HOW WONDERFUL IT IS
It took him 35 years to become an overnight sensation!!!
When George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” was no.1 for the
FIRST time, Gordon Haskell was already a musician with a novel-full
of Rock ‘n’ Roll history. Until – with “My Sweet Lord” no.1 for a
SECOND time, Gordon Haskell finally achieved a massive hit single
of his own, from his high-charting ‘HARRY’S BAR’ album.
Rock ‘n’ Roll he gave you all the best years of his life. Now – at 55,
he’s here, to tell Andrew Darlington that the best is yet to come...
‘I played here as a solo in 1972’ Gordon Haskell reminisces. ‘At Leeds University when it first opened. I remember because they had new carpets. And everybody was sick on them. And I thought ‘oh, I see, that’s what you do on new carpets’. I was always like that.’ Then – in 1972, he was like that. Now he is like this. A grizzled Beat Poet in a brown leather jacket and a black trilby pulled low. ‘Dressed up special’ he jokes with what I swear is a perfect Tommy Cooper delivery, ‘we’re only in it for the money.’ As if. Gordon is a survivor of 1960s extreme Mod-squad gods Fleur De Lys, then psychedelic trippy power-Popsters Rupert’s People and then Prog-Rock leviathan’s King Crimson – followed by a long period hoboing in the commercial wilderness. When George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” was no.1 for the FIRST time, Gordon was already a Rock veteran, already a musician with a novel-full of Rock ‘n’ Roll history behind him. But it’s not until round-about the time that “My Sweet Lord” goes to no.1 for a SECOND time, that he finally has a massive hit single of his own, from his high-charting ‘Harry’s Bar’ (2002, EastWest) album. True, subsequent material hasn’t achieved quite the same high-profile level of recognition, but now they all know his name.
‘Thirty-five years is a long time to wait for a bus’ he grimly points out on liner-notes. But that bus eventually arrived. And that sudden ‘Overnight Sensation’ status must have seemed strange after thirty-odd years – and thirty sometimes extremely odd years, as a pro muso. ‘Yes, I’m sick of being a Pop Star’ he deadpans. Then he considers the vagaries of fate for a long moment across the bar table. Until ‘no, it doesn’t feel any different, to be honest. I don’t feel any different. I’m working tonight. It’s what I’ve always done. I’ve done seventeen years of playing places just like this. How could this be different?’
Rock ‘n’ Roll he gave you all the best years of his life. Now – at 55, he’s here, to show that the best is yet to come...
You want Rock ‘n’ Roll Weirdness? The Long Lost Weekend Starts Here...!
Fleur De Lys were a 1960s proto-Freakbeat combo with a convoluted history. With guitarists including Phil Sawyer, Bryn Hayworth and Pete Sears – alongside a young Gordon Haskell and drummer Keith Guster, they sign to Andrew Loog Oldham’s legendary Immediate label. ‘They were crooks’ he says bluntly. ‘Andrew Loog Oldham. And his partner Tony Calder. They’re still crooks. We’d never have got our money even if the records we made for them had been big hits. They did everything right. But for themselves. I made my first record in 1966 with the Fleur De Lys and producer Glyn Johns. And the way we made that record was exactly the same method that I copied when I produced “How Wonderful You Are” (Gordon’s big hit single). I went right back to the beginning. Because I never made a better record than I did in 1966.’ Primary colours, simple, direct. “Circles” c/w “So, Come On” (IM 032) – the Pete Townshend song was augmented by a young Jimmy Page until its sound-compression levels become so dense that the reverb-OD near-melts the speakers, and just about fillets the Who original. This collectable piece of Pop-Psyche sonic-overload was originally released in March 1966, and is now saved onto Jimmy Page’s ‘Hip Young Guitar-Slinger’ double-CD.
‘We were sharing a flat with Jimi Hendrix for a while’ Gordon would recall later. ‘And our manager was the man who brought over Otis Redding and the Stax revues. So we got to meet all the legends, they were all very humble, intelligent and aware’. The group later move to Atlantic for lesser singles like “The Gong With The Luminous Nose” c/w “Hammer Head” (1968, Polydor 56251) – ‘B’-side co-written by Gordon, and also spend time backing soulster Sharon Tandy, while they simultaneously mutate into Rupert’s People. Rod and Gordon recruit Adrian Curtis (later ‘Gurvitz’ of The Gun) for a run of paisley singles beginning with one called “Reflections Of Charles Brown” c/w “Hold On” (July 1967, Columbia DB8226) – ‘B’-side part-written by Gordon. ‘We didn’t want to promote it as the Fleur De Lys. So the singer – and EMI records, put it out under the ‘Rupert’s People’ name, and we sort-of side-stepped and said ‘well OK, you promote it, we’re not really interested’. ‘Melody Maker’ slagged it off at the time. They said it was like ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’. So – I think, we were right not to put the Fleur De Lys name on it because we had a very ‘pure’ name, if you like. People are really concerned with image at that age, you know what it’s like. I don’t give a damn about image any more.’ There were more Rupert’s People singles, “A Prologue To A Magic World” c/w “Dream On My Mind” – also for Columbia in July 1967 (DB 8278), and “I Can Show You” c/w “I’ve Got The Love” (1968, DB 8362) the following year. The Lynton-penned B-side of the second single – “Dream In My Mind” with its solid morphine-shots of Gordon’s bass, is now collected onto the cult ‘Acid Drops, Spacedust And Flying Saucers’ box-set assembled by ‘Mojo’ magazine.
But Rupert’s People were the product of a period when – according to Gordon, ‘the clothes shops were full of original designs, people were thinking, choosing alternatives, questioning. With the pill everyone could sleep around. We were physically free to behave as we wanted. Love really could change the world. It wasn’t about arrogance and ego then. We were all much happier. It was a genuine movement. It really was ‘Make Love Not War’. The Clubs were great. The scene was fantastic. And we were boys. Really – we were like apprentices. And I suppose you don’t really expect to get paid – as an apprentice, if you like...’ It was a strange period for Pop. The 1960s. But it gets followed by the even stranger Prog-Rock excesses of the early-Seventies.
‘That was a new start, yes. Much colder. More pessimistic actually. I read a phrase in the book (see later) – it said ‘(the 1970s) did away with the air-heads of the sixties’. Airheads? OK – so I believed in beauty and love. If that’s being an ‘airhead’ we are in a sad state...’ And so to – ah yes, King Crimson! Gordon session-guests for Robert Fripp and lyricist Pete Sinfield on their bizarre March 1970 single “Cat Food” c/w “Groon”, and is then invited to join the band full-time when Greg Lake quits the line-up to form ELP. And he joins in time to work on ‘In The Wake Of Poseidon’, which soon climbs to no.4 on the album chart. ‘If Wagner were alive today he’d work with King Crimson’ raves journalist Richard Williams in ‘Melody Maker’ (9 May 1970), singling out Gordon’s vocals on “Cadence and Cascade” for particular attention. Yes, they really wrote like that back then. He stays with the band through to the ‘Lizard’ album. Viewing King Crimson from the outside it seems to have been an impressively serious and musicianly outfit. ‘No. It was fake. It was business-like. His (Robert Fripp’s) eye was on the money. It just so happened that they did something very original. And critics give you ten-out-of-ten for that. Whereas, for example – they won’t give Otis Redding ten-out-of-ten for singing “Dock Of The Bay”. There’s a book out about it all – ‘In The Court Of King Crimson’, written by Sid Smith from Durham. It’s a good book. It tells the truth.’
‘With King Crimson, we got stamped with the label of ‘Classic Rock’. Which I never was. I was always doing – the sort of music I’m doing now. I was always that. I haven’t shifted really. The word ‘simple’ keeps cropping up when people talk about “How Wonderful You Are”. As though it is so simple – and, say, King Crimson is so complicated. But it’s so very much HARDER to write simple. It’s very hard to write a song like “How Wonderful You Are” – or Tim Hardin’s “If I Were A Carpenter”. And what the hell does listening to King Crimson tell you anyway? That the world is a terrible place? You can see that on the news every six o’ clock. You don’t need to be informed by a Pop group that the world is terrible. You need to be informed by music that there is an infinite amount of possibilities for all of us. And you don’t get that on the news. So you’ve got to find something in music that you don’t get on the news. Now – you get terror on the news. You get killing. You get crime and urban decay. The critics would say that ‘real’ artists imitate and tell you what is forthcoming from all that. So they put King Crimson as ground-breaking, predicting the future. But you don’t need to predict the future with a negative side. It’s negative. It’s saying ‘the world is coming to an end. It’s terrible’. Well – OK, but how is that going to help you? You’ve got to go to work tomorrow. You’ve got to feed your children. So why not be uplifted, instead of pushed down? But there is a very mixed-up attitude in England about what ‘art’ is, and I’m on one side, and they’re on the other. I don’t think I’ll ever agree with the definition of art in Rock. I’ve kind-of given up on that question. Because there’s so much pretentiousness. And this whole thing about art is upside-down in my book. I’m the only one saying it. So I don’t expect to get any support. But I know I’m right – for me.’
Meanwhile, there are more Strange Days. He tours with Tim Hardin. Doomed writer of achingly beautiful songs “Black Sheep Boy”, “Reason To Believe” and “If I Were A Carpenter”. ‘Tim Hardin, to me, is what being a real artist is all about. I did an album with him down in Worthing. I don’t know what happened to the tapes. We went to Scotland together. And I hung out with him a lot in London. But he was a very expensive ‘date’ if you like. Because he never had any money, he’d sold off all his rights to some horrible publishing deal. And he wasn’t in very good shape. He was sad, because he was an ex-heroin addict, and he was still on the alternative, whatever it is, methadone I expect. He was on his way to his deathbed. Living on people’s floors. Sleeping with people’s wives. He was lost, really. But when he sang his big songs – “Black Sheep Boy”, “Hang Onto A Dream”...! And do you know who was in that little trio? Tim Hardin on guitar and vocals. There was me on bass. And Chaz Jankel playing piano, Chaz Jankel of...’ Ian Dury & The Blockheads? ‘Yes, The Blockheads. It was good...’
‘ANOTHER NIGHT IN HARRY’S BAR...’
Tonight Gordon Haskell performs “Test Drive” – the ‘Oldsmobile’ song which he describes as a ‘pre-Margaret Thatcher electric Blues’, enhanced by shimmering slide guitar from ex-Paul McCartney Band-er and sometime Pretender Robbie McIntosh, to enthusiastic response. It can be found on his 1998 ‘Butterfly In China’ album, which also includes Gordon’s version of the Beatles’ “Things We Said Today”. He goes back to Robbie’s ‘Emotional Bends’ set, then he does “Voodoo Dance” and “Al Capone” from recent, bantering that his performance has ‘always been a little loose round the edges, it’s the only way’, but that’s deceptive. Behind the casual repartee about why there are no birds on the island of Guam, or about Dee – the ex-girlfriend who left to follow the “Freeway To Her Dreams”, to Acton! ‘acton’ on a hunch?’, there’s the kind of verbal-musical dexterity and assurance you only gather from decades of playing. From the authentically battered country of ‘Freeway’ to the easy jazzy swing of “A Little Help From You” (dedicated to Hoagie and Ian Carmichael), and the James Taylor timelessness and ripples of guitar enlivening “All The Time In The World” (for Ronnie Biggs!), this is slickly clever stuff. He closes with “Look Out, There’s A Lot Of It About” – a ‘Too Much Monkey-Business’/‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ word-tumble left off ‘Harry’s Bar’ because it was ‘too scary’.
But it was Gordon’s long period hoboing in the commercial wilderness that gave him that assurance. ‘Oddly enough, towards the end of that period I was actually making good money. I was playing five pubs, regularly. I had my own faithful – three hundred fans, they fed and clothed me. And I had the days free to write songs or whatever. Then this arrived... just in the nick of time.’ ‘This’ – of course, is the 3:56-minutes of oozing lyricism which is “How Wonderful You Are”, which soon becomes the most-requested track EVER played on Radio Two. And the ‘Harry’s Bar’ album (East-West, 2002) on which it appears, embellished by the tastefully precise drums of Sam Kelly, Pete Stroud’s bass, and Paul Yeung’s rich sax.
And suddenly, every late-Forties muso who once played in a band that once played a support spot to Atomic Rooster in 1974, and had begun to think that their moment has long past, began taking new hope. All it takes is that one song, and they can be the next Gordon Haskell. Surely that’s also strange? ‘That’s nice. That’s lovely’ he concedes graciously. ‘It’s nice to be able to champion musicians. Because they get a raw deal. They do get a very bad deal. And it’s then that only your inner spirit talks to you. Because everybody tells you to give up. Except your inner spirit which says ‘it is who you are – so what do you mean ‘give up’?’ You’re a success if you love what you’re doing, aren’t you? You don’t need the Headmaster to say you ‘could do better’ or ‘I’m sorry, but you’ve come bottom of the class’. You’ve only got yourself at the end of the day. Because nobody actually cares about you. When you get to be sixty-years old – and you’re penniless, who’s going to help you? The Government? I don’t think so. There are people who have always done safe jobs who will say ‘well, you’ve made your bed, you must lie on it’. I’ve had that said to me many a time. There isn’t a lot of sympathy for people who carve their own furrow in life. There are very few people who appreciate it.’
Yet there’s an undeniably ragged pride in the voice of this solitary carver of life’s furrow. ‘So ultimately, yes – you are on your own. Most people say ‘you gambled, and you lost’. But that’s what they said to me for fifteen years...’