31 Mar 1999
The inimitable John Martyn now into his half-century should rejoice in the knowledge that he has survived for five decades as one of Britain's most talented and imaginative artists. Lee Barry tracks a turbulent career, scattered with episodes of undeniable magic, painful loss and more than a wee dram of abuse.
"There were moments of grace and there were moments of danger,
everyday was like that with John."
Ex- manager, Kimball Packard.
John Martyn has sampled just about everything from life's vast table of experiences. The offerings that he has indulged in were not carefully chosen nor were they considered. Time was rarely taken to savour these moments and make a good thing last, he simply gorged on them with manic ferocity before moving onto the next experience. The knowledge and wisdom that one would expect to come from such hard travelling have sadly eluded Martyn. From some of the cruellest knocks he has endured over the years, Martyn appears to take few lessons from the experiences. As many of us know Martyn has blessed the weather, cursed the storm, sung in the rain, lamented over acid rain and dreamt of a better place over the rainbow but his most astonishing feat is that he has lived to tell the tale. A tale which he delivers through often spell binding music that defies labels. After being written off on countless occasions he has ploughed on in the face of adversity, proving to himself and others that although he may not be the most consistent performer, he can still create passionate and exciting music.
Undeniably it is the work Martyn produced in the 70's with Danny Thompson that he will be most remembered for. With his individual sound that he created with the echoplex, producing great waves of sound, building layer upon layer that have thrilled many an audience. That and his eclectic nature to hurl himself into musical genres that even he admits at times are beyond his compass, producing a diversity of albums that have challenged even the most faithful fans. No matter how his journey will be looked back upon, it cannot be denied that the journey has been equally incredible, infuriating, humorous, inspiring, soul destroying and perplexing. In short, a life of undeniable episodes of grace and danger. Martyn remains a man loaded with contradictions that lead many to the conclusion that John Martyn and Iain McGeachy are two disparate beings in one body. There is a battle within, welling up inside that ultimately spills out into his everyday life with mixed results. At times the ripples delight, with a personality both endearing and joyous. Those unlucky enough to be in the path of his deep hurt are left stunned and confused to see the seductive charms fade in an instant, revealing a beast with relentless force intent on destroying all that is close and dear to him. Of course Martyn is not oblivious to these bouts of creation and wilful destruction. He knows all too well the path he weaves. And he lives with it. It is his companion.
Born Iain David McGeachy on the 11th of September 1948 in New Malden, Surrey, before returning to Glasgow, young Martyn was exposed to music on daily basis. His mother played piano which Martyn particularly enjoyed: "She used to play Debussy when I was a kid. I used to really get into that." Briefly, his parents who were light opera singers (his mother a trained soprano and his father a tenor) and formed a duo which resulted in John spending time on the road with them: "I remember being in a caravan in Lanarkshire, being completely entranced by it. They did a show once with Roy Rodgers and I was introduced to Trigger and I remember I much preferred Trigger to Roy." His parents divorced when he was five resulting in his mother returning to home territory in Surrey, leaving John to spent most of his remaining childhood being brought up by his father and in particular his grandmother. His grandmother brought Martyn up in the traditional Victorian manner with mustard baths and plenty of carbolic soap, while his father was left to teach him: "how to fish and fuck and ride a bike." Weekends were spent with his father in the countryside and school holidays with his mother touring the river ways of Southern England on her houseboat. "I was whipped from pillar to post," admits John. "Culturally it bred a schizoid thing in me. I can be Cockney and Scotsman, and on a particularly good day I can be Afghani too." On the tough streets of Glasgow Martyn grew up fast, as Glasgow was the kind of place where "you went out and kicked a few heads or you were looked on as a pansy." By the age of nine he was unlike any average child, pestering his father to buy him prints of Chagall and expressed nothing but contempt for the nations weekly ritual; football. In true bohemian style he walked barefoot to school at The Shawlands Academy, whilst his peers considered him far too laid back for the intelligence he displayed.
"You went out and kicked a few heads
or you were looked on as a pansy."
At fourteen Martyn heard Joan Baez's 'Silver Dagger,' that flipped a switch in Martyn's head, prompting him to seek out and learn to play the guitar. At sixteen, Martyn enrolled in art school and began carrying folk singer, Hamish Imlach's guitar to gigs in return for guitar tuition. Hamish was a larger than life character with an enduring passion for life. He was also an important influence on John during these early years and became very paternal to John. Hamish encouraged John to bend the rules, mixing ethnic, rag time and blues into the often restricting folk formula. Martyn's debut performance soon followed, arriving purely by chance when folk singer Josh McCrae, who was billed to support Hamish that evening, became so drunk in the pub he was unable to play. There was only one member of the audience who could sing and play and that was John, whose set went down so well with the audience Hamish invited John to join him in his set for a couple of pounds a night.
With himself recently kicked out of art school for being nasty and silly and tired of earning money playing darts, Martyn jumped at the opportunity. Undoubtedly John benefited more from Hamish's approach and attitude, rather than his actual guitar tuition. "(He) was a mine of information on these things and simultaneously introduced me to socialism, because that was the driving force at the time. Folk music was folk music, it was for the people, and quite deliberately so." From the socialist aspect of the music he was introduced to many of the great black musicians that were already influencing bands like The Rolling Stones and Cream. People like Howling Wolf, Chuck Berry, Snooks Eaglin and Big Bill Broonzy. "We used to pool our money and bring over these guys, like Gary Davis, to play at the clubs in Glasgow ... that was the only way we could hear them."
At weekends John and his friend Howard Camber would have a few beers and hang out at the Glasgow Folk Centre watching anyone who could play well. Howard agrees: "Hamish was definitely the main influence on John's guitar playing in those early days" but others such as Les Brown (a local guitar maker, who hung out in Glasgow's great folk pubs, such as the Scotia Bar, Clive's Incredible folk Club and Hangman's Rest) left a lasting impression. There were no shortage of talented players for John and Howard to listen to, as the Glasgow scene buzzed with an air of excitement supplied by the likes of Hamish, Matt McGinn, Bert Jansch and an aspiring banjo player by the name of Billy Connolly.
After a short stretch supporting The Incredible String Band, the retiring young Martyn felt he was ready to make the break and began working the very same clubs on his own. Soon Martyn was immersed in the hobo lifestyle, living the life of a music man, where inevitably drugs became part of the equation. Initially Martyn partook in the use of marijuana but in later years he would be willing try almost anything. After an incredibly short period of time Martyn became restless and decided to investigate the thriving music scene in London with only two ambitions in mind. Firstly, to play at Les Cousins (the experimental music club on Greek Street), following in the steps of Dylan and Donovan and secondly, to make a record.
London in the late sixties was a dream for young John, who soaked up every influence around him both musically and romantically. Everything seemed larger than life, with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles championing British music, London was 'the' happening place to be. On arrival, he quickly began hustling as many bookings as he could in the many coffeehouses and clubs that catered for the most eclectic tastes. One of these clubs happened to be Les Cousins which Martyn fought hard to get but with a little help from The Incredible String Band he was introduced to owner, Andy Matthews who was reluctant to give Martyn a gig as he hadn't heard him play before. "Fuck you man, I've played in your club five or six times, why haven't you heard me?" The abrupt blag paid off resulting in Martyn filling spots between Davey Graham no less.
In what seemed like no time at all, John was discovered by Theo Johnson performing on the Kingston Folk Barge. Theo worked for Joe Boyd owner of Witchseason productions, which until then had only released bawdy rugby ballads via Island Records, another independent. Witchseason would later sign acts like Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. Subsequently, John became one of the first white folk artist to be signed to Island Records.
His debut album the folk rooted London Conversation cost £ 158 to produce and was released at the end of 1967 amidst the psychedelic ascension and was basically John's solo set that he'd been performing around the clubs. Less than a year after arriving in London the angelic, blue eyed boy had achieved his two ambitions.
The follow-up, The Tumbler released a year later began Martyn's deviation from the strict folk song formula, employing the late jazz flautist Harold McNair. "He was definitely the best flute player I've ever heard. He did a great deal for me in that he opened me up."
Early 1969, and folk singer Beverley Kutner was spotted by John performing at the Chelsea College of Art. Beverley, who was signed to Deram records at the time, approached John after the gig and asked him to play a few tunes for her. He obliged of course, resulting in an invite to play some session guitar for her. "Here he was, individual and rakish, all curly hair and smiles. He seemed like the ideal guy to help me out, plus of course it helped that I fancied him like mad." By the time it came close to finalising a new record deal, John and Beverley were living together and had co-wrote many songs together. To work together on an album seemed a perfectly natural thing to do.
In the Summer of 1969, Mr and Mrs Martyn headed off on their honeymoon, to a large rented house for three months in Woodstock. "Dylan lived up the road, and Hendrix lived virtually next door. He used to arrive every Thursday in a purple helicopter, stay the weekend, and leave Monday. He was a amazing...a good lad." Here they recorded Stormbringer, the first of two Band inspired soft-folk/rock albums featuring an enviable line-up, including Levon Helm (The Band), Billy Mundi (Mothers of Invention) and Paul Harris. Stormbringer also included the first appearance of John's Echoplex (echo unit) guitar technique on 'Would You Believe Me.' His live sets also undertook the electrification process with the aid of the Echoplex unit, which rattled folk clubs up and down the country. As the Stormbringer sessions came to a close 'Happy and Arty Tram,' along with a few other Woodstock muso's, caught wind that John and Beverley were in town recording an album and invited them to play at a concert in aid of the Hudson River Sloop. Unbeknown to them Bob Dylan was to attend the concert, startling them as they spotted him in the audience. At a time when not only Dylan's health was in question but rumours were rife that Dylan had died in a recent motorcycle accident. After the gig, at a small backstage party everyone took turns singing songs. Then it came to Beverley's turn. "John wasn't gonna let me sing, but everyone said 'Oh let her sing.' So I sang 'Jelly Roll Baker,' my special version. Well, this evoked the great man up out of his troop. It was like an electric storm that night - and he walked over, and I thought 'Oh my God.' This was the man I'd idolised since I was fifteen. He was walking over to me and he's got these little gold round spectacles and a black frock coat. And he was really staring at me, like really going into my eyes and then he started looking at my boobs. But he was actually staring at this thing that John had bought me, which were these silver horns of Isis around my neck. And I had no idea. I didn't know about these things; the poets and the mists that they create around themselves. So he grabs my hand and we both lean forward and I give him a little kiss on the cheek. Everybody then faded into the background and it was something else. He was magic! There was a very spiritual connection and there was a love; a love of the mans soul. I loved the soul of the man for what he stood for. All Jews when they meet another Jew that's been in exile, they almost cry. There was a very spiritual connection. It was an amazing moment and John felt really threatened. John knew how much I thought of Dylan; he was the greatest songwriter in the world."
The follow-up The Road To Ruin, was similar in its premise, though for Martyn was "the most compromised album in terms of spontaneity ... the over-dubbing is a bit too apparent in places and sounds rather cluttered on occasions, robbing the record of the 'feel' and confidence that the other albums displayed in abundance." That said, the record still displays many fine tracks including 'Parcels' which highlights John's developing vocal style with its understated delivery, signalling a new direction. Though both albums received a respectable amount of attention from the press, they didn't sell well, much to the concern of Island. However, they did begin to signpost John and Beverley's direction, predominately in that they were quite different. With the imminent arrival of their second child, Beverley was out of the picture and as John later mentioned: "The record company weren't to wild about Beverley. They wanted me alone to record." But John was a also rank outsider and Island weren't too wild about either of them to record. Beverley remembers this period all too differently: "I remember he used to say to me I could be creative staying at home rearing our children rather than making music."
From then on Beverley was rarely seen in public. Martyn's next solo album, Bless The Weather, was only recorded due to the assurances Joe Boyd demanded before he disbanded Witchseason and left for America. Bless The Weather marked a return to simple songs, which for the most part displayed simple instrumentation. A more mature and expressive Martyn shone through this new collection of songs. He'd turned his back on the ascending folk-rock scene that bands like The Fairport Convention were thriving and it paid off. The critics adored the album, particularly 'Bless The Weather,' 'Head And Heart' and the innovative Echoplex showcase piece 'Glistening Glyndebourne,' displaying John's increasing mastery of the technique he himself pioneered.
Until 1973 the folk circuit had been a warm and welcoming home for John and his acoustic guitar. The home where he signed his first record deal; where he met his wife Beverley and debuted his legendary Echoplex performance. But Martyn's unorthodox innovations and growing array of gadgets made him a piece that no longer fit. It was decided that Martyn would move to the University circuit, a more welcoming and quite frankly the only place left for him to perform. "The folk thing gets easily snookered and tends to run up its own ass a lot," snapped John bitterly in 1973. His live sets were now half electric, yet this side of his repertoire remained frustratingly under represented on record.
"The folk thing gets easily snookered,
and tends to run up its own ass a lot."
Critics in the UK and America had long been talking about John Martyn and his next offering only re-affirmed his growing cult status. Solid Air surfaced at the beginning of 1973 and remains a pivotal moment in John's career. The album with cool and dreamy vibes created a niche all of its own. There simply wasn't anything that sounded like Solid Air in 1973, or any other year for that matter. Solid Air was completely out of step in a year that saw the release of Lou Reed's Berlin, Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure and Led Zeppelin's Houses Of The Holy. Solid Air quietly surfaced revealing new possibilities amidst all the pompous superstardom that had taken precedence over much of the music scene.
John felt he was at last getting close to the sound in his head, a sound that gained rave reviews from the critics, a large cult following, along with respect money couldn't buy from other musicians. He seemed to have it all. All except for the commercial success which remains to elude him even to this day. Solid Air rapidly became 'the' John Martyn album, and is often referred to as the prototype for Trip-Hop, showcasing the various facets of the John Martyn persona, with its skilful use of distilled jazz, folk, blues and rock. Back then, it swept in with grace revealing new possibilities, oozing dark and moody son-of-a-bitch vibes that kept coming at you, only to become so emotive that its sense of fragility revealed itself.
The vital ingredient for this enchanting and atmospheric sound is Danny Thompson's (ex-Pentangle) bass that remains high up in the mix, blurring and imbedding into John's vocals, which stretch and slur like another instrument, adding colour and tone. At this point he'd clearly found his voice, a voice that married naturally with his extraordinary guitar technique. John and Danny were undoubtedly an unstoppable duo in music as well as on the road where their exploits soon became legendary. Opening with the title track for his friend and label-mate Nick Drake, John calls out to his friend amidst beautifully languid sax and seductive bass. 'Solid Air' was a desperate bid to reach Nick Drake whose depression had deepened considerably, threatening their close friendship. John homed in on Drake's problems encapsulating his predicament yet handling the affair in a truly sensitive manner. Sadly, Nick died the following year leaving behind a dark legacy that pervades to this day. For a long time John couldn't help but feel that maybe he didn't do enough: "Nick was a beautiful man, but walking on solid air, helpless in this dirty business, and innocent abroad... He was killed by the indecent, parasitic opportunism that pervades the music business."
John wasn't as pleased with Solid Air as much as he'd been with previous records. "I've never sung as good on that record. But at the time I was capable of singing even better - and playing better. It was too rushed." It could be argued that certain elements of Solid Air were ahead of their time, and is indeed the prototype for trip-hop which we have come to know today but more importantly it existed out of time, free from the vagaries of fashion.
"He was killed by the indecent,
parasitic opportunism that
pervades the music business."
- John Martyn on Nick Drake.
Returning from a stateside tour supporting Free and Traffic, Island quickly ushered Martyn into the studio giving him total artistic control. Perverse as he is (he'd know begun wearing three piece suits on stage) the predictable and commercial sequel failed to surface. Instead Inside Out an album of freer and less structured songs, arrived to a mixed reception. It was a bold move explained John: "I just thought that it was about time I said something very simple and very direct. But a lot of people said it was very complicated." Regardless of what the critics did or didn't say it won him a Golden Disc from Montreux, and for Martyn it was: "Everything I ever wanted to do in music ... it's my inside's coming out." Inside Out was heavily influenced by Martyn's increased submersion in jazzers like Joe Zawinul, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. It was a brave leap forward on from Solid Air; an infinite landscape wrapped in on itself.
His time spent in America with Free and Traffic turned into a bad experience all round. Working long and hard with little time to hang out, life on the road began to take its strain with Martyn developing an array of infections and boils forcing him to increase his intake of cocaine. Back in England the situation was unable to subside with marathon fifty-eight-hour sessions for Inside Out. "The intensity of recording that album was so strong that I needed to dry out. I'd gone as far as I could in that idiom. I needed to relax as well as get rid of some bad habits." A brief cooling-out period in late 1974 produced Sunday's Child that was purposely free from the intense conditions that fuelled the Inside Out-sessions. No more fifty-eight-hour marathon sessions, just everyone having a good time. Terry Wilson ( Back Street Crawler) played bass on Sunday's Child: "I do remember every time I was called to go into the studio with John, the excitement I felt because I knew it was going to be special ... I think at the time I was in a little awe of the guy, not because of anything he said or did, but because he was so special as a writer and an artist."
For the Sunday's Child tour John persuaded Paul Kossoff (who at the time was inactive and heavily involved with drugs) to take the road with him, Danny Thompson and John Stevens. Kossoff joined the stage on the last few numbers, which were usually 'Clutches,' 'So Much In Love With You' and 'Mailman.' The short spell with Martyn rejuvenated Kossoff: "Because I've started playing again I'm happy, you know? I just feel happy." With a new found vivacity to play, Paul went on to form the band, Back Street Crawler, that abruptly ended before the completion of their second album, Second Street, when Kossoff died not unexpectedly on the 19th March 1976. Earlier in the year, John, in fear of Kossoff's life begged his management not send him on tour: "He was just a little insecure boy. He should have had an enormous minder with him all the time. I used to lock him in the room and quite literally, me and Danny would turn him upside down and empty his pockets out, he'd bite your ankles, attack you, and kick your nuts in!... A terrible wee man! I really liked him, but it's like OOOFF! What can you do with someone like that?"
From the extensive touring that Martyn had endured over the past year the infamous Live At Leeds was released. Like in the past, the collaboration with Danny Thompson proved unique and spiked the imagination. Somehow, when these two men worked together they didn't even have to try. Rarely was there a need for verbal instruction, apart from the frequent insults they exchanged (which are clearly audible) on Live At Leeds. "Of all the musicians I've come into contact with, Danny has taught me the most... particularly about style and jazz technique... Danny is an inspired person and an inspired musician. He's a diamond." Musically they were (and potentially still are) a creative tornado with the ability to unleash sounds beauty and menace across the country. "Those were wild times, all part of the Jazzy thing. I was determined to live that lifestyle, to look sharp, be sharp, be on the ball non-stop, smoke all the dope, drink all the juice, just get to it and be Jack The Lad, and Danny Thompson, forgive us all, was just the same."
"He was just a little insecure boy..."
- John Martyn on Paul Kossoff
On the road John and Danny were impossible and nobody knew what to do with them. They didn't pay bills, they demanded money with menaces and even scrapped on stage. On one occasion Danny arrived on stage totally rat-arsed from an all day drinking session with Billy Connolly and fell through his double bass obliterating it right in the middle of one of John's delicate acoustic numbers. "He nailed me under a carpet once," recalls John. "We used to drink a great deal together. I got really drunk one night and woke-up and he had nailed me under the carpet. I couldn't move my hands or feet. I was very dry and had a hangover and I said (with raspy voice) Danny, please ... get me a drink. So he stepped over my helpless body, went to the phone and in a very loud voice said, 'Can I have a glass of orange juice for one please? Breakfast for one please.' I was screaming blue murder by this time. I was furious! He met the guy in the hall, so the guy couldn't get into the room and see what was happening. He sat in front of me and downed the orange juice and had the breakfast." Rumour has it, that Danny ceased touring with John in light of adverse effects from their growing indulgences on the road.
"I was determined to live that lifestyle,
to look sharp, be sharp, be on the ball non-stop,
smoke all the dope, drink all the juice,
just get to it and be Jack The Lad..."
Throughout this period Martyn's set hadn't featured any new material, although plenty of 'very electronic and exceptionally dirty,' music had been recorded, that sadly failed to surface. In the autumn of 1975 manager Rob Wynn issued a statement announcing John would be taking a year off. John knew nothing of this until the statement was issued, but having chewed it over decided it wasn't such a bad idea. Matters must have been in bad shape for his manager to make such a statement on John's behalf. Thus, on instruction from his management Martyn laid down his guitar as the strains of touring and chemical abuse began to effect all corners of his life.
Moving from his home in Hastings, to a more agreeable distance from civilization, John was not to pick up his guitar again for another four months. Admittedly, at this point John was now earning more money than he'd ever earned before, but found himself unhappier than ever. With the record, tour, record, tour syndrome upon him and the belief that if he didn't break the cycle he would go completely round the bend, he spent every penny he owned on getting out and chilling out. The sabbatical took up most of 1976, passing four months in Jamaica (on Strawberry Hill, the wrong side of the fence that separated the rich whites from the poorer blacks), winding down with the natives amidst cheap rum and reefer. With encouragement from Dub producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry, John soon began playing again. Firstly with Perry and Max Romeo, and then on Burning Spear's Man In The Hills LP. Working with Perry was an experience that he remembers fondly: "Lee Perry's advice on how to play on one track was, 'Look up a nana.' And 'look up a nana' is what you do when you're a naughty little boy and you look up your grandmother's skirt. They asked me at the end of the session how I'd liked to be paid ... in counterfeit dollars or blue movies. I took the dollars, 'de yankee dollah." The year out produced a cleansed and focused Martyn: "I learned there that all that stuff about there being no difference between black and white people is absolute garbage. If you want the truth blacks are hipper than we are, they're got more vibes and have lost less." Not only had he re-found himself but it also turned out that Inside Out was to be the closing chapter on Martyn's innovative experiments with Moroccan and Arabic scales.
The Jamaican influence shined through on his next recording, One World, with hypnotic reggae rhythms and large helpings of dub carrying it into the top 50. Released autumn 1977, whilst London was in the midriff of punk it turned many heads: "Mean, moogy and magnificent, One World is the most mesmerizing album I've heard all year. More complete, than Bowie's," said Melody Maker. After ten years of hard graft people were beginning to wake up to the music of the smiling stranger. Just as all the pieces began to come together Martyn reached for the self-destruct button. Whilst in Australia to promote the new album he found himself in another radio station doing another interview. With the DJ and producer present, they began the interview with a John and Beverley Martyn track. He stared daggers at the two of them: "You DO realize the Bev was killed in a road accident only a week ago. How COULD you play that? I'm ready to walk out of this station, you heartless ignorant fuckers." The DJ and producer looked at each other in horror, and then John roared with laughter shouting; "Gotcha, ya dumb Aussie fucks." That night at the Canberra Theatre1 he continued to air his contempt for the Aussie's, with a diatribe between each song about how backward, racist and murderous all Australians were. To this day, the DJ (who wishes to remain nameless) at the station has never played a John Martyn track.
For the summer of 1978 John supported Eric Clapton on his American tour, where insults were hurled by the thirty thousand capacity crowds, who didn't care who this 'big geezer' was, nor what music he may have had to offer. From the onset it looked bad with ferocious dogs and gun toting security men between them and the audience. Not something Martyn was accustomed to. In a bid to escape they drank heavily, on the aeroplanes, in the motels, and then at the stadiums for the entire six-week period. And both being fans of Robert Johnson they attempted writing a drinking blues song together called 'The Brahms and Liszt Blues' (Brahms and Liszt being cockney rhyming for 'pissed').
Back in 1969 John and Beverly celebrated their love for one another with the album Stormbringer. Ten years later John recorded Grace And Danger, a set of heartfelt songs which declared their marriage at end. The long spells away from home and all that comes with the rock 'n' roll lifestyle had slowly edged Martyn into the eye of the storm. Grace And Danger was recorded with Phil Collins (also involved in a painful break-up at the time), prompting the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship: "I'd noticed that John was in something of a bad shape and I offered moral support by inviting him to stay here in the house, where we recorded the basic tracks for Grace with bassist John Giblin." True to form, the creative stream flowed in abundance with pain and misery the driving force. Grace And Danger was John's very own Blood On The Tracks, his most open and autobiographical album to date. "Every song on that album, whatever people think of them, they are honest. I'm singing to Beverley those love songs." With these songs John attempted to exorcise what demons he could, no doubt resulting in a long hard look at himself. However, much to his annoyance Grace And Danger was delayed for nearly a year by Chris Blackwell (founder of Island records and good friend of John and Beverley for many years), who apparently found the album too depressing. John demanded it to be released: "Please get it out!' I don't give a damn how it makes you feel ... it's what I'm about direct communication of emotion."
"Every song on that album, whatever
people think of them, they are honest.
I'm singing to Beverley those love songs."
Once Grace And Danger was finally released John made a difficult and surprise decision to switch from Island records (his home for the past twelve years) to WEA for his next album. The decision, that apparently had nothing to do with the fact that Chris Blackwell delayed Grace for nearly a year, was due to a combination of attitude and money. "Quite simply I was not offered enough money to make the record I wanted to ... I'm a very loyal person... But I wanted my career to expand rather than remain static." His first release with WEA, Glorious Fool, was produced by the multi-talented Phil Collins. Not only had Martyn changed label but his entire outlook that Glorious Fool remains a testament to. The album was more aggressive and slicker with songs of lies, love and loss. The lies came courtesy of the newly elected American president Ronald Reagan. Martyn makes a direct attack on the newly elected president, with the carefully repeated line: Half The Lies He Tells You Are Not True. The album closer 'Don't You Go' (a powerful anti-war song) contains one of John's richest and most expressive vocals. With a sparse arrangement lightly underpinning him, the big geezer has never sounded so vulnerable. Glorious Fool reached the top thirty and the tour received a lot of praise from the music press, with 'Don't You Go' a guaranteed showstopper every time. Not all Martyn fans were pleased though, for this was a turning point with John employing a full band sound, casting fear into the hearts of the die-hard fans. "It was all change then, I was re-shaping my life, I wasn't married, I wasn't attached to anybody or anything, and I thought let's go for it, let's make some money, let's make a band; and that's when the band was formed." Many believed this was the end of the John Martyn that they knew and loved. On tour it was even worse with the converts at the front and the sceptical folkies at the back.
WEA wanted another album form John as soon as possible to capitalize on his growing popularity. The resulting album Well Kept Secret is regarded by many as Martyn's worst album. The eighties influences were simply out of control, unlike Glorious Fool where for the most part a balance was maintained. John was guilty of over indulging in the common musical phrasings of the eighties, something Martyn has always consciously avoided and in doing so he lost some of his uniqueness. Ironically, Well Kept Secret became John's highest charting album to date, settling into the elusive top twenty for seven weeks. The success of Glorious Fool seemed to have lulled John into a false sense of security, hence an over zealous stab at the big time. Martyn entered the rock arena with Glorious Fool and quickly turned his back on it after the release of Well Kept Secret. However, the recording of the album suggests Martyn never had any agenda, being so 'out of it' during the sessions, he can't even recall recording the album. During recording Martyn went for a swim in the nude near his home in Lanarkshire and whilst attempting to vault a fence, the fence gave way resulting in a trip to hospital. On the way to the hospital his eagerness to deaden the pain resulted in a stop off at the local public house for some liquid refreshment. By the time he got to the hospital John was so plastered he was told by the nurse to wait for twelve hours (with several fractured rips, one of which had punctured his lung), until he'd sobered up. Martyn spent the rest of the subsequent recordings so loaded they remain a blur.
At a time when he was reaching his largest audience, John began to feel like a pawn in the record companies game. Driven by new management, he found himself doing the promotional rounds of America and hating it: "I went round America doing the whole schlep, four interviews and two radio stations a day. It was like they'd tamed the pirate. I felt like I'd been nailed to the floor and I hated all that corporate insincerity. Nothing used to infuriate me more than playing a mediocre gig and finding the record company backstage going 'Fantastic!' and wanting to shake my hand." Subsequently, Martyn separated company with WEA and retreated to his new home in the Scot's borders with his new wife Annie Furlong. Signing back to Island soon after, Chris Blackwell shipped John out to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, to begin the recording of a new album. The outcome was Sapphire, a somewhat low-key affair, yet conveying a cool aquatic seductiveness that grew with each listen. That Sapphire was completed at all was quite an achievement, with many of the musicians consuming too much cheap rum, and John landing himself with a producer who knew very little about him or his music. Things came to a head whilst recording 'Rope Soul'd,' when the producer insisted John laid down some more lyrics, and not being one to mince words, John fired him. Fortunately Robert Palmer, John's long time friend, lived near by and lent a hand, bringing with him some excellent musicians. In the end, admits John "It was all down to Robert."
Just as Martyn was beginning to conquer the demons and find peace, a cruel blow hit as Sapphire sold poorly in the UK and bombed in America. After more extensive touring through the first half of 1985 Martyn completed Piece By Piece, a less focused affair than Sapphire, with leanings towards a smoother, poppier sound. Piece By Piece contains the schizoid magnum opus 'John Wayne,' to which there lies another story: "I was really pissed off with an ex-manager of mine and I was sitting down writing these very vindictive 'I'll get ya, I'll get ya...' Then I realized what a self righteous little prick you sound like, this is really stupid, who's the biggest self-righteous twit you can think of?... And it was John Wayne, so I slid him in to confuse the thing in my own brain." To get the effect he wanted John insisted on going out and getting completely rat-arsed. By all accounts this feat was achieved in a very short space of time, completing the song in one take with what John describes as his: "strangled duck vocal." John rocks the foundations with a truly intimidating yet at times comical performance that had great potential for a hit single. And Island agreed with a mean 12" dub version in the pipeline, which Island America pulled for fear of legal repercussions arising from the use of the name John Wayne.
After a long silence John eagerly delivered his new album The Apprentice, to Island records who simply didn't care for it at all. Disgruntled, he re-recorded the album in Glasgow at his own expense but still they weren't interested. With a new album and no record company to distribute it, Martyn was somewhat annoyed with life and took to the drink. For six months he entered a life minus music, downing nearly half a bottle every morning just to get straight. Eventually, under doctor's orders he was told to stop drinking or die. Fortunately, he did and avoided becoming another causality of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. "I was into everything and, even now, I genuinely believe I found out stuff that I wouldn't have done otherwise. In fact, the only drug I regret getting involved with is alcohol... it's the only one I couldn't beat." Martyn later conceded: "Perhaps if I'd drunk coffee all my life I'd have been a superstar!" For nearly three years he struggled to release The Apprentice, touring throughout to sustain his income and quite possibly his sanity. He toured mainly solo but was occasionally accompanied by Foster Paterson and his vast array of computer programs and drum machines.
"Perhaps if I'd drunk coffee all my life,
I'd have been a superstar!"
Finally, via a brand new label (Permanent), The Apprentice was released. It was "like starting over again right at the ground floor," claimed Martyn but eleven sold out nights (featuring Pink Floyd's David Gilmour) at London's Shaw Theatre to promote The Apprentice, suggested otherwise. The superbly crafted ballads are all there, along with the title track, the finest written track on the album. With a new label behind him, John had hoped the new arrangement would allow him to nip into the studio whenever he felt like it for a few days and records an EP of standards for example. This was not to be and soon his time spent with Permanent records became a very well kept secret.
His second release with Permanent, Cooltide, was a more confident and laid back affair with a jazzy tilt to boot. The technology which had overcrowded some of the songs on The Apprentice had evolved considerably, enabling John to fly free. As had been the case on previous albums the guitar remained low in the mix throughout, but this time it really didn't matter, Cooltide grooved all the way to Istanbul and back.
With a string of increasingly strong albums behind him John began to regain critical acclaim, only for it to be tainted by the release of two ill conceived albums, Couldn't Love You More and No Little Boy. The first, Couldn't Love You More found John re-approaching his back catalogue with the aid of Phil Collins, David Gilmour and Andy Sheppard. The result was an album that should never have been released and Martyn hated it. Permanent released the album without John's approval who later decided the production was: "like getting gently rubbed with cotton wool until you're bored stiff." Predictably, another of Martyn's long silences ensued. These long silences weren't born out of bruised confidence, but due to his increasing dependency on alcohol that brought about prolonged creative blocks.
Understandably annoyed with Permanent Records, John foolishly surfaced momentarily to remix and re-record tracks from Couldn't Love You More. The result, No little Boy was a vast improvement to its predecessor but an insult to the paying fans all the same, rendering Martyn's credibility at an all time low. Whilst promoting No little Boy John suggested his new direction to Guitar Magazine: "If I've been working on anything for the last six years it's becoming a better singer, and I think I'm getting there... I don't like singers who abuse the privilege to sing... People like Morrissey just piss me off... I like notes that go up and down, melody and harmony. Having said that, I'm very interested in hip-hop. I love all that sub-bass shit and kick drum shit. There's no reason why you can't have a really kicking track and a really sweet vocal on top. That's what I'm looking for."
With Permanent relations soured he parted company and once again John was alone. "It seems every time I put my trust in a new management set-up, it's alright for the first year or so and then they go, 'He never checks up - we're onto a good one here!'... And you find yourself in some sort of financial or contractual hole that you really shouldn't be in... Then it takes you another two or three years to sort it out. I've staggered from one kind like that to the next all the way through my career." A career that for the next three years consisted of little else but touring, his saving grace. For whatever trouble John lands himself in, he can always pull up a stool with his battered acoustic guitar and reel off the most beautiful of ballads. The long silence came to an end when he was signed to Go Discs, an independent and respected label, home to artists such as Paul Weller, The Beautiful South and Portishead. Somehow John came through the creative slump and to Chicago where he met Stefon Taylor a young hip-hop engineer, to produced his next album And. It had been four years since any new John Martyn material and thankfully And delivered a remarkable freshness via slick production, samples and hip-hop beats. Fused with this freshness were many Solid Air motifs, notably on 'She's A Lover' evoking the murky jazzy era of the seventies. Another label change occurred soon after And, as Go Discs suddenly ceased to function as a label. Fortunately, Andy MacDonald (founder of Go Discs) founded his own independent company, Independiente and John was quickly signed. In-between a busy touring schedule Martyn began recording a new album for his new record label, Independiente. As the months past, little was achieved and Martyn became impatient with himself aware that another creative block was upon him. In a bid to ease the tension in the studio, Stefon Taylor challenged John to do a blues song, which he did with a hip-hop beat to boot. It was then that the cover album was born. The timing couldn't have been better, elevating the pressure to complete the new album and bringing a much needed flow of cash for a church which John had his eye on for quite some time. All the songs were recorded live over four days and his method of choosing the songs was simple: "the ones that made us smile."
"I just want to be happy.
I'm fed up of being miserable."
As spontaneous as all John Martyn sessions are, the lyrics were faxed through on the day of recording. Recording The Church With One Bell effectively lifted Martyn from his creative slump and by January 1998 he was back to work on the new album. The Church With One Bell was well received but suffered from an all too familiar John Martyn trait; timeless classics alongside sub-standard fillers. The weaker tracks aside the album has a wonderful sound, as though it were recorded decades ago, bolstered by Arran Ahmun's magnificent drumming. By far the most considerate and able drummer Martyn has ever worked with. The album contained some fantastic examples of Martyn striking to the very core of a song and creating something all of his own. One case in particular was Ben Harper's 'Excuse Me Mister.' Whilst Harper's version is a more genteel and commentary affair delivered at arms length, Martyn's is a sly and aggressive confrontation. Martyn gives the song gravity, delivering the lines as though commandeering a fight from the corner of a bar.
As 1998 progressed John's drinking had subsided and he'd turned to Buddhism, which in turn reflected in the quality of his live performances. In between sets he would leave the venue and walks the streets for consoling isolation. "I used to hang with everybody, but it's dangerous because you get drunk. Everyone wants to buy you a drink." In 1998 John supported The Verve (at the bands request) at their homecoming concert at Haigh Hall in Wigan. With a capacity crowd of thirty three thousand he performed a short unrehearsed set, whilst the crowd either ignored or harassed him. Only days before he found out that his band could not play with him, as Beck's equipment made the set change impossible. Not many performer's today would go before such a large crowd unrehearsed, but then again, not many can.
Finally, after two and a half years Martyn completed his original album for Independiente. The resulting album, Glasgow Walker, hinted Martyn had come full circle, with the cover featuring Martyn chuckling away at the Glasgow School of Art that he attended shortly before the making of London Conversation. For all the experimenting with new technology, all the gizmo's, Martyn's own live drum manipulations and the addition of many new musicians, including Jim Lampi on Chapman stick, the album was something of a let down. There was little of the roar we have come to expect and a dearth of unexpected joys. It appeared age had finally crept up on the big geezer and forced him to slow down. Gone were the frantic pieces that have littered his live shows for the last 30 years. Overall Glasgow Walker was an album of balance and control and the mark of an ageing artist attempting to sound contemporary.
Martyn took the album on the road and encouragingly brought many of the tepid songs to life. The Glasgow Walker tour itself was initially a triumph, but a slow decline ensued due to Martyn's ailing health, including a painful sore foot that he ignored again and again. The tour became a patchy affair when Martyn fell down a flight of stairs, dislocated his shoulder which forced him to play one string solo's.
In 2003 terrible news arrived that would change Martyn's life forever. His right leg could not be saved and it would have to be amputated as soon as possible. Martyn could have crawled into a corner and drowned his sorrows with the bottle, but his insatiable optimism and will to survive kicked in. Although in great pain as his leg turned shades of purple and yellow, Martyn came up with some new material for an album. He had little choice in the matter, as money became a great concern. The issue of having his leg amputated had to take back seat while he soldiered on to record a new album in order to bring money in. On Wednesday 9th of April, only weeks after completing the album, Martyn was admitted to hospital and had his right leg amputated below the knee. News of Martyn's frailty spread quickly and a slow recovery was expected. When news arrived that a new John Martyn album was to be released there was genuine surprise but little anticipation. The new album On The Cobbles, with the cover depicting a cemetery at dusk, suggested an even darker preposition than The Church With One Bell. Recorded before his amputation, the impending brush with mortality seemed set. Naturally the sceptics were wrong as the gravestones represented Martyn's wickedly dark sense of humour, no doubt directed at his own mortality. The cunning fox delivered an album that exuded confidence and revealed an artist at the top of his game. On The Cobbles finds Martyn in fine form with his muse firmly by his side fuelling his most extraordinarily evocative and reflective songs in over a decade. The centrepiece and highlight of On The Cobbles is a track Martyn refers to as a Buddhist-Baptist hymn and appropriately features Danny Thompson on double bass. 'My Creator,' is as good as any song he's written in the last twenty years, beginning life as an instrumental break in the middle of 'Don't Wanna Know.' Here Martyn doesn't so much as tackle his inner demons but rather he invites them in for a glass of red wine. With his gravel-like voice over sublime soprano and tenor saxophone it is a reminder of just how effortless he makes it all seem.
To the surprise and delight of many, Martyn took On The Cobbles on the road and hoped to be well enough to perform standing up, but it was not to be. However, the One For The Road tour was a huge success with Martyn receiving standing ovations the length and breadth of the country. The reception, so fantastic at times that Martyn seemed quite humbled by it all. Walking on stage, taking slow and deliberate step wearing a long gown and steadying himself with a huge Shillelagh stick, Martyn was quite a foreboding sight. His sheer size and presence, conjuring up an image of a holy man about to preach to the people. But of course Martyn would be more likely to share a smoke and a drink, whilst talking of an occasion when he had a somewhat ugly run-in with an accordion player. Now Martyn's body no longer allows him to tour like he used to, it will be interesting to see what direction he takes next. The follow-up to On The Cobbles will reveal a more truthful picture of Martyn's reaction to the amputation. Answering just how much his creative flame and general outlook on life has been affected. I would guess, he'll be the same, with plenty more wine and laughter to come.
© Lee Barry, revised March 3 2006 (first draft March 31 1999)
1 sitenote: The concert took place on the 13th of July, 1978.
Lee Barry has written a 220 page John Martyn biography called Grace & Danger.