When I went to Monsters of Rock at Donington, aged 15, in 1981 it was not only my first ever festival but also my first ever live rock gig of any type. It still remains my favourite gig of all time, in particular the set by Slade that afternoon.
We arrived at Donington a little late and by the time we had parked and got into the arena the band More were most of the way through their set. The next band on were Blackfoot who I have no real recollection of at all. What I do remember is the anticipation of waiting for Slade to come on. After several years in the doldrums Slade had burst back into the charts a few months earlier with ‘We’ll Bring The House Down’. Their storming performance at Reading Festival the previous year (when the band replaced Ozzy Osbourne at the last minute) had already become legendary and this all meant that in the space of a few months Slade went from being a band that sang about Christmas that I vaguely recalled from my childhood to being my number one favourite band in the whole world. And that was even before I witnessed what would become (and still remains) the most remarkable live performance I’ve ever seen. Loud guitar-driven rock, commanding showmanship, unforgettable songs and sheer over- the-top-eccentricity, it was an absolute master-class in compelling live performance.
On the back of the previous year’s Reading appearance, the early 80s heavy metal crowd had really taken Slade to heart. Looking at the setlist from Donington now the songs basically fit into three categories. Firstly, there were, unsurprisingly, the 70s hits like ‘Gudbuy T’ Jane’ and ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’. Secondly, there was newer material like ‘We’ll Bring The House Down’ and a sneak preview of their soon-to-be-released new single ‘Lock Up Your Daughters’. Thirdly, there were the old 50s rock ’n’ roll covers, which Slade had begun inserting in their set in their wilderness years in the late 70s but had kept in as they began to be embraced by the heavy metal crowd. Although the look couldn’t have been more different, this latter group of songs demonstrates how much late 50s rock ’n’ roll and early 70s glam rock had in common in terms of song structure, lyrical themes and instantly memorable choruses.
It was Noddy Holder’s masterful ability to connect with the 65,000-strong crowd, however, that was perhaps even more memorable than the songs. Witty, irreverent and on a mission to entertain no matter what, in spite of the non-stop rain, Holder was able to strike an instant rapport with a huge festival audience in a way that few can. And that’s before we even get on to discussing the surreal sea of moving objects that danced above the heads of the crowd throughout the entire set. Although ever-more hostile missile throwing was to mar a number of festivals around that time, with Slade it was turned on its head and rather than being fuelled by aggressive machismo, chucking stuff about became a life-affirming celebration of communal craziness. White plastic beer bottles full of beer, bundles of hay that had been laid on the ground in an attempt to soak up the mud, packed lunches, burger buns – everything that could be thrown in the air was thrown in the air . The band, of course, joined in with one toilet roll after being another lobbed out into the crowd during Mama Weer All Crazee Now. When the crowd called for Merry Christmas at the end of the set Holder told us all that if we wanted it we would have to sing it ourselves, which is precisely what everyone did…
After Slade finished, and soaking wet from rain, beer and mud and covered head to foot in hay we made our way further towards the back of the crowd to catch our breath and I wondered whether I would ever see anything on stage quite so magnificent ever again. There were more fantastic performances to come that day – with memorable sets from both Whitesnake and AC/DC (once a completely underwhelming performance from Blue Oyster Cult was out of the way). However, even though I’ve seen many exceptional performances from many exceptional bands over the years, nothing has ever quite matched the intensity of seeing Slade at Donington.
When I’m Dancin’ I Ain’t Fightin’
Take Me Bak ‘Ome
Lock Up Your Daughters
Pistol Packin’ Mama
We’ll Bring the House Down
Get Down and Get With It
Mama Weer All Crazee Now
Cum On Feel the Noize
Born to Be Wild
Merry Xmas Everybody
On the 40th anniversary of this historic gig my post was shared by Suzan Holder on Twitter which resulted in the following rather lovely exchange: