❉ Legendary Slade bassist and co-writer chats with We Are Cult about his first release in over a decade and his life in music.
“We we had two weeks to put together the songs, now people have two or three years to record an album… I was the musician, but there were no virtuosos in the band. But there weren’t in the Beatles or Stones either, we were just a great band!”.
“I watched Baby Driver and when the Queen stuff came in, I got quite misty eyed thinking about Freddie,” Jim Lea reflects. “I texted Brian May’s P.A. to tell him. I knew all of them in Queen, even before they were famous. John Deacon was always a funny one, I liked him a lot, very dry sense of humour, I don’t see him much anymore obviously. Roger was desperate to be the singer, but he was stuck behind the drums, just as Fred was behind the piano, but they did alright. My wife and I had them over for dinner, we were all good friends. My son brought me to the Queen + Adam Lambert show, terrific show. I had a conversation with Brian about continuing, he said that he and Roger still want to carry on and people want to hear the songs, so give it to them. A bit like Slade, two of the band continued on, you take your cards, I guess”.
Jim Lea is speaking reflectively, as he has every right to be. As one quarter of Slade and one half of Slade’s writing team, Lea watched the highs of seventies rock, flying and journeying with a glam rock band that bit more accessible than T-Rex and that bit more grounded than David Bowie. Although Oasis were heralded as the Beatles of the nineties, anthems Hello, Don’t Look Back In Anger and Some Might Say signalled more to the ballast-rock tunes heralded by Slade, an assortment of fiery riffs, quips and efficaciously misspelled single titles (Coz I Love You, Look Wot You Dun, Mama Weer All Crazee Now, Cum On Feel The Noize, the last an Oasis live staple). Guitarists Noddy Holder and Dave Hill embraced the live circuit with gregariousness and excitability in performance, while Lea (who shared with Paul McCartney a musical compatibility for bass guitar and piano) appeared with a more methodical stance on stage.
“I gave an interview once where I talked about being the George Harrison type” Lea explains. “What I meant by that was that he was more reserved in interviews, Paul is a very good P.R. guy, John had a troubled childhood and deflected by being funny and Ringo, the guy who was in the background, was by far the most popular member in America during Beatlemania. But George could make himself known. There’s that funny story where they’ve just got a two single deal with George Martin and George Harrison says “well, I don’t like your tie”. Liverpool humour that could have cost the band, but very funny! So, that was a bit like me, I guess, but I was very vocal in the band. I had to be – I joined when I wasn’t fully grown and the bass was the same size as me!”
“I always say Noddy put the laddishness in the songs, songs like Cum On Feel The Noize or even on the Far Far Away lyrics, I have the wandered lowly parts “I’ve seen the yellow lights go down the Mississippi/I’ve seen the bridges of the world and they’re for real” and Nod goes “the kids won’t know that”, so he sings “I’ve had a red light off-the-wrist”. His lyrics, my lyrics”.
Music has been a part of Lea all his life. He was a member of the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra in the sixties and though gifted as an artist as well, opted to explore music as a career, joining an early incarnation of Slade when he was sixteen. Lea’s a multi-instrumentalist, the most musically able member of Slade, delving from instruments as diverse as guitar, violin, piano, synthesisers and accordion with Slade in studio- little wonder he was Noddy Holder’s primary musical collaborator!
“I gave a Q and A recently where I was asked about my favourite song. I hadn’t thought of it but I replied How Does It Feel? which was a tune I wrote when I was thirteen, so it must be downhill from here. It was a sold out gig, but a silent one, so I had to laugh at myself. I had the tune and the “How does it feel” and the “Do you know, know, know what it’s like, to be searchin’ in your own time?” bits. The charts were starting to sound like Slade, so we changed. Dave Puttnam suggested we write a theme for a film, and I had the idea already.”
“I always say Noddy put the laddishness in the songs, songs like Cum On Feel The Noize or even on the Far Far Away lyrics, I have the wandered lowly parts “I’ve seen the yellow lights go down the Mississippi/I’ve seen the bridges of the world and they’re for real” and Nod goes “the kids won’t know that”, so he sings “I’ve had a red light off-the-wrist”. His lyrics, my lyrics. I gave an interview a few years ago about the Slayed? Album [Slade’s best regarded album] and I told him we had two weeks to put together the songs, now people have two or three years to record an album. We didn’t do Wembley gigs in those days- we might have done the Wolverhampton cinema and things like that. I was the musician, but there were no virtuosos in the band. But there weren’t in the Beatles or Stones either, we were just a great band!”.
Music remains an integral part of Lea’s trajectory. He released Therapy, a fully-fledged solo album in 2007 (re-released on vinyl in 2016) and these days he’s promoting his latest six song E.P. Lost In Space. It may sound like an extra-terrestrial journey, but in reality it is a focused and finessed rock record, thumping in riff, rocking in bite. What in the World is political in subtext and Megadrive punchy and punky in power pop panache, both likely to appeal to a rocking European audience who amass to the many rock circuits around the continent.
“This E.P. had to be put together quickly, my brother suggested it for this year. As you know, I’ve been sick with cancer, so I had to go to through my archive with pre-cancer vocals. I put together the backing tracks quickly, my brother told me to have them by next Monday or something! Talk about lack of pressure, eh?”
“I never stopped writing, even when the band stopped and I “disappeared”. It’s a lot more pleasurable now when there isn’t so much pressure like the band. Ken Scott told me that John Lennon used to say there was so much pressure on the Beatles to write A-sides, B-sides and album tracks. This E.P. had to be put together quickly, my brother suggested it for this year. As you know, I’ve been sick with cancer, so I had to go to through my archive with pre-cancer vocals. I put together the backing tracks quickly, my brother told me to have them by next Monday or something! Talk about lack of pressure, eh? He used to head Trojan Records. I didn’t have time to ask a drummer, so I put it down, all very DIY. People are always like woah, but lots of people can put albums together. I play all the guitar, I used to listen to Clapton in The Yardbirds and Jimi Hendrix was my hero. Chas Chandler was Slade’s manager, and he knew Jimi and I would have played with him, even Noel Redding told me Jimi would have loved you! When I played at the Robin gig in 2002, everyone said I was playing like Hendrix.So, yes, I play everything on the E.P.”
Pure Power stomps with heavy metal glory (complete with romping drums and throbbing bass) and Going Back To The Birmingham, Midlands in title, is more California surf in feel than Black Sabbath. They’re rocking tracks. It’s not all rock n roll though. The title track is an esoteric pop piece of existential unfulfillment, complete with McCartney/Wings keyboard intro and soaring string arrangements tastefully throwing back to the 45’s that blissfully balladeered with disco dexterities and hopeful Beach Boy harmonies. It’s a track Lea is very proud of.
“Freddie Mercury was a bit “lost in space”, he didn’t have friends as such, he thought very highly of me, and therefore got more squirmish around me, not less. I miss him.”
“I was writing about a mate and then of course people told me it’s about me” Lea laughs. “Lost in Space, I can be lost in thought, friends of mine will ask me in the evening “where are you, Jim?” In 2010, Magnum asked me to play with them and my dad was ill, so the session was constantly deferred. On the day of the session, it was snowing and one of the engineers thought I wouldn’t come in. The manager told her “Jim won’t even know it’s snowing” [laughs]. But it’s true. Freddie Mercury was a bit “lost in space”, he didn’t have friends as such, he thought very highly of me, and therefore got more squirmish around me, not less. I miss him. I play the violin, if you don’t play four hours a day, you’ll be crap. I haven’t been practicing, but the part’s alright. I mean, listen to some of the great Jewish violin players-amazing! I want to keep it human, so many songs these days are infantilised by punching through computers, loses the humanity”.
Lea performed boots n braces a song-set following a Q and A at the Robin on 5 November 2017. It gathered rave reactions from audience members, garnering a DVD release as “‘An Audience with Jim Lea at the Robin 2’, currently sold through his personal website. It stands as one of the few solo gigs Lea has performed since leaving Slade in the nineties. “I would love to do more gigs, but my health won’t allow me. It tires me, I have to go to the gym to get back testosterone. I tried practicing for the gig, and it sounded terrible. I don’t know if I’ll sing again, but I may well do. So, I put together some backing tracks to play along to. It was said on the website “do not expect Jim Lea to play”, so there was great surprise when I did my four songs. It was very highly charged and emotional. I was told it was the second coming, because it’s only the second solo gig I did after Slade broke up. It was also done for charity, which was an added bonus. People said it was the most emotionally charged Q and A they’ve seen. A little lady was trampled on the way out, sadly, while my brother took ages to meet us because of the queues. People ask me is this E.P. the last one, and I say there’ll be more in the foreseeable future. It’ll probably sound completely different to the E.P., but I can’t go into details right now”.
Jim Lea fans have much to expect.
❉ ‘Lost in Space’ – EP by Jim Lea (Wienerworld) was released 22nd Jun 2018, RRP £8.99.
❉ ‘An Audience with Jim Lea at the Robin 2’ DVD was released on 2nd July 2017 and you can order your copy from his website.