Music On Impulse From John Martyn

Jerry Gilbert
An in-depth view of John Martyn by Jerry Gilbert
AN EERIE presence of nocturnal energy filled Island's No. 2 studio - an energy that had probably found its peak around 3 a.m. but which was beginning to wane as the sun came up over the Westway.1

The night owls included John Martyn, still gathering speed, throwing out jive to everyone in sight calling for more playbacks of his slowly developing album,2 Traffic's Chris Wood, who looked as though the night had gone on just a little too long, and Digger, the engineer who might have just walked in to start a day's work.

"But we've gotta be out by twelve there's another session booked", pleaded manager Rob Wynn as John Martyn requested the umpteenth playback. No, he couldn't face the daylight unless someone lent him some dark glasses; eventually they arrived, John tried them for size and then shunned the offer.

What we had been listening to is best described as the latest musical development from John Martyn in conjunction with the musicians that he never thought he could find in Britain. It is an album of strange rhythmic complexities with Martyn's voice hovering between words and images over the top, peering through gaps between popping echo waves reverberating interminably from Martyn's guitar.


Kebaka and Winwood, their momentous Aiye-Keta album behind them, providing sustained and rhythmic poise to catapult Martyn's voice into a purely instrumental capacity, with the redolence that had taken Solid Air into a new area of rock music.

At 17 John Martyn had discovered the acoustic properties of the guitar with an ominous pre-possession that stood in spite of his years.

With a propensity for the hammering and slurring traits of the old country pickers Martyn played a low action Yamaha heavily disguised as a Martin which took him through two albums, London Conversation and The Tumbler.

Stormbringer was the real breakthrough as John and his new wife Beverley were taken to New York by Joe Boyd to meet some of his influential Woodstock friends and the result was one of the best soft-rock albums of 1969.

Martyn was insistent that he couldn't be bagged, and the ennui that surrounds most artists by their third or fourth album was nowhere in evidence as John Martyn continued to find new paths within the world of electronics seeking to merge words and music by complementing the tenor of each - sometimes letting the voice take over from the words to sustain a mood.

His sympathies appeared to swing radically towards black music and on The Road To Ruin he used Rocky Dzidzornu and Dudu Pukwana, whose music he idolised at the time.

Bless The weather and Solid Air saw him working without Beverley - and without Witchseason producer Joe Boyd who by this time had split to Burbank, California, but the music continued to exphone fresh avenues, and just as Stormbringer and The Road To Ruin had both produced their classic tracks so John eventually reached a reconciliation point in his music on an outstanding improvisation of Skip James' I'd Rather Be The Devil.

John Martyn's music is one of pulses and impulses; the impulses have always paid off, but at the same time he is temperamental, uncompromising and stubborn, yet this too has reflected magnificently in his music.

If ever a musician survived on nerves, luck, music and whatever anodyne your analyst recommends then it's John Martyn.

These commodities brought him safely home from the Free/ Traffic Stateside tour a month or so back3 but the reception had been so great that he was forced to return for a club tour almost immediately4 - still with the same forbidding outlook on America and still with nothing more onstage than a couple of guitars, a boyish exuberance and a bag of tricks.

You know, the way he used to wander round folk clubs with his little practice amp under one arm, guitar case in the other and foot pedals and leads dangling behind him like the entrails of some Heath Robinson,5 well very little has changed.

Now he has struck up an inextricable relationship with bass player Danny Thompson and has somehow evoked all the colours of the rainbow from a musician whom we have rarely seen with the opportunity of stretching out. It's worth mentioning, en passant, that Thompson will be working some of the dates on the forthcoming tour6 with John.

12 O'CLOCK midday July 317 and John Martyn has decided that booze will tide him over to the next session far better than sleep. As a raconteur he recalls crises vividly, preaches love as a universal panacea. America, he says was a bad experience. "In a way they work you too hard and I didn't enjoy it at all. I was so ill in the States with infections and boils and just all the madness", John recalled, the vividness of the experience written right across his face. "But it liberated me in a way - you know it provided me with another key to another little door, but there wasn't really the time to hang out with anyone".


It's virtually impossible to quote John Martyn verbatim because he rarely finished a line of conversation before darting off elsewhere, side-tracking himself and returning to the original topic ages afterwards. His speech, like his career is an anachronism and he talks in unaffected jive - just like he's always done.

In America he met Sandy Bull, which is significant since Bull has been through a lot of the same scenes as Martyn and plays a variety of stringed instruments, notably the oud.8

Aside from an almost innate sense of rhythm and melody, John bases his survival and ability to draw from within on the use of drugs.

"I'm a natural drug taker and I had to take a lot of cocaine to keep going in the States. That's one of the things in my life and has been since I was seventeen. It's part of the circle and part of the scene - and whole rock miasma. But I could stop everything I do tomorrow. The thing with drugs is that they help you to explore yourself and I'm at that stage of my life when I need to find out what I'm all about. I couldn't advocate chemical acid, I'm a believer in natural drugs and hashish is my favourite - it helps you to see love and perspectives easier but mandrax, heroin and downers I don't touch."


John is forever pushing love as though he has shares in it. "It's the only answer" is his repetitive primal scream. "Love is something I like to foster in the family but at the same time I'm very loud, quite mad and can be an exceptionally nasty person."

John Martyn is painfully aware of his musical environment - of the casualties of the acid rock era, of his musician friends whom he is sure won't survive, of his constant need for drugs. "I have a predilection for heads and hearts and it gets my head right".

He is a naturally suspicious person who lives a hundred miles from London down on the South coast9 with Bev and their two children. He has an instinctive mistrust of everyone in 'the business', particularly those who exploit…
"There must be a purpose in making music other than to make money", he insists earnestly.

He has now found an ambition to play again. "Originally I had two ambitions - one was to make a record and the other was to play at Cousins, both of which I did early on. The other thing I want to do now is to contribute something and that doesn't necessarily mean to exploit what talent I have".

John Martyn says he is a freak for modal music, and perhaps that is the best, if slightly obscure reconciliation of his influences, from the traditional music which he learnt from his parents, through the local music to which he was later subjected - people like Archie Fisher who inspired Jansch, Davey Johnstone, Robin Williamson and many more at a time when he was heavily into an Eastern thing.

Then to London, the folk scene, and into wild, free form jazz. Nowadays he listens to Billie Holiday, Pharoah Sanders, John and Alice Coltrane, John McLaughlin ("a most exquisite acoustic player"), and people like Pablo Casals, Goossens10 and Vilayat Khan.11

John claims that, metaphorically speaking, he's still playing Fairy Tale Lullaby, from his first London Conversation album. Both that and The Tumbler he associates with his early days at Cousins and the Troubadour.

"Of that first album I thought 'You'd only been playing for eight months when you made it so you don't do badly' but the voice on that album literally wasn't considered. The lyrics, though, were acute, viciously accurate, very personal. It was like the confessions of a 17-year-old rebel although in fact I was nineteen when I made it. The songs were like a diary and an element of fantasy came in on things like Sing A Song Of Summer and The Gardeners."

"But when I met my old lady I really started thinking. I'd taken vast quantities of drugs and Harold McNair's music had turned me right on - I'm very aware in retrospect how much he influenced me just in terms of concepts."

"Then I went to America and things got slightly big time. There was a point where I had almost no self-consciousness because I was too involved with a woman for the music to come any other way than naturally. The relationship was of paramount importance in my life and I didn't think about the music it just fell out on Stormbringer. Bev was a great musical influence and turned me on totally to be-bop."


I mentioned at this point the disastrous Queen Elizabeth Hall concert which John and Bev had worked with a pick up band.12 Was it this that had induced his aversion towards working with a band again?
"You're right, it killed me stone dead for a band - it was the most humiliating musical experience of my career."

"Then came The Road To Ruin which was the most compromised album in terms of spontaneity and general joie de vivre but a lot of people thought it was the best thing I ever did. Bev sung two classics Primrose Hill and Auntie Aviator for me it wasn't satisfying."
"Joe Boyd went to America and I moved to Island, lock, stock and barrel and as a result Bless The Weather was recorded on a low budget because at Island I was a rank outsider."

John says that until he recorded his latest album, Bless The Weather was his personal favourite. "It was a very pure album with a lot of wooden sounds - a bit experimental and we were never quite sure what was on the other side of the note, there was a very contented vibe in me when I made that."
"But in doing Solid Air I found a lot of difficulty in getting a British rhythm section together and I thought I'd have to go to America."

"I'm not sure where I heard Remi Kebaka first but I didn't think there were any drummers over here who drummed in that style apart from Louis Moholo and those people. I wanted someone flexible because I wanted a rhythmic player - there aren't a lot of melodic drummers around and I got tired with 4/4 a long time ago."
"Danny Thompson has worked like a madman, no electric bass at all, Winwood was outasight and Chris Wood is an incurable romantic."

"The album's called Inside Out and there's none of the paranoia on this album that there was on Solid Air with Dreams By The Sea for instance - the ellipsis is still there but I'm more direct now".

As he did with Singing In The Rain, Martyn has included another oldie, The Glory Of Love. And that, my friends, is the message.
POSTSCRIPT: Twenty-seven hours after this interview took place John Martyn still hadn't been to bed.

1 This places the studio at 8-10 Basing Street, London (Notting Hill).
2 Inside Out, which emerged 1st October 1973.
3 January and first half of February 1973.
4 Last week of February 1973. April, John was back in the US.
5 William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), illustrator famous for drawing whimsical and funny machines.
6 Inside Out tour, October 1973.
7 So that's when the interview took place.
8 Sandy Bull. Nice touch. Alexander Bull (1941–2001), American folk musician and composer. His early work blends non-western instruments with the 1960s folk revival. Bull used overdubbing as a way to accompany himself. Sandy Bull's use of tape accompaniment was part of his solo performances in concert as well. Born in New York City; his parents were divorced in 1941, shortly after his birth.
9 Hastings.
10 No idea. Best guess: Léon Goossens (1897-1988), famous oboe player from musical family with Belgian roots.
11 Ustad Vilayat Khan (1928–2004), Indian classical sitar player.
12 Launch of Stormbringer, London, 21st February 1970. John even smacked a guitar from frustration.
This article was printed on page 10 of Sounds Magazine of 18th August 1973. Various spelling mistakes have been corrected.

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