Ronnie Lane called them Slim Chance but they are still here nearly fifty years later.
Ronnie Lane is one of the great British songwriters whose work stands comparison with that of Ray Davies and Pete Townshend, and while he is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his contribution to The Small Faces and The Faces, he is generally under-appreciated. The solo work he produced after leaving The Faces is a uniquely British blend of folk, country, rock’n’roll and soul and is an early example of americana long before that term even existed. He recorded four solo albums and a duet album with Pete Townshend before his career was cut short by multiple sclerosis and he died in 1997. A key part of the sound of his solo career was the band of revolving musicians who formed his backing band, Slim Chance. Slim Chance reformed 10 years ago with the aim of preserving Ronnie’s music and also the uniquely English americana sound of his solo career. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Slim Chance guitarist and mandolin player Steve Simpson to discuss the band, which now also includes pub rock and British Cajun legend Geraint Watkins, what it was like working with Ronnie Lane and why his music deserves preserving, together with his own career which includes spells with early British americana type artists Meal Ticket and Frankie Miller.
How are you? I hope you, the band and family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
I believe we have all been OK and escaped the worst effects of COVID, which, without being gloomy, when you add in the factor of our age is definitely a real bonus [laughs].
Best not to think about that too much [laughs]. How long, no pun intended, has Slim Chance been back together, it’s 10 years or more, isn’t it?
Yeah, it was 2010.
That is a lot longer than the original band.
Oh God yes, funnily enough, Charlie Hart and I have always been in touch and we have done the odd little project together over the years with live gigs and bits of recording and stuff in his mighty Equator Studios [laughs]. I’m the only one who calls it the mighty Equator because it is not too far from Greenwich [laughs]. It is really handy having that facility.
He seems to have his fingers in lots of pies and plays a whole range of music.
For a long while he was doing music for film animations, he is good and he is in touch. He actually practices every day and I really admire that so much [laughs]. He is a good man, Charlie.
You have to use it or lose it. I got the first reformed Slim Chance album ‘The Show Goes On’ when it came out. I was sceptical when I first heard of the reformation but when I listened to the album I thought it worked very well as a celebration of a unique sound and a great songwriter.
It is funny how it all came together. Charlie and I had thought about putting Slim Chance back together and we were looking for a bass player and we went to see Benny Gallagher. We spent a really nice afternoon with him and Diane, plenty of pots of tea and chatting, and he gave us a contact for Steve Bingham who, of course, was the original bass player with Slim Chance. He played on ‘Anymore For Anymore’ and he was in the configuration of Slim Chance before us, and did the Passing Show bit. He is a good strong bass player and he currently works with Geno Washington, and they play in-your-face rockin’ soul [laughs]. That is not a bad thing to underpin the gentleness of Slim Chance, and he is a really nice guy to work with and he certainly knows what is going on.
What was Ronnie Lane like to work with? I think you did three albums with him.
He was very quirky and very private when it came to the writing processes. He never let anybody have a look at his book, his thoughts book, but he kept coming up with stuff and chucking ideas out. That is when you had an input as a player, you could listen to what he played and put your own stamp on it, which is what he was asking for all the time. That is some, if not most, of the arrangements were covered as a group thing. It was the way he wanted to drive it. He was a very, very talented man, and very funny at times too.
Slim Chance came up with what is still a fairly unique blend of English folk, country, soul and rock n roll with acoustic and electric instruments. How did that sound come together all those years ago?
That’s right. I’d not realised, until a short while ago, that what we were doing is what was later termed americana. It was a collection of folk, rock, rock’n’roll, bluegrass, blues, all those things together because all those genres do live very happily side by side. Only now there is a name for it, then there wasn’t. We were the British version of americana at the time [laughs].
‘Anymore for Anymore’ did OK in the UK. ‘How Come’ was hit and ‘The Poacher’ nearly was but subsequent albums couldn’t maintain the momentum, though the quality was always there. Why do you think that happened?
That is such a charming album. I think it was simply a question of timing. Musical tastes and directions were changing very rapidly from the time we parted ways with Ronnie. He ran out of money first of all, and everybody had lives to live and families to look after, so went back to doing other things. We still got the odd call from him to come up and record on a song he had just done, so we were still in contact. The musical tastes were changing, the punk thing was coming in, the harder-edged thing gradually ran into grunge. I tell you what though, I’ve discovered that at the time, even though there was no obvious straight-ahead route for our “music”, I found that the new musicians coming up still needed people who could play when they were recording. There was always an avenue to keep working, doing what I do in the way that I did. Unfortunately, that is the main cause of our disappearance, I think. Once things started to round off musically, that is when the music started to blossom again.
Ronnie Lane is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he doesn’t seem to get the recognition and respect his career and songwriting deserves, compared to such contemporaries as Ray Davies and Pete Townshend. Why do you think that is?
Very, very poignant songs. You know, I don’t think he really pushed himself. People like Pete had a much higher profile, they had a machine going, you know, the whole operation surrounding The Who, and of course Pete’s personal projects. Ronnie didn’t ever get up to that level of promotion, because he was doing it all himself, and he was a bit reticent to push himself.
In his public persona, Ronnie Lane never seemed to be a shy individual, but was he in day-to-day life?
There was a very, very private part to his makeup, that’s for sure, and that was part of his charm, I think. That is also one of the reasons he wrote in that way quite a lot, right from ‘Debris’ onwards. I mean, that is a heart-touching lyric about his old dad. His approach was different from the others like Rod Stewart and Pete, he was ebullient, pushing.
What is it like for you guys keeping his music alive, what do you get out of it?
It is simply the joy of playing those tunes, you know. Part of the reasoning is that we were part of it at the time, and it became part of us. It became a natural thing when Charlie and I decided to get the band back together again and promote the music again to base it on Ronnie’s tunes, and then gradually put our own stamp on it, the way we are as current musicians. We are producing Ronnie’s songs in the current way and recording in a different way, we are also adding our own touches and our own songs which all seemed to be in the same vein. ‘The Phoenix Tapes’ is a perfect example, it is absolutely eclectic, and it is right across the board, and it sounds like it is connected with Ronnie.
With ‘The Phoenix Tapes’ the surprising thing to me was the relatively few Ronnie Lane songs on it. The sound was there but, as you said, the songs were more eclectic.
The reflection of Ronnie is in everything on that album because of our connections personally with him.
The ‘Phoenix Tapes’ features tracks recorded over the years. How were the tracks selected?
Those tracks are all outtakes from our various albums, things that didn’t make the cut for various reasons on each of the albums they were recorded for. Some of them were unfinished, in fact, most of them were unfinished, and there was all this stockpile of stuff, and it was a great idea to go back and look at what we could touch on again. Give it a bit of a dust off, maybe a re-record of a part, an overdub and just tidy things up. Before we knew it we had this wonderful collection of ex-outtakes.
It doesn’t come across as a collection of outtakes it comes across more like a complete album.
It does have an identity, that’s for sure. That’s where the roots of it were, all those tracks on the album were recorded for different purposes, but it was good to collect them all together.
How did Geraint Watkins join? I know he has worked with Charlie Hart in the past. Is that a sign that Slim Chance are expanding their musical horizons while still honouring the spirit of Ronnie Lane? Likewise, Billy Nicholls joined on ‘New Cross Road’ with his impressive songwriting and production skills.
Oh gosh, Geraint was almost part of Slim Chance in the early days, because of his Rockfield connection. We all knew him and loved the way he played and his own personal music. Geraint was so close to us but just not in the band, so when the moment came to reform the band, there he was, up and ready to go. Everybody went, oh yeah, me and Charlie went Watkins of course [laughs].
He’s not a bad singer, is he?
He is a singer alright, he really is.
He can write a few songs, as well.
Yeah, a very talented musician as well.
What about Billy Nicholls?
It is a joy working with Billy, he is so creative. In a way, he was Pete Townshend’s MD for twenty years, organising his backing vocals and stuff like that and touring with him. His vocal connections, his vocal talents, really lifted our game when he came into the band. To be honest, we were all musicians, instrumentalists who happened to sing, apart from Watkins who happened to be everything, but the rest of us were and still are players who like to sing. Billy was able to elevate that status and drew us to him with his input. He made us think about the accuracy of our parts, synchronisation, whose voices fit which areas and he got the blend working. I think the vocals are much stronger now because of him. A joy to work next to, that’s for sure.
The way you are talking, Slim Chance are a real band. How much time do you guys spend on it with all your other individual projects on the go as well, and how far are you going to try and take it?
I see it as an ongoing thing, the music, Slim Chance, the connection with Ronnie Lane, because not only are we aiming at and playing to an audience of staunch followers, but they are bringing their families and their friends, and there are younger people appearing, and buying the product and joining the crowds at gigs. To me it is an ongoing process, of course, we are all aging [laughs], but that is not a major part of it as long as we can have the ability to keep this thing rolling.
You are all still working hard.
Yes, and ideas are still popping up and we are all still writing, songs are being offered up all the while. I also have to admit, it is very enjoyable [laughs].
It would be difficult to be in a band with the same guys for over 10 years if you didn’t get on, I suppose.
There are bands who work together on a business basis for longer periods than that, but we have an emotional attachment not only to the music and our man Ronnie, but also to each other as friends. That is quite a rarity [laughs].
I doubt you could play the music you play if you weren’t a true band in the best sense because of the emotional aspect of the music.
That’s right, you have to put your heart into it and that is what makes you choose the notes that you play. The songs that you put those notes into, it is completely an emotional process.
Has there been any interest from the US in Slim Chance, particularly from Austin where Ronnie ended his career?
It is interesting. There is the thought of putting a project together with some friends of ours in Austin, there are still strong ties from Ronnie’s time there, and not forgetting Mac, Ian McLagan. There are people we would like to play with and who would like to play with us, it is early days yet, but talks are in progress about linking up. We don’t have a promotional machine as such surrounding us to make things happen, so we have to take it small steps at a time but that is no bad thing [laughs].
You still have to make a living so you will have to be careful not to waste money, but if you can get something together in Austin it would be really closing the circle in a way, wouldn’t it?
It would be taking what we do, americana, back to the Americans, which again isn’t a bad thing.
Charlie Hart, Steve Bingham, yourself, Geraint Watkins, Brendan O’Neill, Billy Nicolls cover a significant part of UK roots music history. What are the band dynamics like, how does it work?
There is mutual respect, obviously, otherwise it wouldn’t work musically, and each person who has got an idea will lead that particular song. Propose the thing, set it out, and everybody else will gradually add to the process. That is the same that Ronnie did in the early days when he put the sketch out there and we put the colours in, and that is still how we work now. Whoever has brought the idea will be the lead person, and the others will cluster round and fill in. It is a joint process, it has to be.
The comes back to the fact you all get on, so we can all take criticism and keep jealousy out of the way, which has impacted other bands.
Yeah. Where does jealousy fit in, it doesn’t, but it can be a canker in the rose for some bands.
Who are your go-to influences that have been with you throughout your career?
I started playing at an early age because there was always music in the family, my parents were both talented musicians, and I grew up with music around me. What really hit me, the first major impact, was when I was in art college as a youngster and I heard Lead Belly on a disc with Paul Mason Howard on zither and I had never heard a sound like that before, the twelve strings and a zither and that enormous voice, singing in that blues, and I suppose, soul genre. That really gave me a start, it made me want to play bluesier because at the time I was leaning towards countrier stuff. Later on, I went through a period of playing with British country bands to build my chops up, and have a lot of fun along the way [laughs]. I was also listening to guitar players Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton and all the intricate guitar players, Django Reinhardt. Gosh, that was one of the early influences when I was a child, Django Reinhardt playing on an LP in the house and trying to fit my basic chords to the wonderful things Django was playing. I was learning that if I was very careful, I could almost make it work, with my limited knowledge, and that was a spur to get things moving. I have come through a lot of different musical areas and hopefully snowballed along the way being able to bring stuff I have been through along with me on the route.
You have been in the music business for a long time and have seen a lot of change. There is a big debate around streaming and music royalties. What is your view on streaming from a long-term hard-working artist’s perspective?
It is not the most lucrative way of dealing with things, but being a musician you very rarely take the most lucrative route [laughs]. The thing about streaming is it is now, and we have to take note of it and to progress we have to be part of it. We have to not just accept it, we have to open ourselves up to it. It is about adapting to the circumstances. There are so many restrictions around and streaming your music is keeping it alive, in a totally different way. It has made music more accessible.
You worked with Frankie Miller, another UK musician who did not get recognition for his singing and songwriting though he was respected by leading UK and American musicians from various genres. What do you recall from your time with him?
He was a joy to work with. I had known Frankie for quite some years working the pub rock circuit in London, alongside people like Bees Make Honey, what later became Meal Ticket, that kind of period. I had always said to Frankie, “One day I am going to play next to you” [laughs], because I really loved his attitude, no messing about and right in your face, strong, soulful and absolutely tuneful and inventive lyrics. Later on, when Meal Ticket had collapsed for various reasons, there was a call to join Frankie for a touring band. I got to play on an album with him which I think was the ‘Falling In Love’ album. I also got to play on ‘Darling’ which is the closest he had to a commercial hit. I played acoustic guitars and accordion on that. He was a very powerful presence, and there was no upstaging. He would say to us when we were going on stage, “All eyes on my shoulders”, but it was great, that is a leader for you.
Do you keep in touch with him, because he has been ill for some time?
I talk to Annette occasionally. I spent a little while working with Ray Minhinnett a couple of years ago, him and Andrew Golden, on what was called at the time Frankie Miller’s Fullhouse. Ray had a band called Fullhouse that Frankie came into and fronted so that they became Frankie Miller’s Fullhouse and when Ray revived that I got the call to go and help out for a while. We did an album together with a fabulous Scottish singer called Gregor MacGregor, from around Stirling, and I’m not sure whether it is out yet. They have Ed Deane on guitar which is absolutely fabulous because Ed and I were the twin guitar players in his band while I was with him, along with Terry “Tex” Comer on bass and Fran Byrne on drums. It is a joy to know that Ed’s in that fold, keeping the Frankie thing alive.
You mentioned Meal Ticket. What are your memories of that band?
That was a very organic process, it was a bunch of friends who gathered together. Rick Jones just a major, major songwriter, lyricist Dave Pierce, it just came together over years of jamming in Dave Pierce’s basement. Some amazing music came out of that and there were some fiery talents there, Ray Flacke’s guitar playing, goodness me, and that was a major influence on me, and he taught me a lot of stuff along the way. He is still playing and producing and recording for other people from his home in Nashville.
Meal Ticket could have achieved greater success, couldn’t they?
It was that timing thing. It was the upsurge of what was going to be punk and stuff like that and as the band was folding musical tastes were changing and I think it lived its day. Some of the songs are still popular now, and that is a blessing. Great songs and great people to work with, that’s for sure.
What are the plans for the remainder of 2021 and 2022?
We are all looking for some form of stability [laughs]. We have some shows in the book through the rest of the year and we are just looking at a December period now. We have just moved our first rescheduled show into December so that has opened up that end of the year. We have a couple of nice little offers in the air for February onwards, so there is some live stuff to do, and knowing us, we will have a bunch of songs to be working on by then. ‘The Phoenix Tapes’ was released in May so early next year would be a good time for another one.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Chris Stapelton for sure and the band he came out of The Steeldrivers. Mark Broussard, now there is a really powerful voice and a great choice of songs. They are the two big ones for me at the moment. I’m also listening to the players, Lee Roy Parnell for instance, and I’m still listening to Stephen Bruton on his collection of albums.
He was a great guitarist wasn’t he, and not a bad songwriter?
That is the truth. I’ve got five or six of his albums and people didn’t realize how good he was as a creator of music, apart from his chosen career as a staunch and trusted sideman.
Guitarist, songwriter, arranger. His work with Kris Kristofferson and Delbert McClinton, he was all over the place. Again, someone else you wonder why he isn’t better known and appreciated.
In a way, I think if you are really appreciated by your peers, that is probably one of the highest accolades, as a musician. It sounds like I’m being very coy and protective, but I don’t mean to be [laughs], but I do feel that.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
I love the idea of Americana UK, of putting the thing out there in print, collecting the ideas, doing the interviews and holding this flag up high. I think it is a great collective and it is a really important vehicle. That’s my opinion anyway [laughs].
Thanks for that.
Slim Chance’s ‘The Phoenix Tapes’ is out now on Fishpool Records