Slow Down Slicky: Earl Slick On Music, Bowie, And Being A Tough Cookie Touring With Glen Matlock

Earl Slick really shouldn’t need any introduction. His work with David Bowie alone has earned him a place in the definitive history of rock’n’roll, but he’s also worked with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, John Waite, David Coverdale, and Robert Smith.



His discography is a mile long, with seven solo albums, plus work on seven albums by David Bowie, two by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (‘Double Fantasy’, and ‘Milk And Honey’), as well as on Ono’s solo album, ‘Season Of Glass’. He also released two albums with Slim Jim Phantom, and Lee Rocker (in the beautifully named trio, Phantom Rocker And Slick), plus many more. Currently he’s part of The Tough Cookies, alongside front man Glen Matlock, Jim Lowe (producer of The Stereophonics), and Chris Musto, who’s known for his work with Kim Wilde, Dirt, and Johnny Thunders.

Glen Matlock and the Tough Cookies will be performing at the Fuji Rock Festival this weekend, in Japan, before coming back to the UK where they will be playing two intimate gigs – first off at The Balcombe Club, West Sussex, on August 9, followed by a performance at 229 The Venue, Great Portland Street, London, on August 10.

I spoke to Earl Slick last week, while he was in rehearsals in London.

I tried calling you last week and I left like loads of messages on your answering machine…

Yeah (both laugh) I had a bit of a SNAFU with my visa and my passport, when they went to put my visa in my passport there were no pages left, and I went, Oh My God. Last minute scramble to get it, and I inadvertently got so panicked about it that I didn’t cancel any interviews or postpone them! So I felt like a real idiot! So my apologies for that one!

Noo that was cool! I really like your answering machine message, it’s really homey!

What’s on it? I don’t even know, it’s ancient!

It’s just saying you’ve reached this house, and if I’m home I’ll answer the phone and if I’m not I’ll get back to you. It’s just nice.

Oh okay! I should call it to see what it sounds like!

Anyway! Thanks so much for talking to us! You’re here at the moment rehearsing for a couple of dates with Glen Matlock and the Tough Cookies! And you’re doing a show at 229 The Venue in London, and also one in Balcombe?

Yeah there’s two of them!

So what’s the story behind your name Earl Slick?

You know, it’s funny, it hardly ever comes up but it’s come up earlier today as well! People are looking for some sort of meaning behind it, but all it was, way back, I had this band, and we used to play five nights a week around New York City in clubs, and you’d play from 9 at night to 4 in the morning, which was like five 45 minute sessions – 45 on, 15 off. You get bored, you know? Especially when you’ve got a slow night, and it’s 3 in the morning and everybody’s got drunk and left, and you’re playing to the bartender…and the lead singer, we would just come up with weird things. And one thing he used to do is, he in his boredom would come up with these bizarre names. And every night he’d introduce the band with different names he’d just make up. And “Earl Slick” was one that just stuck. As simple as that! Because it kind of rang a bell, and then because he did it a few times, everyone started calling me that, so with the first album I played on, they asked me how I wanted to be credited, and so I said Earl Slick – and that was that.

Well it’s definitely memorable isn’t it!

That was the thing about it! I don’t even know if I was thinking that at the time, and I was like, why not, stick Earl Slick on there! It’s a ridiculous name and it’s hard to forget!

So is that back in the days with Jim Diamond?

Way before Jim!

So you were already Slick before you met Jim!

I was Slick by 1969-1970!

Collaborative albums are all the rage at the moment, but you had THE ultimate collab album, ‘Zig Zag‘ back in 2003, which had everyone on it. Do you have a favourite collaboration of all time?

Oh God! I don’t know! You know there are times I’ll hear it on the radio or something, and I may be writing some new stuff and I’ll refer back to make sure I’ve not written it before, and I’ll listen to it and I’m like, oh wow that’s pretty cool man, and it’ll hit me differently at different times. You know what it’s like – you’ll have a favourite song, then all of a sudden you’ll have a new favourite song, and the old favourite song goes on the back burner, while you’re listening to the new favourite song. That’s what happens! I love all of them!

So you’ve just been doing it for so long, haven’t you – does it all blur into one?

Noo, it doesn’t actually! Noo there’s high points at different times, depending on my frame of mind, I’ll remember certain things, but no it doesn’t really blur. It all blurs in the end, no doubt, but that’s because of other “reasons”…like memory erasing chemicals…or whatever.

I put the word out that I was talking to you, and of course, most of the questions were about Bowie – but not all of them. Des Foley asks: Who are your guitar heroes, and what inspired you to pick up a guitar in the first place?

The initial thing was when I heard The Beatles. And that opened the door up for me. But what realllly kicked it wide open was Keith Richards.

Keith Richards - Photo Credit Jerzy Bednarski
Keith Richards – Photo Credit Jerzy Bednarski

I was going to ask you about Keith!

And then through Keith, and listening, especially to the first two Rolling Stones albums, which were mostly covers, everyone from Chuck Berry to Solomon Burke, I started going out and buying all those records, I was young, I was 13 years old or something, and I was saying wow this stuff is cool, where are you getting this shit from? Then I started buying Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Alan Wilson, Jimmy Reed, all of it. I learned a lot by listening to Keith, and I learned a lot of blues stuff too. That was the inspiration and it still is.

Because Keith really is a bluesman isn’t he.

He is! And you know what, in the tradition of the blues guys, he’s taking it all the way, he’s going to do it.

I saw the Rolling Stones for the first time last year, it was one of those bucket list kinda things – and you’ve got all these guys in their 70s and they’re full on sex still at their age – everyone in the audience was pretty much wanting to go home with them that night…

That’s magic!

It is! Completely!

John Grimes, from Dublin duo Jedward has three questions he wants to ask you.

Okay!

And the first one is – what is the most memorable story from The Serious Moonlight Tour?

Oh my God. There’s a lot of them!

Pick one!

Let’s go with something that’s not what everybody expects…[yes yes!] When I got called to do the gig it was seriously last minute…I was so enthralled with whatever I was doing at the time, and I hadn’t been working with David for a while, and I don’t tend to keep up with stuff when I’m busy – I have no idea what else is going on ten feet away from me half the time, so I didn’t even know it was going on, and I got this last minute extremely urgent phone call that he needed a guitar player for this big tour. And again with the passport! I had to fly from the States to Brussels, and my passport had expired the WEEK BEFORE. And back then, it was easier because the government wasn’t destroyed like it is now, it actually functioned, and I got a passport on the spot at the passport agency, and flew over to Europe. And then I had to learn the entire show in 3 days. I didn’t sleep, I just stayed up and learned everything. I remember David saying, “can you have this together in about a week and a half? We’re doing a big festival…” I said, “no?” then, “Look at me, I’ll have it together for the first show!” I just loved to see his face panicked like that! It was pure pleasure!

John’s second question is, have you heard from Lorde since you did the David Bowie tribute at the BRITs in 2016?

No but I didn’t really expect to. We didn’t really know her, and when they said she was singing, I remember I got my nose out of joint a little bit, I was going, surely it should be somebody David had some sort of rapport with? Then it came out, right before the show, that David had publicly talked about her, and he was very much into what she was doing, at which point I said, great, she’s good, she’s okay. And she was great. She did it justice, I was really happy.

She was awesome, she did a really touching tribute I think.

And the good thing was, she didn’t try to be him, she just did what she does,  and that takes a lot of balls.

It’s the worst thing – I’ve seen a Queen tribute, and the singer just tried to be Freddie, and I was like, why are you doing this? You should just be you singing these songs, it makes no sense at all to pretend to be the person.

No! It really doesn’t! But it tends to happen because people think, well, these are big shoes to fill, what do I do, do I be me, or do I try to be them? People make the mistake of trying to be them, and it doesn’t bear too well for them.

Exactly.

Last one from John is, and I’d like to know this too – what are your favourite guitar riffs, of all time?

Ooh. There’s a shitload of them!

Can I qualify it, by saying, what are your favourite ones from working with Bowie?

Oh okay! That’s easy. ‘Stay’. Probably the number one of his stuff. ‘Station To Station’ the title track, and ‘Golden Years’. Those three are probably the top three. And then the intros to the title track on ‘Reality’ too, they’re pretty cool, they were fun.

Did you do the ‘Reality’ tour in Sydney?

Yes!

Ah I’ve seen you play then! It was the only Bowie concert I managed to get to, in 2004, and I’m so glad I went, because he stopped after that pretty much.

Yeah I did that whole tour! And we were out for almost a year, and we finished a month of early because of his health problems.

Gloria Giorgi asks, what are the main differences between playing with Bowie and playing with John Lennon?

You know what the main difference is – John’s life was cut so short that I only had the opportunity to record – which was great – we were preparing to tour, but that didn’t happen. So far as the recording went, they were very similar, the way they worked. There’s no way of knowing how touring with Lennon would have been, but I imagine it would have been the same sort of thing.

Do you think – and I know there’s no way of really answering it – but do you think you’d have had a longer working relationship with Lennon, if he’d lived?

No doubt! Because we hit it off in a different way than I did with David. John came from a very similar background to me, growing up in a port city – Brooklyn and Liverpool are very similar – if you can imagine what Brooklyn is like, get past all the stereotypical Italian mafia guys, the basic street thing isn’t too different to that of Liverpool, which is probably why I gravitate to that sort of city when I come to the UK. It’s not just because of The Beatles by any stretch! It has to do with the people.

Salt of the earth, very real people!

You hit it on the head!

For some reason, most of my questions are from Irish people, and Chris Logan, from Belfast band, The Rising, he asks, as someone who’s been a session musician for a lot of artists, do you feel that it’s important that you develop your own signature style and sound to separate yourself from others, or do you have to go in with a blank canvas and with what the artist wants?

Okay – my way of doing it is, when I do get called – because although it may appear that I do a lot of sessions, but I don’t – because I don’t read music, and I only play like I play. I would say the majority of people who call me to do anything, call me because they want me to what I do. And the ones that want something else, and if they do call me, I will suggest another guitarist who I think may fit the bill better than me. Because I don’t want to waste their time and money for me to get refreshed and to fit into a box that I don’t fit into.

It’s interesting to say that you don’t read music, but I guess a lot of people don’t anymore!

I think the better players – first of all my background is blues, and blues players don’t read music…

It comes from the heart!

It does! And if you’re doing certain kinds of records, you have to know, but they’re not the kind of records I’d be called to play on, nor would I volunteer, because it’s not really the responsible thing to do, to take on a gig that you’re not really very well versed in.

Chris asks again, you came up through the golden age of rock and pop music. Do you feel that the music industry has got in the way of music? And has music perhaps become a throwaway commodity these days, with less albums being produced and it’s more about streaming and constant content?

You’ve got to give credit where credit’s due, and the music industry is somewhat responsible for it, but it’s the public. And it’s not the fault of the public, because if you think about it, when I first started getting interested music and playing music, it was the way it was. You heard a record, you went to the music store, you heard a record, you paid the money for it and enjoyed it, and that’s the way it was. But now, because it’s free, it’s devalued it, and that is because – if you’ve got a 20 year old, they’ve been born into this. That’s what they know.

I knew what I knew, which was, if you heard something, you went out and bought it. You cherished, you liked the album, you liked the cover, you read the notes, you read the lyrics. It’s not like that anymore, it’s very much a throwaway commodity now, and it always has been to a degree, but the artistic value of it has been diluted as well, and because you have to engineer it so it has some possibility of success, whereas before, the best artists I’ve known have gone against the grain, stuck to their guns, and have become very successful.

I don’t know how possible that is anymore. You may become artistically successful, in a small world, where you can’t even earn a living, and if you can’t earn a living, then how are you going to be able to play music, because it’s a 24 hour a day job.

Well exactly! It’s not one of these things where you can be like, a working class hero anymore, and rise up from that, because you’ve got to have some sort of backing behind you in the first place.

Yeah! The thing is, what are you rising up to? Spotify? I mean, those guys are making a fortune and no-one else is!

I did an interview once before and the person put the blame at the feet of the dude that started Napster in the first place. But you’re right regarding the public…

It is, and as far as Napster goes, they take all the heat because they were the first ones to rear their ugly heads, but there were plenty of other organisations, that weren’t as well known, that were doing exactly the same thing – those who have Spotify and all the rest – they’re the same people!

What are we going to do about it then? What’s going to happen?

You’ve got me! Because this is so far down the pipeline now, it’s not something that happened like a week ago! This has been going on for a while, and I really don’t know, how do you get the public to completely reverse their thinking – if I’m going to give you something for free, and all of a sudden I decide, now I’m going to charge you for it, that ain’t gonna fly.

I guess that’s a whole other conversation isn’t it really!

Oh man yeah!! That’s gonna take a whole day.

Paula from New Zealand – someone who’s not from Ireland! She says she went to the Bowie Celebration concert, and you weren’t there. She wants to know, when are you coming back to New Zealand?

I don’t know when I’m coming back, but it won’t be with that. I think I’ve done that as far as I can take it – no other reason than that. When I did them I did them for specific reasons, that really aren’t there anymore, that didn’t even have anything to do with David, it was me enjoying playing the music again, even though he wasn’t there, and it was great, but I thought, this is all well and good, but when I’m doing that I can’t do other things, like working with Glen Matlock, which I really enjoy, we’ve had a lot of success, and a lot of fun doing this.

One last question about Bowie, then another couple of different questions. Bowie Ireland is a Facebook group, and they want to know if you’d consider coming to the Dublin Bowie Festival next January?

Ooh I don’t know anything about that!

Well if you look up Bowie Ireland on Facebook, there’s lots of information about it on there.

Now tell me about your concerts with Glen Matlock and the Tough Cookies? What can people expect?

They can expect to see some guys having one really hell of a good time. I love doing these shows because they’re loose, they’re a bit unpredictable, and there’s a whole lot of energy. The songs are a bit more in-depth compared to what the Sex Pistols were doing, or anything like that, because Glen is a songwriter, he’s much more diverse than people realise. If you listen to his last few records, or actually, more than his last few records, there’s a lot of really good material in there, and I love playing it, because it lets me stretch up and do punkabilly stuff, and stuff where I can use an e-bow and do stuff that’s really strange…it’s really good.

And the 229 is a really intimate venue isn’t it.

Yes! And I love that because the audience is right there, man, and that is something – look, I love playing arenas and stuff, but playing in a club is a whole different ball game, it’s a different kind of energy, because they’re RIGHT THERE. You can see their faces – it’s great.

Do you prefer that?

I like both…if I had to give up one and do the other, I couldn’t make that choice.

Do you get into a different sort of mindset for a club gig as opposed to an arena gig?

Oh yeah. You feel more like you’re a part of the audience, when you’re in an club than when you’re in an arena, because in an arena the word “show” comes up, and if you’re in a club; I don’t look at it so much as a “show”, it’s a “gig”. It’s a different animal it really is.

I have one last question to ask you, and that is, what question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview but nobody ever does?

Oh my God! They’ve asked everything under the sun! You’ve just stumped the band! Geez! You did stump me! I don’t have an answer!

I need to say – the Cookies are rehearsing now, we’re going to do the Fuji Festival, and when we come back, we’re doing the 229 Club, because we love it so much!

Yeah because you were there back in May as well weren’t you?

I wasn’t there! That had come up after the committed gigs that I did. But that’s okay because I’m here now! And the gig at 229 The Venue is on 10th August, and I’m looking forward to that, and we’ve got one or two after that.

We won’t be able to get rid of you!

Nope! You won’t! Good luck!

Glen Matlock and the Tough Cookies will be performing at 229 The Venue on 10th August. See here for tickets and further information.

 

About the author

Lisa has been writing for over 20 years, starting as the entertainment editor on her university newspaper. Since then she's written for Popwrapped, Maximum Pop, Celebmix, and ListenOnRepeat.

Lisa loves all good music, with particular fondness for Jedward and David Bowie. She's interviewed Edward Grimes (Jedward), Kevin Godley, Trevor Horn, Paul Young, Peter Cox (Go West), Brendan B Brown (Wheatus), Bruce Foxton (The Jam), among many many more. Lisa is also available for freelance writing - please email lisa@essentiallypop.com

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