All posts by Richard Cox

The power behind Slade is back – Don Powell’s Slade

It’s sad that 57 years after they met, glittery front man Dave Hill should feel the need to sack his friend and the man who was the musical driving force behind Great Britain’s most successful rock and pop band of the early 70s. Don’s knees gave out at the end of 2018 and man feared he would never drum again, but he’s back, and he would have rejoined the band.
Don has joined forces with Craig Fenney, a bassman with the former Slade 2, and a man who has music seeping through every vein in his body. The future is bright for Don Powell’s Slade; I’m not sure I can say the same for Dave Hill’s Slade.
Fifty years ago, less a few months, I saw a traditional rock foursome perform at Derby College of Art & Technology. It was my first sight of a band that, at the time, I was sceptical about – skinheads to long-haired rockers did not denote any firm belief in their musical positioning. That gig changed my life. In December 1970 I made four friends, and Slade imprinted themselves indelibly on my musical lexicon.
The story of Slade’s rise to stardom, from Black Country halls, through a dodgy residency in the Caribbean, to becoming the country’s most successful band, has been well documented. If you get the chance to hear Don Powell’s reminiscences, it’s well worth it. Life as a Rockstar, with all the mistakes of fame, is well worth hearing. Take a hankie – you’ll cry laughing.
Slade was formed in 1966 by guitarist and front man Dave and Don Powell. They were joined by rhythm guitarist and amazing vocalist Noddy Holder and finally a classically trained violinist and bassman, Jim Lea, joined. They performed together for thirty years and then split, never to reform as a foursome.
Back in December 1970 I wrote about the group as potential world beaters, but I also picked out the drummer for a special mention. Some drummers feed off and feed to specific musicians within a band – and the best example is the relationship between Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and his great mate, drummer John Bonham. Don Powell was different. He was, and is, one of the most powerful percussionists I have ever seen and heard.
Slade’s rhythm was all-encompassing and emanated from Don’s kit, which grew in size and volume as the band progressed. This allowed the innovative, thoughtful and, frankly, brilliant Jim Lea to create songs and musical movements within songs that set the band apart from the traditional thumping 4/4. There were key changes, which Don was able to help adjust to, and deliberate rhythmic breaks and hiccups which demanded a musical cohesion that others struggled with.
Song writing was largely the territory of Jim and Noddy, with some input from Don – listen to Look Wot You Dun and Don’s influence is loud and clear. The tunes they created live on, including Merry Christmas Everybody (music by Jim in the shower, and honed to pop perfection by him and Nod).
What we can expect from Don Powell’s Slade is a new set list, with many great Slade numbers, but his direction has always been wider; Don has been a music fan for a long time and we can possibly expect to see those influences slotting into place. Listen to the man drumming: yes, he’s loud, but there is also a subtlety that subsumes the expected rock, just as Jim Lea’s clear ability to write ballads and songs of love and leaving, as well as rockabilly, Hot Club de Paris-influences and pop classics. Slade were always a good few notches about the solid 4/4 of thumping guitar chords and chorus lines.
What we can expect is a return to the driving percussion of a man who has been welcomed on stage by global stars, such as Suzie Quatro and the amazing Ringo Starr. This time Don will be centre stage, but don’t wait around for a Slade tribute band. This will be the real thing.

Aynsley Lister: rock with jazz from the heart

The Aynsley Lister Band doesn’t play like normal blues rock outfits. Guitar and bass, piano and organ, and drummer don’t actually used their fingers. They play in their heads and very occasionally each band member will glance to see if their digits are following the sensory instructions.
From the off at Lowdham Village Hall the throb of the blues took us back to days of Peter Green and Danny Kirwan in early Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton at his very best with John Mayall, and Paul Kossoff before he was ‘Free’d from drugs and left this earth.
Lister, Andy Price on keyboards, Beneto Dryden on drums and, especially, the amazing bassman (name missing) are young – mid 40s apart from the bassman – but music has no respect for age and the fluid, dextrous talents of guys who simply love the stuff they do was always going to be a winner.
The young, blonde bassman picked up one of the two magnificent Fender Precision Bass and his fingers began that majestic walk up and down the fret while he plucked and rolled the strings. This was a lion in a zoo, pacing languidly along the fence, every muscle tuned, every movement showing hidden power and strength. Don’t let him loose: he’ll roar.
The first three numbers were an introduction to the scope and range of the band’s individuality, with Dryden stroking and guiding, and having no need to impose his obvious volume. While Price, working the keyboards like the tillerman on a ship, kept the movement flowing.
Lister is a master guitar technician. He can make the instrument sing, cry, wail, sob, and joyously burst out into renewed life. This was a glowing example of clinical precision by one of the most adept surgeons. He took our hearts and our heads, and returned them much later, cleaned and refreshed. He has written countless great songs and produced 11 albums. The vast majority of last night’s performance was from those self-penned albums, and the audience loved every note.
Stay With Me began in a reverberating B-Flat before ascending into the more melodic B (so I’m told) and included a wonderful chorus: “Stay with me. I don’t think that I can make it alone.” ‘A Single Candle’ began with keyboards and drums chatting before an extended ‘conversation’ between guitar and keyboards with the bass driving out a heavy rhythm. The departure from blues to rock was complete with the bass taking firm control, allowing guitar and keyboards to duel in a 1960s, USA-style (Grateful Dead, or even the UK’s Graham Bond Organisation?).
The ad-libbing of precision playing between Lister and Price and then guitar and bass ended the first half. With cheeky comments about teas and snack in the village hall, the band left the stage. Followed, minutes later, by middle-aged posteriors perched on the edge of the stage eating mince pies and trying not to spill cups of tea.
The band was back and it was straight into jazz rock fusion, and the almost Spanish-influenced cadence of guitar on Kalina, and more great blues lyrics like: ‘I’m so down, I’m almost level with the ground.’ Through more rocking genres, including the furious, fret-strutting of Electric Man; and then it was over … not quite. The late and very great Prince would have wept in admiration at the rendition of Purple Raid, and the audience was given full rein to join in the lyrics. Goodnight, except for an encore that was just a joyous blast of fun and frivolity. Deep Purple’s ‘Hush’ was an invitation to a standing, dancing, waving crowd to sing out their approval for a truly remarkable gig.

Hot Club of Cowtown – music for pure lovers

I crawled out of the Louisiana swamp brushing aside the detritus of decades that swirled around my head, hauled myself up through the cotton plants and rinsed away the crawfish and crab, lifted my neck and stared at the spartan stage at Lowdham Civic Hall. Surprisingly, there was no swinging orchestra, no line dancers, no night club jazz players – just three remarkable artists on guitar, violin and a big old double bass. Hot Club Of Cowtown were in the Nottinghamshire village.
Many have tried to describe their music. I’d suggest Creole Country with a heavy influence of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli jazz, tender, precise ballads, and overriding Country & Western. But it’s so much more than that.
Elana Jones is centre stage with flashing eyes and a perfect, embracing smile, framed by blonde hair that wanted to have a fresh life of its own. She is a truly accomplished songwriter and singer with a cheeky vocal delivery. Jones is the de facto group leader and lead singer, but it is her violin that takes centre stage. Soaring through the country style, she evokes images of 19th century America better than a painting. One self-penned number displayed her talent for making the violin ‘talk’. We heard the neighing of wild horses, the clatter of their hooves and the bass and guitar joined in as the animals galloped freely across the Mongolian desert.
Whit Smith is simply stunning. Any guitarist will attest to the sometimes impossible width of the instrument’s neck; Smith must be an alien. His span would cross the River Trent in flood; his precision and accuracy made me gasp in admiration; he didn’t play that guitar, it actually became part of him. The intricate note-picking of the country-style numbers gave way to melody, and a particularly evocative ‘The Continental’ that took us back to the 1930s and days of Noel Coward.
His digits envelope immaculate country and western style Django Reinhardt jazz. He could be a grown-up Harry Potter with a carefully tuned guitar instead of a magic wand. His songwriting skills display a breadth of musical genres that fascinated and enthralled a packed audience.
Jake Erwin exemplifies what the group have evolved into over the last 22 years. He makes the double bass a fulcrum of power and rhythm. That big old slapper is much loved. Erwin’s hands moved effortless over a neck that’s filled out with age; and, woomph, down swoops his right hand and smacks her nether regions. She growls and moans in ecstasy as the strings of her heart are plucked, and his fingers deftly caress. She responds with a power that far surpasses the tenderness with which she’s been plucked and stroked.
Finally a finale, but first a violin string broke. This was no disaster; it was a heaven-sent message that these three musicians were actually human, even if they did have superhuman powers. The last number was the ultimate ‘conversation’ between violin, guitar and bass. This was music in a storm. Music flowed through a wide, pulsing pipe and burst out with ground-shaking power. The torrent took shape as it poured out and carried everything before it: fast, light streams were formed; frothing rapids were crossed; and the culmination was a release, and calm.
Who would I recommend Hot Club Of Cowtown to? Anyone who wants that odd feeling when you hear and see music played so brilliantly that it stops you breathing, but you keep smiling.

Lose the bodies, and find the plots – Derbyshire crime fiction

Derbyshire has a reputation for producing some of the most exciting crime fiction by authors who live there or use the county as their central location. The big question is – why?
Perhaps there will be answers on August 17 at Chesterfield Library at the very first Derbyshire Noir Festival. It’s a long overdue event, but ferociously welcome. These authors know where the bodies are buried and how they got there.
Derbyshire is a cauldron. There’s mining and mills; high peaks, bleak moorland, deep, dark valleys and subterranean caverns; derelict hovels and some of the country’s most elegant and wealthy country homes and palaces; and a literary heritage that includes Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, DH Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe – and that’s before the present crop kicks in. Politically, we have landed gentry, left wing firebrands and right wing Tories, and middle-of-the-roaders. Industrially and commercially, there’s Rolls-Royce making aero engines, and a warehouse full of zero hours contract workers. Yes. Derbyshire does extremes.
Choosing the right location for a crime novel will capture and hold readers; if it then uses these environments to add drama and emotion then even better, and Derbyshire has them everywhere.
Real life is a good starting point for fiction. If death is your menu choice, Derbyshire will cook up an exotic array. Children were forced to work, and die, in Litton Mill in the north; coal miners in the north, east and south have been crushed in pursuit of a living wage; and in recent memory ‘Mad Axeman’ Billy Hughes created terror and committed appalling murders.

While location is important, murders are not committed by places, but by people, and Derbyshire harbours a rich gamut of characters who find their way into some of the most intriguing and enthralling crime fiction. I spent seven years at school in Buxton and later, seven years as a reporter in Derby and Ilkeston covering the county. I have met murderers, drug dealers, robbers, burglars, rapists, but mostly their victims (not the murdered, though). What stands out is the diversity and isolation. For the good people of Glossop looking down on Manchester, the natives of Shardlow and its canal and river are in a foreign land.
Derbyshire’s Peak District gets acres in print, but there is so much more. Repton was a large Viking settlement and they knew a thing or two about violent death; and at the other end of the county is Hayfield, often home to Agatha Christie. It is a beautiful, disparate county. When torrential rain washes the blood of the latest victim from the Peak District into the River Wye, children in Darley Park, Derby, can be swimming in the sunshine-dappled river Derwent unaware of the bodies that have floated downstream – mostly in fiction.
From the southern edges of Saddleworth Moor, infamous for its link to the Moors Murders by Brady and Hindley, to the northernmost reaches of the National Forest, overlooking the National Arboretum Memorial where so many tragic deaths are remembered, Derbyshire is a fount of plots and stories, of evil deeds and courageous heroes. It’s really no wonder that great crime writers allow their imaginations full rein in this remarkable county.

References. if required:
Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventure of the Priory School an d The Man With The Twisted Lip. Plus, his publisher, George Newnes, came from Matlock Bath.
Jane Austen: “No finer county in England than Derbyshire,” she said. And Pride and Prejudice was filmed in the county.
Agatha Christie: Brother-in-law James Watts lived in Cheshire and owned land in the Peak District. She stayed, and write, at Upper House on the Kinder Estate.
D H Lawrence: Lived near Wirksworth for a while (after he and his wife Frieda had to leave Cornwall because she was accused of spying – she was German and a cousin of Baron von Richtofen), and Women in Love was filmed partly at Elvaston Hall.
Alan Sillitoe: Always associated with Nottingham, but many of his books – including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, see his characters escaping the city to go fishing and seducing near where the M1 motorway divides the counties.

The joy and pain of beta-reading

A ‘Beta Reader’ is the very first person to be handed a manuscript and asked to read it with a critical eye. There are often two problems: 1. The author is relinquishing their ‘baby’, a creation that mustn’t be touched; and 2. The reader has a tremendous responsibility and must disassociate themselves from any personal feelings.
The result can be an unmitigated disaster and the death of a friendship, or it could be the cement that seals a personal relationship with trust and respect.
As a reader, how do I tell the author that a character needs to be filled out and given a much bigger role? How do you look at a timescale, scratch your head, and have the temerity to tell the writer that it simply doesn’t work?
Beta readers are not professional editors, nor are they simply proof-readers: both of which require separate and additional skills. My belief is that the beta reader must stand back and see the bigger picture, a la that famous Rolf Harris comment: ‘Can you tell what it is yet?’
My crime thrillers under the name Tony R Cox, are beta-read and part-edited by Tony Moss, my former boss as Chief Sub-Editor at the Nottingham Evening Post. Tony is a long-time friend and a dedicated, proven and successful professional in the newspaper and magazine world. Most of the time friendship is the prime mover; with my books, his professional skills come top. Tony is encouraging and helpful, often amusing, as well as being eagle-eyed and incisive. He likes a complete book to ‘attack’.
I have just finished beta-reading a close friend’s novel. We met five years ago when I went to his debut novel’s launch in a bookshop – and coincidentally won a copy of his book, Heartman. I read it, was astounded by the quality of the work and the different slant he took in a literary world of police procedurals. Gradually we realised that my comments were constructive as well as lightly critical. His fourth in the series is the manuscript I have just finished, chapter by chapter – which suits me as a reader and allows me to home in on a few thousand words, not be faced with 350 pages.
It has been a remarkable few months. Mark Wright is one of the most lucid authors writing today. He grasps the importance of action but also gets deep into the mind of the reader so that they are led, encouraged and almost physically tossed into a maelstrom. Such a stream of consciousness, no matter how controlled and managed, is bound to incur mistakes: I see my role as highlighting those, perhaps offering simple solutions, and ensuring that each character remains three-dimensional.
It has been an honour. He says he owes me a pint; I say it’s the other way round. The satisfaction of ‘Job Done’ is shared.
I believe that no manuscript should be submitted to a literary agent or a publisher unless it has been beta-read. As with a work of art, which it is, get as near to perfection as possible before you set it free.