The Challenge Of Playing With John Martyn

Gavin Allen
Wales On Sunday

When folk-rock legend John Martyn died the music industry went into mourning, but few felt the loss deeper than Cardiff drummer Arran Ahmun and Barry bassist Dave Ball, who performed with Martyn throughout his career. The musicians talk to GAVIN ALLEN about the many sides of John Martyn...

"PLAYING bass with John Martyn wasn’t like playing bass with U2," says Dave Ball, "it was a challenge – every night." The effervescent Ball is cosied-up next to his chilled-out mucker Arran Ahmun on the too-small-for-two-grown-men sofa of a Cardiff bar. The pair have enjoyed illustrious careers as session musicians, performing with the likes of Jools Holland, Killing Joke, Clannad, Angie Stone and even The Peth. But both consider their time spent with the irrepressible Scottish folk rock pioneer as career highs.

"To me, playing with John meant satisfaction," says Arran, who also played on two No.1 hits with The Proclaimers. "Most of the music I play is just a means to an end, but John was more than just a job. It was art at its finest."

Martyn was a total contradiction. On one hand he could be a foul-mouthed womaniser with a massive appetite for drink and drugs, and on the other he was the angel-voiced musical genius who transformed an entire genre.
Shortly before his passing, at the age of 60, Martyn had begun reaping the material spoils of his career, an OBE from the Queen and lifetime achievement awards from Mojo magazine and BBC Radio 2.

He was born Iain David McGeachy, in Surrey, but grew up in Scotland. He moved to London in his late teens and became a star of the bustling folk scene, gaining a reputation for innovation. His huge musical legacy includes two landmark British albums, 1973's Solid Air and his post-marriage break-up album, Grace And Danger, which he played in its entirety on what proved to be his last ever tour in November.

In his later years Martyn was beset by health problems. In 2003 his right leg was amputated after a large cyst burst and he subsequently performed in a wheelchair. He survived two almighty scraps with pneumonia before finally succumbing to a third bout of the illness last month.

But while Martyn had his health problems, those close to him say he remained an almighty presence. Arran first played with Martyn in 1986 and stayed with him until that final tour. "He wasn’t in great shape, but he got through the gigs," remembers Arran, who attended Martyn’s funeral service in Ireland last weekend. "Performing was an effort for him because of his size, because he was in a wheelchair where his breathing was restricted. But he got good reviews and as far as we were concerned the gigs were a great success."

Ace bassist Ball, known in the industry as 'Taif', was introduced to Martyn by Arran a year later and enjoyed two tours in his company. "John was larger than life, like a thug with the voice of an angel," laughs Taif, looking at Arran, who nods his head in agreement.

"He could be aggressive and very gentle," says the drummer. "John had this thing about being 'Jack the lad'. He loved rogues and seemed to attract them."

The tales of Martyn in his mischievous, hard-drinking pomp are many, and Arran and Taif saw many first hand, including on one tour in the 1980s when Martyn and his band were stranded in Belfast's famous Europa Hotel after missing a flight. "Arran and I went out for a walk and when we got back John had been drinking in the hotel bar, but they had stopped serving him," says Taif, an anecdotal fire lighting in his eyes.

"John was a big man. He grabbed me and this other lad Tim in a headlock, one under each arm, and he went spinning around the bar, our legs were off the ground. We were ploughing through chairs and tables in this five-star hotel, which promptly called the Garda (Irish police).
The Garda arrived and said to him 'Show us what’s in your pockets?'. So he undid his belt and dropped his trousers. He was standing in the atrium of this five-star hotel, stark-b****** naked. That was the first night of the tour."

The pair could also tell you about the time Taif got Martyn banned from Chelsea Arts Club for accidentally firing a starting pistol, or how Martyn played a gig with acute sunstroke and vomited into a dustbin between songs, as well as lots of other libellous tales about famous names. But the well of stories is no longer bottomless because John Martyn is no longer producing them.

"John was such a strong character you just didn't think it was really going to happen," says Taif, the jocularity suddenly dropping from his voice.
Arran seems less surprised. "We were all kind of prepared, because we knew he wasn’t in very good health but it still knocked me for six. He must have crammed 80 years of life into his 60 years. When he was at his peak musically he was the Miles Davis of folk rock, because of his brilliance and the freedom he allowed you to express yourself. And when he was at his peak socially, he just made the biggest impression on you and everything around you."

Taif gives his colleague a playful nudge to try and lighten the mood, but even he can't be flippant in the face of Martyn's passing.
"The thing about John," concludes Taif, "is that he is totally irreplaceable."