01 Jul 1990
..they don't write 'em like that anymore
It's been over two years since his last record, but JOHN MARTYN has returned to the fray with a critically acclaimed album. He talks to Simon Jones, explains his absence, and is evidently still recovering from post punk depression.
"I am John Wayne.."
The figure centre-stage flails around in the spotlight, the music building to an almost deafening crescendo. The head rolls back, the face contorts into an almost pained expression as the microphone comes close.
"I am John Wayne," the figure asserts, and breaks into a strangled guitar solo.1
"I don't really rate myself as a guitarist, or rather as a lead guitarist. There's your Clapton's and the like, they're top flight. I can hold my own, but rhythms have always fascinated me." John Martyn reclines in a seat, wolfing fresh fruit. Once the enfant terrible of those who mixed folk and well... lots of other things, in 1990 he's perhaps more le homme aimicable. A settled personality who has just done the population at large a massive favour by delivering THE APPRENTICE, one hell of a stonking album. Respected for years by connoisseurs of good music, records like ONE WORLD and GRACE & DANGER were out on their own, until now that is -this new set tops 'em all.
"The album was too long in the making," concurs Martyn, when I tackle him about his lengthy absence. "It was about two years between roughs and the final execution. The thing that screwed it up was the fact that Island (his former label) didn't like it. They just didn't think there was much about the album. That really pissed me off because I love the songs. I don't write songs not to be heard y'know -I hate throwing them away. I've only ever scrapped six."
Not an easy time then?
"Easy??" He responds with a deep rasping chuckle, "I had to go through all the rigmarole of getting released from Island, set free and getting somebody to put it out."2
So what would be an ideal set of circumstances for John Martyn to work under?
"There isn't any overriding reason why I shouldn't be able to write a song on a Friday and have it released a fortnight later. It should be that quick."
Throughout his long career Martyn has never been one to collaborate on writing. He's done his fair share of covers, even dabbled with the odd folk song to great effect, but not all that often has he let others into his music. The modern Martyn though has recently worked closely and at length with fellow Scot -Foster Paterson. He's a guy as likely to be adding keyboards to a Highland air one minute, and writing radio jingles the next. In short he's the ideal foil to flesh out Martyn's tales of love and hard drinking.
"Aye, Foss is a different type of writer to me. He could observe a fag packet and write a song about it. He has a different way of looking at things than I have."
So what kind of a songwriter is Martyn ? Certain themes do re-occur. Hard men, booze, pleading to beautiful women...
"Mmmmm," he agrees, "To a large extent it used to be autobiographical and still is, but to a lesser degree. I'm getting more cagey. I'm through with giving people the intimate details of my life."
Martyn strikes you as a musicians musician. One of the boys. His stage show takes on an almost context dependent air -he and the band know what they're grinning about, but do the rest of us? Yet conversely, he's a performer who puts the audience at ease. He'll pick up his trusty acoustic guitar and strum the opening chords to MAY YOU NEVER, as if he's playing the local Poacher & Ferret Folk Club.
I venture rather obviously, that he still gets a kick out of touring.
"Yes I do, I'm very much a live thang! The studio catches up with you. I used to be very interested in production, but then technology exploded and I got lost in it. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't like it, just that I'm not too quick with it. I was better with the old clockwork and steam power."
Another throaty chuckle springs forth! Was it my ears I ventured, or was there less of the characteristic John Martyn guitar on THE APPRENTICE? At one time such a thing would have been unthinkable. This was the man who did everything to his guitar! Phased it, played it backwards, hit it, fuzzed it, echoplexed it (yeah, we get the picture Jones -Ed), barely stopping short of playing it with his teeth. Wasn't he married to the damn thing?
Martyn shifts in his seat, leans forward towards the F.H. tape recorder and admits heresy. "That's deliberate! Much less, much less. It's not so much that it isn't there, but the guitar is much further back in the mix. There's no real solos to speak of." He muses, "I might even return to my acoustic one day!"
Always a drifting musician, in terms of what influenced his own writing, one constant has been his love of good ballads -most recently SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW...
"They were the songs that I grew up with as a kid. A sense of nostalgia I suppose, nobody writes like that anymore. Tonight the second song I did was a Johnny Ace song3, and nobody but a jazz musician writes that kind of ballad. Craftsmanship has gone out of music..."
The man laments the passing of the term musician, and those who made versatility a dirty word.
"It was the onset of rock'n'roll, and in particular punk that did it. Saxophonists who used to play in the big bands had to double on violin. You couldn't get a gig if that wasn't so. That was the kind of world those songs came from. An age when music meant something. Kids these days have no idea of the right keys..."
Despite it all, John doesn't give up hope. Nor does he give up. John Wayne's back on stage... Halfway through his second set he launches into the title track of the new opus. A certain young lady of my acquaintance whoops and drags me to my feet: "It's a classic," she informs me. John Wayne has become a dancefloor hero. "I tell you the boss don't care, I know that the boss don't care...!" he roars4.
Maybe he is John Wayne after all.
1 There's too little details to pinpoint this gigdate.
2 The album was eventually released by Permanent Records, a label owned by John Lennard.
3 Never Let Me Go, sung by Johnny Ace (died 1954) but written by Joe Scott. John's cover was first released on Well Kept Secret (1982) and the song is also present on The Apprentice video.
4 Quote from The Apprentice title track.
First Hearing ('where the music matters') was a quarterly magazine published in Scholar Green, Cheshire, editors Lyndon Noon and Simon Jones. Issue #9 carried Steve Earle on the cover and originally cost one pound. It had suffered some delay because the distributor had disappeared with the money. The publishing date is unknown but the issue carries some ads for festivals in August 1990. As the story refers to a concert during The Apprentice tour (March through June 1990), it was probably published July 1990. This is also consistent with the The Apprentice release date, March 1990.