Gordon Haskell’s six-decade music career includes a ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance. Few Shaftesbury residents can claim that. Gordon tells Alfred’s Keri Jones that he hated the fame and didn’t find his fortune but feels richer from the experience of recording his new album.
Shaftesbury singer-songwriter Gordon Haskell is best-known for his Christmas 2001 number two hit single ‘How Wonderful You Are’. Within minutes of chatting, it became clear that Gordon’s experience was far from wonderful.
“You have a platinum album and a big single. What can possibly go wrong?” asks Gordon. “Then you call the head of Warner Brothers and call him an android,” he laughs. “I don’t have an ounce of regret in me and that’s the truth.”
It’s fair to say that Gordon has experienced the ups and downs of the music industry, but he’s found a level of contentment on Gold Hill. A one-thousand-piece jigsaw of a British steam train was lying completed on the dining room table of Gordon’s cottage. I joked that I didn’t consider pouring over pieces of a puzzle to be a ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ pastime.
“Solving a puzzle for me is like a detective story. With the jigsaw, you do solve it. Life has been a jigsaw for me. I can’t control what happens in life, but I can control a puzzle. It’s a bit of a deep thing but I love it,” said Gordon. “If I am waiting for a phone call from a guy that has promised he will have a mix of my new record by tomorrow, and he doesn’t deliver for two weeks, I could lose my temper. Instead, I divert that into a peaceful pastime. A jigsaw ‘solves’ that bit of my DNA that used to make me bad-tempered.”
Gordon’s song was brought to the attention of record company bosses after he shared a copy of the track with Radio 2 presenter Johnnie Walker. Gordon has been a friend of the Shaftesbury resident since the 1970s. “The whole essence of ‘How Wonderful You Are’ is, ‘Have you any idea of the ability that is locked up inside every human being?’ And the potential that is there? It’s a crime to waste it,” said Gordon.
The media didn’t ask about the song’s profound meaning. That disappointed Gordon. Interviewers, instead, wanted to talk about Gordon’s age. He was 55 when the song charted. They were obsessed with stories of his supposed fortune after being ‘signed’ to the label.
Gordon told me that he was treated ‘more like a lottery winner’ than an accomplished musician with 50 years craft under his belt. “The questions I was asked were not interesting. They wanted to know what I was going to do with all of the money. They didn’t say what a lovely song it was. They didn’t ask me how long it took to write it. They didn’t ask what it was about. They wanted to know how I was going to spend £2.8 million. I said, ‘I’m going to Kempton Park to a horse race at 3.30’.”
Gordon recalled his first day as a record company ‘signing’. He says his manager put him in a limousine complete with a TV set and a chauffeur. “No doubt that went onto my expenses,” he remarked. Gordon was taken to a Knightsbridge hairdresser. “I had spent 20 years building the scruffy image that I have, complete with a hat. Suddenly, they told me that I was going to go on a cookery programme. They wanted me to do the sweet,” he laughed. “Can you imagine Bob Dylan doing that?” I resisted the urge to ask him what recipe he rustled up.
Days later, Gordon guested on ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’. “It’s not clever. It’s not Spike Milligan. It is just garbage,” Gordon said. “I thought, ‘Is this what I’ve waited 30 years for? To be around these boring bloody people?’” He has no good words to say about the industry bosses, telling me that they are ‘disappointing as human beings’.
Another issue for Gordon, a strong character with his thoughts and opinions, were the controls that the record companies place on their artists. Gordon believes that lyrics should convey messages and songwriters should be able to talk about their choice of words. “I need to be able to speak freely and you can’t do that when you’re a big celebrity. You’re playing some kind of dumb ass game,” he said.
Gordon says his record deal signing was, ‘the most boring time of my life’. It failed to live up to the genuinely exciting experiences he enjoyed working with real talent at the cutting-edge of musical innovation in the sixties. “I was walking the streets with Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin in 1967, rubbing shoulders with the Stax boys, Sam and Dave, and Booker T and the MGs. They knew what they were talking about. They were unknown as I was. Jimi Hendrix played with our band at a club in London, four times. He played on a record with me,” said Gordon.
Gordon seems to be most disenchanted that his many years of performing and ‘paying his dues’ counted for nothing with the label executives or music media. He worked tirelessly, refining his musicianship throughout the 1970s and 1980s. “I was a bass player. I had record deals, but the punk thing had taken over and I fled to Norway and worked six nights a week. I was performing JJ Cale, Dire Straits and Bob Dylan, which is kind of ‘non-singing’. Gradually my voice got better, and I did eighteen years of performing six nights a week. When I came back to Bournemouth to play a gig, I would blow everybody away because they were just doing weekends.”
He says that many of the artists that he worked with during the early 1970s were still playing the music of that era. “They didn’t have to evolve,” he said. “You know, when a rock star walks on stage and everybody claps, it’s so easy,” mused Gordon. “If you go into hostile pubs, you have to be a ‘lion tamer’. The publican would always say, ‘If you sell more beer, you’ll be back next week’. I was always back next week. That’s the measure of how good you are, not a stadium full of people, stoned out of their heads, who bought a £20 ticket.”
Bruised by his experiences and sensing ‘a negative vibe’ in the UK, Gordon decided to move abroad – permanently. “I’m driven by emotion. You probably worked that one out,” he laughed.
It was 2007, just before the financial crash, and Gordon says he ‘dodged that’ and bought two houses in Greece. He supplemented his holiday rental income by touring Germany and Poland. “Just a nice twenty gigs or so a year,” he said.
Gordon has made a connection with Polish audiences through his music. Gordon believes that his tracks appeal in Poland because the country, throughout history, has been, ‘terrified by Russia and by Germany’. “They like the underdog. They also like Leonard Cohen, with his darker spiritual music. A lot of my music is philosophical,” he said.
Gordon felt truly at home in Greece. He appreciated their mournful and wistful musical style. “It’s all minor key.” He loved the friendliness of the people and the Mediterranean diet with olive oil and wine, which he says was good for arthritis. But his dream ended when Greece went through its financial crisis.
Gordon’s smile disappeared in an instant, as he recalled having to return to Britain when the situation in Greece changed. “The EU destroyed it. The Greeks are now taxed on stuff that they have owned for centuries, which has nothing to do with the EU. It was terribly sad. The man at the post office, one minute earned €1,000 a month. He woke up the next morning and that was €600, but he still had two kids to feed and he couldn’t make ends meet. Terrible things were happening. People were committing suicide. It was very depressing. I didn’t have enough money to help everybody that asked me for money. You find yourself getting short,” he said.
Gordon returned to England – first to Teffont Magna and then across the border to his home county of Dorset. He settled in Shaftesbury, a town he says he’s admired since his first visit in1974. “It’s the gentleness that I like,” said Gordon. He had lived on the Greek island of Skopelos, the ‘Mamma Mia’ filming location. “We were on the side of a mountain. It was like Gold Hill. We had a view of the sea and the harbour. When I looked down the valley here, in the twilight at 5am, it’s the same shape as the harbour. In silhouette, it’s an amazing coincidence.”
Gordon seems to be connected to Gold Hill. “I used to own number 12. I phoned the owner and asked him what he was doing with the holiday let. He said I could have it for a couple of months, so I moved in on 4th January. I noticed that this property, number 14, was for sale. I asked the owner if I could look after it while it was being sold. I moved two doors down, with no removal van,” Gordon said.
He then found another Gold Hill property to call home. “Number 13 approached me. They knew I was looking for something long-term. So, I’m moving next door for two years. Why do I need to pay £400,000 for a house when I’m 73?” he asked.
Gordon says that Gold Hill has inspired his writing. “I think there has been destiny at work. There is no way you could make this stuff up,” he said. “I picked up my career and went back to square one. A lot of things were dovetailing together, and I wrote the best ten songs I’ve ever written. It was like carrying a bag of gold back into England. I’d lost a lot, but I gained a lot,” Gordon said, as a smile returned to his face.
“I get enriched every time I write a song and I think I’ve written the best songs I’ve ever written. I know I’m getting older and I’m getting better. The guys who just think about money never get satisfied, because they don’t sit down and write a song. They don’t do anything apart from exploiting those who do.”
Gordon is excited about his new album, ‘The Cat Who’s Got the Cream’ which will be released early in the New Year. “There are a couple of R&B tracks there, some simple three-chord songs and there are at least six songs that you could say that Sinatra, Ray Charles or Tony Bennett could do. It’s the best we can do before I die,” he smiled.
Gordon’s next tour date near to Shaftesbury is in Verwood, at The Hub on 15th February. You can check out his gigs and his music on www.gordonhaskell.com.
As I put on my coat and prepared to leave Gordon, he generously offered thanks to the people who supported him in his early days. “I will owe those people in Southampton and Bournemouth. I will owe them until I die. I’m so grateful to them. I still love them to death.” Gordon’s voice cracked as he paused for a second and continued, “I gave them. They gave me.”