Odds and sods about the British rock band Slade

Monday, June 06, 2005

Slade in Flame

Maybe because of my education (I have 2 Ph.D.-degrees, one in literature and one in cultural studies), I've always been a sucker for analysing and comparing stuff. So I thought why not try it with "Slade in Flame". It's a movie, it's a book, it's a soundtrack album. Plenty of stuff to sink your teeth into.
The movie "Flame" was released in 1975 and the basic story is this: we're in the 1960es and the band "Jack Daniels and the D.T.s", consisting of singer Jack Daniels (Alan Lake), guitarist Barry Jenkins (Dave Hill) and bass player Paul Harris (Jim Lea), is on the outlook for a new drummer. The choice falls on foundry worker Charlie Spencer (Don Powell), as he's the only one around who has a full drum kit. The band is under contract to the menacing, two-bit agent Ron Harding (Johnny Shannon), who devotes more time to his greyhounds, fruit machines and thugs than to the band.
After a run-in between the band and the competing group "Roy Priest and the Undertakers", which involves both a car crash and a night in jail, Jack Daniels is out of the band. The rest of the guys regroup as "Iron Rod" with new singer Laurence Stoker (Noddy Holder) from "The Undertakers" and things start to happen. Accompanied by roadie Russell Hayes (Anthony Allen) and Barry's girlfriend Angie (Sarah Clee) "Iron Rod" does sell-out gigs, but Paul's nagging wife Julie (Nina Thomas) stays at home and scrubs the floors while her old man is out playing pop stars, as Angie puts it.
After a successful performance Stoker has a violent confrontation with agent Harding which leads to Harding dropping the band - but only verbally. This is of outmost consequence for the future of "Iron Rod".
"Iron Rod" gets discovered by businessman Robert Seymour (Tom Conti), a whiz at selling anything with a profit, who now wants to try his hand at the music business. He provides the band with a new image including matching costumes, a record deal, exposure to the media and a new name: "Flame", and presto, the band gets its first Silver Disc.
As soon as former agent Harding smells the money behind the success he confronts Seymour with his contract with the 3 original members of the "D.T.s", Barry, Paul and Charlie. A mean battle between the 2 agents takes its beginning and leads to both the firing of roadie Russell and the mutilation of Jack Daniels. The band, unaware of this, continues its success with sell-out concerts and more Silver and Gold Discs, but within the band there's trouble. Charlie is quietly saddened by Seymour's promotion, Barry and Stoker quarrel over Angie and Stoker and Paul quarrel over the music. The band is heading for disaster.
"Flame" is a bleak portrayal of the music business. Andrew Birkin wrote its original screenplay, before going on to be Oscar-nominated in 1983 for short film "Sredni Vashtar" and win the Silver Berlin Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1993 for the film "The Cement Garden". He has written screenplays for "The Name of the Rose" and "Jeanne D'Arc", he was Stanley Kubrick's personal assistant during the making of "Space Odyssey" and yes, he is the brother of Jane "Je t'aime" Birkin.
Birkin wrote the screenplay for "Flame" basing it on true stories. Not the Slade story, but different episodes that had happened to different musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Screaming Lord Sutch. All these episodes are incorporated into the film to make it more realistic. Also things from Slade's "real" life can be seen in the movie: Charlie works in a foundry, so did Don before turning pro as a drummer. Paul carries his bass in a plastic bag, so did Jim at the audition for the 'N Betweens (Slade's original name). Both Paul and Barry are in relationships, just like in real life where Jim and Dave were both married.
Slade's film-names are not chosen at random, either. Here we have a bass player named Paul like McCartney, a drummer named Charlie like Watts and a bloke called Stoker who dressed as a vampire lies in a coffin like in "Dracula", written by Bram Stoker. Then there is Barry. There were lots of famous Barrys in the 1960es, but most were singers such as Barry Ryan or Barry Gibb. Maybe the name is a reference to Chuck Berry as Dave was into Chuck Berry in his early years, but my favourite explanation of the name is, that it refers to Sir J. M. Barrie, Scotch author of "Peter Pan". There are several reasons for this.
First of all I know that Andrew Birkin is a J. M. Barrie enthusiast. Back in 1991 I wrote my Ph.D.-thesis in literature about Sir Barrie and his works and here I learned that in 1978 Birkin conceived and wrote the script for the brilliant BBC-trilogy "The Lost Boys" about Barrie. This also brought about his book "Sir J. M. Barrie and the lost boys" in 1979, a marvellous piece of research into the life of Barrie. Lately Birkin has written the screenplay for the movie "Finding Neverland" starring Johnny Depp as J. M. Barrie.
Secondly it seems appropriate to pair up the members of Flame: When 2 are named after musicians, then the other 2 should be named after the same as well, in this case writers. Why writers do you ask? It's not so much the writers as their fictive characters, Vlad Dracula and Peter Pan. But you can't call Stoker and Barry Vlad and Peter because Vlad sounds too odd, and you can't use the writers' first names, either, as they were Bram and James. I'm sure many fans would have found it strange if Dave suddenly carried Jim's first name in the movie. So instead it ends up with the last names: Stoker and Barry, Barry spelled with a "y" to make it a first name.
The link between Flame and Dracula is clear in the coffin-scene where Stoker is both dressed like and sings about a vampire. Knowing Birkin's passion, there also seems to be a cross-reference between Flame and Peter Pan. Peter Pan is even mentioned in the movie where Charlie talks to his former boss about Barry's 21st birthday. Here Flame personified by Barry is lied years younger (the members of Slade were that in real life, too) and Charlie says: "We're like a bleeding bunch of Peter Pan's." They're boys who can't grow up because of Seymour's promotion. Charlie's speech was by the way a stunning feat by Don. "Flame" was made only a year after Don's car crash where he lost his short time memory, so he could only remember a few minutes at a time. Don therefore had to learn lines for one take and then re-learn the lines for each additional take, but watching the movie you don't notice at all.
All Slade members deliver a solid job as actors in "Flame". Don is in charge of the comic relief, doing both slapstick and (as in real life) brilliant one-liners. Dave is the chain-smoking, girl-kissing fop and Jim the sulking, moody guy who comes across the best in the arguing-scenes. But it is Noddy who upstages them all. On screen he is larger than life, totally dominating the picture. When it comes to the book things are a little different.
The book by John Pidgeon was published in 1975, a bit before the film came out. You can't say that it is a well-written book in the literary sense of the word, but it is action-packed entertainment with an idiomatic down-to-earth language. In most reviews of the book the reviewers point out that it contains all the violence and sex that couldn't fit into the movie because Slade wanted a PG-rating so their younger fans would be able to see it. What I find more interesting is, however, that where the movie is a vehicle for Nod's acting skills, the book is a tribute to Jim's (Paul's) talents as a composer.
The main character in the book is Jack Daniels, most of the time we see the events through his eyes. In the beginning of the book we also follow the events from Charlie's point-of-view, but this is gradually replaced by descriptions of Paul's thoughts and feelings. It is Paul who foresees the troubles that Seymour's promotion will cause and he is the one who's really dying to write music his own way and therefore is unhappy with what is going on. In this way the book clears up some of the points that could have done with an explanation in the movie. The book also makes it clear that the career of the band expands over several years whereas in the movie you get the feeling that it all happens within a few months, making it rather unrealistic.
In the book the group-members also team up in other formations than in the movie. Where the alliances in the film are Stoker/Paul (the songwriters) and Charlie/Barry (the plain musicians) the alliances in the book are Paul/Charlie (the serious musicians) and Stoker/Barry (the entertainers). The book shows a mutual understanding and quiet, almost touching friendship between Paul and Charlie, where the team Stoker/Barry tends to spend their time quarrelling over girls and sex and who got whom pregnant. This fully explains the choice of group member names, as the names equal parts of their personalities. Two are serious musicians and two are respectively a charming but cynical "vampire", i.e. he uses and throws away women, and a boy who doesn't want to grow up, i.e. doesn't want to commit to Angie.
The picture thus painted of Barry and Stoker is a lot less sympathetic in the book than in the film. The opposite goes for Charlie and Paul, where especially Paul stands out as the true hero of the book, which is very remote from the sullen Paul in the movie. It is symptomatic that where Stoker has the last word in the movie, the last words belong to Paul in the book.
Finally there's the soundtrack album. The one who had the last word here was Slade's manager, Chas Chandler, who produced the album. The album is from 1974 and it contains the instant classic "Far Far Away" that made it to no. 2 in the charts. The beautiful, melancholy "How Does It Feel?" made it to no. 15 and was the very first song that Jim ever wrote back in 1969, allegedly on an old out of tune piano with half the keys missing.
My personal favourite is, however, "Them Kinda Monkeys Can't Swing", a very powerful rock tune with great drums and tongue-in-cheek lyrics about monkeys who can't swing and birdies who can't sing. Probably a reference to American bands the Monkees and the Byrds, that were popular in the 1960es where the story of "Flame" takes place. The Monkees are, by the way, mentioned several times in the book. They were the first prefabricated boy band ever, and Flame is afraid that with Seymour's promotion they will end up the same way.
Other great rock tunes on the soundtrack album are "Standin' On the Corner", "Lay It Down" and "This Girl", although the lyrics of the latter are not as good on the album as the cheeky ones about vampires, that can be heard in the movie only. The 4 remaining songs, "O.K. Yesterday Was Yesterday", "Heaven Knows", "So Far So Good" and "Summer Song" are more run-of-the-mill productions, although "Summer Song" has an annoying tendency to stick in your brain.
The sound of the album is slightly different from previous Slade albums because the band made use of a full brass and woodwind section on "Slade in Flame" to give it a more typical sound of the 1960es. The strong Holder/Lea songs can't hide behind this, though; they are still hard rocking stompers with a big thump mark of the 1970es. "Slade in Flame" is one of the best Slade albums ever, superbly produced and probably the most coherent.
Of the 3 "Flame"-outputs the book is - to my own surprise - my favourite. It is not great literature, but no matter how much I love to watch the members of Slade in the film and to hear the music on the soundtrack album, it is still the in-depth story of the book that really gets to me. Hmm…spoken like a true Ph.D. in literature!


At 1:34 AM, Blogger Larry said...

Interesting website!
I read the book many years ago (1975) when I was on vacation in England. I must have left it there & I haven't seen a copy since. I remember enjoying it, thinking it was above & beyond the usual rock&roll story and wanting to see the film (which didn't show in the US, where I live). I finally saw the film many years later and was a little disappointed based on my expectations from the book.

At 4:04 AM, Blogger Lise Lyng Falkenberg said...

Thanks larry,
Nice to know that there's actually people out there who's reading this stuff!

At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well lise im definately gonna get reading this book i feel ashamed ive never read it and ive got it, had it in me cupboard for years!!! You have put many interesting facts about this film which makes me look at from another point, you definately know your stuff!!! dee


Post a Comment

<< Home