Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary)

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Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary) (Earl Slick with David Bowie).

Whenever the “who’s the greatest Bowie guitarist” debate arises (typically by dudes), there are few contenders. Mick Ronson, architect of Bowie’s breakthrough. Carlos Alomar, ultimate right-hand man. Adrian Belew, Reeves Gabrels and Robert Fripp: instigators. That’s pretty much the lot.

It’s rare for someone to argue for Earl Slick, despite his pedigree—hot Young Turk on the Diamond Dogs tour, adding guts to the Lennon tracks on Young Americans, being the linchpin of Station to Station. Called back for the Serious Moonlight tour, and the mainstay of the last Bowie tours and albums. Slick is one of the last remaining ties to Bowie’s past: of the players on The Next Day, only he and Tony Visconti had worked with Bowie in the Seventies.

So why doesn’t he get his due? Maybe he never shed the “hired gun” label (he had to fill Ronson’s shoes in 1974 and was drafted as a last-minute replacement for Stevie Ray Vaughan on the 1983 tour). Or that he’s not considered a bandleader in the way that Ronson, Alomar and Gabrels were. Some critics and fans have argued he lacks a signature sound. You can hear a few notes of Ronson and Alomar and likely place them, but what defines Earl Slick?

This gives him too little credit. Slick’s playing has a distinctive tone, a bluesy, swaggering sensibility: there’s an attitude in his string bends (only Ronson could wring more out of his bends) and pick attacks; he seems hell-bent on making his amplifiers smoke. John Lennon got Slick for the Double Fantasy sessions because “he wanted one street guy in there” among the studio aces, and Bowie regarded Slick in much the same way, as a fearless “blue-collar” guitarist who wasn’t plagued by good taste. Slick’s peak was “Station to Station,” where his regiments of overdubbed guitars created a sound that even Belew struggled to reproduce on stage.

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Slick grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Kicking around in a few NYC bands in the early Seventies, Slick met the composer/arranger Michael Kamen, who hired him as a roadie and then as a guitarist. Kamen, chosen as bandleader for the Diamond Dogs tour, suggested Bowie consider Slick as a lead player. “I went down to RCA Studios to meet him, they stuck a set of headphones on me, turned on some Diamond Dogs mixes and told me to play along,” Slick recalled in 2003. “They didn’t even tell me what fuckin’ key they were in.” He got the gig.

Within months, though, he was on the outs. Bowie reconfigured the tour in September 1974 to reflect his new “soul” music and Slick now had to share the stage with a rival guitarist, Alomar, and a new vocal chorus, and tackle songs that Bowie hadn’t even released yet. “I thought I was important to the thing but I’m starting to feel like a fuckin’ throwaway,” he told Bowie biographers the Gilmans in the mid-Eighties. “David had gone completely in a direction I didn’t like.” Slick realized he’d only hung onto his job “because they needed me for the rock material.”

So Station to Station became Slick and Alomar battling for control, each overdubbing the other, each trying to outplay the other. Alomar, who’d assembled a rhythm section he was in sync with, had pole position; Slick, who’d made the strategic blunder of signing with Bowie’s soon-to-be-estranged new manager, was outside, trying to knife his way in. The title track, “TVC 15,” “Golden Years” and “Stay” are the records of their battles—Alomar sparring with one of his endless catchy riffs, Slick retaliating with massive chords and feedback concertos.

Slick was gone before the 1976 tour. In the Eighties he was a session man and leader of his own sub-super group, Phantom, Rocker & Slick. In the Nineties, he cleaned up and burned out. “Every time I got called to do anything, or when anybody was going to get involved with me, it was for that—more of the same,” he told Billboard in 2003. “And I remember going onstage doing another, yet one more blues rock solo, and just thinking, ‘Man, this is not fun.’ And at the time, I don’t think I was conscious of whether I was bored with what I was doing, with that kind of guitar playing, or if I just started hating music. I didn’t know where I was at.”

So he quit. Moved to Lake Tahoe with his Newfoundlands, stayed off the grid for years. When he put up his own website, around 1999, he got back on Bowie’s radar. The story was that Bowie, who was spending hours on the Internet at the time, did the usual thing: he wondered “hey, whatever became of Slick?” and typed his name into AltaVista. And so Bowie (or a staffer) discovered Slick was living in the High Sierras. Around New Year 2000, an email invitation was sent to Slick’s webmaster, and Slick went to New York to, yet again, step in for a departing lead guitarist: in this case, Reeves Gabrels. Slick played on Bowie’s 2000 mini-tour, and has been on every Bowie album and tour since.

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It helped that Bowie was reviving many of his Seventies rockers on stage and that the new songs from Heathen and Reality suited Slick’s style—Bowie wasn’t asking him to do many drum ‘n’ bass numbers. Slick also had cooled down. “I don’t like using my chops anymore. It bores me,” he told Vintage Guitar.I approached David Bowie’s stuff a lot differently way back than I do now. I’m playing less, but I think my playing is a lot more intense and I’m playing more to the sound of things. I’m playing simpler and a little more thematic, and a lot less jammy and bluesy than I used to. Because I write so much now, I’m approaching the songs more like a songwriter.”

Invigorated by working on Bowie’s albums and tours, Slick in 2001 began planning his first solo album in over a decade. Originally he was going to make an instrumental record, using fellow Bowie sideman Mark Plati as producer, but he didn’t have the stomach to cut a “noodling” album, as lead guitarists usually produce. (“I’ve never been that much of a heavy noodler anyway,” he said.) Instead, Zig Zag started as Slick’s attempts at writing incidental music for films, keeping his tracks concise and melodic. “The album was almost like making a demo to get scoring jobs.”

But Slick had racked up admirers over the years, so he soon had Robert Smith singing on one track, and Joe Elliott, Royston Langdon (Spacehog) and Martha Davis (the Motels) were also on board. Bowie not-quite-subtly invited himself. “He overheard a conversation I was having with [Plati]… and said, ‘I guess you’re not interested in me maybe doing a little something on the record,‘” Slick recalled.

Each guest singer had provided their top melodies and lyrics, and Bowie did the same. His contribution, “Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary),” which Slick described as “pensive,” came after Slick sent Bowie “seven really rough pieces” and he picked one. Once the track was properly recorded, Bowie came to Looking Glass Studios (during the recording of Reality in early 2003) to cut his typically quick-take vocal. “He asked what I thought about the ending and I said, “Well, what if you tried this on the harmony…,” Slick recalled. “It was fucking weird giving him direction! I was stepping back from myself the whole time, like there was one of me at the console and one of me just watching everything in the room.”

The result was a track that, unlike some other Bowie side-project contributions, was worthy of his own albums. Bowie’s lyrics and melodies are in line with the somber theatricals of Heathen and Reality, with some striking lines (“one dies on the lawn/his face turned away from it all“). The track’s final-curtain mood makes “Isn’t It Evening” another end point for a professional life that, unknown to all concerned, was about to go on hiatus for a decade.

So here’s to the perennially-underrated Earl Slick: say what you’d like, but he outlasted ’em all.

Recorded: (Bowie vocal) Looking Glass Studios, ca. February 2003; (guitars, backing tracks) ca. late 2002, early 2003, Looking Glass. Released 9 December 2003 on Zig Zag (Sanctuary 06076-84671).

Top: Camilio Vergara, “‘Satan, you are not longer my Lord,’ Outdoor service of the New Creation Ministry, Sutter Ave., Brooklyn, 2003.”

53 Responses to Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary)

  1. fhgaldino says:

    Never heard this. I liked a lot. Bowie doesn’t sound like a guest in someone’s album. I could easily see this on ‘Heathen’.

    • Sykirobme says:

      Same here. Really nice tune. Great melody and great lyrics.

      Slick is a very good player – his solo on “Station to Station” is fantastic, and he’s on fire in the live version of Stay on the Ryko edition of the album – but I can understand why people tend to rank him low among the Bowie sidemen. He doesn’t have that avant-garde edge of Fripp, Belew, Gabrels or Torn; doesn’t have the distinctive funkiness of Alomar; and was never afforded to chance to stamp his own personality on Bowie’s material like Ronson. But he’s essential in his own way, helping to provide a solid and accessible touchstone for listeners while the rest of the band explore the margins.

      • col1234 says:

        live ’76 was Stacey Heydon. lots of good Slick solos on David Live, tho’, regardless of whether they were cut in the studio or no.

      • Sykirobme says:

        Oops, haha…I need to check my liner notes more…

      • StevenE says:

        I’m in the position of thinking Slick is really great but also hoping he’s not back for the next album. Really, really pushing for a clean house.

      • dm says:

        Yeah, a “clean house” so long as they don’t sweep Dorsey away.

      • StevenE says:

        at this point i wouldn’t miss her. she’s too central to what he’s sounded like for, tbh, much too long.

        the two new tracks have boded well but I’d be gutted if Bowie dropped another album at it was just Toy/Heathen/Reality/The Next Day again. Great albums but the seam is pretty exhausted.

      • dm says:

        You’re probably right, I’m just really fond of the Dorsey/Bowie chemistry. And her vocals on If You Can See Me were excellent.

        The following ramble is getting way off topic:

        As great as Visconti is, he could probably go. James Murphy would be an excellent (if obvious) choice for producer. It’d be nice to bring in a guitarist we’ve never heard of. OR get his current band but get Steve Albini to produce the whole thing. Put them through the ringer.

        I was always surprised that Bowie never did anything with William Orbit. Earthling and Ray of Light seem to come from the same place.

      • s.t. says:

        Re: a new album lineup, I don’t think it’s going to happen, but long as we’re sharing our fantasies, here’s my dream team.

        The recently freed up Olof Dreijer and Ethan Kath working together on beats and production. Battles as his band. Shannon Funchess doing backup vox. And Warren Ellis as his mad genius/noodler.

  2. crayontocrayon says:

    I like Slick, but I can’t say I love his playing in the same way as other Bowie guitarists. Very good rock and roll player but lacking a little in invention. David Live is probably his high point – certainly more effective in a live setting than the studio.

    Bowie probably appreciated having another clean guy from the old days on the road with him on the more recent tours. As for the song its not bad, actually sounds more like something from hours than heathen to me with the slightly softer production.

    • RLM says:

      On the Reality Tour I thought it was a perfect balance having Slick on the left covering off the rock-and-roll, while Gerry Leonard got fiddly with his pedals and atmospherics on the right. Overall lacking the fire of a Ronson or Belew perhaps, but it sounded great in a tour where the avante-garde-ness (if any) might have been found in the way so many (recent and vintage) non-hits were smuggled into a greatest hits set.

      • Agreed that Slick and Leonard really complimented each other well, but yeah, “lacking fire” – that’s a good way to put it. Definitely something that’s been missing since Gabrels left, even if I didn’t always like Gabrels.

  3. Stolen Guitar says:

    Always rated him; his solo on Panic In Detroit, from the David Live album, ranks with the best of Bowie’s many other guitarists solos, Ronson included.

    I love him; but then, I love Station To Station, and that is the best band that Bowie ever assembled. Alomar, Bittan, Bowie, Davis, Murray, Peace and Slick produced six of the greatest songs of all time and Slick is all over them.

    He’s a link to Bowie’s former majesty and I’m always pleased to see his spikey head and shades on stage alongside Bowie.

    • mark shark says:

      Agreed I too have always rated Earl very highly. Even bought his eponymous album after Station to Station. I agreed the S2S band was the best Bowie ever put together-for my money at least. Stolen – hope you are aware of the Canadian S2S rehearsals on the net. 15 songs or so are out there and it’s as close as we’ll ever get to seeing footage of that tour. Some very funny moments in there too!

  4. StevenE says:

    Great to log in and see this entry as I was thinking about Slick earlier – I was listening to MBDTF on a train and hit Mike Dean’s solo on this and was reminded of Station to Station (MBDTF is probably the S2S of hiphop). Dean’s underrated too – perhaps just because guitarists can get overlooked when people talk about rap.

    every1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8ejqE3ktFU

    Similar to Station insofar as it is the best thing ever.

  5. AlonInSeine says:

    Well, this is a bit off topic, but anyway…
    “Each guest singer had provided their top melodies”. Now, I’m not a musician, and maybe that’s the reason why I fail to understand this. Can a song exist without the “top melodies”? For me, the top melody (i.e. the melodies that the singer sings) is the beef of the song – what would the song be without it? The backing tracks and riffs and such are important, but usually they are not The Song (except for songs like Stay or Fame in which the vocal melody stands on equal grounds as the riff). I could never understand this, it puzzled me ever since I read about the recording of Scary Monsters.

    • col1234 says:

      good question and singers should chime in. I was referencing a Slick quote: “Each vocalist wrote his or her own melodies and lyrics. Some of them got really rough demos from me and still managed to come up with amazing ideas.”

      so essentially they got a demo from Slick with a chord structure and probably some riffs, and they wrote a melodic line on top of it—so if it was a C-F-G progression, they maybe would start singing the root note of C and take off from there. Or use one of Slick’s guitar lines as the basis of their own vocal melody.

      • Sykirobme says:

        That’s how it usually is in situations I’ve been involved in (both as a singer and as a musician). You have a neat chord progression, some neat motifs and riffs, an arrangement…and then someone puts a vocal over what you’ve written.

    • AB says:

      Musician here. There’s many ways to write, and not limiting yourself to one composing pattern makes for more interesting songs.

      – Sometimes you have a melody and arrange the song around it.

      – Sometimes you have a great arrangement and find the melody whilst vocally improvising over it for a period of time.

      – Sometimes you arrange a song based around the original melody, only to change your mind and rewrite a new, stronger melody over it because the producer or band is indifferent to it, and you like the challenge of making it work.

      – Sometimes you have a fully-arranged song with a melody that doesn’t inspire you, only to realise it would sound fantastic if you sung it over the backing track of another song you already had that you couldn’t find a melody for. (It’s an easy way to fool people into think you’d planned really sophisticated harmonics).

      I cultivated the ability to Top Line because it frees you up from predictable patterns of thought, something that would appeal to Bowie and it’s challenging.

      Songwriting is hard to explain to non-songwriters. You have an abstract idea, then make it reality. It’s like grabbing at snowflakes only to end up with flowers in your hands.

    • colincidence says:

      It’s understood that Bowie’s songwriting tends to have the lyrics, and implicitly the vocal line, come last. I’ve heard reports of “la la la” vocal lines being in place, but this suggests he mainly writes the ‘backing track’ first.

      • rawmoon says:

        I agree – bowie learned how to ‘write off the mike’ from iggy pop during the making of the ‘the idiot’. ‘low’ is where he started using what he learned : recording vocal tracks with just a rough idea of lyric / melody allowing the subconscious a partnership in the composition process. Iggy owns this ~
        Scott Walker is the exact opposite in terms of composition – he said lyrics are written first to determine what should be created musically.

  6. ofer says:

    I think he’s very important in “The Next Day” as well. Without him it’s a work rich with great songwriting but clearly lacking in creative playing. His (few) contributions are pivotal – they stand out.

  7. LordByron says:

    Was privileged to be in Plati’s studio in 2004 and the excitement MP and Slicky had for ‘Zig Zag’ and projected projects was tangible. It was great. I was in attendance at a tv taping in Astoria to promote ‘Heathen’ and called out ‘Slicky!!’ and the great man didn’t hesitate; he strolled off stage, came up to me, and tolerated this fan’s excitement with the wry and dry tolerance of a guy who is legit cool and doesn’t need to boast. I thought ‘Zig Zag’ was under-promoted in the sense that it carried the dreaded perception of being a GUITARIST’S solo album rather than a musician’s. There are great songs and great work on it and Slick deserves all the respect he gets. He’s just a bad mother**cker and paid his dues.

  8. Maj says:

    I have this album. There are a couple of good tunes on it, not just Isn’t It Evening.

    I like this guy a lot, along with Ronno & Fripp he’s my fave lead guitar playing Bowie collaborator.

  9. mikaels says:

    He is a great guitarist, and has done some great solo work on a number of Bowie albums, and I actually ordered Zig Zag (hadn’t heard about it before) after reading this, but Slick is still not a great Bowie guitarist in the Ronson, Alomar, Gabrels sense, because it doesn’t feel as if he ever worked with Bowie, he has just put down some great solo work on his albums and tours, but never really been a part of the band, or the creative process.
    Looking forward to listening to his album though.

  10. Ramzi says:

    “Isn’t it Evening”, and isn’t it easy to force the narrative of his impending retirement onto most songs he did from 2000? It’s almost unavoidable at this point. Of course, looking forward to the narrative-busting (She Can) Do That.

    Station to Station is my favourite album and I have a strong love of the Heathen era so I’ve always rated Slick highly. Definitely not in the band of Ronson/Alomar, and perhaps not as original or cutting edge as Fripp or Belew, but delivered on what he did.

  11. Uor Nefelino says:

    Oh God, I never heard about this song until now ! Anyway, the next entry will be about ”The Next Day”? Can’t wait to see this.

    • col1234 says:

      no, we’re still a ways away from “Next Day,” friend. about 10 more entries before we reach it.

      • Uor Nefelino says:

        10 more? Then i’m more curious than never to know what Bowie did in this 10 years of hiatus. Maybe I’ll discover more gems like this Earl Slick song that I didn’t not knew. By the way, can’t wait to see the next entries, this blog is awsome.

      • AB says:

        Wasn’t there a horrible co-sung cover of ‘Changes’ somewhere in there?

  12. dm says:

    Ooh this is really quite lovely. Melodically, harmonically and guitar-ly a bit of a throwback to The Man Who Sold the World (the album, not the track)

  13. dm says:

    On another note, Zig Zag is an interesting track. Smith is usually a fantastic guest vocalist- he really elevates Blink 182’s All of This, as well a Crystal Castles’s cover of I’m Not in Love. He’s chosen a particularly speaky style on Zig Zag, only suggesting the melody (which works well with the directness of his lyrics), but the melody could really use some doubling in the instrumentation- a guitar or keyboard line to bolster it a little. Still a nice track. Never really rated Slick before, but he’s a good ‘journeyman’ type guitarist with a keen ear for arrangement.

  14. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    “Slick, who’d made the strategic blunder of signing with Bowie’s soon-to-be estranged new manager’’ Would that have been Michael Lippman?

  15. Joe The Lion says:

    I’ve always thought David Live is one of the best guitar albums ever, due to Slick’s playing.

    The dirty buzz slice in Moonage Daydream, the sleazy chop of Sweet Thing, the mocking howl of Diamond Dogs on the live album makes me feel like the guitar is a living thing.

    Admittedly, I’m no guitar aficionado, but I know what I don’t like and I don’t not like this.

  16. Super review as always. I thought Belew did not struggle to reproduce the sound on stage (and Stage). He reproduced it and added his own elements supremely. If anyone struggled (only a little) perhaps it was Stacey Heydon.

    As much as I love Slick I am a Belew man.

    This is a good little song & I must buy the album.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this. Slick really is the underrated bedrock who outlasted them all – except Garson of course. His contribution to Station to Station alone – from the opening guitar sounds of the title track to the closing Wild is the Wind – is enough to put him right up at the top of guitarists’ tree.

    Why doesn’t he get due credit? Perhaps, like Garson, he has always been a musician rather than a collaborator. Or perhaps it’s just how he looks. I remember being – pre-Internet when images of these people just weren’t freely available – so disappointed the first time I saw Earl Slick, because he looked like a cartoon rock guitarist.

    I’ve often wondered what might have happened if Earl Slick had been around for Low.

    … oh, and Stacey Heydon was actually great for that tour.

  18. Vinnie says:

    I hadn’t heard this song before, and I will probably never hear it again.

  19. postpunkmonk says:

    I can chime in that “Zig Zag” is indeed a very good album. My wife bought it for Slick alone, and it was only afterward that we noticed that Bowie was singing on it. It slots in nicely to the “Bowie Guitarist Solo Album with Joe Elliott Vocals” thread as well! The balance of songs to instros gave it a lot of ear appeal. It’s definitely not a “noodling” album, but I keep coming back to the instros when I listen to it. Great tone from the man.

  20. Mike says:

    Sweet tune! Sounds right at home on my Heathen/Reality mix.

  21. roobin101 says:

    Song-wise on listening to it twice it’s lovely enough, it may become a grower. It does show the weakness of the “here, singer, yodel a melody over these chords” method of writing as its close in parts to Thru These Architects Eyes. Slick-wise, his playing is the cherry on the cake for StS, especially the title track. If I did not know how it was put together I would have sworn the second half of Station to Station was recorded live by musicians spurring each other on. No session plodder could have dubbed guitar like that – perfect.

  22. Jeff Yih says:

    Chris:
    Seeing how you mentioned 80’s college rock stalwarts Game Theory, I was reminded that Earl did play guitar on their Distortions ep. This was a month after serious moonlight. That and the connection with his ex wife June Millington (of Fanny) who still lives in Davis. A friend of mine is her neighbor and has met Earl at holiday functions. Mentioned he was a pretty cool guy. Wasn’t Page Hamilton (at least in Trynka’s book) the immediate replacement for Reeves?

  23. Joe Jones says:

    I really like this, its been on regular rotation on the ipod since I read this entry. Great to find all these gems that I didn’t know about prior to The Next Day. I wonder if the TV on the Radio track ‘Province’ will have an entry? Quite like that one too.

  24. Deanna says:

    I’ve never head this song before, but it’s stunning. Thanks for helping me discover it.

  25. WRGerman says:

    I have always loved this tune, and I’m glad to see it merited a write-up here. From time to time, I wonder which Bowie album it could have best fit in with.

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