Martin Gordon: "I think pop has stopped being art"

by Jess Grant

Martin Gordon has a way with words.

I ascertained this when I first spoke with the former Sparks, Jet and Radio Stars member back in June 2014. An absurdist humor, a dry wit and a biting satire punctuated the accomplished musician's every anecdote, of which there were many. So when I was offered the chance to catch up with Martin for a second time, well. How could I possibly refuse?

Such a proposition came about as the British-born, Berlin-based bassist is currently readying the release of Gilbert, Gordon and Sullivan – a tribute album of sorts, which will hear Martin re-imagine a selection of the Victorian-era comic-opera duo's finest compositions. An ambitious project to say the least, but recall the humor, wit and satire that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece? Those traits combined with an unmistakable ear for melody (this is the man whose arrangement foresight resulted in "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us"), and maybe there's not much of a difference between our three protagonists after all.

In this interview, Gordon divulges where the idea to record an entire album's worth of Gilbert and Sullivan songs came from, and why he regards his covers as "downright treacherous to the originals." I also take it as an opportunity to ask the 61-year-old what he really thinks of FFS – the unlikely supergroup formed by Sparks and Scottish art rockers Franz Ferdinand.
Jess Grant (Songfacts): Hi Martin! Thanks for catching up with Songfacts again today. You've covered the occasional Gilbert and Sullivan tune in the past, but this time you've decided to record an entire album's worth of their songs. Where did the idea come from to do this?

Martin Gordon: In in the past, I admit I've recorded one or two tunes on various solo albums, but this time I thought I would go for the full Monty. I was in two minds about whether to do a full album until some very timely feedback from a fan convinced me that I would sell at least one copy of such an album. And that was, in many ways, the deciding moment. I decided that I would not only record an entire album of Gilbert and Sullivan tunes, but that I would also rudely insinuate myself between the two protagonists; thus the album is to be called Gilbert, Gordon and Sullivan, in order to avoid any doubt or lack of clarity over my intentions.

Songfacts: The songs on Gilbert, Gordon and Sullivan range from the well-known ("Modern Major-General") to the more obscure ("Make Way for the Wise Men"). Considering the wealth of material that you had to choose from, how did you go about selecting the tunes that you wanted to work with?

Martin: The selection process took about two years. Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated on 14 operas in total – some of them are quite challenging, others are merely long. In order to do them all justice, I spent about two weeks just listening and making notes, deciding first of all which tunes I liked. The second stage was to figure out which of my favorite pieces could be suitably adapted to my purposes, and how. The third stage was to try to reduce the 45 selected tunes to a more manageable dozen. And the fourth stage – did I mention there was a fourth stage? – was to reduce the score to chords, except for the instrumental top lines. The fifth stage – which you may recall – was to create a musical style for each piece.

The sixth stage was to make demos, for myself; then along came the band with their own guitar and drum parts, which followed the rough outline which I presented them with. (I am a big fan of getting creative people in to deal with their domain specialities, in this case Ralf Leeman on guitars and Romain Vicente on drums). At various later points, Jade Pai and other girls became involved, namely with brass, flutes, recorders, Jew's harps – they are, by their nature, very girly instruments, I think you will agree.

And finally – that's about 10 stages, I think, by now – came the vocals. I sang them all, beginning with the choral parts, which were a doddle as the range is pretty small, and then hacked my way through the lead vocals. So far, I have recorded each lead vocal about seven or eight times, so I know these tunes pretty well by now. I decided to sing them myself, as a departure from standard practice, because (a) it's a mother-tongue thang, especially when it goes into sprachstimme, and (b) I wanted to. But more of this below.

Songfacts: Are your recordings loyal to the Gilbert and Sullivan originals, or have you changed and developed them? If you have changed and developed them, in what way and why?

Martin: No, they are not loyal to the original at all, in fact they are downright treacherous to the originals, having stabbed them firmly in the back when they wasn't looking and, in some cases, having spat upon their grave, causing them to revolve in situ. Where I deemed songs to be too short in the original, I presumptuously wrote new lyrics for new verses; this was the case for at least two of them. The originals were designed with the constrictions of the theatre, of course; I felt that a mere 90 seconds would have the rather more demanding pop kids of today throwing down their tinny portable devices and second screens in disgust, so I fixed it, as so many do, with extensions.

I can guarantee that no tune is shorter than about 02.30. If that's not value for money, I'd like to know what is. Plus you can listen to it on one device while simultaneously watching Shin-Chan on YouTube on another and playing video games on a third. What's not to like?

In some cases, the arrangements have been – shall we say - tinkered with, in the linear sense, omitting some sections, repeating others. And feel-wise, of course, the results are as far from Victorian mutton-chop whiskers and lace-curtains-for-piano-legs as you could get. So one tune has a kind of dancehall reggae vibe, one is a heads-down no-nonsense mindless boogie (Status Quo were enormous Gilbert and Sullivan fans, I believe), a couple of pieces are rather Beatles-ish, even if I say so myself, and others have a smattering of Small Faces-style knees-uppery.

Songfacts: You're famed for your arrangement work on the Sparks album Kimono My House, and you put this gift to use again on Gilbert, Gordon and Sullivan. What appeals to you about arranging other people's songs?

Martin: With a good arrangement you can, I think, get your message across very easily. People (presumably) know the original, they can hear what you are doing to it and so, unless their mental faculties have completely given up the ghost due to an overload of beeping and tweeting, they can immediately see the point. Also, being the bassist, on remakes I reserve the right to play prominent, dominant bass parts through almost the entire thing. OK, throughout the entire thing, I will admit it.

Since I recently invested once again in a Rickenbacker bass, last seen on Kimono My House, I felt it would at least please my accountant if it was prominently featured. And some of the feedback from the few Gilbert, Gordon and Sullivan video extracts posted to social media seems to confirm that. Some of the respondees aren't even bankers, I believe. But some do appear to be miners.

Songfacts: How much of an influence did Gilbert and Sullivan have on your work with Sparks, Jet and Radio Stars and on your previous solo material?

Martin: Well, they have been an inherent influence since I began writing music and words. They set an unattainably high benchmark, and I think it's only in my more recent stuff that I have begun to even approach this standard, he said grovelingly and positively bursting with humility. Plus they do have a quintessential literacy, an unparalleled command of their idiom, to which we should all aspire. And this brings us conveniently to your next question…

Songfacts: Going beyond your own work, do you hear the influence of Gilbert and Sullivan in modern music?

Martin: No, I don't to be frank. I hear the sound of the bottom line, the lowest common (and I do mean common) denominator, I hear the sound of the first thing you thought of, the first sound that it made when you switched it on, the first words that came into your head when you furrowed your brow and began searching for the elusive rhyme to the word 'bitch' (I can offer 'ditch', for the desperate).

I can't think of any examples of any modern pop music that have made me think 'Oh, that's interesting, or clever, or witty.' I think pop has stopped being art, primarily because nobody wants it to be (we can discuss reasons for this at another juncture) and has largely become what used to be called cabaret, or middle of the road. All the interesting stuff happens well outside the remit of so-called 'pop music.'

An example of 'interesting stuff' might be the Clerks Group, with "Roger Go to Yellow Three." Now that kind of invention and creativity is what I expect, but do not get, from pop music. Rant, rant, blah, blah, tell that to the kids of today etc. etc.

Songfacts:You're planning on hosting a series of Gilbert and Sullivan workshops in the UK to support the album release. Can you tell me what'll be taking place during these?

Martin: Well, this is an idea in the making but my idea was that, as the music of Gilbert and Sullivan is mostly quite approachable and playable, it would be a fun project to create a workshop around it, for kids and beginners, and possibly even for the more skilled but interested. A few tentative steps have been taken in this direction and, if funded, they would take place both in the UK and locally here in Berlin. I guess the agenda would be to select a handful of tunes, work on the instrumental and vocal performance aspects over a couple of days, and then present them to an audience on a final day. I would participate as a grey eminence, and perhaps offer a few bass lines into the bargain.

Songfacts: The mastering, manufacturing and distribution of Gilbert, Gordon and Sullivan is being funded through a Pledge campaign. How does this work and what do people get in return for pledging?

Martin: This is how I funded a recent production, and I learned a few lessons from that one. So for Gilbert, Gordon and Sullivan, the album will be mastered here in Berlin and manufactured in the UK by Gonzo, a company with whom I've had a long relationship. Because effort without dissemination is almost entirely pointless in this results-oriented world, we will also attempt to fund PR via this campaign.

The novel dimension is that my own label Radiant Future is making a whole pile of additional stuff – this is called 'exclusives', in Pledge-parlance – which are only available at this pre-release stage, and not later. (That's NOT LATER, right?) Because it is this stage which determines whether the Gilbert, Gordon and Sullivan thing is released or not, of course.

These Pledge 'exclusives' (available only NOW, remember) include such delights as instrumental and split-stereo bass mixes, T-shirts and bespoke posters. I always used to think that the instrumental mixes of studio stuff which band members would take home were just as interesting as the finished thing, if not more so; we add to this by following in The Beatles footsteps with mixes which feature the bass (prominent, dominant, you recall) on one side of the stereo with the music and voices on the other, enabling those who like this sort of thing to probe deeply below the bass surface. This is particularly interesting for those with two ears.

The manufacture of these exclusives is of course fully EU-compliant. They are created by our keen dream-team of illiterate Albanian dwarves in caves full of camposity; all exclusives will be hand-rubbed with sea-salt dredged from the bottom of the Caspian Sea by grizzled sea-farers who are on government-funded re-training schemes and who hope to one day become organic cake-restorers, if all goes well and they don't spend their grants on glue-sniffing.

Songfacts: You're very active on social media and have a close relationship with your fans. Do you find that this has an influence on your music?

Martin: Yes, I find my music becomes much more simplistic, and I find myself writing songs about love, sex, boys, girls, sex, money, sex, cabbage and gold chains. These have become the prime focal point of my music in recent times. I just hope those bastards like it, otherwise it will all have been for nothing, and then I will return to the dim and distant land of the polysyllable and compound time signature, muttering dark imprecations to myself the while.

No, actually, I don't find the input of the fans affects my musical work in the slightest, although I do find I have to pick up the occasional fan upon his or her punctuation, syntax and grammar. Sometimes, when they make inordinately silly remarks, I find myself becoming rather critical, although this is often disguised in such a way as to be completely unrecognizable to the recipient, so that's a win-win, really. For example, the 'boys in the band' are frequently described by the fans as 'well fit LOL,' despite my best efforts to the contrary. Well, there comes a point at which even the most patient will inevitably declare defeat. There is, to be frank, nothing that I can do about it. It is, to coin a phrase, nothing to do with me. The strong give up and move on, the weak give up and stay, and I quote.

Songfacts: A much-publicized production of The Pirates of Penzance as directed by Mike Leigh is currently being performed by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum. Have you been or do you plan on going? Do you think that Gilbert and Sullivan still have a place in contemporary theatre?

Martin: Well, I expected great things from Mike Leigh. I am of course somewhat removed from the white-hot heart of thespian London here in the parochial reaches of Berlin, but it seems as though it was neither radical nor contemporary but more of a period piece. But this perspective is second-hand, of course...

I think that the music of Gilbert and Sullivan certainly has a place today; I think in the hands of, for example, a Terry Gilliam, the complete operas would also be as relevant as they ever were, albeit with a certain tweaking. The works were, after all, savage satire, and the role of satire has never been as important as it is today, as we see. Sacred cows must be stabbed in the heart, we cannot put up with intolerance, separatism must be ruthlessly sidelined. Gilliam knows this, clearly, hence his obsession with Don Quixote and the enduringly pragmatic Sancho Panza.

Imagine what Gilliam could do with H.M.S. Pinafore, with a brave re-setting of the scene. The British royal family, for example, might replace the Royal Navy. There would of course have to be some textual rewriting, but I know someone who might be very good at that. But here we step dangerously close to my ideas for a musical treatment of the relationship between Norman Wisdom and Enver Hoxha, which is sitting on the 'next' pile as we speak. I have already, in a rather short exchange, discussed this with Norman's manager.

Songfacts: Sparks recently teamed up with the Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand to form the supergroup FFS. What are your thoughts on this collaboration and their eponymous debut album?

Martin: I could answer this extremely briefly, in three letters. But, in a spirit of international cooperation, I will not.

I saw one FFS video which seemed to involve a bloke strumming a bass, unless I had the telly on upside down. Perhaps this is a new development of which I am unaware. But, despite that, it all sounded quite nice, not unpleasant, and the boys are certainly well fit LOL. Personally, I might have spent a little more time in development, but then I am neither Californian nor Scottish, nor indeed Albanian nor enigmatic. In fact I must admit to having a certain distrust of the deliberately, and self-declared, enigmatic. I often think that enigmatic people have a lot to be enigmatic about, do you know what I mean? Well, that's why they're enigmatic, I suppose. It stands to reason, doesn't it?

I also recently considering taking the collaborative path of least musical resistance but decided, rather than risk the unpredictability of working with the living, that I would form a trio with dead people, and hence the Gilbert, Gordon and Sullivan project. I will of course be prepared to hear Gilbert or Sullivan's suggestions out but, if they insisted upon doing their own material or that they had 'this great idea for a song, only it's not quite finished yet,' I would call for a vote. 'Hands up' will decide. And then there will be no more talk of collaboration or of so-called democracy.

Songfacts: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to Songfacts again today, Martin. It seems that you always have an exciting music project on the horizon. What comes next after Gilbert, Gordon and Sullivan?

Martin: Well, if I chicken out at the last minute about Norman and Enver, my next project will be yet another final round of Martin Gordon songs performed with the undisputed vocal heavyweight champion of the Balearics Pelle Almgren taking the helm. In fact, there are a number of musical items already prepared for such an auftritt, as the Germans playfully call it. There are also some collaborative efforts on this virtual pile, including some rocking tunes from Rockin' Ralf Leeman, some provocative polka from Polkaholix; no doubt more alliterative efforts will make their appearance.

Anyway, by the time a Gilbert, Gordon and Sullivan follow-up might occur, I imagine that all music will be so devalued that nobody in their right mind would consider even for a nanosecond making any more without an upfront payment, a blood sample and a piece of skin off the back of the neck. Plus all music that will ever be made will have already been made and covertly concealed in one of your multiple devices, probably in your fridge. So what would the bloody point be, honestly...

June 18, 2015.
Get more from Martin Gordon at
Photos: Mehmet Dedeoglu.

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Colin Allen from Harlow, EssexVery helpful.I fear there are no FFS sound bites.Something to munch on?!
  • Jesse from Aberdeen Martin Gordon did what?? "Arrangements" on the Sparks record?? Erm, no. He played a bloody bass on that album, end of story. If anything, he should be forever grateful for his time in Sparks because otherwise he wouldn't get half the interactions from fans on social medial that he gets now.
  • Michael Count Von Griffin from Dickensian Barnet, London.I do love this. Full of wit- not s***.. fanx.
see more comments

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