MARTIN GORDON interview
I could start off by introducing Martin Gordon, but that would kinda defeat the purpose of this interview. Se we’re not gonna do that, are we! Suffice to say that we’re gonna cover all corners of Martin’s career. He insisted on getting paid for at least 10 sessions with a psychiatrist of his choice, but we figured it was worth it. With mine having his license revoked, I was rather desparetely looking for a recommendation for a new shrink…
Anyway, Eddy asked the Q’s, while Martin wandered off all on his own. Wouldn’t be surprised if this winds up on his next cd somehow. At least I’ll know what he’s going on about then…
– How did you get into the music biz ? Any formal tuition ?
I studied piano at school and later did some bass stuff at a jazz college. And then later still I observed harmony & counterpoint from a safe distance. I recall the keyboard player in Jet saying “Oh, how marvellous that you come up with all these odd chords, it’s because you have no formal tuition”. Well, a lot he knew about it, pretentious git, although he was a B.Mus twice removed by the police and a regular face at the pissoir.
– What were your first steps in the business, your “garage bands” so to speak ?
I had a couple of rehearsal bands with school friends, not that I can recall what they sounded like… One of the school bands had sax and no vocals, I remember – probably we were influenced by Back Door… Hardly a precursor of glam, but still…
– Then you joined Sparks. How did that come about ?
I answered an ad in a musicians paper in the UK. In those days, you’d find all kinds of people quite unashamedly advertising for musicians. I answered three ads – Sparks, Roxy Music and Supertramp – and was successful in getting the Sparks gig, on the basis of my suitability for future financial exploitation. It all worked out as planned.
– The band immediately shot to fame with Kimono my House and the This Town single.
It did, it did. I wasn’t at all surprised, because I thought that that was how it worked – you made a good record, you had the support of a big record company and so the project would naturally be successful. It was only later that I discovered that reality was quite otherwise.
– Tell us something about the chemistry in the band. Although the seed may have been there on previous albums, everything fell neatly into place there…in no small part because now they had somebody who was able to make a decent arrangement.
Well, in a group of people you get all those conflicting agendas and creative tensions and, if you are able to master it and use it positively, you can find some great results. Where it falls down is when expectations are not matched by reality, and this was the case with the notorious Mole Twins, Reginald and Roginald. Most people couldn’t tell ’em apart, you know. When they weren’t off terrorising widows and orphans round London’s East End and being nice to their old mum and shooting people in pubs, they found time to write some decent songs, and I countered their rather twee tendencies with my own proposals, because I don’t like twee, despite what you may think after hearing the Jet album. Thus it worked while there was a level playing field, to use one of those sporting metaphors that British people love so much. But various people felt that their genius was being undermined and – well, there you are.
– But it wasn’t to last for you…
Indeed it wasn’t – a couple of days after the Top of the Pops debut with That Record, I was ejected into my own orbit. My reading a newspaper while rehearsing possibly contributed to my early bath (to use another sporting metaphor that etc. etc….). They performed the album (Kimono My House) recently in the UK, but alas, I had an engagement with my hairdresser on that very day, would you believe it. But they are very prickly and when you find a good one, it’s more than your life’s worth to piss them off so, all things considered, I kept my appointment and went to the Al Aqsa Hair Emporium here in Berlin’s Turmstrasse. It was a very nice haircut, I should say…
– Shortly afterwards you formed Jet. Unfortunately again a rather short-lived project…
I’m not sure if ‘unfortunately’ is quite the term I would use. But these days there is great interest in the band and also in the two CDs that are now available, so I reserve my judgement. These were the first tunes that I had written, so I was rather finding my feet in public… But: ‘legendary supergroup of glam’, and I quote someone who is clearly no better than he ought to be.
– Initially it was supposed to be a continuation of Jook…
Well, only for about nine seconds – in fact for as long as it takes to ask the question “Would you like to continue with Jook?” and to answer “No thanks”.
– Two ex-Sparks members, two ex-John’s Children members and somebody who apparently never quite recovered from his rejection in Roxy Music…
Oh, I thought that they immediately broke up in disarray following his treacherous desertion of his own creation. I obviously didn’t read it correctly. Actually I heard “The In Crowd” on the radio, gave EG Management a call about Mr O’List, and they immediately gave me his number and wished me good luck. Thinking about it, this should have been a bit of a clue. We strongly and collectively pleaded with him to rescue our careers as failed burglars with dubious morals, and the rest is history. This, more or less (less, in fact) is what actually happened. The world has not yet seen the full story of how the full story has not yet been seen by the world and how it was not seen to have not been seen and of what really happened both in terms of reality, the full story and reality, with strong pleading included as an extra track on the DVD.
– Expectations for the LP must have been high, especially with Roy Thomas-Baker in the driver’s seat…
They must have been, but nobody noticed. The record company rejected our suggestion for a title (“Have You Seen Charlotte?”) and called it “Jet”, in a fit of either corporate spite or lack of imagination. We did a support tour with Hunter-Ronson, during which we were told off for nicking all the best crowd-pleasing bits from their set, I made an idiot of myself during my first ever in-situ sound check (but then amended my ways and was in fact taken under the wing of the sound guy, who even turned up unpaid to supervise later Jet gigs), and then we were sent to the country. Which is where we got pissed a lot (everyone), dressed up in women’s clothing to go to the local pub (Chris and the singer), found our suitcases mysteriously full of old vomit (me), smashed all the stained glass windows in the church where we were rehearsing (guitarist Ian Mac, extremely amusing) and got dropped by the record company (all of us). An oft-repeated story, but funny nonetheless, is that the record company asked us to find more light and shade in the music. So we got an old table lamp and put it on the piano. It was switched on (during the loud bits) and off (during the quiet bits). We thought this was rib-ticklingly funny, but alas…..
– You also hooked up with Ian North (Milk ‘n’ Cookies) and Paul & Robert Simon for what basically turned out to be one gig supporting Ultravox and an attempt to join Milk’n’Cookies…
I played with Ian for a gig or two, but frankly it wasn’t very good and, when Radio Stars awoke some interest, I immediately jumped ship, taking with me the drummer and part of the name (the band was called Ian’s Radio at this time). I remember Ian wasn’t very happy about that, but then Ian was never very happy about anything.
– Then punk came along and Radio Stars took advantage of the chances new bands were getting, although the music itself had very little to do with punk.
What actually happened was that we found a record company who liked two Jet tunes (Dirty Pictures and Sail Away – ed), two of the rockier ones, and were prepared to release them as a single. We changed the name of the band, in order to disguise our tracks, and so we became Radio Stars. This was at the beginning of 1977 – punk had just come along and the label had signed a bunch of punk bands and so were seen as a punk label, as were we by association. Well, that was OK, I didn’t mind WHAT people said about us so long as they said something. Then the hair became a bit shorter (alright, very much shorter, except for the guitarist King Richard III, who retained his flowing thespian locks until the bitter end, and it was bitter, I can tell you…) and the jackets became leather. But the trousers never became bondage – we did have SOME dignity left – even though we were covered in snot. Also it’s no bad thing that the music one makes reflects the times, unless you are Yes (for whom I have sneaky admiration, please understand…)
– Initially Radio Stars was just you and Andy, looking for a guitar and drums…
Actually I had called (guitarist) Ian Macleod, who was in the initial and post-recording Jet line-up, and we made some demos (No Russians, Johnny Mekon, and a few others which turned up on the first RS album). I sang and asked the later RS singer to add a bit of harmonica. Paul Simon played drums, as he did on the first RS EP and on most of the first LP. But we always had problems with drummers…
A sidebar is that the session was paid for by my publishers at the time, as my contract was due for renewal (or not, as the case may have been) and this recording was for their benefit, to see whether they wanted to give me some more money and keep the publishing deal going for another year. I took them the results, including Dirty Pictures – “No”, they bawled at me, “this is terrible! Nobody will ever buy it! Your songs are dreadful! We have no further interest in either you or them! You are thus released from the publishing contract and we are released from having any obligation to have anything else to do with you!”. “Fair enough”, I said, or words to that effect. Then we went off and got a hit record, and of course I proclaimed that my new songs weren’t published by anyone, so I was free to shop them around. Who should pop up but my former publishers, claiming that they hadn’t said anything of the kind and that all songs written by my and all members of my family and anyone that we had ever met on the street or in the pub were actually published by them and only them. It went to court – at least I got the royalty rate raised from 50% (believe it or not) to 65%. They still got the first RS album though
– The live shows always seemed to be pretty intense…
Intensely loud, yes, and full of intense jumping up and down, followed by intense drinking and intense jumping out of hotel windows when intensely irate parents turned up to reclaim their intensely errant daughters. But I like to think people went away happy. Or at least deaf. I tried to improve the quality of audience at one point by having ‘NO RIFF-RAFF’ printed on the tickets, but it didn’t do any good, really.
– You also had your share of problems with titles: Bowels Stuffed with Spleen (original title for the first LP) and later on the controversy over the cover, Elvis is Dead Boring (becoming Arthur is Dead Boring) and a lyric change in Beast of Barnsley (to accommodate the relatives of a convicted rapist, who of course was dubbed The Beast of Barnsley for a very good reason) …
Well, I like to be topical, dear, you know me…. It wasn’t me who called him a Beast, it was a newspaper – his mother objected, but to a different line: I originally remarked that “his mother tried chopping Beasty’s head off with a cleaver’. Her solicitor pointed out that she hadn’t tried to at all, she had only thought about trying to. So I changed it to “his mum considered chopping Beasty’s head off with a cleaver’. Exactly the same scansion and of course much cheaper in the longer term.
– Dear Prudence was left off the Stop it EP and Accountancy Blues came even closer to being on the Holiday album… Why was it left off ?
I don’t think we liked our version of Prudence. And Accountancy Blues was supposed to be on the second album, as you may note from the lyrics being printed inside the sleeve, but it mysteriously didn’t appear. I had my own theories about this… Don’t forget that this was shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. I shall say no more, to protect the innocent.
– What did eventually go wrong with the band ?
Oh, the singer decided to get rid of me (from my own group, my life, already!) in order to become the main songwriter, producer, conceptualist and grey eminence. Naturally they were immediately dropped.
– What’s the deal with that story that you left because you had your wisdom teeth pulled ?
Well, not because, but during. I was hospitalised for two weeks and it was decided that the band would suddenly go on the road. Nice timing.
– There even was a very short-lived reunion…
We made another record (a single) a couple of years later but clearly, for us at least, the War was over. Generally they were not the kind of people one would want in one’s slit trench, truth be told….
– What’s the situation with Radio Stars on CD outside of Japan ? Anything left in the vaults that could be included in a possible box set ?
Apart from the Somewhere There’s A Place For Us collection of most of it, there are couple of studio recordings, half a dozen BBC sessions and quite a lot of live stuff. Plus a few demos that either were or were not later recorded. Who knows – if anyone was interested, I would happily turn over my collection.
– Who were The Blue Meanies ? Just a fun project ?
While Radio Stars nosedived, I constructed the Blue Meanies. It was me, my old pal and erstwhile Radio Stars saxist and spare vocalist, especially for the high bits, Chris Gent, current Wishbone Ash drummer Ray Weston and various guitarists. We had a single release but there was no interest shown from any quarter, so more early bathing of nether regions was indicated. It was a very clean time for me, as I recall…
Then we recorded a tune with Mickie Most producing – Chris knew him from a previous band he was in, on RAK – but Mr Most oddly disappeared halfway through, leaving his engineer to get on with it. And then a bit later still, a phone call came from the office on the floor above and we were asked to leave. All very enigmatic, I’m sure.
In the meantime, you had a close encounter with the Rolling Stones. Not too many people get to sit in with them…
What was great was that it was all set up in the studio as if we were onstage – drums at the back, a PA and the line up going from left to right. The singer (the other one) jumped around a lot and directed the operation, and me.
When I got a cassette at the end of the first night, we played it in the car driving back to the house in Anthony, a suburb of Paris and when the vocal came in, my pal Jon Grace who was driving almost crashed with excitement. Later on, he did unfortunately really crash, and didn’t survive. He was a splendid chap – permanently broke but he found strategies to deal with it. We were eating one night in Paris, and he kept insisting that I should try some of what he was eating. Eventually it dawned on me when the bill came – he said “Well, as you’ve eaten about half of mine, I reckon I should only pay half the bill”. He was in a French band that I produced, jammed along with the Stones and played a bit of guitar on the Blue Meanies tracks.
– You got heavily involved in producing World Music. How different is it from producing a regular UK band ?
The role is different in that you’re there to make sure it sounds nice and is well-played. There’s no ‘production’ in the pop or rock’n’roll sense of overdubs and arrangements, unless it’s one of those dreaded ‘cross-over’ projects, about which I tend to reserve judgement… Pop music, however, tends to have the same sensibilities the world over…..
– Can you identify with this sort of material ?
Certainly, I’m not a member of the ‘I like THIS stuff so I can’t like THAT stuff’ society, which is a bit rigid and schoolboy and doctrinaire for me. Let’s face it, most pop musicians are innately conservative anyway, so I shouldn’t be surprised that this is the response of most of them… But it’s all just music, innit. As Zappa noted, ‘all music is doodling, there’s just good doodling and bad doodling’.
– You’re also a member of John’s Children, although I get the impression the band is mostly a moniker for the members to delve into their own past…
I believe that JC have begun the long, slow walk back to the pavilion. It was fun but never a serious contender for a musical statement, although it could have been, with a little imagination upon the part of certain members. I proposed, amongst many other suggestions that I made, which is something that I do, I am a ‘suggestion’ kind of guy, that the band should record Love Power. This went down like a hairdresser at a wig convention. I’m pleased to note that my version of it, from Hogwash, is currently being played to death by UK radio.
– Love Power is a rather unusual song to cover…
Well, it’s a rather unusual song full stop. I’ve wanted to do it for ages. Having proposed it to the Chickens to no avail, I made of note and then found the perfect excuse. And living in Berlin makes it rather piquant, I must say. I’ve just had a meeting with a video director who had never heard the tune but leapt on the idea with almost too much enthusiasm – his rough demo was full of Hitler and other bigwigs handing out digital flowers to each other Well, this is NOT going to get broadcast in Germany, let’s face it, so for the first time in my career I said ‘ No, that’s TOO silly”, a concept which I previously thought didn’t exist… So, IF the video comes off, you can expect less Nazis in it.
– Maybe most important of all, last year you finally came up with your first solo album “Baboon in the Basement”. Why the long wait ?
It never occurred to me that anyone was remotely interested. Then a Japanese company suggested that the time was right, and offered to pay the costs, which weren’t much as I have my own studio. Then it transpired that I owned it for the rest of the world, so I decided to let the rest of the world have a listen to it. In fact, because the Japanese insisted that it had to be released by a particular date, the version which came out there consists basically of rough mixes. The ROW version was worked on for another two months, and is greatly improved by the extra effort.
The long wait (I suppose 20 years qualifies as ‘long’, really..) was also compounded by the fact that I couldn’t find a good singer. Actually, I didn’t look very hard, I must confess, so it was partly my fault. However Pelle Almgren and I corresponded by email when he revealed himself to be a Jet fan, we later met up in Stockholm to write a few tunes and only then did he reveal himself as a stupendous singer. And what a voice he has – we both have exactly the same musical sensibility, so there’s never any explanation on my part (well, almost never…), he just does what he does and it’s even better than I imagined it could be…
– You cover the Stones’ We Love You. Very tongue-in-cheek…
IS it tongue in cheek, actually? You can also read it as a sideswipe at the inane nature of pop fan-dom. Or at the peculiar rules of English declensions. In fact we did little analysis – Pelle (and the other Pelle) and I were asked to contribute something to a Stones tribute CD, and it occurred to me that the best tune to do would be this. Killing two birds with one stone, the record company made it the title track as well.
Tell us something about some of your favorite Baboon tracks…
ANYWAY GOODBYE :
This is one of my favourite tunes – it came from a John’s Chickens catchphrase that we had. A Chicken had written a song with the same title and Chris played a demo to me. Well, it was hopeless – it’s very clear what the character of the song should be, and the lyrical standpoint as well, and instead there was all this guff about waterfalls and the long sad path of life having been run. Or some such, I don’t go in for it meself. So I went back home and composed this in it’s entirety in about two hours. The refrain chords are the old fave Small Faces I / IV / VII / III sequence and then it almost turns into the Beach Boys at the end.
TERRIBLE MESS (NO-GOOD SHOE BOMBER) :
About the hapless Richard Reid. Great dumbass rockin’ tonite guitar riff and the plane crash in the middle, which even has sheep in it, if you listen carefully, a reference to that other, rather more successful attempt to do the dirty to a 747. The Greek chorus works quite well, I think, repeating and amplifying the lead vocal. Well, it’s what they do, isn’t it…..
WHY DO I… :
This is actually a re-write of a Blue Meanies tunes (called Habibya), and this was the one that we got halfway through with Mickie Most. I re-wrote the verse and came up with a new concept lyrically and there we are….
HIT HIM ON THE HEAD :
Written shortly after Radio Stars’ demise and recorded initially at that time as a shuffle. Here I rethought the time signature and it was the first piece that guitarist Andy Reimer and I worked on. Thus oodles of great guitar and some fab warbling from Pelle.
ONLY ONE DREAM PER PERSON :
As a composition, one of my best pieces IMHO. Somewhat Todd-esque, maybe, and some lovely guitar here and there. A German beer-drinking song filtered through various other sensibilities.
THE WARLORD OF THE ROYAL CROCODILES :
While I was at school I used to love the Tyrannosaurus Rex LPs Unicorn and My People Were Fair, and I like the arrangement of what was essentially an acoustic ballad sung by a goat into a quite unforced sounding rock’n’roll tune. The words are a bit odd, but that’s par for the course, innit
– Baboon was generally extremely well received and deservedly so. Did that stimulate you to explore your solo career further ?
It did. Realising that there was a market for what I do, and that I didn’t have to ‘explain’ it to anyone, I immediately dived back in with the second solo.
– A year later, the follow-up “Joy of More Hogwash” is already here! Would you say it is more mature than Baboon ?
Oh yes, enormously mature, probably the equivalent of a Master’s thesis in Combined Studies of Human Stupidity. I am, after all, making an enormous contribution to the sum of human knowledge, so you might as well admit it. Especially the bit about big tits and oral sex.
– Again very strong lyrics and judging by your other writings I get the impression it all comes pretty naturally…
Well, I have to confess that it does. Although the key is really editing of ideas, and by this I mean ruthlessly throwing away a minimum of 50% of songs per project. With Baboon, I threw away about 30 per cent, with Hogwash 50%, so it’s correspondingly stronger, in my opinion. But what do I know, I just write the stuff. But the subject material is all out there, you just have to spot it and then tart it up a bit…
– The Beatles’ Every Little Thing is one that hasn’t gotten much exposure over the years either. A favorite ?
It is a favourite, although the version by Yes, not so much by the Mop Tops Actually I use the Jon Anderson improv in the last verse of the Yes version as the basis for the Hogwash verses, and of course there’s the Peter Banks/Day Tripper guitar riff, which was a nice idea of his. Pelle says ‘it pisses all over the Beatles’ version’, which he had never heard before. I believe there is a kernel of undeniable truth in this statement…
– Tracks like Daddy lost his Head or Plug ‘n Play are so close to home, you can immediately relate to them and they make you laugh. Man at his smallest or a sign of the times ?
Both, if there is any difference between the conditions. None of these tunes are without point, although as Shindig magazine acutely noted, “On first hearing, the witty and intelligent themes and lyrics are often secondary to the catchy, meaty modern pop arrangements”. They said it, not me. What really gets my goat (as we say in our quaint Cockernee English, Gor blimey strike a light, I should cocoa mate sort of thing) is the arrant stupidity of most current pop music and also of those people who create it. Even the females are macho! And so I believe everything is political, even if these idiots who personify the proposition can’t spell the word. And again so I militate against stereotypes and stupidity, in my own small way. If people don’t notice it, that’s also OK, they can just buy the CD and sing the choruses, it works just as well.
– A favorite track ?
Well, I’m very happy with it, I must say, not least because of the three different time signatures (which haven’t prevented UK radio from playing it to death even though no one seems to know what it’s going on about), and also the 10cc-style middle. It begins in 4:4, goes to a chorus in 3:4 and swaps between the two until the outro, when it swaps between 4:4 and 6:8. Well, some people like that kind of thing, you see, and I am one of them. And I also like the key change into the guitar solo and then the even more cunning reversion to the original key which follows, which sounds like another key change but in fact isn’t…
Can you go over some of the other tracks for us…
Fuss Me :
This was originally written for a Swedish girl-group – it was wordplay. I’m sure I need explain no further.
Land Of Nod :
A kind of upside down version of Maunkberry Moon Delight, which no one has spotted as yet. The Land of Nod is where English people go when they sleep…
The Joy of More Hogwash :
I like the way it becomes another picture in the middle, suddenly a jazz combo appears in your front room, along with comments from a Frenchman that I recorded 10 years ago for a French car advert. “Mmm”, he notes appreciatively.
Round And Round We Go :
One of my favourites – one review said that it revealed my innate optimism, but I actually thought it did the opposite. Plus I do think it’s quite funny to base a chorus around a critique of CP Snow, and it serves him right. (“Bugger Off CP Snow”, Pelle sings). Revenge is sweet.
– You used the same musicians on both CDs. Only Chris Townson will be a familiar name to most, although you have worked with Pelle Almgren before. Where did you dig everybody up?
As mentioned above, Pelle Almgren and I met virtually. I saw guitarist Andy Reimer playing here in Berlin in a Berlin strip-club, and I asked him to play a couple of sessions for some Turkish stuff I was doing. Then, when the Baboon idea materialised, I enticed him over to the studio and we got stuck in. There’s actually less guitar on Hogwash, probably due to his personal commitments, and so this presented an interesting problem to solve (which is something I like doing), and thus we had a bit more vocal and piano than we might have done otherwise. Chris responded enthusiastically to the early demos I played but couldn’t initially make the schedule for Baboon, so I considered using someone else, briefly. Then he suddenly found a slot, and the record was much improved by his playing. For the second one, we did it when he could fit it around his fish-frying schedule, and ditto again, but more so.
– Hogwash is getting a lot of airplay, it’s a huge success and you’re doing interviews almost 24/7. Sweet revenge ?
Well, it remains to be seen what the sales might be, I just hope it’s enough to allow a third in the series of solo CDs. But it’s very nice having people take notice of what is, let’s face it, a rather unlikely development. I noticed that there were 33 UK radio stations playing it the other day. Not all at the same time, though.
– Any regrets about Sparks, Jet, Radio Stars not lasting?
Only Radio Stars, which could have been very successful, but not with that particular line-up. Jet metamorphosed into RS anyway, and as for the Mole twins… pah!!!
– A number of names keep on popping up all the time throughout your career. Isn’t it awkward starting over from scratch with people you just broke up with?
Chris Townson and I never had any difficulties in previous times, and still don’t. He’s also still a great drummer and generally fine chap, in fact he comes over here and we tour Nazi Berlin (and the odd aircraft museum). The singer in John’s Children and I have an unresolved historical matter to deal with. Otherwise – it’s onwards and upwards… it’s new people a go-go for this popster.
– Best memories so far ?
I’m afraid I can’t remember what my best memories are, it’s a bit of nuisance sometimes.
OK – Top of the Pops with Sparks (May 9, 1974 – ed), the gig in the pub in Dorset with Jet (to an audience of baffled farmers and village idiots, as we performed our full set at top volume with maximum pan-stick), doing the Lyceum with Radio Stars, working in India and Pakistan (and Egypt), and reading the reviews of Baboon and now Hogwash.
– What are the plans for the foreseeable future ?
In about ten minutes I’m going to a beach-bar which some enterprising Berliner has constructed five minutes away from me, on the river. Looking further into the future, I will attempt to get some gigs together on the back of the current success of Hogwash in the UK. People keep asking me when they can see us, and I keep saying later. So this is my immediate goal, to find some sympathetic promoter who will figure out how we can achieve this aim…. And, as I am going through a rather productive time at present, I have about 8 tunes written for the next CD……
Can’t wait ! Where is that bar exactly…?