Mike Bennett: June, 2003

Martin Gordon Interview, Part I

Since 1974, Martin Gordon has been a working musician. He has worked with a bevy of notable artists all over the globe, playing with The Rolling Stones, Blur, Boy George, world musicians from India and Turkey, and writing and/or producing for pop stars like Kylie Minogue and S’Express. During the ‘70s, he worked with three great bands – he was the bass player for Sparks on their UK commercial breakthrough Kimono My House, and was then teamed with former John’s Children members Andy Ellison and Chris Townson in the bands Jet (a must for lovers of glammy rock) and Radio Stars (a straightforward hooky rock and roll band). Gordon is a terrific songwriter, who carried the load for Jet and Radio Stars. Now, he has finally come back to introduce more of his articulate, witty, catchy and rocking tunes on his first solo album, The Baboon In The Basement (for info on how to get it, go to Martin’s website, martingordon.de or to voiceprint.co.uk/catalogue.php/Label/R/). It’s as good as anything that he has ever done.

This is the first of two parts of my interview with Martin. In this part, he kindly let me pester him with a few questions I had about Sparks, Jet and Radio Stars. And he also talks a bit about songwriting, putting out a record in his own name, and gives a full overview of where the songs on Baboon came from. Next month, I will have a review of the album and we’ll here more about how it came together. It was a real privilege for me to interview Martin, and his great sense of humor (or is it humour?) comes through in his entertaining responses:

MIKE: For quite a few years now you’ve been playing on a variety of world music projects. Has that had any effect on your pop writing – whether directly or indirectly? In particular, how connected and/or disparate is Indian or Turkish or other forms of world music from rock-and-roll based pop?

MARTIN: In a general sense, I have rediscovered the joys of working with performing musicians thanks to the world-music scenario, as technology tends to be rather absent when you’re sitting in a sandstorm in the Thar Desert in northern Pakistan. But my non-purist approach is to treat it all the same and certainly, comparing like with like, Indian pop, Indonesian pop, Chinese pop – it all has a comparable sensibility. I don’t necessarily mean cases where musicians are consciously adopting Western pop habits, but when considering indigenous, pre- or post-advent of technology popular music, you do find, by and large, that pop aesthetics are often comparable to their Western analogue.

As Robert Fripp is fond of saying rather smugly, music may well be an international language, it just has a myriad local dialects. An example of this intercultural palaver is the Algerian Rachid Taha – have a listen to Rachid Taha Live for one of the most amazing rock’n’roll records ever… Steve Hillage (Taha’s producer and guitarist) .. what a geezer etc. etc. But to be honest, I haven’t really tried to combine these local dialects (with the possible exception of the title track to the Baboon, which has a Turkish metre from time to time. Actually, my Turkish friends from the Sezen Aksu gang like this tune best of all, they told me).

It’s a boring old musicological saw to go on about, for example, the African origin of western pop, but there’s a good case to be made for it, that’s for sure. So there is in any case an inherent connection between East and West, New World and Old World, but sometimes inherent is enough, and we should draw the line there.

MIKE: Is there any different feeling to putting out a record in your name?

MARTIN: Actually, there isn’t, really, given that I have always felt entirely responsible for what has been released by my projects, regardless of the name of the artist. I do like to think that rampant ego issues are in the past, if they were ever there at all… I have an artistic vision and, so long as people do what they’re told, everything is fine.

Seriously, I am attempting to straddle positions in that I am a convinced collaborator when it comes to brainstorming ideas, and a convinced believer in one vision right or wrong when it comes to finalising the thing, whatever it is. Of course you have to be right, or at least it helps. And I am aware that this argument applies, probably uniquely, to art, and not to other areas. But I might quote the hoary tale of the camel being a horse designed by committee.

MIKE: You were quite young when you joined Sparks – had you been in any bands before Sparks? And what spurred you decide in 1973 that you wanted to make a living in music?

MARTIN: I had played a bit at school and then, while I was at college, organised a ‘group’ of sorts which played local gigs (also arranged by us, if I remember correctly). In fact, on my last visit to the UK earlier this year, I passed the scene of an early triumph… we had organised a gig and thought we should have some smoke or dry ice. A cheap alternative presented itself in the way of fumigation tablets that you use in your greenhouse to make genocidal attacks on greenfly. You light them and they emit great clouds of billowing (and poisonous, it must be admitted) smoke. But they were very cheap, this was the point. The audience stumbled out retching into the night, and the band didn’t feel so great either… But that was about the extent of my musical activities. In terms of career moves – I think I realised that getting up early was not my strong point and I imagined that musicians would be allowed to get up late. I have subsequently found this to be correct.

MIKE: Unfortunately, your tenure in Sparks was brief. You thought you would get a chance to write songs. Instead, despite your work on Kimono My House, as a bass player and arranger, you were instead presented as a sideman. The album became a big hit and yet you were shown the door before you had much of a chance to taste the success. What were your feelings at the time and how did you avoid become overly disillusioned?

MARTIN: Well, you know – life goes on, worse things happen at sea, nothing is worn under the kilt; a process of rationalisation, you might say. As well as psychotic rage, rug-chewing, self-mutilation and stamp-collecting. I think I felt quite shocked and stunned at the time: shocked that the project should have been so successful in such a short time, stunned that I had contributed in no small way and both shocked and stunned that I was now out on my proverbial ear.

The manager later took me on one side and explained to me that there was almost no chance of my getting the money I was due for at least a decade, this was how it worked in the music business you see, sorry but there we are and I was foolish enough to (a) believe him and (b) sign all my future royalties (payable in ten years time, naturally) over to him in return for a tiny ‘advance’ payment. Unbelievably, I felt grateful. His name was, and probably still is, although there are enough people chasing him through the courts to make changing it a good idea, John Hewlett.

By the time the extent of his criminality had dawned on me, and I had taken legal advice, the statute of limitations for aggravated fraud, under which the offence would have been prosecuted, had unfortunately expired – my window of opportunity was 12 years. Oh, well …. he offered to pray for me, when we later met (much later). Frankly I couldn’t see the point.

He gave an interview in the early nineties in which he told his side of the story – that the brothers Mael were intimidated, that I was contributing too much and threatening their creative stranglehold, that he was immature and should have told them on which side their bread was buttered. Very nice of him, I’m sure, but he didn’t go so far as to send me my royalties. I recently received my first ever payment for the broadcast use of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us”, a cheque from the UK performers association PMRA. It was for £23. To add insult to injury, Hewlett still refuses, to this very day, to hand over to me the Kimono My House gold disc that each member of the band should have received, saying he can’t remember where it is. But I only tell you all this because you ask, normally it’s a long way away from my thoughts.

MIKE: Soon thereafter, you formed Jet, a band that included former John’s Children vocalist Andy Ellison. The sole Jet album is fantastic – and something that I recommend to any fan of Kimono/Propaganda-era Sparks. Does the sound of the album reflect that you shared a musical sensibility with the Mael brothers (regardless of any conflicts you had with them or their manager), or does it reveal that your contributions to the Sparks sound were much greater than most people realize?

MARTIN: Probably both, at the risk of self-aggrandisement. Whether our musical tastes were shared or not (our tastes were probably closer lyrically than musically), the end product that we were aiming at was very clearly defined from both sides (theirs and mine) and whatever the process of achieving it involved, it was realised with great success and clarity, musically speaking. My input was not pre-conceived, from my side, more a response to whatever was happening and to the material as it was presented, and I had my ‘vision’, so to speak. I would argue for what I thought was right, and they would do like-wise… I recall that Adrian Fisher (guitarist, RIP) would generally not take such a prominent role in arrangements and, well, you know what drummers are like. So ideas would be bashed back and forth between the interested parties, tried out, fiddled with… all in the name of improving the content.

There was one occasion when my ending was characterised as ‘overshadowing the rest of the song’; to me, this would be a cue for improving the rest of the song rather than down-grading the ending, but, generally speaking, we came to agreement. Again, I tend not to get involved in these kinds of discussions, not least because it is now 29 years later, but if you’re interested enough to make a comparison between that record and the next few Sparks recordings, then you can probably work out what the missing people contributed to the scheme of things.

As far as the Jet album is concerned – it was a long time before I could listen to it with equanimity, as the process of making it was so excruciatingly painful. Roy Thomas Baker (producer) was great, and certainly did his best, but relationships fell to pieces in the studio, and actually the relationship between Andy Ellison and I hasn’t recovered to this day. Chris Townson (drummer) and I made it through, although I didn’t see him for the next twenty years, probably a good thing. The songs began with bass and drums only, everything else was added painstakingly one instrument at a time, and in some instances (guitar) half an instrument at a time, when certain chords (F chords, actually) were awarded their own track. But the new CD (i.e. the Jet reissue) sounds rather fine, and I even can listen to parts of it without flinching. But not to the studio chat track, added on as Track 13 – a portable cassette recording made illicitly in the control room during the soap opera that was The Making of the Jet Album. I will draw a veil over this.

MIKE: On your website, (www.martingordon.de), you note that one of the reasons for Jet’s demise was that you proposed that the second album be one continuous piece of music. This was on the heels of a tour that seemed to have a lot of ups and downs (and perhaps more downs). Was your proposal a showing of bravado and self-confidence or a conscious (or subconscious) attempt to scuttle a project that was having some difficulties?

MARTIN: Neither, this was actually a joke. It was based upon what happened when CBS, in all their majesty, came down to the remote country house where they had sent us to prepare the next recording. I didn’t want them to be there at all, as I knew exactly what was going to happen. So we learned Mel Brook’s “Springtime For Hitler” backwards (it’s still banned in my adopted homeland of Germany), and we made an arrangement of all the other songs that we had learned during the brief periods when we weren’t in the pub, and strung them together as a continuous piece of music.

It went on for abut forty minutes, as I recall, and you could see the record company small-wigs getting hot under the collective collar as the piece just didn’t stop. My how we laughed. Well, WE did, at any rate. Then we were given a good talking to by the authorities – they had brought along a ‘record producer’, on fact one Nicky Graham who claimed to have been the keyboard player in John’s Children even though they didn’t have one, and who had some desperately third-rate ideas about how he could reduce the forty minutes to a three-minute long single.

There were some ill-tempered rehearsals, led by him and hindered by me, and we were left on our own with instructions to sort it all out along the lines that he had introduced. This he summed up as ‘finding the light and shade’. This led, inevitably, to a second meeting a couple of weeks later in London. The dignitaries filed in. We began, as loud as we possibly could. When there was an extremely loud bit, Andy switched on the nicely-fringed table-lamp that we had put on the electric piano. When the loud bit was over, I switched it off again. This happened quite a few times.

Afterwards, with their ears still ringing, the A&R people asked irritatedly what this table-lamp business was all about. ‘It’s light and shade’, we said in a hurt tone, ‘you told us to look for light and shade’… It came as no surprise to find, the next day, that we had been dropped. Although from what, we never knew, as we had not been allowed to see the contract in the beginning. I don’t think it was a conscious attempt to derail the project – I think we thought it was still a goer.

Musically it had begun to develop and in fact, the recording that would signal the beginning of Radio Stars, a tune of mine called “Dirty Pictures”, was not only a Jet tune but is in reality a Jet recording from the last session we ever did at Island Studio in Hammersmith.. An interesting footnote (alright, a footnote) to this is that John Hewlett – him again – arranged these recording dates for us, possibly out of guilt, and asked if he could have a listen to what we proposed to record. ‘Yes, they’re all fine’, he opined, ‘except for that “Dirty Pictures”. No point in recording that one’. As the world knows, it was this song that would open the door to Chiswick Records for Radio Stars. Consistency 10, vision nul points.

MIKE: While Jet fell by the wayside, you quickly came back with Radio Stars, with Ellison again in tow. The sound now was less glammy and more direct, more rock-and-roll. What prompted the shift?

MARTIN: It was probably just the reality of having no keyboard player, which was actually what we wanted from the beginning of Jet, it was just that he kept following us around and we couldn’t get rid of him. We tried running off and hiding but he found us. His departure, to join those musical giants the Glitter Band, meant that swampy washes of Mellotron were right out, a great improvement. Then one day punk erupted, while we were at rehearsal, and I’m sure on some level this contributed to the casting off of extraneous baggage. Plus my writing improved, and my level of self-censorship along with it. But if you note that “Dirty Pictures” is a Jet song, then it’s probably just the fact that the band was developing as a unit and I was developing as a writer that pushed it up to the next level.

Unfortunately, Radio Stars fell victim to a lot of usual things (record company screw ups in particular). From there, your career took a path that saw you work in various capacities (songwriting, sideman, producer) for folks from the Rolling Stones to Blur to Kylie Minogue, with forays into world music. Reflecting on your past two decades, what have been some of highlights of your career, and are there any regrets?

For the record, the reason that Radio Stars met their demise was due less to record company inefficiency, although there was that element, than to the rampant lack of vision, deceitfulness and general crassness shown by the lead singer when he engineered my demise from my own band. Naturally the record company responded by instantly dropping them, much their surprise and resentment. Let it be sufficient for me to quote one title from the post-me period which exemplifies the position: ‘Living The Rock Dream’. I rest my case. Was this irony, even unconsciously? Alas, no – the singer wouldn’t know irony if it bit him in the bottom.

I can’t remember whether I have any regrets or not. Highlights – there are a few, too few to mention. No, that doesn’t make any sense. Many highlights, in fact – my first trip to India to record in Bombay with Asha Bhosle and Sultan Khan (and Boy George). My first (and only, OK) session with George Michael where we met in the kitchen to find that we were both dressed identically, from stubble and gold earring down to the same footwear, most embarrassing. Kylie crawling across the top of the grand piano towards me and then seizing me by the hand to lead me offstage at some enormous awards ceremony. Running from the stage of the Kentish Town Forum, where I was playing keyboards with Blur, with the thought that I could get to the pub next door for a quick pint and make it back for the next number (I did). Sitting pissed on to top of some studio in north London with Boy George and a megaphone, with him shouting out clothing critiques to the innocents passing below – “I wouldn’t wear that if I were you, dear, a MAUVE jumper?!?”, he would shriek. Playing bass with the Super Juffureh Band in the Gambia on a song which, unknown to me, was about the English white slavers… Performing Todd Rundgren’s “Tiny Demons” with my own, temporary, ‘world-pop’ band Mira at Montreux Jazz Festival 1996, with a great violin solo from Ravi Shakar’s music director Chandru. Playing the Lyceum with the expanded Radio Stars with Chris Gent on vocals and sax. Doing Sezen Aksu’s most recent CD in Istanbul in December 2001: it was supposed to take four weeks – five months later I came home. My girlfriend was most amused when Sezen called up two days later and told me that she’d sacked her bass player, the European tour was due to begin in two days time, please learn 25 songs. Playing bass with the Stones in Pathe-Marconi Studios in Paris at the singer’s request and being invited down to give opinions at the mix.

Regrets? That I didn’t make it over to the other side of the studio quickly enough when Chris Thomas told me that Jagger ‘wanted to talk to me’. By the time I got there – I was ‘distracted’ – it was all over. Or, rather, he was.

MIKE: Now, after 30 years, you have your first solo album. Are all of the songs on the record written for the record? Or are some of these from the archives? For that matter, have there been points in the past couple decades where you’ve not had any desire to pen pop songs?

MARTIN: Twenty-nine, dear, let’s not exaggerate. There was a long period, from perhaps the beginning of the nineties until fairly recently, when I felt there was no reason to write stuff. If you haven’t got a vehicle, and I didn’t, then it can become rather pointless. I had a burst of writing with S’Express, and then machinery and eleven-year old Wunderkinder took over, and I thought I’d better just shut the f**k up and get on with it, as I was being offered the chance to work with them, albeit as keyboard player and programmer. Although the muse didn’t completely disappear. When we were in Bombay, Boy George, Peter Culshaw and I wrote a rather nice Bob-Dylan-with-machines thing…. Down came the resident Blancmange Queen in charge of the project: ‘Writing with HIM?’, he spat, in reference to me ‘I’d rather write with the MILKMAN!!!’. This I felt was a little unkind, although it must be said that he had discovered my diary, which I had foolishly left lying on a table, and which was replete with unflattering pen-portraits of my fellow workers and, mainly, him. He couldn’t say that he’d read my diary, of course… It was eating him up rather.

But, as I say, I need a vehicle and, not being a singer, this is what I have been missing. When Pelle Almgren and I hooked up, it was fantastic to find someone who (a) knew what to do and (b) did it anyway without prompting from me. He made the songs better by singing them, which was what I always feel a singer should do. It hasn’t often happened to me – more often than not, the reverse was the case. So we worked together writing some tunes, not for my CD as that notion hadn’t occurred to me at the time, but in an attempt to come up with some interesting pop stuff. Which we did (one is on the Baboon, “That Girl”) and then listening to the work we’d done later on, it dawned on me that here was the voice I’d been looking for.

The third member of the writing team, Pelle Andersson (all males are called Pelle in Sweden, it’s a kind of tax dodge) said to me one night at dinner, after many drinks. ‘You know what he is, don’t you, with this voice of his…?’ ‘No’, I said, ‘what is he with this voice of his?’. Very slowly, and with great emphasis, Pelle said ‘He is the best damn………” and fell slowly but heavily to the floor, hitting his head on the table on the way down. So I didn’t find out, but I’m sure he is.

What was written for the record, for the record: I began with new songs, then trawled through my back catalogue to see if there was anything I’d missed, had a look around at other people’s material, and then returned to new songs. “It’s Like It’s Like…” is new and began life, not that I could do anything about it, as a kind of Kylie song. Well, I got rid of that pronto and it turned into a Stones love-fest. “Anyway Goodbye” was written very fast as a response to another tune of the same name which, it was claimed, was the title track of the new John’s Chickens CD. Enough of that, I thought, and composed this as an example of how it SHOULD have been. And I am extremely pleased with it. “Terrible Mess” is of course another new one, referring to the exploits of our pal the Carry-On Bombing would-be terrorist who hadn’t quite thought it through.

“Why Do I” is a re-write of an old song of mine, with a new bridge and middle and a different lyrical concept which reflects my new domestic surroundings. “Hit Him On The Head” comes from post-Radio Stars’ days, with a bit of contemporary Jeff Beck thrown in for good measure. “Only One Dream” is another new one, and probably my best song to date, from my POV. Again it sprang to life fully-formed, since the title and lyric was in place. Living in Germany, as I do, rigidity and structure are considered positive attributes: the song considers the notion of Nirvana run by Germans, not a pleasant idea.

“The Baboon in the Basement” is an excuse for silly vocals and extravagant guitar playing but also mixes meters quite effectively and, arrangement-wise, pleases me. “Let’s Make Money” is an old one which, in it’s new form, gives me the opportunity for a bass solo, my first-ever in fact. “We Love You” was recorded for a Swedish Rolling Stones tribute album – not many people know of the Swedish Rolling Stones but no matter, they deserved a tribute album – and was the first real recording that Pelle (and Pelle) and I made together. It then occurred to me that the concept of the piece was so close to how my Baboon was shaping up that, if the record company agreed, we could release it as an MG solo thing as well, and they agreed.

“Warlord of the Royal Crocodiles” is a fabulous old Marc Bolan song, from the days of Tyrannosaurus Rex, before he was led astray by money, fame, sex, drugs and all those other ghastly things. Plus it has Chris Townson on lead and harmony drums – Chris of course used to play with Bolan in John’s Chickens, as they then were not. “She’s So Pleasant Today” is an old chorus with a new verse and bridge, “Good Girls Gone Bad” comes from about the same time as “Ghostbusters”, as is clear, “Tonight” pays homage to Roy Wood and the Move, one of the trailblazers of Brit-pop; “Greenfinger” is an old one that comes from the late Radio Stars period, but which was never recorded and then, last but not least, “That Girl” is the first thing that Pelle (and Pelle) and I composed together. There are a number of versions – a pop version, a loud guitar version (this is it) and even, so I understand, a squeaky girly version called, naturally, “That Boy”, although I have yet to hear it.

MIKE: The Baboon In The Basement is being released on different labels/distributors throughout the world – Eggtoss in Japan, Voiceprint in the U.K. and through Navarre.com in the U.S. What was it like having to hawk your wares to record labels?

MARTIN: Not as exhausting as you might imagine, as the whole project was really made at the instigation of Eggtoss Records of Japan. They, in their inscrutable brilliance, thought that it might be a good idea to make a MG solo record, so I owe it all to Kiyohiro Shiroya and Shigenori Kato, actually. My relationship with the Radiant Future label, distributed by Voiceprint, is such that they’re happy to go along with whatever I suggest, really…. they were happy with the live ‘Music for the Herd of Herring’ , the two Jet re-releases, now this… And Navarre in the US are seemingly the distributors of Voiceprint, although this is not crystal clear to me at present. The situation is quite bearable. I’m currently looking for distribution in Tierre del Fuego and Patagonia, where there is apparently a Martin Gordon cargo cult devoted to worshipping reproductions of the seagull that appeared on the cover of the (Radio Stars’) Holiday Album. Good for them, I say. One day I will return, bearing gifts of white goods and model aeroplanes.

MIKE: There are more albums coming out now than ever, by far. The marketplace is now a select number artists on major labels and countless artists recording for independent labels. Is this a good thing?

MARTIN: Musicologists (Allan Lomax, specifically) call this the grey-out/glitter-out scenario. Either the whole thing breaks up into a myriad tiny specific-interest groups, all differentiated (indie), or all movements gradually bleed into each other, producing a homogenous grey lumpen mass (corporate). It’s rather like what happens to your clothes in the washing machine. Which model is actually happening ar present is hard to decide…..

As a consumer, I prefer the idea of the former, and that’s where I fit in as a musician. If you want to find the music of, for example, Jack Bruce, who is untouchable for the majors, and a complete hero of mine – well, there’s Sanctuary Records looking after him for you. It’s great from the consumer’s perspective, probably not so great from the artist’s position in promo terms but unquestionably better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But, back to being a consumer, you can find what you want if you are prepared to look for it and, so long as enough people do, then there’s our business model. The question is merely do you go for the complete double cycle or the eco-friendly reduced speed spin?

Part Two Next Month