Live In Your Living Room... John Martyn

John Hillarby
Newsprint #3

John Hillarby takes a quick look at John Martyn on One World Records

Few artists have influenced and inspired whole generations of new musicians, but with a career that has now entered its fifth decade, John Martyn is one such artist. Everything But The Girl, Morcheeba, Sade, The Verve and U2's The Edge have all cited John as an inspiration. Just when you feel that you've heard all he has to offer, when you've finally pinned down and categorized his music, he undergoes yet another metamorphosis. Folk? Blues? Jazz? Reggae? Rock? Trip Hop? Funk? John refuses to conform to any particular music genre whilst simultaneously embracing them all.

His guitar playing has evolved over the years - acoustic guitar in the 60s, to electro-acoustic in the 70s with the wah wah pedal, fuzz box and echoplex, to the 80s which saw him playing electric guitar almost exclusively in a full band setting and the 90s which saw trip hop and funk in his music. There was no Hogwarts for John; his guitar wizardry is self-taught, never one to stick with a successful formula, he constantly experiments with new sounds and influences to evolve his music.

John is renowned as a live performer and every performance is different with new ideas, colours and textures being brought to familiar songs. Many of the songs on John's studio albums have evolved from exploring and pushing back accepted musical boundaries during free and less structured live performances. In 1975 John toured extensively with Danny 'Mr Bass' Thompson, John Stevens on drums and Paul Kossoff (the ex-Free guitarist). The concert at Leeds University was recorded with a view to releasing a live album, but the record company weren't keen so John produced, designed and sold Live At Leeds [by] mail order from his Hastings home. Kossoff had been out of the music scene for some time with self-inflicted health problems before John invited him to play but unfortunately his playing was cut from the original release. The limited edition of 10,000 copies on vinyl quickly sold out. Many of the albums were numbered and personally signed by John, making it a real collector's album. Even John himself has no copy, "I sold them all... I was the first of the record independents!"
This tremendous performance with electrically-charged atmosphere is now available on CD, courtesy of One World Records, with five previously unreleased songs from the same performance featuring Paul Kossoff: My Baby Girl, You Can Discover, So Much In Love With You, Clutches and Mailman, a must for all music fans.

Live at Leeds confirmed John's reputation as a witty and original stage performer with a wicked line in banter and repartee, a live performer not to be missed, and coupled with excellent album reviews, this brought John an ever-increasing audience many of whom still follow him today. That reputation continues and thanks to some exciting new releases on One World Records, fans can now trace the twists and turns of John's musical career through his live performances as well as his studio output. So let's take a look at the One World releases. In contrast to the electro-acoustic Live at Leeds, Sweet Certain Surprise documents John's solo acoustic sound from 1977. The set opens with John singing Head and Heart, a song about his belief in the power of love to overcome all things. Man In The Station is then segued with a joy-filled rendition of My Baby Girl and John is clearly enjoying himself engaging in lively banter with the audience.

By the early 1980s John was concentrating on electric guitar and playing it in his own unique style. "My electric playing is mostly left-hand stuff, and it can result in a very confusing sound because it's not very clean. But I don't like it clean. I like to make it as rich as harmonically possible, creating lots of overtones and undertones. You do have to be really careful, though, because it's so easy to get fucked up with feedback and all that!" John now played his Gibson almost exclusively and the more familiar Martin acoustic guitar took a back seat.

This change in direction was a surprise to many fans and is captured on Philentropy and the recently released Live at The Bottom Line 1983 in the Collectors Series. Eight of the eleven songs recorded at The Bottom Line were taken from John's last three albums, Grace and Danger (1980), Glorious Fool (1981) and Well Kept Secret (1982). Couldn't love You More first appeared on One World (1977) but a reworked version featuring Eric Clapton on guitar also appeared on Glorious Fool. The satirical title track to the album is dedicated to the then US President Ronald Reagan, "You know that half the lies he tells you are not true." Root Love and I'd Rather Be The Devil are the only other 1970s songs and these are reworked illustrating John's determination to move on to a fresh new sound in concert as well as in the studio. This release also features a rare performance of Anna, a song John recorded in 1978 as the theme tune for the film In Search of Anna. Although Anna was released as a single in Australia it has never appeared on an album or been released elsewhere until now... another first for One World.

In 1986 John celebrated twenty years as a performer, an occasion marked by the release of the world's first commercially available compact disc single Angeline. It was a bumper year for fans with John demonstrating his versatility as a live performer yet again by not only touring with his band but also as a duo with long time friend Danny Thompson on acoustic bass. Unusually, for Live at The Town and Country Club (Collectors Series Volume 2) John had a band of 6 musicians with two keyboard players and two percussionists. John's voice is a raw-edged and aggressive bear-like growl on John Wayne and the next moment is saturated with tenderness for Send Me One Line. The overall sound is very different to Live at The Bottom Line, where he was accompanied by Alan Thomson on bass and Jeff Allen on drums.

In contrast the long awaited reunion tour with Danny Thompson saw John revisiting his 1970s sound. Having worked at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club with the leading 'jazzers' of the day such as Tubby Hayes and Alexis Korner, Danny Thompson then became a founder member of Pentangle in 1967. In 1972, he decided to leave to spend more time with his young family by which time he had already established himself as one of the world's foremost double bass players. Danny contributed to many of John's albums in the 1970s and stories abound of their antics both on and off the stage.

Germany 1986 and The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal 1986 capture the enthusiasm, spontaneity and magical understanding that exists between John and Danny as they perform some of John's most well known songs. Both albums were released in 2001 to coincide with John and Danny getting back together again for the Sunshine Boys Tour, and a Tour Programme with 5 track CD sampler proved very popular with fans. These two tremendous performances make it almost impossible to seize on one or two outstanding moments of brilliance, but for me John's vocal outpouring of emotion on Make No Mistake and his flowing, almost tidal voice on One World (both from Germany 1986) and the acoustic Lookin' On and Johnny Too Bad from Kendal, in total contrast to the original electric album versions, take some beating... but then again there's the version of...!

By the 90s John was experimenting with funk "I'm not a folkie, I'm funky!" A limited edition 'Official Bootleg' called Live at Bristol 1991 features Alan Thomson (bass), John Henderson (drums), Andy Sheppard (saxophone) and Spencer Cozens (keyboards) performing nine tracks in concert. A good recording which includes an early version of Cooltide: "This is a bit of a shifter, a groove thing to send you home feeling cool", John says by way of an introduction. Limited to just 5,000 copies this is becoming hard to get hold of now and only a few copies remain in the warehouse.

John was between record contracts in 1995 and released the CD EP Snooo which was originally given away free with a T Shirt on a short UK Tour. The EP consisted of four new songs that were subsequently reworked for the album And which appeared the following year. The CD became so [sought] after by fans that it was re-released, so that those that missed the original promo copy could hear how good it was for themselves.

In 1998 John recorded an album of cover songs, The Church With One Bell, and carved his own personality throughout the album by making the songs all his own. From Portishead's Glory Box to Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit, The Church With One Bell again demonstrated John's exceptional versatility and musicianship. John toured the UK and the USA appearing on a number of radio shows.

One such show has been released as The New York Session, the first time that an interview and music have been combined for release on One World. This low price release demonstrates John's quick witted and sharp sense of humour. Although the sound quality leaves a little to be desired, this amusing release gives an insight to life on the road with John. The touring was taking its toll, the band were very short on sleep and exhausted with all the travelling. They arrived in New York at Radio WFUV on 15th June 1998 and were met by a neat and tidy presenter in a brightly coloured suit. His suit was colour co-ordinated with his car, he was very enthusiastic and bumptious. The studio resembled a broom cupboard! The band including drums, synthesizers, Chapman stick and John were all squeezed into the room. John went on air with his back pressed up against the wall in the tiny studio and an amplifier that didn't want to behave. The presenter tried to "pigeonhole" John's music and John was in a playful mood.... the rest as they say is history!

Folk? Blues? Jazz? Reggae? Rock? Trip Hop? Funk? We can now add House to that list as John's recent collaboration with House diva Sister Bliss saw John making a rare appearance in the UK singles chart in 2001 with their cover of Deliver Me. What will he do next? One World Records has established itself as the label for the true John Martyn fan. There are some gems that are well worth exploring and more are planned for 2002 including a scorching solo gig from Milan in 1979, some archive studio material and... well you'll just have to wait and see!

John Hillarby

John Martyn on One World Records ...

Live at Leeds OW107CD
Another World OW108CD (deleted)
Sweet Certain Surprise OW119CD
Live at The Bottom Line 1983 OW116CD
Philentropy BP275CD
Live at The Town and Country Club 1986 OW109CD
The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal 1986 (with Danny Thompson) OW115CD
Germany 1986 (with Danny Thompson) OW118CD
Live at Bristol 1991 Official Bootleg OW1006CD
Snooo BP276CD
The New York Session OW113CD

The John Martyn Website:

sitenote: The Voiceprint magazine (Winter issue) came with a free sampler CD featuring JM's Certain Surprise from the Sweet Certain Surprise release.