Martin Gordon began his musical career as the bassist for Sparks, a quirky pop-rock band formed by brothers Ron & Russell Mael in the early 1970s. Gordon played on the album Kimono My House, which produced UK hits “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” and “Amateur Hour” and an eclectic fave in the U.S. His time with the Mael brothers was short-lived and eventually he moved on to other projects, including session work with bands like The Rolling Stones and producer for such musicians as George Michael, Boy George and Kylie Minogue.
Now, living in Berlin, we were thrilled Mr. Gordon took the time out of his busy schedule to enlighten us about his extensive career and adventures in the pop music world. His answers are openly honest and candid, documenting a rather tenuous relationship with Sparks and the powers to be. Conversely, Martin talks about his current Gilbert and Sullivan project and his desire to perform live.
The following are Mr. Gordon’s responses to questions we provided to him via email.
AXS: When you were growing up what music did you listen to?
Martin Gordon: Well, there was no TV set in the orphanage but, if I was well behaved, I was allowed to go to the rector's office and listen to his Gilbert and Sullivan albums. I became a Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado at an early age. Then I discovered pop music by walking past some kids who were singing a song which I thought they had composed, but which turned out to be the Beach Boys "I Get Around".
AXS: What were some of the records you listened to later?
MG: The first record I bought was a single called “Living in the Past” by Jethro Tull. It's probably one of only two pop hits played in 5:4, if you're interested in that sort of thing. Well, I was, and that was the beginning of my life-long fascination with the pop music form.
AXS: When did you start playing music? Did you start with the bass or another instrument?
MG: I played piano as a child, then learned Spanish guitar, but decided, after hearing Jack Bruce, Andy Fraser and Chris Squire, that bass was the way forwards for me. I studied with Jeff Clyne (Nucleus, Gordon Beck Quartet, Stan Tracey, Dudley Moore et al) up to the point where he told me that he couldn't teach me any more. I assumed he meant it as a compliment. Well, I took it as one, because I felt that I was actually rather good. Later on I studied harmony and counterpoint, and voice, but first I had to find a job.
AXS: Legend has it that you saw an ad in Melody Maker magazine for a bass player. Tell me about that.
MG: I answered three Melody Maker ads, one for Supertramp, one for Roxy Music and one for Sparks. I met Supertramp in their communal squat in London, which later provided the model for the British TV series the Young Ones. It was replete with, shall we say, vegetarian produce of various kinds. This was before Supertramp got pop sensibility - they were performing a kind of rather earnest country-rock, so I didn't really feel it was for me, and neither did they, in truth. I then, a few weeks later, traveled to Holland Park in west London, where I met Roxy Music in a dark basement. Playing my Fender Mustang, I felt that this was musically much more up my street, but still the planets were not in cosmic alignment. I called the Sparks ad, talked briefly on the phone with my future nemesis and band manager John Hewlett, and then traveled down to his house in Godstone Road, Croydon, where we all met in his kitchen. It was a rather nervous meeting, and nobody was particularly relaxed. After a few weeks, Russell Mael called, I took my bass down to Barnet, and we played together, with my future good pal Chris Townson on drums as there was no drummer or guitar player at that point.
AXS: What did you think when you first met them?
MG: As I said, we all sat in John Hewlett's kitchen together. Hewlett was very plausible, and I asked some questions and received suitable answers. It sounded fine to me. I had no clear idea what it was going to sound like musically, but I felt that I could certainly bring something to the situation, and the terms and conditions (as we would now describe such things) sounded acceptable. I would, in later years, learn to be much less naive.
AXS: Tell me about recording the album Kimono My House.
MG: The album was recorded in Ramport, the Who's studio in Battersea, and in Basing Street, Island's legendary studio in Ladbroke Grove. Ramport was fine. It wasn't terribly atmospheric, despite there being a lot of equipment lying around with 'The Who' stenciled on it, and so we just got on with it. Island was more exciting, it being both legendary and much bigger. It was an old church, and also had a basement studio. We used both, for various purposes. The band recorded live, playing together in one room, with a live vocal, later replaced. Sight-lines and space were important, and I still find that musicians being able to see each other and respond to visual cues is an important part of recording process.
AXS: What songs were your favorites?
MG: My favourites were, coincidentally, mostly on the first side of the album, not that it was ever played in that order. “This Town”, “Here in Heaven”, “Hasta Manana”, “Christmas” - these were all great to play. I couldn't really hack “Equator” - it was overlong and so s-l-o-w - and I would often in rehearsal turn to the Daily Telegraph newspaper at this point. “Barbecutie” was also enjoyable, and in later life, Jet/John's Children/Radio Stars used to perform it.
In rehearsal, it became clear that there were guidelines to be observed, and I felt they were rather arbitrary. So we musicians attempted to subvert proceedings in our own particular ways. Adrian, for example, would sail off into enormously long guitar outros wherever possible. The keyboards would soon fall silent, the enthusiastic vocal accompaniment would gradually become less enthusiastic, and finally cease. The rhythm section would pretend not to notice - or perhaps we really didn't notice - and we'd continue merrily rocking the casbah until we had wrung the last ounce of widdly-possibility out of it. That was enormously enjoyable, and probably hugely irritating. In a fit of petulance, Adrian would provocatively stick his cigarette on the end of a guitar string while playing. This was seen, by some, as proletarian and highly undesirable.
AXS: Was there any collaboration of ideas to speak of?
MG: I had quite a lot of musical ideas and was very keen for them to be tried out. Well, I still do and am, so nothing's new there. Terms and conditions were such that I had certain expectations and, when the reality fell short, I was naturally disappointed and frustrated. So those long outros definitely played a therapeutic role.
AXS: The Rickenbacker bass has a distinctive sound. Tell me about the instrument and why you used it in the recordings.
MG: It does, and I feel fine about that. It sounds like the low end of a good grand piano, to me. And as the left hand of a keyboard piece - let's say by Johann Sebastian Bach - is as important, if not more, than the right, that's also fine by me. Funnily enough, my Fender Mustang, which I was playing until I got a Rickenbacker, sounded pretty much the same, in my memory. There is a cliché which goes 'it's not the instrument, it's all in the hands' which, I must say, does have a certain amount of truth. If you listen to, for example, Jack Bruce or Jeff Beck, they always sound like themselves regardless of hardware. In fact, in my case, most of my sound comes from my picking action; someone pointed out that I don't pick up and down, I pick across the string. Perhaps I should have been a miner.
After signing the record contract with Island, Hewlett said to me "What about a new bass? What would you like?" Until this point, I had been using my Mustang. "Well, I'm quite happy with the sound of it, to be frank" I said, "I'm not sure I WANT a new bass...".”Come on", he said, "you can have whatever kind of bass you want! What would you like?"
So I suggested the most financially out-of-my-reach model I could think of, the Rickenbacker 4001. This is primarily due to Chris Squire's use of this model with Yes. Originally, I detested this sound, preferring the much more manly tones of Fraser and Bruce's Gibson EBOs, but somehow I had made a quantum change of sensibility. It dawned on me that the Rickenbacker could be the epitome of the intrusive bass playing style that I was perfecting.
AXS: After the album, did you tour with the band? What did eventually happen between you and the band?
MG: After the release of “This Town”, we rehearsed for an upcoming live tour. Then we did the British TV show Top of the Pops. Two days later, I was thrown out for unspecified reasons, with a phone call (at 04.00 am) from a minion informing me of this. The following day, Hewlett confirmed: "They don't want you in the group any more". Later, Hewlett coerced me into signing my artist royalties back to the record company, and this arrangement is still in force today. Nice work if you can get it, especially when you release the material as many times as possible in a whole variety of formats and flog it off for all sorts of dodgy fly-by-night compilation albums. There are about 290 releases which include Kimono My House material, according to recent figures.
AXS: Tell us what happened next for you musically.
MG: Well, first there was a band called Jet, who morphed into Radio Stars. We had a couple of hits and, extraordinarily, were much loved by the critics as well. The band was on a roll when dental problems once again reared their ugly head and, most bizarrely, I was replaced in my own band by someone who had previously replaced me in Sparks. To be replaced by Trevor White once is a coincidence, but twice implies carelessness.
AXS: You went on to do session work.
MG: I would say that the ensuing period included the bonkers, the boring and the bizarre including, in no particular order, the Rolling Stones, Boy George, Kylie Minogue, Sezen Aksu and, my faves, the wonderful Tiger Lillies. Then I moved away from pop, literally, with recordings in Pakistan, Bali, India, Egypt, Ghana, the Gambia, Morocco and more. Finally, in Istanbul, I rediscovered pop music, and shortly after that I began the series of solo albums that the world adores today.
AXS: You’re about to release your seventh album. Tell us about this.
MG: Well, it's my seventh under my own name. In 2003, after returning from a year in Turkey, I began a solo sequence with 'The Baboon in the Basement'; the series, known as the Mammal Trilogy, was recently concluded with the sixth and final part Include Me Out. I began my recording career by performing on other people's material and contributing arrangements and ideas and now, as a kind of bookend, I am now working on exactly this kind of album. It's a collection of light opera material composed by Gilbert & Sullivan, arranged for a guitar/bass/drums trio, augmented from time to time with piano, brass and flute. High culture for the lowbrow. I think I have found a market segment which is under-serviced. Plus of course, it gives me the opportunity to concentrate on and feature the Rickenbacker 4003.
There will be a special bass-centric version of this album, by the way, available only through Pledge, which is how I’m going to meet the bills. This will be done á la Beatles, with the music and voices on one side of the stereo and the bass alone on the other, so for all those who stand in awe of the Rickenbacker possibilities, this will be an opportunity to make a close examination. Plus I imagine it will appeal to those who like my playing; I am gratified to find that there are a few such types around the place these days.
AXS: Tell us about the upcoming album. The music, lyrics. Songs you think are standouts.
MG: You will probably be familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan, a kind of rap duo from the Victorian era with extraordinary facial hair who need no introduction from me. I sat down with their fourteen operas and, over the course of two weeks, selected a number of pieces which I felt lent themselves to rearrangement. The pieces were created for live theatre, of course, so sometimes they were constricted by the demands of the stage. I have adapted the material for the requirements of the present; sometimes this has meant composing additional material to slot into the original. I currently have thirteen selections that will be on the new album, some popular, some obscure, but all great.
AXS: Tell us about your band.
MG: I've used more or less the same line-up for the whole series, namely Pelle on vocals, two locals (Enrico Antico and Rolf Leeman) on guitars, and rotating drummers, although not literally. My good pal Chris Townson, of John's Children and Jook renown, thoughtlessly died after the third album in the Mammal series, so then we had Steve Budney from Boston, who was passing through town after some gigs with Radio Stars. Currently we have Rockin' Romain Vicente holding down the drum chair.
AXS: What does the future hold for you musically Martin? What are your plans? More albums?
MG: Once I get the Gilbert and Sullivan album done, I'd like to perform it. I had a notion to do some workshops around it, as G&S is fairly approachable, and I'm discussing the notion with some foundations and schools.
AXS: Any parting words?
MG: The final point which I’d like to make is the following; the 'Kimono' album was made by five people, two of whom are now dead. In the 'official' Sparks story, these inconvenient others don't appear. From this rather sinister, Stalinist perspective, the album was made by a duo with nameless assistants. And yet 'Kimono' is the biggest selling album of the group's history, continues to sell and is responsible for their initial breakthrough and continued career.It seems to me that this lack of presence in the story is rather disrespectful to those involved, especially the dead ones who cannot join the discussion as I am doing. On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the album's release, the position may well be revised. However, it is also possible that a pig will shortly fly past my window as I sit in on my balcony in Berlin writing this. Somehow, I doubt that either event will come to pass.