John Martyn

Dave Devine
Blog post



I know that some people just adore John Martyn's music. He has a loyal fanbase indeed. These fans would have been delighted that John just got awarded the honour of an OBE — but then everything is overshadowed by his death yesterday.

When I was growing up, John was just a neighbourhood character. He was often seen out and about — at The Malletsheugh or Eglinton Arms Hotel. He had an absolutely dreadful reputation — but to be fair to the man he was, at the time, in the throes of a very messy divorce. When I met him the most, he was not at his best!

For a start, I was not a fan of folk music back then, so I would never have bought any John & Beverley Martyn recordings.

But then I admired his strange guitar techniques —I mean to say, this guy was deft with the special effects at the time— an acoustic through effects and a bizarre sort-of finger-plucking style to create a wall of trippy sound. It was amazing to watch. Yes, the man had talent. I quite liked One World for that (although I could not take the slurring vocal stylisations for long periods), but I also found that it was altogether too morose. Martyn's music was sad —and that is popular— through Pink Floyd down to the pop artists today — Radiohead and Coldplay and the like, sad stuff sells. Martyn's pal, Nick Drake was also melancholy — and in fact died from an overdose of anti-depressants. We are talking about seriously bleak and introspective music here!

I remember that John Martyn had a cousin — called David Roy was a Marc Bolan look-alike, and he was pretty talented too — he played flute, guitar and sax in a middle-of-the-road lounge jazz band called The Arthur Trout Band. The twist was that it was 'Gongy'—sort-of Steve Hillage meets Spyro Gyra. I think they played a couple of live gigs too — but let's face it, there wasn't much of a scene back then — very few places had live music. I think I remember them doing a gig at The Burn's Howff as soon as it was legal (we all were fifth and sixth year school pupils).

The Trout's bassist was a lovely chap called Neil Fairweather. Neil looked exactly like Neil from the Young Ones! At Eastwood High (which we all attended), there was an art teacher who made violins.

At that time, although there was a lot of DISCO and PUNK about, serious musicians were into Jaco Pastorius and his fretless bass playing with Joni Mitchell and Weather Report. Jaco had removed the frets using pliers. The sound was new and wonderful — it even filtered down to pop music, such as Paul Young's Wherever I Hang My Hat and Kate Bush's Babooshka. I think it was Brit John Giblin who played the fretless, sliding, bass lines for Kate Bush.

Anyway back at the art department at Eastwood High, the teacher, myself, and Neil Fairweather, carefully removed all the frets from Neil's Gretsch semi-acoustic bass with great success. Neil was an absolutely brilliant bass player — and could do all the Jaco style runs, slides and chords for The Arthur Trout Band. I think his brother had composed an Eurovision Song and was working as a composer/ arranger or session musician back then, so Neil was from good musical stock.

John Martyn actually used John Giblin (from Kate Bush) as bassist on Grace And Danger, and needed someone good enough to handle the fretless parts for a promotional tour. He naturally thought of his nephew's band and Neil Fairweather, and left a tape with David Roy.

As I remember it, the guitarist of their band, Alan Thomson (who was a brilliant lead guitarist/ shredder), learned the bass part from the tape and was hired instead of Neil to begin a long career as a working musician. I thought it quite sad that Alan seemed to have dropped his 'own' or 'real' band — his friends, Tim Britten, Dave Roy, Neil Fairweather and Jim Prime.

But I think Neil got the better deal, for John Martyn was infamously difficult to work with at that time. After years with Island Records, John Martyn was without a deal. He said himself that this was the lowest period of his entire life!

Eventually, John signed with WEA and recorded Glorious Fool with young Alan Thomson, Phil Collins and Eric Clapton — I know this entirely because of gossip and chat, rather than through hearing any of the songs.

I have always felt sorry for Alan Thomson, it can't have been a very nice experience for such a young guy. Martyn was 'Old School' — heck, even though he was around the 30 year mark, my Dad was one of his drinking buddies — and you cannot get more old school than that! Heavy drinking, drugs, bad diet, years on the B roads, struggling to make it famous. I only know that I couldn't do it.

In fact, when I was faced with signing up with a record label, I ran a mile in the opposite direction, and it was almost entirely down to what I saw happen to Alan with John Martyn.

But that was a great many years ago.

I saw part of an interview on TV with John Martyn a couple of years ago, and he seemed a lot nicer — wiser too. He didn't exactly look a picture of health, but hey, he'd had his leg amputated and was still doing pub gigs from a wheelchair! But, somehow, I could relate to his outlook, sure he was still a 'character' in the old-school grumpy cantankerous style, but had somehow mellowed into a lovable colourful auld rogue.

It has been at least a decade since I bumped into Alan Thomson. He had moved back to East Renfrewshire —Giffnock, I think— and was renovating antiques between jobs as a bass player. He had married and spoke of his wee girl. He seemed happy and had matured a lot.

It was just a brief chat in the queue at a filling station, but as I drove away, I felt good. Meeting Alan had cheered me up no-end. I had lost so many friends around that time (quite a few to drugs), so I was elated that he was OK, that it worked out for him, that he was not-just-alive — but that he had married and had his own wee family. He at least made it through to the other side!