'That Man Who's Always Singing...' | A John Martyn Profile

Date: 
25 Jun 2012
Written by: 
'Jet' Martin Celmins
This 2 CD set features rare John Martyn live performances and studio sessions from the '70s, '80s and '90s. The songs included here on this 2 CD set make Remembering John Martyn a mini-retrospective of Martyn's prolific musical career - a career that began with traditional folk but soon ventured into freeform jazz-blues and other styles of music that where to influence John Martyn in his long musical career prior to his sad passing in January 2009.

The musicians accompanying John Martyn on these recordings include Dave Gilmour, Phil Collins, Gerry Conway, Paul Kossoff and Danny Thompson. They create different atmospheres and a variety of textures for which John Martyn concerts are renowned for.

Variety ranging from a duo (with Thompson on upright bass) on a 1986 recording of One Day Without You ... to a three guitars-keyboards-bass-drums-percussion-backing vocals line up on a 1993 live performance of Head And Heart ... to a two guitars-two pianos-synth-viola-bass-drums ensemble on Bless The Weather.

Ever changing John Martyn was a chameleon, never boring always looking to change and inspire.

 

"THAT MAN WHO'S ALWAYS SINGING..."
A JOHN MARTYN PROFILE

John Martyn was a day-in day-out singer who from a child lived in a tiny Scottish village where he owned a converted church. It was his base and place of work... as John himself put it once, "whereas some people keep diaries... I write songs".

During his some forty years in the business John Martyn was also described as a folk-hippie, carouser, troubadour, and even curmudgeonly (or ornapcious, as the Scottish would say). Martyn was a man prone to speak his mind, regardless, and a man seemingly driven by his fear of boredom and predictability.

By his mid-twenties (he was born in 1948) he'd made several acclaimed albums - notably Solid Air- for Chris Blackwell's Island label, and was living the rock'n'roll lifestyle full-tilt. Enough so, to believe that he would be able to quit the music business by the time he reached 35: "I don't see myself staggering about till I drop." Another 'near-miss' retirement came in 1976 when -exhausted by constant gigging- Martyn took a sabbatical in Jamaica and was intent on giving up music in order to concentrate on another passion of his - gambling. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't long before Jamaica's musical main men (eg Burning Spear, Max Romeo, and Lee Perry) drew Martyn into their fold.1

 

THE STORY...

A typically eccentric episode in the John Martyn Story goes back to the early-1980s. Suddenly this reluctant rock star just took off to Moscow. [Nb: it transpires that this was Moscow near Kilmarnock, and not the Soviet capital.] Here Martyn spent some time basking in the anonymity of being a street-corner busker and earning his daily bread by husking classics such as Donovan's Catch The Wind. (This, from a man who regarded the whole 1960s pop folksinger scene as a bit too 'Val Doonican-esque').

Maybe this busking escapade was fuelled by boredom, but also possibly by John's lifelong love of blues-lore and that whole bygone era of black bluesmen singing for their next meal in places like Chicago's Maxwell Street. Remembering John Martyn features a blues classic. John's interpretation of Skip James' 'I'd Rather Be The Devil' as well as additional 1950s blues men Snooks Eaglin and Robert Johnson who were big influences on Martyn.

Although he grew up in Glasgow, school-holidays were spent down South in Kingston, Surrey with his mum, after his parents (both opera singers) split up when he was five. By the time that he first took up guitar, aged 17, John Martyn had heard a lot of Debussy, jazz and traditional Scottish folk music and as an aspiring and soon-to-be-noticed guitarist, young John's key influences included Davey Graham's East-meets-West approach to guitar playing as well as the clean finger style playing of Joan Baez.

Scottish traditional folkie Hamish Imlach encouraged Martyn to experiment with melding modern and trad music; another influence was Incredible String Band founder Clive Palmer (who shared a house with John in Cumbria's Alston in the mid-1960s). Palmer was a student of traditional banjo folk music and when he ventured down to London, teenager John already was clued-up with rare hand-me-down musical knowledge and soon became a welcome new face on the acoustic scene. Its focus was Les Cousins coffee-bar which was home from home for guitarist-songwriters such as Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham and Al Stewart who in late-1968 produced John's second album The Tumbler.

The move to London also meant the discovery of black ska music for this Vespa-scooting mod. In fact, Martyn was the first white solo artist on the reggae-focused Island label when Chris Blackwell signed him in late-1967. Of course, just a couple of years later Island was to become the home of white-boy folk-rock and blues-rock with a roster which included Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull and Free.

Martyn's 1967 debut album and 1968 follow-up are now curios from another era of studio recording: London Conversation came out in mono only and The Tumbler was reportedly recorded in an afternoon for under £ 200. With the second album John had already moved on from the one-man-and-guitar-versus-the-world groove, and was happily mapping out a blueprint for his kind of jazz-blues he wanted to play and record. Jazz flautist Harold McNair as well as a drummer and bass player completed the instrumentation for his second album The Tumbler.

This jazz connection marked John out in an era of greased-lightning guitar heroes. Instead, John Martyn was from the speed-kills school where less is more, or as your man himself once put it, "one right note saying more than fretful of wrongs".

The musical mentor who fired up John's imagination to go for sustained single notes on guitar was saxophonist Pharoah Sanders: listening to his Karma album eventually led Martyn to the Echoplex effect, which became one of his trademarks. Later cuts such as Glistening Glyndebourne, Inside Out and Sunday's Child feature fine Echoplex texturing (the Echoplex sound also became a big influence on U2's guitarist, the Edge). Remembering John Martyn includes many fine Echoplex moments, but a live performance of Outside In captures John -the soundscapist- at his spaciest and smokiest.

John Martyn's Stormbringer album from 1969 was a turning point for him in all sorts of ways. Musically, the turning point was a move away from acoustic guitar and its accepted phrasing and sound.

Romantically Martyn had also met and married Coventry singer Beverley Kutner. Initially, John had been booked as her back-up guitarist but then the pair landed a deal with Warner Brothers who had financed their Woodstock appearance/ experience. While living in Woodstock Village John met Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, and it was there that he and Beverley rehearsed material for Stormbringer which was recorded in New York with Paul Harris, producer of Doors records and John Sebastian.

The Band were also staying down the road from Martyn in a communal home called Big Pink. Their ground-breaking debut album Music From Big Pink inspired him to search for new guitar sound. The improvising on Stormbringer was seen as a definite step forward when it came out in February 1970. John made a second album with Beverley: The Road To Ruin, which also saw the beginning of a lasting and crucial musical partnership with Pentangle's bass player Danny Thompson.

As Beverley concentrated on being a mum to their two young children, John went into the studio to record Bless The Weather and was accompanied by folk guitar hero Richard Thompson (ex-Fairport Convention) and jazz-rock musicians such as Tony Reeves (Colosseum) and Roger Powell (Mighty Baby).

John brought in most of Fairport Convention for his 1973 critically-acclaimed Solid Air album but the track May You Never failed as a single release for the songwriter however Eric Clapton's cover of the song was to become a highpoint of his 1977 Slowhand album.

The title track Solid Air Martyn had written for Nick Drake who was in a personal abyss at the time and John felt neither Drake nor another friend, ex-Free guitarist Paul Kossoff, were to last much longer - both were in their own way to end up as victims of the music business.2

The follow-up to Solid Air was the experimental LP Inside Out which consisted of spontaneous and often late-night jamming session recordings. Big names such as Stevie Winwood and Bobby Keys took part in these recordings

The subsequent 1970s studio albums Sunday's Child with Paul Kossoff guesting and One World saw John Martyn return to a more conventional approach to songwriting. Much of the latter project was borne of the Jamaica experience.

1980's Grace and Danger album saw John collaborating with Phil Collins when both musicians were going through marriage break-ups. Bassist on this project was Brand X's John Giblin who was much influenced by the harmonic bass playing style of Weather Report's Jaco Pastorius. Despite its musical excellence, Island Records' Chris Blackwell postponed the release of this album because he found it emotionally too disturbing. It was only after much cajoling from John that the record did it come out in October 1980.

The early 1980's also saw Martyn move to WEA and work again with Collins on what were to become two of his most commercially successful albums - Glorious Fool and Well Kept Secret. Returning to Island, for his next album, 1984's Sapphire, John worked closely with Robert Palmer.

1986's Piece By Piece LP would be his last release for Island. They parted company when he had already written most of his follow up album The Apprentice. Eventually released on Permanent in 1990 [it] saw John once more take his acoustic guitar to the sessions after a decade of playing electric only. In the early 1990s John toured and travelled - with frequent lengthy stays in Chicago. 1996's And album came out on Go Discs! and charted at 32.

In 1998 John brought out a collection of his interpretations of classic songs from all eras called The Church With One Bell - with royalties from this he bought a converted church up in Scotland.3

In 2004 John Martyn's journey continued despite health problems (a cyst in his leg caused circulation problems which eventually necessitated part of the limb to be amputated).

In July 2006 a documentary Johnny Too Bad was filmed and screened by the BBC. The programme documented the period surrounding the operation to amputate Martyn's right leg below the knee (the result of a burst cyst) and the writing and recording of the album On the Cobbles.

On 4 February 2008, Martyn received [a] lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards. The award was presented by his friend Phil Collins. The BBC website said of Martyn, "his heartfelt performances have either suggested or fully demonstrated an idiosyncratic genius." Eric Clapton was quoted as saying that Martyn was "so far ahead of everything, it's almost inconceivable." Martyn performed Over The Hill and May You Never at the ceremony, with John Paul Jones accompanying on mandolin.

John Martyn was appointed OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours.

John Martyn sadly died on 29 January 2009, in hospital in Ireland, as a result of pneumonia. His death was announced by his friend John Hillarby on the official website: "With heavy heart and an unbearable sense of loss we must announce that John died this morning."

Not much more can be added to the tributes paid to the late great John Martyn than that paid by his fellow friend and musician Phil Collins:
"John's passing is terribly, terribly sad. I had worked with and known him since the late 1970s and he was a great friend. He was uncompromising, which made him infuriating to some people, but he was unique and we'll never see the likes of him again. I loved him dearly and will miss him very much."

'Jet' Martin Celmins
May 2012

muffnote:
This piece is an adapted and updated version of the booklet that came with Mad Dog Days.

1 It is more likely that Island boss Chris Blackwell introduced John to these reggae artists.
2 Unsure whether this claim can be substantiated. I never read John had Paul Kossoff in mind, too, when writing Solid Air.
3 Not quite. The church was bought by the record company for John.

 

SESSION DATES: DISC 1
1 BIG MUFF John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Spencer Cozens (keyboards) Alan Thomson (bass), Dave Lewis (saxophone), Miles Bould (percussion), Dave Gilmour (guest guitar) The Shaw Theatre, London - 31st March 1990
2 LOOK AT THE GIRL John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Foss Paterson (keyboards), Arran Ahmun (drums), Andy Sheppard (saxophone), Danny Cummings (percussion, backing vocals), Danusia (backing vocals) Cava Studios, Glasgow - 1988
3 FINE LINES John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Spencer Cozens (keyboards), Bobby Lewis (flugelhorn), Gerry Conway (drums), Alan Thompson (bass), Miles Bould (percussion) Studio - 1993
4 LOOKIN' ON John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Spencer Cozens (keyboards), Alan Thompson (bass), Dave Lewis (saxophone), Miles Bould (percussion), Dave Gilmour (guest guitar) The Shaw Theatre, London - 31st March 1990
5 HEAD AND HEART John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Jim Tullio (acoustic guitar), Bill Rupert (electric guitar), Alan Thompson (bass), Spencer Cozens: Bob Rans (keyboards), Gerry Conway (Drums), Miles Bould: Paul Lam (percussion), Cheryl Wilson: Shaun Christopher: Rene Stewart (backing vocals) Studio - 1993
6 JOHNNY TOO BAD John Martyn (vocals:guitar) & band Town & Country Club, London - 13th November 1986
7 THE MOMENT John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Foss Paterson (keyboards), Arran Ahmun (drums), Danny Cummings (percussion:backing vocals), Danusia (backing vocals) Cava Studios, Glasgow - 1988
8 BLESS THE WEATHER John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Bill Rupert (guitar), Bob Rans: Fred Nelson (pianos), Wayne Stewart (drums), John Giblin (bass), Chris Cameron (synth), Cheryl Wilson (viola) Studio -1993
9 MAD DOG DAYS John Martyn (vocals:guitar) & band Town & Country Club - London 13th November 1986
10 PASCANEL John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Bill Rupert (guitar), Fred Nelson (piano), Chris Cameron (synth), Tony Brown (bass), Wayne Stewart (drums), Mark Walker (percussion) Studio - 1993
11 WAYS TO CRY John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Phil Collins (vocals), Dave Gilmour (guitar), Gerry Conway (drums), Spencer Cozens: Bob Rans (keyboards), Gerry Underwood (saxophone) Miles Bould (percussion), Cheryl Wilson: Shaun Christopher: Rene Stewart (backing vocals) Studio - 1993
12 COULDN'T LOVE YOU MORE John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Spencer Cozens (keyboards), Alan Thompson (bass), Dave Lewis (saxophone), Miles Bould (percussion), Dave Gilmour (guest guitar) The Shaw Theatre - London 31st March 1990
13 NEVER LET ME GO John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Andy Sheppard (saxophone), Alan Thompson (bass), Spencer Cozens (keyboards), John Henderson (drums) Live Bristol - 1991

 

SESSION DATES: DISC 2
1 ONE DAY WITHOUT YOU John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Danny Thompson (bass) Live Germany - 1986
2 OUTSIDE IN John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Danny Thompson (bass), John Stevens (drums) Leeds University - October 1975
3 I'D RATHER BE THE DEVIL John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Danny Thompson (bass) Live Germany -1986
4 MAN IN THE STATION John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Danny Thompson (bass), Arran Ahmun (drums) Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal - 1986
5 MY BABY GIRL John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Danny Thompson (bass), John Stevens (drums), Paul Kossoff (guitar) Leeds University - October 1975
6 MAKE NO MISTAKE John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Danny Thompson (bass) Live Germany - 1986
7 OVER THE HILL John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Danny Thompson (bass), Arran Ahmun (drums) Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal - 1986
8 THE EASY BLUES John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Danny Thompson (bass), Arran Ahmun (drums) Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal - 1986
9 DEALER John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Danny Thompson (bass) Live Germany - 1986
10 YOU CAN DISCOVER John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Danny Thompson (bass), John Stevens (drums) Leeds University -13th February 1975
11 SPENCER THE ROVER John Martyn (vocals:guitar), Danny Thompson (bass), Arran Ahmun (drums) Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal - 1986
12 BLACK MAN AT YOUR SHOULDER John Martyn (vocals:guitar) & band - musicians unknown Woolwich Green Farm Studio, Theale - November 1977

 

DISC ONE
1. Big Muff 8.22
2. Look At The Girl 4.28
3. Fine Lines 4.17
4. Lookin' On 10.31
5. Head And Heart 3.56
6. Johnny Too Bad 6.41
7. The Moment 3.40
8. Bless The Weather 4.36
9. Mad Dog Days 5.30
10. Pascanel 4.24
11. Ways To Cry 4.58
12. Couldn't Love You More 5.12
13. Never Let Me Go 4.12
DISC TWO
1. One Day Without You 4.48
2. Outside In 18.18
3. I'd Rather Be The Devil 8.02
4. Man In The Station 3.22
5. My Baby Girl 2.38
6. Make No Mistake 4.01
7. Over The Hill 3.07
8. Easy Blues 2.49
9. Dealer 3.56
10. You Can Discover 3.51
11. Spencer The Rover 3.58
12. Black Man At
Your Shoulder
5.44