The Triumphant Return Of John Martyn
The Triumphant Return Of John Martyn.
The voice on the other end of the telephone line is most certainly John Martyn’s. The soft Glaswegian accent and the dark timbre which is Martyn’s trademark is there, yet he seemed strangely disconnected. Oh no, I immediately thought. It is well known that Martyn struggled with alcohol and many other substances for years, but I thought those days were behind him. So why the strange distance in his hello, I mean it was four in the afternoon, after all!
As it turns out, I had just woken Martyn up from a well deserved catnap. Jet lag, time differences, and a heavy North American touring schedule, the first one in years, finally caught up with the old boy. Fearful that his wakeup call for an interview was coming from a radio DJ, he inquired hesitantly: “Is this going direct to air or anything?” When I assured him it wasn’t, he chuckled, “Thank God for that.” Still, it seemed a call back in 15 minutes was appropriate so Martyn could fully wake up. That leaves us a little time, dear readers, to review some of John Martyn’s background.
John Martyn was born in Glasgow, Scotland, some 40 odd years ago. He quickly gained respect and recognition for his song writing, singing, and acoustic guitar playing as one half of a duo, with his wife at the time, Beverley. The couple recorded two excellent albums which were produced by folk music giant Joe Boyd, whose Witchseason Productions gave early starts to such notables from British folk/rock as Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band, and Fairport Convention. Martyn soon traded in his acoustic guitar for an electric one, and pioneered the use of a, then new, effects pedal called an echoplex. This allowed Martyn to play against an ever changing curtain of echoing sound and started many a young guitar player experimenting with the device, including a young Irishman who would trade in his Christian name for the title The Edge and use that same effect to pilot himself and his band to fame.
While Beverley was busy at home raising the couple’s children, John was off raising hell with his long time musical foil and indulgence partner, Danny Thompson. It was two solo albums that Martyn recorded after his initial efforts with Beverley that really brought him fame. Bless the Weather and Solid Air showed a more mature, confident Martyn writing darker, smokier songs which were sung in his smooth whiskey drenched voice. His inflections started to slur with a jazz scat singer’s precision and Danny Thompson’s double bass provided the right improvisational counterpoint to meld Martyn’s music into a hybrid of folk and jazz, much in the way Thompson had done with Pentangle. This duo was a mainstay of festivals and clubs for much of the seventies, touring all over the world and wreaking havoc in every pub on the way.
The eighties saw John touring with a full electric band, all but abandoning his folk past for a slicker, cooler, jazzy sound. The nineties finds Martyn still on the road, minus the substance abuse and with a hot electric band that includes Spencer Cozens on keyboards; Jerry Underwood on sax and horns; fretless electric bass virtuoso Alan (no relation) Thomson, and sometimes legendary folk, rock drummer Gerry Conway, who has pounded the skins for everybody including Cat Stevens, Sandy Denny, Pentangle, Jethro Tull, Richard Thompson, and Big Mama Thornton.
Martyn himself is more vital than ever. His live shows remind us what a thing of beauty a screaming electric guitar can be. He has a new album called Cooltide that was just released in the States by Permanent Records (distributed by BMG) and his shows have included music from most periods of his career, including a very welcome, but much too brief acoustic solo spot. Upon calling back his hotel, I found a much more attentive and awake Martyn who offered apologetically: “It’s so hot here. The temperature disagrees with me, I kinda snoozed out. But carry on dear boy…” and so we do.
We started with Martyn’s musical beginnings in Glasgow and the rich folk scene which was blossoming in Britain in the early sixties… “I learned to play off a man named Hamish Imlach, who was not a fabulous musician, but he had a great attitude. I liked his guitar playing.”
What about people like Bert Jansch, I inquired…? “I was more influenced by Davey Graham, who influenced a lot of people at the time like Bert. Later I met the Incredible String Band. I would support them on folk club gigs and get three or four quid. They had a club on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow called Clive’s Incredible Folk Club. It was great. I saw all kinds of people there, most of them dead now… Alex Campbell, Josh McCrae, also a few American guys like Arlo Guthrie and Spider John Koerner. I used to tour regularly with Archie Fisher, Hamish and Josh. I was the kid though, I was the boy. I was brought up with traditional music. I don’t think you ever escape that. (My family) had the usual Scottish Presbyterian Sunday afternoons, you know, sit around the piano and sing.”
It wasn’t long before Martyn was writing his own material and playing solo gigs in Scotland as well as investigating the thriving musical scene in London. “I was at the University and used to play folk clubs on the weekends and evenings, just for fun and something to do. You could watch all the guitar players and learn stuff. Then one night some guy came up to me and said I will make you a star, would you like a recording contract? It was a guy called Theo Johnson. He knew Chris Blackwell who owned Island Records. They had just put together (believe it or not) a pair of albums of bawdy rugby ballads, which were the first two albums that ever came out on Island. Through organising that, Theo introduced me to Chris Blackwell, who was very sweet and gave me my first record deal.”
London Conversation was released in 1968 and reflected the influences of the time, including the first noodles on the echoplex. “I introduced myself to it. I wanted more sustain. It was actually a Wham copycat I bought first. It only had three speed settings but I discovered it did more if you played with it rather than just use it as an effect. It allowed me to do things other people didn’t do. It was kind of an accident really.”
The time in London was indeed fruitful. Martyn was a regular at Les Cousins, the experimental music club on Greek Street. He also toured the local clubs, coffeehouses, and universities, where he met his wife to be, Coventry singer Beverley Kutner. “She had a relationship with Joe Boyd, who was trying to get her a record deal. She walked into this gig I was playing at the art college. I was playing a little floor spot and she came up and asked me if I could play her a couple of tunes. So I did. She said, would I like to play guitar for her on an album, and I said that would be great. One thing led to another and we kinda shacked up together. By the time it came close to getting a deal, we had written a whole lot of songs and were playing all over the place and that was that. We just kinda fell together.”
Shortly afterward, the couple got married and Joe Boyd became their record producer. The two albums that resulted, Stormbringer! and The Road to Ruin further enhanced their image as Britain’s royal couple of folk music. “It was great. It was like another world. We got a huge recording deal with Warner Brothers and they took us to upstate New York. We lived there for a while in Woodstock.”
The Martyn’s The Road to Ruin album particularly reflects that time. Members of The Band played on it, and the flower child ethic which so typified Woodstock was echoed in the liner notes on the album’s back cover: “I think we can safely say quite categorically (emphasis) that this music has nothing to do with dying or anything like that… lots of love, John and Bev.” Shortly afterward, John began work on what was to be his first solo album after his marriage. It was widely reported that this was due to Beverley being busy with the couple’s children and for that reason temporarily retiring.
Today, John offers a further footnote: “the record company decided they weren’t really too wild about Beverley. They wanted me to record.” Record he did. Two albums that to this day are the foundation of much of Martyn’s popularity. Bless the Weather and Solid Air paired Danny Thompson and Martyn together and provided a set of songs that remain favourites among Martyn’s followings. Besides the two title tracks, there was Spencer the Rover, Head and Heart, Over the Hill, Glistening Glyndebourne and Martyn’s most requested tune May You Never (which was a minor hit for Eric Clapton later on). Solid Air was said to be written about and for Martyn’s long time friend and fellow musician Nick Drake, who died tragically young, shortly afterwards (see the Nick Drake article elsewhere in this issue).
“I knew him very well. He was on Witchseason as well. He lived very close to us in England. I think we influenced the way each other played. We played together often at each other’s houses.”
Pressed for any more remembrances, Martyn politely declined. After 15 years the subject of Drake’s untimely death still obviously pains Martyn. He did say, however, he will take part in a much anticipated tribute album to Nick Drake. ‘I’m gonna do a couple of tunes on that. I haven’t really decided which songs I’ll do. I think ‘Time Has Told Me. “There are a few others too. The music is just as beautiful as it ever was. He deserves more recognition than he got.”
In 1973 Martyn released Inside Out, which gave the echoplex its full monstrous voice. Once again paired with Thompson and with studio help from such notables as Steve Winwood and Chris Wood from Traffic, Martyn alternated from the pyrotechnics of Make No Mistake to a lounge lizard cover of ‘The Glory of Love. His tours were already becoming the thing of legends. With Thompson and Martyn expanding both musical horizons and mind altering frontiers, they all but turned away from any hints of folk music. In a 1990 Q magazine interview he explained: “I just got the heave with Donovan and Cat Stevens and all that terribly nice rolling up joints and sitting on toadstools, watching the sunlight dapple its way through the dingly dell of life’s rich pattern stuff. I consciously turned away from all that.”
The pair were as well known for their antics as much as for either musical virtuosity. When I asked if there were any good stories he could recount, he replied, with a laugh: “What kind of story would you like? They’re too numerous to mention.” Searching his memory for a moment, he offered: “We once played naked in Bolton.” John provided the following details: “We were always having bets with each other. We bet either one of us wouldn’t have the nerve to take off an article of clothing between each song. So we just did and needless to say we ended up naked. The audience loved it, there were about 700 people. It was good because Danny could hide behind his double bass and I could hide behind the guitar…. It was alright!”
Martyn at this point breaks his straight faced telling of the tale for a moment of up roaring laughter. “It must have looked funny from the back. The backstage view would have been quite educational, a-ha!”
Satisfied with one good story, I was about to move on to the next question, when Martyn, now obviously on a roll, offered dryly: “He nailed me under the carpet once.” He did what? I replied with visions of Monty Python images dancing in my brain. “We used to drink a great deal together. I got really drunk one night and woke up and he had nailed me under the carpet. I couldn’t move my hands or feet. I was very dry and had a hangover and I said (raspy voiced) Danny, please… get me, get me a drink. So he stepped over my helpless body, went to the phone and in a very loud voice said, can I have a glass of orange juice for one, please. Breakfast for one, please. I was screaming blue murder by this time. I was furious! He met the guy in the hall, so the guy couldn’t get into the room and see what was happening. He sat in front of me and downed the orange juice and had the breakfast.”
“The following evening I got my revenge. I got him really drunk while I remained sober. I watered down my drinks. He was so drunk, he just got to bed. I put his watch up five hours. He’d only been asleep about 15 minutes. I shook him viciously and I said (in a rushed voice) – Danny, Danny, come on, come on, we gotta go, oh fuck man, the gig, we’re gonna miss the gig, come on man, we gotta get a flight, come on man, come on, come on, we gotta go! He just went balaaahhh.”
“I said, I’ll see you in the lobby. I went down to the front desk and got myself another room and locked myself in there. I snuck downstairs and there he was, wandering around aimlessly, with his big double bass and half of his shirt hanging out. It was about two in the morning, you see. He was under the impression it was half past seven. It was wonderful!!!”
“Things like that went on all the time. We had sort of a running battle. He’s given up drinking all together, as have I. We still have a great deal of fun. We’ve played a few gigs together (recently) and probably will again.”
In 1975 the Live at Leeds album captured the pair’s shows at their jazzy best. Martyn then took a four month trip to Jamaica, where in spite of various racial confrontations, he got to play with such notables as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Burning Spear. The results were the island influenced One World album with his self-mythologising version of Johnny Too Bad. His version transformed the reggae standard into a strutting funk workout. But the song proved prophetic as years of the road and music over home and domesticity led to the collapse of Martyn’s marriage to Beverley. An album of harrowing honesty resulted, called Grace and Danger. Described by Martyn as his “Oh dear, my baby done left me, come back please, baby, baby record.” The Martyn’s close friend Chris Blackwell found the album so disturbing he delayed its release for a year. Grace and Danger was also the starting point of Martyn’s long term association with Phil Collins as drummer and producer. At around the same time, Collins’ marriage had broken up, so the two found much common ground.
Martyn explained in a 1990 interview: “We were both going through emotional trauma, so there was vast amounts of going down to the potting shed together and weeping. We’d both have these horrendous phone calls. I’d phone Beverley and it would be ‘aaargh!’ and then it would be Phil’s turn. We were both making ourselves terribly miserable and then playing and singing about it, sob!”
Glorious Fool followed in 1981, with Collins aiding Martyn’s move from Island to Warner Brothers and adding a much slicker commercial sheen to Martyn’s recorded sound. Old fans felt somewhat betrayed by the sound and Martyn’s taking to wearing well tailored suits in concert, but it was time for new ground to be covered. Such well worn concert favourites as Jack the Lad and the passionately angry John Wayne came from the next two albums, Well Kept Secret and the Robert Palmer collaboration Sapphire. Live albums Philentropy and Foundations even sported electric versions of such acoustic favourites as May You Never.
Piece by Piece in 1986 further confirmed Martyn’s dedication to jazz style improvisations, and included a version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow set against a sparse and bubbly synth tape loop. This little experiment went to number 17 in the British charts and number two in Sweden. Martyn reflects on his most recent ‘hit’ with wry humour in concert, “I don’t know about this ‘Wizard of Oz’ movie, you know, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore Toto,” he recounts sarcastically. “It always seemed to have thinly veiled drug references. You know, they go to sleep in a field of poppies and wake up covered in snow.”
The nineties have found a happier, cleaned up, and more confident Martyn. His 1990 album, The Apprentice, has won universal praise and his new album, Cooltide, is faring well. His live shows are as entertaining as ever. Beverley Martyn is even touring again in Britain. “I saw her a couple of weeks ago,” Martyn admitted. “She’s in great shape. She’s writing beautiful songs and playing very well.”
Are any future collaborations planned, I wondered? “Oh I doubt it, but we’ll see. Stranger things have happened.” So how does Martyn feel about his influence over a generation of guitar players, particularly all the ‘rattle and hum’ over a certain Irish guitar player’s use of the echoplex sound? “I think I’ve influenced more people on acoustic guitar, really. The backslap thing I do, I hear everywhere now, especially in folk clubs. I don’t like U2, to be honest, they sound like a pub band to me. They’re kind of dull. I prefer a lot of jazz really. Steps in the Dark, David Sanborn, David Sancious…. Modern stuff…. Joseph Zawinul still produces good music.”
And what of Martyn’s own music these days? What’s next? I asked. “At the moment I’m in the midst of re-recording a lot of stuff like Solid Air and Man in the Station in a more modern fashion. It’s ‘John Martyn’s Greatest Hits,’ I suppose,” he says with a laugh. “I’m recording them with different line-ups. Phil Collins will be on a couple of things, also Bonnie Raitt. We’re trying for an October release, maybe.”
Does this mean no more echoplex? “I just use an updated version,” he says with a sigh and laugh. “Digital, old bean, digital.”
Dirty Linen No.42
1 October 1992