John Martyn - Album By Album

Paul Moody
Uncut #114

In this archive feature from Uncut's November 2006 issue (Take 114), Martyn talks us through the cream of his crop of exceptional albums, including Solid Air, One World and Grace And Danger. "It's about that need to be disconnected, to get somewhere else. The source of the sauce, if you like…"
Interview: Paul Moody

"It's not been a good morning," growls John Martyn at home in Kilkenny. "I've just been done for speeding!" Just as Uncut is pondering the advisability of the pickled bard of the Echoplex tearing through the rural lanes of south-east Ireland, he grudgingly reveals that it was in fact his partner, Theresa, who has just attracted the attentions of the local Gardaí. Not that the old rascal remains averse to a little white line fever. At 58, Glasgow-born John Martyn remains the great outlaw figure of British music, architect of an unrivalled back catalogue blending blues, folk and rock, constructed with the aid of a pharmacy full of drugs and oceans of hard liquor. While pivotal albums Stormbringer! and Solid Air ensure he's fêted by subsequent generations of musicians ranging from Paul Weller to Bright Eyes, Martyn keeps the trappings of stardom at a healthy distance. Indeed, when we first meet, he's a little spiky, and looks at me as if he's eyeing me up for a scrap.

As he guides us through his career, though, you realise that the abrasive bonhomie disguises a finely tuned bullshit detector. Less a slave to wanderlust since the amputation of his right leg below the knee in 2003, Martyn still plays live regularly, confessing "playing gigs is all I ever wanted to do". And as an hour's worth of ribald reminiscences comes to an end, spirits are high. The sun has crossed over the yardarm, and the great man has got more practical matters on his mind. "All this talk about drinking has made me thirsty," he exclaims. "I'm off down the pub! Now, go forth and prosper!"

(Island, 1968)
Recorded for the princely sum of £158, London Conversation was released without fanfare in February 1968 on the fledgling Island label (later home to Fairport Convention and Nick Drake). An accurate reflection of his live set at the time, songs like "Fairytale Lullaby" highlight the influence of early heroes Bert Jansch and Davey Graham.

MARTYN: "It was a big step for me coming to London. I was from a folk background and, when I turned up, the hippy thing was in full swing. It didn't bother me in the least. I was a hippy long before that: I used to go to school barefoot; I was already in my own little world. I was living in my stepfather's house in Surbiton at the time, sleeping between two boilers. Not very comfortable, to say the least! I played all the established London folk clubs: Cousins... Bunjies off Charing Cross Road, but I wasn't fussy. I'd play anywhere that would have me.

"Ten minutes away from where I lived was this club called the Kingston Folk Barge, where I'd play all the time. One night this guy called Theo Johnson came down and asked if Island could do my publishing. I said, 'No', but they could put an album out if they wanted. I knew that if I had a record in the shops, that it would get bums on seats. I recorded my live set in just four days flat. They're good songs – it's where I was at the time."

(Island, 1970)
Having fallen in love with fellow folk singer Beverley Kutner, the pair headed to Woodstock in the summer of '69. A marriage of his folk roots and cosmic notions du jour, Stormbringer! also reflected his increasing interest in guitar effects on "Would You Believe Me".

"Joe Boyd at [production company] Witchseason never really liked me. I think he thought I was vulgar because I was working-class. But he sent me to New York to record Stormbringer! and that was the nicest thing he could ever have done. I was 19 and New York blew my mind. We stayed in the Chelsea Hotel for a couple of weeks before we started. It was 98°F and I had all the windows open and the air-conditioning on full blast; I didn't have a clue. Woodstock was amazing. Dylan was living up the road, Hendrix used to arrive in a purple helicopter. Levon Helm from The Band just happened to be in the area and he ended up on the record. That was how it was in those days. Up until that point I'd been trying to be like Ray Davies or the Pet Shop Boys of folk, quintessentially British. But the American influences came through on Stormbringer!. The sleeve photo was taken by this little Japanese feller on Hampstead Heath. People say I look really young and angelic, and I suppose I was. It was all happening so fast: I'd meet Cat Stevens, Steve Winwood, and I wouldn't think twice about it. Wonderful times. I was an innocent abroad, in every sense."

(Island, 1971)
With the newly recruited ex-Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson, and eager to distance himself from the burgeoning folk-rock movement, Bless The Weather saw Martyn display a new found maturity with simple, atmospheric songs and an increasing use of effects.

"Danny Thompson is on this one. He's a miserable bastard, but he's a great bass player. He really made a difference; on those sessions he was unbelievable. I hadn't got the Echoplex yet – I was still using a WEM Copicat. I was feeling my way.

"As I remember it, the recording was pretty light-hearted. We'd put the songs down, then go out. People ask me what Bless The Weather is about, but it was just how I was feeling – there's no specific incident I can put it down to. Like all the good ones, it just popped out of the old brainbox. I never question why they arrive – it's a non-negotiable contract with the future. I was drinking a bit by then –I felt as though I'd be letting the side down if I didn't– but I wasn't what you'd call serious. For me, it goes back to the blues tradition of the 1920s and acoustic players like Robert Johnson. It's about that need to be disconnected, to get somewhere else. The source of the sauce, if you like. The really heavy stuff came afterwards when we went on tour. Did Danny lead me down that path? No, mate. I found it myself – and I was very glad to see it."

(Island, 1973)
A musical antidote to glam, Solid Air's woozy delivery and sombre lyrics made it a ubiquitous presence in halls of residence throughout the '70s. The prototype for everything from ambient to trip-hop, its bleak mix of blues, jazz and rock is now universally regarded as a classic.

"We'd moved to Hastings by then and I loved the whole feel of the place. I come from a fishing family –my grandad had seven boats– and I liked the attitude of the people. You could live there for 50 years and the locals would still consider you a blow-hard. I was happy and the songs just flowed. Looking back, I knew at the time it was a good album. People would come down to visit and I'd play them 'May You Never'.

"The stories about the drinking while I recorded Solid Air are all true. They would mostly start with bets. Danny Thompson would say something like, 'I bet you'd like a bucket of whisky in here, wouldn't you?' I'd said yeah, and before I knew it I'd be sitting there drinking spirits out of a bucket. I'm not sure if I ever finished it or not. It was mostly done at night; I'd record the vocals and the guitar at the same time. It's well documented that the song 'Solid Air' is about Nick Drake. I didn't see him so much around that time, and he died the next year, but he probably heard it. It seemed apposite; he was just too delicate for this world."

(Island, 1977)
Inspired by a sabbatical at label boss Chris Blackwell's home in Jamaica, the dub inflections of One World saw Martyn hit a chord during the height of punk. Boasting an all-star cast (Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Steve Winwood) and recorded in a fug of narcotics, it pleased the critics (NME called it "mean, moody and magnificent... just plain better than everything else") and inspired everyone from Jah Wobble to Massive Attack.

"This was recorded at [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell's house at Woolwich Green Farm in Berkshire. He's been an incredibly influential figure for me throughout my life. I think we did it in 10 or 12 days. It was a beautiful place. There was a lovely garden and a lake you could look out onto. I was really lonely at the time, and you can tell – it's in the music. There's some nice chords there, though. If you listen closely, on the song 'Small Hours' you can hear the 2.39 to Windsor going past in the distance. It was wonderful – three o'clock in the morning, sitting outside, looking over this lake, smoking opium. That's what I call ambient!

"I've always taken things in the studio to get the right atmosphere, and you can tell we were somewhere else when we made this one! One World is still one of my favourites. Musically speaking I was really pleased with it. I knew that I'd moved on."

(Island, 1980)
With pain and despair as the driving force –prompted by the dissolution of his marriage to Beverley– Martyn delivered an autobiographical outpouring to match Dylan's Blood On The Tracks. Legend has it that the album's release was delayed for a year by Chris Blackwell because he found it "too depressing".

"I was in a strange position when I recorded Grace & Danger. I didn't have to make an album, I just did. It's terribly sad but it's an accurate reflection of what was going on in my life at the time. I'd been on the road a long time and, as a result, me and Bev broke up. I didn't have the intention of that happening, but when I went on the road I had intent, if you know what I mean. I was peripatetic at the time. Chris Blackwell had a flat in Basing Street he let me stay in. A very cool gaff. It had a bath the size of a swimming pool! I really like 'Some People Are Crazy'. It's true. There are very few people I can get along with; or can get along with me. I have no idea why. I call it Joe Boyd syndrome.

"Phil Collins played the drums on it. He was a great friend to me. Very sweet. I think he was going through the same thing at that time with his wife. I was drinking the cooking sherry, anything I could get my hands on. It's a very heartfelt album. But then they're all love songs, really."

This issue of Uncut had Oasis on the cover.