2014 Interview by Jess Grant
“Wanted bass player for Sparks. Must be beard free and exciting.” – This is the ad placed in Melody Maker to which Martin Gordon successfully responded in 1973. Beard free, indeed, and exciting? Well, that’s one word you could use to describe him. Certainly, Martin seems to thrive on the very thing – the excitement of not quite knowing what’s coming next in life. Having been fired from Sparks just over a year after replying to the ad (the sibling duo were one Top 10 hit better off for employing him), Gordon proceeded to embark on his true artistic journey – one that would end up taking the British musician the world over.
It all started rather humbly with Jet, a glam rock “supergroup” who split up after just the one album (produced by Queen associate, Roy Thomas Baker, no less). Next came Radio Stars, a “tactical regrouping” of Jet who swapped glam for the more du jour punk, or as Martin puts it, “we changed our trousers.” One Top 40 hit (“Nervous Wreck”) and a coveted spot on Marc Bolan’s variety show later, Radio Stars parted ways and Gordon left for Paris to work as a producer for Barclay Records. It was here that, over the course of a few dreamlike days in 1979, Martin sessioned with The Rolling Stones during the recording of Emotional Rescue. Press speculated at the time that Gordon was set to replace Bill Wyman as the official Stones bassist, but it turned out to be nothing more than conjecture, with Martin ultimately returning to London to pursue a degree in anthropology.
Music kept an inevitable grip on Gordon throughout his studies, and in 1995, he co-founded the world music collective, Mira, with Peter Culshaw. An extravagant live show incorporating everything from ballerinas to trapeze artists complimented the duo, and the whole thing was unceremoniously packed up and shipped to Montreux Jazz Festival in 1997. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be enough to keep Mira together, with Martin relocating to Berlin not long after the performance. Here, he spent the next few years balancing a writing career and several music pursuits, most notably accompanying John’s Children on a reunion tour 26 years after the death of their former frontman, the aforementioned Marc Bolan.
It wasn’t until 2003, however, that Gordon finally unveiled his first solo material. The Baboon in the Basement marked the start of what turned to be a six-part album series titled The Mammal Trilogy, which recently concluded in 2013 with the release of Include Me Out. Ever modest, Martin refers to the Trilogy as a “senseless activity,” when in truth the series granted him a consistent musical outlet – something that had eluded him throughout his entire career. In this interview, Gordon reveals why he has decided to go solo after all of this time, and shares some fascinating stories from across his incredible 40 years in the industry.
And he’s still beard free and exciting after all of these years.
Jess Grant (Songfacts): Hi Martin – thanks for talking to Songfacts today! I’d like to begin by asking you about your upbringing. How did you get into music growing up, and what is it that attracted you to the bass guitar in particular?
Martin Gordon: Well, I grew up in a home environment that was pretty much devoid of popular media – we had no TV, for example, and radio was limited to the BBC Home Service. There was a record player, however, and it played Stravinsky, Gilbert & Sullivan and the Goons, so I guess that made up for it, in a way. But it wasn’t till I heard a gang of kids singing a song (in fact, they were sitting on a raft in Frinton-on-Sea, a place where the values of the Thirties were until recently preserved in aspic) that I realized there was such a thing as pop music. At first I assumed the singers had made it up themselves, that they must have been in a kind of gang or something; later I discovered it was a Beach Boys tune.
At school, I played ‘Spanish’ guitar – it was mere strumming – and took piano lessons. The problem was that I wanted to play music, and notation, which was presented as the way forwards, seemed to be just the opposite, a hurdle. I also turned to the drums, and in due course to the bass. I developed a passion for (bassist) Jack Bruce, and later studied harmony and counterpoint.
I did a few jazz summer schools, where I was taught by Jeff Clyne, who told me that he didn’t think he could teach me anything more, which I took as a compliment. In recent years (i.e. upon hearing for the first time the Gordon Beck album Experiments With Pops, on which Jeff played, along with John McLaughlin), I feel humbled by his comment. Unless he was being ironic, in which case he was an utter bastard.
My eventual love of bass was compounded by hearing the likes of Andy Fraser of Free, Chris Squire of Yes, John Entwistle of the Who – I guess my influences could be described as old school.
Songfacts: In 1973, you joined Sparks. How did you get involved with Ron and Russell Mael? Is it true you responded to an ad they placed in Melody Maker that read – “Wanted bass player for Sparks. Must be beard free and exciting”?
Martin: That’s correct. In those days, bands were quite unashamed about identifying themselves in ads, and theirs said “Sparks want bass player,” plus the stuff about beards, as you note. Well, I didn’t have one, so that was OK. And I’d recently seen them on the (rather beardy) Bob Harris show on BBC 2, and he was rather irritated by them, so I thought that was a pretty good recommendation for them, given his predilection for the dull.
Sparks invited me to visit Croydon, an offer which was hard to refuse, and we discussed salient issues, but no bass playing was involved at this stage. Their manager talked about the democratic nature of their proposed band, and proffered vodka and oranges. Later, in fact some months later, the singer called back, and there was an audition at which I was actually called upon to play bass. This seemed to clinch the issue. At least, Ron Mael (the piano player) gave me a tenner, which I interpreted as indicating that I was now included in.
Songfacts: You played with Sparks on their third album, Kimono My House, which features “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.” What do you remember about the writing and recording of this song?
Martin: After some months of rehearsing in a condemned slum in the (aptly-named) World’s End in London’s Chelsea, we moved to a dance studio in Clapham. Here, thanks to the full-length mirrors lining the walls, one could simultaneously pirouette and practice perfect pliés whilst performing the tunes, which suited certain members down to the ground. One day, Ron Mael brought “This Town” in, and we set about creating a fitting arrangement. He played the changes chordally, and I picked out a monophonic line, which (guitar player) Adrian Fisher doubled. It seemed to work, and so we hung the song around it. I threw in a few fleeting references to “Close to the Edge,” which no one seemed to identify, so I think I got away with that. Ron expressed pleased surprise at the outcome, in that he “had not thought of that change as being a riff,” but nonetheless that was how it came out. Confirmation came from the record company, when they attended rehearsals – we seemed to be on to something.
Certain tunes were excluded from this creative process, by virtue of having been recorded before by an earlier edition of the group, notably the rather prosaic “In My Family.” No amount of effort would succeed in shifting the rather literal arrangement. Oh, well – at some point, you give up and move on, don’t you? I do, at any rate. Was it not the noted singing philosopher Darryl Hall who observed “the strong give up and move on, the weak give up and stay”? It was indeed. Although quite what that has to do with it I am not entirely sure. There’s a bit of an overview of the recording process here.
Songfacts: Is it true you were dismissed from Sparks after they caught you reading a newspaper during rehearsals? I’m going to assume there was a lot of tension between band members during this period…
Martin: During rehearsals, I suggested that we look at one of my tunes, as we had once discussed in Croydon. There was a deafening silence. This of course added to existing tensions. Possibly it was made worse by my reading of a newspaper while playing.
I should point out that the reading and the playing were at all times simultaneous. This was actually my point – that I could perfectly well achieve the undemanding requirements of the new arrangement while reading the newspaper. I carefully spread the Daily Telegraph (a broadsheet, which made it tricky) on top of my amp, and turned the pages over only during legato notes. It worked very well, except that I was sacked.
There was also, later, an issue about the sound of my (Rickenbacker 4001) bass. It was described as being “really wimpy.” I think a quick listen to the Kimono My House album would probably dispel this notion, so probably other issues were at play. I rather liked it, personally. Today, others seem to agree. Anyway, it was my sound, so that was rather that.
When I was asked, during live rehearsals for an upcoming UK tour, to replace the 4001 with a Fender Precision, I failed to see the logic, and refused to comply. I had already compromised my sound once, on the recording of the tune “Amateur Hour,” where I, reluctantly, replaced the previously-recorded 4001 bass line with an anonymous Fender. Which, to make matters worse, wasn’t even run through an amp but was DI’d. Plonk, plonk, it went.
On this gear-fetishism note, I’ve recently returned to Rickenbackers. These days the 4001 has become the 4003, and mine is a 4003MG; with a spot of careful work in the studio, it sounds identical to the earlier model, and I am planning some future musical action with the 4003.
Anyway, the upshot of it was that I was turfed out some days after an appearance on Top of the Pops.
Songfacts: After Sparks came Jet, a supergroup featuring members of John’s Children, The Nice, Roxy Music and so on. The band’s eponymous debut album was produced by Queen associate, Roy Thomas Baker. How was it working alongside Roy?
Martin: Roy was great. Very funny, apparently not serious but of course deadly serious about the work in hand. A master strategist, he would always come up with some tactic to defuse the many and varied problems which appeared in the studio. Whether it was provision of Scandinavian porn or the invention of a magical new device which would turn your guitar playing into the drunken thrashing of a non-musical drummer, he could be relied on to give full value for money.
Plus, of course, he was a great producer, coming up with endless proposals for harmonies and technical tweaks. The only tedious part of recording was doing the backing tracks, when it became obvious that not all members of the band could not play in time. All the backing tracks began life with bass and drums, which was a shame, but it was the only way forwards. And even (drummer) Chris Townson, normally pretty solid tempo-wise, entered into the spirit of the thing and began speeding up. “That’s it, faster, faster!” shouted engineer Gary Lyons down the headphones in encouragement. Chris threw down his sticks and leapt into the control room to confront his tormentor, who had very wisely disappeared just in the nick of time.
Songfacts: Despite the extraordinary lineup, Jet split after one record. What caused this breakup? In recent years, there has been an incredible resurgence of interest in Jet. Why do you think this is?
Martin: Well, the lineup certainly was extraordinary in terms of its ability to remain upright on stage, its ability to not spill baked beans upon its expensive, bespoke white suit, its ability to play in time and in tune in the studio, or anywhere else.
I have absolutely no idea about the resurgence of interest, and am as baffled as you clearly are. Perhaps they think we are Australian? The Jet album was recently re-released by Cherry Red, I might point out.
In fact the breakup was merely a tactical regrouping; we changed our trousers and became, as you note in your next question, Radio Stars. This change came as the result of performing, to the record company, all the tunes from a projected second album as one continuous piece of music. They were appalled. I thought they would get the joke, but they dropped us, as did the management on the following day.
Songfacts: In 1977, Jet transformed into Radio Stars, who were far more successful in terms of sales. The band had one Top 40 hit in the UK – “Nervous Wreck.” Are there any other deep cuts by Radio Stars, or Jet for that matter, that you’re particularly proud of?
Martin: My favorite Jet tune is probably “Whangdepootenawah,” written by drummer Chris Townson and singer Andy Ellison and myself, but also written by Ambrose Bierce, I (very much later) discovered. Chris and Andy presented me with a set of very witty words, which I set to music. Imagine my surprise, years later, when I found the selfsame words in The Devil’s Dictionary. Mssrs Ellison and Townson had inexplicably forgotten to tell me that they had stolen them. That explained it all.
I have also a soft spot for “Sitting in the Rain,” from the second Radio Stars album. It featured the incomparable Paul Jones on harmonica, some very cool Wurlitzer piano and a jamming outro. We performed it once or twice live but it’s a fairly minor-keyed piece, and it didn’t really work. As we were always keenly pursuing added value, it was unceremoniously dropped from the set. There’s also “Two Minutes Mr Smith,” from the Something for the Weekend posthumous Radio Stars collection, which features some fine cello from ELO’s Hugh McDowell, and is an ode to Arthur Sultan, the Surrey mystic.
Songfacts: Throughout your career, you’ve maintained a close relationship with John’s Children, who were famously fronted by Marc Bolan. In 1977, Radio Stars even appeared on Bolan’s television series, Marc. Did you ever get to meet Bolan properly, and if so, how was he as a person?
Martin: We only met up with Marc for the TV show, as a result of him spotting (Radio Stars singer) Andy Ellison in the street one day, and inviting him onto the show. They were both previously in John’s Children together. At the Marc show, he and I chatted; I thought it best not to note that I was an enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex fan but had gone off them when they shortened their name and glammed out. Following the show, Radio Stars had some pix taken with Marc on set and that was that. I think he and Andy made some arrangement to keep in touch, as you do in showbusiness, but Marc was unfortunately killed two weeks later.
Songfacts: In 1979, you moved to Paris to work as a producer for Barclay Records. Here, you played bass with The Rolling Stones during the recording of Emotional Rescue. How did that opportunity come about? There was a lot of speculation at the time that you were going to take over from Bill Wyman…
Martin: Yes, that was quite odd. The guitarist in one of the Barclay bands which I was producing had a pal in the Stones’ road crew. Pursuing a hidden agenda, we paid him a visit at Pathè-Marconi studios. It was rather like a medieval court, or so I imagined, with ante-rooms through which one progressed until the holy of holies was penetrated, the star chamber wherein the Rolling Stones were recording. We were greeted most amiably.
After a while, internecine grumbling broke out. Their bassist was apparently off chasing under-age crumpet and had pulled. He was not going to come along to the session. In return for their earlier hospitality, what other course of action was open to me other than to volunteer my services?
Jagger, at that time fully bearded, took me to one end of the control room and erratically strummed an acoustic guitar in my ear, until I had fully mastered both chords, and then we trooped into the studio to record. Ron Wood later told me that he used to be a bass player and that he was therefore qualified to point out that my playing “was great!” More hospitality broke out as we jammed the night away. Inexplicably, I was asked back for the following days.
It came to an end, as all things do. Some UK press printed some stuff about “New Rolling Stone?”, along with a quote from me about how I would “cut my right arm off to play with the Stones!” However, in the event, they quite understandably didn’t want a one-armed bassist, and so we never crossed paths again. I wrote some recollections here.
Songfacts: Over the years, you’ve sessioned with many artists – George Michael, Boy George, Blur, Primal Scream, Kylie Minogue, S’Express, the Tiger Lillies and so on. Is there a session that stands out as a particular favorite, or an artist who you hold particularly fond memories of?
Martin: Anything the Tiger Lillies do is OK by me. I was already a big fan, and something of a friend, when I suggested one night in Berlin that they let me produced their next album. “What’s your concept?”, they queried. As, by that time, I was beginning to decode the musical language of non-western art forms, I had prepared just such a concept involving Turkish musicians, of whom there are plenty in Berlin, and a talented bunch they are. So we recorded three tunes, and then I finished them off with added Turks. The TLs liked it and gave me the go-ahead (and budget) to produce a whole album, which was Bad Blood and Blasphemy. The cover featured an inflatable sex doll being buggered from behind. When I presented a finished copy of the CD to the baglama player, he threw it across the table, shouting “this sort of thing is very far away from me!!!” As indeed it was, it was in the corner of the room on the floor.
A Boy George story – we were recording in Bombay, during the monsoon. I had just bought a pair of fabulous black velvet slippers (with gold brocade decorations already!) and it was, not surprisingly, wet outside. Before the whole circus went out for dinner, I wrapped a plastic bag around each foot, to preserve my investment. “Fashion victim!” he opined. Pots and kettles, I thought.
Songfacts: In 1995, you co-founded the world music ensemble, Mira, with Peter Culshaw. You released one album, New Hope for the Dead, and developed an extravagant live show, which you took to Montreux Jazz Festival in 1997. What sparked your interest in world music in the first place, and why did Mira go their separate ways after only two years together?
Martin: A good question, not that the others weren’t. While working in Bombay, I struggled to define a (to me, at that point) indefinable concept, which turned out to be called ‘ethnocentricity’. Well, I didn’t know that, did I? And it came from the discipline of anthropology. Well, I also didn’t know that, did I? Upon consideration, I discovered to my surprise that there were many things that I didn’t know. So, back in London, I went to university and studied anthropology.
The person who helpfully defined ethnocentricity for me in Bombay was Peter Culshaw, and we crossed paths once back in London. One thing led to another. Suddenly we had a musical review on our hands, with fourteen ballerinas, four computers running synchronized visuals, a trapeze artiste and a soundtrack. The adverts for our dancer auditions read “bring your own nose-bones.” This was New Hope for the Dead.
Following our live debut at the Place Theatre in London, we managed to sell the soundtrack to a major record company, which I still find rather baffling. They got us on at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Quite why the Montreux folk thought we were suitable I have no idea, as we played stuff by Peter and myself, a Todd Rundgren song and some Hindi disco. Whatever it was, it was not jazz, but people seemed to enjoy it. And then I moved to Germany, but I don’t think there was a connection.
Songfacts: Throughout your career, you’ve been constantly exposed to the often fickle nature of the music industry. What prevents you from becoming discouraged or disillusioned? What keeps you motivated?
Martin: I am not at all discouraged or disillusioned, nor deterred, demented or delirious, I just hate the bastards. No, seriously, it’s only individuals who attract my wrath, not conglomerates. You can’t get conglomerates on the phone.
What keeps me motivated is the boundless stupidity of humanity. At this point in my career, the only avenue of self-expression which is open to me is musical, so the function of music-making is purely therapeutic. In terms of motivation – as long as humans keep being stupid, I’ll keep responding, unless we make a deal. I don’t think we will. I sort of hope we don’t.
Songfacts: In 2003, you released your first ever solo album, The Baboon in the Basement, on your very own record label, Radiant Future Records. Why did it take so long for you to go it alone, and was it a nerve-racking experience?
Martin: It was, actually, and I wasn’t convinced that I could still write songs, after a such a long time. I had more or less stopped writing as I had no outlet for tunes, but the advent of, first of all, digital technology and then of Le Internet rather changed that, as it did for the rest of the musical community, for better or worse. For worse, in fact, as there are no gatekeepers any more. However, I digress.
Prior to my founding my own label, a Japanese company had asked me for some tunes. I sent some, with me singing. They were not impressed, and reacted enthusiastically to my hint that I was considering getting a real singer involved, even though I didn’t have one, what with them mostly being utter bastards, prima donnas or weeds. But then I found one, and Pelle Almgren (for it was he) and I began working together in 2003 and have never looked back, although we will not say why. A fantastic singer, Pelle was until recently domiciled inside a Swedish forest, coming out only to tease caribou and obtain raw meat for his savage pet dog. He has now followed his wanderin’ star to that sun-drenched Mediterranean island of bodegas, chorizo, siestas and sombreros – yes, he lives on Majorca. We are currently in discussion regarding the next project. “Manãna,” he says, “manãna…” having clearly acculturated early.
Songfacts: You must’ve had a lot of pent-up creativity inside of you as The Baboon in the Basement was only the start of what turned out to be a six-part album series called The Mammal Trilogy, which concluded in 2013 with Include Me Out. Did you always intend for there to be six albums, or did it progress naturally into that? Did you achieve everything that you hoped to achieve from the series?
Martin: “Pent-up creativity”? Pent-up rage, more like; see my earlier answer. In reality The Mammal Trilogy consists of three tranches, if I may be so bold, of two parts each. Thus the recent final delivery of the sixth part (Include Me Out) was actually the second part of the third part, if you follow me. I believe the essentially tripartite nature of the Trilogy is thus established.
Did I achieve everything I hoped to achieve from this senseless activity? You mean do I now own a tumbledown pile in the country, with a Red Setter to come home to and a pub at the bottom of the road? No, I have got Germans. That, believe me, is a serious underachievement no matter which way you look at it.
Songfacts: Is there an album from The Mammal Trilogy that you’re particularly proud of?
Martin: Hmm, tricky. Sound-wise, and mix-wise, the last two albums are the best. But there are songs scattered liberally throughout the whole thing of which I am very proud. Some of the odder songs (I would also use the adjective ‘overlooked’ here were it not the case that my entire solo output is overlooked) are probably my favorites.
My scathing and utterly pointless attack upon C.P. Snow for example, “Round and Round We Go” remains a favorite in this household, which consists primarily of me. A tune about email scams, with the rather ungainly title of “(Oh No, What Shall We Do) Daddy Lost His Head in a Coup?” is another. I do like using punctuation in song titles, although it makes registering them with collection agencies a right bugger, especially if you are a bit pissed.
Songfacts: I’m going off on a slight tangent here, but have you ever considered pursuing writing? You certainly have a way with words based on both your lyrics, which you recently collected together in Words In Your Shell-Like, and your website, which is an entertaining and often hilarious read!
Martin: You are too kind. In fact, during the ’90s, I wrote regularly for UK publications such as the Independent, the Times, Mojo, Folk Roots and similar. Words In Your Shell-Like collects the lyrics from my entire output together with vignettes about the origins of each of the 170-odd songs which I’ve recorded to date, and I’m pleased with how that came out. I did commit my story so far into a large document when I first moved to Berlin – various bits of it have appeared from time to time on my website. However, I find I can only really write about stuff in retrospect, so obviously that raises a timing issue. Who knows what will happen to this outpouring…
Songfacts: Thanks for talking to Songfacts today, Martin! I’d like to conclude by asking you about your plans for the near future. Now that you’ve completed The Mammal Trilogy, what’s next on the agenda?
Martin: Having concluded the Trilogy, I will now embark upon an Nonet of performances of obscure Scandinavian art songs by an author with whose work I am of course familiar even though I will have to brush up a bit on the specific details, such as his name and what he, like, does. I will jot down the salient points on the back of a beermat after having consulted reputable reference works (Wikipedia) and I am convinced that this will lead to my critical renaissance.
On a slightly less serious note, I might well record some of my favorite operatic tunes as if they were composed for a guitar/bass/drums trio. I feel that bringing culture to the masses is a notion whose time has metaphorically, and also literally, come, as observers of reality TV will readily agree.
Blimey, what an epic interview. It’s all your fault for asking those stimulating questions!