Skip to main content

The story of John Sloman, rock's ultimate nearly man

John Sloman onstage in 1980
John Sloman onstage in 1980 (Image credit: George Bodnar Archive/IconicPix)

John Sloman divides his career into its Old and New Testament: the former being from the 1970s up to the late 80s, when the Welshman bestrode the world looking, from the outside at least, every bit like a rock god. He appeared on an album apiece by Lone Star and Uriah Heep, before hooking up with Gary Moore

His lifestyle probably seemed glamorous, but really it wasn’t. Indeed, each of the bands with which he became entwined brought him unhappiness and frustration. And following the lukewarm response to Disappearances Can Be Deceptive – a solo album made at first with Todd Rundgren – he withdrew from the scene to begin what he considers the New Testament of his life. 

Sloman rarely speaks about the twists and turns of his time in the limelight, although as he does so today there’s no trace of bitterness, just a tinge of humour and mild regret that things didn’t turn out differently. Born in Cardiff in 1957, he sang from the age of seven and became a multi-instrumentalist. His early show-business ambitions were shaped by a cousin, David Horne, who played bass for a pre-fame Shakin’ Stevens. 

Curiously, given his later achievements, Sloman still considers Trapper, his first real band of note, which also featured then-guitarist Pino Palladino (eventually bassist for The Who, Jeff Beck, Don Henley and many more), “potentially the best thing I was ever involved with”. But things went south for Trapper when, during a residency in Germany, the group’s bassist stole and pawned all of their equipment. 

“I’ve tried to re-form Trapper in various other guises, and it may still happen,” he says, grinning. “Who knows what’s down the road?”

Alt

With long blond hair and pin-up looks, and a voice full of power and soul, Sloman was building a reputation fronting a local band called Mountain Child when Lone Star came calling in 1977 after sacking their singer Kenny Driscoll. 

The opportunity felt heaven-sent. Lone Star had made an exquisite debut with producer Roy Thomas Baker, they had a major-label deal with CBS, and guitarist Paul Chapman was already recognised for his stint with UFO. And a clearly impressed John Peel had said: “If Lone star don’t make it, I’ll saw off my legs and send you all a piece.” 

But behind the scenes things were volatile. Before Lone Star committed to CBS, Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant had sounded them out about a deal with Swan Song Records, and proposed a breakfast meeting at Musicland Studios in Munich as Zeppelin recorded Presence. When Lone Star arrived late, they realised to their cost that Grant never gave anybody a second chance. 

“At the airport somebody had suggested: ‘Why don’t we buy a bottle of brandy?’ And of course the guys missed their flight to Germany,” Sloman recalls now with disbelief. “What a good idea that was.” 

Two years after that farce, with Lone Star’s self-titled debut having mysteriously failed to set the charts on fire, Sloman’s own path into the band was not plain sailing. At his audition, he realised that another singer, Lyn Phillips, was also in the running. Worse still, while manager Steve Wood and guitarist Tony Smith were keen on Sloman, the rest of the camp preferred Phillips. 

“They made absolutely no secret of that fact,” he says, sighing at the memory. ‘And when I got the gig I was not welcomed in – not at all. I was made to feel second class. Each night, I would come off stage and sit alone in the corner.” 

Sloman stepped up with ease to the task of writing lyrics for the album that became Firing On All Six. Producer Gary Lyons oversaw a boisterous session at Ridge Farm Studios, during which Lone Star competed in a tennis tournament for a monster-sized bag of weed. Distractions notwithstanding, the band made a great record in Firing On All Six, one that still crops up in lists of connoisseurs’ favourites.

Apart from personality clashes, there was another huge problem: at that point, the musical flavour du jour was not the hard rock of bands like Lone Star, but the Sex Pistols. Sloman, 20, had to become used to writers dismissing him as a “boring old fart”. 

“I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was pretty hard to get my head around,” he admits. “There were punks who were five or ten years older than me.” 

With Lone Star sinking fast, their fate was finally sealed when UFO invited their guitarist Paul Chapman to become a permanent replacement for the departed Michael Schenker

A spot at the Reading Festival in 1977 was an undoubted highlight of Sloman’s tenure in Lone Star. For the singer in particular, who spied Uriah Heep bassist Trevor Bolder monitoring him from side-stage with a good deal of interest, this watershed moment led to Sloman joining Heep two years later, following a stint in Ontario with a short-lived venture called Pulsar that also included Paladino, ex-Lone Star drummer Dixie Lee, guitarist Dave Cooper, formerly of the Ian Thomas Band, and the young Canadian keyboard player Gregg Dechert 

It was during a trip back to Cardiff that Sloman learned that Heep’s label Bronze Records had been attempting to contact him by telegram. He made a trip to Heep’s London base at the Roundhouse to drop off his demos and a copy of the Lone Star album, only to find Heep’s guitarist Mick Box and keyboard player/rhythm guitarist Ken Hensley on the premises. Their spontaneous meeting would confirm the characters of both. 

“Mick was like somebody you’d known all your life,” Sloman says fondly. “Ken, on the other hand, was a bit aloof. He asked: ‘Who’s playing keyboards? Who’s on the drums, and the guitar?’ When I said that everything on the tape was me, he replied: ‘You’re a right little Stevie Wonder, aren’t you?’”

Hensley made no bones about not wanting Sloman in the group, and after he was outvoted the two of them never really got on. In fairness to Hensley, the late 70s were tough times for Heep, following three albums with singer John Lawton. But in publicly lambasting their new singer’s voice and unsuitability for the band’s style, all he did was wreak further damage. 

“Trevor, the guy I had got to know best, tipped me off that within Heep Ken wasn’t as well respected as a person as in a musical sense, which made me think: ‘Oh god, now I’ve got to play politics,’” Sloman says. “From that point onwards I always had my suit of armour on. It felt like an impossible task. I was this younger man, and the mainstay of the band was the least impressed with me in every way, shape and form.” 

Heep were already working towards their next album, Conquest. To Sloman’s astonishment, no sooner had he joined than their long-serving drummer Lee Kerslake was fired.

On my very first day, a band meeting took place without me,” Sloman remembers. “Finally, Lee exited the room, walked towards me, and I thought he would break the news that I was out. But he shook my hand and was gone. I soon realised this was a nest of vipers.” 

Forty-two years down the line, Conquest remains a Marmite album for Heep fans, and to many its expressive strains serve as the band’s recorded nadir. However, the album picked up great reviews, with Sounds describing it as “a minor masterwork”. 

When after Conquest Hensley decided to cut ties with the group, Sloman recommended his old Pulsar bandmate Gregg Dechert as his replacement. Sloman stresses that, contrary to established Heep folklore, he was not sacked by Heep. “I reached the conclusion that I couldn’t be a part of it any more, that I needed to do my own thing,” he explains. “And that’s what I did.” 

When asked whether he felt unfairly marked out as the fall guy for Conquest, he nods wearily: “Yes, totally. After being in Uriah Heep I really should have gone into stunt work.”

Doing his own thing got off to a poor start when Chapman asked Sloman to “sit in” with UFO, who were “having some problems with their keyboard player”. 

“I’m no fool; I realised that I was being auditioned – did they not know that I knew?” he smirks. “When they asked me to join I told them I was a singer, and UFO already had a really good one.” 

Sloman did contribute some keyboards to the album, The Wild, The Willing & The Innocent, but he was uncredited, There were also approaches for him to join the Michael Schenker Group and Iron Maiden. “Both were at the point when I had left Uriah Heep to be a solo artist,” he explains. 

On the day that he met Maiden manager Rod Smallwood to discuss replacing Paul Di’Anno, Sloman unwisely indulged in some self-sabotage: “Purely out of devilment I wore my crème lounge lizard jacket instead of a leather biker one. I thought that marked me out as a rebel.” 

The singer’s next move was John Sloman’s Badlands, the line-up of which included ex-Tygers Of Pan Tang guitarist John Sykes, Whitesnake’s Neil Murray on bass and Trapper drummer John Munro. Despite playing the Marquee Club for an audience that included Gary Moore, just as things were gaining momentum Sykes received a call from Phil Lynott (“who could offer him a bed, as opposed to a floor”, Sloman says with a laugh) about a vacancy in Thin Lizzy, and Murray quit to join Gary Moore. 

It wasn’t long before Murray enquired discreetly whether Sloman might be receptive to an approach from Moore for what was at the time a generous monthly wage. “And of course when Gary rang, that fee was considerably lower than cited by Neil,” he says with a laugh.

Although Sloman was thrilled to be part of a band that included Deep Purple’s celebrated drummer Ian Paice, he had a “gut feeling” that this was a wrong move. And so it proved. 

“For Ken [Hensley], see Don [Airey],” he groans. “Don is a seriously amazing musician. But in the dressing room before the first gig, in Guildford, I was playing one of Gary’s guitars when he turned to me and said: [sarcastically] ‘Is there no end to his talent?’ That was a big disappointment, and it [his spell with Moore] was a disappointing experience to have lived through.” 

It was time for that solo career to get off the ground. Todd Rundgren oversaw the original session for Sloman’s debut, at his studio in Woodstock in the States. But after EMI Records rejected those recordings, it was begun again almost from scratch in London with Simon Hanhart. Sloman parted with EMI, and Palladino found him a job as a backing singer for Paul Young. 

You can imagine Sloman’s shock when, later, independent label FM-Revolver licensed the shelved album and released it without his consent. Following legal proceedings, Sloman had Perfect Stranger remixed and repackaged as Disappearances Can Be Deceptive, which received positive reviews when it was released in 1989. 

“Several thousand copies were sold,” Sloman states. “But when I enquired about royalties [label boss] Paul Birch said: ‘FM-Revolver went out of business.’ What began in Woodstock in eighty-four with Todd Rundgren and a 250,000-dollar budget, ended in Wolverhampton five years later with a fat row of zeroes. Disappearances indeed!”

The ‘New Testament’ of John Sloman’s career began in 2003 with a second solo album, Dark Matter. “Disappearances was my crucifixion, and Dark Matter my resurrection,” he says with tongue firmly in cheek. 

Undeterred by a lack of acknowledgement for Dark Matter, Sloman went on to record several more records, often playing all the instruments and handling the production as well as singing, and, until now, self-releasing the results. Although their subject matter was sometimes sombre – he wrote 2018’s El Dorado after losing his brother Lawrence to liver disease – it only made the music more poignant. 

“I’ve connected with real pain, and when Lawrence died suddenly at thirty-three it felt like the universe was telling me: ‘You’ve been faking it with your rock histrionics, but here’s the real shit.’ And at last I found my true voice. I couldn’t go back to pretending.” 

In 2022, Sloman is something of a cottage industry. And after all that he’s been through, that’s the way he likes it. “My youngest brother Phil is a huge supporter of mine,” he says. “He has been instrumental in the manufacture and release of my albums beginning with 13 Storeys [2004], where he burned and posted each individual CD.” 

On his ninth and latest solo album, Two Rivers, 64-year-old John Sloman is in remarkable voice. 

“The two rivers are the Taff in Cardiff and London’s Thames,” he explains. “For me there was always a tug of war between both cities,” he explains, adding that he had planned to relocate back to Wales to move in with an ailing third brother, Rob, before he too passed away. “I poured a whole lot into this new album. It has sitars, spoken-word parts, and love letters to people that I will never speak to again. It’s deeply personal. Since finding myself with the ‘New Testament’, it’s the most eclectic and musical thing I’ve done. It certainly isn’t loud guitars.”

Two Rivers is released by Red Steel Music on March 25

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.