01 Apr 2009
With his slurred voice and Echoplexed guitar, John Martyn forged a unique sound and style somewhere between folk, rock and jazz. Michael Heatley salutes an irreplaceable artist.
The news of John Martyn's death in late January 2009 brought responses from all quarters of the music world. The most immediate was from Radio London DJ Danny Baker who, hearing of John's passing minutes before going on air, turned his whole programme into an impromptu and highly emotional celebration of the guitarist's life.
Baker edited the punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue before becoming a broadcaster, and the fact Martyn made such a deep connection suggests the maverick guitarist was as much a punk in his 'couldn't give a damn' attitude towards convention as he was a self-confessed hippie. He was also the first white artist signed to the island label. 'I was purely working with Jamaican music but I always admired musicianship, and I really liked the purity of John's music and his voice,' said Island's founder Chris Blackwell.
Martyn was a mass of confusing contradictions that started with his name and origins. Born Iain McGeachy in New Malden, Surrey in 1948 (he changed his name on the advice of a booking agent), he's as proud a Scotsman -he headed north of the border aged five- as Connery or Connolly.
In a sad coincidence, John Martyn died just weeks after his first big influence, Davey Graham. Like Graham he was a master of the acoustic guitar, yet he refused to restrict himself: SGs and Les Pauls were as dear to him as his two Martin acoustics. 'I love playing guitar of any type,' he told us in 2004. 'There's a different context for both sorts, it's whatever fills the bill.'
John Martyn, 2008
Listening to The Band had converted him to electricity, but it was when, in the early '70s, he started applying the kind of effects to his acoustic that had previously been restricted to the electric that he truly broke new ground. The catalyst was jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, whose Karma album Martyn heard at the impressionable age of 21. 'It was like a bolt of lightning. I'd never heard someone play so emotionally... with that sense of humanity.' He bought an Echoplex in an attempt to imitate Sanders' sustain on his guitar, and a voyage of discovery in sound was just beginning.
Though parent album Bless The Weather is overshadowed by successor Solid Air, Glistening Glyndebourne was his response to witnessing crowds flocking to an opera festival. 'Hundreds of people in evening gowns and dinner jackets... I think music should be informal. I wanted something very loose that could change every time I played it.' Ironically, John was the product of two light opera-singing parents - yet another contradiction to add to the list.
Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhaill
A highlight of Inside Out, his wilfully uncommercial 1973 follow-up to the same year's Solid Air, the yang to its yin. He used fuzz and phasing to great effect on this instrumental track, cut -as was the whole album- live in the studio. The tune was collected by a blind Irish harpist in the 1800s. For non-Gaelic speakers, the title translates as The Fair And Charming Eileen O'Carroll.
I'd Rather Be The Devil
Instead of the familiar Solid Air version, try the Live At Leeds take on this spaced-out, echo-heavy Skip James blues classic, recorded with Danny Thompson on bass and John Stevens on drums. Live At Leeds was sold via mail order by John from his Hastings home in 1975 when he was between Island Records deals.
A minimalist masterpiece that producer Chris Blackwell rates as 'one of the best tracks I ever worked on. I think it's just magical. It was recorded outside at about 3am; you can hear a train passing by.' The 1977 One World album on which it appeared is now a Phonogram special edition with three different (studio/ instrumental/ live) versions of this atmospheric gem.
Hurt In Your Heart
Check out the YouTube video of a wheelchair-bound John Martyn performing this track from the emotionally fraught Grace And Danger, and you'll understand the meaning of heartbreak. More a vocal than a guitar highlight, perhaps, Hurt In Your Heart proves Martyn's assertion that 'moaning down the microphone and singing the blues is very cathartic'.
Of the Echoplex, Martyn commented: 'I really wanted to be able to sustain the guitar to at least six or seven seconds and put a lot of registers in there. You can make it do that, but it's hard to control. In the course of doing that I realised there are a million other things you can do with it.'
After three solo albums and two more recorded with then-wife Beverley Kutner, 1971's Bless The Weather set the tone for the future by being largely written in the studio and then improvised with his backing musicians. The lengthy instrumental Glistening Glyndebourne found him amplifying his acoustic with a pickup and applying echo to the signal to create one of his trademark sounds. 'Seven and a half minutes of heat-shimmering instrumental' said Dark Star magazine, but some just didn't 'get it': Rolling Stone magazine dismissed the track as 'rambling'.
The addition of upright bassist Danny Thompson, formerly of Pentangle, as a long-term cohort -they'd often tour as a duo in future years- counterpointed an increasingly slurred vocal delivery that almost made his voice another instrument. Pharoah Sanders' playing was again an admitted influence, though Martyn rated his singing worthy of just 'seven and a half out of 10' when compared with his guitar-playing. Tim Buckley, who John claimed never to have listened to, was the only comparable artist in the folk-rock field.
Martyn's career failed to follow any consistent path. Indeed, after 1973's Solid Air had taken him to the edge of the mainstream (May You Never was covered by Eric Clapton), its jazz-rocky follow-up Inside Out, recorded with two-thirds of Traffic, was wilfully inaccessible and returned him to cult status.
Later in the decade he broke new ground by working in Jamaica with reggae super-producer Lee Perry; the influence endured when he returned to England to cut One World, an album that was one of his most successful commercially despite being issued at the height of punk. Maybe Sex Pistols fans recognised a kindred spirit.
Martyn then raised eyebrows when, in the early '80s, he forged an unlikely alliance with fellow divorcé Phil Collins. The highly personal Grace And Danger was outsold at the time by Collins' own break-up effort Face Value but it has since been recognised as a bona fide 'classic album' and was toured as such only last year by Martyn and band.
It's fair to say that his second and final departure from Island Records after 1987's live Foundations saw him flounder. Albums became even more scattershot -the hip-hop-flavoured And, recorded with Chicago producer Stefon Taylor and released in 1996 certainly polarised his fans- and by 2000's Glasgow Walker he'd stopped writing on guitar, preferring the synthesiser. His beloved Echoplex was stolen in Liverpool around the turn of the millennium, and he made do with a less satisfactory Alesis effects unit.
Even so, his output continued to reflect the ups and downs of his life. 'Every record I've made -bad, good, or indifferent- is totally autobiographical,' he explained. 'I can look back when I hear a record and recall exactly what was going on. That's how I write. That's the only way I can write! Some people keep diaries, I make records.' Beth Orton, the Verve's Nick McCabe and many more down the years have taken inspiration from those very personal creations.
Last year, Martyn received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and the recent New Year's Honours saw him awarded an OBE; sadly, he never made it to the Palace. The past decade had seen him contentedly domiciled in Ireland with partner Teresa: 'As usual, I fell in love with an Irish colleen and had to go in pursuit. I had my goal set and that was that.'
His well-publicised health problems, which included losing a leg in 2003, were not related to his hard-living lifestyle, but were faced with a combination of humour, prescription drugs and alcohol. Recording the 2004 album On The Cobbles, he revealed to this magazine, had involved 'having to be carried into the fucking studios and singing flat on my back because I couldn't even sit up. You remember taking 17 painkillers and you need half a bottle of scotch before you can be half reasonable. It's coloured by those kind of memories...'
New challenges remained and were warmly welcomed, including an invitation to record with his hero, Pharoah Sanders, which had left him 'dumbfounded... a wonderful thrill'. Sadly, however, his 60th birthday would be his last. It was marked by the suitably titled Ain't No Saint, a well-packaged and compiled four-CD retrospective. But Serena Cross, who directed 2006 television documentary Johnny Too Bad, probably got it right when she observed that 'growing old gracefully is his idea of hell.'
Martyn had more or less completed a final album to be entitled Willing To Work which had taken four years. The delay was due to his deteriorating health; it appears the pneumonia that he had on both lungs early in 2008 recurred with fatal consequences. There was no news at the time of writing as to when or if Willing To Work will be released.
It will be ironic if -like his friend Nick Drake, the inspiration for Solid Air- John Martyn attains iconic status after his death. But at least he lived life to the full. Interviewed by The Times five years ago, he displayed an unexpected mellowness fostered by the Zen Buddhist faith he adopted in the late '90s. 'You can't mess with Father Time, can you? He's going to catch you, whether you run fast or slow.' The punk of the acoustic guitar had grown up at last.
With both third and fourth strings tuned in unison to C, the result was very sonorous. This tuning also facilitated the suspended ninth chords he was so fond of, and he would often use his thumb over the top of the fretboard as he moved the chord shape up and down. Add to this a generous dollop of effects and a percussive thump achieved by hitting the strings with the side of the right hand to make them hit the fretboard, and you have the beginnings of his signature sound. Martyn started using tunings during his solo years: 'I found it easier to get a big, warm sound... and the greater gap from bottom to the top, the better it is.'
Many of his songs, like Bless The weather, rode on simple two-chord vamps, the syncopated rhythms between the bass and treble strings adding a feeling of complexity. The rest, according to Martyn, was down to 'scrubbing away like an old lady with a nailbrush.'
He was more than happy to reveal the tricks of the trade. 'I'll tell anybody anything!' he told us in 2004. 'I used to follow people around when I was young. I didn't ask, I used to sit at the front and watch - it's the best way to learn, watch the fingers and try and remember them.'
The published piece is part of a diptych 'Legends Remembered'. The other one is about Roy Buchanan. John gets four pages with four photographs.