An excerpt from

Dave Hill: My Story

Dave Hill

BAHAMAS

In the summer of 1968, we received one of the most bizarre bookings of even our career. It turned out a bit like one of those ‘60s pop group films, only in real life, but looking back at it, it was a bit of a turning point for the band. Without that summer, I don’t know if Slade would ever have been the band and the people that we became.

Our agency, Astra, in Wolverhampton, got an offer for us from a guy called Ken Mallin. He was from Willenhall originally, right on our patch, but now he was living in the Bahamas, in a town called Freeport. Nobody knew how he’d come to be living out there, but anyway, he wanted to book us. Either he’d seen us early on, because we used to rehearse and play a bit in Willenhall, or somebody from back home had told him about us. In any event, he sent a request to our agent to book us at a club in Freeport called Tropicana.

We couldn’t believe it. We’re a bunch of working class lads off council estates and before we’d got the band going, it was a bit exotic to go the other side of Wolverhampton. Now we’re being asked to go to the Bahamas. Seriously, I’d never been on a plane because this was before all the package holidays came in. You’d usually go to Skegness or Rhyl or Tywyn, there was Butlins, Pontins, that was it. Planes were for the posh people.

It all seemed a bit surreal. Slade in the Bahamas? Nowadays, you’d be doing Skype calls, sending emails, all that to check out whether it was straight or not. But back then, a phone call to the Bahamas was £1 a minute, which was a fortune. So we couldn’t call him up to find out if it was all ok, but the agency said it was for real, they were dealing with him by telex because this was even before faxes.

We were still a bit dubious about it, but we went off and saw this old lady who was supposed to be his mom, still living in Willenhall. She said it was all above board, so who were we to argue? Even then, we didn’t really believe any of it until the tickets arrived, and they cost a fortune as well! The offer was that we would have a residency, not earning a lot, but it was the Bahamas so we didn’t mind.

We sent all the equipment over ahead of us, on a cargo flight, so it would be there for when we arrived. We were heading out for a month, like a trial period really, and we had an open return ticket.

We got on the plane at Gatwick, flying into Nassau, and I was sat next to Nod. It was just freaky, it really was. We looked at each other and we couldn’t believe we were on a plane, much less that we’d got a month in the Bahamas.

When we got there and got off the plane, we were greeted by these girls in grass skirts. We each got handed a drink with a flower in it and we weren’t drinkers anyway, only tea and pop, so getting drinks from Interflora was a bit over the top for us.

From Nassau, we had to get another plane to Freeport and there we were met by a bloke called King Sniff. Don’t worry, the story gets worse. I don’t know what his real name was, we never found out, but they called him King Sniff because he was always sniffing things out, and got his nose into everything.

He’d got one of those huge American cars, a Mustang I think, like Steve McQueen in Bullitt so we all piled into that, four wide eyed kids, trying to take all this stuff from a different planet in.

He drove us straight to the club where we were going to play, not the hotel. We got to the parking lot. There was a wooden shack and in it was a bloke called Eric Roker who, apparently, was constantly stoned out of his brain, and he was having a kip. He woke up and we made some sort of connection with him, even though he was a bit spaced out. We were a bit naïve then, we just thought he was drunk!

King Sniff took us in the club, the Tropicana, palm trees outside the door, all the stuff we’d seen in pictures. We had a look round, but to me, it still felt odd, surreal. “We’re from Wolverhampton and you want us to play in the Bahamas? And you’ve got a bloke sleeping in a shed in the car park?”

Anyway, we went inside and there are cockroaches climbing up the wall, steamy, very tropical I suppose. It was a typical club, tables set up round a bit of a dance floor, drinks on sticks, all that.

King Sniff says, “We’ve got a deal for you to stay at the Sheridan Oceanus Hotel,” which was right on the river. So we headed over there and it was all like walking into a movie. It was a typically American hotel, air conditioning, the works. So you’re outside in this extreme humidity and you walk in and it’s beautiful and cool. Even that was weird because we didn’t know what air conditioning was. There’s not much call for it in Wolverhampton. Back then, most of us didn’t even have a fridge.

They were very apologetic, “You don’t have a room each”. We’d never had a room each anyway! They thought they were asking us to slum it, but to us it was like being in Hollywood. But to make up for it, we were in adjoining rooms with a connecting door through into the other one. Two in each room, single bed each, but their beds are massive. I roomed with Don, Jim roomed with Nod.

There was an ice machine, all sorts, and there was a bidet in there. “Don, have a look, in here! They’ve got a sink to wash your feet in!” That’s what I thought it was, I’d got no idea.

King Sniff told us, “Don’t worry about money, sign everything to the room, we’ll look after the bill”. Great! So we got the menu out for room service and it was fantastic. First off, we ordered a coffee and this waiter turned up with his dicky bow on, comes in with a tray and the coffee’s in a metal container, everything just so. Me and Don looked at each other. “This is a bloody lark innit! We’ll have a bit of this!” And I suppose it gave us a bit of a taste for what it would be like if we were successful, living like a Beatle or something.

We were set up to do three sets a night, half an hour a time, with other acts on in between us. There was going to be a fire-eater, called Prince Badou, a snake charmer, a belly dancer, cabaret stuff, all that caper! It was like being Hope and Crosby in The Road to the Bahamas or something.

So Prince Badou – whose real name was Sid – would come on and Don had to stay onstage to give it the drum roll, then he’d be backing the belly dancer, Nod had to drag a cage onstage for the belly dancer to work in, it was chaos really. We were involved in pretty well everything somewhere along the line, a bit like Spinal Tap meets Phoenix Nights. But we were only young, it was an adventure, we didn’t know any different.

One night, we had this chap called Mr Gold ready to come on stage. He painted himself like Shirley Eaton, the girl in Goldfinger. He was on after Prince Badou, Sid, but Sid was going down a storm and he was proper milking it, extending his act, while Mr. Gold was waiting to go on.

He’s painted head to toe in gold but like in the film, if you are covered in paint, your body can suffocate, so he wants to get on, do his bit, get off and get rid of the paint. So he’s at the side of the stage, behind the curtain, desperate to get on. On the stage, all you can hear is him shouting, “Get him off!”

But Prince Badou won’t shift. We could see these gold hands gradually sliding down the curtain, as if he was dying, so we start to panic, “Get him onstage quick before it’s too late!” The manager comes running down the front and bundles Prince Badou off and Mr Gold finally gets on just before he conks out! Then they’d book these supposedly successful acts, who’d come over from Miami and play for a week. There was a girl group called The Twons would you believe? They were like the Supremes, and they’d do these dance routines. They’d do their set and we had to back them, we like the Rhythm Revue or the Ikettes with Ike and Tina.

So they’d be singing and they’d do that American thing you’d see on Soul Train or something where they’d go, “And now we’re gonna take you to the bass! Come on bass!” And Jim would walk up and have to start twisting while he was playing, they’d be dancing round him and shaking their heads, Jim would start mimicking them. Then it would be, “On drums, the hardest working man in show business!” “Play some guitar Davey!”

Week after week, that would change, there’d be an r’n’b singer the following week and it would go on like that. From doing that, we got a bit of that soul, Motown thing in our music and we were starting to put on a show as well as just playing. Without really thinking about it or working on it, we were rounding our act out a bit, becoming something a bit different.

We discovered as time went on that we were on the decidedly bohemian side of the island, definitely not the posh side. Andy Scott, who was later in Sweet, was in a band called Elastic Band and they were in the better club in the centre of Freeport. We were in the alternative place, out of the way, a bit edgy to be honest. We’d get a lot of, “What’s yo white ass doing here?” when we were around the club. We had to be careful where we went and that kind of racial segregation, that no-go idea was new to us.

Our club was never full. The idea of getting us was to fill it out because Andy’s club was doing great business and they wanted to copy that. But that was in the safe part of the island. We weren’t! A lot of people wouldn’t go there because of that.

Even then, a lot of white kids still came to the club. I suppose they wanted a walk on the wild side. There were a lot of Americans living there, so that was a big part of the crowd, there to look at the latest English group to come over. There were guys from the armed forces based there, it was a real mix.

We were doing ok, we were playing at night, not much beyond midnight, we had some money, weekly pay, signing everything off at the hotel, it was great. As time went on, we started getting to know people on the island, they introduced us to smoking pot, I ended up going out with a girl whose parents had got a swimming pool, it was good fun.

Except one day, we got a call from the hotel manager, who wanted to come and see us about our unpaid bill. So before that, we went off to the club to find Ken Mallin to see what was going on. Only he’d scarpered! And there, banging on the door, there’s a guy in dark shades, from the Mafia, who’s come to kill him because he’s owed money. Not just any money. The money that he’d financed Ken with to bring us over in the first place. And he’s not the only one.

Ken reputedly had his sister living there and she also had something to do with the financing. We’d already met her but as it all unravelled, it turned out she wasn’t his sister at all, she was actually his mom! They were living in a very nice house together but for some reason, nobody could know she was his mom. And the woman back in Willenhall who’d waved us off, she was his grandma.

While all this was going on, there were riots on the island because of the jobs situation. What we hadn’t been told was there were a lot of tension on the island between the locals and the foreigners who’d come over and taken their jobs, working as waiters, working in hotels.

At one point, we watched a guy running past our room carrying a spear, chasing one of the foreigners who’d got a job. It was like watching Zulu. We got told to stay inside, it wasn’t safe to be on the streets.

So we went back to the hotel, we’re sitting there with the debt to pay to the hotel, which ran to $2,000, which was a fortune. Then the club management got fired and an American came in from somewhere to take charge and he decided to keep us on. He struck a deal with the hotel to pay part of our wages directly to them, but only on the understanding that we stayed on the island until the bill was paid, so our one month there ended up being three months. We got shifted out of our rooms, which were the fancy ones, and got stuck in an apartment down the road, where the hotel staff stayed.

The four of us were living in one room with four beds, a fridge and a toilet, that’s it. It sounds horrendous, but I think that was what made Slade. That’s how we got really close. We had to spend that much time cooped up in that room together that we came out of it so tight.

It was like an ordeal but we came through it and that set us up for being Slade and going through what came at us after that. It gelled everything, we learnt how to live with one another and years later, when we had all that massive success and were under siege in dressing rooms and cars and hotels all the while, we could handle it because we knew how to cope.

We were lucky because we’d made friends in that first month and so we finished up being subsidised by people who liked us after that – we’d go round their houses to eat, and there was a roster of them that kept us going.

But we couldn’t get hold of anybody in England to let them know that we were in trouble because we were so far away, so it was easy for everybody to ignore us. In fact, the agency were sending telexes to the club to see if they wanted any more groups to join us out there! We were pretty narked by it all. We got left to our own devices while we were out there, we couldn’t get any help from them.

We were lucky we still had our job at the club, but the new manager was a lot stronger character and he was laying the law down. There was another character who turned up then, The Iceman. He was the guy who knew everything, he was into all that was going on. He became a big friend of ours but he was on the payroll at the club.

They got him to put this bulb above us on stage and if it came on, it meant we were too loud and we had to turn down. The one night, the manager’s wife turned the bulb on, but we just carried on and ignored it. So she came down the front, pointing at the bulb, shouting at us to turn down. We started laughing and she stormed off to get her husband.

He turned to The Iceman and said, “Get a pair of scissors and cut the singer’s strings off his guitar”. He got on stage, but he said to Nod, “Boss says I’ve got to cut the strings man. Just make it look like I’m cutting them!” Then he went off the back and said, “I cut his strings boss, but they’re still playing!”

It must have been the heat – it was boiling hot all the time we were there – but we did some daft things. I decided to have my hair cut off so that it would grow back thicker. This girl I was going out with suggested I get a wig, a Beatle wig, so that sounded ok and I went and got one, $50. It wasn’t a proper one, wasn’t pinned down, it shifted about all the time. But it was like having thick hair, it was ok when it was in the right place.

I’m looking pretty cool, like a Beatle, and I met somebody who wanted to use an English guy to advertise their clothes, flowery shirts, shorts and sneakers. They wanted me to model for them and seeing as things were rough, I thought it was a way of earning a bit of extra money. The other lads were taking the mick, because nobody wore flowery shirts in the midlands back then. They thought it was hilarious, but I didn’t mind any of that.

I put the gear on in the apartment, I’ve got the wig on, and I walked down to the swimming pool where they had this fashion show and there’s a guy on the mic, “Here’s Dave wearing our flowery shirt and shorts combination”, that kind of thing. Meanwhile, Jim is writing to his girlfriend Louise saying, “H has gone off his rocker and started wearing women’s clothes!”

But I got a bit of money out of it, which was the main thing. These were the days when the kaftan thing was popular and I fancied one. So a couple of days later, I was in a shop and I saw this long denim dress, it fastened up the front with buttons, and I thought that it might look a bit like a kaftan, so I bought it and put it on. Unfortunately, it only came down to my knees, but I thought I could get away with it.

We went to the club to do the show that night, I’m still wearing my dress, and this tall, blonde girl walked in with an American guy and she was wearing exactly the same dress. I was onstage, playing away, and she came down the front and screamed, “He’s got my dress on! He’s a weirdo!” So the rest of them were just taking the piss out of me behind and I became the focal point of things all of a sudden. That was the first time that I really looked different on stage and that was the start of that side of the band.

By then though, we were starting to get a bit fed up of it all and we were left wondering how to get home. We heard the club wanted to redecorate to encourage more trade and they told us to have a week off while they were closed. Great, this is our chance!

We took all the equipment out, went to the airport, and used the open return ticket we had to send the gear home by cargo plane. We booked a flight out of Freeport to Nassau and were getting ready to go. Meanwhile, I owed this girl $50 for the Beatle wig and she’d got wind of the fact we were doing a runner and came looking for me. Her brother was built like Superman, huge, so Nod started winding me up, “He’s gonna come looking for you H!” So I hopped on a flight to Nassau a day early ahead of the other lads, just to get away. I got there late at night and then I had to wait for them to arrive the following day.

I was starving and so I decided I was going to walk into Nassau, which was about 20 minutes away, just to get something to eat, because everything in the airport was closed. It was pitch black and I was walking down this road, past these shacks – I mean real shacks, proper run down.

I came to what looked like a village, full of black guys, and after what we’d seen in Freeport, I was pretty uncomfortable. I was trying to find my way round the edge of it all but they’d clocked me so I decided to turn back.

Then I had the bright idea to go and sleep on the beach because I’d read James Bond books where he’d done that. So I went and laid down on the sand and started nodding off, and I could hear this hissing. I looked up and it was a crab, with its claws out, rearing up at me, coming towards me. I’m knackered and this giant bloody crab is coming to kill me!

I got up and ran off and down the road, I came across a few houses. The lights were off, no idea if there was anyone about, so I started looking for an open window, just to get in and get some sleep. Nothing open, but I managed to get in a garage. So I lay down again, and then I heard something crawling up the wall. The place was full of cockroaches and they were climbing up the walls. So I’m up again, I run out of there, and headed back to the airport. When I got there, I just got in somebody’s car - nobody locked stuff then - and I fell asleep.

The day after, the rest of the band arrived and they’d got away no problems at all. When I saw them getting off the plane, I’d never been so happy to see the four of them – Nod, Jimmy, Don and my Burns guitar that I’d left with Don for safe keeping. He was carrying it in a polythene bag.

Even then, we were still on edge because we knew we weren’t away yet. We didn’t know if they’d send anybody after us and in the airport, we were hiding around corners, keeping out of the way. Then our flight got delayed and we were really paranoid by now. Everybody looked like gangsters, there were all these people in shades, so we thought they were looking for us – it was the Bahamas, everybody had shades! It felt like we’d escaped from Colditz and we were trying to keep out of the way. Eventually, we boarded the plane and when it took off, it really did feel as if we’d escaped back to Blighty.

By the time we got home, we were a completely different band, it had had a really profound effect on us. The way we sounded, how we looked, the people we were, it was all different. We played our first gig back home in Bilston, loads of friends came to see us and they all said we sounded different. We weren’t as full on, we were a bit quieter, you could hear the music more. I had short hair, I got rid of the wig, we were all suntanned. We came back with different songs, “Journey To The Centre Of Your Mind”, “Born To Be Wild”, things that ended up on the Beginnings album. Chas Chandler always used to say that the Bahamas was what drew us together, a bit like The Beatles in Hamburg.

It was a very influential period for us, we took on a lot of different ideas for everything, not just music, but the way we dressed, how we behaved. You look at the cover of Beginnings, it was a lot more of an American feel to it, we were doing covers of Steppenwolf, Zappa, Marvin Gaye. We were still four blokes from the Black Country and that was definitely in there as well, but we’d lived a bit now, seen a few things. We were Slade.

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