Piece by Piece [Promo boxed set]

Trevor Dann
Island JM 1-1, JM 1-2

TD: It's 1966. Harold Wilson is prime minister, Lyndon Johnson is president. It's the year of Carnaby Street and Vietnam. In music, Mersey beat and the Modern rockers are on the way out; acid rock and hippies are just around the corner. And in Glasgow, a 17-year old Scottish folksinger is about to make his first live appearance.
John Martyn, how much can you remember about those very early gigs.
JM: The very early ones... I remember the first time I ever played in public. That was in the local village hall, the Town Hall, partial as burro. That was because Josh McCrae got drunk in the pub and could not appear. So I was given the gig, because I was the only one in the audience who could play the guitar and sing. And about four months after that I played in a place called The Black Bull in Dollar which is outside Stirling. I got eleven quid for it, that was wonderful.

TD: How much do you think you have changed.
JM: (laughs) Oh dear. Mentally of physically? Physically I just got older. Mentally, I don't think I have aged much, I'm afraid. A few of the rough edges have been knocked off, and a few of the smooth edges have been sort of roughed up. It's hard to tell, really. I have changed a great deal, there is no question about that.
TD: Well, over the next few minutes we will see how the music has changed at least. And we'll play some of the classic tracks. But first of all, here's something from the brand new album Piece by Piece, this is Nightline.


piece by piece..TD: John Martyn, that's Nightline. Do you actually listen to a lot of radio?
JM: Do I listen to a lot of radio... Yes, per force. When one's travelling, one listens a lot to the car radio or the truck radio. I listen to it around the house, because one of my hobbies is cooking. I do the housewives bit, as I'm peeling the spuds or making the fairy cakes. Per force, I listen to quite a lot of it. By choice, I almost exclusively listen to Radio 3 and 4 now.
TD: Because, you are a musician who has ploughed a very single-minded furrow. And some people would be, I think, surprised to hear that you listen to music. And they might also be surprised to hear how many modern pop-stars, as it were, Sade and China Crisis come to mind, cite you as an influence. Are you flattered by that?
JM: Oh, very much so, yes. He's great, it's wonderful. I can see why, I was talking to somebody the other day, to Ben Watts, who remembered that a girl said the first time they heard a samba was when I played it. And I can understand this: you see, Carlos Jobim does not do gigs any more, do you know what I mean? And unless you are sort of an aficionado, if you pardon the reference, you wouldn't get into it, would you. It's not really that surprising that, at the age of twenty, you could be living in a northern town, and hear a thirty-year old Scotsman playing a samba, and that would be the first time you ever heard that rhythm. I mean, that is quite possible. And when I thought of it that way, it made sense to me and I was quite pleased. It's like being an important member of the line, or link in the chain or something, it's good, that.

TD: Going back to your very early days, did you set out with the idea of this being a career?
JM: (laughs) No. No, absolutely not. I had two ambitions. One was to play in a club called Les Cousins, which was in Greek Street in London. And they had Bob Dylan and Garfunkel and Donovan, you know, Bert Jansch; you had to be chic and hip to be there, how hip can you get. Had to be there, you see.
And I really wanted to make a record of some description. I would have been quite happy with a single. But they gave me an album to make, which is infinitely more fun. I just sort of fell into it, really. I really fell into it.
TD: Your music has another-worldly charm about it, a sort of magical feel to a lot of it. I wonder if you started making music because you were trying to escape from some kind of reality. Did you have the traditional folk-singer's unhappy childhood and upbringing?
JM: Well, I did not have a settled domestic background, that's for sure. My parents were divorced, I was brought up by my father and grandmother. I would not blame that for all my problems... I suppose it is traditional, isn't it. You could have been a deckhound on a whaling ship. No I wouldn't say I was definitely unhappy. I was a little isolated, I think. And as for being an escapist, it's just cathartic, it's the same reason as black people sing [the blues]. I think, in my case, I solely played to alleviate some feeling or to release some feeling. I would not say that is was a conscious move to minimize an unhappy feeling. It was just an urge to sing.
Frankly, personnally speaking, I don't like to inquire too much into why or how I do it. I never have done, because I am always a bit scared that if you prod and probe too hard, it might just suddenly go away and you would never feel like playing again...

TD: But I think what is interesting about your very early days, is that, although there is a Dylan song on that very first album, your urge was not simply to sing, was it. It was to write about things.
JM: That's true.
TD: You must have felt you had something to say to somebody...
JM: (laughs) I'm being the pub bore... (laughs) I don't know. Of course, it's just that, I don't really know why one is driven to do it. Now it has become a way of life of me, I never inquire it. Why do I start... - it was just something romantic to do. I had always seen myself as a bohemian, since about thirteen. I enjoyed being a bohemian, and I liked going to school with bare feet, and I liked walking the streets of Glasgow on bare feet, that seemed like a fine piece of rebellion to me. That kind of thing, it's just slightly... I suppose, in those days, it would be beat, or left-bank, you know. Sort of a Zen and the Art of Impressionism, or Existentialism. All that sort of stuff, reading early Christmas Humphries books on Zen and all that kind of stuff. Beat poetry. It was a desire to be somewhat different. For the same reason as the Rolling Stones played their sort of blues, I was playing acoustic blues. I mean, it was the same period and there were actually the same influences. I was just using acoustic music, and the Stones, and Them, and the Glowing Ambers, and the Rushing Falls, and all these other bands of the time were concentrating on the electric angle. It was basically music of the same period, which was enjoying a renaissance in the sixties.
TD: Let's go back to your second album for Island, The Tumbler, 1968. This is Dusty.


the tumbler..TD: John, I have a feeling looking back, listening back to that, that Dusty as a song slightly points the way you were going. It has a much more languid feel than your traditional folk singer would get in the folk club.
JM: That's true, there wasn't a lot of dashing about on guitars. You had to play very quickly in those days, just to show you could play. I was an expert in dazzling virtuoso little acoustic solos for a while. It's a welcome change, as you said, languid is the word. It is all about Hampton Court fair, it's a jolly good fair. Every August bank holiday they have a fair on Hampton Court. Anyway, languid, yes it is. That's Harold McNair playing the flute, and he was quite an influence on me. He opened my mind up a lot to what could be done on single-line harmonies.
TD: Was he one of the people who started pointing you towards improvisation and jazz, as it's always called.
JM: Yes, that's correct. He was the first fully fledged jazzer that I had ever encountered. And I was quite astounded by his technique and his confidence and his mastery of various styles. It was an inspiration for me to meet someone like that. We were never great fans or anything, he just turned my head around. At that point I was so immersed in faded denims and Woody Guthrie and all that sort of stuff, and the hobo image. To meet something as cultured and refined as your man, came as a shock to my {unintelligible} credulity and an inspiration.

TD: Now even all these years after Dylan had gone electric, it was still a bold move to play an electric guitar, wasn't it. When you started playing an electric guitar, you almost immediately started plugging it into all these effects pedals and bits and pieces. And the echoplex, particularly. What pointed you in that direction. Were you getting frustrated with the acoustic guitar?
JM: I wasn't getting frustrated ...dated ...dated ...dated. {laughs} I wanted something with sustain. I took the saxophone first, and found that I did not really have the patience nor did I have the understanding neighbours, to enable me to become a master of the instrument in a relatively fast and short period. I looked for ways of making the acoustic guitar... -at that point I did not really think of electric guitar!- of making the acoustic guitar compatible with a fuss box, which was the first effect I got, after listening to a Rolling Stones record. And the echoplex, which gives you just this wonderful sustain, you see. Then I found you could play with the rhythms, and it made me sound enormous. And people who would not really believe it was one person playing, which always I thought was an excellent selling point. And I liked the noise anyway. It was very interesting.
You had to learn to play differently. The time I spent exploring that, kind of screwed my normal playing up quite a bit. It was only when I came to go back to playing straight and wanted to take up the electric guitar seriously, that I realised exactly how much I had been influenced by the machine as well as myself influencing the machine. It's an ambiguous kind of relationship, an ambivalent relationship, you know, who's playing who around here?
TD: Well from those days of the beginnings, I think, of your great world-wide popularity, here's Bless The Weather.

[Bless The Weather!]

bless the weather..TD: That's John Martyn's Bless the Weather from the LP of the same name, 1971. As well as demonstrating what you try to do now with the guitar and dealing with the texture of the music, it shows what you try to do to your voice in this period. Were you making a deliberate change to the way that you sang? Because I think in this period, you are starting to enunciate rather less.
JM: {laughs} Yes, there's a bit less importance stuck on the lyrics. I sort of gave up trying to be poetic, because I'm not really of a genuine poetic nature. I am good at being deep and mysterious and fairly blunt at the same time; I like words to have two or three meanings but not too many, if you know what I mean. I'm not really the most beautiful and talented of lyric writers. So I decided to make the voice a bit more like an instrument if possible. I have since enjoyed hearing saxophones beside me - I almost prefer that to outliving myself now. It is difficult to tell, it's just this phase I am going through, you know.

TD: The impression that one got in the middle of the seventies was that you were more interested in music than songs, if it's possible to separate the two. Is that fair?
JM: I must confess that I find very few songs as such that I genuinely enjoy. It's a strange form for me, it's an odd peculiar form. It has become much debased and degraded, I think, the song as artform.
TD: That is because every pop star now has to write songs.
JM: That's right. I don't think that has been entirely conducive to top class product. A harsh way of saying it, but you know, I suppose the playing the way I have seen it, is a lot of dross about. I did, I kind of... At that point, I was definitely losing faith in the popular song as the genre, you know. I didn't really like it. I think there was more and more of a... Probably around that time, I was more and more aware of commercial success and what it entailed. And that was one of the things which was definitely uncool, you see. You know, bread wasn't the hassle, man. It was quite literally uncool, it was uncool a) to drink, and b), to concern oneself with the mondain. It was honestly imperial for me, indeed, that face change.

TD: And yet, oddly, this period, in 1973, that you write 'I can do this assigned work, I have murderers here,' (It seems you are talking in present tense)...
JM: {laughs}
TD: But it is in 1973 that you wrote May You Never, which is probably your most successful song. Eric Clapton covered it.
JM: Yes, it is, yes it is, and it is a song of which I am proud, strangely enough. A pretty little ditty. Yeah, this one popped out, they pop out you know...
TD: Is it true that you earned more money from Eric's version than from all your LP's put together?
JM: Quite probably! {laughs}
TD: Let's listen to your version of it.

[May You Never!]

inside out..TD: Would it be fair to say, John that, apart from May You Never, and a couple of other songs like Over The Hill at this period, you turned pretty weird in your middle 1970's. I wonder what you think of the album Inside Out and that very experimental period, looking back on it from then years or so.
JM: Yes... I would have liked to have attacked it with more technical ability. I would have liked to have been more technically able at that point. But I wasn't. What you get is a kind of vision of what I'd like to be playing, rather than what I was playing. I mean, I like it, it broke new ground for me... What's the word... And it sort of removed from my sub-conscience a lot of stuff that I wanted removed, if you know what I mean. It was very... I wanted to hear this-with-that because I wanted to hear this-with-that. I knew the result was not going to be commercial, or perhaps even good at times. I think I managed to refine it to the point where it all sounds good or at least interesting. There are a lot of tones, and deep notes, and passages and times you don't normally hear associated with each other on that album. So I like it. It was good for me to do that. A lot of strange little Maroccan stuff is in, and some basically free form... Very, very long bars, very slow music stuff. I still love very slow music. I always liked very slow music. There's a lot of that on there.

TD: The lyrics such as they are on that album, and the singing, is that of a tortured soul. You were not a happy man in those days.
JM: Eh... That's not true, you know... That's actually not true. I was blissfully happy at that period of my life. I was oblivious really, to the rest of the world at the time. But I was perfectly content at that time, strangely enough. The only one I have ever done under real endurance was Grace and Danger.

grace and danger..TD: I was going to come on to that because, strangely enough, that is a more formal record than you had been making in the previous few years, isn't it?
JM: Yes, well, it was a fairly formal occasion. {laughs} Divorce is a very formal affair. That was the divorce album. {laughing:} You don't get many of those, you know!

TD: I was going to say that was at the time that you met Phil Collins, who was just about to make his divorce album.
JM: That's right, yes, we were... Heartbreak Hotel it was there for a while {laughs}.
TD: Is that one of the things that brought you two together? Because the drummer from Genesis and a Scottish folk singer, let's face it, it is not a natural friendship, is it? Collaboration musically of course...
JM: The fact that we are two different people does not have anything to do with our friendship. I mean, that's... we just both had to be musicians, I mean, you know, if I had been a plummer I should have got on just as well. I would not really put it down to the... Obviously, a shared experience of any description is going to bring two people closer together. But I think too much importance can be paid, you know, to that sort of thing.
TD: Well let's listen to some of the work that you did with Phil Collins. I think he is playing on here, he certainly produced the album as well. From Grace and Danger, this is Sweet Little Mystery.

[Sweet Little Mystery!]

one world..TD: As we were saying, John, that track was produced by Phil Collins. You've worked with a number of producers and you have also produced albums yourself. Looking at the effect of people from Phil Collins on the one hand to Al Stewart on the other, and also the boss of your record company, Chris Blackwell; what have producers been able to bring to you and your music. Or do you think in the end that you are a better producer yourself?
JM: Mmm... - I thought One World from a production point of view was a very good album. And that was because Chris Blackwell produced that. I think that was probably the most thoroughly produced and I really enjoyed his objectivity. Because Chris' hazards were most wonderful. He just has a great knack of being aloof and yet very personal at the same time. I mean 'aloof' in it's finest sense. He is kind of above.. He sees a wider angle on things than I do; I tend to get -what's the word- so involved that I occasionally can't see the wood for the trees, I get a lot of mental blocks, a lot of impulses, and Chris doesn't allow those. So from that point of view, he is a very good producer. I'd like very much one day to work with Scratch Perry again... I think people are scared to let us into the studio together! I'm not really sure whenever that is going to happen or not. And also Robert Palmer, I like working with Robert Palmer very much, he is a very inspiring person to work with.

TD: What about the other musicians that you have worked with? Because I think I am not alone in thinking that sometimes, the great players that you have had on your albums, have tended to clutter you a little bit. Have you been able to feed off their great talents, always, do you think?
JM: Pooh, quite difficult to say... Not really, because the studio does not give you time really to digest and assimilate as much as one would really want. I find you really only gain from another person, you know, from these periods of playing with another person over a period of time or in a live situation. I think, to go on tour with someone for three weeks is a really good test... And also for me, because I am a slow learner, it is a very good period for me to learn to appreciate another person's playing. It happens on tours; I tend not to play wonderfully in a captive situation. I am not too good at rehearsals, especially for singing, I don't often open my throat. Because I find I can't work to my full capacity unless I have got an audience there, it's a funny thing, that.... So, no, I would say probably not, unless... the people that I have worked with over a period of time, yes, i.e. Danny Thompson. He thrills me greatly, he taught me more about music than just probably anyone that I know. He really taught me a great deal, a wonderful man... and a great musician.

TD: What about the way perhaps other musicians have been used by the record companies to try and make you more commercial, do you think that has happened?
JM: No. No I don't! I think they may have done it to lend me credibility but I don't think anyone in their wildest dreams would have expected a hit single, I think it's just one of those things that they... They'd be willing to put their backs behind it if it just pops up.
-We haven't been that unsuccessful, you see, we have actually been fairly successful. I had a fairly sticky bit just after I had the first band, that was difficult. And at that point, it was about three or four years ago; at that point, I kind of thought of going back to be a solo performer. But I tried it on a few gigs and found that I really didn't enjoy myself as much as I did playing with a band. It's an autodestructive part, you understand, because you have to pay them all, it's dreadful. And of course, you can't get your own way all the time, which you can when you are playing solo...

TD: Let's have a listen to a track from the new album and talk about the new band in a minute. From Piece by Piece, this is Lonely Love.

[Lonely Love!]

lonely love..TD: From the new John Martyn album, that's Lonely Love. John, it's traditional at this sort of occasion for the maker of the new album...
JM: If he'll buy the drinks, fine {laughs}
TD: ... for the maker of the new album to say, 'This is my best LP so far'. So here's your opportunity...
JM: This ís my best LP so far. Well, put it this way: it's my best LP so far...
TD: Why?
JM: Why? Because, I like the songs on it, I like the songs on it very much. I like the melodies and I like the playing. I like it. It's interesting, it's a new... it's a slightly new departure for me.

TD: These are musicians that you have been working with, because you have toured with them...
JM: Yes.
TD: ... With all of them? Or with at least some of them?
JM: Well, with the bulk of them. With Alan Thomson... Basically, the album is myself and Foster Paterson. Foster plays all the keyboards and it is a fairly keyboard-oriented album. So basically it's a duo with the addition of Alan Thomson playing fretless bass on a couple of tracks, and a wonderful sax player called Colin Tully.

TD: You mentioned Foster. The next track I want to play, which is strangely enough the title track, he wrote!
JM: Yes he did, he wrote the tune. Originally it was a song about a miner who was brought to the surface piece by piece, after a disaster, but we changed the words...

[Piece By Piece!]

TD: Listening to the whole of the record, with the exception possibly of the track that we'll come on to in a few minutes, John Wayne, I think there's a more settled John Martyn at work now. You sound less as though you are scratching around at the frontiers, looking for something new. I get the feeling that you are perhaps comfortable with what John Martyn sounds like.
JM: I am more comfortable now than I have been for a while. But I mean, I would not say that I'd remain that way. It's always a bit dangerous if you are too comfortable, I think. The live situation is going to deal with a lot of it for me. I am very interested in getting out on the road, I mean, that's why I am rehearsing so hard just now. I'm very interested in getting out and doing it. As I really enjoy it; I find that performing is a very satisfying thing to do and one can only do with an audience, you know.

TD: Having spent quite a long time touring around the world and living a bit in America and quite a lot of your life in the south of England, you have recently moved back to Scotland. Do you feel Scottish again?
JM: Yes I do. Yes, I do. Yeah it is very strange, but I do.
TD: Is that a good feeling too?
JM: Yes it is, yes it is. It is something that I would not have anticipated. I would never have imagined it would happen to a boy like me, but there you are. There's obviously something you always cherish and love.

TD: So I wonder whether you are playing the acoustic guitar again now. Will you get up in the morning and see the thing sitting over there, you know, I will have a little strumble at that.
JM: Yes I do play the acoustic guitar a bit these days. It may be time for it to come down of the wall, I suppose... It really depends... I really... I can't tell you how -what's the word- frustrating it got towards the end. Because it really was... I was so busy playing, that I'd be playing, I don't know, like six days a week, for a fortnight at a stretch. And then I'd get three days off and then do another fortnight at a stretch. And it just, with the best will in the world, unless I got utterly loaded and put myself through all kinds of dreadful tortures and abuses, I could not play as if I meant it, you know what I mean. I really could not, you understand. About three weeks into the tour, I was like, Oh Lord... And there's no-one but you, you see, and the guitar. That doesn't arise so much with a band, because if you are feeling a little listless or jaded or without some inspiration, there's always going to be one of you that has really got that little spark and can kick it into you, you know, just makes you play. It's like: Hey, come on, you don't feel that bad. And he hits the drums a little harder than normal or puts the bass just somewhere else. So it helps, you know, it's a nice contributive way of getting along. I enjoy it, it's good. I like playing with other musicians.

TD: Let's hear another track from the new album, Serendipity. What is this about?
JM: It's about Serendipity. I suppose it is a song for professional gamblers. The lyric is actually a servings match if you can hear it. The words they just never get are printed, I can assure you - printed on my new album.


classic john martyn..TD: Serendipity, John Martyn from Piece by Piece. John, does it bother you whether you are commercially successful now. I mean, do you want to sell a 100.000 albums or a million albums, you know. Is that an issue with you?
JM: Why only a million, cheapskate! {laughs} Has to be a minimum of ten million, thank you. Of course, I'd love to, wouldn't it be fabulous to be rich, oh! dear me... But it's not a paramount importance, by no means. I mean I'm very happy and I always enjoy... -The only thing I dread... I don't really have any great ambitions still, I mean vast ambitions. Of course I would like to get through to a lot more people. That would be interesting. And I suppose the money would come in handy as I said.
TD: But when we listen to a song like Lonely Love which we heard earlier, I think you can forgive us for thinking, Hello, that's a record that is going to get American FM airplay...
JM: Good! Wonderful. Well this is fine then and great, does it. In that case we have accomplished half our objects. I mean, Lonely Love is really a little pop song. I think that's the only one on the album that's actually a little pop song. It could be... I don't know... I'd like to hear someone feminine and black singing it. A black American lady would be fine... Aretha Franklin, there you are, Aretha Franklin had to do it.

TD: How far would you go, if pressed by the record company. I mean, are you going to make some fancy conceptual videos?
JM: I would love to! Yeah, I'd like to get involved. I mean, it would be interesting to make a single, I think. The one time I ever tried to make a single is of a Bob Dylan song. We went and did it in a day. Whereas it wasn't a hit single, actually I suppose it may have been really. That's going to pop out, at some point...
TD: Is this Tight Connection...
JM: Tight Connection, yeah. We did that in a morning. So I can't help thinking, if someone actually produced a song for you and said: Make this into a hit record, one could do it quite easily I suppose. It was the first time I have ever tried to do that, you know, very quickly and stuff. You get the words on Friday and Saturday morning, you are going to do it. It's good fun. Good way to work.

TD: Now what about touring? You have mentioned that you are looking forward to getting back on the road. And you are going to spend a lot of this year touring, aren't you?
JM: At least half of it, yes.
TD: Do you expect to see in the audience there, some of the faces that might have seen you at festivals in 1970?
JM: Yes! {laughing} That happens quite a lot!
TD: Or are they going to bring their kids....
JM: {laughs} Yes of course! And the terrible thing is that they all look so old, you see. 'Remember me, I was at Glastonbury in 1974!' - Oh? Were you? Good Lord! But, eleven years ago, you can't be, you fool. -You know, that sort of gear switching. I do see... There are various towns... I know I am going to meet Big George in Newcastle, you know what I mean, or Wee Singer in Nottingham. That's quite a nice thing, really.

tour program...TD: If the audiences are family, then in a sense the record company is. Because although you whizzed away for a while to naughty old WEA, you're back on Island now. Does that give you a feeling of security? Do you feel that you are indulged?
JM: It's much more comfortable with a... I would not say I was indulged, no. I wouldn't say I was indulged. I just feel more comfortable... To be honest, I don't fraternize with the record company much if you know what I mean. I never have done, I mean, I think in the first five years I was with Island I was in the office twice. It's not a thing that interests me. As I get older, it does, certainly because I am more curious. It is a whole area that I have always taken for granted. And then, as you get older, you start to think like: Good Heavens, hold on, people actually are controlling this. You know, this is actually people working together and therefore an interesting sociological idea, if nothing else. I check it out a bit more, but I was never that close.
TD: You're an Island...
JM: Indulged, yes, I feel very comfortable.
TD: You're an Island mascot, in a way, they say at least, because...
JM: {loud laugh} Do you hear that, Chris? {laughing} Stick it on the front of the roller! Gold plating...
TD: There you are; you were the first white signing to what was then a reggae label, Chris Blackwell...
JM: Showed excellent taste if you ask me!
TD: Well he must be very fond of you because of the position that you occupy now, I think.
JM: Let's hope so...
TD: Perhaps he might have signed Roy Harper or somebody...
JM: {starts laughing}
TD: But fortunately it was you. Right.

TD: Finally, John, the magnum opus...
JM: Oh dear! Oh dear!
TD: ... on this particular record is this very strange thing called John Wayne. Eh -it's about John Wayne?
JM: {laughing} Yes it is!
TD: It seems about a few other things. Is it about America?
JM: No, no, no really. It's about vari... It's a bit of a... It started out... Strange enough, I had this terrible feeling of chagrin, not to mention rage, with an acquaintance of mine. I very rarely feel righteously indignant, it's one of those things, because I'm not often right, you see, so I can't be {laughs}. So I am righteously indignant. I really did feel hard done by, so I was sitting down, writing this song, thrashing away with a fuss box, making these dreadful angry noises. Chickety ching, chickety wang! Whizzle. Halfway through all these sort of dreadful threatening lyrics, like: I am coming to get you, I'm breathing down your neck, I'll get you, you swine, the spanner who blighted my life and all that sort of stuff. And I suddenly saw the funny side of it and thought, wait a second, you sound like Rooster Cockburn being John Wayne. And once that idea got through to me, it was like... No, it's a kind of a satire of John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and all that sort of nonsense. All that flag-waving, apple pie and turkey stuff. 'Turkey' being the operative word there...

TD: Well John, thanks for talking to us. Just looking back over the twenty years, if you had to pick one album apart from the new one as your favourite, which one would it be?
JM: {timid} Ah, I would have to say Grace and Danger.
TD: Thank you, here's John Wayne.

[John Wayne]