The Piece By Piece Tour
The John Martyn Band;
Foster Paterson – keyboards, backing vocals
Edinburgh-born Foster has been working with John for almost two years, including some extensive touring as a two-piece. He played a major part in the recording of the Piece by piece album and actually wrote the track from which the album got its name. Foster has also been involved in live and studio projects with Raf Ravenscroft, Any Trouble and David Knopfler.
Alan Thomson – fretless bass guitar, keyboards
Glaswegian Alan was a guitar player when he first met John, and in order to play in the band, switched to a custom made fretless bass. He has been featured on John’s albums and in concerts for the past five years and on this tour doubles on keyboards. He has also recently worked with Chris Rea, Robert Palmer, Todd Rundgren and Strangeways.
Dave Cantwell – drums, percussion
Dave, another Edinburgh lad, is the latest addition to John’s pool of players and first met John while chauffeuring an old Riley at John’s wedding. He uses two drum kits on stage – a Sonor acoustic and a Simmons Electronic, plus countless odds and ends – to provide the widest spread of drum and percussive effects.
JOHN MARTYN PIECE BY PIECE
I first met John Martyn at a concert I’d helped organise in Belfast in 1971. Always pleased to meet a fellow Scot in that troubled place, I warmed immediately to this skilful musician with the quick wit and gentle manner. So did the audience who had braved the danger of the city to hear the new folk hero from across the water. John had just released BLESS THE WEATHER and I can vividly remember those gentle songs and the uplifting echoplex warming the cold air of that dark winter night.
Since then I followed his career with great interest, noting his increasing musical eclecticism, the drift away from acoustic-electric innovation towards rock-jazz fusion, and the consistently pungent yet subtle lyricism of his songs. I have been gripped by his ups and downs, the pain and the passion which weeps from the vinyl of his later albums, as his marriage broke down and he became separated from his children, as he tangled with the bottle and other distractions, and as he again fell in love. Like others of my age, I have at times marked my own life, indulged my own passions and distractions, to a stereophonic background of contemporary music and songs. In this John’s creations have had a special place.
I met Martyn again in 1984. I had devised with Dave Bellamy a television series on the environment and we thought John, in addition to being a sympathiser to the cause, was the ideal musician to do the soundtrack. While working on this in 1985 I was asked to write this mini biography of John and his work to accompany his twentieth anniversary tour and the release of his new album in 1986. To collect the information for this I again visited him at his new family home in the peaceful surroundings of the Scots border country…
BEGINNINGS: SING A SONG OF SUMMER
John Martyn was born in 1948 into a Scots musical family; the only son of two light opera singers who became separated shortly after his birth. Brought up by a close relative, most of his childhood was spent in urban Glasgow, but every weekend his father used to take him into the countryside, and every year he spent his holidays with his mother on houseboats touring the riverways of Southern England.
These early experiences of separation and the close contact with the countryside yet urban upbringing undoubtedly had a strong influence on the young Martyn. Time spent fishing, by the sea and on houseboats created a life-long fascination with moving water, for the play of the ocean and of rivers and the lives that went with them. Later these childhood memories provided a source of pungent imagery for many of his songs, where lyrical details are often fused with images of separation and reconciliation, fundamental movements in emotional life, like the cycle of the seasons or the ebb and flow of a current in midstream.
John first picked up the guitar at fourteen and leaving school at seventeen entered the local folk scene under the wing of Hamish Imlach. Hamish took him round the clubs, introducing him to people like the Incredible String Band, who, John recollects, ‘had very interesting ideas and were very funky players in those days’. At the time John’s musical ideas and his playing were very influenced by guitarist Davey Graham and the black musicians of the Stax and the Chess labels, people like Chuck Berry, Howling Wolf, Gary Davis, Snooks Eaglin and Big Bill Broonzy. Imlach introduced him to the extensive possibilities of combining traditional Gaelic folk music with contemporary instrumentation and comment, drawing on a range of folk and ethnic styles ranging from ragtime to blues and country.
Hamish, John admits, ‘was a mine of information on these things and simultaneously introduced me to socialism, because that was the driving force at the time. Folk music was folk music; it was for the people and quite deliberately so. Through the socialist aspect of the music I was introduced to a lot of the great black musicians. We used to pool our money and bring over these guys, like Gary Davis, to play at the clubs in Glasgow… that was the only way we could hear them’. Another formative influence in the early days was Clive Palmer who ran the Incredible Folk Club and founded the String Band. For a while he and John lived in a shed near Alston in Cumbria. playing music and selling things from foreign parts for a living. ‘Those were wild times, and Clive was a remarkable man, a great musician and down to earth, absolutely no bullshit, taught me lots of things to play’.
Going to London in 1968, John was the first white artist to join Chris Blackwell’s reggae label, Island, a family company which was later to welcome to its fold a whole range of innovative musicians who later attained worldwide stature became John’s contemporaries and jamming partners. The early contact with West Indian music provided a useful source of ideas, but this was also John’s first real encounter with Rock and Roll. ‘The first rock and rollers that I really liked were Free. I had never heard the blues played by white boys like that. They were amazing, I was really moved, genuinely moved, no-one else had such an effect. It was insane, they were so young. But absolutely no-one has ever come close to that kind of music. It was a cross between musical integrity and genuine soul’. John in fact played guitar on one of Kossoff’s best known records, and Paul Kossoff returned the favour later, playing in John’s band for the LIVE AT LEEDS album.
The first two John Martyn albums. LONDON CONVERSATION and THE TUMBLER both released in 1968, were in the folk tradition but contained some touches of remarkable lyrical ingenuity and jazzy instrumentation which set him apart at the time from his folk contemporaries. There is a sense of Spring and seasonal rhythm in these albums, of a fresh new talent bursting forth and of a poet drawing imagery from both the light and dark sides of nature. Compare the delightful Sing A Song of Summer, Knuckledy Crunch And Slipledee-Slee Song and The River with the menacing Gardeners and Seven Black Roses. There are also childhood reminiscences, like Dusty and Fairy Tale Lullaby and distinctive renditions of old and new musical classics, like Cocaine and Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice.
On these albums there are also beautiful songs of first love and partings like Hello Train, The River and Fly On Home, where lyrics of apparent simplicity are deepened with touches of irony and ambiguity, imbuing their subject matter with intrigue and mystery. These are classical Martyn touches which attract him to a discerning following, always keeping them wondering. The Tumbler also featured one of the last recordings of the great jazz flautist Harold McNair, who died of cancer not long after.
‘Those were basically acoustic albums. I was listening to Jansch and Graham and doing all the acoustic chops. I never played slicker or faster. It was a show off British exercise. The Tumbler material was influenced by my partner at the time, Paul Wheeler, a Cambridge philosophy student, who taught me the value of the British intellectual tradition, in the Graham Greene/Noel Coward sense. We decided not to play the American way, but be self-consciously British in everything. It was great, I enjoyed all that, but its potential for creativity was limited. I got bored with the folk/ acoustic thing. You can’t keep churning that out, it stifles innovation, kills the personal touch’.
THE ROAD TO RUIN
In 1969 John met and married a singer from Coventry, Beverley Kutner, who was making records at the time with producer Joe Boyd. The pair were signed up by Warner Brothers in America who sent them to Woodstock at the height of the folk-rock revolution. Working with Doors and Crosby/Stills/Nash producer Paul Harris, they came up with the STORMBRINGER album, a pace-setting acoustic rock adventure, with folk guitars filled out by pounding drums, piano and bass.
STORMBRINGER showed the influence of the Band on John’s musical direction, and featured the Band’s Levon Helm on drums and a range of other session men including the Mothers of Invention’s Billy Mundi. The mysterious title track included another innovation, a wash of strings. But this song Woodstock, a paean to the people of the pinewoods, is still in the TUMBLER tradition. Would You Believe Me is the critical song on STORMBRINGER containing intimations of the long and stormy passage ahead (‘Its such a long long way, so many turnings’). This piece also featured the introduction of the echoplex guitar technique which John pioneered and which for years ahead became the highlight of his solo concert performances.
THE ROAD TO RUIN is another joint love album, celebrating country life and domestic peace, and the importance at the time of love as a philosophy (‘What you feel is what is real’ from New Day) in harmony with natural rhythm (Tree Green). John was ‘happy as a man could naturally be, living in the middle of a mystery’. These were peaceful days when nothing seemed to really matter. As John recollects, ‘At the time I was into heavy duty Kaftan and Bells’. The title, ‘Road to Ruin’, he explains ‘is really an adolescents’ view of mortality,.you know the idea, isn’t it all fun, we’re all doomed but we may as well enjoy it: we’re all going one way, but we may as well get down into it while we’re here’. The song itself shows Martyn at his most mysterious and surreal, ‘moving down the road to ruin’ and blown along by calibre session men like Dudu Pukwana (on Sax), Paul Harris (on piano), Dave Pegg (on Bass), and introducing Pentangle’s Danny Thompson on double bass – the start of a historic partnership between the two men.
Danny Thompson proved to be another formative influence on John’s musical career, the ‘first real jazzer’ that he played with for an extended period. Stories about the two men’s exploits on tours over the next seven years are part of rock legend. John remembers, ‘Aye, there was the time we played naked in Bolton town, and the time he actually nailed me to the floor under the carpet, with real nails, and proceeded to order and eat a full hotel breakfast at a table above, as I was coming to…’.
‘Aye, those were wild times, all part of the Jazzy thing. I was determined to live that lifestyle, look sharp, be sharp, be on the ball non-stop, smoke all the dope, drink all the juice, just get to it and be Jack the Lad, and Danny Thompson, forgive us all, was just the same. It was difficult for people, they didn’t know what to do with us, it was wicked, we didn’t pay bills, we demanded money with menaces, sometimes we scrapped on stage, we buggered about and just generally cut swathes. It was very funny, we were so wicked on stage, people just couldn’t ignore it. The last time we ever played, Danny arrived on stage totally rat-arsed from drinking all day with Billy Connelly and fell through his double bass, totally smashed, in the middle of one of my delicate acoustic numbers. Haven’t seen him since, the boot’s on the other foot now, he won’t return my telephone calls… the bastard. Of all the musicians I’ve come into contact with, Danny has taught me the most… particularly about style and jazz technique. I’m greatly indebted to the man. I hope that we’ll be able to work together again. Are you reading this Danny my boy?’
With Danny’s help the two albums made during the early seventies, BLESS THE WEATHER (1971) and SOLID AIR (1973) turned John Martyn into an established figure on the concert circuit. His reputation as a live act with a difference, coupled with excellent album reviews, brought the people in; and John acquired a loyal following that has stayed with him through thick and thin, the high times and the long silences. By this time John was performing by himself or with Danny Thompson. The Martyns had set up home in Hastings in Southern England and, in addition to Wesley, Beverley’s son by a previous relationship, there were soon two more children, Mhairi and Spencer.
Both albums took further John’s unique fusion of folk, rock and jazz, deploying in addition to Danny and Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks, Simon Nicol and others. BLESS THE WEATHER is a subtle and rich pastiche of gentle songs about love and contentment, with the echoplex complementing and giving electronic depth to John’s characteristic touch of mystery. In Go Easy he pleads for ‘life to go easy on me’, and in Back Down The River, almost the inverse of Road To Ruin, we find him ‘Rowing back down my river, chasing my tail to the sea, rowing back down my river, trying my best to be free, rowing back down my river, trying my best to be me’.
Blessing the weather (‘that brought you to me’) and singing his ‘songs to the sea’ the music ebbs and flows like the tide in late evening. Walk To The Water is the highlight, a surreal invocation of the spirit of place, the earth and water goddess, a personification of beauty and love and the movements of the earth, the tide, moon and sea. She who walks on the water is the feminine principle, lying at the heart of the matter and on the shoreline of consciousness, drifting in to move the minds and hearts of men. Like Tim Buckley and even Dylan or Cohen, Martyn’s lyricism in this as in much of his later material, makes explicit use of images of femininity and romance to illustrate intimations of the transcendental, the wellspring to the classical poet of all that is inspiring and life enhancing.
SOLID AIR is much moodier. The title track describes his feelings at the tragic loss of a friend, guitarist Nick Drake. ‘Nick was a beautiful man, but walking on solid air, helpless in this dirty business an innocent abroad. He was killed, like Kossoff, by the indecent, parasitic opportunism that pervades the music business.’ This album also features May You Never and Don’t Want to Know, perhaps John’s best ever song, where he tries to distance himself from the tragedy, the destruction and greed which he sees in the world around him. Other tracks on SOLID AIR contain some of the best examples of John’s use of natural imagery, of water, sea and air, to express sensations of loss and separation. In Over the Hill and The Man in the Station, the travelling musician is longing to be at home, to be whole again, ‘back where I come from’.
SOLID AIR was very successful both here and in America, where John was asked back again and again. At one point he did three tours in five months. ‘Everywhere you went people were saying ‘this guy’s happening’ and it all just went to my head. I had also discovered cocaine and heroin. I was doing dope and acid at the time and drinking as well… You can imagine the state I was in. Anyway the industry wanted another SOLID AIR and they let me loose in the studio, a totally free hand… they must have been mad.’ The result was INSIDE OUT, released in 1973, John’s favourite album. ‘It’s very strange, a lovely album, it’s everything I ever wanted to do in music, it’s my inside coming out. It allowed me a vision into my own half-finished self. It was all heartfelt, creative stuff… It was also one up the bugle for everybody, for all those folkies who play jigs by the rote and think Nina Simone is too rhythmic’.
INSIDE OUT won John an award, a Golden Disc from Montreux. It was very experimental, containing skilful free-form rock-jazz fusions, some extraordinary guitar work and, like Tim Buckley, a purposeful exploration of the use of his voice as an instrument. Most of the tracks were recorded during late night sessions with Danny Thompson. Bobby Keyes, Remi Kabaka, Stevie Winwood and (on one eight of ‘the second last note’) Traffic’s Chris Wood. The result is wild and high, music from inner space. The Western Isles will never quite seem the same after a listen to John’s treatment on guitar of the classic tune ‘Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail’. Other instrumental and vocal highlights, mixing sawing bass lines, acoustic melodies and wild ecstatic guitar filled out with keyboards, saxes and drums include: Make No Mistake, Look In and Outside In. John’s outlook on things at this time is illustrated in the lyric to Look In: ‘Its nothing but a look in the mirror, its just another cow in the corn, Just another gift from the Indian giver, just another blow on the horn. Look in, look out, look up, look down, look everywhere but don’t look for me, Get in, get up, get out, get on, get it, everything you can for free, I’m trying to make loving, make love in a peaceful place’. INSIDE OUT was precisely that, an attempt to shake loose from convention and constraint, to release the power and energy that lies trapped within, to hit that perfect note and find that peaceful place.
SUNDAY’S CHILD, recorded in 1975 was ‘the family album, very happy, purely romantic, a nice period for me before I went totally Raj Bongo’. A more settled collection of songs, the music also contains a number of contrasts, from the driving Root Love to the tender My Baby Girl. The boogying Clutches shows the influence of Little Feat, with whom John was later to tour the States, confirming an American following built up during earlier tours by himself and with Free and Traffic. Always eclectic John uses a pure folk treatment for Spencer The Rover, and straight country for another old number Satisfied Mind. His choice of these two songs for this collection exposes torn yearnings, for the freedom, wildness and adventure of the road on one hand, and the pull of tranquil domesticity on the other. Call Me Crazy with its spacey echoplex finish and its lyric of both being moved in love and yet ‘moving on’ sums up the tension he felt.
LIVE AT LEEDS followed in 1976. In a mood of defiance against the industry, Martyn recorded, produced, designed and marketed his own live album. He even sold it from his own front door. It’s now very rare, a collectors item. Even he has now got no copy. ‘I sold them all, it was very profitable for me. I mean every morning for months I woke up and there was another couple of thousand quid lying on the floor. It was wonderful. It was also a nightmare. I never worked so hard in my life, opening all those letters, having to personally reply to every one of them, making sure all the right letters went into all the right envelopes. Dear Frederick, or was it Cecil? Woburn… But I learned a lot from that… But it was very effective, I was the first of the record independents.’
By this time John’s marriage to Beverley was under severe stress. ‘I was Jack the Lad in those days – which didn’t help things at home really. What’s the phrase by Lord Buckley: “There’s a lot of good ways for a man to be wicked”; that’s it. This may also have contributed to my downfall, to my mistakes. You’re four thousand miles away from home, and what are you going to do, no thankyou? I was nice laddie…. but easily led. Actually it was pure joy. I’m a reformed chap now, totally true…’
Island responded to LIVE AT LEEDS by putting out a compilation of earlier, more acoustic material, SO FAR SO GOOD (1977).
In 1976 John Martyn went to Jamaica, staying on Strawberry Hill, on the wrong side of the fence that separates the rich whites from the poorer blacks, but ‘close enough to hear the pigs being slaughtered from down the valley’. John remembers playing with Lee Perry on a Max Romeo album. ‘They asked me at the end of the session how I’d like to be paid, in counterfeit dollars or blue films. I took the dollars, ‘de yankee dallah’.’
John enjoyed the place ‘musically’ but not ‘politically’. ‘The white people down there still have all the money and the clout, the blacks were slaves, brought there by white cruelty, and they aren’t going to forget that. Yet they’re all slaves in a way, the whites as well, who’re slaves to the colonial tradition. The blacks still resent it, but because it’s the status quo don’t question it’. It was John’s first experience of working intensively with black musicians. ‘I learned there that all that stuff about there being no difference between black and white is absolute garbage. There is a difference. If you want the truth the blacks are hipper than we are, they’ve got more vibes and have lost less. They’re a wee bit closer to the ground, stronger… that’s for me’.
The sounds of Jamaica and its politics influenced his next album, ONE WORLD. To make this he returned to England and disappeared into the studios with Island boss and close friend, Chris Blackwell. The result was a masterpiece, a smooth, slick more commercial collection of songs. Although to some it seemed as though he was selling out, ONE WORLD was a great critical success… and sold well. Most of the old tensions and themes are contained in this marvellously consistent contribution to rock legend: separation (Dancing and Dealer), deep sentiment (Couldn’t Love You More etc); and a new one – the terror of excess (Dealer, Big Muff). It also contains a wide variety of musical moods, from the soothing and gentle to the rough and the funky.
But ONE WORLD also marked a change in John’s attitude: ‘At the time I suppose I was becoming more concerned. I didn’t like what was happening to me. I was becoming the epitome of the hippy era, the long haired father figure bearing down on mother nature with the lovely wife and lovely children, happy smiles and brown bread. I wanted to get a bit harder. So I changed the point from where I write and moved it to a less personal, more global, I suppose political, area’. The song One World is also John Martyn at his most mysterious and metaphysical, it is (perhaps paradoxically for this era of his life) a song not about separation but integration. The album closes with Small Hours. This is an echoplex anthem (complete with Canada geese) and the last time he used this technique on record. The song is an old re-statement of hope and love ‘for a new day’s dawn’.
The ambiguity and irony in the songs of One World, like John’s song lyrics generally, are not, he explains, the result of purposeful attempt to write metaphorically. ‘The multiple meanings just pop out, I like to open up the possibility of differing interpretations, it deepens the mystique. When the muslims actually closed the Gates of Perception they lost much of their following: the whole attraction was the fact that the Koran could mean anything to anybody. I like the concept of differing interpretations, its a nice area to work in… apart from anything else it doesn’t tie you down… No-one can call you a liar… because they don’t understand what you’re saying… I read Yeats and Burns a lot… maybe there’s an influence there’.
After ONE WORLD there followed a long silence. It was three years before the next recorded album. During this time John’s marriage with Beverley, that had withstood the strains of the ‘life of a music man’ for so long, finally broke up. But true to his Scots background, and in contrast to many of his musical contemporaries who were at this time entering the folds of religious conversions of one kind or another, John simply went on a binge (‘essentially the same as usual, just more extended’). It was, he admits a ‘dark period’ in his life, during which he was crazier than normal, doing things almost with a death wish.
The album that resulted, GRACE AND DANGER, John admits, was ‘difficult to make’. It’s a painful collection of songs, whose titles (Hurt in Your Heart, Baby Please Come Home, Our Love) require no further exposition. But the mood is powerful, overwhelming in parts, the lyrics beautiful, and the music excellent, showing the influence of Weather Report and involving musicians like John Giblin on bass and Phil Collins on drums and back-up vocals. ‘Danger’ also rocks, and includes some new John Martyn classics like Sweet Little Mystery and the anarchic Johnny Too Bad. DANGER is a fine album, confirming John Martyn as a musician and lyricist in a class of his own, and solid proof that creativity thrives on adversity. ‘Grace and Danger was very cathartic, and really hurt, I was really in love with that woman.’ However, John and Beverley’s marriage had by this time irretrievably broken down, and the Martyns were divorced within a year.
BACK WITH VENGEANCE
In 1981 John signed up to new management and left Island to sign up with Warner Brothers. ‘It was all change then, I was reshaping my life, I wasn’t married, I wasn’t attached to anybody or anything, and I thought ‘lets go for it, let’s make some money, lets make a band; and that’s when the band was formed. I’d asked Phil Collins to do the drum job on GRACE AND DANGER and we became really close friends, so he produced the next album GLORIOUS FOOL for me. In fact we were both going through divorces at the same time, so we just got on. It was great fun, you know, like Heartbreak Hotel, taking turns on the phone… ‘Darling please’… all that… Everyone’s the same’.
GLORIOUS FOOL in 1981 was another fine Martyn album. It includes an up-tempo version of the classic Couldn’t Love You More, with guitar work by Eric Clapton, on whose recent tour John’s band had been the supporting act. Around the same time Clapton did a cover version of John’s May You Never for his SLOWHAND album. Glorious Fool features the incredibly doomy track Amsterdam written for a friend who John had advised not to go to that city but had gone nevertheless, stayed for some time and left one night ‘on the six-foot pine express, toes up, dreadful shame’. The song is dominated by Phil Collins’ drumming and a strafing guitar effect which cuts through to the bone. Producer Collins guides John through a litany of dance and jazz rhythms, laced with humour, remorse and even satire. (The ‘Glorious Fool’ is none other than US president Reagan, lying away the future of the world from his White House window/door/floor.) The Martyn/ Collins collaboration produces some new sound, a startling drum-guitar dialogue and a series of haunting vocal harmonies, that make this one of John’s most unusual collections. The duo are at their best in the anti-war song of separation, Don’t You Go, where John’s most precise ever vocal is backed by a solitary piano and a single sustained blow on the vocoder from Collins. The lyric, as always, is intriguing: ‘The army and the navy, they never will agree, Till all the men and all our boys, are gone from our country, Don’t you know, Don’t you know my son, Don’t you go my son, The proud and the Powerful, in whose hands we lie, Never will be pleasured, till all our women cry.’ The wider context of this song, as of the whole album, confirms John’s realisation, through his art, that his own road to ruin also applies to us all, and that we must confront the political absurdities that can lead to our destruction.
During this period, John was working full time with a band, and in 1982 embarked on a massive 32 date U.K. autumn tour, exploring a new heavier and rockier sound, and extending further his traditional audience appeal to a new generation of listeners. The basic group consisted of former session men Alan Thomson (bass), Max Middleton (keyboards), Danny Cummings (percussion) and Jeff Allen (drums). Occasional gigs and the albums from this era involved other fine professional musicians including Jim Prime (keyboards), Jon Stevens (drums), John Giblin (bass), Tommy Eyre (keyboards), Ronnie Leahy (keyboards) and occasional contributions from horn players Mel Collins and Dick Cuthell on record. John’s music now inevitably relegated the acoustic guitar and even the echoplex to a small section of his set; and his tour performances confirmed his reputation as an electric guitar player of genius and originality.
WELL KEPT SECRET is probably John’s tightest production ever. The music drives along at a furious pace, with, at times, touches of unadulterated funk and disco. There are songs of jealousy and pique, of naked secuality, of loneliness and frustration. One highlight is Gun Money which shows a different side of John Martyn, playing frantic, angry, apocalyptic music, Feeling like ‘a dead end face’ with ‘no life to speak of’, this time ‘rockin to (his) ruin’. A more tempered treatment is given to an old Johnny Ace ballad, Never Let Me Go with Ronnie Scott on tenor saxophone. Other tracks like Changes Her Mind and Love Up, get the full band treatment, great stuff for the road. Madonna could learn a lot about disco rhythms from two pulsating numbers on this album, Hiss On The Tape and Back With A Vengeance. Our John was indeed back with a vengeance.
TURNING THE TIDE
By 1983, John Martyn was remarried, to the lovely Annie Furlong, and had returned to set up a new home in Scotland, in the country near the borders, far from his former family home in Hastings by the sea. He was touring widely, and while Island put out another compilation album THE ELECTRIC JOHN MARTYN, John issued his own live collection PHILENTROPY. The excitement and powerful atmosphere of a live Martyn performance shows through on this improvised re-workings of old standards like Smiling Stranger and Sunday’s Child. A gem is the speeded-up but smooth rendition of Don’t Want To Know, a song (in more than one sense) with a future.
After the Well Kept Secret tour, John and Annie took time off to be alone together in the peace and quiet of their cottage home in the Scots borders. There was also a change of management at this time, and John left Warner Brothers to return to the old family fold of Island Records. Island boss Chris Blackwell then sent John off to lsland’s Compass Point studios in the Bahamas to record a new album. The result was SAPPHIRE released in the autumn of 1984. ‘Actually it didn’t almost happen, the production team had all fallen out, no-one was taking responsibility for anything, too much rum was being consumed all over the place, so I got Robert Palmer in who brought in some other excellent musicians, and that was it… it was all down to Robert in the end’
Like many Martyn albums before, SAPPHIRE was widely praised by the critics. Martyn sparkles in a new light, playing relaxed gentle music, with a touch of flippancy for a new era. The album incorporates a range of styles: shuffle, soul, disco, reggae, but all uniquely played and mixed in the Martyn mould that, as always, sets him apart from the rest of the field. The feel of the album can be summed up by the words the reviewers chose to use: adjectives like ‘subtle, smooth, gliding, solid, dreamy, elegant’ and so on. Epithets aside, the product consists of a series of dreamy ballads (Sapphire, Watching Her Eyes, Fisherman’s Dream) and jazzy offerings, with one rocker (Acid Rain) and an electronic (believe it or not) version of the Judy Garland standard Over The Rainbow.
SAPPHIRE shows John Martyn to be contemporary without losing any of his old subtlety and mystery. All the old images are there too: moving water, light and colour, even separation (albeit temporarily in SAPPHIRE) but two tracks in particular (Rope-Soul’d and Coming In On Time) indicate a new state of affairs, that John has indeed come in on time. ‘Almost anyway… Coming In On Time is a strange piece, almost a vision of salvation, a cross between a complaint and a hymn.’ The Sapphire Tour was one of his most successful: with packed houses across Europe and the U.K, new fans, there to see the legend, and old fans, there to reminisce. After one performance, the music critic of the Guardian newspaper wrote: ‘In an era when empy gestures of style proliferate in music, Martyn’s music speaks with an uncommon candour, intelligence and intensity. At times, the combination of guitar and synthesiser creates a sound which appears to come rolling across the stalls like a tsunami wave, pinning you to your seat… 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.’
And now in 1986 there is the new album, a resoundingly contemporary collection of compositions highlighting the man’s extra-ordinary vocal range and his highly innovative and eclectic songwriting. The music is a showpiece for a battery of warm synthesiser sounds, drum and guitar effects, created by John and his touring partner, keyboards supremo Foster Paterson, saxophonist Colin Tully and bassist Alan Thomson. Highlights include the crashing Nightline, the ballad Angeline, a Foster Paterson song Piece by Piece, and two pure showpieces for Martyn’s voice: Who Believes In Angels and Lonely Love.
On this album John says: ‘What I tried to do is sing more than play, and have fun with some new sounds, like the strangled duck (on John Wayne). I’ve been trying to sing better for the last few years and push myself in a certain direction. I always find the vocals more difficult to get right in the studio, they’re better live, generally. To get the effect I wanted on the track John Wayne I had to go out and get completely rat-arsed, and then I did it on one take. Great effect’. This track is the highlight of a very powerful album. A hypnotic, almost Indian sounding riff played against a wall of crashing synthesiser and guitar effects, the result is apocalyptic and fiery while at the same time sublime and humorous. Listen out for the strangled duck! I am John Wayne is a great song, a classic Martyn performance, in one way his A Day In The Life. Ambiguous as ever, the lyric is explained by John as the product of a ‘moment of passing self-righteousness’. The product is typically awesome, ‘Don’t you dare to look behind you, For you know I will be there, You feel my breath on your neck, Turn and face me if you dare, I’ve come to measure you, I’ve come to fix you up, I am John Wayne, My name is John Wayne, I’ve come to measure you, measure you.’
The destruction and havoc we create in the world, upon each other and ultimately upon the world, our living environment itself, has always concerned John. The theme runs through many of his best songs, Road To Ruin, Don’t Want To Know, Acid Rain, One World and now I Am John Wayne. And he has just completed recording the soundtrack for the first major international television series on the environment, TURNING THE TIDE, involving world-famous environmentalist David Bellamy, and to be shown for the first time on British television screens in the autumn of 1986. There are plans for a soundtrack single and album, possibly involving other prominent musicians who are similarly concerned about the environment, and plans for an Environmental Tour to coincide with the series. ‘Obviously the subject intrigues me, look where I live…. in these beautiful hills, and I’m just a wee Glasgow boy. I think of what I could do when it comes to it. There’s no point in working for money when you get to my stage, I don’t like doing things for money. Although of course I need money… I always seem able to make some when things get really sticky… Whatever immediately strikes your heart is all right… this one (the environment) goes right to the core.’
Always a hard working musician, and one of the few of his contemporaries who still likes to undertake extensive tours, there are plans for John to play and record with not only some of the leading figures in rock and folk, but also with some of the legendary figures in world jazz. There may also be a project with Scotland’s leading traditionalist folk singer, Dick Gaughan.
Asked whys he does what he does, he says: ‘At the end of the day my music is just information, like looking at a view it tells you something, and in this case it’s emotion, it’s emotional communication. In the border village where I now live there’s all these old men, brave men, been through two wars, as decent as the day is long, hard working, and they’re interesting, they can teach me something and have nothing to gain from me. They know things, and I gather these, that’s also communication, and that’s important to me… truly valuable.’
‘It’s such a long long way, so many turnings’, wrote John in Stormbringer in 1970. Many storms and turnings later, in 1986, John is still playing and performing with all the old fire and verve, but with a newer, more contemporary range of sounds and moods. As the famous Martyn voice has increased in depth, so too the music has become more powerful and the lyrics even more laced with all the old mystery and ambiguity. Intimacy, as always, is conveyed alongside a political perspective: within the Martyn mythology, the measure of the man and his music is also a measure of the world around him and around us. Turn and face it if you dare…
With nearly twenty albums behind him John Martyn has become a key figure and primary influence on the rock establishment which sowed its seeds in the sixties, broke ground in the seventies and still leads the field in the eighties. On the traditional folk scene, John is still regarded highly, but like a British Dylan, as the one who got away. And on the rock scene, with his echoplex, unique guitar styling and smokey vocals, he has become, almost like a British Beefheart, a legend.
But despite the successes, the bouts of legendary wildness and the cult following, John Martyn has changed little. Unaffected by the hype and ephemerality of the music business and the dreadful crashing of loves and lives associated with it, he remains at heart a Gaelic folkie, a romantic rock-poet and a music professional. The individual and charismatic touch in his art is akin to the work of the bricoleur: he absorbs the sounds around him and re-mixes them to affect and to please, to touch the hearts and the heads of those who play his music and listen to his songs. The mode may be contemporary, but the charm, the passion and the power is rooted in his Scots ancestry and in the border hills where he has now made his home. Like the rhymes of the bards that once toured those misty tracks, John Martyn’s songs contain a subtle weave of romance and intellect, emotion and meaning, which uplift the listener, making the world less real. When the song and the spell is over, the listener comes back to earth, but the earth now is not quite so solid as it was before, the cadence of its time is less oppressive, and its laws have only a relative value.
Listen to him… piece by piece. This man’s music will lift your heart and touch your mind.