Michael Heatley traces the career of John Martyn, a true musical maverick
Try to pin down the quicksilver musical soul of John Martyn and he'll just squeeze through your fingers. Few who caught up with London Conversation, his late '60s recording bow for Island Records - he was the first white solo performer on what was then a reggae-based label - could have foreseen his transition from folky singer-songwriter to electric rock-band leader and, now, hip-hop balladeer.
Yet while Bob Dylan, an acknowledged influence, made at least the first change, he never showed the same fascination for sounds and textures as Martyn. The way the Scot applied slapback echo and other effects to the acoustic guitar in the '70s has helped shape the approach of many who followed: a generation led by Brit-winning Beth Orton, owes him a debt, while chart-toppers the Verve selected him as their special guest for a 1998 show, introducing him to a new audience.
Few artists of his vintage are still producing challenging music in the current millennium, so maybe Martyn is the exception that proves the rule - even though the twists and turns of his career can present a confusing picture. Changes in record label and musical direction have been frequent, but the thousands of dedicated fans of the gruff Glaswegian who have stuck with him through thick and thin aren't likely to desert him. And there's plenty for latecomers to get their teeth into.
Born Iain McGeachy in New Malden, Surrey, in 1948, Martyn has been breaking the mould ever since he drank in the influence, via vinyl, of American blues greats like Robert Johnson and Nehemiah 'Skip' James. This he merged with the adroit guitar-playing style of folk guru Davey Graham and laced the result with a smattering of the sounds of Scotland, where he was brought up. His attitude towards music has always been commendably open: "I don't care if it's Portishead or Robert Johnson or Debussy - it either moves you or it doesn't."
Chris Blackwell made him the first white solo act on his reggae-based Island label and, while he was initially pigeonholed as a folk artist in similar vein to his good friend Nick Drake, he burst out of the box by mixing eclectic and diverse musical elements with his voice and amplified acoustic guitar.
Many have questioned him on his one-time stable mate, for whom he wrote the song Solid Air, and, while he defends his friend, you also get the feeling he resents the fact that living legends receive considerably less respect than the dead. "People just keep saying, 'How was it knowing Nick Drake?' And I'm like, 'Please, he's dead, he was my friend. Have some respect and leave me alone.' It's so intrusive that I've refused to talk about Nick for the past eight years. I end up saying, 'If you paid half the attention to him while he was alive, he'd still be here'."
"I don't care if it's Portishead or Robert Johnson
or Debussy - it either moves you or it doesn't."
Having recorded London Conversation in late 1967, Martyn introduced jazz to his music on [his] second album The Tumbler by using flautist and sometime Donovan sideman Harold McNair. These mainly vocal-and-guitar efforts were followed by a similar number of duo productions with wife Beverley (1970's Stormbringer was a US-recorded collaboration with The Band) before he hit his solo stride with the classic trilogy Bless The Weather, Solid Air and Inside Out which spanned 1971-73.
Bless The Weather introduced John's trademark echoplex sound, utilising a primitive effects unit with a variable tape loop like a reel-to-reel recorder to create sound-on-sound collages. The shimmering instrumental Glistening Glyndebourne sat alongside simpler efforts as Just Now, Head And Heart and the title track, the whole thing rounded off in style with an inimitable, slurred version of Singin' in The Rain'. Richard and (no relation) Danny Thompson were among the backing musicians here.
Solid Air followed in 1973 and, according to legend was recorded not once but twice, John rejecting the first version and then cutting the second in a matter of four or five days. It was much more of a band situation, the basic backing trio being Free keyboardist Rabbit Bundrick plus the Fairport Convention rhythm section of Dave Pegg (bass) and Dave Mattacks (drums). John's version of bluesman Skip James' I'd Rather Be The Devil continued the [Glistening] Glyndebourne theme of musical innovation, while May You Never has since become an AOR classic in the hands of Eric Clapton, thanks to its inclusion on his Slowhand album.
Having released two albums in 1973 (the electronics-dominated Inside Out being the other), John settled down to a steady output and a domesticated lifestyle in Sussex with Beverley - but by 1980's Grace And Danger the outlook had indeed turned bleak. "I believe you do your best work when you're most screwed up," he'd later comment. "Grace And Danger is 'Oh dear, my baby done left me. Come back please, baby baby...'"
Coincidentally, his producer Phil Collins 1 was also going through a marriage break-up at the time - and, in his case this would kick-start his solo career outside Genesis with the multi-platinum Face Value. 'Grace...' may not have enjoyed such success at the record-shop tills, but it stands as one of the all-time great heartbreak albums. Standout tracks include Some People Are Crazy and Sweet Little Mystery (it's lyrics later purloined by Wet Wet Wet - John got a credit).
Another collaboration with Collins is on the cards, incidentally, as John recently revealed: "He wants to do a ballad album. I don't understand why people put him down; the cat can play the balls off almost anybody."
A pair of independently released live albums from this period, Live At Leeds (1975) and Philentropy (1983), are worth comparing, since their contents are as different as chalk and cheese. 'Leeds', which has reputedly sold 10,000-plus copies over the quarter-century since release, found him in acoustic mode in what was almost a jazz trio format. Danny Thompson and John Stevens on upright bass and drums reacted to his unscripted instrumental excursions with the verve and sensitivity of a sportscar engine, allowing him to race off into the musical horizon to the delight of his fans. By the time of Philentropy, recorded in the autumn of 1982 and the spring of 1983, John Martyn was indubitably working in a rock-band setting.
In between times, he'd ventured to Jamaica to work with producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry, the fruits being audible in 1977's One World. The title track, Dealer and Big Muff remain mainstays of his act today. Unlike so many popular performers who find a formula and stick to it, Martyn has always embraced the need to change, move forward and develop his music, stirring in outside influences where appropriate. "Every record is autobiographical," he explains, "That's the only way I can write. Some people keep diaries, I make records."
A temporary separation from Island yielded a couple of albums for Warner Brothers - Glorious Fool and Well Kept Secret, the latter again produced by Phil Collins and both recently reissued. These moved away from the revolutionary combination of acoustic guitar and echoplex that had become his trademark and took him into the realms of bitter-sweet balladeer.
Grace And Danger and Glorious Fool having been recorded with Collins and a crack session crew, Well Kept Secret featured the band he'd take on the road with him for much of the '80s - drummer Jeff Allen, bassist Alan Thomson and percussionist Danny Cummings. Their studio outing gave John his first and so far only Top 20 album, which may have had something to do with their retention.
1984 would find Martyn returning to his spiritual 'home'... but the second Island spell wouldn't prove fruitful and, severing connections for a second time in 1988, Martyn chose an independent path in all senses of the word. The Apprentice and Cooltide cemented his alliance with a new label, Permanent, though that name would turn out to be less than accurate. There also appeared a couple of albums of re-recorded songs (Couldn't Love You More and No Little Boy) which caused enormous debate within the Martyn fan base despite featuring heavy friends like the Floyd's Dave Gilmour, The Band's Levon Helm and the ubiquitous Phil Collins.
By the early '90s, he was leader of a five-piece band - and though concerts often began with a solo spot, most of the music was necessarily more arranged. Alan Thomson had survived from the earlier ensemble on fretless bass and keyboardist Spencer Cozens was another stalwart, while Miles Bould gave way to John Henderson on drums; Andy Sheppard supplanted Dave Lewis on saxophone.
A new direction was revealed in 1993 when he stated that his next album would have "a lot of hip-hop on it ... I love all that sub-bass and kick-drum shit." Four demo recordings were completed in that vein to submit to record labels, and he made these available to those who came to see him in the form of the EP Snooo. Even though these songs were re-interpreted on his next album, the original release became another Martyn collectable.
Many who'd filed John under 'folk' would have been startled to see him on Jools Holland's Later, Les Paul firmly in his grasp, leading a sizeable band complete with female backing singers and exhorting his audience from behind mirror shades to Step It Up. This was a track on the album And which emerged in 1994 2 on the Go! Discs label, co-produced by John and Chicago hip-hop engineer Stefon Taylor.
John Martyn was now a labelmate of top-selling acts like the Beautiful South and Paul Weller, and the omens looked good. But the company was soon to be subsumed within the PolyGram multi-national and when founder Andy MacDonald started another venture, Independiente, John went too. March 1998 saw the next offering - and, even for a man who'd been there, done that and worn the T-shirt, this was a first; an album of other people's songs.
Church With One Bell was named after a building being renovated in John's village which, he was promised, he could have as payment for the album. With the help of blues producer Norman Dayron, whose credits included the London Howlin' Wolf Sessions along with Donny Hathaway and vocal coaching Ray Charles' Raelettes, ten selections were recorded in the space of seven days. "Norman managed to drag sounds from me that really cut to the quick. Recording this album was a mixture of love and sweated blood. By the end of the week we were all knackered, but it captured something that you can feel."
His record company had sent him a tape of 35 songs by writers as varied as Bobby Charles, Portishead and the Rev Gary Davis, and he cut 16, changing many of them around to suit himself. In the case of Ben Harper's Excuse Me Mister, he even wrote to the writer to explain himself and "apologise for taking license." Independiente selected this as a single, matching it with three otherwise unavailable live tracks cut at the Mean Fiddler venue's 15th anniversary celebrations.
He was relaunched in the States on the back of this release, playing Fleadh festivals in New York, Chicago and San Francisco; certainly material like Strange Fruit, The Sky is Crying and Death Don't Have No Mercy had clear crossover potential to a black-music audience. "I'm not a folkie - I'm funky!" he's claimed. "I don't really like to be referred to as a folk artist. I'm not interested in English folk music at all. People expect some Donovanesque performer sitting on the edge of a toadstool playing an acoustic guitar. That's not what you get from me."
His back catalogue is indeed a majestic body of work, and perhaps he needs to keep progressing in order not to be weighed down by past achievements. "'I like doing as much new stuff as I can, (but) there's a demand for older material. One time, this woman came bursting into my dressing room after a show and screamed, 'Seven pounds fifty and no Solid Air, it's a disgrace!' I said, 'Do you want your money back?' And she said, 'No, I don't want any money. I wanted Solid Air.' I have to contend with that."
The respect with which John's held in the musical world has been confirmed not only by the Verve, as recounted earlier, but the likes of Dr John, who chose to cover I Don't Want To Know from Solid Air on his Anutha Zone album. Jools Holland, Ocean Colour Scene bassist Damon Minchella and drummer Steve White were all on the session. Then, in 2000, the inclusion of a song on the soundtrack of Anthony Minghella's Oscar winning movie The Talented Mr Ripley brought the name of John Martyn to the attention of an even wider public.
John's second album for the Independiente label, Glasgow Walker, appeared in 2000, coproduced by Stefon Taylor (who'd helmed 1994's 2 And with John). Also recommended is Serendipity - An Introduction To John Martyn (Island) which selects from each of his albums for the label. It joins the compilations Sweet Little Mysteries.. The Island Anthology and The Electric John Martyn in the Island catalogue, while it's rumoured that, once the Island vaults have been thoroughly documented, a John Martyn box set may well be the outcome.
Over 30 years since his Island Records debut, John Martyn is as influential as ever. As he himself says with a justifiable smile, "On the rare occasions I go out and listen to solo performers, a lot of them use that backslap thing which I kind of invented. So I'm proud to hear that, and I get a lot of respect from younger musicians, which is a gas." Long may that continue...
1 Wrong, Phil Collins produced Glorious Fool but Grace and Danger was produced by Martin Levan.
2 Actually And was released 1996.
The story concludes with a simple discography and 'Grateful thanks to John Hillarby.' For some strange reason, Sapphire and Piece By Piece were skipped in the text.