When guitarist Mick Ronson left David Bowie’s band, Earl Slick was summoned to fill that role, as best he could. It turned out he did it quite well; in fact, he worked with Bowie, on record and stage, for the next 40 or so years. Between that on-again/off-again, he squeezed in some other memorable work, such as sessions with John Lennon and Yoko Ono for what would become both the Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey albums. Slick opens up to PKM’s Robert Gourley in this wide-ranging interview about his life and times and his continuing career as a solo artist.
Taking over the spot vacated by Mick Ronson for the 1974 “Diamond Dogs” tour, guitarist Earl Slick continued to work with David Bowie off and on for nearly 40 years. This led to work as a sideman and collaborator with many other artists, but Slick has also returned to his own music at various points in this career. This summer, he released Fist Full of Devils, an instrumental double album that brings Slick’s blues influences to the forefront.
Title track from Fist Full of Devils album-Earl Slick:
Born as Frank Madeloni in Brooklyn, New York, in 1951, Slick’s initial inspiration for becoming a musician was watching the Beatles’ 1964 debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Hearing The Rolling Stones cemented his interest in music and led him to explore the blues. Slick started off performing with friends at basement parties and school dances, and by age 17, he and his bandmates were performing in New York bars (thanks to fake IDs, though back then, the New York State drinking age was 18).
At age 20, Slick became involved with Michael Kamen’s New York Rock ‘n Roll Ensemble. It was Kamen who arranged an audition for David Bowie’s band. Slick got the gig and went on to also work with Bowie on the albums Young Americans and Station to Station. He returned to Bowie’s band as a last-minute replacement for Stevie Ray Vaughn on the 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tour. Then in the early 2000s, Slick became a regular collaborator again, performing on Toy (unreleased), Heathen, Reality and returning to the touring band. He also appeared on Bowie’s secretly recorded, second-to-last album, The Next Day.
“Heroes”-David Bowie, live in Berlin, 2002, Earl Slick, guitar; Gail Ann Dorsey, bass:
Another high-profile project for Slick was working with John Lennon and Yoko Ono on Double Fantasy (recordings from those sessions were also part of the posthumous Milk and Honey album). In the mid-‘80s, Slick teamed up with Stray Cats members Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker as Phantom, Rocker & Slick. Other collaborations include being part of The New York Dolls, an album with White Snake’s David Coverdale, and in recent years, work with original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock.
PKM: Why did you decide to put out a new solo album at this point in time?
Earl Slick: That album was recorded around 2014. I really hadn’t thought about it. A few songs on there were bits and pieces that I started writing with a buddy of mine, Patrick Schunk, a really long time ago. And he contacted me out of the blue, and he said, ‘You know, maybe you should make another record. We’ve got some bits and pieces.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ So I grabbed the bits and pieces, and then I called Al Marz, the piano player. I wasn’t too keen on it because I didn’t want to make a per se guitar record with a lot of, you know, wanking. And I thought if I sat down, with not only the keyboard player but an actual piano, with a grand piano and my guitar, it might inspire me. And that’s exactly what happened. So, we recorded the record, and we finished it, and my then manager and I were discussing what to do with it. And we didn’t know. I didn’t want to just take it all and shove it up on iTunes, where people just pick and choose one track. This kind of record needs to be a body of work instead of just a track here and there. Then I got really busy and forgot about it. And then I got contacted by Oliver Geywitz from the record company Schnitzel last year out of the blue; he said, ‘Do you have any unreleased stuff?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got about two albums worth. One’s instrumental and one’s kind of a band thing.’ So that’s why it’s coming out now.
PKM: You said that you initially had ‘bits and pieces’ that came together when you started working with pianist Al Marz. At that point, did you have a clear sense of the overall direction or sound you were going for? Or did it just evolve as you continued working?
Earl Slick: It happened during the recording. The way it was done, and the way I prefer to do things, is instead of having a very specific idea in my head, I do it more organically. Because sometimes when I’ve said to myself, ‘Well, you’re going to do this,’ as soon as I start veering away from that, I feel like I’m not going to the goal. And sometimes, by making a statement to yourself, like ‘this is what this is going to be,’ it prevents you from being more creative as you go. The only thing I did have in mind was getting the right players and the right co-producer and engineer so that everybody had a chance to be creative in their own right. As opposed to me, you know, going, ‘You play this, and you play that,’ it was a group effort.
PKM: What is the timespan of the older material that made it onto the album?
Earl Slick: There was some writing that started about 20-something years ago that just got abandoned at one point. I was thinking of doing a record back then, and I don’t even remember why, but we just never pursued it. There are a few things on there that we had written a long time ago and a few little pieces on which I had sat down with Al, the piano player, years later, and we took those pieces and built on them.
PKM: Where were you in your career at that point?
Earl Slick: This is going back a long time. It was a part of my career where the business became such a pain in the ass that it was really hitting me. Not only my being creative but even my drive to do it. Burn out, man. I was burnt out because everything that was being done at that point was all business first and music later. And it just didn’t suit me very well. That’s why that was never finished. I was in a really weird head space, and that’s why we never pursued it back then.
PKM: Where would that have fallen among your various projects?
Earl Slick: It would have fallen into a period post-Phantom, Rocker & Slick, which was ’86. Then I had put together a few other bands I was involved with. One of them was an American rock band called Little Caesar. I had done a solo record in ’91 called In Your Face. So, it was in a weird period. It was pretty far away from the last Bowie things and the Lennon stuff and all that. It was about seven or eight years after Phantom, Rocker & Slick, which was a successful band, but it just didn’t stay together. It was in a twilight zone. That’s really what it was.
Title track from In Your Face album:
PKM: What do you look for in collaborations? What do you get out of them creatively?
Earl Slick: Let’s take Glen Matlock. I met Glen around 2007 through a mutual friend, and we started working together. I’m thinking the Sex Pistols and then David Bowie and some of the stuff I’ve done, and on paper, that doesn’t sound like it would work. But it worked really well. And what we get out of that is you get in the room with the right people, and it clicks. You get that great feeling of when music clicks, whether in the studio or live. So, what you get out of that is once you get rolling, it’s effortless. If you’ve got to work too hard or think too much, you’re probably not doing the right thing. And those aren’t as satisfying. So what you really get out of it is artistic and musical satisfaction.
And you can’t think ahead on those because sometimes you go, well, if we have these guys, this is probably going to be great. It doesn’t always work like that. You just don’t know where it’s coming from. So it was a pleasant surprise with Glen. We’ve done a couple of records together. We’ve done quite a few gigs over in the UK, and we’ll be doing more next year. I’ve got a friend and a partner, and we can put together a really good show and do gigs and really have a great time.
“Pretty Vacant”-Glen Matlock, Earl Slick, live in London 2019:
PKM: How did you meet and come to work with Glen?
Earl Slick: There’s a fashion designer named Keenan Duffty. We had become friends, and I didn’t realize when I first met him how much he was into music. I looked at him as a very successful clothing designer, and he said, ‘Hey, you know what, let me send you a couple of these things I’ve been doing.’ I really liked them. So we reworked some of those. We wrote a couple of new ones, and, you know, we decided let’s just go in a studio and throw some of this stuff down and see what happens. And he said, do you know Glen Matlock? I said, ‘I know who he is, but I never met the guy.’ He said, ‘I want to bring him in.’ I said, ‘Great, bring him in.’ And then, Clem Burke, same thing. We had a short run of some recordings, and we did a few gigs, but then we all got busy with doing what we were doing and didn’t really pursue it. There was also a geography problem because we had Glen in London, me and Keenan in New York, and Clem was in LA. It wasn’t too easy getting our schedules to match.
PKM: Following up on Glen Matlock and The Sex Pistols, did punk have any impact on you as a musician?
Earl Slick: Honestly, it didn’t really affect what I was doing. I did see the Pistols in the early days in London. And I thought at the time that it was a nice departure. Because the Seventies got into a lot of production type, clean so-called rock and roll records, which the Pistols were not. And I found it very refreshing. As a matter of fact, I did a tour in 1977 with Ian Hunter. We did a lot of touring over in the UK and Europe, and we had The Vibrators open for us. It was actually compatible with us. Considering the kind of band they were and the kind of band we were, it worked quite well.
PKM: Could you discuss working with Michael Kamen and the effect that had on your career?
Earl Slick: It had everything to do with my career, because up until that point I had a couple of bands in New York area. One of them was kind of a pop band that I did for the money. Because we could make really good money playing in clubs. Then I had a much more bluesy band that I loved, and getting a record deal at any point in time is not easy. So we were playing around and doing all that kind of stuff. I met Michael Kamen through a friend of mine, and once I met Michael he kind of took me under his wing and helped me with some of my demos as a producer. And I thought at one point, you know, he’s going on tour, it’d be really good to get a gig like that. Because it’ll get me out of this club thing that I didn’t want to do at that point. They were really expecting that you would play these top 40 lame hits and shit. And I was like going, ‘Not me, I hate this.’ Michael didn’t have an opening at that time for a guitar player, so he offered me a roadie gig and I took it. My thinking was, I’d never done that before. I was 19 years old, and had never been on the road. Sure, we would do these little club things where we would get in a van and go someplace for a week. But these guys were flying on airplanes and staying in hotels. And to me that was big time. So I took the gig, and always had my guitar with me and I would jam with the guys at sound checks.
One of the guys in the band was David Sanborn. Me and Davey hit it off at the sound checks and he suggested that ‘sure, we could use another guitar player’. So Michael invited me to play guitar. I still had to carry the gear, but I was fine with that. I was having a blast. So that was the beginning of the relationship with Michael. And Michael would call me in every once in a while to play guitar in a session he was producing. Nothing extensive; maybe once every couple of months I’d go in and play on a track. Michael at that point was starting to do scores, the little films and live stuff in New York City, like ballet stuff. He had scored the Joffrey Ballet and by chance Bowie happened to be there and loved the music and they met at that event.
PKM: And that led to your work with Bowie?
Earl Slick: David was looking for a guitarist because Mick Ronson had left. So when he asked Michael, Michael came up with my name, and that’s how I got the audition with Bowie. So through Michael, I learned a lot of the ropes, and I got some experience. In hindsight, I really needed that experience to be able to walk into Bowie’s band without just fucking the whole thing up.
PKM: At that point, how familiar were you with Bowie and his music?
Earl Slick: Not very. I obviously knew who he was because he had already become an item in the States. But it wasn’t my cup of tea, really, because I was still an avid blues and Stones fan. I loved American blues and even some of the British blues. So the Bowie and the T Rexes and all that stuff, I didn’t dislike it. It just didn’t get my attention. I did have one Bowie record that I bought before I had gotten that audition. It was Aladdin Sane and the reason I bought the record was that it is some of Mick Ronson’s best guitar. I bought it because of Mick.
PKM: Was there any hesitation in taking the job?
Earl Slick: It happened so fast. I didn’t have time to freak myself out or overthink the thing. I went in for the audition and was offered the gig the next day. And my only thought I had was I was close to getting my band signed with Columbia. But you know, it wasn’t the first time we got close to signing with somebody, and it never happened. So I said, ‘You know what? This is at least a surefire way to get going.’ And that was about as much thought as I put into it.
PKM: You returned for the “Serious Moonlight” tour. At that point, was there any talk of continuing with Bowie?
Earl Slick: There was, actually. We finished that tour and, at the end of the tour, David had asked me to come in and play on what became the Tonight record. But he never called me, and it wouldn’t be the first or the last time he had done that. I always took whatever David said with a grain of salt, and I never held him accountable for it. It was his band, it was his deal and he could do what he wanted to do, you know? So I had to have that attitude with him because he would do things so on the spur of the moment a lot of times. It didn’t take long when I started working with him just to see him do that and to get a handle on it. Because otherwise it could cause major resentment for a lifetime. And I thought, ‘You know what? It ain’t worth it.’
PKM: How did the experience of working with Bowie compare throughout the different eras?
Earl Slick: From tour to tour and album to album, especially the early days, it was really different from one project to the next. As far as how we worked in the studio, it was pretty loose. He would give you the shell of a song. I didn’t have a chart put in for me, which I couldn’t have read in the first place. He wanted to pick your brain and see what you could bring to the table. And as far as live things go, we really never stuck to all the arrangements, like exactly like the record, which was good too. He liked to change up things, which I liked. I wasn’t expected to be a mimic of what the recordings were. Obviously, with the records I played on, there would be certain things on those that I would stick to because they were so signature that I would do them because they were right. They were right the first time I did them. But it was looser than you would think.
PKM: You got Keith Richards to appear on a Phantom, Rocker & Slick album. Being a Stones fan, was that a career highlight?
Earl Slick: Yeah. I wasn’t there! I ran into Keith at Mick Jagger’s birthday party in New York City. The only reason I was invited was because I played on ‘Dancing in the Streets,’ at Jagger’s request, funnily enough, not Bowie’s request. When I was in the studio, it was his birthday that day, so he said ‘Oh, by the way, tonight, we’re having a big thing for my birthday.’ So I showed up. I met Keith there, and I think it was maybe me and Jim [Phantom.]
We were mixing the record at the time in New York. And the first thing we thought was ‘wow, it would be great to have Keith on this track’, ‘My Mistake’. So we asked him, and he loved the idea. So they fixed the studio date and, of course, Keith was late by about two weeks. I had a commitment in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, to be the best man at a friend of mine’s wedding. And at that point, I’m like, I don’t know if he’s even going to show up. So I went, and of course, the day I flew out, he was in the studio!
“My Mistake”-Phantom, Rocker & Slick album, Keith Richards on backing guitar:
PKM: Having done both, was there a point where you made a conscious decision to focus on collaborations and working as a sideman as opposed to promoting your own music and band?
Earl Slick: The honest answer to that is it was never my intention. My intention out of the gate before Bowie arrived was to have my own band. But once I took the gig with Bowie, it did change things. So after we finished up Station and I left the band, I actually had already signed a record contract before we did Station to Station with Capitol Records. I just held off recording that until we finished Station. My idea was to go back to what I was doing before. And in hindsight, it wasn’t the best move I made because what I did was I went back basically to the old neighborhood. Because I felt, well, I know these guys, we used to play together in bands before I was with David. And it’d be great to get the band back together. And they would get a break. In hindsight, it wasn’t the smartest move I ever made. Because you can’t go back. As far as the rest of these sideman things went, it just happened. As it turns out, I was quite happy doing that. And I still am. If there were to ever be a call to be a sideman in the right situation, I would look at it. But it wasn’t my intent. If you talk to most guys, sidemen like me, you’ll find out that they did have their own band. And that was really where they were going. But then an opportunity comes up that you just don’t turn down.
PKM: What was it like working with John Lennon?
Earl Slick: The time with John was so short. My manager got a call from Jack Douglas about working with this guy he was producing, but he didn’t tell us who it was right away. So we found out that it was Lennon. We went in the studio, and we cut a lot of stuff. Enough for Double Fantasy and then what became Milk and Honey about two or three years after the fact. It was a great experience because, again, like Bowie, he didn’t dictate what to do. He would give you a shell and say ‘Go in this direction,’ and then he let you go.
He was so easy to work with. And the idea of even having a career was launched by seeing the Beatles and the Stones. So here’s the guy that’s instrumental in me even having a career, the inspiration for it. That could turn into a thing where here’s this iconic idol of yours, and it could go wrong. You know, maybe he’s an asshole. Maybe it blows the myth out of the water, but it was just the opposite. He didn’t do the ‘I am royalty’ thing. It was very much guys in a room playing rock ‘n’ roll music. And that’s what he wanted. He felt better being part of a band as opposed to just being ‘Here’s John, and here’s all the session guys in the corner.’ I think that made for a better record. And it also made for a much better time.
PKM: As the sessions led to two albums, did you have any thoughts on the song choices that went on the initial Double Fantasy release?
Earl Slick: I liked almost all of, if not all of, the stuff we recorded. It was only going to be X amount on Double Fantasy. And for the rest of it we were supposed to go back in, in January of ’81, which obviously never happened. So the only thought I had at the end was ‘Wow, I wish we could have put this one on there, too,’ but then it would have been a ridiculous number of songs. I liked all of them, and I was quite pleased with the selections that they made for the first record, for Double Fantasy.
PKM: What was your experience working on Bowie’s The Next Day, which was recorded in secret and kept a secret until its release?
Earl Slick: Oh, I had no idea. He’d been in there doing that for a while. I’m guessing he might’ve been in there for a year before I was, because some of it was demoed and then they were recording stuff. And the funny thing was, I had been talking to the guys here and there, and nobody said a word, you know, about all of that crazy shit. I was in New Jersey doing a blues gig. And the afternoon of the gig … I have a friend of mine who built a Cobra car, and he said, ‘Hey, let’s take it out for a spin. I just got it back.’ They just put the engine in and all that … long story short, somebody did something wrong with the car. And the bloody thing caught fire in the middle of the afternoon before, before the gig. And sort of the fire brigade and the police and all that was there. Once we got out of the car, it blew up.
The way things are these days, as soon as something happens, it hits the web in minutes. So David saw it, and I get an email out of the blue, ‘Oh God, I saw what happened. Are you okay?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s all good. We got out.’ I get another email a little while later. ‘So, what are you up to? Blah, blah, blah,’ and the emails keep going like this. And finally, I’m going, ‘There’s something going on.’ I said, ‘Are you trying to make a point?’ And he emailed me back. He said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I’m in the studio. I’m making a record, and you need to come down and play on, but you have to shut up. Nobody’s to know this.’ And I stuck to my word. So had I not blown up a god damn car, I might not have been on that record. And it was nothing personal with him. It’s just the way it is, you know? David, at the time he’d go, ‘Oh, I want to do this, and I’m going to call these three guys,’ and that’s that.
PKM: I know that some of the musicians on it had no idea when it was even coming out and were as surprised as everyone else. Did the release take you by surprise?
Earl Slick: Well, I knew it because, when I came in, I was literally there the last week of recording. I was there the day that we finished up. I think he had a few vocals to do after that. But, but as for band recording, that was it. I was the last one in there. And he did tell me that it was going to come out in January on his birthday.
PKM: There have been some major changes in the music industry since you started. Which do you think have affected you most as a musician?
Earl Slick: All of them have. because everybody now is of the mind that it’s all gone to hell in a handbasket and it’s lousy, that music used to be better. Everything was better. It sounds like my dad back in the old days. The thing is there’s always been change. From the Sixties where, when you signed a record contract, you signed A record contract. You got to release one song. If you got some mileage out of that, you got to make an album. If you didn’t, you got dropped. And that changed where you got to make the album, then it changed where you got to make the album and they actually gave you tour support money to go and promote it. Then it went from vinyl to eight tracks to cassette. Then it went to CDs. Then it went to MP3s. Now it’s back to vinyl. So it’s constantly changing and the format. Sure, I think that that vinyl is the best quality you could get. And an MP3 is the worst quality you can get.
But if you write a great song and you do a good performance, it doesn’t matter how they’re hearing it because somebody who’s 20 years old, all they’ve heard is MP3 since they were little babies. So they don’t scrutinize frequencies. They scrutinize whether the song makes them feel something. So at the end of the day, there’s a lot of new artists around that are doing a lot more electronic stuff and they rap and talk more. The whole songwriting form is much different than it was when I started. And people think that it’s not valid. That’s ridiculous because my dad told me when I was a kid that the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were shit, and Glenn Miller was valid, I’m not going to turn into him.
The biggest impact it’s had was because it has strayed very far away from new guitarists and new rock and roll bands. I really feel for these new guys that are out there that have blues bands and rock and roll bands, because it’s already been done. And for them to be able to make an impact and compete against the electronic stuff is near impossible, because everything is based now on, if you’re new, it’s how many views you get on YouTube. How many on Instagram, how many on Facebook. It’s not the way I started. And if this was a point in time, 25 years ago, I’d be out of business now. But because I’m one of the last men standing, I can still go out and draw people. It’s funny because if it was years ago after you hit your mid-thirties unless you were the Rolling Stones or a Beatle or Eric Clapton, you were pretty much an old man and out the door. So, if anything, these changes have allowed me a career that’s still going. People are still coming see me, to hear some rock & roll and blues.