Let there be drums! interview with Slade legend Don Powell

I catch up with founding member of Slade and drumming legend, Don Powell. Don’s band have just released a brand new single, a cover of the instrumental classic ‘Let There Be Drums’ featuring eighteen of the UK’s leading drummers with all profits going to We Make Events, raising money for crew, engineers and technicians hit by the pandemic and the cancellation of live gigs. Via Zoom in Don’s home in Denmark we talk about the new single, about the old Slade days, about working with Suzi Quatro and Andy Scott, about recovering from a stroke and much, much more besides.

DJ: I want to talk first about the new single ‘Let There Be Drums’ the cover of the old Sandy Nelson instrumental which was released just last week. It’s already made quite a splash I believe. Can you just say a bit about how that all came about?

DP: I tell you what, Darren, it’s funny how these things stick with you. It was before I was actually playing drums it was like in my youth club days when it was first released in ’61. So, I’d be 14/15 then and it was like the youth club. You know playing table tennis and we used to have the old Dansette record player and some of the older members of the club brought this record down and it just freaked me out. I’d never heard a drumming record before – just a solo drumming record. And I thought, blimey, this is incredible. It sort of stuck with me.

DJ: Were you already drumming by then?

DP: No, no, no.

DJ: So that’s what got you into the drums then?

DP: Maybe, I was playing drums in the boy scouts. But it just freaked me. It floored me when I heard it because I’d never heard a drumming record before. Anyway, it’s always been in the back of my mind. Then Craig Fenney, who was the bass-player with Slade when we went back on the road in 91/92, me and him were talking about it. It came up in conversation. I think it was Craig who brought it up in conversation. I said, “Actually, Craig…” What I did I recorded drums – do you remember that solo artist Jona Lewie? He had a couple of hits – ‘You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties’ and ‘Don’t Stop the Cavalry’. Well, he’s got a 48-track recording studio at his house. And he invited me down and I started playing around and I recorded one or two drum tracks. And when Craig brought it up, I said, “Actually Craig, I have got some recordings of the drum track.” Because the way technology’s gone sky-high, I got the old 24-inch master-tapes and had them transferred digitally. And then it was Craig’s idea who said, “Why don’t we try and get lots of guest drummers. Let’s throw some names in between us and do like a cover version.” I said, “That’s a great idea.”

And we started throwing names about and I mentioned Brian Bennett from the Shadows. Because about three or four times a year about 35-40 of us have a lunch in London – like musicians, actors and people like that. And Brian’s always there so we made contact like that. And he said straight away, “No problem.” And the idea was, Darren, was for them to record about fifteen seconds – and also film it so we could put it all together like a montage-type thing. And there was Bev Bevan who was originally from the Move, and then ELO and he did a stint with Black Sabbath. Everybody was so gracious and then we decided to donate all this to charity – for all the road crews and technicians who’ve really suffered with the pandemic catastrophe. And it just came together really quickly, Darren. They all put their oar in and got themselves filmed while they recorded it and sent it to us. And we just put it all together and we’ll just see what happens with it, mate.

‘Let Their Be Drums’ limited edition CD

DJ: Well it’s a great track and it’s a great cause so let’s hope it’s going to be a real success.

DP: I don’t think people really realise the work that these guys do. I mean without these guys the show wouldn’t go on.

DJ: Hopefully, when things do go back to normal we’ll start to appreciate them more – as ordinary punters.

DP: Can you see light at the end of the tunnel yet? There are a few concerts in the offing but we’re just going to have to wait and see, Darren.

DJ: It’s been quite an exciting time for you because you formed the Don Powell Band last year. You had the project with Suzie Quatro and Andy Scott a few years ago. There seems to have been a burst of new projects that you’re involved in these days.

DP: Yeah. I’ve been pretty lucky really, Darren. The Suzi Quatro and Andy Scott one was quite nice because what it was there was Slade, Sweet and Suzi Quatro band did a few shows together and Suzi, Andy and myself are sitting in the hotel restaurant one day and Andy Scott said, “Now this will make a good band.” And everybody’s sort of yeah, I wonder, I wonder… And we kept on mentioning it and it came about and we said let’s get together and do some recordings. And so what we did we went down to Peter Gabriel’s place. He’s got a massive studio complex over in the west country. And so we went down there and what we did you live there – sort of live, eat and record there. And that’s when we did the album really. We had a great time doing it. And then it got released by Sony in Australia and it charted. So we went over and tour there. Because what we did, Suzi Quatro goes over there every year anyway and she has done for the last thirty years. And we were the opening act. Andy, Suzi and myself were the opening act. It was a great tour. And it helped with the album really.

Quatro Scott Powell album

DJ: So all these new things that you’ve been doing – was it starting to get a little bit frustrating before? Because I know you went out with Dave Hill for a good twenty-odd years. Was it starting to get a bit frustrating just going out there and doing the hits? Were you starting to feel that you wanted to do some new things?

DP: In a way yes. Apart from doing the Slade material with Dave Hill – but that’s what people wanted to see. It’s like with any band that’s had an amount of success, it’s hard to get out of that hole that you dig yourself into. I mean, we had it with the original line-up with Noddy and Jim – what do we play or what do we leave out? It’s a hard thing to try and decide. Everyone’s got different ideas or different choices you know but we all have to try and find out or work out what the audience want really. But we came to an end in a way. Noddy Holder didn’t want to tour anymore so it was just a matter of looking for things and Dave Hill and myself were still keen on touring which we did. And actually it was great because we went to a lot of territories like Russia and the old Eastern Bloc which we couldn’t do in the 70s.

DJ: The world opened up more I suppose?

DP: Oh yes. We had some great shows in Russia. It was incredible. And it’s not until you go there that you realise how big that place is.

DJ: You were massive there but at the time you could never really get there.

DP: No, we couldn’t get there. There was no record deal. We hadn’t got a clue what was going on release-wise you know, for obvious reasons. And it’s amazing when you realise – we flew from Moscow to Dal’niy Vostok on the east coast and it’s like thirteen hours. That’s like flying from Los Angeles. It’s incredible – but we’ve had some great times there, Darren.

DJ: Yes, I only saw the original band three times in the early 80s but then I saw you and Dave many, many times after that. But there seemed to be a time, only a year or two ago when it all seemed to be going wrong for you.  You had the email sacking you from Dave Hill. That was after your serious tendon injury that put you out of action for a while. And then to cap it all after that, you had a stroke. It all seemed to be going wrong for you?

DP: Yeah. It was a weird thing. There was no reasoning for it. With the stroke it was strange. I was here at home. We all were here at home, and I was just watching TV and I went to sort of grab my cup of tea and I couldn’t get the cup. I couldn’t grab the cup or hold the cup. I had to hold my hand and then I came downstairs to speak to my wife, and it was a problem coming down the stairs and luckily our daughter is a doctor. And she said, “You’ve had a stroke. You need to go to the hospital. Because my speech is a bit blurred sort of thing.

DJ: I thought that was just the Wolverhampton accent!

DP: Oh no! Or it could be my drinking days! That would have been normal then. If it was my drinking days I would understand – but that’s all gone! But we just sent for an ambulance, and they hooked me up to some machines and checked me out and they said, “You’ve had a stroke. We’ve got to take you to hospital.” And that’s what it was. It was just a small stroke, and I was at the hospital. Luckily, it was our daughter who said, being a doctor, who said, “If you were my husband I would send you to the hospital.” Anyway, it was all sorted out and everything was ok. Apparently, it wasn’t that serious but I’m glad I got the advice. So yep, everything’s ok.

DJ: Because there was like a twelve-month period where just everything was going wrong for you. There was your tendon, then there was the Dave Hill thing, then there was your stroke. Was there a time when you just thought about packing it all in and knocking it on the head?

DP: No. No.

DJ: You always stayed positive?

DP: I was very positive. Actually, that came from my wife as well, Darren. My wife, Hanne, she was great you know. She made me practice going upstairs and I had a practice kit and she made me get on that and she said, “I love to hear you play.” And that was ok, actually. It was strange. There was no problem playing drums or anything. And it was just a matter of this little minor stroke happened if you like – and that was it. I’m on tablets for the rest of my life but apparently that’s just like the norm these days. But it’s ok. It was a bit scary at the time.

Watch our full Zoom chat on Youtube here

DJ: And a high point last year, it must have been really nice for you after all these years seeing Slade back in the album charts?

DP: Yeah incredible. You see, I looked at the CD and I thought, “Blimey. It ain’t bad is it? A nice bit of history there.” But also, when it went back in the charts I thought everybody had got this stuff, you know! How much further can you go, you know. It is incredible but I tell you what people always talk about the – we call it ‘that song’ – the Christmas song. No matter where we go around the world, no matter what time of year – they wanna hear that song.

DJ: But do you think this has helped broaden people’s memories and recollections of the band now? I mean, that compilation must have helped.

DP: Oh I think so. I think the general comments I’ve been getting, Darren, is people saying, “Oh, I didn’t realise you had so many hits. Oh, I forgot you had that one. Oh yeah and that one.” I mean I do myself as well. I’m looking thinking, wow I forgot about that. So it’s nice compliments and it’s nice bit of history on the CD really.

DJ: The hit that really got everything going for me in terms of Slade – because I was like 6 or 7 when ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ and those hits came out and I was more into the Wombles than Slade at that age – but by the time I was 14 ‘We’ll Bring The House Down’ came out. That was your big comeback single. That was the one that really turned me into a lifelong Slade fan.

DP: That was a great record. Obviously, with Nod’s lyrics that’s how it came about. It’s all about a concert. And what we did, when we recorded that I just went to the toilet and I made a loud cough and I thought, “Ooh, that’s a nice echo in here.” And I thought, “I wonder, how would it be if we put the drums in here.” Because it was all tiled and everything and it was like a thunderous sound in the toilet – absolutely incredible. But we never thought – I was halfway through this incredible take and the automatic flush went off. I thought, “Oh shit!” you know. And we had to turn the water off – it’s those things you don’t think about. It was a great comeback record that, though. It was a nice record to come back with actually.

DJ: It must be a brilliant record for a drummer, too, because the drums are so centre-stage.

DP: Oh yes. It’s great to play on stage, Darren. Because the thing is I can just keep on playing while the other guys just talk to the audience and just mess around and all that. It’s a great stage song, especially for me anyway.

DJ: As a drummer which is your favourite Slade song to play?

DP: Oh, there’s a couple really. I mean ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ I always love playing and ‘My Oh My’. If you listen to that at the start it’s basically just bass drum and snare drum. And I come in with the drum fills afterwards. It was a great song to play and also ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ is one of my favourites as well.

DJ: Definitely. That would be one of my favourites as well.

DP: It’s incredible. There’s another one when you think, Darren. We released that in the States at the same time in ’73 and it never saw the light of day – nothing. And then Quiet Riot recorded it and it goes to number 1.

DJ: And then gave your career a boost because you started having hits for the first time ever in America as well.

DP: Oh, that’s what happened there. It gave us a boost. All these record companies over there were after us and we signed with CBS. And MTV had just started as well, Darren, which helped a lot. That video was on MTV all the time.

DJ: The ‘Run Run Away’ video?

DP: Yep. ‘Run Run Away’ was released first because they used that castle as the back-drop. Of course, like typical Americans they all thought that’s where we lived.

DJ: Slade’s castle!

DP: They thought it was our house.

DJ: That’s even more bizarre than Vic Reeves really.

DP: Yes. We just played along with that one, so it was quite good.

DJ: Well, yeah, every rock band in Britain has their own castle. And if we can go back to the very, very early days of Slade now. In the early days you actually wrote quite a bit for Slade at the start but when the hits started coming you stopped. I think that was a shame, personally, because while I could see your lyrics were not hit single material, I would have thought for album tracks they would have been perfect.

DP: I’ve started writing again now but the thing is Noddy Holder and Jim Lea started writing and they were doing it like that [clicks fingers] and they were coming out with the hits, and it was so easy for them, Darren, so I just let them carry on with it.

DJ: Oh right, you just thought let them get on with it.

DP: Yeah.

DJ: They didn’t actually tell you to stop writing or discourage you?

DP: Oh no, nothing like that. They were coming up with this great material, so I just thought, you know, “Let them carry on with it.  They’ve got the formula now so great just let them do it.” But I’ve started writing again over the last few years for the solo stuff I’ve been doing so we’ve just got our fingers crossed with the Don Powell Band really when we start doing some more recordings. But then again, Darren, it’s amazing how technology’s changed. Because of this pandemic crap, you know, I haven’t been able to travel. The rest of the guys have been recording stuff in England and sending the files to me and I just go to the studio I use over here, put the drums on and send it back. It’s not the same as all being in the studio at the same time because there’s that rapport you have that sort of feeds itself when you’re all playing together. But at least we can do something while this is going on around us, you know?

DJ: It’s something really positive to focus on.

DP: Yes, there’s a guy in Australia who I met when I toured there with Andy and Suzi a few years ago and he was doing some solo stuff and he asked me to play drums on it and I said yes. And he’s doing the same. He’s sending the files over from Australia. I’m waiting for them. And I’ll put drums on and send it back.

DJ: So can we expect an album from the Don Powell Band then?

DP: Oh yes. For sure. For sure…

DJ: And when..?

DP: Hopefully – they’re all writing stuff, which is all of us – as soon as possible really, Darren. At the moment with this pandemic, as I said, at least they can send me material, I can put drums on and send it back, you know. But it’ll be nice when we can all get in the studio together at the same time. A great bunch of guys and they’re great fun to be with. We only had two rehearsals together before all this lockdown came.

DJ: So you know each other better on Zoom than you do in real life!

DP: Exactly! It’s strange it is.

DJ: Although, obviously, you and Craig (Craig Fenney – bass player) go back many years.

DP: Oh yes. We go back even before we were back on the road – Dave and myself when Craig was in the band – I’ve known Craig even before then. So it’s not like we were total strangers so that’s good.

DJ: And still just on Slade, I’m not going to dwell on the Dave Hill thing, but do you still hear from the other two members of the band – Noddy and Jim?

DP: Yeah, occasionally we speak and like I said we’ve got one coming up in September. There’s like 35-40 of us have a lunch together in London. There’s like musicians, drummers. And it’s great. There’s like Bruce Welch from the Shadows and Brian Bennett. I mean there’s Clem Cattini. I don’t know whether you know of him, Darren?

DJ: Oh yes, big session player – yes.

DP: Oh you know – and he’s such an unassuming guy because you know he started with ‘Telstar’ from the Tornadoes, that’s how it started with him. And he went into studio work and do you know he’s played drums on over 200 hit records? 55 number ones he’s played drums on.

DJ: That’s more than you!

DP: Yeah. It’s phenomenal.

DJ: I mean you’ve not done too bad playing on number ones.

DP: The thing is when you’re talking to Clem, Darren, you talk about records and, “Yeah, I played drums on that. Yeah, I did that one as well. Yeah, and that one.” He was telling us he never knew where he was going in those days. He’d have a contact. Go to so-and-so studio. He said on one day he did ‘Lilly The Pink’ in the morning by Scaffold and in the afternoon he packed his drums away and went to Decca studios and then he did ‘It’s Not Unusual’ by Tom Jones. So he did two number ones in one day. And he got something like sixty quid. [laughs] But that’s what it was then.

DJ: It’s more the legacy than the money.

DP: Yeah, course it is. He’s got some great stories though. And it’s why I like talking to Bruce Welch as well because I asked, and I didn’t know whether Cliff Richard and The Shadows actually toured America – but they did. Back in the very early ‘60s they were on one of those package things with people like Dion and the Belmonts, all those kind of people. But then again, travelling on a greyhound bus. No private jets then. It was just travelling on a bus. But yes, it’s great talking to those people. And those people I look up to those people.

DJ: And Noddy and Jim, do you still hear from them?

DP: Well, as I say, Nod’s always at the lunches.

DJ: So you keep up with Nod.

DP: And Jim – Jim’s not on email. Jim never bothers with email or mobile phones or anything like that.

DJ: He has spoken to me. I interviewed him a couple of years ago.

DP: Oh good. I mainly contact Jim through his brother now. His brother’s on email so I make contact like that through his brother. So I’ll see Nod – if the lunch goes ahead in September, Darren, I shall see Nod there. We always have a good laugh you know. The thing is no-one knows what we’re talking about. We’re just on our own talking and killing ourselves laughing. And no-one knows what we’re talking about. Well when you think, when we’ve been together so long – like I’ve always said I probably knew the rest of the band Nod, Dave and Jim better than I knew my own brother.

DJ: Because you saw a lot more of them.

DP: Oh, just in the back of the van and sharing bags of chips and things like that. I mean we went through so much together really and that can never go away.

DJ: Yes, and that’s a really nice note to end the Slade memories on. And just looking to the future now what next for the Don Powell Band?

DP: Well like I said, it’s all frozen with this pandemic that’s going on but hopefully, as you know, because we’re recording at least we can do some recording. Like I said they send the files to me and I put drums on and send it back. So, hopefully, when all this clears we can get together. We only had two rehearsals together before all this started. So, hopefully, we can just get things sorted when all this pandemic stuff’s done.

DJ: And you are planning a tour then?

DP: Well we would like to, but we will see how it all sort of channels out really. So it’ll be nice. It will be the usual thing. They be asking for ‘that song’. Merry Christmas!

DJ: Presumably, you are going to do a mix of new material and Slade classics?

DP: Oh, I suppose we’ll have to do. Because one of the guitarists is Bob Wilson from Steve Gibbons Band. So we’ve started rehearsing some of Steve Gibbons’ stuff as well. So there’s a lot of material to choose from, Darren.

DJ: And if I can ask one final favour as well. I work for a learning disability charity called Stay Up Late and what we do is help people with a learning disability get out to gigs.

DP: Oh nice! I do that kind of thing over here, Darren.

DJ: Yeah, I knew you did. And one of our participants Daniel is a massive Slade fan, so if you can give a message of support to our charity Stay Up Late that would be brilliant.

DP: Hi there people. This is Don Powell from the Don Powell Band and I’m sending a message to the Stay Up Late people just keep on trucking and keep on going guys. It’s going to be fantastic.

Fantastic. Thanks Don!

‘Let Their Be Drums’ released 18th June 2021

Available via: https://donpowellband.company.site/

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