BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert

Where do you begin to describe such an enigmatic personality as John Martyn’s, whose long career has been founded on an enviable reputation as a performer with a seemingly insatiable appetite for playing live?

Do you describe his progress from earliest days of playing folk clubs like Les Cousins in Greek Street in the late 1960’s and explain how his music has constantly evolved and developed until he is today an exponent of the art of playing the coolest of cool jazz, having absorbed and assimilated elements of rock, funk, reggae and all points between along the way? Do you try to explain how he combines bantering earthiness, humorous intelligence and acute observations of the human condition to create a unique on stage persona which can turn with consummate ease form gentle sweet talking love songs to eruptions of sound which force and audience into submission, as his voice stretches from a besotted slur to a poisonous howl? Do you produce a welter of concert reviews and rabbit on about the uplifting intensity of his playing, his sense of passion, his intense and involving music, his well rounded melodicism, his sensitive, sly, obsessional and elliptical lyrics, his mesmerising and exultant expressions of love or the fact that he’s got the most emotionally expressive voice currently on the market? You might, but in the end, words aren’t enough, know what I mean? You’ve just got to let the music speak for itself. So what are you getting here?

BBC Radio 1 Live In ConcertThe proceedings get under way with a rendition of the languid and anthemic Head And Heart (“I’m somewhere in the balance between them,” says Martyn), lifted from a solo acoustic performance in December 1971. With this time honoured concert props of a drink and a smoke (!) to hand, a gentle performance of the poignant traditional tune Spencer The Rover follows. Recorded in 1977, its celebration of simple values, peace and contentment is guaranteed to drive care away. But just before we all slide into some hippy abyss it’s time to cut to probably the finest Martyn concert captured by the Beeb, recorded late one Saturday afternoon in June 1986 on Stage One at the Glastonbury Festival. From the deceptively seductive opening chords of Mad Dog Days, a song of acrimonious domesticity, you know that you’re listening to a rare and charismatic talent with a unique ability to communicate joy, pain, romance and passion with a vibrant and relevant musical framework. The compelling and compulsive Dealer is propelled along by sinuous bass, relentless percussion and Martyn’s insistent vocals before it segues into an impassioned 1980’s reading of Outside In with soaring guitar and a seamless rhythm section.

The dense rhythms of the patently naughty dub with a difference, Big Muff come next (co-written with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry whilst on a sabbatical in Jamaica during 1976), swiftly followed by a version of Serendipity which puts the recorded album version in the shack. The manic din that is Lookin’ On, owes more than a little to Weather Report’s influence not least for Alan Thomson’s brilliant bass interpretation, a la Jaco Pastorius. The brooding and powerful John Wayne comes complete with what Martyn describes as his strangled duck vocal. (“It was originally a kind of satire on Ronald Reagan and all that flag waving, apple pie and turkey stuff… ‘turkey’ being the operative word!”) These days in concert the song has a sinister dimension to it with additional lyrics centred on the troubled Middle East. Another song which still features in his live concerts today is the reggae tinged Johnny Too Bad, written by Delroy Wilson and originally recorded by The Slickers, and another outcome of the influences he was exposed to in Jamaica. The Glastonbury tracks conclude with the Judy Garland standard Over The Rainbow sung with a voice that drips sweat and soul and which wrings every ounce of emotion from lyrics which he obviously has a strong affinity for. That leaves a second and much extended version of Outside In from 1977. Originally titled Man walks inside on an earlier BBC In Concert programme this 15 minute echoplex excursion formed the backbone of Martyn’s concerts around the mid 1970’s. So light up, lie back, float downstream… and bless the weather!

Now in the 1990’s, with a string of critically acclaimed albums behind him, major commercial success still eludes him although he rationalises this philosophically. “Success is when you know your own worth, all the rest is unnecessary ultimately.” As his hair thins and his waist thickens and his liking for things that are bad for him continues apace, he pursues his music in the same way that he always has, with little or no regard for how other people perceive him. He refuses to be categorised and pigeon-holed and goes on writing and playing timeless music that transcends the vagaries of fashion as he pares his feelings to the bone: “For me music is an emotional communication and should be used as such.”

Foresee the future? His frequent concert tours are always sold out and audiences can’t seem to get enough of him. The feeling is mutual: “I think I’ll play ’till the day I drop” … can’t argue with the sentiment, only the timing. For a man who has lost none of his ability to lift the heart and touch the mind, as these recordings bear witness to, it is to be hoped that his days as a performer are not numbered.

Chas Keep