Talking With John Martyn
Talking With John Martyn – bard bon-viveur bullshitter doper entertainer explorer guitarist hero hobo legend lover minstrel musician pathfinder performer picker pioneer pissartist player poet raconteur rambler rhymer romancer singer songwriter talker thinker tripper troubadour trouper trucker tumbler virtuoso wayfarer – and lots of other things too.
John Martyn is probably the most important British artist never to be featured in ZigZag before now, so his inclusion in this particular issue is both fitting and, I hope, welcome. In my opinion, there are few concert performers more entertaining and satisfying than him, and at least four of the seven albums he has made are absolutely essential listening, while the others are nothing less than interesting and enjoyable in their own right. In this country I think it’s true to say that he carries more respect than popularity, although in the States, where he recently completed his fourth tour, he goes down extremely well playing to audiences ten times the size of anything he faces here. It was during his month’s rest after the last American tour, a gig at Imperial College (more about that later), and a short trip to Paris with Traffic, that I went down to interview him at his home in Hastings.
Now Hastings, as you are no doubt aware, is on the south coast of this fair isle and apart from being an historical landmark and a destination point for thousands of summertime holiday makers, it’s one of the more unspoilt coastal towns with a fabulous little fishing industry and an ‘old town’ that consists of a maze of steep, narrow, winding streets, quaint old houses, a market place, and numerous pubs. On arriving there, I met John in his local (and it really was a local… everybody knew each other, and they made me, a total stranger, feel very welcome), and after several games of snooker, and much mirth, we ended up in the living room of John’s house overlooking the sea where for the next couple of hours he answered my questions in some detail.
John Martyn was born in Glasgow and spent most of his childhood there before coming down to London when he was 17.
“I learned to play off a guy called Hamish Imlach who taught me all the things I knew in C… taught me all these kind of guitar licks and the sort of stuff that Ralph McTell plays, ragtime, very gentle kind of Dylany stuff. 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 lmlach who plays in clubs and stuff’. So he took me around to two or three clubs. Hamish did a concert close to my house once, this was when I was 16 and I’d been playing for just about three of four months with a guy called Josh McCrae who did a song called Messin’ About On The River (remember that one from ‘Children’s Favourites’ days?). Well he didn’t turn up so they were stuck for somebody to play for half an hour. They asked people from the audience to do a couple of songs and eventually they shoved me up there and everybody liked it.
So Hamish said ‘Why don’t you come round and do a couple of songs in my set for people and maybe earn a few quid for it’. At that time I’d been chucked out of art school for being nasty and silly, and I didn’t have much money, I was earning my money playing darts in those days, making about two quid a day, and he took me around to a lot of folk clubs. A lot of them thought it was just ridiculous mind you, but Bert Jansch was just beginning, I think he had one album out and he was a very ‘underground’ hero, he smoked pot, pot and not hash I may add, and everybody listened to him. So I just did loads of gigs like that. Everyone in Scotland was very in awe of the London scene… like that was the thing to do if you wanted to make it… that’s where you went. Then I listened to a Davey Graham album and that completely blew me away. I went to see him in a folk club called Cousins and I came back full of the whole thing about London.
I was dossing in London, sleeping in Trafalgar Square. and getting moved on by the fuzz. I came back up and worked on a building site for a couple of weeks, couldn’t hack that, and then I met the Incredible String Band who were very much into what I was doing. They’d only just started and I would support them on little folk club gigs and get three or four quid. They told me that they were working at Cousins so I went down there and they introduced me to Andy Matthews (see his picture in the Ralph McTell piece in ZZ 39). And I remember I just asked him and asked him and asked him and asked him for a gig. And he said, ‘I’ve never heard you’. So I said ‘Fxck you man, I’ve played in your club about five or six times, why haven’t you heard me?’ So he said, ‘Alright. you can do an all-nighter.’ So I did an all nighter with Davey Graham, and that was it.
Cousins is really the only London club that stands out in my mind. Not because it had a reputation but because it was a good club. And it was the only place where you could totally relax. Also it was in Soho and that was very romantic to me when I was young… strippers and concerts and stuff… a very wide eyed thing. That relates to a song of mine called Dusty, that wide eyed thing. My parents were divorced when I was young and I only got to see my mother for two months of the year, and I never got to stay with her because my step father didn’t like me, so I stayed with her sister and her husband. Now they lived in Hampton Court and every year when I went down, it would be the Scottish school holidays which is late July, August and a bit of September, so I’d always be in Hampton Court at the time of Whitsun which was when the fair was. And that song Dusty is just about Hampton Court Fair. ‘Cause that was my dream when I was a kid… the grass is always greener.
Actually, though I was very happy as a child because my grandmother was just beautiful to me and my father was excellent, but London was like a dream to me… even the Southern line, the green trains, and the journey from Waterloo to Surbiton, that’s where my mother lived. You see I come from Glasgow which is a very stroppy part of town and you don’t have any choice up there, either you’re violent or you’re a weed. And I haven’t got the capacity for being trodden on. I’m a natural born coward just like everybody else, but I don’t like being taken advantage of. I’m probably still the same now. But at the time it was just either eat or be eaten and it was just such a pleasant change to come down here. There were fights in school all the time and knives were bandied about, and it always seemed more civilised to be in England, especially round the Kingston way. It was just a very civilised part of my life.
I did my best in a way to become a middle class Englishman for two or three months and then I realised that there was another side to that which was the pill droppers who lived with their parents at night in Hinchley Wood or Esher or something but who nonetheless went out at weekends and took loads of speed and smoked a bit of grass, and went about with loose young ladies. There was a whole kind of movement… Renbourn and all those people, and the white blues thing… Jo-Ann Kelly and that thing. All that comes from the Thames Delta. So I was involved with that for a while. It was a very strong part of my life, a real stretcher for me because I’d led a very closed sort of existence up until then.”
If Cousins was the most memorable venue for John in those days, then the Kingston folk barge was probably the most important because it was there that a guy called Theo Johnson approached John and said, quite literally, ‘I will make you a star!’ If you look at the cover of his first album, London Conversation, you’ll see a sleeve note which starts ‘So there I was on this barge on the river…’
“That’s the Kingston folk barge which was run by an alcoholic called Geoff who used to drink methylated spirits and red wine… he’s now become a traffic warden, and the barge was towed away as a derelict. I was playing on the folk barge when a fat man called Theo Johnson appeared. He’d just recorded two albums of bawdy ballads for Island, because lsland at first were kind of a spurious label; they used to release dirty noises and stuff called ‘Aphrodite Unleashed’ or something… any kind of record that would make money, rugby songs, anything at all that there was a small market for, they’d chuck out.
Anyway, Theo Johnson took me up to Island with a song called Fairy Tale Lullaby which everyone was very impressed with, and I’ve been there ever since. About three weeks after I’d signed with Island, Theo Johnson came to me and said: ‘Here’s the management contract’. And it gave him 45% of everything I might earn for the next ten years, so I told him to stick that. And that was probably one of the best things I ever did in my life. An intuitive business decision. I’ve seen him twice, maybe three times since. He was the man who started me off on the road to whatever.”
John’s first album for Island was London Conversation (ILPS 952), and it came out in 1967. There are twelve tracks, eight of which John wrote himself, and they all conform fairly rigidly to the standard folk song formula of the time. Most of them are quite clearly the songs of an innocent youth, as is implied in what he’s already said, but they’re nonetheless very pleasant, and two in particular are outstanding. Back To Stay is a very beautiful love song with an unusual structure that sets it apart from everything else, and a sad, dreamy melody the likes of which only John Martyn and a handful of other songwriters are capable of producing. Don’t Think Twice is in a similar vein and equally good. It’s a Dylan song of course, and it’s given a simple, soft treatment that recalls parts of Nico’s Chelsea Girl album quite vividly. There’s a fairly long number called Rolling Home which is dominated by a somewhat less than dazzling piece of guitar playing, but the remainder of the album just features John on guitar and vocals, simply and clearly produced in wonderful mono, and as I say, very pleasant. It’s interesting to note that he had only been playing guitar for about three months when that album was made and during that time there were two people in particular that he listened to and possibly learnt a lot from:
“Les Brown, who is completely unknown and has never recorded… he plays kind of American Doc Watson guitar very very well. Lovely voice. Also a friend of mine called Paul Wheeler who is featured on the second album. He’s been a friend of mine for a long time. Very English, he was another part of the middle-class stream.”
By the time his second album The Tumbler (ILPS 9091) was released (1968), he had been exposed and influenced by a variety of people who he’d met on his exploits through London’s folk scene… people like Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, and a guy called Harold McNair who played flute on The Tumbler.
“Harold McNair is dead now. He died three and a half years ago of cancer. He had cancer when he played on that album. His death was one of the sad things in my life, a really terrible drag. He was a very sweet little guy, very unassuming, very beautiful, very good flute player and a great alto player. He was definitely the best flute player I’ve ever heard. Nobody swung like him. They called him Little Jesus… he was West Indian. He did a great deal for me in that he opened me up. I started to think ‘wow. there are people who can really do it’. He did a lot for me just by example. We were never really close friends or anything, just good acquaintances. We played well together.”
“Al Stewart produced The Tumbler… I don’t know why that is; I think it’s because somebody said I should have a producer. Chris Blackwell I think said that. Probably Al Stewart volunteered, because I don’t ever remember asking him. I don’t think I would have been so silly. But we recorded the album in one afternoon which is quite interesting I think. Things were very simple in those days.”
The only other musicians on the album besides John and Harold McNair, were the aforementioned Paul Wheeler on second guitar and Dave Moses on bass.
“I met Paul at an Incredible String Band gig when I first started working in London, and the first thing that brought us together was our mutual admiration for the Incredibles. He wrote, and still does write really well. He’s got a song called ‘Juli’ which I eventually want to record. I tried to record it on the last album but it wouldn’t fit in somehow.”
While the difference between London Conversation and The Tumbler isn’t as drastic as you might be led to believe, there are improvements and modifications that lend themselves very well to Martyn’s rapidly developing style of writing. All twelve tracks are originals and although they’re still quite obviously straight folk songs, there’s room for something like Sing A Song Of Summer which is a fast paced sort of nonsense song that somehow works in a very naive, unpretentious way, and an instrumental, called Seven Black Roses. My own personal favourite from the album is the aforementioned Dusty. An opinion that is coloured by some nice memories as well as being the first song of John Martyn’s that I ever heard. In the days when, for me, sampler albums were the only means of picking up on more than one artist’s work in one month, I invested in one such LP on the Island label called You Can All Join In which contained Dusty and soon became the track that I played more than any other, basically for two reasons. First of all because it was so damn good, and secondly because even then, John’s voice had taken on a slurred, expressive quality that made a lot of the words difficult to distinguish, and necessitated a few hundred plays before even the first verse could be deciphered. I can still remember quite clearly how, along with a friend of mine, I would sit in front of my ultra-sophisticated, atomic-powered, air-suspensioned super Junior Dansette portable attentively trying to figure out what it was all about. We hadn’t a clue what it was all about really, but we knew it was good, and at the time that was all that mattered. Oh yes those were the days!
Still, the rest of The Tumbler is good too. Harold McNair’s flute work is superb throughout, especially on The Gardeners and Fly On Home which was co-written with Paul Wheeler, and the guitar work and production generally has a bit more sparkle and vitality than its predecessors. As John says, “The album ‘sings’ a bit more than before.”
After that came two important events in John’s career. His meeting with his wife to be, Beverley, and his involvement with Joe Boyd and Witchseason.
“I became friendly with a guy called Jackson C. Frank who came over here to do a tour and was very screwed in the brain… we were having lots of fake Leary ‘Acid Tests’. Peculiar things in those days, and he was doing a gig at Chelsea College of Art, and I went along with him. Beverley was also playing at the gig, and he had known her for four years previous to that, so we just kind of got together. Jackson played, then Beverley played. And then I played, and she said ‘Would you like to play some session music for me?’ and I agreed. At that time she’d just been signed to Witchseason publishing company by Joe Boyd, and then I was signed originally to be her back-up guitar player on a few sessions she was going to do in America, but it eventually seemed obvious to go as John and Beverley Martyn and to make an album together.”
“I don’t think Joe Boyd ever really liked me, and he probably still doesn’t. I think he thinks I’m a good musician, but I’ve always had personality differences with the man. I think he has a different conception of what British music should be. Of course he made a very gallant attempt to kind of pull together English music at one point… you know, Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band. He tried to get a little movement going and to a great extent was successful. Incredible String Band especially, because he found them and found them at their peak, because they were incredible. I honestly don’t like them now, but they were amazing at that time. I don’t know how much of that is coloured by sentiment, but I don’t think a lot of it is. Rarely had I heard two people swing that much together. Really good.
Anyhow it was really coincidence that both Bev and I went to Island because Joe Boyd had a deal with them whereby everything he released on Witchseason Production Company went out through Island. So there was no change for me.”
When the time came for John and Beverley to make their album together they went to the States… this was summer 1969… and under the guidance of Joe Boyd and the musical direction of Paul Harris they cut Stormbringer (ILPS 9113) at A&R Studios, New York. The line-up of musicians on the album is impressive to say the least… Paul Harris – piano, organ, Harvey Brooks – bass, Levon Helm, Billy Mundi, Herbie Lovell – drums, and John Simon – harpsichord, and the music is, as one would expect, outstanding.
“Joe Boyd approached the whole thing in a very straightforward way. He wanted the other musicians to know the chords and the changes before they went into the studio to save money on rehearsals and stuff, and he put us together with Paul Harris. He was living in Woodstock, and Joe rented us a house there for three months. It was the year of the festival. We just lived there and worked with Paul Harris very quickly and very briefly and we just went into the studio and did it very one-off, very swift. Levon Helm and Harvey Brooks we met in Woodstock and used them, just because they were friends. It seemed obvious that they should be on it. Dylan lived up the road, and Hendrix lived virtually next door. He used to arrive every Thursday in a purple helicopter, stay the weekend, and leave on the Monday. He was amazing… a good lad.”
“Joe Boyd is credited as having produced the album but I’ve always been suspicious of the term producer anyway. In Joe’s case it was more of a discipline thing. He used to just say ‘Well that won’t do’. We used to have disagreements. He doesn’t have as free an approach as I’d like to see. But really I enjoyed making that album a lot. That was really one of the finest hours because I think it surprised everybody. I think they were expecting some little folky album to come out and it came out with a lot of bite. It was just a little bit ahead of its time I thought. Probably a whole lot came from that record… like people started using the drum ideas and stuff, and nobody had really thought of using drums with acoustic instruments before. But it’s difficult to say that sort of thing without being conceited.”
Well he doesn’t have to because I’ll say it for him. Stormbringer is a beautiful record and a very influential one in that it set a precedent for countless country rock bands to follow. The musicianship and arrangements are just about perfect, and the songs, all of them, are outstanding. What more could you ask for? Of the ten tracks, John wrote six of them, including the title track which is quite possibly the best thing here, and Beverley wrote the four on which she takes lead vocals. There are very carefully and tastefully handled string arrangements by Paul Harris on Can’t Get The One I Want. Stormbringer (which incidentally has a particularly memorable chorus), and The Ocean which along with Would You Believe Me? presents us with the very first taste of things to come in John’s preoccupation with electronics and the possibilities of electric music. Beverley’s finest contribution is Tomorrow Time, a lovely song, heightened by John Simon’s great harpsichord playing and Bev’s own clear gentle voice. As I said at the beginning, if you haven’t got any John Martyn records, you should endeavour to obtain four in particular. And this is one of them. Just as a footnote to tidy things up, it should be mentioned that the American trip was more or less a honeymoon for John and Beverley as they’d only got married a short time before, and the album took just eight days to make… six days recording and two days mixing.
On to the fourth album, The Road To Ruin (ILPS 9133) (1970), recorded at Sound Techniques in Chelsea with John Wood as engineer. It was the second and last album made with Beverley and the one that John feels was the least satisfying to make.
“Joe Boyd took to reading newspapers throughout the sessions. He had other things on his mind I think. Beverley and I had disagreements with him about what was right and what was wrong. Also that record wasn’t a spontaneous thing, unlike the others. It was a question of, you know, ‘we’ll do an overdub’. ‘Can we do it now?’ ‘No, do it next week.’ And so we just went back and forth and back and forth.”
Personnel for the album were Paul Harris – piano, Wells Kelly – drums and bass, Mike Kowalski – drums, Rocky Dzidzornu – congas, Dave Pegg – bass, Alan Spenner – bass, Dudu Pukwana -sax, Lyn Dobson – flute and sax, Ray Warleigh – sax, and Danny Thompson – double bass.
“Danny Thompson… I can’t remember how I met him now. I think I might have met him at a place called The Three Horseshoes in the very early days of the Pentangle in Tottenham Court Road. I think I met him there once or twice and we liked each other. He was probably just high for the session and ever since then we just got on like a house on fire. Great bloke. They brought Paul Harris over especially to do the album. Mike Kowalski played drums, and Wells Kelly… a great drummer, he’s got his own band called Orleans I think. Rocky Dzidzornu, he’s just a conga player, one of those you know, smiley, and happy and jumpy and leapy and grumpy, all these kind of English conga players, they’ve all got nicknames. Then there was Dave Pegg from the Fairports and Alan Spenner – he played with Joe Cocker’s band. I can’t really remember why they were used, for what tracks or anything. I should think that most of the decisions were Joe’s. Of course there was Dudu Pukwana. He played with Chris McGregor’s band, Brotherhood of Breath, as well as his own band Spear, and Assagai. Joe Boyd was also producing McGregor’s band so I went along to a few of their gigs and I really came to love Dudu. He was cleaning the Odeon a year ago which is an absolute disgrace because he’s probably one of the best alto horn players in the world. He finds it very difficult to get a gig over here. As for Lyn Dobson and Ray Warleigh, they are just British jazzers. Ray Warleigh plays occasionally with C.C.S. and he has his own little trio as most of these jazz session men do.”
The Road To Ruin stands apart from other John Martyn albums not least because of the way it was recorded, and also because it employs distinctly jazz instrumentation in what is basically a rock format. Tracks like Primrose Hill, Auntie Aviator, and the title track, feature a lot of sax playing from Pukwana, Warleigh, and Dobson, and Paul Harris’ piano work on Auntie Aviator is quite different from any of his other contributions to Martyn’s records. John wrote four of the nine tracks. Beverley one, they wrote three between them, and Paul Wheeler was responsible for the other one. I think it’s true to say that although the standard of the compositions isn’t at all inferior to previous songs, the over dubbing is a bit too apparent in places and sounds rather cluttered on occasions, robbing the record of a lot of the ‘feel’ and confidence that the other albums display in abundance. However, this is probably just pedantic hair-splitting on my part, because overall it’s a very pleasing record to my ears, and songs like Parcels, Road To Ruin, and Give Us A Ring are especially good.
Just an added note of trivia… if, like me, you are an incurably dedicated reader of sleeve notes and personnel listings, you will discover, on the jacket to The Road To Ruin a very strange balls up indeed. Apparently they couldn’t seem to decide what the title to one of the songs was, and so there is frequent mention, in the bit that explains who plays what, of a track that is nowhere to be found on the track list. It becomes obvious however that “Let It Happen”, and Say What You Can are one and the same song! How’s that for obscure, inconsequential reference to detail then… I think even the new CBS press officer would have been proud of that one!
Between The Road To Ruin and his next album, Bless The Weather, there was a long gap when nothing much was heard from John. He stopped gigging and took to spending a lot of time with his family at their new home in Hastings, and by this time Beverley was expecting their second child. But the main reason for this period of inactivity was the fact that Joe Boyd disbanded Witchseason.
“The folding up of Witchseason was purely politics. My records hadn’t sold in vast numbers. After The Road To Ruin Joe Boyd decided it was policy for Beverley to record a solo album and for me to record a solo album, and then for both of us to record an album together. And when we went to Island, we went on the premise that we would both record a solo album and mine was the only one that they ended up recording. You could say that Joe Boyd sold us down the river. And then again you could say that that wasn’t the truth at all, and that he was given assurances that weren’t carried out. I don’t know, I never got to the bottom of that. I was just disgusted by the whole affair. That was the shakiest point in my relationship with Island Records.”
“We weren’t world famous and nobody had paid too much attention. We’d had good critical write-ups, but no-one had covered any of the songs, and we hadn’t had a number one single, and Radio One didn’t like us, and all that kind of stuff. There wasn’t too much interest from the A&R men and the powers that be, so Island said ‘Give him six grand and see what he comes up with’. And that was it. It took a fair amount of time for them to decide to give me the money, or something. I don’t know. They got very scared at that time really, they must have thought that I’d been around a long time and I wasn’t famous, and didn’t look as if I was going to be, so why throw away good money? And that’s really how the next album, Bless The Weather came about. Incidentally, Joe Boyd went to work for Warner Bros; made that Jimi Hendrix film, and helped on the soundtrack for ‘2001’ and stuff.”
Now Bless The Weather (ILPS 9167) (1971) is very much a reversion back to the pure, simple songs of the early days but with a considerably more mature outlook. The lyrics are stronger, the melodies very imaginative and very beautiful, and the instrumentation is for the most part kept to a basic guitar/ bass/ vocal line-up. Additional help is used though in the persons of Ian Whiteman and Roger Powell from the legendary Mighty Baby, Tony Reeves, Richard Thompson, Smiley De Jonnes, and Beverley on the odd vocal track.
“Ian Whiteman and Roger Powell… great lads. I met Ian Whiteman at a Sandy Denny session and I said ‘Please come and play piano for me’. I was looking for a drummer so I said ‘Who do you suggest for a drummer?’ And he said ‘Well I’ve worked with this drummer for years,’ so he brought Roger Powell along. Ian and Roger went off to Morocco and made that album “If Man But Knew” calling themselves The Habibiyya. They’ve since become Sufis. The last I heard they were doing concerts in Berkeley in America. They were living on the campus and giving lectures on Sufism and doing the odd concert once a week… meditation and stuff.”
“Most of the songs on Bless The Weather were very quick. I’d been writing songs in the studio on the day they were recorded. It’s much nicer like that – to be spontaneous. There was no re-writing, it just came out very naturally. I much prefer that approach. I suppose the logical extension of that would be to go and improvise an album but even that’s too heavy. There’s a nice happy medium in Bless The Weather. John Wood helped me produce it. He was much less dictatorial than Joe, much less so. I’d like to work with him again actually. But I went through a kind of funny point on the last album. I said I’d like him to produce it and then all of a sudden everything overtook me and I ended up producing it myself. And that was a bit painful. I shouldn’t really have done that. It was very rude of me in a way, so I’m going to try and get back with him.”
“People kind of sat up and took notice of me after that album, I don’t know why… I’ve never really had it in my mind to be a success. I take it for granted that some people will like it and some people won’t. I can’t really think of it in those terms though because if I did, I think I’d get a bit messed up. I’d start thinking, ‘Well I’d better not play that or somebody won’t like it’. It’s just a matter of following your heart.”
Without elaborating on Bless The Weather too much, let me say that it is a fabulous album, quite definitely one of the very best of 1971, and one which you should spare no amount of trouble over to possess. Every song is a gem, and one in particular, Glistening Glyndebourne, demonstrates Martyn’s growing interest in electric music and his unique use of electronic devices, his desire to play an instrument that can give him sustain, and his concern with sound textures, all of which he explains thus:
“I first though of the possibilities of electric guitar after hearing the Band’s Music From Big Pink. They used great textures on that. It turns out actually that in my naivety, a lot of what I thought was electric guitar was in fact the Hammond organ. It was the first time I heard electric music using very soft textures, panels of sound, pastel sounds, rather than uumphh! I was intrigued by that because I think a lot of people just equated electric music with hard-rock, they didn’t think that you could be gentle with it if you wanted. That’s one of the reasons why I like Joe Zawinul of Weather Report so much, because he exploits the gentle side of electronics. Terry Riley too. I still much prefer gentle music than anything else.”
“With my electric music, what happens is that the note comes out of the pick up on the guitar and goes into the fuzz box which I use now and again, and then it goes into a combination of volume and wah-wah pedal which I use a fair bit. It comes out of that and goes into an echoplex which repeats the note so you chop in between rhythms, and you can choose your own timings because it’s completely elastic. And you can set the number of repeats. I just like the idea of making a machine human in that way, and I like impressing the humanness of yourself onto a machine rather than the other way round, which is what happens in a lot of cases. I got into that because I really wanted to play an instrument that had sustain. I tried to play the horn. I can play the horn, but I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, and it needs at least a year to get your chops in. The fingering is the simplest part of it. It takes at least a year to play in a completely controlled way, and you need to have control. It’s like getting blisters on your fingers before you can play the guitar properly. I just don’t have the time, so I thought ‘Fuck it, I’ll just stick a few gadgets on the old whatsit, and play that like a horn’. I still haven’t really got the sustain that I want. What I’ll probably try and do next is get a moog for the guitar. And I might start using two tape loops instead of just the one I use now.”
John says he’s given up the horn now, and is presently engrossed in an interesting looking Indian woodwind instrument, the name of which I’ve shamefully forgotten, but which produces a very loud, shrieking sound and looks very difficult to play.
Next we come to his sixth album, Solid Air (ILPS 9226) (1973), which if I had to decide, would probably rank as my favourite of the whole lot. The tracks are Solid Air, Over The Hill, Don’t Want To Know, I’d Rather Be The Devil, Go Down Easy, Dreams By The Sea. May You Never, The Man In The.Station, and The Easy Blues. Every one except Skip James’ I’d Rather Be The Devil is an original, and every one drives me to ecstatics. The musicians featured are Danny Thompson – double bass, John Bundrick – piano, organ, clarinet, Dave Mattacks – drums, Dave Pegg – bass. Speedy (Neemoi Acquaye) – congas, Tristan Fry – vibes, Tony Cox – sax, and Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol on mandolin and autoharp. Sorry if you’re expecting pages of effusive praise but I’m going to cop out of trying to describe this album to you in any terms at all. I could simply never do it justice and will just leave it up to you to make haste to your nearest record shop and buy it. If you are that hard up and can only afford to own one John Martyn album, then this is the one you should have. Before John comments on it, I’ll just say that by now his voice has reached a stage where it is fully integrated into the overall sound as virtually another instrument. His lyrics reach a new peak of excellence, and May You Never is probably the warmest, purest, and most genuine song I’ve ever heard.
“Now Solid Air… I really like the title track. It was done for a friend of mine, and it was done right with very clear motives, and I’m very pleased with it, for varying reasons. It has got a very simple message, but you’ll have to work that one out for yourself. As for my voice, I’ve always used it as another instrument, and I think it should be that. It was always my conception of a vocal. I think from now on though, when the song requires it, I’ll make a conscious effort to make the lyrics more intelligible. I used Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks on the album because they go together. It’s always good to have a rhythm section that are used to playing with each other. Incidentally, Ed Carter and Mike Kowalski, the guys we mentioned before, really turned me on to Latin music… bossa nova.”
As you can see John Martyn himself didn’t have an awful lot to say about Solid Air… it’s just one of those records, like Tim Buckley’s Happy Sad, and Terry Reid’s River that you have to listen to and wallow in. The next subject we covered was John’s session work.
“I haven’t played a lot of sessions. I was on Paul Kossoff’s album Back Street Crawler (ILPS 9264). Actually there’s a funny story about that because what happened was that Koss appeared on a session of mine. I was doing a single of May You Never and he played some back up guitar. I got pissed off with the whole idea and said I didn’t want to do it. By that time Island had put so much money into it with this funny producer called Robin Somebody or other, so he (the producer) decided to go ahead without me, and just over-dubbed these things and stuck bits together and issued it anyway. It cost vast amounts of money to produce and sold four copies. But anyway, at the end of one of the sessions, late in the evening, Kossoff came in and we just started jamming, and he was very intrigued by the whole thing. I was a bit pissed off because it was going to be a song. I think you’ll find that the chords are very similar to So Much In Love With You, and that stuff was actually on my session. The next thing I knew, it was on his album. I was a bit choked at the time because I wasn’t that wild about it, it’s just a little bit of guitar playing. It doesn’t seem to be much of a statement of anything. It wasn’t a conscious collaboration.”
“I’ve played with Bridget St. John a couple of times because she’s a friend and I know her from Richmond a long time ago. I’ve also done some records with Dudu Pukwana which have never been released because they were a bit far out. And that’s about it. I wrote some lyrics for Dudu’s tunes, and I wrote some parts out for chicks to sing, and played a bit of guitar. There aren’t many people that I’d really like to play with, but I’ll tell you what. I’d like a month with a really nasty rock band, just to get it out of my system… a really dirty rock band, maybe with Kossoff. I think there’s a bit of frustrated rock’n’roller in everybody!”
And so to the most recent album, Inside Out (ILPS 9253) (1973) which maintains the style and diversity of its predecessor with a number of songs that compare favourably with anything he’s done. The best are a lyrically mysterious song called Fine Lines, Make No Mistake, and So Much In Love With You which sounded even better at Imperial College a few weeks back. There’s another illustration of sustained guitar textures in a very mellow track called Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail, and plenty of loose, almost unstructured electric guitar work that reflects Martyn’s respect and interest in the best jazz. Musicians featured this time include Danny Thompson, Remi Kabaka, Stevie Winwood, Chris Stuart, Chris Wood, Kesh Satie, Bobby Keyes, Brian Cooke, and John Wilde.
“I think I’ll always use Danny Thompson because he’s got real feel for my music and I’ve got real feel for his. The people from Traffic, Stevie Winwood, Remi Kabaka and Chris Wood, that came out of the American tour I did with them. Remi is kind of unique in his method of drumming. Not many drummers blow with as much freedom as he does.”
“Inside Out is a funny album in a way. I don’t know if I’ll make an album like that again. I think that was just a once off. I just thought that it was about time I said something in that vein because there seemed to be a lot of funniness going round and I just wanted to say something very simple and very direct. But a lot of people said it was very complicated. I’ve got a feeling that the new songs I’ve written are going to be a lot more acceptable than those on Inside Out which were a lot harder for some people to get their ears bound, harder than any other record. Not out of design, but out of what I’ve been listening to and what I’ve been doing. With the concept of love, which is what Inside Out is basically all about, there is a danger of going into that and saying it for the rest of your life, so I think I’ll certainly try and avoid that and shift to some other thing.”
Well, whatever it is he decides to shift to next, I can only feel confident that it will match up quite easily with everything he’s done so far.
“I definitely want to try and get a trio together. I’ve got Danny Thompson, so I’d like to find a drummer. I’ve got great thoughts of Danny Richmond who plays with Danny Thompson a lot. He plays with Mingus right now, and used to play with Mark Almond.”
At the moment though he only has bassist Danny Thompson accompanying him on live dates, and together they are quite superb. Their act is injected with plenty of humour, exuberance, and a never ending cascade of very fine music. They begin with an extended electric piece, soften things up with a selection of short acoustic songs from the last three albums, and then they finish with another piece of electric improvisation, rounding things off with either The Glory Of Love or Singing In The Rain. When it’s all over you realise just how important and enjoyable John Martyn and his music is. Go see him and search out his albums. There isn’t a nicer bloke around at the moment.
Zig Zag Magazine No.41
1 April 1974