Robert Pally: June, 2003
An English Baboon in Germany: The Martin Gordon Interview
Martin Gordon (Jet, Sparks, Radio Stars) has done sessions with the Rolling Stones and worked with Boy George, S’express, Kylie Minogue and Robert Palmer beside many others. After 30 years in the music business he has released a solo album called The Baboon in the Basement. In the interview he speaks about baboons, world music, the germans, his bass and Kylie Minogue crawling towards him on a piano.
Robert Pally: Give me 3 good reasons why one should put a baboon on the cover of a CD.
1 They live in basements.
2 They have red noses and bottoms.
3 They are very nice to old ladies.
4 They are primates all too often overlooked in this hurly-burly modern existence.
Robert Pally: What’s the story about the title “The Baboon in the Basement”?
Martin Gordon: Ah, I see what you are driving at. Sorry. It’s an idea I had that describes the notion of something carrying on it’s existence even though you haven’t taken much care of care of it lately. I scribbled the phrase down on a bit of paper one day, imagining that I have invented it. But I discovered lately that Jung had a similar idea. However he couldn’t get a record deal anywhere, so it never really took off. The Baboon in my case was pop music – I’ve been operating in the realm of so-called «world music» for a long time…. but really, it’s all pop music in the final analysis. I re-discovered my inclination for short loud pop things and was strong-armed into choosing a title by my Japanese record company. It stuck.
Robert Pally: Why did it take you so long to release a solo album?
Martin Gordon: Well, one doesn’t want to flood the market, you know. Timing is everything, after all. No, actually, I hadn’t thought about doing one. I suppose I hadn’t really considered that anyone would be interested. And I’m quite surprised that so many people are. Perhaps they’re going through a bad patch or their marriages have just broken up. I must say that it is most gratifying to discover that people actually ARE interested. After my last regular band (Radio Stars) met it’s demise, I did sporadically try to find some interested parties but frankly I had to pay the rent (see below) and so I was side-tracked into being an attendant at the court rather than one of the regal parties themselves. Well, my various landlords had nothing against that, of course, but it meant that my own endeavours were put rather on the back burner.
Another reason is that I am hampered by my lack of singing ability – I need an amanuensis and it wasn’t until Pelle Almgren and I became virtually entwined over the internet that I realised I had one.
Robert Pally: Did you need until now the safety of a band?
Martin Gordon: I have never needed the safety of a band, I just carry on doing what I do regardless. I need the camaraderie of a band, that’s for sure, but I haven’t got it, except for the odd occasions upon which John’s Chickens meet to retire again, and even that is modified comradeship, for historical and cultural reasons. I was reflecting recently that being in a band (with the right people) is an experience quite unlike any other, for me. It can be a fantastic, care-free. dream-like experience. But there’s always a fly in the ointment – either the band is great and the people aren’t, or vice versa. I’ve had both experiences. The closest I have ever come is with the Baboon, but it’s not a band…
Plus, I don’t know that there is such a thing as the ‘safety’ of a band, if you are a writer. A band usually hold your ideas up to the light, in a kind of winnowing process, and scrutinise them. This is not bad thing in itself, but there is no automatic protection from criticism bestowed by group membership, either from within or without. If you are the writer, positive criticism is seen as confirmation that the band is what makes the whole thing work, negative criticism is seen as an indictment of your autocratic ways.
I think there’s no solution to that kind of tension, other than not to go on about it. Who knows, to be in a great band with great people making great music might be a total disappointment. Nobody would drop baked beans all over themselves, everyone would be able to play in tune, credits would be equally distributed, no-one would argue about getting their ghastly songs played, nobody would try to prevent you bringing your girlfriend on tour… it would be probably be a complete anti-climax.
Robert Pally: In what tradition do you see the new album?
Martin Gordon: It fits (I hope) into the pop tradition, and probably the British pop tradition, which I would define as whimsical, idiosyncratic, form-bending but traditional and above all playful. This is a quality rare in pop music, Lords knows… If I read another interview with a bunch of people pontificating about the quality of their lyrics and the excellence of their world philosophy, I will …… not read any further. I hope I’m not stuck in a kind of ‘in my day things were better’ vibe (actually I’m not, I only say «I hope» for fear of appearing over-bombastic, but sod it). A lot of radio pop music is so lame that any right thinking person wouldn’t allow the creators of it in their houses – it’s either cynical and witless (a nasty combination, by my way of thinking), or else it’s devoid of inspiration, and I think the reason is that the average consumer is so undiscerning as to either not know or not care about it, which encourage both those who should know better and those who don’t know better in their shoddy ways. Why consumers are now like that is a different argument and one that I’m not qualified to discuss, except in the most generalised bar-room manner. I think co modification of pop is largely the reason (he blithely continued, ignoring his own advice). Pop music is generally today a thing to be consumed, a way of advertising one’s allegiances. Is this any different from any earlier time in the history of pop music? I tend to think so because today the thing celebrates itself, it contains it’s own values in a kind of closed referent system – it’s self sustaining and self-supporting; and people, the great public at large, Gawd bless ’em, either don’t know or don’t care.
I’m thinking of the recent German TV series ‘Search for a Superstar’. It was created and exclusively owned by three partners – a music publishing company, a newspaper publishing house and a TV company. The presenter/musical director was the leading German pop song writer (Dieter Bohlen) who is published (hold on to your seats) by the self-same publishing company and whose very next release was a song (and an enormous hit) called «TV Makes the Superstar», sung in pidgin English and referring to the very process for which he was responsible. It’s just so self-referential it beggars belief. The gap between pop music as art and pop as commerce is to all intents and purposes completely unbridgeable. But I might be wrong.
Robert Pally: There are 3 cover versions on the album. «We love you» (Rolling Stones), «Warlord of the royal crocodiles» (Marc Bolan) and «Tonight» (Roy Wood). Why do they fit on your album?
Martin Gordon: Well, in a way, I have a personal connection to all these songs, or at least to the composers. The Stones thing we don’t need to go into again, the Bolan thing is clear, via John’s Chickens and Radio Stars, and in the Radio Stars Big Band we had Hugh McDowell playing cello, a veteran of the early Roy Wood-era ELO and later of Wizzard. They are all great songs, mostly quite forgotten, and I’m frankly gagging to perform them on stage, so if any would-be (or are) promoters are reading this and are in the mood for it, let’s go!
Robert Pally: Which songs are you most proud of on the new CD?
Martin Gordon: I think «Anyway Goodbye» is one of my best – the lyric is funny and descriptive, the characterisation is well-drawn, musically it has some interesting things going on, like the disguised chromatic sequence before the chorus. «Terrible Mess» is another one that I listen to for pleasure – inspired by Richard Reid’s less-than-effective attempt to blow up a 747, it’s another in a series of documentations of failure which I feel inspired (sometimes) to write. The title track «The Baboon in the Basement» is another favourite, although it’s more of a musical exercise than a song, but there are some interesting meters in there and, of course, one of the all-time great guitar solos, in my book. My favourite, however, is «Only One Dream Per Person», which I listen to regularly. One shouldn’t, I know, but Pelle Almgren’s vocal performance is fabulous and, as a song, I think it’s one of the most successful that I’ve ever written. Again, it was written almost in one sitting – I didn’t have to look for weeks for missing chords or sweat over the words. Perhaps I am allowed to congratulate myself on this one.
Robert Pally: What is your goal as a songwriter?
Martin Gordon: Actually it’s a means of expression which, for me, has no substitute… so in that sense there is no goal, it’s just something which I feel compelled to do. Although I haven’t felt compelled to do it for some time, until I ran into Pelle Almgren, so clearly that’s not the whole picture. I suppose my immediate intention, rather than my longer-term goal, is to satisfy my instincts and create something that has no grey bits in it, parts where you have to cough if you’re playing it to someone so they don’t hear the dodgy second verse where you couldn’t find a good enough rhyme so you just let it go… My long-term goal? When you get to my age, long-term goals become rather irrelevant, I must say. What IS the long term, actually? Is it longer than up till now? Sod it, I’ll settle for being enormously wealthy and with as many cars as Uday.
Robert Pally: Pelle Almgren sings on the album. Why not you?
Martin Gordon: Don’t think I haven’t tried, as my charming neighbour will tell you. She refrained from banging on the wall as I attempted «Hit Him On The Head» for the sixty-fifth time. The thing is, I have two attitudes towards competence. As a producer, I know that often you have to have the right person for the job. But, on the other hand, someone’s attempts to create something that lies beyond the scope of their skills can, often, produce a unique result. In my case, however, ‘unique’ and ‘remotely listenable’ were not identical, so I gave it up as a bad job. Pelle charmingly says that he found my efforts, when I was doing guide vocals for him, completely decipherable, but he is lying through his teeth. I used to sing a bit in Radio Stars, and indeed one of my great frustrations in that band was that my guide vocals, which were intended as a point of departure for the vocalist, were never developed any further, despite my best efforts as producer of the thing, and this was down to the limitations of the singer.
Par contre, it was and is a complete joy working with Pelle… I explained my philosophy to him and he just performed in a way that fills me with complete joy and admiration, it’s like (to coin a phrase) seeing a musician play so well that you start to laugh, in a kind of state of disbelief. Plus a large part of the vocals were recorded under extreme duress in my studio in Berlin, which is in my apartment, with frequent interruptions for the Hun on the Stair, who would bang on the door at appropriate moments and bellow in Teutonic rage as Pelle was shrieking ‘Baboon!’ again. What was his problem, that’s what we wanted to know… Then we watched an old Radio Stars video (normally I would do no such thing, but there were guests..) and that was the final straw! Crash!! again at the door – «And now you’re playing PUNK music!» he raged… «It’s not punk music, it’s Radio Stars, you cloth-eared Kraut!», I retorted. But he didn’t follow my line of reasoning at all, and we agreed to differ.
How Pelle and I met was that I had an email one day from him, saying that he liked the Jet album and Radio Stars and my stuff generally, and I think I responded politely – you have to be careful with people who say things like that because usually they turn out to be quite bonkers, and I speak from experience. We emailed back and forth, and one day he revealed that actually he is a singer and songwriter and he sent me a CD with some great tunes and singing. So I went over there to his little island in whatever that bit of sea is that runs up the east coast of Sweden and we ate raw fish pickled in paint-stripper and came up with a few tunes, one of which is «That Girl», from the Baboon. One thing led to another and I invited him over to Berlin to finish off the solo CD. Which I then began to write, although I didn’t tell him that.
Pelle Almgren about how he an Martin started to work together: It’s all down to the net really. I was bored one day and started searching for old music heroes on the web. Since I used to be a massive fan of Jet and Radio Stars back in the day, I was a bit curious to what had happened to Martin after the Blue Meanies. I found his website and just wrote him a mail saying what great music he has made and that it was nice to see that he was alive and kicking.
A year or so later me and another Pelle had had some moderate success as songwriters and thought it would be nice to co-write some stuff with Martin. It was when Max Martin was king and every other Swedish songwriter seemed to be driving Ferraris. So with that in mind I approached him again and we started mailing regularly and I sent him some songs we had written. He liked it and agreed to come to Stockholm. We hit it off straight away (though it was really bizarre for me as a fan) and wrote some great songs. No Ferraris yet but I know what colour I’ll have.
Robert Pally: In «Only One Dream Per Person» you make fun of the Germans although you live in Germany. How is your relation to the Germans?
Martin Gordon: Oh, I love the Germans, They’re so playful and willing to bend the rules, so tolerant of idiosyncrasy and so overburdeningly sympathetic. In fact I am so impressed with them generally that I write down the names of nice Germans I have met on the back of a box of matches that I keep in the kitchen. It’s not one of those boxes that have matches inside it, more a sort of booklet thing, but I do like to remember the occasions. I have many Germans friends… well, OK, I exaggerate slightly, I have many friends. My absolute favourite Germans are those who shout at me (in a most engaging, playful manner) for riding my bicycle in the wrong direction, by their analysis. They like you to ride in one direction only here and after all they are only trying to help me out of my clearly embarrassing predicament which has led me to do something that clearly no sane person would.
Note: Not to be taken serious!!
Robert Pally: What made you write it?
Martin Gordon: I was inspired one day by the tension between the dream and the reality. (It’s just occurred to me – you aren’t German, by any chance, are you?). Anyway, I was listening to a rather bureaucratic conversation and my mind wandered and I wrote down the title on a piece of paper. I wondered how the Germans would police Nirvana….. They have an expression «Ordnung muss sein» – There Must Be Order. It’s a standard phrase that you might hear hundreds of times daily. It has a kind of mantra-like quality – if you chant it for long enough, you turn into a traffic warden.
Robert Pally: On your website (www.martingordon.de) (Note the «.de») you are making again fun of the Germans («The principal enemy of the baboon is the leopard and the German»). So, why should the Germans buy your CD?
Martin Gordon: I feel that it would be a good, if unlikely thing, for the Germans to buy my CD. And indeed, I would be happy for them to do so, if only in the interests of science. Actually I should point out that the ‘.de’ part of my web address just means that the server is in Germany and contains no inherent criticism, more a tacit acceptance of a situation beyond my control. Plus, to continue my rebuttal, and so far as I understand it, one of the main reasons for German workers having to take time off work is an unnatural fear of baboons. This is well documented and here, at least, I feel that I am on solid ground. Plus again, one of the most popular dishes here in Berlin is the local wild pig, the «Wildschwein». They are enormous brutes the size of large sheep, with enormous tusks that would rip your arm off as soon as look at you. What chance would a mere baboon have against these chomping Berliner molars? No chance at all, that’s what it wouldn’t have. Thus they should purchase my CD.
Robert Pally: Why should the rest of the world buy your CD?
Martin Gordon: Because if they don’t, the Baboon (who is on the cover) will have to be shot. It’s an unfortunate fact that baboons consume at least twice their weight in chocolate cake daily and, frankly, where are the funds going to come from? Exactly. Buy the damn CD and stop prevaricating.
Robert Pally: David Bowie went to Berlin for inspiration. Why did you move there?
Martin Gordon: I moved here because I am fascinated with sausages of all shapes and denominations. And this, let’s face it, is Sausage Country. I currently weigh 45 stone and have to be lifted in and out of bed with a hydraulic device. Soon I won’t even bother getting out, I’ll just have them delivered.
Robert Pally: What was the hardest part doing your solo album?
Martin Gordon: Having to stop eating sausages while I was playing bass. I tried not stopping, but they kept getting caught in the strings and after a while…. well, it was quite messy, I can tell you. Or, if you prefer a more serious note, it was doing it on my own – it’s hard to keep the vibe up… Working with other people around is actually much more enjoyable. Well, depending on who they are, I suppose,
Robert Pally: Why did you waste your talent to work with S’Express, East 17 or Kylie Minogue?
Martin Gordon: The money. And the sex. And, naturally, the drugs. You have to pay the rent, you know, and if someone says ‘Kylie will be crawling towards you in her bustier on top of your grand piano, after you’ve lifted her up there’… well, it’s quite hard to say no, frankly. S’Express – I was co-producer and co-writer, and I did my best to point it in the direction that I felt it should point in… But dance music is so fascist sometimes, with it’s rules and regulations that absolutely must be followed that, after a time, I went to lie on the seabed in Malta. I took a diving course in an effort to get 4:4 bass drums out of my brain. East 17 – that was only for a single TV show. The charming rap-person Brian gobbed into the hand-basin in the make-up room and looked eagerly around for comment. Now he WAS a complete cult.
The other thing is that playing bass became rather unfashionable during the eighties and nineties, as far as recording was concerned: everyone used keyboards, so that’s why I began playing keyboards instead. When I worked with Blur, it was as a keyboard player, not bassist. Which is a bit of a shame, because I will be the first to admit that I am not a very good keyboard player. But I can get away with it. On a good day. However, now I can tell you my Blur anecdote. We did a gig in Kentish Town, London, and there is a pub next door which has very good beer. After Damon and Alex discovered that I was once in Sparks, I had carte blanche, really, and as I wasn’t playing on every tune, I discovered that from the pub, you could hear every note from the venue next door if you were in a certain position. So whenever I had a break on stage, I nipped swiftly round to the pub, ordered a pint of Director’s (it’s an English real ale) and monitored the proceedings through the wall. I had three pints that way and didn’t miss a cue…
Robert Pally: How did you get into producing?
Martin Gordon: By watching first Muff (crazy name, crazy guy) Winwood and then watching Roy Thomas Baker. And then watching Gary Lyons. By that time I knew how to get what I wanted and after working with other, nameless, engineers who wouldn’t accommodate me, I learned how to engineer as well. Sod ’em, I thought. I should say at this point I also learned a lot from Neil Richmond (who produced Seventh Wave) – he engineered a lot of the early Radio Stars stuff and he had really fantastic ideas. We produced «From A Rabbit» jointly but I didn’t give him the credit for it, unfairly. Seventh Wave – it was one guy (whose name, I’m ashamed to say, escapes me) but the songs were quite brilliant – «Old Dog» is one that stays with me to this day. Ken Elliot, was it?
Robert Pally: You played in the 70ties in Sparks, Jet and Radio Stars. What was different then compared to today?
Martin Gordon: The hair, primarily. (Style, not existence of…). And of course the trousers.
Robert Pally: What memories do you have from Jet and Radio Stars?
Martin Gordon: Reams of memories, most of them exhaustingly documented on my website. I will choose one from each group.
The first Radio Stars interview – we rather cruelly decided that we would attempt to disorientate the journalist… We had 2 TVs, one in one corner of the room, a radio, and a CD player, all operating at full volume, and a large bottle of Scotch on the table. We each contradicted everything the other said, but without seeming to disagree. After about two hours, the poor journalist threw up all over his trousers and had to be helped into another room to lie down. Ah, those were the days.
And Jet – I remember guitar auditions, and the extraordinary characters who turned up. One would-be guitarist brought his girlfriend along, and she danced in front of him as he played. Astonishing. Another had the price ticket hanging from his guitar and, when he turned the amp on and hit an exploratory chord, jumped into the air with shock at the noise that came out. As did we, I think.
Being in both bands were not happy times for me, looking at the bigger picture. But happiness is very over-rated, I think.
Robert Pally: Have you ever written a song under the influence of drugs. If yes, what changes that?
Martin Gordon: Have you ever asked a question while under the influence of drugs? What changes that what? If you are getting at what I think you are getting at, narcotics and wit are beasts of a very different colour, and each has it’s own time and space.
Robert Pally: You are bassist, songwriter and producer. What do you like most and why?
Martin Gordon: I like all roles equally – everything feeds into everything else and each throws a particular light on the other.
Robert Pally: How does a average week working as a bassist, songwriter and producer look for you?
Martin Gordon: I’m in the privileged position of being able to say that there is no average week. It all depends on projects – recently an average week was lounging around Istanbul. In January and February, it was working 16 hours per day to get the Baboon finished. Soon there may be another Sezen CD to do, next week I’m going to Norway to take part in an EU radio project.
Robert Pally: In 1981 you did some sessions for the Rolling Stones in Paris. There were even some rumours that you would be «the new Rolling Stone». How would the Stones sound with you today?
Martin Gordon: Hah! A bit harder-working, perhaps, in compositional terms. Making «We Love You» was quite a revelation – there are some great ideas musically and even lyrically in this song, and great lyrics are not what we generally expect from Mick’n’Keef. It was a reminder of that period when they really pushed the boat out, musically. And even literally, who knows… But, of course, why would they have to do anything differently… I think their approach has been rather successful, as far as we can see. However, if they DO ever find themselves lacking a bassist….
Robert Pally: How did you get into world music?
Martin Gordon: I was offered a job in Bombay, engineering and programming a project that was led by Steven Luscombe from an English gay cult band called Blancmange who had persuaded Boy George to lend his name to the thing. George (with whom I had previously worked, having co-written some stuff with him and his viperous bosom friend Jeremy Healy) came out to join us on the day that the first Gulf war started. He was on the front page of the Times of India and Saddam was relegated to the bottom of page three. I rediscovered the joys of live performance (listening to it and recording it, I mean) after having worked almost exclusively with Atari 1040s for five years previously, and I went right off the Fascist groove thang overnight. Although, to be honest, I was never really on it in the first place. Things fell into place, I was offered various recordings assignments that took me to Bali, Pakistan, Morocco, Egypt and Fittleworth and one thing led, as it inevitably does, to another.
Robert Pally: What does this music mean for you?
Martin Gordon: Well, it’s performance music and that’s the thing for me. I want to hear performances, I want to hear people doing something that I can’t do. I don’t especially want to hear programming because I can and do it myself. I’d rather hear inspired chords from Todd Rundgren, or V M Bhatt playing Indian classical music on the electric guitar, or Adrian Belew being a train, or Jeff Beck discovering technology without losing his soul, or Sultan Khan caressing his sarangi or Kroke just being Kroke… Performance is everything. Without performance, or at least elements of performance, music is nothing. At the risk of sounding like Ultravox or John Miles…
Robert Pally: I suppose you write your songs on the guitar or piano. What has helped
being a bass player for that?
Martin Gordon: The bass, in the right hands… mentioning no names… has the power to change the meaning of the chords, and that’s what attracts me to it. So the chords exist and then I look for how I can undermine them, or subvert them, or provide a counter or an alternative to them with the bass. When I’m writing the things (mostly on piano, in fact), I tend not to think about the bass parts, that’s quite a different operation and one which comes later, for me.
Robert Pally: As a songwriter how much inputs from the band members do you accept?
Martin Gordon: An interesting question. As a songwriter, I accept any input that I think is better than my ideas. It wasn’t always so, but then I haven’t worked with talented songwriters for a long while. Working with the two Swedes (Pelle Almgren and Pelle Andersson), we throw ideas around and have no hesitation in saying ‘What a dreadful idea you just had’ and as they both have something to say artistically, it works fine. As a band member, however, I’m not a great believer in the democratic process. I prefer to hear a vision right or wrong rather than a compromise. (Can you hear a vision? Well, I’m sure you know what I mean). It’s the old example of a camel being a horse that was designed by committee.
Robert Pally: Was the bass always your instrument?
Martin Gordon: No, I began with piano and then learned acoustic guitar. But bass was always the thing, once I discovered it.
Robert Pally: How much have you been influenced by what was going on musically around you?
Martin Gordon: I think you have to be aware of the time frame, otherwise your «art» becomes a mere museum piece, unconnected to any temporal reality. This is why I applaud Todd Rundgren’s raps, even though I don’t listen to them. He’s on the right track