard song on the planet.

Interview: Slade's Jim Lea talks ahead of band's 50th anniversary show

Slade bassist Jim Lea

Merry Christmas Everybody has been heard by more people more times than any other tune.

Forget The Beatles’ Yesterday and The Righteous Brothers You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. The song that most people have heard was written by a bloke from Bilbrook while he was in a pig of a mood.

Jim Lea, the bassist with Slade, was in the USA when he wrote it. Homesick and depressed, he’d been told to write a festive number by Slade’s manager, Chas Chandler, the guy who also looked after Jimi Hendrix. Lea popped into the shower and started humming. A billion listens later, he’s glad he did.

Jim doesn’t thank his lucky stars for his moment of genius. He thanks John Lennon; for had the iconic Beatle not finished recording a solo album on time, the song would never have been written.

  • Slade featuring Dave Hill and Don Powell will appear at the Robin 2 on December 16 in celebration of their 50th anniversary. Click here for more information

Jim says: “I came up with Merry Xmas in America. Our manager was always ringing saying ‘how’s the writing going’? I said I hadn’t got anything. I wasn’t very well and was really depressed and I just wanted to go home. There was a studio in New York, called the Record Plant, and John Lennon had been recording there.

“Lennon’s finished his album on schedule but his management had booked an extra two weeks in case he’d run over. He’d got his work done so didn’t need the studio. So Chas booked it for me. I told him I’d got no songs.

“But Chas said ‘The thing is Jim, it would be nice to be in the charts at Christmas’. And he said ‘You know what, it would be even nicer to be number one at Christmas’.

“So I went into the shower and got the lovely warm water on me. I just said to myself – and I was almost talking to my own brain – ‘Come on, do it now’. And lo and behold I pieced the whole thing together. I was really pleased with it. I got that melody – the chorus – and I thought what’s it about?

“Then I remember what Chas had said. And I literally started singing ‘So here it is, Merry Xmas, Everybody’s having fun’.”

Jim went back to the band to tell them about his latest tune. And they laughed in his face. Don Powell and Dave Hill didn’t want to record while Noddy Holder, the band’s singer and lyricist, thought Jim was off his rocker.

“The band didn’t want to record it. You know, it wasn’t Christmas and they had no interest. And I realise that these days a lot of people hate it because they hear it too often. But I’m proud of it.

“I found out a few years ago that Merry Xmas Everybody is the most heard song on the planet. I was absolutely humbled by that, really.

“Merry Xmas was my Archimedes moment. It came together in a perfect storm. Don and Dave didn’t want to know about it. I told Nod I’d come up with a Christmas song and he told me to get lost. I had to talk him round. He eventually said,‘Okay, I’ll finish the lyrics off’.”

Lea was one of the truly virtuosic musicians of the 1970s. He was the indispensible member of Slade, even more so than Noddy Holder. Because he wrote the tunes that made them international stars. He’d been bought up at The Grange pub, in Bilbrook, which his parents owned, and started playing music at Codsall Comprehensive. He played violin in the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra and gained a first class honours at a London Music School before moving onto piano, guitar and bass. He was out of his depth when he auditioned for Slade.

“I was playing for a long time before glam rock. I wasn’t like other kids. I wasn’t interested in girls and bumping them. I hated all that. I wasn’t besotted by women. I was besotted by music. I bought my first guitar early on. I was 13.

“I saw the guy who sold me that guitar a while back, in an Indian takeaway. He said: ‘I only sold it to you because it was a piece of crap’. He wanted to get rid of me because I was an annoying kid.

“After school, I was going to go to art college. People have often asked me what I’d have done if I’d not been in Slade. I’ve said it would have been the same.

“I auditioned at the Blue Flame Club, which was like a village hall, in Wolverhampton. It became the Lafayette. I walked in there and hadn’t got any equipment and wasn’t fully grown. I looked like a child. I was very naïve. I didn’t even drink.

“My bass was as big as me and I had to take it in a polythene bag because I couldn’t afford a case. The singer was Johnny Howells, rather than Nod, and he was really good.”

Jim blew the band away. Dave Hill couldn’t believe what he was hearing and asked him to jam for a while. “In the end, it was like I was auditioning them rather than them auditioning me.”

The most extraordinary ride had begun. Slade dominated the 1970s as The Beatles dominated the 1960s and Oasis dominated the 1990s. They were THE band, the epitome of great rock music. They were the first act to achieve three straight-in-at-number-one singles, they had 17 consecutive top 20 hits and a total of six number ones

Jim was always the band’s loner. He wasn’t as full of braggadocio as some of its other members. He didn’t have to be. He was the one who sprinkled the gold dust on their music. He was the brains, rather than the face.

Jim’s new project is Therapy – literally and figuratively.

It’s a two CD re-issue of his critically-acclaimed solo album, which also features a solo recording of a gig at the Robin, in Bilston. It’s one of only two solo gigs in his career. After he left Slade, he studied psychotherapy and the CD is the result of those studies. His brother Frank secured him a deal with a record company and he’s proud of it.

“It’s a thinking man’s album. There’s a lot to contemplate in that. I did the Robin gig when my dad died.”

Jim Lea’s Therapy is out now on double CD with the vinyl edition following, with six extra tracks, in October.

Slade featuring Dave Hill and Don Powell will appear at the Robin 2 on December 16 in celebration of their 50th anniversary. Click here for more information

By Andy Richardson

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