The Battle Of Medway

“There’s a question mark over whether I’m sober enough to play anything,” said John, with a hint of humour and a hint of being mildly pissed off. “There’s seems to have been a lot of killing time.” He wasn’t wrong on the last point, but he was, of course, only teasing on the first.

The late Geoff Harden’s Medway Folk Centre in Kent, a weekly affair at Medway’s Old Ash Tree pub, had been very lucky to get the man at all, with regulars asking for ages, Geoff had tried in vain to pin down a date. In the event, John, living down the road in Hastings at the time, had finally agreed to come along as a last minute fill in for somebody else who’d had to cancel at short notice. But Geoff’s problems were far from over.

Medway, like most folk clubs of the era, was a single microphone scene; John needed three, for voice, guitar and echoplex unit, and a decent PA system for the resulting maelstrom of sound. John, and the unusually packed house that night, consequently had to put up with an hour of floor singers and increasingly desperate appeals for order from compere Geoff while some poor sod was dispatched to find and deliver the goods. Thankfully, whoever that brave soul was, they managed to do so and Geoff, his trusty reel to reel tape recorder running as ever, as it would for every gig he was involved in between 1963-1989, no doubt breathed a sigh of relief as John did his thing, inimitable then as now, for the next hour (with their guest artiste drawing the customary raffle, of course, in an interval, as order once again teetered on the brink of the abyss).

1973 was a year of serious transition for John, both musically, in bringing the electric element in his live show fully, if belatedly, onto record for the first time, and in terms of moving once and for all away from the folk club scene and upwards, career wise, into the college and concert circuit.

“I’ve moved out of them,” he said, of folk clubs, to NME’s Ian MacDonald in an interview published four days after the Medway gig, though obviously given at least a few days before it. “I felt the whole movement restrictive. I mean, ‘The Wild Rover’ is still unfortunately with us. The folk thing gets easily snookered and tends to run up its own ass a lot… Mentioning no names, most of the people who are being hailed today from the folk scene are playing bullshit as far as I’m concerned…”

“Traditional music is so strong, rhythmically and melodically, that I find electric instruments fight against the original values. They’re there for dramatic effect. Like mutton dressed as lamb. The music’s not meant for huge stages and loud volume. It’s meant for intimate circumstances or small social settings. It’s meant for your heart, not your head. Very few people are trying to reach the heart these days. Even McLaughlin fails ‘cos he’s trying to move the heart through the head, and that can’t be done.”

Rarely an interpreter of traditional music himself, Martyn was clearly in sympathy with its core values if not exactly with the folk rock era it was then going through. But he was by no means against electric music. Hearing The Band’s Music From Big Pink, with its subtle use of textures, had been a big influence, he’d told Melody Maker’s Mark Plummer a year earlier, in February 1972. As Plummer noted: “The strange feature with his playing is that while he uses the tones of the electric guitar, he models his use of notes on the saxophone, especially people like Coltrane. At the moment the people he listens to most are John McLaughlin, Terry Riley and Miles Davis. His love for the jazz side of contemporary music has led him to the point where he feels stranded between two sides of music, where he is not in a position to play with the people who he would most like to.” He’s looking for musicians with the same roots as his, but he shrugs his shoulders and says: “It’s alright, I’ll find some musicians to support me. I’m trying to pull electric into acoustic and acoustic into electric. I want to get a band together to record with. But going on the road with a band? I don’t know that I could get that together. The travelling organism is so impractical.”

“The trouble is that if he got a band of his own on the road it would not fit his easy going way of life. Sometimes he doesn’t even feel like playing electric at all, but the anarchy is slowly disappearing as he gets used to having a big business behind him. For five years in the small but lucrative club circuit he played gigs when people called and asked him to do so. Now he goes to his management at Island to find out where he is playing, to get road details sorted out and to pick up tickets to places. The change in his life could have drastic effects on his easy going attitude, but as yet he has managed to keep his importance in perspective.”

A year and a half down the line, one can be pretty sure that Geoff Harden still had John’s home number and that the boys at Island were blissfully unaware of their emerging icon’s last hurrah on the folk club scene.

Even leaving his career plan aside, the move away from clubs was probably inevitable. In that February 1972 piece, itself coming on the back of a recent eye opening appearance on TV’s Old Grey Whistle Test, where John had featured his electrified echoplex routine (curiously, a year before the now oft repeated May You Never/I’d Rather Be The Devil set on the same programme, this previous set referred to by Plummer seemingly now no longer extant), Plummer had not failed to hone in on the amenability of John’s act within the folk world. Electric folk rock was perfectly acceptable, and existed within acceptable frames of reference, 4/4 beats and fol-de-rol lyrics, for the most part,  but what John was doing, in exploring an unknown region between acoustic and electric music, between folk and jazz or, horror of horrors, jazz rock, was clearly destined to polarise opinions.

“John knows that his audience is going to be restricted to people of his own age and awareness,” concluded Plummer. “In their way, both the acoustic and electric parts of his act work against each other. For folk purists, the inclusion of an electric instrument is sacrilege, and with electric freaks the acoustic set is boring.”

John, for his part, was just following his muse: “I seem to get through to freaks of my own age group,” he agreed. “I would say that 60 or 70 per cent of the audience who get off to my music are in that bracket, but I don’t think that is totally my own fault. It’s just a shame that a lot of people will not accept both sides of the instrument.”

Making records, as both solo artist and as a duo with wife Beverley, since 1967, Solid Air, John’s sixth album, had appeared in February 1973, five months before the Medway gig, and was already being seen as a landmark. As had been the case on previous records, several other musicians were involved on Solid Air, including Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson, although John had yet to find a way, or individuals, he was comfortable with in terms of translating the group vibe of his albums into his live act: “I tend to play lead and rhythm and bass all together because of my background of solo experience in folk clubs,” explained John, in his July 1973 NME interview, “and musicians seem to find that hard to get into. Danny does it like second nature and it’s been a gas to work with him.”

By that stage, Danny Thompson had become a free agent, with the long predicated demise of his group, Pentangle finally happening in April ’73. Danny would soon form a live touring partnership with John, leading up to their incredible recording, with jazz drummer John Stevens, of a Leeds University gig in 1975, issued privately by John as Live At Leeds the following year, before exhaustion took its toll and ushered in a hiatus in both men’s careers.

But back in early ’73, having recorded Solid Air, from which four of the Medway set’s songs derive (Jelly Roll Baker, Don’t Wanna Know, May You Never and I’d Rather Be The Devil), John still wasn’t entirely convinced he’d found the right path. Indeed, the album that still defines him in the eyes of many had almost not happened at all: “I did a lot of sessions with some very heavy, super starry people and didn’t like it,” he told Ian MacDonald. “I scrapped it, much to everyone’s dismay. Consequently I left myself with about eight days to do the album, because the deal was that I had to have one to coincide with the American tour. I’ve never sung as good as on that record. But at the time I made it I was capable of singing even better, and playing better. It was all too rushed. The next one’s going to be a lot heavier. There’ll be more blowing on it from me.”

He wasn’t kidding: released in October 1973, and featuring at last his definitive echoplex creation Outside In, heard in a fascinating early form on the Medway gig, Inside Out finally explored on one piece of vinyl all the corners of John’s sound. But as celebrated as that hypnotic creation is, and as enduring as Solid Air’s freewheeling May You Never is, for John himself the song that most encapsulated his philosophy in the early ’70s, a philosophy which he emphasised to every interviewer, was Head And Heart, from 1971’s Bless The Weather: “I’m trying to simplify all the lyrics and get down to a musical expression,” he explained, of his song writing ethos, to Melody Maker’s Andrew Means in January ’73. “At the moment my head is racing musically much faster than it ever has before.” As Means observed, at the very beginning of his piece, “John Martyn will talk about anything without the slightest provocation, except his music.”

Head And Heart, in dealing with the simple and the profound, had shown the way: “I’m really hung up on heads and hearts,” he told Ian MacDonald six months later. “I mean, obviously they fuse together in your life, but they’re two quite different things. Initial reactions, to me, are heart reactions. I wouldn’t trust head or heart finally, though. The closest I can get is that I use my head to temper the judgements of my heart. I feel strongly that there’s a great dearth of heart everywhere right now. The drug culture has laid too heavy an emphasis on the expansion of the head. The point of my music is to pull people back to this heart thing. It’s no battle to get up there and sing whatever’s in your head at the time, but it’s a whole other scene to lay your heart on people. I want to be able to take my clothes off in front of everybody and say. ‘See? I’m just like you.”

Thankfully, it didn’t come to that at Medway but John certainly laid down a wealth of positive vibes, even gently rebuking the well meaning ministrations of Geoff “Quiet at the back!” Harden at one point to allow his audience to let off some steam and do their thing, while he did his. Sure, what was the harm in it? Thirty four years on and those positive vibes are still palpable, from the sweet, nostalgic take on Fred Astaire’s signature song Singing In The Rain (first heard on Bless The Weather) to the self confessed flash of Seven Black Roses, a last refugee of simpler times from 1968’s The Tumbler, to the blessing bestowed upon a sneezing punter in the middle of Jelly Roll Baker. It was a battleground for the club organiser, a roomful of love for his guest artiste.

Some years later, at the tail end of the ’80s or maybe the early ’90s, John Martyn received another desperate plea from Geoff Harden, by this time long a resident of Belfast and a loyal supporter, promoter and encourager of its musical scene. This time, a family situation had resulted in Dick Gaughan pulling out of an ambitious double header with the fast rising Altan at the Ulster Hall. John Martyn, conveniently holidaying somewhere on the island that week, once again answered the call and, of course, put on a truly barnstorming show, the like of which the members of Altan, for a start, had never seen before. He was John Wayne. As to the packed house, I doubt if anyone, with no disrespect to Dick Gaughan, would have felt short changed from the last minute substitution. He had, with head and heart, turned us all inside out. Long may he continue to do so.

Colin Harper
March 2007