Rock On Part 1

RF016_thMARTIN GORDON SUPER-MEGA-INTERVIEW – Rock On’s saucy Senor Alberto Diaz Rodriguez bares his gleaming teeth and poses the penetrating Qs. Alas, the Spanish site Rock On has long gone to meet it’s chorizo-maker, but read on for the English version.

Hi, Martin. It’s a great pleasure to blah blah blah (you already know how much I love your music, so I will skip the flattering and go for the questions). (But yes, it’s a great pleasure to interview you again, after all these years, just to make balance of everything now that the Mammals seem extinct).

INCLUDE ME OUT is the sixth and final chapter of a trilogy, a Mammal one… maybe some of our readers would need to figure it out what’s all about. Please tell us about the whole concept now that the extended trilogy (it seems) it’s over.

MG: Well, now that it’s all over, I can reveal to you and your readers, and only because you are all so elegant and charming and kind and probably also rich and well-connected and permanently suntanned, the complete real-life background to the so-called Mammal Trilogy. I will most certainly return to this theme later on in our discussion. Believe me, I fully intend to reveal the full story behind this Trilogy, and I believe you will be shocked, intrigued and titillated by the terrible revelations (terrible in the sense of awesome, I mean) which will reverberate through the corridors of power for decades to come. But more of this later on, I see that you are already preparing another penetrating question.

Senor Alberto D languidly fills his battered sombrero with double expresso. He asks, with deceptive calm:

Ariba!

I.M.O. is, again, full of catchy-powerful-funny tunes, but… what would be the main difference between this album and the other records, if there’s any? How was the process of its recording?

MG: Exactly, your subtext hits the nail right on the head here. I mean, what’s the point? Damned if I know. I had pretty much decided not to make another record following ‘Time Gentlemen Please’, for various reasons and despite the fact that it was, artistically speaking, my best work yet. I decided that I would just die, and then they would all be sorry.

However I was driven by overwhelming displays of human crassness and idiocy to pen a few words about these ongoing processes, and so the whole thing began all over again.

The main difference between this and previous albums is that the title does not begin with the letter ‘T’. Four of the six existing parts of the Trilogy begin with the letter T, and two do not. Apart from that, there is absolutely no discernible difference whatsoever. If anyone bought (or did not buy, whichever is more appropriate, and I certainly know what I think) earlier parts of the so-called Mammal Trilogy, they can be secure in the knowledge that if they do (or do not) buy this sixth and final part, they will (or will not) be disappointed. I believe my point is clear.

The process of recording was the same as always. I created a laborious blueprint here in Berlin, and sent it to Sweden for scrutiny and critique. Guitars were recorded here, the drums were recorded on a boat in Treptower Park. For the first time, I had strings on the album. Recording an orchestra was not a first for me but having an orchestra, or even bits of one, performing on my tunes was a marvellous experience. We recorded the strings in the premises of a former brewery just round the corner, and the brass was done at the same place. Guitars, ukuleles and bass were all done at my studio and, as ever, the vocals were recorded deep in the Scandinavian forest, surrounded by caribou, elk and Pelle ‘Otto’ Almgren. He, of course, rose admirably to the occasion with a variety of exciting and compelling faux elk antlers, which he donned at various appropriate moments.

The other thing that was different about IMO was the fact that I crowd-funded it. This meant that I had covered my production costs before it was released, although I had already actually PAID the productions costs before the funding effort got underway.

This served as a kind of reality check. After seeing the disastrous sales figures for my last, and in my opinion best at that point, effort ‘Time Gentlemen Please’, I wondered whether there was actually any reason to make another album, apart from auto-therapy and I do so want to avoid vanity-publishing. So the fact that there were enough people who wanted to support the venture confirmed for me that I should take the thing to completion. Just as well, the bill was already quite sizable, what with orchestras, international travel, horn sections and donkey fodder to pay for. This is not to mention long-standing anteater issues, which also took their financial and moral toll. But more of this later. And also later, don’t forget, I will soon be ready to address the unravelling of the Mammal issue as promised, in just a few paragraphs from now. Please keep reading, if you can. But for the present, Alberto, it’s back to you.

Senor Alberto D narrows his eyes and peers cynically through a dense cloud of cigarillo smoke:

Ariba!Which are your favorite tracks of this record, and why?

MG: Not wishing to blow my own trumpet, but equally aware that if I don’t then nobody else will, I must pick out ‘Stanley Green’ as a personal favourite. I try to avoid symmetry (as far as one can in the pop environment, I mean) and this tune is a tad asymmetric and also has a few one-off compositional events. It’s often satisfying to reign in the impulse to repeat.  Paul McCartney does it as well, sometimes. Arthur Sullivan… Todd Rundgren used to, but he’s become a tad symmetrical of late.

Another reason for choosing Stanley is the presence of an orchestra, for the first time. OK it’s not the first time, but the first time on one of my pieces.  While I was working in Bombay (in 1991) with Asha Bhosle and Pancham Burman, we swathed the entire thing in lush Bollywood strings, as you do, but that project was the brainchild of somebody else. If I may digress for a moment… I recall that the main man of this rather dodgy enterprise, who were called the West India Company, was lissome Steven Luscome, once of tinny popsters Blancmange. I have never heard of them.

Upon regally descending the stairs one day in our Bombay residence (I speak metaphorically, it was a bungalow), Luscombe listened with barely-concealed fury to the tune which guest singer Boy George, resident lyricist Peter Culshaw and myself (on keyboards) had demoed the previous evening. “Well, you may as well write with THE MILKMAN!!!” he responded to my apparent intrusion into his carefully constructed but entirely bogus scenario. I was there not as contributor but as a recording engineer, and this is what apparently got his goat (but not literally).

Particularly irksome was the fact that he had read my rather explicit diary, which I had accidentally left lying on the dinner table the previous evening. Various members of the party were not treated with sympathy in my recording of the events of the day. The internal conflict invoked by having read my personal diary whilst not being able to respond to my torrents of literary abuse was clearly not an easy circle to square. But let us return to the point. Where we we?

Another favourite tune from IMO is ‘Still Not Lovin’, graced by rocking Ralf Leeman on guitar and wonder-drummer Romain Vicente, who played the entire tune from beginning to end in one take with fabulous feel and without a single error. Pelle Almgren, as ever, sang a marvellous vocal and the whole thing came together very easily, despite it being a bit more tricky that it sounds. It’s an amalgam of ‘Somethin’ Else’ and ‘Suffragette City’, I suppose, leavened with some rapidly-approaching-middle-age angst about how Young Peeble are chewing up the language.

Ariba!Senor Alberto D brusquely orders a cold cerveza and chews moodily on some spicy sausage. He pounces suddenly:

How would you define your music (so personal, sarcastic, courageous and sometimes extravagant) in the world today? I mean, do you feel like some colorful and brave rara avis?

MG: I do, very much so, I definitely feel like a rara avis. In fact later on I am popping out for a rara avis burger, you have certainly awakened my taste buds in this rara area. I think I will have a double rara avis with cheese and a Hugo Portion of endangered flora on the side.

To address your underlying point, I like to think that my work is succinct and didactic. I would also like to think that it sells by the shipload, but it doesn’t, so I don’t. There is a limit to self-delusion, I suppose, even though watching TV would lead you to think otherwise… What I currently feel like is, to quote Hannah Arendt in an entirely different context, “An Englishman who knows how to conceal his fury behind a facade of supreme sobriety”. Well, at least I try.

Senor Alberto D crashes violently out of the bar-room double doors, leaving them swinging to and fro in his wake. The dust cloud slowly settles… He returns.

Ariba!I would like to especially ask you about two fundamental partners you’ve had in this 6-part adventure: Pelle Almgren and the late Chris Townson. Both have been crucial, in different ways… please give me your thoughts about them.

MG: Good question, and a nice opportunity to pay tribute to both of them. I knew Chris for about 30 years. We didn’t have much contact in the 80s, and I was very pleased to get back in touch with him at the beginning of the 90s, when we began playing together again in the revamped John’s Children. He and I made a great rhythm section, even though I say it myself. We knew exactly what the other one would do in a certain musical situation, which is key to a good cooperation. So, very often, we would both find ourselves doing the same thing, unplanned, especially during those long extended workouts, of which Jet did none at all and Radio Stars almost none; the latter-day John’s Children did nothing else, of course.

christhHowever Chris wasn’t very keen on learning material, which could be a bit of a drawback at times – how can you learn the material unless you learn the material, I would expostulate, rhetorically. But also literally. He preferred the spontaneity of performance to the drudgery of reproduction. When modern recording technology finally enabled him just to play along, and I could compile the great bits of each take and glue them together, it was the best of both worlds. Plus it left us with more time to go to the pub at the end of the session. He played on the first four editions of the Mammal Trilogy (the true nature of which I will shortly be explaining to you).

Following his untimely demise (he was always late) other, most worthy drummers, took over his drum stool, and it was certainly a radical change of dimension. Interestingly, for such a bombastic drummer, he didn’t hit the drums very hard at all. When we set his kit up for various Mammal sessions, my engineering pal Martin Seelig, also a drummer, set the mike levels according to his own dynamic tendencies – he was a hard hitter. Along came Chris for the sessions, and you could hardly see the meters moving. It’s all about technique, you see – he gleefully would admit to not having any.

He was a good friend, an informed and thoughtful person, and I miss him. In recent years, we would have long phone chats about this and that – mostly that – and exchange perspectives and music.

Our last joint listening session was to Niacin. I visited him at home, and we recorded his thoughts about his musical life, for a Japanese music magazine. Later we listened to Niacin, and he understood them, as did I, to be an musical exercise following in the footsteps of the Nice. We both had a strange liking for this kind of music, despite our mutual experience of one of the perpetrators.

I have often thought that if he had stayed around during Radio Stars, the ‘silly bollocks’ behaviour (as Willie Donaldson would have it) that went on would have been mediated by Chris, and the outcome would have been different. Whenever I was going off on one, so to speak, he would always say “Now come on, Mart….”, and I would calm down. Nobody else I ever worked with has been able to do that, and it’s probably a sign of the enormous respect he had for me. No, wait – which I had for him. Plus I know that he would have supported me in a few of my famous conceptual insights, which might have rocked the cradle of fate in another direction. Can the cradle of fate can be indeed rocked by mere humans, and pop musicians at that? We will never know, probably.

pellealmgrenPelle Almgren. What can I say? Without Pelle, there would be no Mammal Trilogy (of which there is an explanation coming up very soon, don’t forget). As well as being an utterly fabulous singer, he’s also a tremendously nice person, the inventor of the precursor to penicillin, an expert in Specific Enablers, a personal friend of James Bond, a Nobel-peace-prize winning author and an elk-teaser. So he’s extremely busy, as you can imagine.

Were it not for the fact that we came into contact in the early 21st century, my recent (and in fact overall) output would be considerably less. I am generally at the mercy of singers, in that they can do it rather better than I and good faith is sometimes in short supply. So I definitely lucked out when he emailed me one day in 2001.

I remember that I was in Istanbul when we first mailed. I had just traversed the infamous Valley of the Dead Dogs to get the local internet shop, and his proposal to do some joint work was a revelation. When I eventually escaped back to Berlin, I gathered my belongings and went off to Stockholm for our first session. The rest is history. Unfortunately he has now retired to the Swedish forest with only a disturbed bulldog for company. The last I heard was that he was heading off to Torremolinos to become a hermit. But I am enormously grateful for his contribution, and I do still entertain a forlorn hope that one fine day, we will once again etc. etc. despite the enormous so on and so forth.

Senor Alberto D essays some nimble flamenco steps, humming silently to himself and strumming moodily on a tiple. He pounces:

Here’s a game I love; please define with just one simple sentence the essence of your six albums, one by one:

RFVP005CDsm-copyTHE BABOON IN THE BASEMENT

Basement folly, in which I debate whether I am capable of writing relevant material anymore, and pull out a number of covers just in case the answer is in the negative.

RFVP006CDsm-copyTHE JOY OF MORE HOGWASH

Deciding that the answer was not in the negative, I resume activity.

 

RFVP007CDsm-copyGOD’S ON HIS LUNCHBREAK

A change of guitarist, and the only episode of the Trilogy (soon to be explained in full) with does not begin with the letter ‘T’, except for the final part, which also does not.

RFVP009CDsm-copyTHE WORLD IS YOUR LOBSTER

Rather more off-the-wall than the preceding volumes, but with a couple of my favourite compositions nonetheless and a nice picture of the Lobster on the front, bravely supporting the world just like Bob Bono and Lord Geldof.

RFVP013CD_120x119_thTIME GENTLEMEN PLEASE

A rounded collection, with a new drummer and brass and flute for the first time, and why not.

 

RF016_thINCLUDE ME OUT

And finally the last word on the subject, with an orchestra and a brass section and still, I like to think, moving away from the pop blueprint into oblivion.

Senor Alberto D brandishes meaningfully a pair of highly-polished castanets :

Also, about favorite songs, which would be your top-5 songs from all the albums, all mixed up? And why, of course (we always demand a ‘why’).

21st Century Blues

It’s a rounded composition; the words are pretty good, I like the arrangement, what with brass parts and a flute solo, and the last verse turns into a German oompah brass band. Who could ask for more, apart from non-Germans?

Stanley Green

It’s a kind of tribute, I suppose. I like the ukulele, an instrument often overlooked by the rock pantheon, and of course the orchestral strings creep ever upwards, without even having to play harmonics. That’s what you get if you get the professionals in. Stanley was a regular on London’s Oxford Street, and wandered by as we were shooting the cover of the Holiday Album. We weren’t quick enough to get him in the shot, unfortunately.

Daddy Lost his Head in a Coup

A combination of threes and fours, which is always a good thing; based upon, and in part quoting, a real-life exchange of emails with Mr Moose, who had come into a large sum of money under circumstances best left unexplained. Some great Beatle-esque guitars and harmonies, even though I say it myself. Well, I didn’t play or sing them, so I think I can remark upon their presence without feeling immodest.

Only One Dream Per Person

Marvellous harmonies and lead vocal, tangential sideswipes at the Germans, an elaborated structure and a handful of chord substitutions in the final section which pass smoothly by without causing undue distress.

Fickle

I introduced Pelle Almgren to Noel Coward, whom, perhaps unsurprisingly, he had never come across. It’s not as though Sir Noel was a great Polar explorer or slayer of mythological Nordic forest beasts. But once he recovered his poise, Pelle was greatly taken with The Master, and channels him here most convincingly. It also has ukulele on it, always a good sign. I am smugly satisfied with the words, plus it is not about donkeys. What’s not to love?

maccaSenor Alberto D indicates hoarsely, but menacingly, that he will be back. But then:

Paul McCartney is clearly one of your all time icons… your Macca covers are really interesting and passionate. Give me your thoughts about him… Also, what would be your favorite Macca song and/or album (apart from the Beatles)… Have you ever meet him?

MG: I am firmly in the camp which believes that Macca was the catalyst for the brilliance of the Beatles. Of course I accept that the combination of Lennon and McCartney was a symbiotic one which benefitted both, but you only have to weight up the post-Fab output of each to see how the artistic cookie crumbled. I think my favorite Macca-tune of all time would be ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’. And also ‘Back Seat of My Car’. My two favourite Macca-tunes.

The only tunes  of his which I dare do are the ones which could be improved – ‘Too Many People’, for example, I felt needed an arranged end, as it just kind of petered out on Ram. Well, that’s rather presumptuous of me, I know…

Have I met him? Kind of. For the wedding of (my former band Jet’s manager) Mike Leander, who wrote the string arrangement for the Beatles’ ‘She’s Leaving Home’,  we all turned up at the Savoy hotel in London. There was a long queue to get in. Each arrival was announced by a waiter. You had to wait in the queue, give your name to him and then he would bawl it out to the assembled throng. Imagine my delight when the couple in front of us in the queue turned out to be Paul and Linda. We all shuffled slowly forwards until we reached the name-taker, who bent his ear magisterially towards Paul. He straightened up and announced “Mr and Mrs Smith!” Despite this masterful subterfuge, the entire room fell silent as every single head spun round to view Paul and Linda.

His presence was disseminated by a kind of celebrity osmosis, I suppose. It was extraordinary how his/their celebrity transcended everybody else’s. All the invited guests at the reception were themselves cultural icons to a greater or lesser degree, except for Gary Glitter, but the power of a Beatle was of another dimension.

Ariba!Flushed, Senor Alberto D knocks off for a three hour, fourse-course lunchbreak with two bottles of Manzanilla followed by a long kip. Eventually he returns refreshed, and resumes his merciless assault:

Another personal icon for you is Jack Bruce. Same questions here. Open your heart about this legendary musician.

jackbruceMG: He’s one of my earliest loves, musically speaking, of course. In fact, one of the first tunes I wrote was called ‘Worried About Jack’, based upon his recent musical activities which I was, at that point, unable to comprehend. He’s an exemplary role model for any musician – a master composer, instrumentalist, arranger and performer. The only thing which he doesn’t turn his hand to is writing lyrics, and I see this an admirable auto-recognition of his skills. If only more people were this aware.

He’s also a trained musician whose art has not suffered as a result of him becoming more familiar with the theory of it. I am rather against this faux cult of the pop autodidact, which indicates that the things you do by accident are of more worth than the things you do on purpose. I mean, if you wanted to get your car repaired, would you to take it to someone who claimed never to have study car-repairing in their life and who just did whatever ever they felt was right intuitively, or someone who knew how to repair cars? If I had a car, I know what I would do. But I don’t.

I went to an ‘Evening with Jack Bruce’ charity event at a London art gallery a couple of years ago, organized by one of his many and charming daughters. He chatted to the co-author of his autobiography, with a couple of microphones so we could all hear. There were about 40 paying guests, of whom I was one. He then took some questions from the floor. My carefully prepared question was as follows: “Listening to various Tony Williams Lifetime live recordings, I notice that McLaughlin’s later Mahavishnu tunes and your own solo pieces are all included, often as segues. Did you each have to fight for your own material or was it a cooperative effort? What was the response when each person introduced music which had been composed outside the context of the group?” His response was brief but to the point: “I can’t remember”, he said. Perhaps that was an answer in itself. But also perhaps not. In any event, the Q&A session moved swiftly on.

He later played six tunes, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and then piano. A truly fabulous evening in the company of one of the few  iconoclasts of pop – how many hit singles in 5:4 can you name?  Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’, Jethro Tull’s ‘Living in the Past’ and Cream’s ‘White Room’, or at least the signature melody –  and one who has maintained his position in the face of all that the music industry and audience can throw his way in terms of changing fashion and disinterest.

Amongst his other achievements, Bruce was the bassist in Lifetime, along with Miles Davis-sidemen drummer/leader Tony Williams, (organist) Larry Young and John McLaughlin (for our younger readers, he’s a guitarist). I’ve been recently listening to Bill Laswell’s mix of Lifetime’s second album ‘Turn It Over’, which has some of the greatest bass playing on it, in the shape of a track called ‘Right On’. It’s just (just!) bass and drums, with a soupçon of Hammond for a few fleeting moments. Oddly, on the original mix of the album, it was 1’50” with lashings of demented guitar, no bass and some savage edits; here it’s 8’05” with no guitar to be found. All very mysterious, and a mind-blowing piece.

Ariba!Senor Alberto D is assailed by attractive women wearing black lace mantillas with roses between their teeth and clutching what appear to be flabby omlettes. With difficulty, and evident reluctance, he fights them successfully off. Finally he speaks, in low but savage tones:

Please name some other great influences for you. Regarding the “5 versus 1” you sent me, it’s clear that you’re a very eclectic guy.

MG: As I rapidly approach middle age (© Andy Ellison 1991), I find myself turning to jazz to get my instrumental kicks, so that’s Miles Davis and anything that’s got John McLaughlin on it, whether it’s Mahavishnu or Gordon Beck Quartet (with whom McLaughlin made a great album in 1968 called ‘Experiments With Pops’, full of pop-art jazz).

Jack Bruce, of course, is always an inspiration, as is the deeply-unfashionable Darryl Hall, and the deeply-fashionable Todd Rundgren. In fact, I am almost convinced that they are the same person. Andy Fraser is another one, a great player and writer, and latterly a decent singer as well. But I need musical skill to get my rocks off, and I tend not to find it in pop, especially since technology began to dominate the process. I find it often in non-European music, in particular gamelan, which I studied in London and Indonesia, and those composers who incorporated gamelan-related structures into their work, such as Debussy, Ravel, Britten, Riley, Reich, Young and their ilk. Right now I’m working on Mahler, who has no gamelan connection at all and is rather depressing. But rewarding.

Lyrically, of course, popular music is now a dead zone. Ogden Nash, WS Gilbert, Hal David, Cole Porter – these are a few of my favourite wordsmiths. But they are dead. Contemporary pop lyrics tend to be enormously self-regarding or semi-literate or unskilful or uninspired or, if you are particularly unlucky or listen to the radio, all of the above simultaneously. So I can’t get no lyrical satisfaction from pop, full stop. What I do find surprising is that contemporary popsters who want to make enormous amounts of money from pop songs, which tend to have lots of words in them, seem not to have developed any kind of facility with words. For me it all begins with words, so I would include Orwell, a master of lean, succinct prose, as one of my reference points, if I was feeling presumptuous. I did once reveal my pop manifesto in the tune ‘Bang Goes Pop’. It is a rather severe solution but one which would, in the long term, pay dividends. Blow it all up and start again.

Senor Alberto D is cleaning the dried blood from underneath his fingernails with the tip of a stiletto dagger. With a disbelieving sneer upon his cruel but handsome face, he remarks pointedly:

Ariba!You’re living and creating in Berlin for a long time now… Sure you feel comfortable there: what makes Berlin better than any other place for you?

MG: Berlin is like being on holiday. It’s very small, at least compared to London, full of lakes and forests and beer gardens. It’s also full of Germans.

Here is a brief tale showing why the Germans and I have a tempestuous relationship. An English friend, teaching in Hamburg, went to a party, at which he knew almost nobody. He heard a couple talking about their recent visit to a particular museum to see a particular exhibition. Keen for social intercourse, he struck up a conversation. “Oh yes,” he said, “I also went to that exhibition which you visited last Monday, it was extremely interesting.” His interlocutor looked him witheringly him up and down, from head to toe and back again. After a lengthy pause, he responded icily “It was NOT Monday, it was Tuesday”. No further comment is necessary, nor indeed possible.

I recently rode my bike around the Berliner Mauerweg, which traces the path of the former Berlin Wall around the city. All along the route there are memorials to the people who died whilst trying to escape. This kind of thing is very good for contextualising pop cultural phenomena like disco music, celebrity, reality television and sausages.


Part II.