The John Martyn Story

Although he has recorded for a variety of other labels, John Martyn is one of last great undiscovered gems in Island Records back catalogue. His gravel rough, sugar sweet vocal delivery, expressive guitar playing and the folk jazz ambience of the majority of his work make him ripe for reappraisal. His run of albums between 1971 and 1980 can all be deemed masterpieces.

Born lain David McGeachy on 11 September 1948 in New Malden, Surrey, but growing up mainly in Scotland, Martyn began playing in his early teens, encouraged by his parents, who were both light opera singers. Identified as a talent, he was tutored by Scottish guitar legend Hamish Imlach. “He taught me all these kind of guitar licks and the sort of stuff that Ralph McTell plays, ragtime, very gentle kind of Dylan stuff,” Martyn said in 1974. “I used to go and see him all the time. A friend of my father’s called Willie Sinnit used to make guitars and he knew I was playing guitar, so he said, ‘I know a friend called Hamish Imlach who plays in clubs and stuff’.” Moving south, Martyn became a stalwart on the London folk scene, where he encountered artists the calibre of Al Stewart and Bert Jansch, working around Richmond and Kingston. On being instructed by his agent to change his name, the young guitarist looked around the room and saw a Martin guitar and as was the wont for altering a letter in a group’s name in the 60s, he became Martyn, adding John because of its everyman nature. Young, fresh faced and, in fact, quite beautiful, Martyn became the first white solo performer to sign to Chris Blackwell’s soon to be legendary Island label.

His debut album, London Conversation, released at the end of 1967 was good, sweet, fresh folk, but tinged with a jazzy hue that separated Martyn from the ruck of Dylan copyists. The jazz influences were more prominent on the 1968 follow up, The Tumbler, which was produced by fellow folkie on the rise, Al Stewart. It found him playing with reedsman Harold McNair. “Those were basically acoustic albums,” Martyn recalled in 1986. “I was listening to Jansch and Graham and doing all the acoustic chops. I never played slicker or faster. It was a show off British exercise. The Tumbler material was influenced by my partner at the time, Paul Wheeler, a Cambridge philosophy student, who taught me the value of the British intellectual tradition, in the Graham Greene/Noel Coward sense. We decided not to play the American way, but be self consciously British in everything.” The album is not without its period charms.

Martyn married fellow folk singer Beverley Kutner, who had sung with the Levee Breakers and recorded for George Martin at Parlophone. Man and wife made a pair of winsome, of era albums that espoused an overall happy, mellow vibe. Stormbringer!, which was recorded at Woodstock at the insistence of Martyn’s American company, Warner Brothers and was complemented by the appearance of The Band’s Levon Helm. Their second album, The Road To Ruin, was somewhat darker, but still an overlooked beauty. It also marked the playing debut of a man who would have a tremendous influence on both Martyn’s sound and his personal life, Pentangle bassist, Danny Thompson. Although he and Beverley were not to record together again, the support she provided from their base near Hastings with their children was to be a rock on which Martyn would cling to more than once.

Bless The Weather marked the start of Martyn’s unassailable 70s. With Thompson providing his trademark slippery bottom, Martyn’s writing had developed and his experimentation with echo units on his acoustic guitar led to a remarkably individual sound. Minor key blues, jazz and folk all melded in warm washes of sound to complement his increasingly eco-cosmic lyrical preoccupations.

Martyn’s calling card was his 1973 work, Solid Air; its title track a lament to his friend, Nick Drake, then in the last two years of his short life. The work the pair were producing was, at the very least, on a par, yet today Drake and his body of work is crystallised and deified, while Martyn struggles to be heard. Solid Air also contained one of his sweetest and longest lasting of all his ballads, May You Never, covered to Martyn’s huge pleasure (in terms of royalties) by Eric Clapton and the shimmering down tempo classic, Don’t Want To Know.

As Martyn’s romantic side was ever further portrayed on vinyl, he became an unpredictable drunk out of the studio, often spurred on by Danny Thompson. Finding a degree of American success, he toured there several times in this period and acquired the taste for heavier drugs. Yet he would always be able to perform his increasingly transcendent live shows, with his echoplex units creating walls of sound. His next record, Inside Out, was one of his personal favourites, going deeper into mysticism and experimental instrumentation, “It’s very strange, a lovely album, it’s everything I ever wanted to do in music, it’s my inside coming out,” Martyn said in 1986. “It allowed me a vision into my own half finished self. It was all heartfelt, creative stuff.”

After 1975’s pastoral and family centric Sunday’s Child, Martyn became disenchanted with the music industry. Apart from releasing the mail order only Live At Leeds, recorded in February 1975 and which sold 10,000 copies all personally signed by Martyn as he dispatched them from his Hastings home, and endorsing the compilation So Far, So Good to celebrate his tenth anniversary with Island, he would not be heard on record again until late 1977.

Shocked by the death of his friend Paul Kossoff, he took an extended break staying with Chris Blackwell in Jamaica, where he met and recorded with legendary Jamaican producer and fruitcake, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Perry’s vibe hangs over One World, an album that in many respects has become Martyn’s masterpiece. “Chris took me down to Scratch’s house, the Black Ark,” Martyn told me in 2004. “Chris had said that Scratch and I were using essentially the same recording techniques and we should meet. I was using rhythm boxes and Echoplex, and my man Scratch was into the same effect, a dub thing, man.” A lot of the album was recorded at Chris Blackwell’s farm in Berkshire, in the middle of the night, at times, in the open air. An intricate system was set up with a live feed across the lake, so the sessions could be recorded outdoors, picking up the full ambience of the surroundings. The music reflected this; the gorgeous and dreamlike ambience of Small Hours, the drifting title track and the saucily rambunctious Big Muff.

The album was warmly received at the height of punk and Martyn toured to support it. However, strained by his wild ways, his marriage began to fall apart, a fact writ large in the grooves of the 1980 released Martin Levan produced Grace And Danger; an edgy, difficult record that was wrapped in smooth veneers. Working with Phil Collins, who was experiencing similar marital problems, as drummer and backing vocalist, Martyn,  with Sensational Alex Harvey Band keyboard player Tommy Eyre and future Simple Minds bass John Giblin created often bald and challenging songs ameliorated by a late night production that was to prove cathartic for him.

Martyn moved across to Warner Brothers, where he cut two albums and went, in many respects, for all out commercialism, Glorious Fool (on which Eric Clapton added his guitar to a new version of Couldn’t Love You More) and Well Kept Secret. It was in the wake of Phil Collins’ new MOR and there was a feeling that Martyn, on whose work his friend Collins based his solo career, could step up and enjoy similar success. It wasn’t to be, and, by 1983, after releasing the live album Philentropy, Martyn had returned to Blackwell, and the following year cut the relatively low key Sapphire, on which he, quite purposely, played hardly any guitar. Recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau and helped out significantly by Robert Palmer, it set the template for the remainder of his 80s albums, never less than extremely competent, enjoyable pieces of work, but altogether smoother than the work of his previous decade. He had also remarried and relocated to Scotland and the newfound mellowness suited him well.

Released in 1986, Piece By Piece was something of a commercial renaissance for Martyn, and he embarked on a nationwide tour, complete with a 20th Anniversary show at the London Palladium. Although many legends were rumoured to be turning up, in the end, Martyn and his band alone delighted with their overview of his career. The album was trailed by the single Angeline, one of his timeless ballads that could have been released at any point in his career. It was also one of the first ever CD singles.

John Martyn finally left Island at the end of the 80s after releasing his live album, Foundations and rejecting his new demos. He signed to new independent label, Permanent. His first release in 1990, The Apprentice was a fine approximation of the John Martyn sound, while Cooltide from the following year updated his formula for the 90s. However, a period of listlessness followed, with various re-records done of his classic Island material, Couldn’t Love You More featured Dave Gilmour and Phil Collins, while No Little Boy, a second album of covers appeared, against his wishes, in 1993. However, live, his performances were still incendiary.

By the mid 90s, his career received a shot in the arm with the sudden popularity of artists such as Portishead, on a new wave of slow paced, comedown centric dance music initially known as Trip-hop, which freely referenced his work. As a result, he signed a deal with Go! Discs and cut the album, And, which found him focused and experimenting with beats. Released in summer 1996, the album features Sunshine’s Better and The Downward Pull Of Human Nature, which are both among some of his best work. However, the deal soon evaporated as the label was swallowed into the Polygram conglomerate. That said, Martyn’s profile was raised again, and a recently released compilation of his Island work, Sweet Little Mysteries became a good selling item. It was during this renaissance that Martyn’s second wife, Annie, died. Buffeted by the tragedy, he began work on his incredible covers album, The Church With One Bell, which contained a masterful version of Portishead’s Glory Box.

Martyn signed a new deal with Independiente in 2000, the label set up by former Go! Discs owner Andy Macdonald. Apart from many ‘official bootleg’ type albums that have populated the market place, the reissue of Solid Air in 2002 was warmly received. The double, deluxe edition of One World, welcomed rapturously on its release two years later, proved there is still very much a market for this last great undiscovered talent.

Still on fiery form, Martyn released On The Cobbles in 2004 and the same year was featured in the BBC documentary Johnny Too Bad, a chronicle of his life and times, showcasing his irrepressible sense of humour before and after his leg amputation. A seemingly mundane leg injury led to a gross infection and the only prognosis was to have it amputated below the knee. In true Martyn style, he worked through this major life change with his legendary matter of factness. Now living in Ireland with his partner Theresa, he continues to write, tour and record. John Martyn is one of true talents of British music. And this is his story.

Daryl Easlea