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Location: Odense, Denmark

Published author, Ph.D. I write mostly fiction and books on music, movies, art and literature.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

July 15, 2005: interview conducted in my home in Odense, Denmark

I would like to start with the beginning and I would like to start with you. So my first question is, when did you originally get interested in playing the drums?
In the boy scouts. That was when I was 13, I think, but in those days in the boy scouts I was with, you had to play bugle first, and I couldn't do that. I'd just stand at the back doing [Don puffs his cheeks], and they found me out and said, okay, you can play the drums. That was how it started.
I also played the drums in the girl scouts!
Oh, dear! [laughs] It was always SO embarrassing, because we had the parades around my hometown, the Sunday morning parades. My parents used to come to watch and they were waving to me and I was trying to keep a straight face! [laughs].

You are self-taught?

When did you turn professional?
That was in 1965. Because the band I was in with Dave Hill, we'd been together since 1963, and we played the local pubs and clubs and things like that around Wolverhampton, and then we were going to Germany for a month to play one club. Our wages for that…we used to get 140 kroner [£12-13] a week each. [laughs] But that was enough. Values have sort of changed since then. But that was fine, because we lived on chicken and chips anyway that we could buy from the caravan near the station. That was what we lived on. That was enough. During the same month Noddy Holder with his band, they were called "The Rockin' Phantoms" then, they got to Germany also. We knew them anyway because we always played the same bars and things in Wolverhampton and they were going to Frankfurt for a month and we went to Dortmund. That was November 1965 and in 1966 the band started to fall apart basically. There was nothing around and one of the guitarists was a butcher by trade and wanted to go back into that. So the band basically fell apart. We didn't know at the time, but it was the same with Nod's band. So we decided to try it out and it worked from day one, and then we were looking for a bass player and on came Jimmy Lea.

How big a kit do you prefer, what brand of kit, heads and sticks and so?
At the moment I'm using Pearl drums. You want the sizes of the drums?
I use a 22 x 18 inch bass drum and my rack tom is 16 x 16. My floor tom is 18 x 18 and I use the Pearl Piccolo snare drums. I use a 22 inch rides cymbal and an 18 inch crash cymbal and I use 14 inch hi-hat cymbals. That's all, so I only play a very basic kit.

What about heads and sticks?
I use Evans heads. I use the Evans pinstriped on the tom-toms and I use a special kind of Evans head on the snare drum. The sticks are just normal C-sized, they are made by a company in England called William Shaw. I first met them in the seventies and they are based in the North of England, near Bradford. They said they could make sticks in any design, any weight, any size that I wanted and I was using Premier sticks at the time and I said, if you can copy these that would be perfect and they did. And I've been using them ever since. It is so strange…I'd never been to their factory until maybe…15-20 years ago, and I was in the area and I was driving around trying to find it [Don gets a bewildered tone in his voice] this is so strange! It was were normal houses were, oh my god, this must be wrong! But I asked someone and they said, yeah, it's just 100 meters down there. And it was just a house, a normal house where a family lived. And in the kitchen were all the computers and all the office works. Then there were 2 sheds at the bottom of the garden. And everything was made there. The daughter looked after the office and the accounts and the father and son they'd do all the sticks. Apparently they do things world wide now, but they are still at the same place! [laughs] They don't have a factory! [laughs] It's crazy, it is so strange! I've used them since the early seventies and then we went to America and I went on to the normal sort that Ludwig used to make. I was assigned to Ludwig drums. When I came back to England I didn't know if Shaw was still operational, but they were still there and we made contact with them and then they make my sticks all the time now.

I was reading somewhere about the 75 years anniversary of Ludwig drums and 75 drummers invited to that?
That was amazing. Can you imagine 75 drummers at the same hotel? Can you imagine? [laughs] It was mad! That was in my drinking days, so that weekend is lost! [laughs] And they made dinner-suits for everyone. Before we went to Chicago they had all our sizes so they could order the suits. We got air flights and the drummers came from all over the world. They made this big poster with Bill Ludwig the II and III and a drummer called Joe Morello, a very famous jazz drummer from the fifties, I think, or maybe even before that. They where sitting down the front at a round table with a bottle of champagne and 75 drummers in the background. That was amazing. But they stopped Ludwig as we knew it. I remember Bill Ludwig the III came to lunch. He was doing some PR-work and we met for lunch and we were talking and I said, "How come Ludwig is so expensive?" I was lucky; I was an endorsee so I didn't have to pay for my drums. But I said, [Don shakes his head in wonder] "They were so EXPENSIVE! Kids who start these days can't afford them." And he said, "It is just the way that the materials work." I got him to talk and he said, "We cannot compete with the Japanese. They are doing things better than we are and at a fraction of the price." And now Ludwig is no longer. I think it is amazing. It was all based in Chicago in the sixties and seventies and it's all gone. There are still Ludwig drums but not as they were and it is a shame because they were fantastic. Now there's Pearl and DW and such and they are SO good. There's so much choice these days. In the sixties and seventies drums were never really cared about so much as the guitars. There were Pearl and Ludwig drums but not really what you'd call, "Yes! These are fantastic!" except Ludwig at the time and then all of a sudden there's Yamaha, Tama and now DW and it's SO different for a drummer now. You CAN get good quality equipment and that's really nice. Most music shops now if you want to get some drum things they're a lot less than when I first started. You had to order and it cost SO much money, but now it's there in the shop and it is good equipment. It makes such a difference.

To me the sound of your drums is very recognisable. Is this just because you hit so hard or is there some other secret behind this sound?
What we started doing…it's so strange…about the drums: I hit them hard, but…it was just purely by accident at the recording studio that we used in London I went to the toilet one day and there was this echo. And I said, "Oh, let's try the drums in the toilet," and it was like the tiles all the way around made like a live sound and we just put the drums in the toilet. And we put microphones down and that's how it all started. The first time I tried it, and I was halfway through a take, I'd forgotten the toilets. And the toilets flushed! [laughs] They started flushing and I thought, "Oh, no!" [laughs again] and we had to turn all the toilets off! That's when we started using the drums in the toilet. It worked like that. Another time we did some part of an album where John Lennon used to work called the Tittenhurst Park. I think Ringo now owns it. It's a big recording studio there and you could live there. You booked it say for a month and you live there, eat there and record there. There's what we did…it's an enormously big mansion as you can imagine… and we had the drums in the hallway, like the entrance of the house. We didn't put so many mikes on the drums but up the corner, out of the way to get the big room-sound like the sound of stage, really. Like a large sound. That's what we did.

Many bands now use drum machines. What do you think about that?
It's frightening. I tell you, it's frightening! But the thing is, they're so good. It's not like it's rubbish. It's good equipment. I remember one time we got in the studio and I used to go the day before so I could get my drums all sorted out before the other guys came in the day afterwards. I went to the engineer's assistant when I arrived to take my drums in. He was going [Don opens his eyes wide] and I said, "What's the problem? What's wrong?" He said, "You got to use real drums?" "Yes." He said, "I've never worked with real drums. I've only worked with computers." But that's the way it is these days. A lot of records you listen to now have the same drum pattern. They have the same drum computer! [laughs] They use that. Switch it on! [laughs] But I did it once. We were in the studio and there were some modern bands, new bands coming in and they had a drum computer there and I was just playing with it, trying it, you know, for about 10-15 minutes and it was fantastic! And then I thought, "WHAT AM I DOING! WHAT AM I DOING!" [laughs hard] Then you can see how you can get sucked into these kinds of things. Especially nowadays. It's easy to use in the studio, it's so cheap and you can take it in a taxi instead of taking the drums in. But one thing it does lack is the human feel. That's the only thing. It's a machine and that's it. There's no sort of human element there. But it's just the way things go. It's like computers, the same thing, how advanced they go all the time. One time we were in the studio and we'd done a take and it was a really good take and there was a little squeak on the foot pedal and I thought [Don's voice gets matter-of-fact], "Gosh, just oil it and do that bit again." But the engineer said, "No, it's okay, I'll just take that tape and erase that." Three hours later he was still there with his tape, listening and just trying to find it. I said, "I could have recorded an album by now!" All I wanted to do was oil the pedal and do it again! But he had to take the tape and try to find it on the computer and it took him forever. [laughs] When you think, The Beatles' first album was cut in one day. They left "Twist and Shout" to the end, obviously because of the voice, you know.

You have any favourite drummers yourself?
My all time favourite is John Bonham of The Led Zeppelin. We met in the 1960es. He played in a cabaret-band! It's hard to imagine. [laughs] And I couldn't believe it; he didn't need microphones. [laughs] He was SO loud. But basically he is a natural drummer. He owes no tuition, he didn't go for lessons; it just came from his heart. Amazing.

When you're on stage you always use gloves and a gum shield. Why?
Before I started using the gloves the sweat always made the sticks fly out of my hands. [Don lets an imaginary stick fly through the room] I started putting like sticky tape on my fingers and at one time in America I started using plaster, like for cuts. I bought some while we were over there but I was allergic to the adhesive. All my fingers went really sort of poisonous. And I went to a doctor over there and I was explaining everything to him and he said, "Why don't you try wearing gloves?" And I said, "I need very tight gloves so I can actually feel the sticks." He said, "Simple. Ladies' gloves." So now I go to ladies' shops! [laughs] I get some strange looks! I say, "It's okay. It's for my wife. We're the same size!" [laughs] I also go to charity shops to find them. They have to be very tight, you know. Sometimes I have to take the lining out of the inside. But I find them much better than the sticky tape I used. Especially with the sweat. When you're soaked you always seem to lose a stick at the most important point or you're breaking a stick and you go, "Oh no!" [laughs] and you don't have the time to change it! With the gum shield: What I was doing…I'd never realised myself at the time, but when I play the drums I [Don bites his teeth together hard] and I kept on breaking my teeth. My dentist said [Don puts on a resigning voice], "I can't keep on rebuilding your teeth," [laughs] so he suggested it, "Why don't you have a gum shield like boxers?" And I thought it was a great idea, so I said, "Let's try one," so he made one for me and it is perfect, absolutely perfect. But I get strange looks from people down the front [laughs hard] with these gleaming, white teeth. They're shining! It is very strange with the gum shield and the gloves on; when I go on stage to play the drums it's like I'm going to the ring to do a boxing fight! [laughs long]

There are many rumours out there on the Internet. Some say that you are contemplating to do a solo album, others that you are going to write your autobiography. Is there any truth to that?
I'm not doing a solo album. I did a drumming record a few years ago. I started it in the studio with some friends. I never got around to finishing it because we started touring again and I never have time. But I still have the tapes and I'm going to finish it. [Don laughs and tries to look resolute] I WILL do it! About the autobiography: since I had my car accident I always had to keep diaries and I've had many offers to publish them, but I [Don sighs and tries to look despondent, then laughs] I can't do that! You know that guy, Salman Rushdie? I'd have to do one of those; I'd have to go for hiding for about 5 years if I do that! So the diaries are just locked away. I HAVE written a children's book, though. At the moment the illustrations are being done for it and there are songs. It's called "Bibble Brick". Do you know what that bibble is?
It is like a stone from a beach. It's an old sort of slang-word from many years ago in England. The book, it's like a children's cartoon thing, really, and there ARE songs with it which I have written, so what I'd like to do is like a little children's book with a CD with it, like that, you know.

Back in the early 1970es you co-wrote some of Slade's songs with Jim Lea, "Dapple Rose" and "I Remember" being among my favourites. How did that writing situation work? Did you both write on the music and the lyrics, or…?
I don't play any instruments except the drums and I can't sing [laughs] so I was the one writing the lyrics and if I had any ideas for a melody I said like… "I'll sing it to you what I think it is," I said to Jim, "And you sing it back," so it took a lot of time! [laughs] I can WRITE lyrics and I wrote quite a few songs. But then Noddy Holder and Jim Lea started writing and it was so much quicker, so the idea of us writing sort of dropped out basically. But I've written a few things with Dave Hill over the last few years, lyrics-wise.

Do you have any favourite Slade-tunes or albums?
I like "Far Far Away" and album…I think, the one we made in America, "Nobody's Fools", because that was a bit different for us. It was a whole new different recording technique in New York. In England we worked a lot differently and it was also the first time we used girl backing singers on it, you know, and that was nice. So that's one of my personal favourite Slade-albums after all. I like the sound on that. That album didn't do particularly well for us in England at the time, it made it to the charts, but not like the others did, but to me that's my favourite recording.

Could you tell me some differences and maybe resemblance in working with the original Slade and the present Slade?
At the start with the present Slade it was a bit strange because with the old band we'd been together for SO long. We knew exactly EVERYTHING about each other so when we started play everything just fell into place automatically because we'd worked together for so many years. All it was, really, was just…Lenny [Len Tuckey, manager of the present Slade] had these other people and I'd never played with anyone else except Slade, and it was just learning how other people worked. It was like an education for me to learn how different people work. It is nice, it's good. And also equipment is so much ADVANCED these days. You know, we used to go on stage and play really loud because the PA-systems weren't like they are now and we don't need to do that now although I still play loud and these engineers keep saying, "You don't have to play so loud!" [Don gets a very firm tone in his voice], "That's the way I play! You have to do it! [laughs] That's the way I play! You have to capture it." I can't alter my style. That's the way it was with the new band. We were just learning different styles of playing, really, and singing. Because like we were SO used to the old line-up, we'd been together for SO long that we were just like; just going on stage and do it, you know, it used to be the normal thing.

You and Dave Hill go way back. Don't you ever tire of each other?
No. We've been together since 1963 when we played in The Vendors together. That was great. It's a strange thing that we had in those days. We very rarely saw each other socially. With Slade. We DID go out sometimes but it wasn't normal practice. When we'd finished touring, we'd go, "Okay, see you!" See you next month or see you in two months time. And that always kept up a freshness, together, you know. And also when we first started I remember Chas Chandler said to us how CLOSE we were as a band and as people and he said, "Even I can't get into you little circle," and we couldn't really think what he meant. But when we first started as well, we got a booking in the Bahamas in 1968. The Bahamas, wow! They were going to use us for 3 months. And hotels, flights, bars and they were going to pay us $ 100 a week each to play this club like 7 nights a week. And when we got there, I mean, it was like Paradise to us, the Bahamas. But we didn't know, I mean, it was just the way it worked; the club where we were to gig was in the black part of the island and not many white people went, so the club wasn't really making any money. They couldn't really pay us what originally was the deal. But we didn't mind, we had the hotel and we were eating in the hotel and we were just having a great time at this club. But I tell you, after 6 weeks the hotel people sent for us and wanted to know when they were going to get some money. And we said [Don's voice gets startled,] "It's been paid for!" [Don alters his voice to imitate the hotel people,]"We don't know anything about this." And we'd been living there like KINGS in this hotel. We weren't being paid by the club, but at least we could eat in the hotel and the hotel bill at the time was at about $ 35,000. [laughs] We started laughing! We couldn't stop laughing! And they said, "You're not staying here anymore and you're not leaving the island, either. Besides, this week the club has been bought by some American people and they said they will pay you $ 100 a week between you for the 4 of you and we're gonna move you out of the hotel to one of our staff apartments." It was probably as big as this [Don point around my living room: 25 square meters] with 4 tiny beds in the room. We had a small bathroom, a toilet and a little kitchen-thing and we were there for 3½ months [laughs] trying to pay off this hotel-bill which we never did obviously. But back to your original question: that made us SO tight as people because we only had each other. We had no-one, no house, pub anywhere and that made us SO tight as people and our manager Chas Chandler who saw that said, "You four are so CLOSE because of the experiences you've been through." And he said he had never seen that in a band before except maybe The Beatles. He said, "But the tightness of the four of you is like unique." And that was the way it was.

Do you keep in touch with all the other members of the original Slade?
Yeah! Yeah, yeah! We went to Noddy Holder's wedding last year. Yeah, we keep in touch. We speak to each other. But Noddy doesn't actually play anymore. He does radio-work in England, he's a disc jockey. He lives in the North of England and it is in Manchester, he's a disc jockey on local radio in Manchester and he does lots of TV-work. And he has been married and has a little boy, son, there and he has 2 daughters from his first marriage. They're from the town where he lives now, so he sees all his family. He's happy now. He has settled down. With Jim Lea it's the same. He has children, he's a grandfather! [Don laughs heartily] We were 4 schoolboys when we started out and now the youngest member of the band is a grandfather! [laughs long]

You have a new singer now, Mal McNulty, formerly of The Sweet. Could you tell me a bit about him? How does he work out with the band?
Steve Whalley had been the singer with us in the new line-up for more than 10 years. He wanted to go on do other things. Even before he joined this line-up he did make solo-albums and things like that and he is more into a bit more like softer rock. That's what he got back into. I think he's made a new album and that's what he wants to concentrate on. And then Mal McNulty is with us now. Apparently he sang with Sweet and I didn't know about it! It was Andy Scott who recommended him to us. We talked to Andy and we didn't know Mal. I didn't know that Sweet had another singer apart from Brian Connolly. I think he was a friend of our bass player John Berry's. He said, "I know Mal," and he approached him and that's what we've been doing over the last few weeks, we did the rehearsals and its fantastic. When he started singing, the first song we rehearsed was "Cum On Feel The Noize" and the singer started and I felt sparkles on my face and I looked up on Dave and he was sparkling the same. It was like Noddy Holder singing! It is SO strange! He can actually sing in the same keys as Noddy Holder did, you know. And he's a lovely person as well. Lovely guy. Do you know Mal?
Mal is fantastic. We're going to hopefully start to make a new album soon as well. Get some songs together. Especially with his voice. People we've worked for of the past couple of weeks since Mal has been with us, promoters we've worked for of the last few years, they [Don opens up his eyes wide], "It's Noddy Holder! It's Noddy Holder singing!"

I guess that the Danish rivalry between Slade- and Sweet-fans now has to come to an end, then?
It's funny, because people say that, but in the bands it was never anything like that. We only ever saw Sweet when we did "Top Of The Pops" in England, when we were on the show together. We never did any concerts together in the seventies. So they were talking about the state of us on TV shows, "Oh God, the competition between us both!" Well, it used to keep the records rolling at the time.
Yeah, the competition was more between the fans.
Yes, it was. Exactly. It was the same with T. Rex as well. In those days you were only a fan of one band. T. Rex, Sweet, Slade, Mud or someone like that, you couldn't have more than one. It was like that in the rest of Europe, but not with the bands being aware. We weren't aware of it. It was Hanne who told me that it was the way it was among fans basically. In the bands we were just friends.

One of my friends said that having a Sweet-singer with Slade must be the ultimate merger?
It is in a way! [laughs] That would be a new thing. Having Sweet and Slade merging and then it was actually Andy Scott who recommended it! [laughs] It could work! By the way, going back, when we were in the Bahamas, Andy Scott was also in the Bahamas with a band, but they were being paid and they were being looked after properly. What was that band called now? The Elastic Band! But they were in the nice clubs and they were being paid! That's what it says of Andy!

At the moment Slade seems to get more and more popular. You have any idea why?
That's a difficult question to answer. I don't know really…what it really is; it's because of the media with adverts on TV. They did things with "Far Far Away" and "'Coz I Luv You". Ford was using "'Coz I Luv You." You get like a resurgent kind of thing because of the media basically. I think that's helped a lot. Plus the facts like…of the last 10 years we've been together, we've been to territories like Russia and Czechoslovakia and places like that which we couldn't go in the seventies for obvious reasons. But now those markets have opened up and it's great. It's like Dave being reborn! People go there to see him now. And it is great for him, it's great. And we've played like the Olympic Stadium in Moscow and things like that. And what's nice over there is obviously because of the money situation the government half finance the concerts. So they can keep the ticket prices really very low so they can afford to pay for them. It is fantastic that they do that, the government subsidise or finance concerts. It's not a propaganda thing. It works.

How do you like the Danish audience these days?
I'd better be careful, mustn't I! [Don laughs and looks from me to Hanne, both Danish. Hanne is reading about Slade in a book I have on pop music from the 1970es.] No, I think it's the same all over really, because the early records of ours were such big hits all over Europe and everybody knows the songs so a lot of the time we don't have to sing the songs, we just let the crowds do it for us! [laughs] But I find it strange, I mean, the concerts now in most of the European territories, like people who used to come and see us in the seventies, now they come with their children. I think that is really nice. And of course there's "Merry Xmas Everybody" which like…will NEVER go away, you know. It is 30 odd years old now and we recorded that at New York in the summer of 1973 and there was a heath wave with like over 100 degrees outside and we sat there recording "Merry Xmas"! And the engineers go, "[Don sighs] Very strange!" [laughs] And we weren't sure about the record at the time, either. We were not really sure how that record would work, our manager Chas Chandler as well. He said, "Okay. What we say is this is be released." [laughs] Be released. And 30 years later it is still there!

In August you're going to play 3 times here in Denmark, a straight Slade concert and some festivals.
Oh, yeah. I think it is great. Especially all over Europe, not so much in England, but there are always a lot of festivals in Europe. They don't do that so much in England. I think it's great. It's great.
Do you look forward to different things at these different types of concerts?
No, to me each concert is the same. I like playing small clubs because of the atmosphere is more there, but the same with festivals now. The atmosphere is SO great but on a bigger scale. You have a bigger stage and you know, you can see more. But to me personally it doesn't matter where I play, but sometimes I do like it is a bigger stage and you can see, you know, a lot more.

What kind of music do you listen to yourself?
Me personally? The Eagles are my favourite band. The strange thing about The Eagles is that in 1973 back in America again we were top of the bill of this concert in Philadelphia. Steely Dan also did that show, The Eagles were second and we were top of the bill! [laughs] I had never heard of The Eagles then and I was on side of the stage and watched. [Don puts on a baffled voice] "Who are these? These are fantastic, these guys!" [laughs] They've been my favourite band since then. Imagine The Eagles supporting Slade!

Do you listen to any Danish music, your girlfriend being Danish?
I'm forced to, aren't I? [laughs]
Poor guy! Do you like any of it?
Well, Big Fat Snake, I like them and then there's Tim Christensen and some of Thomas Helmig, but it is mainly Big Fat Snake. I still have to see a concert. I want to go. There's one song, when I came to Hanne's house and she played that! But I don't know if they do that on stage. It's called "Be Alone With Me". That's a beautiful song. Absolutely beautiful. When Hanne first put the album on and this song came up I said, "Stop! Stop talking! [Don whispers] Listen to this!" It was brilliant. And I like, what's his name, Johnny Madsen! [Don laughs hard, as Johnny Madsen is kind of like a hard-drinking, scruffy guy who does a very Danish kind of country blues with quirky, ironic and very local down-to-earth lyrics] I love his attitude, his outlook, you know, and he loves "Fawlty Towers". I met him in the hotel when we played the Nibe Festival and we were up all night doing the dialog from "Fawlty Towers"!

How long have you been with Hanne?
We've known each other for 4½ years so I go back and forth between England and Denmark. A long time ago this actor said, "The world is such a small place these days." It is so true. When I talk to my school friends, "I'm just going to Denmark for the weekend," they go, "What!" as if I was going to the moon. [laughs] They don't realise that it probably takes me longer to drive from my house at the south coast of England to London than it takes to fly to Denmark. That's how small the world is. It's so terrific these days. The world is such a small place and it's incredible really. I've been around the world like 4 times and I've been so lucky with the travel and seen all these different countries that I only ever saw on TV or read about, you know, and it's fantastic. I always say; that has been my education, to travel the world and study different countries, different cultures and see things. And it is amazing how music is one common denominator wherever you go. No matter what nationality the music is one common denominator all the time.

Slade has its 40 years anniversary next year. Anything special lined up for that?
Supposedly there are lots of DVDs. Apparently they'll do a special thing with the "Wall of Hits"-DVD next year and maybe a packet-thing with the albums, I think. And who knows? I'd love to do a concert with the original four members! That would be fantastic."
We'd love to see that. Just one.
One. That's it, exactly. [laughs] One. Just one special event.
It would have to be at a very large stadium, because people would come from all over to see that.
That would be something special. For me as well. You know, not just for the audience but just for me as well.

I've been a Slade fan for almost 35 years now. Are you ever going to stop?
People always talk about that. They say, haven't you had enough or when are you going to retire. [Don sounds surprised] I've never even thought about it! My policy is that as soon as I stop enjoying it then I'll finish, but I enjoy everything about it. I've been so lucky with the travelling and the experiences I've had, travelling the world and seeing different things as I said earlier, but as soon as I stop to enjoy it, the playing I mean, I'll get out. I've seen so many people, musicians who say they don't want to play, really. How can they do it? How can they put their heart and soul into anything when they don't even wanna be there? I love playing drums and as soon as I stop enjoying it I WILL finish. I couldn't do that, just go on like a robot, I just couldn't. But I have the best job in the world, travel the world, doing something that I love and get paid for it! I've been so lucky, SO lucky, and I always appreciate it. I think it is wonderful.


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