LONG HAILED AS ONE OF OUR FINEST ACOUSTIC GUITARISTS, JOHN MARTYN HAS CHANGED OVER TO ALL-ELECTRIC INSTRUMENTS. WE SET OUT TO FIND WHY. PHOTOS BY GEOFF DANN. WORDS BY MAX KAY.
Would I like to take a trip to Scotland to meet Scotsman extraordinaire and self confessed Echoplex addict John Martyn? With a recent day return visit to the back waters of Cornwall uppermost in my mind I politely declined and arranged to meet my man at Solid Light Studios in Camden Town. Surely, I reason to myself, 80 pence worth of double decker London Transport 253 (red variety) is infinitely more rewarding than a day trip to the glens, two sore eyes, a sore bum, and a wonky wallet? You betcha' sweet bippy!
"… A COMPLETELY NEW VERSION OF
THE GUITAR, BASS AND DRUM FORMAT."
One month later and the purpose of my visit is to discover the reasoning behind John Martyn's recent switch from acoustic to electric guitar, and introduce myself to his new mini band which happens to be a slimmed down version of his 5 piece outfit, minus keyboards and percussion, and formed for a more economical tour of Australia.
His drummer is Jeff Allen who's never out of work due to the fact that he's a very talented player. Likewise bass player Alan Thomson brings a new dimension to John's music with his mastery of the fretless bass. Not only do these guys swing, but like Martyn, they're native Scotsmen.
What follows was an exceedingly pleasant hour spent in the company of John Martyn. By the way, on listening to a playback of my recording (where I'd innocently bootlegged a number from their current set) (Oh yeah? Ed.), I realise that I'm hearing a completely new version of the 3 piece guitar, bass and drums format, and that due to my impatience to get away early to do God knows what, I'd blown the chance of listening to a 1 1/2 hour concert by the John Martyn Band on a 1 to 1 basis. Fool!! Bloody Fool!!!
What tempted you to put a band together?
"Boredom, encroaching boredom. This is the first time that I've actually had the chance to exploit the instrument, or to try to learn it in a working situation. I've now slimmed the band down to a 3 piece for the best reason in the world, because it costs a fortune to take 5 guys around Australia."
How long have you three been together?
"Well the three of us have been playing on and off for 2 1/2 years, although this is the first time we've played as a trio."
"I'M VERY GRATEFUL TO THE
INVENTOR OF THE FRETLESS BASS."
The fretless bass lends itself well to your music.
"Alan, the bass player, adds a lot of melodic weight and he's a very good fretless bass player. I'm very glad to hear it emerge as an instrument, because it has the ability to give you that hint of '60's R&B dance-up thing which in fact a string bass just doesn't have. You can have it played by a faster musician -it's never going to sound like an electric bass and the fretless I think for me was a great leap forward. I'm very grateful to the inventor of the fretless bass."
I've noticed there are very few gaps in the music which one would normally associate with a 3 piece band. The fretless bass does blend well with your sound.
"You can slide whole chords and it sounds broader and thicker -it's great."
John has come a long way in the last seventeen years since he first picked up the guitar via stints as a bricklayer and a capacitor salesman. He acknowledges Davy Graham as the prime motivator for starting with the instrument, and names stand-up bass player Danny Thompson as a great influence on his career, when they played together as a duo. Until recently John's only form of companionship onstage has been his Echoplex, and I enquire if he'd thought of ditching the machine?
"It's being got rid of. We didn't use it at all on the last tour, and it's now been dragged back into service. It's very old, obsolete now..."
Valve or steam driven?
"It's actually driven by a gang of coolies!"
"You obviously know the model…"
"… ACOUSTIC GUITAR IS
RIGHT OUT THE WINDOW..."
Is it necessary to keep your playing as simple as possible when working with the Echoplex, in order to keep the sound clean?
"No, although I do keep my parts simple so as not to get in the way of what's going on. You have to tailor the part, whatever it is, to a) your ability, and b) the existing structure of the music."
John Martyn's guitar collection exhibits serious signs of having been tampered with by the UK distributors of Tokai guitars, and there were three or four Tokais lurking in John's flight cases on my visit. Martyn seems to have embraced the better part of the range with a "Stratocaster", a tigertop "Les Paul" and a "335" to boot.
"I do own and play a pair of Fender Stratocasters and for stagework, one of the Fenders and the Tokai 335 are extremely reliable, workhorse guitars. I wouldn't use the Fender to record with but its a very stout instrument."
Do you still play the acoustic?
"No that's right out of the window and the reason why I'm concentrating on the electric."
So which is your favourite guitar?
"My favourite piece at the moment has to be my pink Tokai 'Strat', which is actually better than my black, three bolt neck, Fender Stratocaster. I'm not that genned up on electric guitars and have no particular bias towards Japanese or American instruments -but I know a good guitar when I play one."
"AS TO BEING A HERO,
I WOULD BOW OUT THERE. "
John Martyn's amplifier is a Musicman which was a gift from his old buddy Eric Clapton. This is complemented by a 4 x 12 cabinet and effects pedal board that's nowhere near as 'state of the art' as I'd been led to believe from listening to John's records.
"Pete Cornish, the pedal board man, didn't build this one, but he does repair it, each time he sees it his hands flap further in the air in horror because it's extremely outmoded. It's just very familiar and I like it, and decided to bring it back into the fold."
What's in there?
"A Big Muff fuzz (to which John dedicated his song Big Muff) which I'm using less and less, and a Gibson Maestro Boomerang (should come in handy on the Australian tour) which is wonderful. Its a volume/ wah pedal and it's a favourite. There's a Roland Chorus CE2 and a Mutron III which I love. It has a touch of octivide to it and it started life as the automatic wah-wah for clarinet, I think. The Echoplex I'm in love with, it's a wonderful machine, but it's extremely noisy, I mean it is very much outdated now, and I would, if possible, reduce the noise level. The calibration on it is very accurate, all you have to do is memorise three or four figures and you're there."
Are you aware of the fact that, apart from your unique vocal style, you are to many people a guitar hero?
"It's certainly not in my mind, although it might be in other people's. It's nice to be liked, everyone wants to be liked I'm sure; but as to being a hero, I would bow out there. Most of the letters I receive are on a very cordial and interesting level. For instance, I have a running correspondence with a girl who's doing a dance piece based on one of my songs from seven or eight years ago. We've had a very long conversation on how it's going to be lit, but of course I'm never going to see it or hear it. There was a long discourse about French horn players…"
"I DID HAVE AN AFFECTION FOR
REGGAE, BUT IT'S FAST WANING."
Will you have an acoustic segment in the stage show?
"I don't know... I think so."
You haven't totally fallen out of love with the acoustic, then?
"Oh no, no, no, no, it's wonderful… I don't know how comfortable it would be, I mean I have done it before, if anything it's that that's keeping me back from it. It would be nice to give people 2 1/2 or 3 hours of non-stop lunacy because at the moment I feel that we don't cover an area that we should be covering."
Have you ever had the opportunity to play on other people's albums?
"I did some reggae sessions in Jamaica for Max Romeo and Burning Spear."
Do you have an affection for reggae?
"I did have, yeah, but it's fast waning, fast waning." (here John imitates the notorious sound/ non-sound of standard reggae bass and has me in fits).
What has been the singular, worst thing that's happened to you in your career?
"Playing to complete indifference, nothing actually offends one's dignity more than that. It happened to me on various occasions on an Eric Clapton tour when I was the support act playing to monstrous indifference - it was quite wonderful!"
John Martyn survived to play another gig, and I'm convinced his enormous sense of humour has held him in good stead throughout his career. Listen to his albums, and you'll discover there's one thing he doesn't joke about…
Music UK was a monthley on musical instruments and gear published by Folly Publications Ltc, 26/28 Addison Rd, Bromley, Kent. Editor was Gary Cooper. This issue cost 60p and had Human League on the cover.