BBC Live In Concert

BBC Live In Concert

Anything was possible amidst the social revolution that gripped the UK and overturned accepted protocols and preconceptions in the late 60s and early 70s. Music, fashion and life itself had no immunity to change. In 1971 decimal currency was introduced into the UK, Philips launched the Video Cassette Recorder and platform shoes, cheese cloth and bell bottoms were all the rage as eclectic tastes pushed back accepted boundaries. Even Royal Ascot relaxed its dress code to allow hot pants! Folk music became an industry as the record companies seized on Bob Dylan’s success and eagerly signed acoustic guitarists Michael Chapman, Donovan, Roy Harper, Bert Jansch and a young English born but Scottish bred artist; John Martyn.

With an established reputation above the Wall John Martyn moved to London in 1967 and within a few weeks was not only playing on the London Club circuit but had also secured a record deal with Island Records. His first recordings London Conversation (IMCD319) released in 1967 and The Tumbler (IMCD320) that followed in 1968 reveal an acoustic player in the British 60s mould. Two further albums with his wife Beverley followed, Stormbringer (IMCD317) and The Road to Ruin (IMCD318) released in November 1970. Alternate tunings and a willingness to explore the limitations of his acoustic guitar hinted at John’s future departure from ‘Folkdom’ but it was Bless The Weather (IMCD321) that broke the folk mould, John using the echoplex guitar technique that he is now widely credited with pioneering, and which was to play a key role in his studio albums. Anything was possible and John was determined to make possibility a reality.

We join John in glorious mono at a Live In Concert show that was held at the special request of BBC Radio 1 on 30th December 1971. Andy Dunkley introduced John at the Paris Theatre (formerly a Cinema) in Lower Regent Street, London, “a little bit of nice acoustic music and some spaced out electric folk from John Martyn.” An understatement if ever there was! Head And Heart is a profoundly invigorating song about John’s belief in the power of love to overcome all things.  The ebullience and melting warmth of John’s singing eloquently expresses his innermost emotions.

There’s just no way to say how much I love you
You never made me cry
And that’s just fine
Only got my fear
To put above you
You know we all get scared from time to time.

Love me with your head and heart
Love me from the place it starts
Love me from your head and heart
Love me like a child.

Singin’ in the Rain (with obligatory audience participation) and the heartbreakingly painful Bless The Weather, showcase John’s fingerpicking and backslap guitar technique that many have since attempted to emulate. Love is the underpinning theme of Outside In as John experiments with a volume/wah wah pedal and echoplex to create an astonishing wall of vibrantly textured sound, which filled the theatre, demolishing musical preconceptions to the delight and wonder of the audience. The sound is more akin to that of an orchestra than to one man with an acoustic guitar. This early improvised arrangement of the song shows the new, rougher, tougher experimental sound that saw John trailblazing his way from folk to progressive rock with a sound that was simply all his own. Outside In is a work in progress having been titled Inside Of Him, A Man Walks Inside and simply Inside before John was fully happy with the song and it was released in October 1973 on his album Inside Out (IMCD322). Its creative development can be heard by comparing the two performances included on this release, and by 1977 the exhilarating echoplex extravaganza was a mainstay of John’s concerts. John takes things down to speak from the heart and then builds them up with his soaring guitar and sustain into a crescendo; traditional folk fans could be excused for wondering if they had arrived at the right venue as there were only glimpses of the folk artist remaining.

Outside In, Spencer The Rover and Dealer are taken from the Bob Harris presented Sight and Sound In Concert transmitted on 15th October 1977 and recorded at the Bertie Crewe designed Hippodrome, in North End Road, Golders Green, London. The Hippodrome opened its doors on Boxing Day 1913 next to Golders Green Underground station and was easily accessible to Londoners, becoming a regular tour venue for such varied bands as Roxy Music, AC/DC and Manfred Man, before it was acquired by the BBC in the late 1960s and converted into a TV studio and later into a Radio Theatre.

Spencer The Rover is a beguiling traditional song, a mysterious account of a disconsolate soul roaming the country before finding his way again. The song was rearranged by John who first heard it played by Robin Dransfield in the mid 60s at the Glasgow Folk Centre. Beneath the rhythmic warm reggae influenced vibe of Dealer lays the terror of excess and the drug hell which overcame many of John’s peers.

They tell me that they dig my shit
So I sell it to them cheap
They bring their scales and check the deal
Are you scared that I might cheat?
Well you’re just the spit and polish on a fat man’s shiny shoe
And I think I’d hate them for it
And I think they hate me too.

Well you spend your whole life moaning
Down the telephone for bread
You can’t get your sleep for trying
To remember what you said
You come around most anytime
And sell me what you can
What you see is what you get
Catch me if you can.

John Martyn had gone further with the acoustic guitar than anyone had done before and few have emulated since. The contrasting depths in songs like Head And Heart and Outside In have a poignancy and beauty that has rarely been evoked by one man and one instrument. However, John had tired of solo performances and was now looking for other ways to develop his music, he wanted to take it to the next level and felt that a full band setting would give him greater creative freedom.

We return to the Paris Theatre for our last BBC In Concert performance broadcast on 11th April 1981 with a noticeable absentee; John’s acoustic guitar! Bass guitar, drums, keyboard and percussion provide John with a bigger creative canvas on which to paint a totally new sound. The hypnotic Big Muff is followed by a dynamic and powerful yet superbly sensitive Some People Are Crazy an observation on the endless circle of mistakes that people make over and over and a particular favourite of John’s. The latter song is taken from Grace and Danger (IMCD67), an intensely personal album of reflective material that documents his failed marriage to Beverley. The title track is a meticulously fashioned lush concoction with a compelling melody as John wishes his estranged wife future happiness with a hint of instinctive self preservation.

Sort of pretty in an ugly sort of way
Jagging strokes and hustling folks every live long day
My heart goes out to you
I think of me
I mutter desperately darling
As they say goodbye
Let me wish you as you fly.

The fast and fluid Save Some (For Me) records John’s reconciliatory approaches to Beverley and his upbeat and energetic interpretation of the Slickers’ Johnny Too Bad (with additional lyrics) shows the enjoyment and enthusiasm that pervades everything he does both, on and off the stage. It’s a polished and sumptuous performance, a long way from the 1971 John Martyn.

An extraordinary experimental guitar technique, infectious melodies, insightful lyrics and a warm soulful voice guarantee John Martyn his place in musical history.

John Hillarby
May 2007