Echo-loving Folk Curmudgeon

Rob Young

UNCUT: What do you think of the anthology?
JOHN MARTYN: I haven't heard it... I keep as far away from all that stuff, man. As soon as I've finished it, it's gone. I love playing live, you know? It's actually a stricter discipline than being in the studio, because you only get one shot at the gig, whereas in the studio you get loads of shots.

A lot of listeners are thrown by the way you can be quite flippant between songs and then plunge into a highly emotional rendition…
Oh yeah, I like that contrast. It's not a conscious thing, but I get carried away during the actual performance, and then I try to talk to the audience on a lighter level, 'cos otherwise we'll all go home fucking crying. Or laughing, depending on which way you take it. I once said to the people, 'I've got to tell you I love you, but oh fuck it, I hate saying that shit.' It's embarrassing to watch, but it was really true. I have been known to burst into tears in the middle of a song – it happened quite recently on BBC2. I had to stop and say, 'Sorry chaps, I can't go on.' And I had to go out and sit in the back yard for half an hour before I could come back and sing.

Do you remember the moment you decided to buy an echo machine?
Yeah, it was the day the WEM Copicat broke down. I was using it to try and extend the sound of the fuzztone on the guitar, so I could play the same note for half an hour if I felt like it and twitch it now and again. And I bought the Echoplex, and completely by chance I found out you could make rhythmic noises with it. I was actually looking for sustain. I wanted to sound like Pharoah Sanders, actually.

There's a live version of Solid Air recorded shortly after Nick Drake's death – was it difficult singing that song in the aftermath?
No, it was never difficult singing that – people shuffle off their mortal coil left, right and centre, don't they? No one's written a song about me yet [laughs]. That's because I'm still here.

Are songs like Dealer and Smiling Stranger based on actual people?
Oh yes, definitely. I used to hang out with people of dubious legality. None of them nasty, but you know... Smiling Stranger was just a piece of advice to the public [laughs]. I've always distrusted a smiling stranger, I always have – regardless of colour, race or creed. I spent a long time being fascinated by gangsters and lowlives – just interested, what makes them tick and how they organise their lives, and there are some great things about them – I don't mind villains at all, to be honest.

What's the story behind Big Muff?
I was having breakfast with Chris Blackwell and Lee Perry, and we had this tea set and all the cups were little pigs and horses with legs. And Scratch is going, 'Boy, look at the muff on that!', looking at this horse. 'Now put this with the pig, see? Now boy, this is one big muff!' And he was going on about his big muff, and how it was going to get away with the powder puff and everything. That guy's sense of humour is in the song.It's silly, Jamaican silly.

How did you come to work with Phil Collins in the early '80s?
I didn't know who the fuck he was. I ran out of drummers, and someone said this guy from Genesis is really good. He's a very lyrical drummer, he could actually play the song as if he was singing it.

Given that you've often criticised British folk, how did you feel to be awarded a Lifetime Achievement at this year's BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards?
[Cackles] I've never been critical of the British folk scene. I just don't like when they put a 4/4 against a lovely traditional tune. Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, go away! It's like a cross between a swan and a duck – the rhythm section being the duck. As soon as you put that bass and drums on it, it coarsens it and changes the nature of the music and makes it into something quite unacceptable to me. I love Martin Carthy and Dick Gaughan, I love proper folk music – Eliza Carthy, The Watersons and all that stuff, but as soon as they put a fucking 4/4 beat on the back of it, it's no good at all. A purely commercial move.

On Ain't No Saint, you announce one song as being about trying to remain a scholar and a gentleman in a world of backstabbers.
[Big laugh] Yes, sounds like me! I probably was a trifle the worse for wear, because I wouldn't have the courage to say that most of the time. But I still feel that's true now. The industry's rife with backstabbers, and they always have their legal eagles working behind them. It's just a really easy area to scam people in. And I don't like that.

But you managed to come through with the scholar and gentleman intact?
I do believe I have, strangely enough, yeah – to the best of my ability. I've been fallible. But in general I think I've been a good example. A lot of people in the industry don't like me because I've grassed them up for being charlatans and shysters, and bad players. I don't in general like the industry, I never did. On a lot of levels it's nasty. I'm far too old to even think about stuff now.


This was to be Uncut's final Q&A with John Martyn.