Guitarist Earl Slick bears the distinction of having played a key role in the work of both David Bowie and John Lennon. Last week, in Part One of a two-part interview, he talked about how his Gibson J-45 acoustic was omnipresent on such classic albums as Bowie’s Young Americans and Station to Station. Here, in Part Two of that interview, Slick elaborates on what it was like to collaborate in the studio with two of rock’s greatest songwriters. He also shares his thoughts on Lennon’s skills as a rhythm player.
How did you get the job as Bowie’s guitarist?
That happened through [composer] Michael Kamen, in 1974. Michael was my mentor. I worked with him extensively before I met Bowie. He had scored music for the Joffrey Ballet in New York, and Bowie was there. They met, and Bowie told him he was looking for a guitarist. Michael told him he had a guy for him. He called me and said he had an audition for me, an important gig, but he wouldn’t tell me who it was. Not long afterwards I got a phone call from Bowie’s office. The audition consisted basically of me walking into RCA Studios, being guided by David’s assistant, and putting on some headphones and playing. [Producer] Tony Visconti was there. They miked up a Marshall and I played some tracks, probably from Diamond Dogs, which they were mixing at the time. I’m sure “Diamond Dogs,” the song, was one that I played to.
Later, when you were making Young Americans and Station to Station, how much leeway did Bowie give you in the studio?
A lot. That’s the beauty of it. Everything we’ve done together, whether it was live or in the studio, was him wanting me to do what I did well. Once you got a feel for what was going on, you were let loose to do what you wanted to do. He might say, “In this bit here, you might want to go in this direction, or that direction,” but nothing was ever mapped in stone. There was a lot of spontaneity on all those recordings. For Station to Station, the shells of the songs were written, but there was a lot of experimentation going on as well.
How did you and Carlos Alomar divvy up the guitar parts on those albums?
They really weren’t divvied up. Carlos and I share some of the same influences, to a point, but his roots are more embedded in R&B, whereas mine are in blues and rock and roll. Carlos is more of a James Brown type of player – more funk-oriented. He toured with the O’Jays before he hooked up with Bowie. I grew up listening to old Delta blues – Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, people like that. Of course I was also listening to Chuck Berry and a lot of British rock and roll. I also listened to classic country music a lot, and still do.
Did your style of playing change as a result of making Station to Station?
The rhythm guitar on that album is pretty much where I was at the time, or where I would have been anyway. But with some of the solos and the feedback stuff, that was experimentation between David and me – him pushing me out of my comfort zone. And that was good. I learned a lot from that, from David.
Was John Lennon’s approach to studio work different from Bowie’s?
It was exactly the same, oddly enough. In those sessions with Lennon, I was the only guy who wasn’t a session player. That’s why John wanted me there. [Producer] Jack Douglas always called me the wild card. I was there as the rock and roll guitar player who was going to put some edge on what the studio guys did. With both David and John, it was an easygoing situation, and a creative situation, and a give-and-take situation. I've never been very good at doing sessions, in general. I can't read music and I don't take directions very well, unless it's coming from someone who I deeply respect. And I tend to respect people most when they respect me.
What do you have against session work?
Oftentimes it's really like an assembly line sort of thing, and I always hated that. But the thing about working with Bowie, and working with Lennon, is that when they brought you in, it was because there was something specific about you that they wanted. You sometimes get calls from people only because you've worked with someone else in the past. Some of these people don't even know what you do. They want the name value. But with David and with John, I was never asked to do something that I have to fake my way through.
Was there a lot of mapping out of the guitar parts, for Double Fantasy?
John had already written everything by the time we went in to make that record. The lyrics and melodies were all done, and he had a basic idea of the song structures – eighty percent, maybe. As for the solos and overdubs, those were worked out after the basic tracks were finished. We would go into the control room – John and [fellow guitarist] Hugh McCracken and myself – and John would get Huey and me to work off one another.
How would you rate Lennon as a guitar player?
He was great. That was something that was unbeknownst to most people, including myself. As soon as I got in a room with him, even on that first day, I thought, “Wow, this guy’s fantastic, just a terrific rhythm player.”
To what extent did you play your J-45 on the work you did with Lennon?
It’s all over Double Fantasy. The only song I didn’t use it for was “Beautiful Boy.” But on the rest of that album, and on all of Milk and Honey as well, I’m using the J-45. The fact is, it’s on pretty much every album I’ve been involved with, including all the acoustic work on my solo albums. There’s some serious history with that guitar.