Martin Gordon looks back on Sparks, jamming with the Rolling Stones, and working out Chris Squire’s “astonishing noise”

Martin Gordon
(Image credit: Mehmet Dedeoglu)

A former member of the American-British band Sparks, on whose 1974 album Kimono My House he established a signature tone, bassist Martin Gordon went on to found Jet and Radio Stars, before recording solo projects. We meet him for a chat about his new album, Another Words.

Your new album is inspired by Donald Trump, Martin.

“Yes. My last two or three albums have been driven by that lunatic, and when he disappeared, I was kind of a loose end, like ‘What the fuck am I gonna do now?’ but then I stumbled across a transcript of his infamous speech from November 2020, which was his attempt to derail the US democratic process.”   

How do you turn a speech into music? 

“I was listening to a few old Frank Zappa interviews where he said that somebody had said to him, ‘Why are you writing in such weird time signatures?’ His reply was a lightbulb-going-on moment for me: He said, ‘No human process actually happens in 4/4. If you look at speech, it’s compound time signatures.’

“I thought, ‘I could take a whole bunch of speech, work out where the stresses are, and transcribe it. I could find a way of making the unaltered speech work, so that there are no weird pauses.’ That’s exactly what I did.”  

Trump’s getting a royalty, presumably? 

“Ha! Before I got the album manufactured, I did some research on whether speeches are forms of public domain, and it’s arguable. It’s been delivered to the public domain, but whether it actually constitutes public domain material, I’m not sure. But wouldn’t it be great to be sued by him? That would really help me a lot.”

Why is he a figure of inspiration for you? 

“Well, the whole thing is such an aberration. I keep talking to people about Neil Postman, the American sociologist who wrote a book in 1985 called Amusing Ourselves To Death, where he talks about celebrity entertainment taking over discourse.

“He was writing in the pre-internet age, so he was only talking about TV, but nonetheless, he predicted precisely what happened with Trump. The guy with the biggest hair, and the most outrageous schtick, is going to attract the biggest figures, and if you extrapolate that, he is going to win, which is precisely what happened.”  

The bass parts sound great. 

“Thanks. I have a way of doing it which works extremely well for me. I bought a 2015 Rickenbacker Mapleglo 4003 to replace the long-defunct 4001 that I used with Sparks and Radio Stars, and plugged it into Logic, using for the first time the stereo output that we never used in the old days. I DI the neck pickup and then I tweak the bridge pickup through Guitar Amp Pro, which works absolutely perfectly. The neck on the 4003 is better than the 4001, and it has a pull pot.”

What happened to the old 4001?  

“Well, I was in Radio Stars, still playing my old bass from Sparks, and we were touring with Eddie & The Hot Rods. Eventually someone bought it from me, and then about three weeks later it fell to pieces, so it was very good timing.”

Are the tones from the 4003 the same as the 4001? 

Well, I actually took out what many people say is their favorite bit of my bass sound, which is the Sparks song, Barbecutie. I worked on getting this bass to sound comparable, and in fact to me it sounds much better because it has a bit more of a growl.”   

Are you the same bass player that you were back in the Sparks days?  

“In terms of execution, yes, but in terms of knowledge, no, because I know more. I still find myself doing the same old things, but I have the courage of my convictions more. I don’t mind playing tritones, whereas in the old days I think I would have avoided them, because I would have been frowned at.”   

By the brothers Mael?  

“Yes, indeed. They wouldn’t have said anything, but the temperature in the room would have dropped a couple of degrees.”   

What are those two like? 

“I always felt they were extremely normal. There is a film currently doing the rounds about the life and times of the famous duo, and it seems that every single living musician in the entire world has turned up to say how marvellous and wonderful they were. 

“The director got in touch with me and said, ‘Would you like to come along and say how marvelous and wonderful they are?’ And I said, ‘Could you put a little bit of flesh on your concept?’ And that was the end of our discussion.”

When you listen back to Kimono My House, if you ever do, does the bass sound good? 

“Absolutely, on most of it. It depends on the songs – I think the bass is better on the songs that are better. On the songs that aren’t up to snuff, the bass is similarly not up to snuff. I’m quite pleased with it, at this remove.” 

You looked like you were having a rather better time in Radio Stars. 

“Yes, I suppose I had a better time in Radio Stars, because there was nobody fighting back, and I was writing all the songs.”  

What was your first bass? 

“The very first bass was a Hofner Verithin, but my first proper bass was a Fender Mustang, which I sprayed stripes on. When Sparks came around, my manager said, ‘Okay, we can all go out and buy instruments now.’ I said, ‘I’m entirely happy with my Fender Mustang’ but he said, ‘Come on, you need to go out and buy a real bass.’ He insisted, so I bought the Rickenbacker, even though it was so expensive.

“I’d heard Chris Squire of Yes making this astonishing noise with one, though, which was why I bought mine. It took me some days to work out that Chris was actually playing a bass. In the beginning, I hated it, but suddenly, I decided ‘Actually, this is really quite fantastic.’” 

Did you use overdrive? 

“I had an H&H guitar combo which had a distortion switch. I think tone is largely down to hands and fingers, anyway. Whenever I play my Ibanez five-string, it sounds pretty much the same. It’s in the physical way in which you approach the strings.”  

Did you pursue the slap style? 

“God, no – never ever – although I did discover false harmonics, which give you the effect of the octave over the top if you’re loud enough. That’s the closest I came. A couple of outraged fans wrote to me and said, ‘You’re always decrying slap bass, but on this tune you’re playing slap bass,’ and I pointed out the error of their ways.” 

For some bizarre reason we were welcomed with open arms by Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, and Charlie Watts, and we just sat around and talked about our lives – it was absolutely surreal

Tell me about playing with the Rolling Stones in 1979. 

“I was in Paris working as a house producer for Radio Stars’ French record company, and one of the guys in the band said, ‘The Stones are playing down the road. Let’s go down there.’ So, of course, off we went, and we encountered various circles of security. You would move your way through the first circle, and then you would enter the second circle, and then the third circle. Finally, we reached the Holy of Holies, which was the recording studio. 

“For some bizarre reason we were welcomed with open arms by Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, and Charlie Watts, and we just sat around and talked about our lives – it was absolutely surreal. It transpired that they had no bass player, because Bill Wyman was off with some girls, so I seized the moment and said, ‘You know, I’m actually a bass player.’ They came over with a bass and said, ‘Okay, here are the chords. Let’s do something with them’ – and then we went into the studio and jammed the night away.

“It was quite surreal. At one point, Ron was standing on my left, playing a solo, and afterwards Jagger said, ‘What do you think of that?’ In any other situation, I would have given him my honest opinion, but given the circumstances, I said, ‘Fantastic!’ They asked me if I could come back the next day and carry on – so of course I did.”   

Which bassists influenced you? 

“Cream’s Doing That Scrapyard Thing is the most amazing composition, although Jack Bruce wasn’t even playing on it – it was Felix Pappalardi. That song led me down this kind of Jack Bruce rabbit hole. I heard his amazing, savage distortion, which was what prompted me to go out and get a bass. I guess he is my benchmark in many ways. He was amazing at everything – as a vocalist, a performer, and a composer.”   

Did you get to meet Jack?  

“I met him at a meet-and-greet that his daughter organized in Covent Garden, when his autobiography came out. I thought for months beforehand about what question I’d ask him when I met him.

“My question was, ‘Jack, I had a live recording of Tony Williams’ Lifetime, with you playing bass, and I noticed that there were equal amounts of John McLaughlin songs, Tony Williams songs and your songs. I would like to know whether it was a difficult process introducing your songs, because you came along somewhat later than the other three did?’ He said, ‘No, it wasn’t.’ I was so disappointed!”   

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