The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal 1986
John and Danny at the brewery? In their hell-raising days of the 1970s this would have been no surprise, but to be more precise we join John and Danny at The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, on the 11th or 12th June 1986. The inimitable Arran Ahmun plays drums and percussion as we embark on a musical journey into the unknown…. an experimental odyssey through many of John’s songs both old and new.
John and Danny have a strong friendship that has lasted for over 30 years. They share a love and enthusiasm for music that comes from deep inside them. This recipe of love, enthusiasm and spontaneity is the key to making any live gig an occasion to remember. Danny told me, “When you finish a gig he doesn’t say, ‘Oh that second number…’ or before a gig he doesn’t say, ‘and in the third number we…what we’ll do is on this B Flat sequence into F.’ John just does it and I follow him and then I take the lead and he follows me… It’s a perfect relationship. It reaches incredible highs because of its uniqueness and because it’s spontaneous. It’s this exploration and when it happens it tops anything that anybody can do. You can’t write that, you put these elements together and you let it develop but you can’t plan that.” John feels the same, “My idea is that everyone, providing they’re strong enough people should impress their personality on the final sound.” And impress they do on this recording.
When you talk to Danny about John, you notice a twinkle in his eyes and then a mischievous grin appears on his face as he recalls a story about a gig in Hull. “We had a fight in Hull, a real fight in a hotel and he had two black eyes and his thumb was in a bandage because I got hold of it as he does all these dirty tricks! He was shouting and screaming about doing the gig and so on. I had some superficial damage and we came out on to the stage and he sat down with his Marten. We hadn’t said a word because we really had the needle with each other. I went up to the mic and said, ‘Old Black Eyes is back!’ And he just cracked up!”
John recalled another anecdote about a gig he and Danny did in Bolton, “We were always having bets with each other. We bet either one of us wouldn’t have the nerve to take off an article of clothing between each song. So we just did and needless to say we ended up naked. The audience loved it; there were about 700 people. It was good because Danny could hide behind his double bass and I could hide behind the guitar…It was alright!”
No John Martyn gig is ever the same; every performance is different with new ideas, colours and textures being brought to familiar songs. Many of the songs on John’s studio albums have evolved from exploring and pushing back accepted musical boundaries during free and less structured live performances. John performed Outside In live during 1971 and at this time it was known as Inside of Him or A Man Walks Inside. When the song eventually appeared two years later on the album Inside Out (1973) it was very different. A song John jokingly describes as a “long and involved twiddle!”
As if to demonstrate the unpredictable and inventive nature of a live concert Voiceprint have released another recording of John and Danny, Germany 1986. It would have been easy to release a compilation of Germany and Kendal, however, such a compilation would not have done justice to either recording, as both are wholly different. Fortunately, Voiceprint recognised this and we now have these two complete and very different recordings to enjoy for posterity. To listen to John and Danny trading riffs, licks and the inevitable banter is a real joy.
This is one of Arran’s first performances with John and over the last fifteen years he has toured as part of John’s band nearly every year, as well as undertaking two world tours with Clannad and working with other artists such as David Knoppfler, Julia Fordham, Alison Moyet and Andy Summers. Arran’s sympathetic and distinctive musicianship is instantly recognisable to many music fans and his contribution on this recording is outstanding.
So what of the music? A great set of sixteen songs and some real gems! A very different rendition of One Day Without You with subdued guitar and vibrant conga playing from Arran and then the traditional folk song Spencer The Rover. A delightful Man In The Station and Lookin’ On and Johnny Too Bad are given the ‘acoustic treatment’ in total contrast to the album versions on Grace and Danger (1980). It is interesting to hear songs such as Angeline, where Danny did not play on the original and yet he still reads the song and plays it with such feeling and passion. The set closes with the beautifully simple May You Never, a song written by John for his adopted son Wesley, and Over The Hill, which tells the story of a weary John travelling home to Hastings by train. From the window of the train John could see his house just over East Hill, and he knew that he was nearly home with his family. Over The Hill first appeared on Solid Air (1973) and was subsequently released as a single some four years later on 25th February 1977 by Island Records who were promoting the compilation album So Far So Good (1977). The lyric “Can’t get enough of sweet cocaine”, was considered too risqué in the 1970s and so in an attempt to secure more radio play, the DJ Promo copy of the single sent to radio stations had the lyric altered with “sweet cocaine” being changed to “dry champagne.” How times have changed!
John Martyn is a formidably inventive and expressive musician. His music is a celebration of all the experiences that life brings, its pleasures and its sorrows. His delicately melodic and forcefully dramatic music, coupled with his charismatic stage presence set him apart as one of the few musicians who can captivate almost any audience.