John Martyn’s City Struggle


FOUR YEARS ago John Martyn came south from Scotland, and next February he will be moving back with his wife and family. Those four years have been a constant struggle against the oppression of the city, but considering his abject aversion to this kind of environment, he has succeeded in his task. He has made his mark produced several fine albums which bare the mark of an inventive, refreshing brain, and on the face of it are wholly irreconcilable with the confused conglomeration in which he lives.

So when his wife Beverley has their second child, they will be moving to Peebleshire, within a stone’s throw of the Incredible String Bands retreat, to escape a programmed routine which John analogises with the non-changing flight patterns of insects. The real break for John was the “Stormbringer!” album he made with Beverley – an album which extricated him well and truly from his folk club upbringing. But even then the progress was strangely stunted when his impromptu band blew their major London concert, with all eyes on John and Bev. Then their son Wezzles was seriously ill, and John and Bev disappeared from the public eye until their new album “The Road To Ruin” suddenly appeared, like it had been pulled out of a magician’s hat.

Sounds 12 December 1970Again the album has been masterminded by Joe Boyd and top American arranger Paul Harris, with a host of top musicians sitting in on the sessions. “I started doing gigs again seriously about two months ago, but it’s totally impossible to promote the album material, and I’m still doing the same stuff I did a year ago. In fact there’s about six songs I’m never going to get away from. “I’m playing more electric, unstructured stuff now, although I don’t feel I want to get a band together unless it’s with Wells Kelly and Paul Harris or people equally as good. At the moment I don’t feel like looking for anyone, but if you play with someone you don’t entirely trust, when you lose your own certainty.

“Well be going back to Innerleithen to live in February, and I’ll be able to do some writing and play about two gigs a week. The only thing that would make me come back to London is if it was an economic necessity; after for years in London I’m really fed up, and the only reason I ever came in the first place was so I could get into what I wanted to get into. But I’m finding now that I just don’t blow with anyone like I used to, and it’s really sad. I’d rather like to read music so that I could blow with more people that I’m into.”

A new departure for John is the employment of brass on the latest album, in the form of Lyn Dobson, Dudu Pukwana and Ray Warleigh. “But I don’t think I’ll be using much brass as I don’t get a buzz out of horn sections as a rule. But Dudu is one of my favourite men and I’d like to do more work with him.” When John and Beverley tried to recreate their “Stormbringer!” sound on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall earlier in the year, they failed miserably; and John explained: “I was never happy doing that concert. We only had four days to rehearse with the band, although the other gig at Bristol was strangely successful. But the Queen Elizabeth one was finished before it started. I always had the gravest doubts about the band, and as I didn’t feel to lie, I had to say that it was going to be no good. So it was all well screwed up before it started.

“All the songs on the album are new, and although it’s got a Latin feel to it, this was something I consciously tried to fight against. The old sequin suit and Uncle Tom Mexican thing had always put me off but it swings like mad, and it’s so subtle rhythmically.

“I would have been quite happy to have carried on as a nice, simple folk singer for the rest of my life; but suddenly it all changed. With “Stormbringer!” we had a complete choice about what we wanted to do, and in any case I didn’t want to do just another acoustic guitar album. “On the new album I’ve played electric guitar on a couple of tracks, and the thing about playing unstructured music is that you never know what you’re doing next, and it’s all very shaky. “I never write specifically for an album and Bev and I don’t write songs together consciously. Sometimes I’ll work on something and then lose interest in it, and Bev will take it up and transform it. But whereas the last album was specifically designed to play within a group context, the next one will be specifically for guitar, with perhaps an enlargement acoustic songs with a lot less instrumentation than before.”

John wants to keep things working spontaneously from now on, and explained that the reason he gave up gigs was because “someone would press the gig button and I would go into action.” He wants to avoid the glossy entertainer bit, although he enjoys the challenge of a gig. “Sometimes you really have to stretch out in the colleges,” he acknowledges. And he is now veering away from folk clubs and concentrating more on student audiences. Neither are John and Bev in any hurry to return to the States, where they put together their “Stormbringer!” album. The response there has been slightly disappointing and the album is being reissued as part of a “bargain” offer.

But the Martyns are perfectly happy. They are both due to make solo albums, and American artists are now starting to catch onto their songs – Kate Taylor, sister of James and Livingston, has recorded their “Sweet Honesty”, the outstanding song from the “Stormbringer!” album, and there’s more in the offing.

I shouldn’t be surprised if “Auntie Aviator”, it’s counterpart on the current album, isn’t culled by other artists. This is the American way of promoting solo artists – through album sales rather than live gigs. And it should give the Martyns the perfect ‘opportunity to enjoy a normal family life’ well away from the hurly burly of the city.

12 December 1970