The Bitterest Beard In Britain

Meet the man they call The Bitterest Beard in Britain.
Yes, JOHN MARTYN is uptight. About almost everything. As usual. Or maybe it’s just his way. ROD McSHANE endures the onslaught.

EVEN THOUGH John Martyn will be taking a year off from gigging in Britain after his current tour ends this month, there won’t be any accusations of short-changing from the man’s considerable British following. He’s currently on his third tour of the year, and apart from that there’ve been numerous dates in Europe (including the Montreaux Jazz Festival), and the anti-climactic ‘end of the Rainbow’ gig.

Then there’s the licking of all those stamps for the white label live album distributed “cottage industry” fashion by mail order from his home in Hastings. And if there are, as reported, too many faulty pressings in the now sold out limited edition of 10,000 signed copies, he’ll probably need the year for sorting out consumer complaints and getting satisfaction from EMI. Actually, neither the twelve month. layoff or the “Live at Leeds” recordings were his idea, but the always independent minded Martyn has found justification for them: “It wasn’t my idea, it was my manager’s (Rob Wynn). And since he had the temerity to issue the statement that I was taking a year off, I’ve been considering it and it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. The reason I have come round to it so suddenly is that I really think it’s a bit silly that other people should be in charge of my life. I dunno what I’ll be doin’. I might do some gigs in Europe. After November I want to sit down, I want to sell my house; I want to find somewhere sensible to live.”

Bitterest Beard What’s wrong with Hastings?

“Nothin’. ‘Cept I’ve now got two children, and it hasn’t got a garden. Also, it’s too near civilisation. I want to lig about for a long while.”

I suspect that Martyn’s lack of new material (his set’s not changed since “Sunday’s Child” was released in January) has something to do with the move. But Martyn denies that emphatically. It’s the same set, he claims, because he and regular bassist Danny Thompson haven’t had time to rehearse the new material. But it’s there all right. It is, he says, “much the same as the old. The jazzy bits are jazzier than before, and the straight bits are jazzier than before.”

So. Is it in the mellow-goin’-home-to-Beverley-and-the-kids mood on the last album? i.e. does it further personify Martyn as Spencer the Rover? Or is it at the other extreme, like “Jelly Roll Baker” or Skip James’ classic “I’d Rather be the Devil?”

“Some of it’s very heavy in fact; some of it’s very electronic and very, um …”

Dirty?

“Yeah, dirty’s the word. It’s exceptionally dirty,” he smirks.”I was thinking about getting a job with a rock’n’roll band for a while. A few mouths of the year, I must admit, I wouldn’t mind playing lead guitar with a rock’n’roll band. Even rhythm guitar. Just a dirty horrible band. It’d be terrific. Something to do isn’t it, man? To keep yer’and in, avoid boredom at all costs.”

But to return to the album: “I’ll be playing electric guitar on it. That’s the main difference. I’ll be playing a Les Paul.”

Not throughout though. Martyn won’t be trading in his Martin with pickup; but for the electric bits: “I’ll have to get someone exceptionally ‘mean’ to play with me. Not another guitar player; I was thinking of keyboards players and drummers really. All this is indefinite, y’know.”

What is definite is that it’ll be done in the States with an American producer, probably at Electric Ladyland studios, which sounds like a return to the summer of ’69 days of “Stormbringer!” with Beverley in Woodstock, where Jimi and Levon Helm were neighbours and it was “down for tea with Bobby.”

Actually, Beverley Martyn’s four year retirement from recording wasn’t quite intentional. When Joe Boyd’s Witchseason was disbanded, John and Beverley were “sold” to Island Records and their understanding was that the recording cycle would be John and Beverley / John solo / Beverley solo / and so on. The first two got done, but Beverley’s album never got made — until last month, when it was released by DJM, not Island.

John, of course, guested in the studio, and it’s alleviated some of the frustrations he’s felt with the delay of his own upcoming album.

And the opening gigs of this “final” tour have been a considerable buzz after the three-month summer layoff which he found a “pain in the arse.”

The current tour has also meant a shift in Martyn’s taste in audiences. Whereas he used to favour American audiences, he now finds British ones more appealing.

“American audiences seem to be in more direct contact with you. They’re not quite so respectful. Which can be good and which can be bad. It depends. There’s nothing worse than playing to an audience of 20,000 screaming 17 year olds which I have on occasions. When confronted with that I just don’t know what to do. I just turn the volume up full and close my eyes. I think English audiences are probably my favourite.., because I’m British, I suppose.”

Definitely not the Germans though. Just before this tour, he did three days in Germany. So what went down there?

“I did. Like a lead brick. Over there. They keep billing me as England’s almost-folk guitarist. They expect things like “The Wild Rover”… –
‘smaazing – Tuetonic boys and Wagnerian chicks singing ‘If I bin a vild rover for menny a yeere’, and they’ve absolutely no idea what they’re singing about! When confronted with something like that we didn’t know what to do. They were leaving in droves.”

Very flattering in a way, no?

“Yeah, those who stayed were very dedicated. All three of ’em. They’re just not ready for me. This great guy from the radio station called Otto Barnstormer Schlutz said, ‘You will be here at five o’clock. Till zen, RE-LAX!’ I just couldn’t believe it. Tremendous!”

“I like Europe though. Places like Belgium; France was terrific. The Germans, maybe I’m unlucky with them. I don’t know. Mind you, I don’t think I helped because on ‘Singing in the Rain’ I was singing. ‘Let the Stormtroopers chase every Kraut from the place’.”

MONTREUX HE’S more bitter about. Also on the bill were Rory Gallagher and the Chieftains, and he affectionately remembers a very drunken all night session with them. Montreux was: “A lot of bread, that’s the impression I got from it. It was purely a moneymaking concern. I thought it was pretty shitty actually. Not everything it’s cracked up to beat all.I thought it was going to be about the aesthetics of music for art’s sake, that sort of stuff. No way. Even the musicians got ripped off the way I look at it. I just expected it to be a bit more culturally orientated and it wasn’t. It’s bread orientated. Twelve quid a ticket man! Come on! There’s nobody in the world worth that much.”

Martyn himself is scrupulous to give his audences value for money and goes out his way to reach them.

“Well, they’re there aren’t they? You can’t ignore them.”

A lot of people do.

Come Down Here and Say That“They’re fools then, aren’t they? The whole point of getting up in front of people is to turn ’em on. If you can’t do it one way, you’ve got to do it the other. You can’t ignore them, that’s ridiculous. Apart from the person-to-person basis, they have all paid bread to see you and that’s an honour for a kickoff. It really is. I like audiences. well most of them.”

That’s obvious by the way Martyn reduces the dimensions of large concert halls, by a combination of raps, music and his Glaswegian-Cockney stage manner.

“An air of reality is what’s called for. It’s the audience’s fault, as well as the industry’s fault. That’s something that’s got worse and worse over the years. It hasn’t really developed as a conscious approach on my part. It just comes from playing folk clubs for so long, and not really noticing the change. There’s a great big lump of me that still thinks I’m in Cousin’s, you know. Whereas in fact in front of you there are 2,500 people.”

Though he came from the sixties folk club scene and his music is very jazz-influenced, Martyn’s following is a largely rock-exposed audience. True, Danny Thompson’s probably the most respected bassist in the jazz field in the country, and John Stevens, Martyn’s drummer on his last tour also has a jazz background. Did he ever envisage himself getting into either of those scenes again?

“I’ve really got no desire to do that at all. Having encountered some of the British jazz scene. I think it’s in a very sick, sad, and sorry state. I’ve got to own up. Some of the petty jealousies I’ve seen in it! And the backbiting. It reminds me exactly of the folk scene. It’s just as small, it’s just as incestuous, and the people are just as jealous of each other.”

“In fact, I don’t like the folk scene, the jazz scene, any scene at all; I like my scene, and Danny’s scene, and the audience’s scene. It’s very selfish I s’pose. I just don’t wanna get involved with all the rest of the idiots. I could sit down and tell you horror stories about musicians all day… where their ambition’s got them. It’s just horrible…”

“That’s one of the lovely things about the album. All the letters I’ve been getting, terrific. I got a beauty the other day:’Since I left the institution your albums have been most comfortable in times of loneliness and despair. I must say that I have a 26 inch photograph of you on my lavatory door which I occasionally keep in my wallet along with a photograph of Jean-Paul Sartre playing lacrosse in the nude. Occasionally I compare the two, and when I do I laugh like a dragon.'”

When they’re not like that its often ‘Love to Beverley and the kids’; a few like ‘If you haven’t got any albums left don’t bother to send the bread back; buy you and Danny a drink’.” Martyn claims he never expected it at all. Maybe it’s not so surprising considering his music has a definite sense of values, that hoary old concept of the summers of ’68-’69, “love” predominant: “I entirely agree, but I just didn’t think I’d communicated that as successfully. That’s one of the things about this album, one of the things it’s really taught me. .. that things are not as bad as they seem y’know?”

“One really shouldn’t get ones bowels in an uproar over things that don’t really matter. Not when it comes down to it. Handkerchief pause all round! Okay? Right, let’s get on wif it.”

“I console myself whenever I come across a particular prickhead: ‘Well, listen, the cat can’t play. There ain’t no way he’s ever gonna get that buzz and I’ve got it so ho, ho, ho! I’ve got a gig without him, but he ain’t got no gig without me.”

“Which I must admit gives me a great deal of pleasure. Terrible mean thing to say, really. True, though.”

WHICH BROUGHT up the question of why just himself and Danny on this tour after using Stevens last time to complete a trio?

Martyn’s not saying. It’s something strictly between Stevens and himself, but he does add that John Stevens is the best drummer he’s ever worked with in Britain, and adds that one of the reasons he’s glad to be able to put out the live album is Stevens drumming, not on the studio recordings of “Bless the Weather”, “Make No Mistake”,”Beverley”, “Solid Air”, “Rather Be The Devil”, “Inside Out”, “Man In The Station.”

There’s also the obvious problem that Martyn’s guitar and Thompson’s bass are naturally so Siamese-twin tight together that there’s little room for a third: “We actually made room whenever we were playing with John. But there isn’t room, when we’re playing together, we try to leave as little room as possible. The whole idea is to make it sound full.”

Doing the tour as a duo also means that: “I can dive around with Dan very easily in the motor and avoid all that tour shit. I’ve just about had them, all the hassles, up to me ears. It’s bleedin’ mad. We don’t get none of that sound checking, set drums up, mess about for three hours. I mean half the time when we were on stage we were half drunk. That’s silly, just hanging about for three hours doing nuthin.”

And he can’t really see himself stopping playing with Danny.

What is problematic is that Martyn’s mobility and independence means a reliance on hired equipment, and too many gigs beset with sound problems: “A lot of that’s not having my own PA system. I probably should get one of those together. But again, you have to hire two roadies, vans and trucks and things. Don’t wanna know about it, just don’t wanna know.”

Not playing for a year though? Isn’t he gonna get bored?

“Well no, because I won’t stop playing. I’ll just stop playing in public. And also it’ll be a lot fresher. I can’t ever see meself stopping playing. It’s out of the question. I’d go completely round the bend if I was to stop playing completely.”

Rod McShane
New Musical Express
29 November 1975