Born in Glasgow [sic] in 1949 [sic], Martyn was brought up by his divorcee mother,1 a singer. He was weaned onto the local scene by Scots folkie Hamish Imlach. By seventeen he was on his way south and after playing the London clubs, signed to Chris Blackwell's fledgling Island label. Two acoustic albums emerged in one year, London Conversation and The Tumbler, showing a young man with a highly individual writing style and a dynamic approach to the guitar. While his contemporaries were settling into the folk routine, Martyn moved straight on to two more rock influenced albums, Stormbringer and The Road To Ruin, the former recorded in Woodstock, upper New York State where he was accompanied by The Band's Levon Helm and The Mother's Billy Mundi. Outstanding tracks from the time were Would You Believe Me and Woodstock.
Martyn's next pair of albums, Bless The Weather and Solid Air showed a maturity and near perfection in his work that rock journalist Steve Sutherland calls "the well of inspiration from which all his subsequent albums spring".2 Glistening Glyndebourne showed an emerging jazz side, as did the lilting bossa-nova Head And Heart covered later by the band America. The Solid Air album is perhaps Martyn's masterpiece from that era. Written
after the tragic loss of [about] fellow Island song-writer Nick Drake, the title track evokes a sense of fraternal love and understanding mingled with despair and sadness. The minor key setting, floating saxophone and slurred lyrics combine to create an atmosphere which would stop the show in Martyn's subsequent live work. May You Never, his most covered track, shows the acoustic work at its most effective and Rather Be The Devil exemplifies his dynamic use of the Echoplex which was to become a trade mark of that time.
A series of late night sessions with Stevie Winwood, Danny Thompson and Stones side man Bobby Keyes gave Martyn Inside Out, the loosest album of all. These are amongst his favourite own recordings. He was collecting new guitarist fans at this time and much critical acclaim with his use of the Echoplex machine. Instead of using it as just an effect he explored its percussive possibilities to the extent that he became a virtual one man touring band preferring to make his acoustic into an electric rather than take the full step to a solid body guitar.3
Martyn returned to a more disciplined album Sunday's Child before offering his own special issue Live At Leeds which included jamming with Free's ill-fated guitarist Paul Kossoff. A spell in Jamaica which Martyn referred to as "my sabbatical", was followed by One World to unanimous critical acclaim.
A long silence followed and Grace & Danger emerged virtually as an exorcism of the breakdown of his marriage. Recorded with Phil Collins, it was apparently shelved for a year because Chris Blackwell found it too openly disturbing to release. A change of manager and a new record deal saw Martyn with Warner Bros, for the Phil Collins produced Glorious Fool, a harder album with Eric Clapton guesting on Couldn't Love You More, some aggressively sexual material in the shape of Amsterdam and Perfect Hustler and the seductive Hold On To My Heart.
Working more as the John Martyn Band now, Well Kept Secret had more American influences than ever before and featured a superb bass player kept from the previous album in the shape of Alan Thomson. The last album for Warner's, Philentropy,4 was Martyn's second live album touched up at London's Wave Studios; it failed to make Martyn the massive international star he felt Warner's had expected. He returned to Island and recorded the new album at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas with Robert Palmer. This album just released, Sapphire, shows Martyn moving once again in a different direction. Vocally stronger than he has been for some time he's using even more electronics, Linn drums rather than acoustic and guitar mingled in with keyboards to the extent that they achieve almost the same texture. It's one of the best produced albums he has ever released and contains some wonderful material including Mad Dog Days, Fisherman's Dream and a well over the top rendition of Over The Rainbow.
I spoke to Martyn before his second concert at the Dominion about his new album and his music in general...5
Congratulations on last night, John. It was a superb set. I noticed you weren't using a drummer...
I prefer the Linn, I really do and boy are they steady. With added percussion they're wonderful. I play very percussively anyway. I could even get away with just a two piece.
Let's talk about the new album, Robert Palmer worked on it with you, I believe?
Yes he's very good, wonderful to work with, great fun, very thorough and most artistic, eloquent, lucid... and he's in there somewhere on skank guitar.
The song I didn't recognise last night was John Wayne - a marvellous track. Why doesn't it appear on Sapphire'?
It existed in a peculiar form for the album but it wasn't complete. The Indian riff section [was] added later. The track Rope Soul'd was another strange track which did appear on the album. We laid down the track and a guide vocal - which is what's on there. Then I fell out with the producer6 because I wanted to keep it the way it was. I simply said I wanted this here and that there, and he disagreed so we fired him!
So who ended up producing it?
Well I did officially, although Robert Palmer has to take an awful lot of credit really.
How do you choose a set like tonight's? With seventeen or so albums behind you there must be a lot of pressure to do an 'oldies but goldies' set.
I just play naturally - and try not to think too much about which material I should choose...
I was at the Leeds gig in '75 when you recorded your first live album. You were working and touring then with Danny Thompson and John Stevens and they were a fairly permanent setup during that period. Do you work with them at all now?
I see them socially. Danny, as far as I know, doesn't play much; he just confines himself to the odd bit of session work in Germany and the odd bit of film work, he's not blowing as much as he used to. John Stevens, I'm quite sure, continues undeterred and I would be willing to cooperate with either of them at any time. John's a delightful lunatic, I love him and he has made some lovely music. I really enjoy his approach, he has a completely unorthodox way of going about things, which appeals to me!
From solo guitarist seated behind a mic in folk clubs, to double bass/ drums and guitar trio, to front man in a modern rock outfit - what moves you to make those changes?
Boredom! Encroaching implicit boredom and a certain dissatisfaction with status. I need to move on, always.
Very few of your contemporaries from that late 60's era ever made a successful step away from the folk scene.
Yes, but that was always a bit of a misnomer anyway, that folk tag, they're really a pretty unadventurous lot. I like them but they're not real movers, they tend to establish a style, exhaust it and that's that, which I think is a bit of a waste of time. It's important to examine as many avenues as you can. You've always got to be a bit of a mover.
What about your own recordings. Do you ever listen to them at all?
No. It's a negative thing to do I think. Strangely enough when Foss (Paterson) came round to work out some keyboards at my place he asked me to play him some tracks and I haven't even got my own albums. The stuff of mine that I like tends to be the more obscure things like Call Me Crazy. Stuff off the Inside Out album I'm very proud of, I still think that was a wonderful record. It's an odd one and has a quirky character, very much me at the time. I like most of Grace & Danger, quite a sweet album, sad but very sweet.
How do you go about writing?
I just write on what moves me.
Do you go into the studio with all the material ready or write as you go along?
I go in with sketchy ideas, which is something I might have to stop since it leads to too much trauma. I become a quivering neurotic jelly and take it out on all the people around me! Somehow I feel it shouldn't be necessary to put one's self through a nervous breakdown just to record an album.
It seems that whenever you're going through any kind of personal turmoil, the really good songs come pouring out. Is that how you see it?
Yes... absolutely... unfortunately yes! (Laughing loudly and feigning an upper-crust accent)
"Happy neurosis old boy... How are you?"
"Oh, neurotic as ever"
"Glad to hear it old chap, things must be going well"
"Yes marvellously... wrote three songs this morning... wife left me"
(In normal voice) Its ridiculous but that's life, isn't it?
Do you get called up for sessions much?
Not much. I do about three or four a year for fun. I tell you what I do enjoy - producing other people. That's one of the things I've taken great interest in and have been doing on and off for years. The last thing was for a little Irish folk band called Scullion which I dragged kicking and screaming into the 80's.7
I'm looking round for things in that area. I had a great band, a beautiful band who deserve a mention actually; Scheme, who came from Glasgow.8 They're very good and I thought I'd really knocked it off there. I produced this track with them, sent it round and just couldn't get a deal. They were very difficult people to work with but very talented so I was a bit down and miserable about the whole thing. I really had expected great things for them.
Anyway, I went off to wherever I had to play and I heard Men At Work on the radio. I thought "Hey that's my band - that's Scheme. This is fantastic, they've got a record deal, what!" And of course it wasn't, it was Men At Work. When you consider there was one band on one side of the Atlantic and one on the other9 and they both evolved such similar sounds - it's quite remarkable, you can hardly tell them apart. Having been told they sounded so similar they moved direction a bit. I was rather peeved by that, very unlucky. There are an awful lot of talented bands about.
Your second album for Warner's, Well Kept Secret contained a lot of strong material but somehow the production didn't seem to match the songs.
Actually I didn't have anything to do with the production and mixing of that album. I was very sick at the time. I had a punctured lung and I used to take a load of pain killers, do three takes of a song and then have to go home and lie down. I was really bad. I injured myself half way through the sessions and my lung collapsed!
Did that lung injury effect your voice?
No, not in the long term. I was very lucky, extremely lucky because I was pretty badly holed. I spent a couple of weeks in hospital and they fixed me up.
Judging from last night's gig though your voice is sounding stronger than ever.
Yes, that's the direct result of playing with bands live, you're forced to project. I think my voice is stronger and fatter than ever before. I like it, even though running a band proved to be a pain, one of the definite plusses was the improvement in my vocals. Sometimes people complain that the words are indistinct, but I'm used to that. Personally I like singing that way. That's how I feel it.
I notice you're not smoking or drinking. Is this the new reformed John Martyn?
I neither smoke nor drink... before a gig. All the rules go out the window when you get on stage! I lived for a period in Nassau in the late 70's and very nearly ruined my whole life. I stayed drunk for weeks, with rum at five dollars a litre! What do you do?
What was it like recording in the Bahamas?
It would've been great if I'd had enough time to acclimatise; I didn't and got over excited. I went snorkelling and swimming and running up and down the beach when I should have been recording and lost weight and stuff. There was too much temptation there for me. Robert (Palmer) has it sussed because it's like home to him so he's quite able to get up at nine in the morning and say 'oh well, just another sunny day'. But to me it's like 'oh wow, I don't want to go to work. I want to get on the beach and gather coconuts and do all those sorts of things!'
What singers influence you now?
Do you know, I don't listen to anything much these days. If I do it's mainly jazz... for relaxation I'll put on Billie Holiday or some of the 50's singers. The art of singing has been somewhat lost these days. There's a peculiar style which is actually 'non-singing' started by Brian Ferry and those kinds of people. They're not really singers, it's a kind of half-talking, half-singing style and one can't discern a melody half the time. The epitome of that is Scott Walker's new album which is really interesting in terms of material and arrangements, but the guy's got this ludicrous voice. I don't think he ever actually hits a note. I just can't do it! There may be something that I'm missing. Singing has deteriorated over the last five or six years.
What tuning do you use?
D G C C F C top to bottom, that's my standard tuning! It's all in fifths like a violin tuning with two Cs together in the middle. Working out arrangements with the rest of the band is mostly done by ear. For certain things we use charts, like One World which was quite complex in structure.
What guitars do you use now?
The electric I'm using now is a Gibson SG 1965, it's wonderful. I've gone back to that, but I've still got the gold Les Paul for certain things.
What about your effects and backline equipment?
I have a Pearl effects board consisting of phaser, flanger, chorus and overdrive. I have an envelope generator, (can't for the life of me remember who makes it) and a Korg 3000 DDS digital delay unit. Occasionally I use the Echoplex which I used to use a lot but I didn't last night and I won't tonight. That all goes into a Peavey Renown, 120 watts. I used to use a Fender Twin Reverb but it doesn't have enough poke for what I want to do now.
Which guitarists do you admire?
Egberto Gismonti10 is a lovely player. One of my real favourites is Jim Hall11 and of course Eddie Van Halen from the heavy metal brigade, he's got the power and the chops. Of the acoustic players the only one I ever liked was Davey Graham. Of the newer guys there's Paco De Lucia, and of course McLaughlin's well... blinding.
What's next on the agenda?
I've got to tour this album in other territories, write a new one and that's basically it. I couldn't ever think of retiring, I'll carry on till I die. I can't think of anything else I'll ever do that gives me as much satisfaction as music.
with Neil Ardley on
Harmony Of The Spheres - Decca TXSR 133 - 1979
with Claire Hamill on
One House Left Standing - Island ILPS 9182 - 1971
with Paul Kossoff on
Back Street Crawler - Island ILPS 9264 - 1973
Koss (comp dbl) - DIM 29002 - 1977
with Ralph McTell on
Right Side Up - WB K 56296 - 1976
with Bridget St John on
Thank You For - Dandelion 2310 193 - 1972
London Conversation - Island 952 - 1967
The Tumbler - Island 9091 - 1968
Stormbringer - Island 9113 - 1970
The Road To Ruin - Island 9133 - 1970
Bless The Weather - Island 9167 - 1971
Solid Air - Island 9226 - 1973
Inside Out - Island 9253 - 1973
Sunday's Child - Island 9296 - 1975
So Far So Good - ILPS 9484 - 1976
Live At Leeds - ILPS 9343 - 1975
One World - ILPS 9492 - 1977
Grace & Danger - ILPS 9560 - 1980
Glorious Fool - WEA 99178 - 1981
The Electric John Martyn (comp) - ILPS 9715 - 1982
Well Kept Secret - WEA K 99 255 - 1982
Philentropy - Body Swerve JMLP001 - 1983
Sapphire - ILPS 9779 - 1984
1 Nope. John was brought up by his grandmother.
2 Steve Sutherland wrote this in the Well Kept Secret tour program, referring to Bless The Weather.
3 November 2008, John told Rock 'n' Reel's Johnny Black: "I couldn't afford an electric guitar! I bought a little pickup, which cost fifteen quid rather than three hundred quid for a Gibson, you know? That kind of money was outside my budget."
4 Philentropy was independently released on the Body Swerve label.
5 The London Dominion concerts took place 14 and 15 November 1984. This places the interview on the 15th.
6 Barry Reynolds.
7 John produced Scullion's album Balance And Control (November 1980).
8 Locally fairly successful Glaswegian band from the eighties, originally called Oliver's Army. "Scheme must go down in Scottish history as the most successful band never to get any proper recognition from a record company."
9 In fact Men At Work was a band from Australia but this only makes the argument stronger.
10 Egberto Gismonti, Brazilian composter, guitarist and pianist. Actually they printed 'Alberto'.
11 James Stanley Hall (1930–2013), American jazz guitarist, composer and arranger.
This interview was published in Guitarist, Vol 1, number 8 of January 1985. The magazine kept office at 1 Milton Road, Cambridge.
To my knowledge the reference to JM's production work for Scheme is unique. The band came from the east side of Glasgow and confirms John did work on a few songs they recorded. This happened in CaVa sound studios. The recordings still exist and the band remembers that the songs originated in a very experimental stage in the bands history, "with a lot of weird keyboards and sound which may have sounded good in a certain state of mind".