In the latest of our 'Mavericks' series, Classic Rock meets up with famously 'unpredictable' singer, John Martyn. Better known for his drunken exploits than for his surprisingly sensitive songs, Andy Robson tracks the on-off career of a British folk-rock legend.
Then there was the time Danny Thompson, the ex-Pentangle/ John McLaughlin bassist, nailed Martyn under the carpet. 'I'd passed out after a few beers on the floor,' he recalls laughingly. 'I'd been there all night, and was so dehydrated. I came round and couldn't move, he'd got me nailed down so tight. I'm going, 'Danny, give me a drink of water', but did he? Did he tuck... I dunno why he did it. I was just an innocent Jock abroad!'
And John Martyn fires off a volley of laughter that threatens to shatter the glass of the little room that Sony Music have squeezed him into; a giant ship of a man squeezed into a tiny bottle of a room. Exquisite musician he may be, with a guitar style as beautiful as it is inimitable and a voice as wild as geese heading south for the winter, but Martyn is happier talking about good times with good mates rather than getting serious about music and the muse. 'Get too serious and you're doomed,' he chuckles, squeezing off another Bud like a kid swigging orange during half time at the footie.
Fans might suggest Martyn has never taken himself seriously enough. In a world where half-baked talents rake in the Yankee Dollar, many people remain in the dark about Martyn's luxurious gifts, just as they do about his singer-songwriter contemporaries like Roy Harper. There's a strange irony that while Americana twang rock has led to a renaissance of the singer-songwriter in the USA, the only Brits to receive any credit are those long dead, like Nick Drake, another old mucker from Martyn's from crazed 1970s days.
But it was precisely in the dark that a whole new audience has just been introduced to John Martyn. If you're one of the saddos who sit through every end credit of a movie, down to the second assistant sausage shover for the best boy and grip, you would have been suddenly shocked, as Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley trailed off into the darkness, by the melancholic roar of a wounded bear. This was Martyn's typically emotive rendering of the bitter-sweet 'You Don't Know What Love Is', delivered in a voice so powerful, yet tender, so slurred in delivery, yet so articulate in its emotion, that the film's jazz arranger, Guy Barker, describes Martyn favourably as 'a male Billy Holiday'.
It's not the kind of accolade a hard-nosed jazz pro like Barker gives out easily. Nor, indeed, does a director like Minghella, famed for the sense of detail that brought him an Oscar for The English Patient and armed with a multi-million dollar budget, to seek out Martyn.
With his money, Minghella got the voice of one of the great British musical mavericks; an almost unique talent who has spanned the best of rock, folk and jazz for 30 years, yet refuses to be identified with any of these labels. John Martyn has always gone his own way, for better, more than once for worse, creating a music that rock gods from Paul Kossoff to Eric Clapton have loved. Yet ironically, Martyn remains, to quote the name of one of his own albums, a 'Well Kept Secret'.
'I should have been a doctor. I'd have been a good doctor,' smiles Martyn. But rock'n'roll was always going to get him. Both his parents sang professionally, in light opera, which may explain the theatrical style which is never far from Martyn. Sadly, his parents separated when John was only five.
'I'm the child of a broken family,' he wails, head in hands in best Victorian melodrama style, defying you to talk seriously about his smashed-up childhood. While Mum remained in the stockbroker belt south east, Dad returned to Glasgow, where John was brought up by a close relative. Weekdays in 1960s urban Glasgow, dominated by the shipyards, granite tenements and footie, contrasted with weekend fishing trips with Dad, and holidays down south with Mum on idyllic English rivers.
It's such stark divisions between Scotland and England and, later, the comforts of home and the temptations of the road, that run through Martyn's work. His struggle with extremes is the dynamic that gives his music such an emotional pull. The divisions were apparent as early as his debut 1968 album, 'London Conversation', where, barely out of his teens, the fresh-faced folk troubadour sat not amid fields of swaying corn, but among a crop of steepling brick chimneys.
I've often thought of faking my own death and watching
the record companies fucking drum up all the shit they can...'
Martyn on the improved status of the dead.
These apparently irreconcilable differences are reflected in Martyn's own speech patterns. Generally, as he's down south right now, he talks in a faint estuary English. But he'll violently handbrake turn into a broad Glaswegian accent, swerve back 'sarf' as he embraces lavish mock cockney tones before tripping off even further south to fulminate as a hellfire Delta preacher. For good measure, he throws in mean chicano and impressive Jamaican yardie accents. It's not that Martyn doesn't know who he is with all these voices; it's more that Martyn is a choir of different characters, not all of whom chime harmoniously with each other all of the time.
Martyn's search for a voice began at the age of 15 when he heard Joan Baez sing 'Silver Dagger'. It was 1964, and the American acoustic folk and protest boom was at its peak. But it wasn't the political edge that grabbed Martyn. 'I just thought, 'Cor, what a nice sound, how do you do that?' It was legendary Scottish folkie Hamish Imlach who largely answered the question, explaining guitar basics to the young Martyn. Davey Graham, a virtuoso guitarist who busked around Europe and North Africa sucking in all the influences, was another inspiration. But it was as part of the rampant Glasgow folk scene that Martyn was to meet cockney Clive Palmer, the influence behind the Incredible String Band.
'Clive is one of my heroes, a moral hero, who eschewed -good word huh?- fame and fortune. He still plays, as sweetly as ever, but not for money,' explains Martyn. In the mid-1960s, Palmer opened Martyn's ears to music beyond the finger-in-your-ear parochialism of Scottish folk. 'Alex Campbell and Imlach were playing all this 'endemic' pro-Scottish, anti-English folk music. Nothing wrong with that, but Clive and the Incredible String Band embraced all this other stuff. He made it all right to listen to stuff that wasn't 'pure'.'
Martyn and Palmer shared music, good times and bugger-all money. 'He had this flat in Coronation Buildings 1, Edinburgh,' recalls Martyn. 'We had no money for heating, so we pitched a tent in his front room. We went busking but it was too cold to play. Coming home, we took a short cut through the Royal Highland Show, this top agricultural show. And there's this big, fucking, top ram called 'The Pride Of Culloden'. And suddenly Clive's got this knife and kills it stone dead. So there's the two of us, like Burke and Hare, dragging this ram home. You want to try butchering a thing like that in the bath. Hamish Imlach, Archie Fisher, Josh Macrae - we all had ram chops for weeks!'
Diet didn't improve much when Palmer and Martyn lived together. The pair 'shared a house', which Martyn describes as: '..a shed actually, in Cumbria. There was no electricity, no running water, but we played all day. You walked out the front and there was nothing. Just the moor. And a spring for your water. Fine days.'
When Martyn started performing in London whilst staying at his mum's place, the days turned brighter. In 1967, he was spotted performing at a folk club on the Thames and landed a recording deal with Chris Blackwell's then fledgling Island label. Island was still principally a reggae label back then, but Blackwell threw his net wide to include rockers like Free, Stevie Winwood and Traffic. All were soon to contribute to Martyn's sound - so too were more obviously folk-oriented artists like Fairport Convention. Like Martyn, the latter were under the wing of Joe Boyd's Witchseason management.
Boyd's role was crucial in the creation of the British rock scene of the late 1960s; the birth of folk-rock in particular. Having discovered the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (a seminal influence on Carlos Santana for one) and facilitated their infamous 'Dylan Goes Electric' Newport Folk Festival gig, Boyd came to England to run Elektra's London office. Apart from giving early opportunities to Clapton and Winwood, he helped organise the notorious UFO club, which touted the talents of Pink Floyd and Soft Machine. But it was as producer of Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and Nick Drake that Boyd carved out a unique niche for himself.
So it was a heady brew of musical influences that Martyn found himself mainlining. And he loved it. 'These guys are saying, 'Do you want to make a record?' - and then suddenly money came into it. How do you think I felt? Top of the shitheap, cock of the rock, thank you very much!'
All that was needed to complete the idyll of youth was love - and in 1969 Martyn married Beverley Kutner, a Joe Boyd-signed singer. They were an item professionally as well as romantically and in no time at all Warners flew them to Woodstock. As 'John and Beverley Martyn' they recorded 'Stormbringer' with Crosby, Stills & Nash producer Paul Harris. Suddenly Martyn was rubbing shoulders with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention and The Band.
'Going to the States was a real eye opener,' he recalls. 'Levon [Helm of The Band] was hired as the drummer. He appeared with a melon the size of a house and a knife and a beard down to here. I thought, 'Is he taking the piss or what?' But he was genuine and I love him for it. I loved The Band, my favourite American band, but what a catalogue of disasters! Rick Danko must have been 26 stone when he died, and was only five foot two inches with his hands in the air! Levon has throat cancer and the last time I saw Garth he was transposing Bach on to his computer.'
But contrary to the myth, The Band didn't introduce the young folkie to the delights of the electric guitar. 'No, I got myself into it after I'd fallen in with a bunch of chicanos,' he recalls. 'We were going to be a pre-Santana Latin band, and they introduced me to Pharoah Sanders' records. I'd been listening to all this 'fol de rol lah di dah' and suddenly there's this guy roaring and wailing away and that opened my mind like you wouldn't believe. Fuck me, it was gorgeous. I wanted that roar and sustain, like you got with Pharoah's saxophone. But I was too old to learn the sax, which is why I got the fuzz pedal and Echoplex.'
I begged them not to let him go out on the road,
you knew he was going to die....
Martyn on the late Paul Kossoff
The introduction of the electric guitar and associated gizmos arrived with a vengeance on the 'Solid Air' and 'Inside Out' albums, both released in 1973. By now, the Woodstock dream was shattered. The writing/ recording process with his wife hadn't worked; Beverley's own career largely went on the backburner with three youngsters to care for, one by a previous relationship, and Spencer and Mahri by John. Other collaborations with Paul Wheeler, trying to create a modern 'English' sound also foundered. Martyn's best working partners were to be a bottle and a beat box.
The early 1970s were the best and worst of times for Martyn. He enjoyed family love, cult success and a seaside home in Sussex. But as an artist, the pressures of performing, staying true to a vision yet delivering the goods that record companies and a music press were demanding became a heavier burden. Martyn saw the toll it was taking on his neighbour and label-mate Nick Drake. The result was 1973's 'Solid Air', now rightfully regarded as Martyn's masterpiece. Dark, soulful, with Danny Thompson's bass yawning and soaring throughout, the title track is about Nick Drake as far as any song is about another artist - equally it's a testament to all those who create without getting due recognition.
The irony is hardly lost on Martyn. Decades later Drake is canonized - he died a year after the release of 'Solid Air' - and though he wouldn't point this out himself, Martyn's own work remains largely unrecognised.
'I don't want to talk about Nick. It's creepy, ghoulish and strange; this lionisation is too late when you're dead. If they'd dug him enough then, he'd still be here now. I've often thought of faking my own death and watching the record companies fucking drum up all the shit they can...'
Martyn is equally passionate about the loss of Paul Kossoff. Martyn played on the Free guitarist's 'Backstreet Crawler' 'comeback', while Kossoff played often with Martyn, although he's notably absent from 'Live At Leeds', which remains a firm favourite for Martyn fans. Released in 1975, 'Live At Leeds' was available via mail order only, or the story used to be that you could obtain a copy by knocking at John's front door!
'I loved Kossie's playing. Free were real founders of heavy metal rock'n'roll. But nice people, really funky, they never lost sight of real life. But when Koss was playing with me, he wasn't doing too well, abusing himself. In the studio, nine times out of ten he'd be cool, but live he'd get lost a bit. I wrote 'Dead On Arrival' about him. I begged them not to let him go out on the road, you knew he was going to die...'.
And suddenly Martyn assumes his best stiff upper lip public school voice: 'All very depressing, that sort of stuff,' he says. 'Don't like it... Kossie was lovely. Even my wife thought he was lovely and she didn't like musicians...'
'Lionisation is too late when you're dead.
If they'd dug him then, he'd still be here now.'
- Martyn on Nick Drake.
Despite the critical acclaim for 'Solid Air' and the equally extraordinary 'Inside Out', by the mid-1970s, Martyn himself found himself in a mess. Promoters were unable to find an appropriate tour slot for him.
'Supporting Yes? Fuck knows why I was doing that. Clapton [who covered Martyn's poignant 'May You Never' on 'Slowhand'] gave me half an hour and paid me extra if I got off stage on time... but in a way, touring like that frees you up something wicked. All the groupies are waiting for the superstar main band and you're done and ready...' He grins, part pirate rogue, part cheeky little boy.
But the costs were real. The booze and drugs intake was rising and family life was disintegrating. By the mid-1970s, Martyn realised things had to change. 'I'd decided to retire,' he recalls. 'I'd over-worked myself and wasn't happy. The family was suffering from my continued absence. So Chris [Blackwell] said, 'Go to Jamaica'.
'But, of course, boredom set in. I fell in with 'Scratch' Perry [dub-meister extraordinaire behind the Upsetter label] and did sessions for him. Scratch was the most full-on character I ever met. He'd give you a choice of how you wanted to be paid: blue movies or bottles of Tia Maria. Lovely but mad.'
Out of this first real exposure to black music came what Martyn, depending on his mood, has described as his most satisfying album, 'One World'. Perry even gets a writing credit on the scary 'Big Muff, an echo-soaked ditty on excess. It's a testament to Martyn's ability to synthesise sounds that as well as the dub influence, musicians as disparate as Dave Pegg (Fairport Convention), Danny Thompson, John Stevens (a way-weird jazz drummer), Stevie Winwood and, er, Tristan Fry (Sky) all coalesce on a gorgeous record.
But Martyn has never lacked musical buddies. 'Everything that's always gone wrong in my life I blame on Phil Collins. He told me I should buy this computer that makes rabbits disappear up its whatsit. I'm meant to have written the last album on it, but after 18 months of going, 'plink plonk' on this machine I lose half the tracks!' The new album is 'Glasgow Walker', due in May but hung over from the end of the last millennium.
But it's not the only album Collins has put his influence into. 'Grace And Danger', released in 1980, was famously recorded with both Collins and Martyn's marriages in freefall. Again, with Collins on drums, the album showed that Martyn had changed direction while making musical gold from his troubled life. But Island held back its release, just as Blackwell wouldn't put out 'Live At Leeds'. A label change followed and Martyn was repackaged as an AOR star for the 1980s by Warners.
He bridles somewhat at the suggestion of his image change. 'I was always a sharp dresser. I was a Mod before I ever picked up the guitar!' However, Martyn fronting a fusion band in a white suit was a long way from the tousled-haired Tumbler. As commercially successful as the Collins-produced follow-up, 'Glorious Fool', or indeed, 'Well Kept Secret', many longtime fans felt that Martyn's new style was moving away from them. The Robert Palmer-produced 'Sapphire' (released in 1984) received praise but featured little of Martyn's signature guitar.
Nowadays, Martyn has no intention of giving up the search for his own unique voice. 'It's strange. A lot of people who like my music will not accept the fact that I like to change. When I stopped wearing jeans and playing acoustic, got the suit and band, there were girls in tears saying: 'John, don't change'. Well, on the new album you'll find mixed beats and hip hop rhythms.'
If the music changes, the underlying passions do not. But he laughs at the idea that there's any comparison between him and Ripley in the movie - a musician who has to kill to gain a rich lifestyle. 'I've sympathy with someone who wings their way through life. But I wouldn't go as far as murdering someone.'
These days, Martyn hopes his new deal with Independiente will be happier than his time with Permanent in the 1990s which was dogged over the release of 'Greatest Hits' packages and re-recordings of old material. He's intent on enjoying his Scottish home, swimming and the odd beer. He may never be a superstar, but he's proved himself over time, earning the one thing you really can't buy: love.
The man himself sums it up very well. 'The music industry isn't an intellectual challenge, 'he says. 'But it is a moral challenge. If you can come through it clean, and live with yourself, then you're cool. But most musicians are a bunch of tossers. They think they're God's gift but half of them can't play a damn thing...'
Which is one accusation you couldn't possibly try to stick on Big John.
John Martyn sings 'You Don't Know What Love Is' on the music from the motion picture The Talented Mr Ripley, Sony Classical SK 53117.
1 sitenote: John is referring to the Society Buildings on Chambers Street.
ESSENTIAL JOHN MARTYN SOUNDS
Classic Rock delivers an invaluable guide to John Martyn's key album releases - from the early 1970s up to the present day.
1971 'Bless The Weather'
* * * * *
Four solid but hardly sensational albums didn't prepare the world for Martyn's imaginative leap, mixing a Tim Buckley-like vocal ecstasy with rock guitar gadgetry. Danny Thompson underscores it all with deep, glow-in-the-dark bass.
1973 'Solid Air'
* * * * *
Much more than an ode to Nick Drake. Fairports' Pegg, Mattacks, Thompson and Bundrick all help out, plus Tony (Colosseum) Reeves' sexy sax. Every track stands out but favourites are the slurred yearning of the title track, the boisterous 'Over The Hill', the diabolic 'I'd Rather Be The Devil'. Never be without a copy of this classic.
1973 'Inside Out'
* * * * *
'My insides coming out,' is how Martyn liked to describe this vision of excess. 'Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail' is Gaelic folk percolated through Hendrix's feedback-drenched 'Star Spangled Banner'. Other icons of excess like Bobby Keyes revel in the burning indulgence, while Stevie Winwood and bits of Traffic try to maintain order before giving up and ripping it up too.
1975' Sunday's Child'
* * * * *
Suddenly it's sunshine and happiness. Kind of. For every lyric lullaby like, 'My Baby Girl', there's the fear in the bottom of a bottle that's 'Sunday's Child', or the loneliness of love that is 'One Day Without You'. This is Martyn's forgotten masterpiece.
1975 'Live At Leeds'
* * * * *
Chris Blackwell wouldn't release it so this became the most desired mail order 'official bootleg' of every sheepskin wearing 1970s student. More people claim to have bought this album personally from Martyn than actual copies were pressed. Martyn's playing is cosmic. Sometimes the drugs do work...
1977 'One World'
* * * * *
Back from Jamaica, back from retirement, but never far from the dark places. Greenpeaceniks never seem to get further than the title. But beneath the warm dub vibe lies the drug hell of 'Dealer' and the desperate clinging to love of 'Couldn't Love You More.' One World, yup, but it's cold and lonely groans Martyn.
1980 'Grace And Danger'
* * * * *
Held back by Island because they believed it would be drowned by punk, the coalition with Phil Collins actually predicted 1980s balladry and 'adult' rock fairly accurately. As the sorrowful pair go through the mutual assured destruction of divorce, Johnny Too Bad wallows but never quite loses it, especially on 'Sweet Little Mystery'. 'Some People Are Crazy' indeed.
1993 'No Little Boy'
* * * * *
Re-recordings of well-loved songs can often offend rather than delight punters. But this is a surprisingly successful revisit. It is a remix and re-recording of 'Couldn't Love You More', Permanent's original version of a project which Martyn didn't authorise.
1994 'Sweet Little Mysteries: The Island Anthology' (Island)
* * * * *
Easily the best intro to Martyn in his Island heyday, reminding you that even uneven albums like 'Sapphire' and 'Piece By Piece' still include gems, notably 'Fisherman's Dream' and 'Angeline' respectively.
1998 'The Church With One Bell' (Independiente)
* * * * *
A fiery return to form with an album of covers, Martyn has always shown a slanted take on others material ('Singin' In The Rain', 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow') and now his voice roars through material by everyone from Billy Holiday to Portishead.
Avoid with extreme prejudice any Permanent/ Artful 'Best Of..' collections. And, yeah, okay, 'Road To Ruin' is really good too...
This story was a feature in The Mavericks series and went uncredited on the cover. It carried some nice pictures.
Classic Rock #18 from September 2000 also printed a small picture of John on the cover, announcing a 'classic live track'. In fact the accompanying CD featured May You Never from the Live album, as having been rereleased on the Live '91 compilation (released 31 July 2000).