John Martyn is a musician whose style and enthusiasm have survived decades of change in the recording world. Mark Prendergast interviews him and casts an eye over his career.
Mick Jagger hit one particular nail right on the head when he observed “Sixties musicians were built to last.” He might have been talking specifically about John Martyn, whose latest album, Piece by Piece, is an impressive synthesis of past influences and the stimulus of his present environment.
It would be unjust, however, to dismiss Martyrs as a “sixties musician.” A mainstay of the tour circuit even in recent years, his reputation has been built upon the special qualities of his live performance. This year he celebrates twenty years on stage – twenty years of change and development that have seen him bridge the gap between folk purism and more mainstream electric music.
His audiences have been nurtured on the fact that folk music doesn’t have to be staid or boring – and starting out with his own innovative acoustic style he has led his fans gradually towards a brand of electric music that is as startling as it is delightful.
John Martyn was born in Glasgow in 1948. The son of two operatic singers, he spent his time between Scotland and the waterways of Southern England. “My parents were divorced when I was young and I used to spend a lot of time on the canal boats with my mother during the summers.” In his early teens he fell in love with the acoustic guitar, and after he left school at seventeen started to play in pubs and clubs.
Immediately he met The Incredible String Band and a weird Scot called Hamish Imlach. Imlach tutored Martyn on the methods of combining modern sound techniques with the lilts and flows of Gaelic Folk music. John was also into black American blues: he, Imlach and others used to sponsor trips for these hard pressed musicians to come and play in Glasgow. In 1968, Martyn moved to London where he was immediately signed up by Chris Blackwell’s Island records, a label which specialised in West Indian reggae.
John recorded London Conversation and The Tumbler in that year, and though it betrays the Gaelic folk traditions of his back-ground, the acoustic guitar is put through effects boxes, speeded up and phased in a manner that marked him as a rare talent. A lot of critics tried to push him into the maelstrom of folk-rock that was booming at the time, but Martyn insists he was never really part of the English folk tradition. “I liked an album by Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, but I wasn’t too keen on English folk music. I preferred Scots and Celtic music to the music of Pentangle, Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention.”
His hectic life stepped up a gear when he married Beverley Kutner, a singer, and a blissful association begun. They went to Woodstock and recorded the acoustic rock album Stormbringer (Island 1969) with some of the best American players of that era. It was acoustic guitars filled out with pounding drums, piano, bass and even the pioneering echoplex guitar technique. Their follow up The Road to Ruin (Island 1969) was an harmonious, bucolic vision spiced up by the jazzy musicianship of Dudu Pukwana’s sax and Danny Thompson’s up-right bass.
Of the period John Martyn observes: “During the period of Storm bringer and Road to Ruin I was very influenced by Bob Dylan and The Band. I felt a lot about Dylan’s white American folk music. The record company and I. thought it was a good thing for me to go out to the West Coast and record my folk music with these influences. I was influenced by Pharoah Saunders and that got me into the jazz thing, a sort of transition. When I did Road to Ruin I met the African Highlights Band and played with Zulu musicians.”
Danny Thompson’s entry into John’s career was pivotal from a musical point of view. “Aye, the first real jazzer. Danny was out of the army and played with John Mclaughlin who was greatly influenced by Miles Davis. He taught me a lot about the technical aspects of playing and about MUSIC, particularly about style and jazz technique.”
Having paid his dues in the sixties Martyn came into the seventies with a precise style of playing which revolved around the echoing, reverberating sound of his acoustic guitar put through an echoplex box unit. His live performances became legendary and his reputation blossomed on both sides of the Atlantic. His wife now settled in her home life, John Martyn went solo, including a variety of musicians on record and in concert. Danny Thompson stayed with him for seven years.
Bless The Weather (Island 1971) was clear, crisp and finely executed. Its multi-layered acoustic guitar playing was complex but masterly, and the echoplex showcase cut, Glistening Glyndebourne, was Martyn at his instrumental best.
“With Bless the Weather the echoplex really comes in for the first time. The album was fairly bare. I just added a cheap pickup and the echoplex unit. In those days I wanted something to sustain. I took to the saxophone first but I didn’t have the patience or the understanding neighbours to become a master of the instrument in a relatively short period. I turned to making the acoustic guitar compatible with the fuzz-box and the echoplex unit which gave me this wonderful sustain. Then I found you could play other rhythms and it made me sound enormous. People couldn’t believe it was one person playing. With the echoplex you have to learn bow to play differently and it screwed up my normal playing quite a bit. I became more rhythmically orientated. It alters your timing and you have to play between beats rather than on any one beat. Instead of playing one, and two, and three, and four, you have to play two, three and four, five and so on. It was fairly different.”
Through a brace of albums in the seventies John Martyn showcased his echoplex. Solid Air (Island 1973) contained more outright ballads and easy music than its predecessors and saw Martyn “making the voice sound a bit more like an instrument.”
As usual he was producing himself, and the quality of the record put it in the vanguard of high quality commercial music. The same year he came out with a highly experimental self produced opus in Inside Out (Island) which was wild in its cross pollination of different styles. It gelled Moroccan and Indian music with elongated bars, electrified Gaelic guitar playing and free form acoustic playing. The album’s high point was the terrific echoplexing on Outside In which was cut live in the studio. Of the album John comments: “I’d liked to have attacked it with more technical ability, but at the time I wanted to hear this with that because I wanted to hear this with that.”
John was getting more and more interested in the electric guitar, and while gigging with his back-up group – John Stevens (drums) and Danny Thompson (bass) — he decided to record a live album. Live at Leeds (1975) is one of his best ever records and shows Martyn reaching a synthesis of jazz, electric echoplexed guitar playing and his acoustic style. He decided to put the album out himself because Island records didn’t think it was the right time. It sold 10,000 copies in a matter of weeks!
Moving more and more towards a synthesis of his experience, he left the seventies with another masterwork in One World (Island 1977). Here he brought in Chris Blackwell to the production console. “From a production point of view it was a very good album. It was thoroughly produced and I really enjoyed his objectivity. He sees at a wider angle than I do. I tend to get so involved that I can’t see the wood for the trees. I tend to get a lot of blocks and a lot of impasses. Chris doesn’t allow these.” One World was magically cohesive, with an overall echoplexed sound rooted on electric bass and guitar against a pulse of drums and background effects. All the tracks were excellent and a reminder to everyone that John Martyn was in a class of his own.
Between 1977 and 1980 he stayed away from the limelight and did other things. “I went to Jamaica and did a lot of session playing for black musicians like Max Romeo and Peter Tosh. I had met Lee Scratch Perry back in 1976 and we co-wrote Big Muff for One World. I played on some of his records when I was in the West Indies.”
His marriage under considerable strain, for John Martyn 1980 was a time of radical shifts in perspective. His music changed substantially to reflect this ‘dark side’ in his life. Again he came out tops with the smooth, eighties-sounding Grace and Danger (Island 1980) which was his first successful partnership with Phil Collins as producer.
Collins weaves a silken production around Martyn’s voice, and here we see for the first time John utilising the studio as an instrument in its own right. Rather than playing music and recording it close to the live sound, Martyn and Collins put their heads together and crafted a state-of-the-art studio album.
Sweet Little Mystery was the song which reflected this technique most, and its ballad, other worldliness guaranteed it FM airplay. The bulk of the album was so different from anything he had done previously that John decided to include one track that was in the old, familiar echoplex style. “I was working a new direction. With new technology I have to work very hard, so I was getting to grips with that. I included the echoplexed Johnny Too Bad because I always liked that song and played it for years. I thought my audience would like an echoplex cut.”
John also went to Dublin in that year to produce an album for folk rock group Scullion called Balance and Control. “I was very interested in their ideas, particularly Sonny Condell’s. It was pretty hard work but we came up with a record which was less folky than it would have been.”
Having become firm friends, John Martyn and Phil Collins teamed up for the next album Glorious Fool (WEA 1981). His marriage over, John had decided to assemble a steady hand, and he started gigging all over the place, even supporting Eric Clapton on tour. Eric came in to play on one track of Glorious Fool and the album was Martyn’s most overt rock statement ever. The title track was an excellent, booming put-down of Ronald Reagan. Alan Thompson’s fretless bass became Martyn’s distinctive bass sound for the eighties.
“Phil Collins is a wonderful musician and an easy man to work with. At that stage I wanted to be a band leader and be compatible with that. At the time I was working with Phil, synths and Fairlights were in their infancy. When I did Glorious Fool I was horrified that a B-movie actor like Ronald Reagan could get into the White House and run a country as powerful as the USA.”
Performing with high calibre musicians such as Max Middleton (keyboards) and Danny Cummings (percussion), and employing the horn services of Mel Collins and Dick Cuthell on record, John Martvn was taking on the eighties with more vitality than his youthful contemporaries.
His next album was the fast, up-tempo Well Kept Secret (W EA 1982), “This was produced by Sandy Robertson and it verged on disco it was a very up-heat album.”
Remarried and living in Scotland, John decided to return to his home label Island Records. Sapphire (Island I984) was recorded in the Bahamas with Robert Palmer on the desk. Here Martyn returns to his familiar dreamlike presence for a relaxed collection of songs moulded in jazz, folk, soul, reggae and shuffle styles. Its most surprising cut was the electronic version of Over the Rainbow and the album proved the point that Island records gave him the necessary environment to develop and grow.
On WE A his work seemed rushed and uncohesive. In concert he was using a guitar synthesiser and the accolades rolled front the critics’ pens. “With Sapphire it was a happy return to form for me. I was back at Island and happy to be there. I used computerised mixing and disco techniques and it turned out to be more mellow than my Warner Brothers work. It was wonderful but disciplined and I felt very relaxed with Robert Palmer who was gentle but firm in his approach. I also enjoyed being at Compass Point in the Bahamas. In a lot of ways it was all down to Robert in the end because too much rum was being consumed all over the place and Robert brought in a lot of the musicians.”
So, John Martyn has arrived safely in 1986 with a new direction and style of music that is mature, modern and distinctively superior in quality. Piece by Piece is positive proof of his standing and integrity in the music world. A very unorthodox approach is taken towards the keyboard content of the music, and the title track is a mesmeric, trance like flood of emotion in which Martyn’s voice and exquisite key changes hook the attention. “This is my best album so far. I like the melodies. I like the songs, I like the playing. It’s basically me and Foster Patterson, and it relies on keyboard work for its structure with the addition of Alan Thompson on bass and Colin Tully on Sax.”
Saxophone leads in tightly for the track Lonely Love which is very close to pop, but with the old Martyn vocals it doesn’t sound out of place. ‘What I’ve tried to do is sing more than play and push myself in a certain direction.’ Slow ballad-like tracks Angeline and One step too Far are beautifully surrounded by the smoothest music that John Martyn has ever produced. “I worked a little longer on drum programmes and digital mixes. It’s very refined. I was very particular on this album to get everything right. I spent a couple of days just recording Piece by Piece itself.”
The stormy rhythms of Nightline and the hard beat of Loire of Mine demonstrate the tough side of his personality, but on John Wayne he cuts loose completely. The piece is a sound collage of John shrieking in the background to a constant, climatic shift of electric sounds. “When I was writing it I had this terrible feeling of rage about an acquaintance’ of mine. So I was sitting down thrashing away with a fuzz box making these dreadful angry noises, jiggidy, jiggidy, wang, wizzle! Halfway through this I saw the funny side of it and thought I sounded like John Wayne being Rooster Cockburn, so I did the song as a kind of satire on Ronald Reagan and all that flag waving, apple pie and turkey stuff. Turkey being the operative word.”
Piece By Piece showcases Martyn’s ability to blend his personality and voice with the rigours of jazz instrumentation. Here a useful comparison can be made with Sting’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles. There Sting completely drowns the talents of his sidemen in a dull and muggy commercial pop production. John Martyn, to his credit, endows the music with all the benefits of a crystalline production technique.
He’s a meticulous producer. “I’m very fussy in the studio. I like an engineer who’s quick and efficient, with a mind of his own. I like engineers to be musicians. There’s a very good guy at Island called Groucho, and Brian Young was the engineer on Piece by Piece. When I go into the studio now I use a harmoniser to fatten up the key boards and make them big. On all instruments and vocals I use a repeat echo and a regenerator very low. On the drums I use an ambient echo and reverb. This album uses completely digital equipment which is more accurate.”
On the more technical aspects he comments: “I use an Ensonig Mirage sampling synthesiser, one of the new breed, plus a processed drum sound which uses a gate, squash and lexicon on the normal drum sound. I usually record the drums in large rooms like gymnasiums. To tell you the truth I’ve never recorded or used a Fairlight Computer Instrument.”
John Martyn has ably straddled three decades and changed with the times. Recently he released the world’s first ever Compact Disc single Angeline. For the discerning listener it contains a crackle free version of Bob Dylan’s Tight Connection, and reminders of John’s past in the form of May you never, Solid Air and Glistening Glyndebourne. Let John have the last word. “I exist outside the mainstream. It’s a challenge to change like with the electric thing but I’ll still play the acoustic on three or four numbers live for the audience who associate me with it.” It seems as if that audience still has lots to look forward to.
New HiFi Sound
1 June 1986