Folk Legend John Martyn Dies

Folk legend John Martyn dies. Solid Air will be his lasting legacy.

Fond farewell…to legendary singer songwriter John Martyn.

“He wasn’t an ego megastar in any sort of way. He was just a commensurate musician with a beautiful voice.” Sister Bliss from dance act Faithless.

RENOWNED singer-songwriter John Martyn OBE has died in hospital in Ireland at the age of 60.

Having lived in Roberton, near Biggar, in the 1990s John was well known in the Clydesdale music scene.

A statement on his website read: “With heavy hearts and an unbearable sense of loss we must announce that John died this morning” (January 29).

He was born Iain David McGeachy on September 11 1948 in Surrey but moved to Glasgow when he was a child.

John learnt to play the guitar at 15 and on leaving school at 17 he started playing in some of the local folk clubs under the wing of celebrated folk artist Hamish Imlach.

With a growing reputation on the club circuit in the North, John decided it was time to move on and started playing in the clubs around London.

He was soon signed by Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, the label who would go on to launch Bob Marley and the Wailers international careers.

He started off his musical career in the British folk boom of the mid-Sixties and could still be regarded as fairly ‘mainstream’ in 1967 when he was signed to Island Records.

His debut album, London Conversation, was released in October 1967. The album won praise from the music press and launched a career that spanned five decades.

And John’s discovery of electronic ‘loop’ guitar sound effects soon produced a, for then, unique, almost psychedelic sound which came to the fore in his 1970 Stormbringer album, a revelation in its time and bringing many rock fans into his unique musical world. John was by now working with long term collaborator Danny Thompson and the pair were inseparable both on and off-stage. At the time John said: “I think I’ll always use Danny Thompson because he’s got real feel for my music and I’ve got real feel for his.”

John’s Solid Air album, released in February 1973, is now regarded as his masterpiece and cemented his place as one of modern music’s true cult figures. The album received tremendous reviews and showed its longevity when 26 years later it was voted as one of the best chill-out albums of all time by Q Magazine. He never had a hit as such but his following was worldwide and almost fanatically loyal.

His influence on forms of music ranging from folk to blues to soul to rock is incalculable; when, in 1975, Paul McCartney and Wings had a multi-million selling hit with Mull of Kintyre, John Martyn fans recognised a traditional Scottish air that their hero had recorded a (far better) version of seven years before! Several albums followed throughout the 70s and 80s with Martyn being cited as a huge influence by artists as varied as U2, Portishead and Eric Clapton. He also collaborated with artistes as diverse as Phil Collins, David Gilmour and Sister Bliss from dance act Faithless. “John was brilliant to work with and very approachable. He wasn’t an ego megastar in any sort of way,” said Sister Bliss. “He was just a commensurate musician with a beautiful voice. He did about 50 vocal takes that were all brilliant.”

John also contributed his song You Don’t Know What Love Is for the award winning movie the Talented Mr Ripley starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Fellow musician John Hillarby said: “His trademark melodies and lyrics are in a class of their own and his voice which is steeped in pleasure and pain, joy and fear and love and hate, expresses emotion like no other and can reduce even the strongest of men to tears.”

Over the years John performed less and less, becoming something of a legendary recluse in his cottage deep in the Upperward countryside.

One of his very rare public appearances in the past twenty years came during a concert at Lanark Memorial Hall as part of the former Cantrip cultural festival.

The possessor of a wonderfully self-effacing sense of humour, John commented on stage that this was his second gig in as many years “and my manager is frightened that I’m becoming over-exposed.”

He lost a leg to septicaemia a few years ago but managed one last critically acclaimed album before his death. It is perhaps a sign of just what respect he was held in amongst far, far more commercially successful fellow musicians that it was produced by Phil Collins and included guest artists of the likes of Paul Weller.

The importance of John Martyn’s legacy to modern music gained somewhat surprising recognition in the award of an OBE in the recent Queen’s New Years Honours List.

Like all the other rewards he so richly deserved for his music but never received, John died before he could personally be vested with this honour.

Ross Thomson and Ron Harris
Lanark Gazette
4 February 2009