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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey say you can tell a lot about someone by the company they keep. With friends like Lemmy, Johnny Ramone, Earl Slick, Glen Matlock and Captain Sensible, you’d have to think that former Stray Cats’ drummer Slim Jim Phantom would be a pretty cool kind of guy to hang with. As Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips found out at Slim’s Ding Dong lounge gig soundcheck, you can add dapper and charming to that list too.

Slim Jim was in Australia this month touring with a trio consisting of Tim Polecat from The Polecats and Dave Bean from local outfit Casino Rumblers. Since The Stray Cats first etched their name into rock n roll history with their punkified version of rockabilly in the late 70s, Phantom has been able to trade on that name by touring with various rockabilly flavoured projects. There was Phantom, Rocker and Slick with former Stray Cat bassist Lee Rocker and Bowie guitarist Earl Slick. Another is Dead Men Walking with The Damned’s Captain Sensible and The Alarm’s Mike Peters. However the most celebrated is probably The Head Cat which features gun LA guitar picker Danny B Harvey and garage rock legend Lemmy.

“Lemmy, I have known for 35 years,” recalls Slim. “He was one of the original guys I met in London. It was the early Stray Cats’ shows. He’d come to ours and I’d go to theirs. I was in the audience for ‘No Sleep ’til Hammersmith’. I am fortunate that I have met a lot of people who are fantastic musicians and characters. So Lem and I have been friends and stayed in touch all those years. He lives very close to me in LA, we are neighbours almost. Originally I was asked to do a track for an Elvis tribute record and Lem is a big Elvis fan, so I got him to come in to do it with Johnny Ramone, who is my other best pal. I thought it would be cool to have those two on a track together. They came in and we did the song very quickly. John went home, you know, he’s like ‘Im done with this thing’. We had 8 hours left in the studio. Lem said, let’s stay and knock around a few more songs. We did that and he said we might be onto something. We came back the next day and did it for a few weeks and before you knew it, we had a record. We just tried it whenever possible with everyone’s time schedule. When the stars line up we get together and do it.”

It’s no surprise that some of Slim’s closest friends are survivors from the punk era. Right from the beginning, The Stray Cats wanted to inject that punk ethos into their style of rockabilly music.
“When we started playing in ’78, ’79 around New York, we did 5 nights a week, four sets a night in bars, we wanted to create a night around it,” he explains. “So in between the sets we would play our own records to keep the mood going. I remember playing the Sex Pistols during that. I just always liked it. I don’t know how conscious it was but we wanted to mix punk rock with rockabilly … get the energy of both. Then when I was able to go to London and we started playing on our own, Glen Matlock, Lemmy, Sensible, Steve Jones, Mick Jones, Chrissie Hynde … these were the original people that came to see us. A hundred years later, I am friendly with all of them. I’ve had a very fortunate life that I have met these people. They are all characters.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s not just the punk guys that gravitate to Slim Jim’s charm and famous hard hitting stand-up drum style either, he has also played with some of mainstream rock’s largest legends too,  including Keith Richards and Jerry Lee Lewis.  “Yeah Jerry Lee,” Slim says with pride. “I was lucky enough to play with him. That came about through Jerry Shilling who is a dear pal and was part of Elvis’ entourage, one of the real guys. He went on to manage Jerry Lee and he’s a close friend. Jerry needed somebody at the time. He’s a very unique character. I got to know him a little bit but he’s a very hard guy to know I suppose. I have some classic memories. I did a bunch of gigs with he and James Burton (Elvis’ guitarist). It was amazing. Every now and then during the show I would almost stop and think, wow, I am up here with Jerry Lee and James Burton. Classic guys. I mean … The Killer … anyone who’s got a nickname that is burned into the public consciousness is special.”

And on a night out with Keith or Lemmy, which one would be most likely to lead him to trouble? Slim laughs at the thought. “For me, it’s easier to get in touch with Lemmy, I just call him” he says. “Keith I knew a long time ago. I don’t get into trouble at all anymore. I think I got into trouble with both. Lem, I got into more times trouble with. Keith and I met and we hung out a few times. There’s always a bit of a party. But Lem, you know, he’s a survivor.”

Rock and roll history is important to Slim. Not only is he surrounded by it, but he’s also keen on preserving it. He is  particularly interested in bringing rock’s forgotten heroes to the fore, the drummers. The Big Beat is a podcast he has created as a vehicle to do just that.

“I think these guys are great characters who are overlooked,” he says. “I think it is important that we still have some of these guys left. The first one I did was with Charles Connor, Little Richard’s original drummer. He came up with the most famous drum intro (led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock n Roll’) and John Bonham would be happy to tell ya if he was around, that’s where he got it from. That’s well known. If you are going to be a rock n roll fan, you should really .. I don’t wanna make it like school or anything but I think … you know, I am interested in it, we all should be. These guys aren’t going to be around forever. Dicky Harrell is another one, he is the drummer on Be-Bop-A-Lula. That’s him. There’s only one drummer on that and that’s him. A lot of times, especially in America, it seems like once these guys are gone, you’re gonna get a lot of people saying how much you loved them. I’m gonna bust them and say you can’t really say  how much you loved a guy when you had an opportunity to help him when he was around. It’s cooler to say that you liked them after they’ve gone than help them in the moment. Whether it’s a night club or a barber shop or a drummer, it is better to try to support it while it’s there rather than after it is gone, to say how much you miss it.”

slimgretschThat ingrained sense of rock n roll history is one of the main reasons why Slim has chosen to play the Gretsch brand of drums since the early Stray Cats’ days. “I started to endorse Gretsch very early on, early eighties I think,” he explains “It’s an iconic thing. Gretsch is somehow … you see the logo and it’s just classic. There’s the association with Gretsch guitars with The Stray Cats, the Eddie Cochran model that Brian played. It just seemed like the right thing and I got exposed to Fred and Dinah Gretsch, who are my friends, very early on and they signed me up and I have stayed with them all this time.”

Phantom usually uses a Gretsch maple, Classic Renown series kit consisting of 51/2 x 14″ snare drum, 22″ bass drum, and 16″ tom. “It has to look good and sound good really,” he continues. “I mean, there’s all the practicalities of the hardware that come into play but I think it has to have a classic feel to it, which Gretsch really does. You get a modern practicality to it but it has a classic sound to it. For me, everything is about blending staying current with one foot in the past and one foot looking forward.”

Although Slim is a fan of classic drum kits, he wouldn’t call himself a collector. “No. It takes up a lot of room,” he says. “I think I have a few hoops. Luckily with drums, new stuff is really good. I think guitar players think that things from the past are better but a brand new Gretsch drum kit sounds really good.”

Phantom’s enthusiasm for rock history and just his passion for rock n roll in general seems to have rubbed off on his son TJ too. He’s an LA based session drummer trying to make his own way in the industry. “He’s really good,” says Jim of his son. “He’s trying to make it as a rock drummer. He has a few weekly gigs in LA, does a few sessions and he’s a drummer for hire guy. It’s hard gettin’ a break when you’re younger. I’ve always said I was lucky because I had the other two guys. You can’t arrange that. A little bit is fate … two guys living nearby, one plays guitar the other plays bass. They’re both great, you audition together and it somehow gets through.”

Slim Jim has already lived such a colourful rock n roll life, but there are no signs of him slowing down. He also carries regrets from his Stray Cats’ days too, which probably propels him on. He wished that the band had stayed together longer and recorded more. “I think every band would probably say that,” he states. “We should have recorded more songs that we wrote. Whatever the songs were that we were writing at the time. Keep it going a little bit longer.”

For the remainder of the year Jim is heading to Europe to catch up with Sensible and Mike Peters  for a planned project. When back in LA, he’ll catch up with Lemmy  to see if there’s room for some Head Cat action and there’s also half an album’s worth of material he has recorded with Earl Slick and Glen Matlock that he’d like to follow up on. “What I do best is a very stylised thing,” he says of the projects he chooses. “I have to find a situation that suits what I do. Luckily I have a lot of friends who want to do something. It’s all based in rock n roll and rockabilly. I’m fortunate. I know a lot of people and they all happen to be pretty good.”
Gretsch drums distributed in Australia by

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