The July Wakes

The July Wakes Festival took place from Friday 23rd to Sunday 25th in 1976 during the hottest summer in the UK since records began. For fifteen consecutive days temperatures reached 90°F (32°C) in England and five of those days saw temperatures exceed 95°F.

The July WakesA drought order heralded the arrival of standpipes on the streets as the blistering hot summer saw water levels fall to a dangerous level. The ground cracked, roads melted, and yes, there was a hosepipe ban! The River Thames dried up in places and with fires breaking out on a daily basis the landscape resembled the Australian outback rather than the lush green of the English countryside. On a more positive note Streaking was the new craze (?!), John Martyn was working on his new album One World, and record breaking sales of Rizzla papers and ale were reported in Charnock Richard, near Chorley, Lancashire as music lovers flocked to listen to outstanding music provided by Bert Jansch, The Chieftains, Mike Harding (sorry John!), Jack The Lad and Hedgehog Pie. Historically Wakes were religious festivals that commemorated church dedications in the local area .During the Industrial Revolution the tradition of the Wakes were adapted into a regular summer break in the mill towns of Lancashire, where each locality would nominate a Wakes Week during which the cotton mills would all close at the same time. This week then became the focus for fairs, and eventually holidays for the workers.

Tony Capstick introduces John as the headlining artist and we join him accompanied by Danny “The Spokesman” Thompson as they close the Festival at ten o’clock on a warm barmy Sunday evening.  The jokes and banter with the crowd are flowing freely as the Montreal Olympics, Jacques Cousteau and Yorkshire Terriers are all subjected to John’s inimitable sense of fun as he delivers a dazzlingly brilliant performance that outshines the intensity of the sunshine earlier in the day. The Bohemian crowd sit on the grass, and John’s delight in sharing the music that comes from his innermost self is beautifully illustrated in this ninety minute show at the height of 1970s heyday of folk rock Festivals. The lively crowd quench their summers thirst at make shift bars and restaurants set up in marquees some of which were later closed by health inspectors!

John performs a selection of songs from his early 1970s albums including the inspirational Outside In and a breathtaking I’d Rather Be The Devil. Both are wildly ambitious, mind-expanding multi-layered investigations into the possibilities of electro-acoustic entertainment, ablaze with distorted guitar and lyrics that defy convention.  Contrastingly in songs like My Baby Girl, Spencer The Rover and a delightful rendition of The Message, acoustic guitar, fingerpicking and backslap envelope John’s engaging voice in a warm glow of otherworldliness. Half of the lyrics of The Message are traditional; the song is also known as Marie’s Wedding, but John makes it all his own with his own arrangement of well placed chords and characteristic vocal delivery inspired by My Baby Girl Mhairi.

Every day and all night
I’m trying to tell you’re all right
Every day and every night
I try to tell you it’s black and white.

And though I know it’s your life and your time
And I know that it makes you feel fine
Don’t you know that it’s wrong
If you let life do that to you, love.

Step we gaily on we go
Heel for heel and toe for toe
Arm and arm and row and row
All for Mhairi’s wedding.

Plenty herring, plenty meal
Plenty fish to fill the creel
Plenty bonnie bairns as well
That’s the toast for Mhairi.

With his natural impulsiveness and curiosity, spontaneity and innovation are key elements of his live performances and this earned John an enviable reputation as a larger than life artist you just could not afford to miss on the live circuit. His partnership with Danny Thompson on double bass remains one of the greatest partnerships of all time and they remain good friends being in constant touch to this day. It was not always plain sailing however, and stories abound of their on and off stage antics. Danny told me, “We had a fight in Hull, a real fight in a hotel and he had two black eyes and his thumb was in a bandage because I got hold of his thumb to get him…  because he does all these dirty tricks. He was shouting and screaming about doing the gig and so on. I had some superficial damage. So we came out on to the stage and he sat down with his Martin and we hadn’t said a word because we really had the needle with each other. I went up to the mic and said, ‘Old Black Eyes is back!’ And he just cracked up!”

You could be forgiven for expressing surprise at such tales and finding them astonishing when you listen to John’s simple and beautiful songs delivered without pretension but perhaps less so against the background of belligerence, frustration and aggression in others.

Such contradictory music and lyrics creates a desire within the listener to delve further into his magical creations and into the man himself, a desire and fascination inextricably linked to joyous exuberance in uplifting songs, heart-wrenching melancholy, vociferous anger and a torturously haunting vocal delivery as John bears his scars to the world.

A Martyniculously crafted performance and intuitive narrative on life… pass to the left.

John Hillarby