Mystery Man

Alastair Mabbott
The List #240
Mystery man


As John Martyn plays in Scotland for the first time in, ooh, too long, Alastair Mabbott looks back over the history of this musical alchemist.

Although a few select and hardy souls from the late-60s folk-boom found they could make a living out of that kind of music through the 70s, 80s and 90s, John Martyn isn't one of them. The rumbustious Scot came up through the folk clubs, but always saw music in broader terms, blending elements of jazz and blues, and increasingly more disparate forms, into a style that became a genre in itself.

His name was appended to the writers' credits for Wet Wet Wet's Sweet Little Mystery, the namesake of a Martyn-penned track, but his eclecticism, and the single-minded pursuit of his own musical vision, has barred him from mainstream stardom. Certain of his records, though, like Solid Air and Grace And Danger, are to be found in homes that even the Wets have never reached.

By the time of his second album, The Tumbler, Martyn's passion for jazz was writ large on a record many expected to be a fairly standard acoustic singer-songwriter outing. Then, a stay in Woodstock with his then—wife Beverley Kutner resulted in Stormbringer. Recorded with Doors and Crosby, Stills and Nash producer Paul Harris, Stormbringer betrayed the roots-rock influence of The Band, to the extent that Levon Helm provided the drums.

The artist-friendly climate of the times, the enlightened attitude of Island Records and the commercial boost given his career by Solid Air meant that Martyn was allowed to continue developing in his own way. His eclectic approach reached its zenith in the free-jazz-influenced Inside Out, but Martyn was still open to new ideas. A trip to Jamaica in 1976 proved inspirational. He hung out with dub pioneer Lee Perry ('mad as a snake', he recently commented, affectionately)1 and explored the rhythms, dynamics and sense of space in reggae. It left a mark on his music which remains to this day.

Mournful, poignant melodies, laid-back tempos, echo devices, the slurred, drawling delivery he credits to listening to bluesman Skip James: all his trademarks were in place by the Chris Blackwell-produced One World. Every artist wants to develop his or her own style, and by drawing on diverse sources, Martyn had arrived at one that was completely unique.

He does, of course, have his detractors, critics who claim to have fallen asleep at his shows and accuse him of making some of the most soporific music of all time.
(Idiosyncratically enough, this side of him tends to be indulged in more when Martyn plays with a full band than solo.)

Over the years, most of the occasions I've seen him perform have been at outdoor shows, where it's hardest for him to cast the spell of intimacy his music demands; but even in some of the most unpromising conditions, Martyn can pull it off, sending the unexpected shiver down the spine, the prickle on the back of the neck.

It's at close quarters, in a club or small theatre that his magic works best. Sending the signal from his guitar through multiple delay pedals, forming cascades of cleanly plucked notes (you thought the shoegazers invented 'sonic cathedrals'? Martyn first plugged in an Echoplex in 1971), duetting with the dying echoes of his own voice and stretching the words to the point of obliteration to get to the core of the song.

And then, after some cathartic exorcism, you realise you've been holding your breath for the last five minutes. Meanwhile, Martyn's back bantering with the audience, sending himself up and telling dreadful jokes. Not a man who likes to be seen to take himself too seriously.

He's also a man who'd much rather show you where he is now than where he was. Island Records, who released his work from 1971-87, have a new 'Best Of' double-CD in the shops entitled Sweet Little Mysteries, but Martyn had launched his pre-emptive strike two years before: Couldn't Love You More,2 in which he revisited his back catalogue but in an album of entirely new recordings. John Martyn, eh? Has to have the last word first.

John Martyn plays Castlemilk Community Centre, Glasgow on Thurs 10 and George Square Theatre, Edinburgh on Fri 11.

1 The quote is from Mojo, The Boy Can't Help It; an interview by Nick Coleman published 1 October 1994.
2 Apparently the writer was unaware that Couldn't Love You More was released without John's consent.
This was published in The List #240 of 4 November 1994, on page 32 and 33. It served as warming-up for the Castlemilk Folk Festival. John Martyn and Jay Fisher played on Thursday 10 November; Steve Harley and June Tabor Friday 11th; and Hue & Cry and Isaac Guillory on Saturday 12th, all at Castlemilk Community Centre, Glasgow.