Earlier this month I was lucky enough to meet up with Martin in London for an exclusive chat. An enormously engaging interviewee, he was happy to talk about every aspect of his career, and I found him incredibly honest and candid. It turned into quite a lengthy chat, so below is the first part of this two part interview.
First things first, what instruments do you play, and when did you start learning them?
I play bass, all manner of keyboards, and guitar fairly crudely. I started learning at around 10 or 11 years old with piano and classical guitar lessons at school. And from classical guitar I ended up playing bass, it was a direct link. I think it was piano first, that’s what I really wanted to play, but it needed to be taught differently. In those days they didn't use the Suzuki method, you didn’t learn how to play a tune, and it was very frustrating, so I moved on to classical guitar, something I could directly play.
Who were your musical influences as a child, who made you want to be a musician?
I remember being completely obsessed with all things Jack Bruce. These days I can analyse it in a way that I couldn't back then - I see him as a very accomplished singer, a very accomplished arranger and a very accomplished composer -- and incidentally a bass player too. You can't really make a career out of just being a bass player, you have to be a bass player in the context of something else… what a great role model.. The only thing he doesn't do of course is write bearable words, but you can't win ‘em all.
Do you still go back to his albums now?
Yes, it’s timeless stuff. Jack Bruce is a good example of somebody who continues to make great music. If I get bored, I rediscover things that used to excite me. Another good example is the Mahavishnu Orchestra. They were one of the first live concerts I ever saw, back in 1972, and their first album [The Inner Mounting Flame] was one of the first albums I ever bought. Recently I've found a whole load of bootleg recordings of them that you can download. On that first album the songs were about five minutes long, these are expanded to 25 minutes live! It’s just so exciting. Over 30 years on, nothing has replaced it.
Your first band is always listed as Sparks, but were there any bands before that?
No, there was a school band, then there was one band which never played any gigs, so Sparks were my first proper band.
Sparks had just relocated to England at that time, and you answered an ad in Melody Maker looking for a "beard free bass player". Had you heard of Sparks at that point?
I'd seen them on the Old Grey Whistle Test about two weeks beforehand… and I didn't like them very much. But then I also didn't like the ethic of the Old Grey Whistle Test either, and Bob Harris was rather irritated by this group, so I thought okay, maybe they're not quite as terrible as I think they are. But actually I didn't really care too much, because I was just keen to do something.
Do you remember your audition for Sparks?
Yes, it wasn't a musical audition, it was a spoken one. The brothers were there and it was a personable, social audition at John Hewlett's house in Croydon. It was quite sensible really, to see if we could bear each other as people.
So they didn't ask you to play?
No, we just chatted and I didn't hear for some months and eventually I had a phone call saying "let's do it again" And I said "shall I bring the bass this time?" And they said "erm, oh yes, good idea". So I brought the bass along and we rehearsed at Barnet rugby club. I played Girls from Germany and some other songs that had the word girls in the title. I remember thinking "they have to broaden their subject material".
The fortunes of Sparks changed rapidly after you joined….
I'm glad you noticed that..
…a massively successful album [Kimono My House] and the hit singles that came from it [This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us & Amateur Hour]. It was a radically different sound for this third album compared to previous two, how much of an input did you have in this change of style?
Well, the main difference was they now had a bunch of people who could play, and who had been playing for some time. Various people say that I made a big contribution to things like arrangements, but to be honest, a lot of it was about tension, musical tension. There was Adrian, who hated all this glam, fey, limp wristed stuff, and wanted to make it tougher, and then you had this 'twinky' tendency going on in the other corner of the room. And it was actually all these tensions that produced something quite good. I came from the prog world, so I was another piece of the jigsaw, but I had communication skills, where as they would just do something and there it was and it wasn’t integrated necessarily, they wouldn't try and bend anything else around it.
It was quite an arty thing wasn’t it, where as a lot of the glam rock thing was very one-dimensional. Roxy were very arty to…
Yes, it had 'art concepts' behind it. To me when I think of glam, I think of the Sweet and Gary Glitter, I don't think of Sparks. Glam rock was more about double tracked tom-toms and not much else going on.
Ultimately though a short lived affair, and you were drummed out of Sparks before the fourth album. I hear various rumours as to why, but what's the real one? Did you grow a beard?!
No, no. The final straw really was being asked to play Ian Hampton’s bass [a Fender Precision], as they decided they didn't like the sound of mine [a Rickenbacker 4001]. But obviously that was indicative of greater issues.
They also weren’t keen on looking at some of the songs you were writing at that time is that right?
Yeah, I think "weren’t keen" is a very appropriate way of describing it. John Hewlett said recently that he felt he rather fucked up as a manager at the time, because a manager should have the confidence to smack his protégé around the ears and say “stop being so stupid, you’ve got someone who is contributing here”. To quote him he says they "felt threatened", whatever that means. Not physically, although they were threatened physically by my friend Chris Townson who once punched Russell in the face over dinner. Russell was being snooty, as he often was, about Chris's band Jook. These were the days before Chris had acquired anger management skills, so he said "don't you take the piss out my band" and BAM hits Russell in the face. whereupon Russell burst into tears and ran off. ….It always makes me smile..
I always get the impression that there is bad feeling between you and the Mael brothers even now, is that the case?
Well, I made an attempt to try and clear the air about this ongoing thing about Kimono royalties. I was invited to the after show party at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in 1994, we spoke but it was like…. in Berlin they have this expression they go… [Martin pulls a blank face and waves his hand in front of it].. meaning if somebody has a wall in front of their face, you can't get words through it. So it all remains unresolved.
And what about the Sparks fans, how do you think they feel about you? are they appreciative of what you did or do you think there is a clash of loyalties there too?
I have the impression that my 'fans', for want of a better word, are not from the Sparks community. I remember there was a rather nasty personal attack on me on one Sparks message board... I think I made it worse by joining in under another name, agreeing that I was a total and utter bastard and should be shot. but still the sentiment was unpleasant. Perhaps the fact that I am not a great ‘Mole’ lover is to blame. Or the fact that I find the aforementioned story of Chris Townson hitting Russell very funny. Quite why the fans insist on using the term 'the boys' about a couple of sixty year-old men leads me to think that some of them are not really all there.
So you weren’t asked to re-joining Sparks for the upcoming Kimono My House show then?!
What being the only living member of the band you mean? It's got novelty value at least. No, no.
But if they’d asked you, would you have done it?
John Hewlett asked me this last week, I said I would just play Barbecutie, in fact, just the Barbecutie intro, then hand the bass over. So on that symbolic level… maybe.
What do you think of Sparks idea to perform all 21 of their albums over 21 nights?
It’s very good, it's inventive. It has been done before of course, Cheap Trick did it, but it's not a bad idea. I don't know how it's going to work out financially though.
I always think of Sparks 4th album, Propaganda, as Kimono My House II. Although you had gone by that time, did you have any input into the songs that eventually turned up on the outcome?
No, I think a couple of songs we recorded may have turned up on it, but I'm not sure.
Let’s move on to your next band Jet, who at the time were considered a bit of a supergroup [Martin and Peter Oxendale both ex-Sparks, Andy Ellison and Chris Townson were both ex-John’s Children - Townson of course had also been in Jook, and Davy O'List had played in the Attack, the Nice, and Roxy Music]. Personally I think they were a really underrated band, that album is a classic! I recently interviewed James from Silvery (read the full interview here) and he described it as "a slightly more ridiculous Kimono My House, a real junk shop glam classic". I think that sums it up well, and to people who are aware of it, it is almost universally described as one of the ultimate glam albums.
Well it’s that thing we were talking about earlier with Sparks, it wasn't glam as in double tracked tom-toms, it was more art glam, and in that sense, yeah it was a glam band, but then when you have people dressed up as Little Lord Fauntleroy and dinosaurs, wearing white flowing capes, it’s hard to be anything other than glam, I suppose.
The album got re-released on CD a few years back, but it disappeared almost immediately. What's happening with that?
Well BMG, who now own it, are not interested in putting it out, for some reason. I get lots of e-mails from people saying "when's it gonna come out?". If BMG knew people were asking for it, perhaps they'd have a change of heart.
Or at least just put it up on i-Tunes, where there are no real overheads
Sure, there's no costs involved whatsoever if you use that medium. It's even remastered, so it's a bit short-sighted really.
What's your favourite memory of Jet?
Chris Townson said his favourite memory of Jet was the free sandwiches in the studio. In fact, he said it was his most joyous memory, and all the other memories of Jet were appalling. My favourite memory…. well, we once played a gig to one person in Dunoon. That was quite funny, but I wouldn’t like to do it again.
You didn't think to cancel it??!
Well, it was too late. We were on a stage which had curtains, they opened them and by that time you're committed. The guy became comatose halfway through the gig though, so he couldn't actually leave -- he slid down the bar and lay on the floor… probably just as well.
Did you mix with any other glam acts at that time?
I used to bump into the Sweet at Top of the Pops…. bunch of bricklayers. And of course the Glitter people because Mike Leander was the manager of Jet as well. But no glam soirées discussing the ins and outs of the glam concept.
Ian MacLeod replaced Davy O'List on guitar, and then Jet pretty much morphed into the Radio Stars, just as the music scene was morphing from glam to punk. You didn't particularly consider yourselves as punks, but you seemed to be accepted by the scene?
Yeah, being on a punk label (Chiswick) helped too - in fact Chiswick were just old rockers rather than punks really. But anyway we adopted suitable clothing and it was a fun thing, it wasn’t some sort of alien notion that had nothing to do with us. We got very good at that time though, we were playing 250 gigs a year, so it was very slick.
Was it a help or hindrance being associated with the punk scene?
Oh, it was a help because you can be identified by outsiders. We did get spat on a lot though.
There's a story that the Radio Stars were once wrongly introduced on Top of the Pops by Dave Lee Travis…
That's right as Paul McCartney and Wings. And we collectively went into a dreadful acapella version of Mull of Kintyre. It was never broadcast of course, but we added it to our set list after that. We did it as the encore at the Lyceum, our first major headlining gig. We’d always choose two different keys, Andy would sing one part and we would play the other… it was all rather confusing. And that was our encore.
What can you tell me about the new Radio Stars live CD, Something For The Weekend?
It's a compilation, I don't think we ever played all those songs in one go. That's why the quality is pretty good, it’s selected from lots and lots of material.
The best of what's available….
Yeah, well, the least worst...
The second and final part of this interview will be published in a few days time, where amongst other things we talk about the Rolling Stones, Marc Bolan, Blue Meanie, Martins solo work and Kylie’s bustier! Don’t miss it!
Visit The Radio Stars official website here
The Official Martin Gordon website
Buy Martin Gordon CDs at Amazon!
Not sure if this is the same website Martin was refering to in the interview, but you can certainly download a lot of free Mahavishnu Orchestra live audios here
Jazz Fusion Free Downloads!
See my Sparks article here, containing exclusive comments from Ron and Russell Mael,
When I Interviewed James from Silvery last year, we had a long chat about all maner of things, including his love for Sparks
read the full interview with Silvery here