John Martyn; Record Collector
John Martyn; Record Collector.
Chas Keep traces more than two decades of the singer songwriters mercurial career.
Few musicians have been held in such high esteem by critics and fans alike, without converting their cult status into commercial success, as John Martyn. The noted guitarist/songwriter has a back catalogue of come 20 albums behind him, that mark his transition from acoustic folkie in the late 1960s, through his jazz inspired guitar experiments of the 1970s and early 1980s, to his smoother sound of today. Though he has never achieved the recognition his music has deserved, his loyal following has been enough to enable his career to continue unchecked.
The only child of two singers who separated shortly after his birth in 1948, Martyn was raised by his grandmother and his father in urban Glasgow, spending his annual holidays touring the waterways of southern England with his mother. Striving to be ‘different and bohemian’, the adolescent Martyn took up the guitar, and was noticed by one Hamish Imlach, who taught him much and showed him the possibilities of combining traditional and modern approaches to music whilst still sounding contemporary.
Having exhausted local opportunities, Martyn moved to London and became the first white artist to sign to Chris Blackwell’s hitherto reggae orientated Island label. His debut album London Conversation was duly released in February 1968 in glorious mono. Costing just £158 to make and recorded when Martyn was 18 and a half, the album sticks fairly closely to the standard folk song formula of Martyn’s adapted version of the traditional Cocaine Blues.
Martyn quickly recorded a follow up, however, and the December 1968 release of The Tumbler, with its healthy disregard for folk conventions, pointed the way ahead. Reputedly recorded in a single afternoon, it cost an outrageous £200 to make this time. The set was produced by Al Stewart and featured the influential jazz flautist Harold McNair, who played to greatest effect on the languidly romantic Dusty, a song inspired by a childhood reminiscence about Hampton Court Fair, and the album’s outstanding track. Island pink label originals of both these albums are very desirable.
At this time Martyn got bored with the “folk/acoustic thing”, believing it limited the potential for creativity. Change was not long in coming. In 1969 he met and married Coventry singer Beverley Kutner, who had been signed to Joe Boyd’s publishing company, Witchseason, had appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival, and had issued a pair of solo singles on Deram. John was originally hired to be Beverley’s back up guitarist for recording sessions in America, but instead the pair were signed up by Warner Brothers, who sent them to Woodstock in 1969 to rehearse with Doors and John Sebastian producer Paul Harris. The actual recording at A&R Studios, New York, took only 6 days with 2 days mixing, and the result was Stormbringer!, released in February 1970. The combination of folk guitars, with a strong bass, drum and piano backing, broke new ground and set a precedent for countless bands to follow. Furthermore, two tracks, Would You Believe Me and The Ocean, marked the tentative introduction of Martyn’s pioneering guitar technique. John was inspired by the Band’s Music From Big Pink to experiment to find a distinctive guitar sound. “I want to get away from common guitar phrasing as much as possible, otherwise you can’t express your uniqueness”, he said at the time. Island released John The Baptist as a single (featuring the Band’s Levon Helm on drums and a distinctly odd lyric), coupled with The Ocean, but it sank without trace.
The second, and last, album recorded with Beverley, The Road To Ruin, was recorded at Sound Techniques in Chelsea and released in November 1970. Because of the numerous overdubs required Martyn felt the recordings lacked spontaneity, but the album, which continued the subtle improvisations from Stormbringer! and employed a noticeably jazz based instrumentation in what was basically a rock format, was strong enough. It also marked the beginning of Martyn’s infamous partnership with Pentangle’s bassist, Danny Thompson, who was to influence Martyn’s style and jazz technique enormously.
The imminent arrival of a second child effectively brought Beverley’s career to an end, so Island gave Martyn £6,000 to go into the studio to see what he could come up with. Released in November 1971, Bless The Weather was an album of pure, simple but mature songs which Martyn says was “very innocent, very beautiful and a pleasure to make.” Some of the material was written in the studio on the day it was recorded with no rewriting, satisfying Martyn’s desire to be spontaneous. The basic guitar/bass/vocal line up dominated the album with “one right note saying more than a fretful of wrongs.” Danny Thompson provided perfect bass accompaniment with additional help from Richard Thompson (ex-Fairport Convention), Tony Reeves (Colosseum), Ian Whiteman and Roger Powell (Mighty Baby).
Generally acknowledged as one of Martyn’s best albums, the relaxed and bluesy titled track still featured in his 1989 live concerts. Although Rolling Stone dismissed the track Glistening Glyndebourne as “rambling” it showcased Martyn’s technique of playing acoustic guitar through an echoplex (echo unit) to stunning effect.
Island released May You Never, a song for Martyn’s son, as a single and this early version of the 1973 Solid Air album track featured drums plus back up guitar by Free’s Paul Kossoff. Martyn didn’t like the way the track was turning out and left the producer (“Robin somebody or other”) to overdub and piece it all together. According to Martyn it “sold four copies”, but joking apart, it is rare and collectable. Expect to pay around £5 for copies today.
Many regard Solid Air, released in February 1973, as THE John Martyn album. The hypnotic title track, written for friend and peer, Nick Drake, concerned Drake’s mental strife at the time. (He was to die the following year, a great loss to Martyn personally, and to music generally). Adventurous, dynamic, with a rare depth and power, the album demonstrated Martyn’s slurred vocal style reaching the stage where it became fully integrated into the overall sound as an improvisational instrument used for its colours of tone, something Martyn had always aimed for. The music was suspended somewhere between the freedom of space and more earthbound considerations as Martyn’s vocals flowed through the loose but inspired instrumentation, provided by the likes of Danny Thompson, Richard Thompson, John Rabbit Bundrick (from the one off Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit), Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and Simon Nicol, and of course, Martyn and his box of tricks.
Original copies of John Martyn’s debut album, London Conversation, issued in October 1967 on Island, today fetch £15.
Solid Air sold well in the UK and America but success went to his head as his fondness for alcohol and other excesses grew out of hand. Keen for another Solid Air, Island “let me loose in the studio, a totally free hand… they must have been mad!” The result was Inside Out, released in October 1973, which Martyn said at the time was “everything I ever wanted to do in music .. it’s my inside coming out.” This experimental, skilfully free form jazz orientated album features extraordinary guitar work from Martyn, superbly varied bass playing from Danny Thompson and effective back-up from Traffic’s Steve Winwood and Chris Wood, Bobby Keyes and Remi Kabaka. Produced in intensive sessions, largely late at night, the album was assembled with no cutting, editing or splicing. It was simply recorded ‘live’ and tracks were faded out where necessary. “It felt natural” says Martyn at the beginning of the opening track Fine Lines, and it still does.
After the iconoclasm of lnside Out which critics referred to as “a cosmic foray” and “music from inner space”, and which won Martyn a Golden Disc award from Montreux, Sunday’s Child, released in January 1975, marked a return to the conventional song format. Recorded and mixed during August 1974 at Island Studios, the sessions were again short but intensive, producing songs of considerable contrasts from the down home boogie of Clutches (owing more than a passing nod to Little Feat’s Lowell George), to the traditional folk of Spencer The Rover. The overall feel of the album is one of content, merit, and Martyn called it “the family album, very happy, purely romantic… a nice period”, an impression borne out by My Baby Girl, which featured Beverley on vocals for the last time.
John teamed up with wife Beverley for Stormbringer!, the first of two albums recorded by the couple during 1970.
Martyn toured extensively in 1975, beginning in February, and took with him Danny Thompson, John Stevens on drums, and Paul Kossoff (virtually inactive since he left Free in 1973 because of drug addiction and heart trouble) on guitar. A full blooded and uncompromising concert at Leeds University was recorded (without Kossoff) with a view to releasing a live album, but Island weren’t keen so Martyn produced, designed and sold Live At Leeds purely by mail order from his Hastings home. Although it bears an Island catalogue number it was never on general release and the limited edition of 10,000 quickly sold out. Some albums were numbered and personally signed by Martyn, making this a real collector’s album. Even Martyn himself has no copy: “I sold them all, I was the first of the record independents!”
The album confirmed his reputation as a witty and original stage performer, with a wicked line in banter and repartee, and this, coupled with excellent album reviews, helped bring Martyn an audience that was to stay with him for years to come. The reissue of Live At Leeds in 1987 has just begun to take the edge off of this collectable release, though an original signed and numbered copy will still set you back some £30.
Dealing with Live At Leeds and excessive touring drove Martyn close to nervous exhaustion and he didn’t play or write for months after the final tour of 1975. Instead he used all his savings (£7,500) and took a sabbatical for most of 1976, spending four fruitful months in Jamaica (“like Glasgow transported to Paradise!”) where the Island Records connection was utilised and Martyn played on Burning Spear’s Man In The Hills (ILPS 9412) plus some Max Romeo sessions, and worked with dubmaster Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Back in England, Martyn sang and played guitar on Anni, a jazz-based single on Vertigo (6059 140) credited to John Stevens’ Away featuring John Martyn.
With Chris Blackwell as producer, recording sessions began in London in March 1977, the same month that Island released So Far, So Good, a compilation album. The inclusion of a live version of Skip James I’d Rather Be The Devil (albeit inferior to the Live At Leeds version) makes this album collectable. Martyn disagreed with the choice of tracks but was too busy recording to get involved. Over The Hill was pressed up in a DJ-only format with the words “dirty champagne” substituted for the risky “sweet cocaine”, to avoid a ban and problems with airplay They needn’t have bothered, it failed to make any impact! However the album sold well, earning Martyn a gold disc, which he tried to smash on more than one occasion, in disgust!
The critically acclaimed One World, released in November 1977, was commercially accessible and sold well, charting at No. 54. Again it contained a variety of styles and moods from the vaguely indecent dub with a difference Big Muff (co-written with Lee Perry) to the acoustic romance of Couldn’t Love You More. The album closes with the mesmerising Small Hours, a ‘live’ echoplex excursion featuring Morris Pert (Brand X), Steve Winwood and a flock of Canada geese! The likeable and upbeat Dancing was released as a single and is interesting for the instrumental version of Dealer on the B-side.
After One World there followed a lengthy silence, although Martyn appeared on Neil Ardley’s Harmony Of The Spheres (Decca TXS-R133). Recorded between July and September 1978, it featured John on rhythm guitar and also lead on four of the seven tracks, although he apparently wasn’t happy with his playing. During this time the Martyns’ marriage, which had been under great strain, finally broke down. Martyn’s reaction was to put the auto pilot on self destruct. “You name it, I soaked myself in it … it was a dark period in my life.” The music from this period, which made up the Grace and Danger album, featured Phil Collins and John Giblin (then working together in Brand X). Giblin’s loping harmonic bass playing owed much to the style of Weather Report’s late, great Jaco Pastorius (a band and a bassist Martyn had long admired), and Collins’ immaculate drumming and backing vocals fitted superbly, as did the keyboard work by Tommy Eyre (Grease Band) and Dave Lawson (late of Greenslade and Stackridge).
The Road To Ruin, John’s final collaboration with wife Beverley, was characterised by a noticeably jazz based instrumentation.
Relying increasingly on his Gibson S.G. electric guitar, Martyn’s playing had evolved into a highly inventive and beguilingly controlled style reminiscent of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk’s revolutionary musical phrasing, and with his distinctive vocal delivery and painfully honest lyrics, Grace And Danger became a stunning exposition of confusion, heartache, love and remorse. Martyn later said that it was “probably the most specific piece of autobiography I’ve written. Some people keep diaries, I make records.” However, Island boss Blackwell, a close friend of the Martyns, held up the album for a year, finding it too openly disturbing to release. Only after extreme pressure from Martyn did it finally achieve both a release in October 1980 and the exorcism which Martyn needed. In the late 1980’s Martyn would cite this album as his favourite.
Island released Martyn’s reggae tinged version of The Slickers’ Johnny Too Bad (the only ‘cover’ on the album) three times as a single, the second version backed by an anarchic dub mix. A different, extended dub version appeared on the A-side of the third release, a 12″ single, which also featured an extended, remixed version of Big Muff on the B-side. Rare and highly collectable, this single fetches up to £8. Island also released Sweet Little Mystery (this time with Johnny Too Bad on the B-side!)
On 1971’s Bless The Weather, John jettisoned his earlier big productions and settled for a simpler, more spontaneous style.
In 1981 Martyn moved to WEA, and issued Glorious Fool, which was recorded at London’s Townhouse and released in September 1981. The album was produced by Phil Collins who again played drums. With its satirical title track dedicated to Ronald Reagan, Glorious Fool was a serious bid for the mainstream big time and it charted for seven weeks, reaching No. 25. Although Martyn and Collins produced some new sounds, particularly on the strikingly sparse anti-war anthem Don’t You Go, the production tended to submerge Martyn’s guitar and vocals beneath a wash of synthesisers at times and neutralise his individuality, rendering the album a patchy, emotionless affair. WEA released Please Fall In Love With Me as a single but it failed to impress. Around this time, Eric Clapton, who had played guitar on an uptempo version of Couldn’t Love You More on Glorious Fool, recorded a version of May You Never for his Slowhand album. Rumour has it that Martyn receives more royalties from this cover version than all of his own albums put together, which Martyn laughingly says is “probably true!”
Martyn now played electric guitar almost exclusively and his acoustic guitar and echoplex only featured in a small section of his stage show, something a lot of fans took some getting used to. It was a conscious decision: “I didn’t want to be just another geezer playing with a repeat echo, so I had to change.”
Well Kept Secret, released in September 1982, showed Phil Collins’ rhythmic legacy much in evidence, particularly on the disco orientated Back With A Vengeance. The album hardly paused for breath, although recognisable Martyn trade marks were present in the oozing sensuality of Could’ve Been Me and Hung Up. Whereas Glorious Fool was edgy and uncomfortable and seemed to ‘contain’ Martyn, Well Kept Secret unleashed him, with arrangements far less perambulatory than those on Glorious Fool. The album again charted for seven weeks, this time reaching the elusive Top 20. However, don’t look for clues to unravel Well Kept Secret for halfway through the sessions Martyn accidentally impaled himself on a fence, puncturing a lung, and was so loaded with medication during the subsequent sessions that he can’t even remember taking part!
WEA released Hiss On The Tape’as a single, followed rapidly by a US remix of Gun Money with a live version of Hiss On The Tape on the B-side. Meanwhile Island released another compilation, The Electric John Martyn. The curious track selection was redeemed by the inclusion of US mixes of Dancing, Certain Surprise and Dealer, (from the American version of One World which, like Well Kept Secret, contained remixed tracks), the single version of Sweet Little Mystery and 12″ dub version of Johnny Too Bad.
In November 1983, without any announcement, the recently remarried Martyn released Philentropy, a live album recorded in London, Brighton and Oxford between Autumn 1982 and Spring 1983. The touring line up was Martyn, Alan Thomson (bass), Jeffrey Allen (drums), Danny Cummings (percussion) and Ronnie Leahy (keyboards), with Thomson and Cummings having played on the last two albums and Allen on Well Kept Secret.
More recently, Martyn has softened his approach, but it is with albums like 1973’s Solid Air’which he’s best remembered for.
Released on the Body Swerve label, bearing the D.I.Y. prefix JMLP 001, this was, and is, the epitome of a Martyn concert, charged with atmosphere and excitement. Classic tracks were unearthed and remoulded, particularly Sunday’s Child, Don’t Want To Know and Johnny Too Bad. Despite a mid-price reissue on Castle in 1986, Philentropy is now deleted, and the original Body Swerve issue, with a different sleeve, is scarce.
Martyn rejoined Island in 1984 and Chris Blackwell sent him to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to record. The sessions were going badly until Martyn asked Robert Palmer to help. The resultant album, Sapphire, released in November 1984, “was all down to Robert in the end.” The playing was light and relaxed and the subtle and dreamlike quality of the production permeated every track, with Martyn’s peerless vocals just steering the album clear of becoming too smooth and soulless. What little guitar Martyn played on the album was electronically treated so as to be indistinguishable from the synthesisers around it, the exception being the solo on Fisherman’s Dream. The first self produced album since Sunday’s Child, it contained enough high-points, such as Watching Her Eyes and Coming In On Time, to convince critics that whilst no new ground had been broken, it was still a ‘contemporary’ album with “above average charms.”
To celebrate Martyn’s 20th anniversary as a performer and to get him elusive airplay and a hit single, Island began 1986 with the release of Classic John Martyn, a 5-track CD single hailed as the first commercially available compact disc single. It featured a new ballad, Angeline, May You Never, Solid Air, Glistening Glyndebourne and a thunderous version of Bob Dylan’s Tight Connection To My Heart. Angeline was also issued in 7″ and 12″ formats with different tracks on the 12″. Sadly the single failed to give Martyn the hit that Island were looking for, but the CD, with its lavish fold-out sleeve (original cost £5.99!), is extremely rare and collectable and fetches up to £20.
Martyn followed up with another new album. Featuring Foster Paterson (keyboards), Alan Thommson (bass) and Colin Tully (saxophone), Piece By Piece, released in February 1986, escaped the rather too slick and undemanding feel of Sapphire and featured the powerful John Wayne, complete with typically ambiguous lyrics and what Martyn describes as his “strangled duck” vocal. To achieve the effect Martyn indulged in large quantities of liquid refreshment and then did the vocal track in a single take. The track pushed his vocal style to new limits and it’s a song that John still likes to perform live.
Island released Lonely Love, described by Martyn as “the album’s little pop song”, as a single, with the 12″ featuring live versions of Sweet Little Mystery and Fisherman’s Dream, at the London Palladium. The early CD’s of Piece By Piece included four extra tracks: Tight Connection To My Heart, Solid Air, One World and May You Never, giving a total playing time of over 58 minutes. This 13-track CD is now hard to find having been replaced by a standard nine track version.
Martyn provided the soundtrack for Tyne Tees Television’s major series on the environment, Turning The Tide, networked in autumn 1986. The strong and emotional title song was loosely based on Don’t Want To Know with adapted lyrics, and in the words of Associate Producer Roy Deane it “fitted perfectly.” Unfortunately plans to release a single and the soundtrack album had to be shelved when the series ran over budget.
Martyn toured America, Europe and Britain in 1986 and Island released Foundations, a live album recorded at the Town and Country Club on 13/11/86, in October 1987. The album contained enjoyable and interesting reworkings of old favourites and was well played and produced but fell a little flat when compared to Live At Leeds or Philentropy. However, the set did contain three fine new songs, Deny This Love, Send Me One Line and the highlight, The Apprentice.
By February 1988 Martyn had completed ten new tracks, ostensibly for a new album, but Island rejected the tapes. They parted company and Martyn found himself without a recording contract and the backing of a major label. He continued to tour, albeit on a shoestring, with a solo tour in late 1988 and another tour in the spring of 1989, augmented by Foster Paterson. He had no programmes to sell, no merchandise, just the music, with the backing of a small but committed record label. The Apprentice was finally released in March 1990 on the new Permanent Records label. Recorded at Ca Va Sound Workshops, Glasgow, like Piece By Piece, Turning The Tide and the overdubs for Sapphire, the album sported superior versions of the three ‘new’ tracks which appeared on Foundations, plus Look At That Girl’ a song about Martyn’s now grown up baby girl, Mhari, which was previewed on his 1989 tour. Featuring Martyn’s acoustic guitar playing for the first time in ten years, the album is his strongest work since Grace And Danger with the downright funky Deny This Love, the deeply romantic Send Me One Line, and Live On Love among the highlights.
To promote the album, he embarked upon a three month tour of the British Isles and Europe, including eleven dates at London’s Shaw Theatre which featured various guest artists and even reunited Martyn with his old accomplice Danny Thompson. Another ‘guest’ was Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and the show at which he appeared was filmed and released on video in August 1990. Look At That Girl made an uncredited appearance, as well as the twelve listed tracks. Also released in August was a remix of Deny This Lovewith a live version of The Apprentice on the B-side. Deny This Love featured a fine guitar solo by Robert Fife of Ruby Blue, who had played support to Martyn on some of his tour dates.
Martyn once said that he wanted to stop working at 35 because “I don’t see myself staggering about till I drop”, but as he reaches 42 he shows no signs of letting up and The Apprentice indicates that he has lost none of his ability to lift the heart and touch the mind, believing as he does that “music is an emotional communication and should be used as such.” But the most concise summary of the man’s appeal remains that written by The Guardian’s music critic: “John Martyn strikes the perfect balance between virtuosity and simplicity, romance and realism, nostalgia and modernism. Put simply, he is in a league of his own.”
Record Collector No.140
1 April 1991