Vintage Trouble

Vintage Trouble.

1973 was a remarkable year for music, but few had a greater annus mirabilis than folk alchemist JOHN MARTYN who devoted the year to the crafting of two strange masterpieces. On the 40th anniversary of Solid Air, MAT SNOW speaks to friends, fellow travellers and bruised survivors to discover the pain, power, joy and sadness behind a master musician’s quest for freedom.

Vintage TroubleQUADROPHENIA AND CATCH A Fire. Innovations and A Wizard, A True Star. Tubular Bells and Raw Power. Dixie Chicken and Dark Side Of The Moon. Band On The Run and Berlin. For Your Pleasure, Let’s Get It On, Countdown To Ecstasy.

Just off the top of your head, 1973 was a vintage year for the album. And then there’s Solid Air by John Martyn.

Released exactly 40 years ago, here was a platter to warm the cockles of the college circuit cognoscenti, a dope-head’s delight which bottled a moment; a moment which then faded with its generation to become a period piece with only the faintest afterlife beyond its particular time and place. Or so it seemed. Then, in the 1990s, Solid Air found fresh followers. Paul Weller and Beth Orton were among those to praise it as not only an ancestral voice of the chill-out/trip-hop thang but also as compelling a constellation of songs as ever to coruscate head and heart. Nor has Solid Air ceased to resonate since, not least its title track, a mirror held to the troubled soul who inspired it, Nick Drake, whose rediscovery by new generations paralleled that of his friend John Martyn. But where the stage-shy Nick Drake hid from view, condemning his three slim, perfect albums to obscurity in their time, John Martyn took to the boards like a buccaneer, and likewise the studio, recording albums just as inspiration took him.

Such as Inside Out, released just eight months after Solid Air and to the end of his life far preferred by its maker in defiance of popular sentiment. Such was the deal for an artist signed to the booming rock and reggae label Island. By 1973 few artists released more than one album a year, but if you were on a creative roll, as were also that year his fellow Islanders Roxy Music and Bob Marley And The Wailers, then Island boss Chris Blackwell would back it with his bank roll.

An annus mirabilis, then. This is the story of the year when John Martyn achieved gem-like perfection but, believing he could do better, tried to capture the sound of perfect freedom.

BORN IAIN MCGEACHY, JOHN Martyn’s parents split when he was five, and for years he was raised by his father and grandmother in Glasgow before his mother, living in suburban London, resumed an interest in her son. The adult John liked to flip back and forth from broad Glaswegian to outer Cockney, the audible proof of his split upbringing.

But his childhood had dark consequences. No one knows this better than the mother of his own two children, John’s first wife, Beverley, with whom he also recorded two albums: “When his mother passed away, his half-sister gave him a load of his heart-rending letters to which she’d never replied: ‘Dear Mummy, why can’t I see you? Why don’t you write to me? I love you so much. Will I ever see you again?’ There was a great, deep hurt, and John was damaged. One of his favourite songs was by B.B. King — Nobody Loves Me But My Mother, ‘and she could be jiving too’. Women were not to be  trusted and were abused. “He was a big man, and you never wanted to rile him. As well black eyes, I got a hairline fracture of the skull, fractured inner ear, kidney damage. I’m still suffering now.”

As nights drew in that autumn of 1972, the worst of it lay a few years ahead. For now, John Martyn’s life held together. But, as for so many musicians and entertainers, the split between John Martyn’s work and home life was not entirely amicable. It was as if the stage and hotel, the studio and the pub, was where John most truly came alive. Excessively so, at times. Home was where John went in between, to calm down, recharge his batteries and consult his muse, Beverley.

In 1972 their first child together, Mhairi, was starting to toddle,  and Spencer would soon be on the way. John and Beverley had made two albums together for Joe Boyd’s folk-rock Witchseason label, but when Boyd returned to the US. Handing over Witchseason and its artists to Island, Chris Blackwell seemed only interested in John, whom he had signed back in 1966 as a callow folkie just turned 18. And now they had a child together to add to Wesley, born to Bev of a previous relationship, John was content for her to be stuck in their cliff-side home in the south coast town of Hastings up an awkwardly steep slope at 10 Coburg Place. “There was no garden for the children,” sighs Beverlev “John was a romantic and the view was fantastic. I didn’t have a say in the matter. “We were both writing, often together. We wrote Don’t Want To Know [which would appear on Solid Air] in that living room overlooking the sea. He’d get me playing, and he’d write down the lyrics as I was playing. But I’m not credited. He said, ‘It’s all right – I’ll credit you this time.’ All the way through my career trusted John. He wasn’t a hands-on father; he never changed a nappy or took them out in the pram. His career was the most important thing.”

And in 1972, his career was on the up. At the end of 1971, his solo album Bless The Weather catapulted John from the folk niche to a far broader, more flexibly expressive musical identity stretching into both plangent acoustic-electronic soundscaping – playing his Martin guitar through an Echoplex tape-delay machine, fuzzbox and other effects devices – and jazz, thanks to the musician with whom he was to form a profound bond, the double-bassist Danny Thompson.

“We were mistaken for brothers all the time, which made us laugh,” John told me in 2006. “We had the same insecurities. Mine was my parents being divorced, his was being orphaned. Very big and very wilful we were. We behaved as if the spotlight was on us all the time. Danny would go into a place and say, ‘This is for the damage.’ They’d say, ‘There is no damage.’ He’d say ‘There fucking will be.”

Now 73, Danny Thompson chokes up when he talks about John: “It was a very intense relationship, much more than best friends. Maybe I looked on him as the younger brother I never had and he looked on me like his dad. We were inseparable. On tour we’d share a room; we had a non-stop laugh. We’d turn up for a recording session then not bother, just go out for a drink. We’d rampage, have fun, do what we liked; and out of that came a creative energy. Because when it came to the music, we were deadly serious. That two hours on stage was intense, our time, a conversation. Who else could write something so beautiful as ‘You curl around me like a fern in the spring’ [from the Solid Air song Go Down Easy’? I can’t, but I can respond to it.”

Yet Danny Thompson was not John’s first choice of bass player for Bless The Weather’s follow-up album he felt rushed into recording by Island to raise his profile in America, where he was booked to tour in January 1973, propping up the bill below two other Island acts, Traffic and Free.

Recalled for the new Martyn album, Bless The Weather’s producer, John Wood, was not impressed by the musicians called in to accompany Martyn at Wood’s Sound Techniques studio in London’s Chel¬sea, where he’d also recorded Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. Then, “fortuitously, on the first night I fell down the tortuous staircase up to the loos and sprained my ankle. We had to cancel, and that rhythm section was unavailable for the rescheduled sessions. So we went back to Danny and into [Island’s West London recording studio] Basing Street where we cut the tracks for Solid Air, the first song we recorded, and Dreams By The Sea and Man In The Station.”

Vintage TroubleTHE SONG SOLID AIR IS THE MASTERPIECE WITHIN the masterpiece, a song of comfort and understanding to a friend locked into depression or mental illness. It is about Nick Drake, though, according to Beverley, perhaps not exclusively g, so: “At the time, I had mental health problems and was on anti-depressants. Make of that what you will.” In 1972 Nick Drake released his final album, Pink Moon (produced by John Wood), and retreated from London to his parents’ home in Warwickshire, occasionally driving long distances to reconnect to old friends, including the Martyr’s. “Nick was often a visitor, even when John was away” Beverley recalls. “Neighbours would come up to say they’d seen him standing on the beach in his suit, staring out to sea. He’d come up and stay and we started writing a song together, Reckless Jane, which I have now completed and recorded.

“John hung out with those kind of people, special, with a great talent but a destructive side. I warned John, Why do you keep bringing home these people who are going to die?”

With a deadline to meet, John Wood brought in “very fast and intuitive players” who would quickly latch onto John’s often unorthodox timings and tunings. Jazz saxophonist Tony Coe does not remember the session but the ace percussionist, Tristan Fry who’d played on Nick Drake’s Saturday Sun, recalls having to lug his vibraphone up the steps at Sound Techniques where overdubs were recorded after the basic tracks were laid down in Basing Street. And then his damper pedal broke “so you couldn’t stop the notes sustaining. I had to work out how to hand damp the instrument which, as it happens, gave me more control of the phrasing. John Wood gave me the written-out chord symbols, played the tune a couple of times and told me to have a little go at it.”

When drummer Dave Mattocks recognised Tristan Fry at the sessions, he realised he was in illustrious company. He’d been driven there by his other half in Fairport Convention’s rhythm section, Dave Pegg, in the folk-rock bassist’s blue Ford Anglia with a jar’s bite-sized drum kit strapped to the roof and stowed in the back along with the bass and amp.

“On I’d Rather Be The Devil [a version of Mississippi blues man Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman] I didn’t need to play strict time because John had that covered,” Mattacks recalls. “So I could play around it, and when it went into the free sectionI did my best impersonation of a jazz drummer. On top of all that, the songs were so good. Back then, working with people like John, Nick Drake and Sandy Denny was normal; only later, working with other artists, did I realise just how specially talented they were.”

Dave Pegg: “It all happened very quickly. John would play the song live in the studio and off you’d go, more or less off the top of your head with no demos or rehearsals. That’s how we did it back then in the folk-rock genre. They were happy-go-lucky sessions. Although we all liked a drink, there was never any over-use of stimulants or alcohol. Slurred singing was his very original style – he was never over-refreshed. It was a working atmosphere.”

Written on an early morning train back from London as John saw his house appear behind Hastings’ East Hill, the gentle homecoming song Over The Hill features former Fairports Richard Thompson on mandolin, and, on autoharp, Simon Nicol: “There was a Witchseason and Island family atmosphere and house style with John Wood. People would turn up on each other’s albums because we were hanging around socially,” recalls Simon. But working with John in the studio was “daunting. John’s receive channel was not on a lot of the time. He wasn’t going to bend with the wind; the world revolved ’round him. Working with him was like encouraging a very naughty child to cooperate with you. It was as if he was fundamentally upset with the shape of the world. Thank God for the talent he brought to the table.”

“Though John came across as a larger-than-life character, it was bluster,” says John Wood. Underneath he suffered a lot of self-doubt and needed reassurance from me, especially with his vocals.”

On Solid Air, self-doubt beset the most beloved song of John Martyn’s entire career May You Never. Inspired by his friendship with Andy ‘the Greek’ Matheou (“a lovely man, the only person apart from Chris Blackwell with whom John would always behave himself,” recalls Beverley), who ran the legendary Les Cousins folk club where Martyn had first made his name, the song seemed to defy a satisfactory recording. First cut in November 1971 and issued as a single, it flopped, but John was not going to let such a beauty miscarry twice. Yet as he discarded take after take at the Solid Air sessions, the clock was ticking.

Based on what had already been recorded and mixed at Sound Techniques where he liberally applied atmospheric reverb via the studio’s uniquely characterful echo plates, John Wood persuaded Chris Blackwell the album was worthy of a top-class mastering job such as could only be done in New York. Booked to fly the following morning, John Wood had all the tapes packed bar one – May You Never. “It was by then nearly midnight,” he recalls, “so I said to him, For Christ’s sake, John, just go back down into the studio and play it again, and we’ll record it. And he did, and it’s great.”

JOHN WOOD WAS RIGHT. THOUGH COMMERCIALLY NO Dark Side Of The Moon, Solid Air sold far better than any previous John Martyn album, not least thanks to ecstatic music press re-views. The only person who seemed underwhelmed was John himself He’d been rushed. He’d delegated too much control. It didn’t express where his head was at, a feeling reinforced by hanging out with Traffic in the US that January of 1973 – the quest for freedom.

Even though much of Traffic’s contemporary live album, On The Road, now sounds flaccid, Martyrs was entranced by the freedom each musician had to stretch out and improvise, and was determined to emulate that approach in the follow-up to what he felt was the over-meticulous Solid Air. Indeed, he would produce it himself and pick every musician, just to be sure. And if he had very few songs written and road-tested compared to those he’d developed in the year between Bless The Weather and Solid Air, inspiration on the hoof would take up the slack.

But playing 35 shows in 39 days in the US had taken it out of party animal John. “He came back very paranoid, probably due to the drugs he’d taken on the road,” says Beverley. “As soon as he got home, it was, ‘Who painted the hallway? Who put that blind up?’ I think he was projecting his infidelities with the ladies of the road onto me.”

Martyn barely had time to relax with the Michael Moorcock and Philip K Dick novels to which he was addicted or his favourite Pharaoh Sanders, John Coltrane, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Little Feat, Santana and Chieftains records before he was off on tour around England with Danny Thompson.

Tempers frayed, first in Bolton when, as John later recalled, “We played naked, and [back at the hotel Danny] actually nailed me to the floor under the carpet, and proceeded to order and eat a full hotel breakfast at a table above me as I was coming to.”

It may have been a week later, before a show in Hull, that John ended up with two black eyes and a bandaged thumb where Danny had bent it back “to stop him strangling me”, the double-bassist recalls. “This was a serious falling out, and I said, That’s it. ‘We’ve got to do the gig,’ he said. We weren’t talking but turned up, did the soundcheck, glowering at each other, went on stage and I went up to the mike and said, Ol’ black eyes is back! And he just cracked up.”

So it was that, over-worked, over-refreshed but under-relaxed, Martyn returned to the studio in July 1973 to make the record that, he told NME’s Ian MacDonald, would be “a lot heavier. There’ll be more blowing on it from me. I’m trying to get freer and less structured and Danny’s the only cat I’ve found so far who can follow.”

Danny Thompson: “John called me up to say he was booked into Island studios in Basing Street for two weeks. He didn’t say what songs we’d be recording. I can see him now sitting in a chair in the middle of the studio with his Martin guitar, saying, ‘I haven’t got anything.’ You haven’t got anything? I said. ‘Nothing.’ Not a song? ‘Nothing!’

“So we went and had a drink, came back, and I said, You know the first shape, the chord, you play on Solid Air? Play that. Play the second chord of Fine Lines [a new song they’d road-tested that summer], play the second chord of Man In  The Station. Right, now play each chord, leave a space and have a little twiddle, then the next, and so on. That became this massive piece which everyone talks about, Outside In. It was very spontaneous, just something to start him off. I didn’t want any writes, just just top fee for doing the album. That was the deal. I saw myself as serving his songs.
“And when you got a musician like Stevie Winwood in to play on the session [as John did, to get that Traffic vibe he craved], you don’t tell him what to do. We were like big kids enjoying ourselves. We’d lose track of time. After hours in the studio making Inside Out we knocked off for a drink. We knocked on the door of the pub [the Apollo in All Saints Road] and ordered pints. ‘Do you know what time it is?’ the landlady said. Yes, eight o’clock. ‘Eight o’clock in the morning!”

With Martyn self-producing, he relied heavily on the Island staff engineer Richard Digby Smith, whom Blackwell had assigned to the sessions because of his feel for freewheeling rock and patience with vocalists: “We recorded in Studio 1 upstairs, a huge room separated by screens and baffles, with the instruments and drums set up like backline at a gig. The music was made as an ensemble, the musicians playing in the moment, each note dependent on the last, very experimental and precarious. With my eclectic taste and unhinged approach, I felt quite comfortable with that whereas I can imagine some engineers would simply up headphones and leave.

“Chris Wood of Traffic was hovering around because John was keen for him to play on the track we were recording that evening. Chris would walk around with his bag of reeds and always had his saxophone strap round his neck so he was ready to play at a moment’s notice. I was milting up Danny and we had a mike ready for Chris, but he was too busy somewhere in the building adjusting his mouthpiece and tuning up. Nobody knew where he was so we start recording without him and, as the last chord of the track decayed, Chris appeared from behind a screen and played a little riff on his sax. We all burst out laughing!

“That album could be sponsored by Echoplex; it was strewn with delays. By today’s standards, the technology is primitive and you had to get the sounds there and then. I was prepared to put the mike out in the hall rather than in front of the speakers for some crazy acoustic nuance, and John would be up for that. There was a lot of randomness as John would sit there for hours doing overdub upon overdub on his guitar.

“At some point someone would have to sit down and make sense of it all – me, bouncing off Danny and John. I was trusted to know what was a bum note and which were the best bits of guitar to use; we could all hear when it was right. A track was normally a matter of comping three or four takes together.

“Yes, it was mad and chaotic but all the sessions were riddled with laughter and fun, merriment, alcohol and smoking.”

JOHN MARTYN TOLD ZIGZAG’S ANDY Childs six months after its October 1973 release that Inside Out was “basically all about the concept of love.” “I just wanted to say something very simple and very direct. But a lot of people said it was very complicated. I don’t know if I’ll make an album like that again.”

Nor did he, though with its outdoor, ambient recording the instrumental track Small Hours from 1977’s One World album pushed technology even further to capture the feeling of serenity, freedom and rapture John craved in his mu-sic. But by then drink and drugs had made him dangerous to Beverley: “I did love him but in the end I had to let him go,” she says. “I felt beaten down; I had no strength within me.”

With the end of his marriage came the end of John Martyn’s great decade as a songwriter.  Thereafter you have to cherry pick his albums for songs to rival what he consistently created throughout the ’70s.

Four years ago, his constitution exhausted, John Martyn died. Unable to see the point of going on without John’s presence in his life, Danny Thompson contemplated hanging up his bass for good: “I miss John every dav even his three o’clock in the morning calls. he says. “I didn’t understand what grief was. I do now.”

Mat Snow
1 April 2013