Released: 10 June 2002
Pete Townshend, Gerry Leonard: guitar
Kristeen Young: piano, vocals
Tony Visconti: bass guitar, vocals
Sterling Campbell: drums
Stan Harrison: alto saxophone
Lenny Pickett: tenor saxophone
Steve Elson: baritone saxophone
‘Slow Burn’ was the lead single from David Bowie’s Heathen album in Europe and Japan. It features lead guitar by The Who’s Pete Townshend.
‘Slow Burn’ is one of Bowie’s numerous dystopian songs, set in a “terrible town” beset by fear, with spies in the walls and doors. There is also a foreshadowing of ‘Blackstar’ in the line “At the centre of it all”.
In 2003 ‘Slow Burn’ was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, but lost out to ‘The Rising’ by Bruce Springsteen.
In the studio
Bowie and Townshend reunited at the Concert for New York, which took place on 20 October 2001 at Madison Square Garden. During the preparations Townshend visited Bowie at Looking Glass Studios, where he was asked to perform on ‘Slow Burn’.
After rehearsals yesterday, which went very well, with Roger [Daltrey] falling right into form and nearly catching up with Zak, John and myself (Jon Carin is playing keyboards), I went to see David Bowie at a studio. He has asked me to work on a track of his new album. He played me a number of tracks. I can’t say too much, except it was surprising, moving, poetic (in a musical and visionary sense). I think real Bowie fans (and a few of Radiohead) will be able to walk tall soon in the knowledge that their hero can still break all the rules and remain cool…
As with Dave Grohl on ‘I’ve Been Waiting for You’, Townshend recorded his guitar part without Bowie being present.
The Pete Townshend session was virtual, one of the first times we ever did this. We sent him the track and he played his part back in London. Whilst we were mixing it he came to New York and we played the track to him. I’ve got a nice photo of them lounging around and listening – David’s got his hands behind his head and listening to ‘Slow Burn’ being played back to Pete.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
In a press statement, Bowie described the performance as “the most eccentric and aggressive guitar I’ve heard Pete play, quite unlike anything else he’s done recently.”
I’ve known Pete for years of course and have always thought of him as a mentor in some ways. We’d written back and forth about doing this for a while and he was due to do his part when he came in for the Concert For New York which we both played at. Time got out of hand what with rehearsals so we did it by throwing the ProTools disc back and forth across the ocean. It’s such an angular, deeply felt and moving piece of playing, I just love it.
Livewire magazine, 16 June 2002
Also playing guitar on the song was Gerry Leonard, who regretted not having the opportunity to work with Townshend. Leonard’s original guitar solo was dropped to make way for Townshend’s.
I did a solo on that one and I played some other guitars, which are there – there’s a few little hooks and stuff in there – so that was a cool song. I love playing it live. I think it’s a real solid David song. And I love what Pete Townshend did on it. I wish [I’d been there for his session] because I was a big fan of his solo records back in the day and his leadership of the Who, that whole world. I did get to meet some pretty awesome people over the years working with David, but unfortunately I think [Pete’s] sessions were remote. I don’t think he came in to Looking Glass. I think they probably sent it over.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
The final overdubs for ‘Slow Burn’ took place on 29 January 2002. The Borneo Horns – Stan Harrison on alto saxophone, Lenny Pickett on tenor, and Steve Elson on baritone – returned to a Bowie session for the first time since Never Let Me Down.
‘Slow Burn’ was released as a European single on 3 June 2002, with two compact disc formats. The first was accompanied with ‘Wood Jackson’ and ‘Shadow Man’, while the second was a maxi single with the additional tracks ‘When The Boys Come Marching Home’ and ‘You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving’.
It was not a commercial success. Its chart peak was in Italy, where it reached number 16; in Austria and the Netherlands it peaked at 69, while in Switzerland it stalled at 80.
A single release in the UK was planned for July 2002, but was cancelled, perhaps due to the poor performance elsewhere.
Promotional singles for ‘Slow Burn’ were also distributed in the USA, Canada, and Mexico.
A video for the song was directed by Gary Koepke. It featured Bowie and child actor Hayley Nicholas in a recording studio in space. Only a brief extract was used to promote the Heathen album, and the full video remained unseen until it was posted on YouTube in 2011.
David Bowie performed ‘Slow Burn’ live on just eight occasions, including just three concerts.
The first was at the MTV Rock & Comedy Concert, part of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, on 10 May 2002. The others were at NYC’s Roseland Ballroom on 11 June for BowieNet subscribers, and at the Meltdown Festival in London on 29 June.
The remaining performances were during television appearances. On 2 June 2002 Bowie and his live band were filmed for the BBC’s Top Of The Pops and TOTP2 at the Kaufman Studios in NYC. They performed eight songs, although only the first three were broadcast: ‘Fame’, ‘Slow Burn’, ‘I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship’, ‘Everyone Says ‘Hi”, ‘I Would Be Your Slave’, ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’, and ‘Ziggy Stardust’.
The other live versions were for US TV: The Late Show with David Letterman on 10 June; Today Show on 14 June; A&E Live by Request on 15 June; and Late Night with Conan O’Brien on 19 June.