The Church With One Bell

Ministry Of Sound.

One of music’s true non-conformists – John Martyn makes a sublime return. Alan Taylor is lifted by some very solid airs.

He sounds, not to put too fine a point on it and with apologies to Leonard Cohen, like a drunk in a midnight choir.  Slurry, blurry like Bob Dylan on a ‘bad hair day’.  John Martyn’s words merge into a meaningless vocal wave.

Catch him live and, sometimes, his lyrics are completely unintelligible his voice becoming another part of his musical repertoire, a bluesy, jazzy adjunct to his electrifying guitar-playing.  It is difficult to know whether he is under the weather or simply lost in reverie.

But listen to Martyn’s new album, The Church with One Bell, and there can be no doubt that this idiosyncratic style of croning is very deliberate.  Enunciation is not high on his list of priorities which is perhaps why he is such an acquired taste.

A homage to his heroes from Billie Holiday through Sonny Boy Williamson to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Randy Newman and Portishead, Church shows a strong affinity with maudlin barflies reflecting on love’s labours lost. Even with these cover versions you cannot help but be reminded of Martyn’s insistence that, “Every record is totally autobiographical.  That’s the only way I can write.  Some people keep diaries.  I make records.” Here is anger, cynicism, irony and, most disconcertingly, silence.

Musicians have a simple word for it.  They call it a “rest”, the exquisite nothingness between notes that can transform the mood of a piece.  John Martyn has always exploited its potential, allowing a note to linger agonizingly and fade and freeze.

On The Church with One Bell the silence is often sepulchral.  It is as essential to what he is about as the hole is in a Polo mint.  It may not, he concedes with a laugh, make the best radio, but it is part of what makes him unique.

In truth, he was never likely to play to a formula.  Even early on in his career, he was known for not going with the flow.  He first picked up a guitar he says, when he was 15 in 1964.  The guitarist Davey Graham was his inspiration.  “He started all the trouble” says Martyn ruefully.  Soon he was in cahoots with Hamish Imlach, godfather to the post-war Scottish folk fraternity.

In those razorless days, bearded bserguts filled the clubs with songs about bloomin’ heather and wild mountain thyme.  “Fingers in the earhole and Shoals of Herring 18 times a night” is Martyn’s sardonic take on it.

He was eager to move on.  First, he went solo, then he went to London, the route of the maverick, with Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson playing in his head.  He has been doing his own thing ever since.  Between London Conversation his first album, and this latest one, there have been 20 others, give or take a few.

Folk, blues, reggae, rock, soul, you name it, John Martyn’s delved into it.  Save perhaps pop.  He has never had a hit.  Does it worry him? ? Does an elephant give a toss about a tick?

He is at home in the tiny village of Roberton on the outskirts of Biggar, where he has been living these past 20 years.  He has a big house with whitewashed walls, a recording studio and a church which he bought recently.  Needless to say, it only has one bell.  The pew-less church is destined to be “somewhere to live and make videos.”  Martyn sees infinite potential in the stained glass windows.

He has just come back from Paris where the French seem to have appreciated Church.  Its themes are is renovation, the quest for beauty, the rediscovery of hidden gems.  There are gorgeous versions of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s Sky is Crying, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Small Town Talk by Bobby Charles, and a venomous interpretation of Randy Newman’s classic God’s Song.  Repeated playing confirms the album is without a dud.

“It’s quite serious,” he says unnecessarily.  Those who like to pigeon-hole him as Mr Misery will not be disappointed.  It is an undeniably dark piece of work.  But it is also intoxicating, full of sublime playing, raw emotion and gurgling lyricism.

The famously growly voice sounds more and more like Satchmo’s.  Martyn gives due credit to his producer, Norman Dayron, late of the London Howlin’ Wolf sessions.  “He managed to drag sounds from me that really cut to the quick.  Recording this album was a mixture of love and sweated blood.”

If another musician said this, you might take it with a pinch of sat.  In Martyn’s case, however, you had better believe it.  From the first he had a reputation as a wild man.  He himself has admitted that on stage he was often “a yob”.  There were bust-ups with fellow musicians, rows with his record company and an unfortunate venture with his wife, Beverley, which was never going to last.  Martyn is no collaborator either you are in tune with him or not.

The short-lived marriage did, however, produce a son, which in turn led to May you Never, a lovely song which is couched as a letter of fatherly advice.  Tender, loving and heartfelt, it shows another side of Martyn.  In many ways, though, it is untypical.  Then again nothing is typical of the man.  He has moved from a hippie in cheesecloth to besuited strummer without ever embracing the establishment.

In his early photographs he looks as innocent as Donovan.  Latterly, he seems to adopt disguises.  One day, he looks like a wasted Dubliner, the next he could be an extra from Reservoir Dogs.  Predictably he is not.

Beneath the gruff exterior and the loutish behaviour, I suspect that he is a shy man, deeply unsettled and troubled.  His parents divorced when he was five and he shuttled between the south of England, where his mother lived and Glasgow.  Nevertheless he insists his upbringing was “great”.  His mother trained as a soprano, his father as a tenor, and they worked for a while as an act.  At home, he heard hymns and vaudeville.

In a career spanning well over three decades, he has been nothing if not eccentric.  You name it, he’s played it.  And if his roots are acoustic, he has never been afraid to tinker with gizmos, electronic and otherwise.  Irreverent, eccentric, iconoclastic, he has survived being produced by Phil Collins and fronting Yes.  He has watched flower power wither and more stable friends go under.

He is a survivor who seems always to be on the edge of despair.  When he groans on Church with One Bell it is spiritually.  Music you feel, is his safe haven.  From the sound he makes he could be in agony.  The effect, how ever, is sublime.  When I tell his this, he sounds bashful.  “No hassle, man.”

Alan Taylor
The Scotsman
18 March 1998