Earl Slick: Zig Zag

Official Press Release

November 2003

It’s Sunday night, February 9th, 1964, and you’re 12 years old. Sitting in your parents’ living room in Brooklyn, New York, you plant yourself in front of a small black and white television set and join 73 million other viewers in watching the Beatles perform for the very first time on The Ed Sullivan Show. The high-pitched hysteria is akin to a religious experience. Hypnotized by the band’s electrifying sound and the sight of an audience filled with shrieking girls (though not necessarily in that order), you begin pestering your father for a guitar of your own. It takes awhile, but the old man finally caves in and buys you a used Danelectro, which you play until your fingers bleed. With an old phonograph player for a teacher, you begin studying diligently, lifting licks off your favorite albums while dreaming the big dreams. Fast-forward 16 years, a few hundred gigs and a gaggle of guitars later, and your phone rings. It’s former Beatle John Lennon. He tells you he likes your style and wants to know if you’re interested in playing guitar on his new album Double Fantasy (an appropriate title, to say the least). Though it sounds like a page from a B-movie script, this is an actual chapter of the Earl Slick story, a rock & roll saga that spans three decades, several world tours, a classic performance on a Grammy-winning album (as well as on many No. 1 and Top 10 singles) and shows no signs of winding down anytime soon.

Reflecting on the Lennon collaboration, Slick says, “It was without a doubt one of the highlights of my life. How many people get the chance to work with – let alone meet – one of their biggest influences? Just walking into the studio and seeing him there was completely surreal. He was so cool and down to earth, and the music was great and he treated me like a gentleman. It was an incredible experience and I’ll never forget any of it.”

Of course, by the time Lennon came calling, Slick had already made a name for himself by playing alongside another rock legend – David Bowie. The guitarist was, as he describes it, “a cocky 22-year-old” when Bowie’s camp asked him to audition for the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. “David was referred to me by (Oscar-nominated composer) Michael Kamen, who happened to be working with both of us on separate projects,” recalls Slick. “I went down to RCA Studios to meet him, they stuck a set of headphones on me, turned on some Diamond Dog mixes and told me to play along. They didn’t even tell me what f*ckin’ key they were in,” he laughs. “I jammed a bit, then David came in, we chatted, I played some more and then left. Although they originally told me it would take at least a week for them to make a decision, I got a call the next day saying the gig was mine. I was grateful, because that would’ve been one of the longest weeks of my life.”

Slick stayed with Bowie for a few very successful years, during which time he played on three Top 10 albums: David Live (1974), Young Americans (1975) and Station To Station (1976), the latter two featuring the smash hit singles “Fame” and “Golden Years.” They re-teamed in 2000, when Bowie invited Slick to go back on the road, and also played together again on the Thin White Duke’s recent “Reality Tour.”

“Earl is a legendary guitar star and a musician of great feeling,” says Bowie. “His playing is earthy, timeless and never less than stellar.”

One of their most memorable collaborations is the riveting “Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary),” which appears on Slick’s scorching new Sanctuary debut, Zig Zag. The song sees Bowie draping a haunting pop melody over Slick’s mesmerizingly subtle guitar shadings. “David sounds amazing on the song,” says Slick. “I remember being in the studio when he recorded the vocals and thinking, ‘This is weird. For once, I’m on the other side of the glass and he’s playing on a track for me. He nailed his vocals in one or two takes and it came out great – that’s the beauty of working with David. I’ve been in the studio with other guys who’ve been around just as long as he has and it can sometimes take a week or longer to get a single vocal track done, and that’s only if you bring in a team of psychiatrists and some Prozac.”

Produced by Mark Plati (Bowie, Duncan Sheik, Natalie Imbruglia), the highly anticipated Zig Zag is Slick’s first album of new material in 12 years and features four instrumentals and a half-dozen tracks co-written by guest stars such as Bowie, Robert Smith of The Cure, Martha Davis, Spacehog’s Roy Langdon and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott. “The idea to do a record came to me in 2000,” says Slick. “After years of constant work, I took a much-needed break and spent some time hiding out in the High Sierras. But then I did some dates with David and felt inspired and started to write again, which I hadn’t done in a long time. I called Mark Plati, who I knew from David’s band and admire greatly, and asked if he’d be interested in making a record with me. That led to a conversation with Bowie, who graciously offered to sing a track. That started the ball rolling with other vocalists, which was a nice surprise, considering I originally planned for it to be an all-instrumental album.”

The variety of voices woven throughout Zig Zag lends depth and resonance to Slick’s searing guitar work, be it Roy Langdon floating an airy melody over the meaty rhythm of title track “Zig Zag” or Martha Davis painting a trippy picture of New York City’s east village on the spiraling “St. Mark’s Place.” Main Cure man Robert Smith adds a cool melodic breeze to lead single “Believe,” while Joe Elliott amplifies the dark and dangerous “Psycho Twang.”

“Each vocalist wrote his or her own melodies and lyrics,” says Slick. “Some of them got really rough demos from me and still managed to come up with amazing ideas. They really helped make this a unique record.”

Blistering instrumentals such as “Pike St.” and the beautifully melodic “Dancing With Eleanor” prove Slick’s as potent a player as ever, one that can generate heat whether laying down quiet, intimate melody lines or delivering a devastating flurry of raw, rabid leads. He shines on “The Cat,” a dark and slinky track he describes as a “f*cked-up spaghetti western-sounding song.”

“I wrote it at the house of my buddy Jack Schell, who engineered all the early demos,” he says. “I was inspired after seeing this little black cat that kept walking past the room I was in. One day I asked Jack about it and he gave me a weird look and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have a cat.’ Of course, that freaked me out because I didn’t just see it once, I saw it several times – I know I did. That really spooked the shit out of both of us,” he laughs. “Of course, no one’s seen the cat since.”

Slick named the album after the small town of Zig Zag in rural Oregon, where he lived for several years. “It’s a massive northwestern forest that has a real magical feel to it,” he says. “I’d take my two dogs (full-bred Newfoundlands Magilla and Sadie) up there and just chill. It was incredibly inspirational.”

Asked to reflect on his 30-year-career – one that’s seen him form the band Phantom, Rocker and Slick with ex-Stray Cats Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker, and also play with artists ranging from Whitesnake vocalist David Coverdale to Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter – Slick smiles and says, “I kept at it because I didn’t have a back-up plan. All my friends that had day jobs wound up doing that for a living. With me, it was all or nothing – I was going to succeed or fail and was willing to accept either one. Over the course of my career, I wound up experiencing both. But the fact that I’m still doing this gives me a little sense of validity. If people still want to hear me, I guess I’m not that bad at it.”

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