JOE BOYD has been responsible for bringing to our attention a number of brilliant musicians. People don't talk much about 'discovering' artists these days, but that's what Boyd did for the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. His latest venture has been to produce the first album by John and Beverley Martyn, Stormbringer!, a record which has been hailed by the discerning as one of the best to emerge this year.
John and Beverley, happily married with a young son, have been playing separately for some time, each receiving a good deal of acclaim. John, originally from Scotland, began to make his way in the folk clubs around Kingston and Richmond, playing a mixture of blues and his own songs, and soon found himself with two albums, as much work as he wanted, and numerous bewildered young guitarists trying to follow his fingers wherever he played.
Beverley had been singing with the Levee Breakers, a remarkably good blues trio that made one record with George Martin for Parlophone, and had been among the first of Denny Cordell's artists to appear on the Deram label when it started, with a driving song called Happy New Year,1 and had since dropped out of singing around the clubs, and gone to America, a result of general disillusion with the scene and the difficulty of finding the right musicians to back her.
After some time in limbo back in London, Joe Boyd signed her up to Witchseason, she and John married, and plans were made to record. Stormbringer! was made in A and R studios in New York late last year. Among the musicians assembled around them were such figures as Levon Helm of the Band, Billy Mundi, ex-Mothers and presently of Rhinoceros, and Herbie Lovell on drums, Harvey Brooks on bass, John Simon on harpsichord, and behind the arrangements and playing piano and organ, Paul Harris. John and Beverley wrote the songs, sang and played guitars. "They were all friends of ours," says John. "We worked out the arrangements in the studio." Most of the Witchseason recordings have been engineered by John Wood of Sound Techniques in London, who was flown out to engineer the sessions. "It's really him that holds everything together," says John, smiling.
They stayed in America for three months, playing privately with various people and seeing what there was to see. As for Stormbringer!, it's deceptive. Relaxed it may be, but the more you listen to it, the more its muscles are revealed, the deeper you can go. John's singing is a big improvement on his earlier albums, and his guitar work is more controlled and telling. Beverley's voice, however, has never ceased to amaze and excite me, right from her days as a blues shouter. She too, is more restrained than previously, and the whole thing hangs together beautifully.
Following the release of the record, they've done few gigs. There were two big concerts, one in Bristol2 and one at the Festival Hall,3 which were marred, the London one particularly, by unsympathetic backing musicians, though the unaccompanied numbers were fine. Generally speaking though, they won't be playing much in public. John feels he's changed a lot since he was doing the endless round of one-nighters.
"I used to be very ambitious, even if it was unconsciously, and was out to become a virtuoso performer. I wanted to be the best at everything instead of just playing music, and it's easy if you're a solo performer to lose your sense of direction and perspective." He has now come to the conclusion that the performer shouldn't be essentially any more important than his audience - all thoughts of an ego-trip have gone. John also believes he's making good music for the first time as a result of changing his point of view, perhaps of getting some roots with a family. Perhaps as a result of playing with other musicians.
Witchseason are taking care of the three of them. Paid a regular wage, the family are about to leave their present Hampstead flat for the traditional house in the country, arranged by the company, and will be surfacing only occasionally to play and record. The set-up is perfect for John and Beverley: "I know it's a cop-out to leave the city, but it's going to be really incredible out in Hampshire."
One of the nice things about life now for the Martyns is that in the past, both have suffered considerably at the hands of greedy people who wanted to turn them into something they weren't. Beverley nearly became a girl pop star, and John was given the same treatment on the folk scene. At last they've been given a chance to make a record they're really happy with and to feel as if they're doing something honest for a living. Like the record, their way of life has a relaxed, gentle feel to it.
1 Released september 1966 (DM 101). Written by Randy Newman, accompanied by Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins. Flipside Where The Good Times Are. They also recorded an unreleased single in the same year, Picking Up The Sunshine/ Gin House Blues. Happy New Year was chosen, together with I Love My Dog by Cat Stevens (DM 102), to launch Deram as the progressive branch of Decca.
2 Gigdate unknown but it must have been February 1970.
3 21 February 1970, Queen Elizabeth Hall. "John smacked a guitar", Mark Cooper recalled.
Beat Instrumental was a UK monthly. This issue had a colour picture of Frank Zappa on the cover.
Scan provided by the Vintage Guitar Website