A previously unpublished interview in memory
of Gordon Haskell: 27 April 1946-15 October 2020
This might be the ‘New Roscoe’ Leeds LS7. But tonight it has become a virtual ‘HARRY’S BAR’ where the lost and lonely come to ‘listen to the jazz’. And it’s Gordon Haskell they’ve come to see, a muso who resembles some grizzled Beat Generation poet in his brown leather jacket and a black trilby pulled low. And his music is like poetry too – to paraphrase Eddie Izzard, only with more notes and less words. But then, some of the words also work as poetry. ‘What does it matter if it’s three or four? I still can’t make sense of it all.’ His face is a jigsaw that hasn’t been put together quite right. His career’s a bit like too.
‘There’s this term ‘Easy Listening’. It’s sort-of sneered-at, isn’t it?’ he considers carefully, drawing slowly on his cigarette. ‘But what is the opposite of that… ‘Hard Listening’? Why should we equate ‘Hard’ listening with something that’s good? And another word that keeps cropping up when people talk about “How Wonderful You Are” is ‘simple’. But it’s so very much HARDER to write simple. It’s very hard to write a song like “How Wonderful You Are”. I don’t get it. I really don’t get it.’ Probably BBC demographic repositioning is responsible. At first it threatened to make Radio Two a wasteland of Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, but bizarrely this also had the accidental side-effect of making it Britain’s most-listened-to station, and a strategic chart lift-off point for Soft-Rock ‘Easy Listening’ acts like Shania Twain, the Mavericks, and the Corrs. And ironically, Gordon Haskell – one-time member of the Fleur De Lys Mod-squad, the psychedelic trippy Rupert’s People, and Classic Prog-Rockers King Crimson, who also became its beneficiary. Especially Johnny Walker’s late-travel-time chat-slot which championed his “How Wonderful You Are” all the way up to a 2001 Christmas no.2 – just behind Robbie Williams & Nicole Kidman’s “Something Stupid”. True, his subsequent material hasn’t achieved quite the same high-profile level of recognition, but at least now they all know his name.
‘If – by ‘Easy Listening’, they mean ‘Easy on the ear’,’ he continues, chewing the concept around now, ‘that actually means nobody is thinking about it. ‘Cos the message behind “How Wonderful You Are” is pretty deep. It is reminding you of your inner potential. It is saying ‘you’ – the listener, ‘you’ the reader of this interview, are wonderful. I’m not interested in ‘art’. I’m interested in great songs. Songs which people remember and which give them pleasure. I’m not interested in what the critic’s idea of art is. Art to me is beauty. The study of beauty. That’s what mystics say. That’s what spiritual people say. Modern critics say that art is anything that disturbs. Something that shocks. So they classify the Sex Pistols as art. But they are just opportunists. And they create a bad example for people to swallow-up. What the hell does listening to the Sex Pistols tell you? That the world is a terrible place? You see that on the news every six o’ clock. You don’t need to be informed by a Pop group that the world is a terrible place…’
But surely Punk was a vital explosion of adolescent energy? And “Circles” by 1960s proto-Freakbeat band Fleur De Lys – with a teenage Gordon Haskell playing bass, has damn-near pre-Punk energy-levels? ‘Well – yes. That’s a balanced view’ he concedes warily. ‘OK. I’m still working on that.’
Gordon Haskell started out ‘as green as the trees I grew up with’ he writes on the sleeve of his ‘Sail In My Boat’ album (Voiceprint, 1997). ‘But if I hadn’t been cheated, kicked, walked over, chewed and spat out, I might never have written “Time Only Knows” – and I’m glad I did’. But then – if any of those early records had become the huge hits they could well have become, then the entire course of his life would have been different. ‘I’m not sure. I think this was always meant to be my destiny.’ He sounds unconvinced. But check the Record Collector magazines, those early singles are currently worth ridiculous prices. ‘They’re fetching good money, yes. £200 for the Fleur De Lys single “Circles”” he agrees ruefully. Written by Pete Townshend, with ‘HIP YOUNG GUITAR-SLINGER’ Jimmy Page playing the session, and its sound-compression levels cranked up so high the reverb-OD warps the speakers, “Circles” is a collectable piece of Pop-Psyche sonic-overload from as long ago as March 1966. But Gordon is also an integral part of the trippy psychedelic Rupert’s People – for more well-respected singles, including “Dream In My Mind” with its solid morphine-shots of Gordon’s bass, now collected onto the cult ‘Acid Drops, Spacedust And Flying Saucers’ box-set assembled by ‘Mojo’ magazine. At that time ‘I was wearing big fur coats and flares with high-heel boots’ he recalls. ‘We’d wander down Portobello Road and everyone would be taking those strange chemicals popularised by Timothy Leary. There was a real feeling that this was a special time, that something was happening – and it was happening for Rupert’s People! But we were too hip for our own good. We even refused to promote our own singles.’
‘Yet when things did start going global – as they did with King Crimson, it’s embarrassing to be well-known around the world, and yet still be poverty-stricken!’ Ah yes, King Crimson! Gordon session-guests for Robert Fripp, and is then invited to join the band in time to work on ‘In The Wake Of Poseidon’, which soon climbs to no.4 on the album chart, and he stays on 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,” he says abruptly. ‘It was business-like. His (Robert Fripp’s) eye was on the money. It’s very easy to blind people with technicalities and science. You can fool people with a lot of gymnastics. But you can learn that out of a book. You can’t learn how to write “How Wonderful You Are” – or “If I Were A Carpenter” out of a book.’ Strange Days. After he quits Crimson, he toured as part of Tim Hardin’s trio. But by then the doomed writer of achingly beautiful songs “Black Sheep Boy”, “Reason To Believe” – and “If I Were A Carpenter”, was coming off heroin, ‘sleeping on people’s floors. Sleeping with people’s wives. But Tim, to me, is what being a real artist is all about.’ Then Gordon gets to play in Cliff Richard’s backing band – and why not? Even the mighty Van Morrison couldn’t resist the opportunity of working with Britain’s first-ever home-grown Rock ‘n’ Roll Pop Idol.
‘Sure, I HAVE done a lot of work, but I’ve always been robbed, by people who are selfish and who don’t care. If I’d been paid for all the sales of all the records that my name is on, I needn’t have worried. But I was robbed and never received one cent from anything I’ve done. So I’ve always had concerns that I was going to have to adjust to a life that was essentially that of a hobo. Where you’re singing literally for your supper. I was troubadouring around Europe. I lost my house. I lost my wife. I lost my children. And yet my girlfriend at the time said ‘you’re very lucky, ‘cos you’re making people happy.’ She was good. She showed me that yes, we are lucky people. My brother – on the other hand, was a tax VAT-man, on a comfortable salary, with a house, raising his children in a proper fashion, but he spent his entire life making people miserable! It does seem a little unfair sometimes!’
He tilts the trilby back, revealing a resilient stubble of iron-grey to white hair. ‘And that’s what turned the writing around, because instead of saying ‘poor me’, I started saying ‘Folks, if it wasn’t for you, I’d be on the scrap heap’. I’d reached the point where I had accepted my life. And I was grateful. There are a lot of good people out there. All you hear is bad things. You see the garbage, the crime, the violence. OK – so, at a wild guess let’s call it what – 20%? 30% bad? That leaves us with 50% fantastic people out there. That’s thirteen million people really worth caring about…’ These simplified figures don’t add up, mathematically. It leaves a dark-matter mass of people unaccounted for. But music supersedes maths. ‘So I started turning the lyrics around, into looking at how wonderful people are. The good people…’
‘HOW WONDERFUL YOU ARE…’
Originality? Pah – remixes are proof that there are no new songs left to write. Right? Wrong. For Gordon Haskell there are solo albums. ‘It’s Just A Plot To Drive You Crazy’ (Voiceprint, 1992), and ‘Butterfly In China’ (Blueprint, 1998) which includes Gordon’s version of the Beatles’ “Things We Said Today” alongside his own “Test Drive”, a ‘pre-Margaret Thatcher electric Blues’ which he performs tonight with shimmering slide, to enthusiastic response. ‘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, was 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. It’s an album that stretches from the authentically battered country of “Freeway To Her Dreams” to the easy jazzy swing of “A Little Help From You”, to the James Taylor timelessness and ripples of guitar enlivening “All The Time In The World”. It flaunts the kind of verbal-musical dexterity and assurance you only gather from decades of playing. This is slickly clever stuff. ‘Thanks to god for taking me on the road less travelled’ he comments on the liner notes. ‘It was never about money.’ ‘I’ve been a singer, songwriter all my life’ he confides now. ‘But I don’t always necessarily want to be just that. So I’ve had my hit. And now it’s a bit like – we all have the potential to be many things. I want to be more than what I’ve been…’
‘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. You get terror on the news. You get killing. You get crime and urban decay. Critics say that ‘real’ artists reflect and draw from all that. But you don’t need to. That’s negative. That’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? You’ve got to find something in music that you don’t get anywhere else. This whole thing about art is upside-down in my book. And I’m the only one saying it. So I don’t expect to get any support. But I know I’m right – for me. If beauty was encouraged we’d have a better society.’
Surely that level of optimism is a legacy of all that 1960s idealism? ‘Not so. It goes way back before that. I’ve read nineteenth-century books which say exactly the same. In fact, probably Jesus said it too. There’s always been music. There’s always been angels playing harps. Music, and the spirituality of music, is the closest you’ll ever get to god. I’m no virtuoso on guitar. But Jazzmen understand what I’m talking about. Music is harmony. Not disharmony. Music is being in tune. Not being flat or sharp. A band playing well together is in harmony. While a person who is out of tune with themselves, is somebody who needs a psychiatrist…!’
He could be right. Listen to the jazz in Harry’s Bar. And like he sings it on ‘Wonderful’ – ‘some things are built to last, we’ve only just begun, this show will run and run…’
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON