The Bell! The Bell!

About the Church With One Bell album, in which Martyn tackles blues, jazz, rock and trip-hop covers, including songs by Randy Newman, Sonny Boy Williamson and Dead Can Dance.

Unlike most albums of reworked favourites, which tend to be obscured by accumulated reverence, this was put together from a record company wish list, and in many cases the singer was not inhibited by the need to outdo the song’s authors because he wasn’t even entirely clear who they were. Everything from Elmore James’ The Sky Is Crying to the Portishead tune Glory Box is grist to Martyn’s vernacular mill; he’s had one foot in the blues since 1968 and has also been the embodiment of trip-hop before such a term was coined. He can do that slurry grunge blues thing of Ben Harper’s on Excuse Me Mister, while also having the gravitas to make contact with the dread at the heart of Reverend Gary Davis’s Death Don’t Have No Mercy (although the lynch mob lament Strange Fruit may, by virtue of its inescapable staginess, be one of those songs that everybody should lay off for a while, and not just white folks).

There’s little of the liquid guitar play, just his growling imprecations front centre with a strong three piece band featuring Arran Ahmun’s drums turned right up. Best of all are the engaging gait of Bobby Charles’s Small Town Talk and a ridiculously amused version of Randy Newman’s God’s Song. By the time How Fortunate The Man With None, a Dead Can Dance tune with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, has been explored and expanded by one of our foremost heads, you begin to concur with the words of the late Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo when he said “music is a thing you cannot hinder.”

Why The Church With One Bell?
“Where I live there’s a church with one bell that I got wind that somebody was going to buy. I’ve had my eye on it for years but I’ve got no money. So I called the record company and they said, We will buy the church if you do a record of covers. They sent me 35 songs on a tape and I did about 16. I chose all the ones that were almost spiritual. I’m getting to that stage of life. I’m almost 50 and a Buddhist. I’m contemplating mortality. There’s a lot of reflective stuff on this album even though they’re all covers. I changed them all from what they were. I’ve occasionally taken liberties and so I’ve written to people like Ben Harper, who did Excuse Me Mister, apologising for taking license.”

This must be the slowest version of The Sky is Crying ever recorded.
“We changed the tempi of most things. One that I really wanted to do was Bruce Chanel’s Hey Baby. (Sings) ‘Hey… (interminable pause), hey, baby.’ I should do an album called John Martyn Sings Slowly.”

You do Randy Newman’s God’s Song but after “That’s why I love mankind”, you miss out the pay off “You really need me”…
“I sing that line with great conviction live. I repeat it. I have been known to take my hands away from the guitar and point while singing it.”

There are always noises on John Martyn albums that you’re not sure should be there. I took back three copies of Sunday’s Child in the seventies before I realised Spencer The Rover was meant to have that buzz on it.
“I was with Danny Thompson years ago and we were doing a studio gig at the BBC where there was this poor little apprentice engineer, and he said, ‘Mr Thompson, we’re getting a strange buzz on the bass.’ Danny put down his bass and went into the control booth. ‘That,’ he said to this bloke, ‘is tone and it’s taken me 20 years to get it.”

This seems more of a singer’s record.
“I’m really trying to become a good singer. I think this record is very plain and simple; therein would lie its charm. I rehearsed for three days and recorded in five and mixed for three. The lyrics were still being faxed through on the first day. I was just getting used to singing with my eyes closed and then I had to open them to read the lyrics. This afternoon I am making a blues album with a hip hop beat. Lots of slide guitar. And I’ve also got an album of new stuff which I’ve got to finish by the end of February. I’m in one of those creative moods.”

David Hepworth
Mojo
1 March 1998