Bowie guitarist Earl Slick on his years with The Thin White Duke, working with Lennon and the making of Station To Station

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Earl Slick - photo Chuck Lanza

Earl Slick – photo Chuck Lanza

As he prepares to play Station To Station across the UK, Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby talks to the guitarist about his years as Bowie’s consigliere, working with Lennon and…erm…Tim Curry…?

Guitarist Earl Slick was only in the UK a few weeks ago, playing at the BRIT Awards, but he will be back in a matter of weeks. He announced a UK tour with Bernard Fowler late last year where he will play Station To Station, his favourite David Bowie record. But this is far from a cheap tribute act, Slick played on the record, helping to shape this singular album in Bowie’s back catalogue.

In fact, Slick was a staple in Bowie’s band right up until his final tour, and called upon Slick to sling his axe when he surprised the world with The Next Day in 2013. From the glam rock of the bonkersly innovative Diamond Dogs tour, the soul of Young Americans, the blockbuster pop of the Let’s Dance tour and of course the drug-induced paranoia of Station To Station and beyond, Slick was often found to be Bowie’s consigliere.

Recent events, of course, have given the tour a whole new meaning; “I’m so happy that this was all booked and on sale last year,” he tells me. “I really would have had no choice but to blow it out. I wouldn’t have felt good about it.

We were supposed to talk to Slick on the phone from New York at 6pm UK time, but despite driver-less lorries becoming a reality on British motorways, connecting an international call proved too much for technology to handle. He kindly agreed to call back at 9pm, and it became clear that Slick maintains a dry sense of humour that really feels like a middle ground between the scousers and the New Yorkers. “I always say to people over here when they go to the UK for the first time; please do not refer to them as Europeans”, he deadpans. “They will not be happy with you!

Earl Slick with David Bowie on the Reality Tour

Earl Slick with David Bowie on the Reality Tour – Kevin Mazur/WireImage

GIT: I thought the BRITS performance was touching and classy, and really beyond anything I could have hoped from an event like the BRITS…

ES: That goes both ways, because everybody involved there was so gracious and supportive. I’m so happy that they called us, because we’re all that’s left. We were the last touring band, and that’s one of the reasons that – see, this is one of the reasons the Brits are a little smarter than we are – let’s bring in the real band! Well, duh! [laughs]

GIT: How did Lorde get involved in that?

ES: You know, it was the weirdest thing with Lorde, because I’ll be honest with you, I blew a fucking gasket when I found out. Because they had told us what we were going to do originally, right? Which I thought was very disturbing and weird, and I said “perfect!” My boss invented disturbing and weird!

GIT: Why? What was the plan originally?

ES: It would have been without a singer. You know how the show opened up? There would have been a spotlight on a mic with nobody there. The whole thing was supposed to be like that, right? And then I got a message from Gerry [Leonard, the other guitarist in Bowie’s band] and said he’d contacted Lorde. First of all I’m not really familiar, because she hasn’t really hit big here yet. I know she’s doing quite well, she’s on her way, but I didn’t know who she was or why she was there. So, my first thought is “who is this person?” Why am I being told last minute when – I mean, excuse me, 43 years with DB, I deserve to know who the fuck’s singing! And they better have earned their way, you know!

Anyway, long story short, I rattled some cages – as I normally do – and I got a call and they explained the situation and it was totally legit and at the end of the day I am so happy that she did it, cos I thought that she was stellar.

GIT: Yeah, she was.

ES: I just thought for a 19 year old to get up on that stage under those circumstances, especially after what happened here at our fiasco [Slick is referring to Lady GaGa’s tribute to Bowie at the Grammy Awards], that took some nerve. She threw down! She did the boss right, and I went and told her afterwards.

GIT: And she was dressed as The Thin White Duke as well, which ties in with the UK tour you are doing in a couple of months’ time.

ES: Yeah!

GIT: I have actually seen you play before, when you were on guitar for the New York Dolls shows you did a few years back.

ES: Oh!

GIT: They’ve been quiet for a long time, are they through now?

ES: Oh, yeah, it’s long gone. There was no point in doing it anymore and it was kinda spent. You know, David really does enjoy the Buster thing [frontman David Johansen is also known for his tongue in cheek lounge singer alter ego Buster Poindexter]. He’s so good at it. I’ve seen him do it a couple of times this last year, and man! He’s got it down, you know.

GIT: You’re touring Station To Station. Of all the Bowie albums you played, why have you chosen that one?

ES: I didn’t choose it. I get asked to do this stuff occasionally, and this is even before what happened. I really don’t like doing it. If DB ain’t doing it, what’s the point? But I was approached, and of all the records I did with David, that one is the one that I feel is my favourite album, but not for the obvious reasons. It was the way it was recorded, it was what I played on it. It was a very important record artistically because it was the first time somebody took pop songs and twisted the hell out of them but didn’t lose the essence of the song. The only person who was really doing “out there” shit at the time was Zappa, and that was wonderful but it was Zappa. This wasn’t avant-garde, this was pop stuff and nobody had approached a record like that. And to this day, I’m really quite amazed at what I did at the age I was at. I was 24 when we made that record. I was a kid. It’s an iconic album, and it’s some of my best work for him.

GIT: I do want to talk about Station To Station, because it’s why you’re coming over here, but I want to back a little bit as well. When you first joined David – I think I’m right in saying you replaced Mick Ronson?

ES: Yes, Mick left and David went and did the Diamond Dogs album. I think there might have been a few guitarists in there that weren’t credited, but I do know that David played most of the guitar on that record on his own.

GIT: Was daunting to replace someone who in the Bowie pantheon was kind of considered like the Richards to his Jagger?   

ES: It was at first. My main concern was that I came from Rolling Stones, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf…that’s what I did. And I loved Mick. I mean, Aladdin Sane! Jesus Christ, one of the best records ever made. And some of Mick’s guitar playing on some of that stuff was just amazing. And I thought “I can do it, but it’s not gonna be the same”. I didn’t say anything to him, and he came to me and said “by the way, I want you to do what you do. I don’t want you to be Mick Ronson, I like the way you play and approach these the way that you feel.” And then the sigh of relief! [laughs]

GIT: And obviously, that was the Diamond Dogs tour as well, which was such a huge, innovative show for that period…

ES: Oh, yeah!

GIT: …was that a completely different world to walk into that, or could you just do your thing anyway, in spite of the theatrics?

ES: Well, it was a different world in terms of what I had ever done on stage before, but living in New York, and I had a couple of friends who were in Broadway plays – I had one who was in Hair and another that was in Jesus Christ Superstar, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t seen that before. But I had never been on stage doing it. I don’t think it phased me all that much, except I had to get a haircut and I hated that suit he made me wear! Which I actually still have!

GIT: Oh, really?

ES: It’s in pristine condition! That is probably, other than what David’s estate has, that might be the only surviving piece of that tour that’s not been archived or put away.

GIT: Also, it was somewhere along the road on that tour where I guess his muse started to change, and that’s when he kind of fell into the soul music that would become Young Americans

ES: Yeah, at some point after we did the main run of Diamond Dogs, there was some personnel changes and we were doing Diamond Dogs, but we were adding what would have become some of the Young Americans record in with it.

GIT: Were you a bit blindsided by the change in direction?

ES: The approach that we took on David Live [Bowie’s 1974 live album recorded towards the end of the Diamond Dogs tour] wasn’t so much glam rock as it was earlier, but what ended up happening was we finished that main run and I was told I was being replaced. So I thought “that’s nice, whatever”, you know. I get a great gig and boom! Out. So, I went about my business and I got a call last minute to fly to Los Angeles and I was back in the fold.

GIT: Were you given any reasons for that?

ES: Oh, what the fuck?! [laughs]I’m easily baited!

What happened was he got Carlos Alomar, who is one hell of an R&B player. What David didn’t know, or anybody for that matter, was I was making really good money before I joined David’s band in New York City playing not only, like, traditional Howlin’ Wolf, but they were really into James Brown and Wilson Pickett. So I had really good R&B chops already.

GIT: Well, it’s still kind of the roots of rock & roll, isn’t it?

ES: Yeah, but Carlos really lived in that world, so I understood that. But then I think someone really realised “who the fuck is gonna play Suffragette City?!” So…in I come again!

GIT: It was around this point where he really started blowing up in America, and there was the #1 with Fame – which was co-written with John Lennon. You worked a lot with Lennon later on, is this where you first met him?

ES: Yes! Apparently, but here’s the really weird thing – I don’t remember!

GIT: You don’t remember meeting John Lennon?! [laughs]

ES: No! This is so fucking weird, because when I first met John, he’s saying “it’s good to see you again”, and I’m going, like…”huh?”. I mean we were both laughing our asses off, and he said “how do you not remember meeting a Beatle?!”

GIT: Maybe he was mistaken and was just being polite!

ES: It’s hysterical! Because he and Jack Douglas [producer of Lennon’s final album Double Fantasy]tracked me down to play on the record, so yeah! Funny!

GIT: Well, we’re in Liverpool, so this is obviously of interest to us – what was it like working with Lennon in those sessions?

ES: Easy. John was great. We became fast friends, because I was much more like him than the rest of the band were, because the rest of the band were the cream of the crop of session players. Hugh McCracken, what a guitar player, God rest his soul. Tony Levin playing bass, Andy Newmark [drums]…these guys were playing on big records, and I was playing clubs and dirty bar joints. Doing sessions here and there, but not those kinds of sessions, and I was quite a lot younger than everyone else.

Slick in the studio with Lennon

Slick in the studio with Lennon

GIT: This brings us nicely to Station To Station…would you agree that this was a transitional record for Bowie?

ES: Station? Absolutely.

GIT: It was his last real character record with The Thin White Duke – is it true he was planning a movie based on The Thin White Duke, by the way?

ES: Um…I guess so. He was doing The Man Who Fell To Earth [Bowie’s debut acting role]. Even in that movie, David was just playing himself. That movie and the record were completely separate though, because he was writing some other music, I don’t know if it was ever used or what happened to it, but he was kinda immersed in the two things at the same time.

GIT: How much do you think his fondness for taking on characters aided the creativity of his projects? Do you think it pushed him into other places?

ES: Erm…you know…I think when we went in to do Station, David had something in mind, but I don’t think it was mapped out. He had songs written, but we did experimenting that he never did before. Like the soundtrack of the train, all that feedback we did. The subject matter, the lyrics I think were the weirdest he’d ever done up to that point.

But I’m not sure what his personal view was, because it wasn’t like now where everyone discusses every fucking Goddamn aspect of what you’re doing. Who cares?! Get in the studio and make an album! What happened with that record is that it took on a life of its own.

GIT: Do you think it’s a fair representation of what was going on at the time? Like, there’s a lot of paranoia in the title track… 

ES: Oh, yeah! Cocaine will do that to you! [laughs]I’m not speaking out of school, cos David has addressed that.

GIT: Yeah, I’ve heard both of you say that neither of you have many recollections of making the record!

ES: Yeah! He doesn’t remember that and I don’t remember Young Americans! [laughs]

GIT: Fair enough! I actually completely forgot this until I was looking at the sleeve notes the other day; Roy Bittan from Springsteen’s E Street Band played piano on the record – and I believe you guys go way back?

ES: Yeah, for some reason Mike Garson [Bowie’s regular pianist] wasn’t involved and I knew Roy from…fuck! I think the first record I was ever on that was released was where I met Roy, maybe around 1970-ish and we became really good friends. I bumped into him when I was rehearsing with my band in New York in between Bowie stuff, and he said “I’m auditioning for this Bruce Springsteen guy. What do you think?

And I said “I’ve seen him play a number of times. This guy’s fucking good, I’d go for it.” And that was when Bruce was just on the verge of exploding. He was on the cover of Time and Newsweek

GIT: Around Born To Run-era?

ES: Yes, that’s exactly when it was, because I went to see them a few times and some of that stuff was already there.

GIT: You got Roy Bittan into the E Street Band! That’s amazing!

ES: Yeah, so…anyway…we were all at the Sunset Marquis [a hotel on the Sunset Strip in LA], Bruce was playing at the Roxy [legendary club on the Strip]. We’re in the studio and David goes “what do we do about a piano player?”. And I say “Springsteen’s at my hotel and my friend Roy is there,” so we brought him in.

GIT: I always say Roy’s one of the great piano players, I think it’s hard for a pianist to be as distinctive as he is.

ES: Roy’s a motherfucker, man! He’s a great piano player. He’s the only survivor who was never on stage [with Bowie], even when Springsteen wasn’t using the band, actually. And thank God he was there! Because he was exactly the right piano player for that record.

GIT: I wanna go through a couple of choice tracks on Station To Station. First of all, Golden Years sounds like it could come from the Young Americans sessions…

ES: Erm…I don’t think so. Maybe the meat of some of the lyric was, but when we did it David needed a lick for the beginning. And that lick that’s on there that I supposedly wrote – which I didn’t, I stole it [laughs]

GIT: [laughs]Where did you steal it from? We need to clear this up!

ES: It’s a combination of Outside Woman Blues by Cream – thank you, Eric Clapton! – and a little bit of Funky Broadway.

GIT: Wilson Pickett?

ES: Yeah…it was more the Cream one. If you listen to Outside Woman Blues, and then listen to Funky Broadway and kinda morph them, that’s what the lick is.

GIT: …and Stay is kind of your showpiece in a way, I guess. There’s a lot of you in there.

ES: Well, pretty much most of that album, because I’ve been listening to it again, and a lot of it is me. There’s a few tracks where I can’t even find Carlos, so I’m not even sure if he played on them. But, what Stay was originally…he had recorded a song earlier on called John, I’m Only Dancing and he wanted to re-do it. So he asked me to come up with a lick and because it was so off from this other song, he morphed it. So, if you listen to John, I’m Only Dancing and Stay, you’ll hear some very familiar chord changes.

GIT: Was that John I’m Only Dancing (Again), that re-recording?

ES: No, we didn’t do it. Or maybe we did, but that’s what that was supposed to be.

GIT: After all the work on the album, you didn’t end up on the tour…

ES: No.

GIT: Why was that?

ES: That was a bunch of people in suits fucking over David and fucking over me by lying to us and telling us things about each other, and pitting us against each other. There are a whole lot of details involved here that are moot. But I felt like I was being screwed. We both had the same manager at the time…

GIT: Was that Tony DeFries?

ES: No, DeFries was gone, it was a guy named Michael Lippman. But there was some things Lippman was doing that he [Bowie] wasn’t happy about, so he split with him. But Lippman had just helped me get my record contract with Capitol, so I stayed with him. And being 24 years old, I was easily manipulated that David was out to screw me and all the rest of this kind of shit.

So, I was ready to do the tour and I was trying to get David on the phone to talk to him, and there was a guy named Pat Gibbons who had taken over. He told me that David wasn’t speaking to anybody. I said “look, I gotta talk to David”, and he just wouldn’t let me. And that was that.

GIT: You came back many times afterwards, though…

ES: The first time after that was a long time, you’re talking about ’76 to ’83 for the Serious Moonlight Tour

GIT: You came in last minute there, right?

ES: Oh, talk about last minute! Do you think? Yeah! I had a phone call and I had to learn the whole show in about three days!

But we had coffee and we were happy to see each other. We sat down and we started to tell each other what was going on and the stories did not match. And that’s when we put two and two together and figured out what happened. The suits had an agenda and it cost me my job. I mean, I quit…

GIT: …but you were manipulated into doing that.

ES: Yeah, it caused a lot of ill feelings which were not necessary.

Slick on the Serious Moonlight Tour, 1983

Slick on the Serious Moonlight Tour, 1983

GIT: And after that you came and went in his band for many years, so what do you think it was about you or your playing that had him call you up so many times?

ES: I’m the rocker! I’m a rock & roll, bluesy player and it fits a lot of stuff. And how I work a stage and my irreverent personality, you know, David liked that about me. And I also appreciated the fact that he let me just do that.

GIT: So he would give you free reign to pretty much do what you wanted?

ES: Yeah, I don’t take direction very well anyway, and he knew that. He liked something! I dunno!

GIT: Whatever it was, he liked it! And that final tour you did about 13-14 years ago, the band just seemed so tight and everyone just seemed so happy on stage.

ES: The Reality Tour? I’ll tell what, over the years there were a number of configurations of bands. But hands down, in my opinion, that was the best Bowie band that I was in. That group of people who did that tour…to me that was the band that I enjoyed the best. Not only because of the way we played together, but our personalities. And it was a great fucking tour. David was very happy, and he was enjoying the hell out of the shows. Because, he complains the most about touring some of the time, but he loved it! He was having a blast!

GIT: It must have been a blow when you had to stop the tour early when he started having heart trouble.  

ES: Yeah, we had to pull out of the last few weeks, but we were out for a year.

GIT: And then he was silent for a decade. When you made The Next Day, how did you all manage to keep that a secret?

ES: They asked us to sign a piece of paper, a non-disclosure thing. Which he didn’t have to. All he had to do was ask, but he did anyway. I wouldn’t have said anything. It was easy, you respect the man’s wishes. If the man says “I want this kept quiet,” then you keep it quiet. That’s just being responsible and loyal.

GIT: Did he ever talk about why he was making music after such a long break in those sessions…?

ES: No.

GIT: No?

ES: I didn’t ask, he didn’t tell. All I knew was that we were recording and…I dunno…

GIT: Have you got maybe a favourite anecdote of your time working with David?

ES: Oh, Christ!

GIT: I’m sure over the years there’s been so many, but is there any that spring to mind?

ES: There was so many of them. One thing that always stood out – because I stay clear of people where everything has got to be the same way every time – and what’s really weird is you can play a song so many times and one time literally just blank. And I made some real whoppers, and David would look at me and just fucking laugh! And I remember times where he would be forgetting words, or doing the first verse instead of the second verse, but it wasn’t about [perfection].

GIT: It’s about the feeling.

ES: I remember one night we were doing Hang On To Yourself. I got lost at the end. How the hell I got lost, I don’t know. And before the encore back stage he said “well, that was a senior moment, wasn’t it?!” and was just laughing. There was never a big deal made out of it. Now obviously if you screwed up every night there would be a problem. But it was once in a while and it was always pretty funny.

GIT: And it can bring you closer together as a band too, I guess.

ES: Yeah, absolutely.

GIT: I hate to ask this, but I’ll be crucified if I don’t. Did you know about his illness?

ES: No.

GIT: So few people receive that kind of outpouring of grief from all over the world when they pass. What were you doing when you heard the news, and how did you feel?

ES: Well…I’m a night guy. I’m a fucking vampire, I don’t even start shit until it gets late in the day. My girlfriend was here and she’s like me, she’s up late. And we were just sitting around bullshitting, and she checked her phone for something. She got this weird-ass look on her face and she went “why don’t you sit down for a second?

And I was like “well, OK, this isn’t good.”

She says “I got something you might not like, but let me make sure”.

So I guess she went through her phone and hit a number of sites and saw what she saw. And then she told me. That’s how I found out. And it was literally 10 minutes after the news had come out. Because she’s got a news alert on her phone. And so I was home, in my kitchen.

GIT: The whole world just seemed to stop, didn’t it?

ES: It was weird. It was, like, numb. It was bizarre.

GIT: I’m going to wrap up in a second, Earl, but before I do; you have done a lot of work over the years, but you’re so associated with Bowie and Lennon, I was wondering if people wanted to hear your stuff outside of that, where would you recommend they start?

ES: Oh, Christ! Um…[pause]

GIT: Trying to promote your solo career here, man!

ES: Well, there’s the solo records out there, and I’m like most artists – I hate my solo records! I liked them when I was doing them, I don’t like them now. I’ll have to look through my discography and my credits, because there’s hundreds of them. Back in the day when we were a community, you’d walk into a place like the Record Plant and you’d run into someone and they’d ask you to come in and do an overdub or something, and bands don’t really do that anymore.

I did a record with Ian Hunter that I was quite proud of, the Overnight Angels album. I really liked the first Phantom, Rocker & Slick record a lot – that was me with Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker from the Stray Cats. Keith Richards and Nicky Hopkins played on that record, and we ended up with two big hits as well.

GIT: I guess when you’ve done so much, you don’t really think about it anymore.

ES: You don’t really. Oh, you know what I was really happy with? The record I did with Tim Curry. Simplicity. Michael Kamen [orchestrator, best known for his movie work] put it together. Weird album, the rhythm section was a reggae band. Michael would come up with the weirdest ideas but they worked!

GIT: I’ll have to check that one out, man! It sounds bizarre!

ES: Yeah, check it out! There’s a song called Working on my Tan on there that I love, we also did a version of I Put a Spell on You.

GIT: Have you got any plans for the end of this tour?

ES: Right now, me and Bernard [Fowler, Rolling Stones backing vocalist who is taking vocals on Slick’s Station To Station tour] are talking about a few things we’ve got coming up. We’ve got something out in April while we’re over there, which is actually – there’s a guitar part I’ve got to get down in the next 48 hours because it needs to be mixed.

  • Earl Slick and Bernard Fowler play Station To Station at Liverpool’s O2 Academy on Thursday, April 28. Tickets are available for £22.50 at the Academy Box Office.

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