Gordon Haskell

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An article from the Independant December 2001 written by Terence Blacker:

One of the great unsung heroes of popular music

Now and then, when visiting schools, I am asked the question, “If you weren’t a writer, what would you like to be?” I used to reply with sensible-sounding half-lies – “A teacher, maybe, or a book publishing editor” – but recently, in a spirit of reckless, middle-aged frankness, I have come out with the only truly honest answer. I would have liked to have been a pop star. The children laugh. They find my answer quite a lot funnier than is entirely kind or appropriate. Even when I tell them that I play the guitar, I try to write songs, and point out that novelty acts turn up quite often on Top of the Pops, they refuse to take me seriously.

The problem is that middle age (or, in pop terms, old age) and novelty appear not to go together. Reedy-shanked veterans of the rock establishment manage to retain their ageing fan base. Personalities, puppets and comedians occasionally break into the charts. But to find some old codger who appears from nowhere with their own hit song, one would probably have to go back to Allan Smethurst, the Singing Postman.

Until now. As every chart-watcher will know, the past fortnight has brought hope to a forgotten generation of musicians with their fading jeans, receding hairlines and battered Gibsons. Joining the race for this Christmas’s number one spot, competing with such kings and queens of hype as Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet, and The Tweenies, is a man called Gordon Haskell with his own song “How Wonderful You Are”. Haskell is 55 and, until recently, earned a living singing in pub in Dorset.

True hits, created by genuine consumer demand rather than marketing, happen occasionally in the book world – Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch was one, the first Harry Potter novel another – but are rarer in the music business. Haskell’s is the genuine article. After years of writing and performing, he borrowed £200 to record the song. It was sent on spec to Radio 2, where the oldie DJs Johnny Walker and Ken Bruce took a liking to it and began to give it airplay. It became the most frequently requested record in Radio 2’s history and, in advance of its release as a single this week, 150,000 copies had been pre-sold. Haskell has just signed a four-album deal worth £2.8m with AOL Time Warner.

His career, it turns out, is similar to that of hundreds, maybe thousands, of musicians who have kept on playing down the years in pubs, bars, restaurants and holiday camps. Like many of his colleagues, Haskell has had a brush with the big time – he played bass behind Otis Redding and Cliff Richard during the 1960s and ended up being part, briefly, of the group King Crimson.

Things went wrong. Marriages went belly-up. He lost contact with his children. Several years were spent, as he puts it, “playing to drunks in Norway”. I imagine that he has experienced a few management rip-offs, dodgy gigs and musical embarrassments in his time.

It is a story which will be familiar to many musicians. They have played on, in spite of disappointments and humiliations, because music is their life and because one day, they believe, that music will be recognised. Their breakthroughs, if they happen, tend to be a TV theme tune, singing to an advertising jingle, or writing a song that gets covered by someone younger and less talented.

Haskell’s success is of a different order and, appropriately, he is giving the royalties earned by “How Wonderful You Are” to the session musicians who played on it. He’s not interested in money, he says. “It’s enough for me that my music has been recognised.”

If there is any justice, Robbie, Nicole, Kate and The Tweenies will take second place in the charts to someone who represents the true, unsung heroes of popular music.