Individual and unpredictable are two choice adjectives both of which have been used to describe John Martyn's music. It is highly personalized, emotional, often raw and sometimes harsh and jarring but with an undeniably romantic streak underneath. Even in turbulent moments, the element of romance is always present beneath the suffering, and for every 'Big Muff' and 'Dealer' you have a 'Head And Heart' and a 'May You Never'.
John Martyn's name commands respect across the board from his early mentor the late Hamish Imlach to members of The Band, Steve Winwood, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Burning Spear, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and many more. His guitar style is fluid and agile with a finger picking acoustic technique learnt from Davey Graham and his electric work ripples with bluesy soul and funk undertones. His singing has grown from a clear youthful sound to a distinctive slurred growl with the emotional and spiritual depth of a John Coltrane or a Pharoah Sanders. John Martyn's music gathers a following of a wide age span from teenagers to those of a much older generation. People find his music, come through phases of loving it and go away to return again to find some new insight and inspiration therein.
John Martyn's career has passed through many phases. From the wide eyed acoustic troubadour, the wistful teenage romantic singer-songwriter to the demented genius pushing himself further down the paths of musical experimentation. From the settled family man, the sharp suited electric guitarist fronting a 6 piece band, the heavy drinking desperado, the beret wearing artiste, the contemplative Buddhist and finally to today a mature man of some 53 years ready to encounter what experiences still await him. His live stage persona constantly changes with his introductions covering everything from jive talk to colloquial jokes told in a broad Glasgow brogue.
The path of John Martyn's life reflects that same restlessness that characterizes his music, life choices and thought patterns. There is a constant restlessness within him that has seen him change both his music and lifestyle - it's like there is a hellhound on his trail and he's still running! This restlessness and constant yearning for change has seen him survive two marriages, numerous relationships, extended alcohol and drug dependency, and still emerge on the other side, older, wiser, more contemplative but still prone to walks on the wild side. His choice of places to live equally shows the restless side covering Glasgow and Lanarkshire in Scotland, London and Hastings in England, Woodstock in New York State, and the quiet village of Thomastown in Co. Kilkenny, in Southern Ireland.
John Martyn was born Iain MacGeachy on September 11th 1948 in New Malden, Surrey England. The only son of an opera singing couple who separated shortly when he was five, his early life was spent between England and Scotland before before music took over. His mother was a trained soprano while his father was a tenor and both of them had worked as a double act for a time. He heard an eclectic mix of music growing up from British Music Hall and Variety to Scottish Presbyterian Sunday afternoon music. Most of his childhood was spent in Glasgow where a close family relative brought him up. Every weekend his father used to take him to the Countryside and he spent his summers with his mother touring the river ways of Southern England on her houseboat. With regard to further musical connections within his immediate family, his cousin Kirk MacGeachy now lives in Montreal, Canada where he plays guitar and sings with a folk band Orealis who recorded two albums for Green Linnet Records.
These early experiences of parental separation and close contact with the countryside had a strong effect on him. He would spend time fishing by the sea and on houseboats created a lifelong fascination with moving water, the play of the ocean and also of the rivers and the lives that went with them. These childhood memories would later become an essential part of his songwriting technique supplying pungent imagery for many of his songs where lyrical details often fuse with image of separation and reconciliation.
Hearing Joan Baez's recording of the traditional ballad 'Silver Dagger' hooked the young John Martyn onto folk music. John first picked up a guitar when he was fourteen and on leaving school at seventeen entered the local folk scene in Glasgow under the patronage of Hamish Imlach. Hamish was a very popular club performer and became something of a father figure. He introduced him to a wealth of new contacts and musical experiences. Among the artists he encountered was the Incredible String Band who John found had very interesting ideas and were very funky players in those days. At the time John's musical ideas were influenced by guitarists like Davey Graham, black blues and soul sounds from the Stax and Chess labels especially Rev Gary Davis, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Big Bill Broonzy, and Snooks Eaglin. They introduced him to the possibilities of mixing traditional Gaelic folk music with contemporary instrumentation and comment drawing on a range of folk and ethnic styles ranging from ragtime to blues and country music.
John acknowledges Hamish Imlach as a "Mine of information on these things and who simultaneously introduced me to Socialism because that was the driving force at the time. Folk music was folk music; it was of the people and quite deliberately so." Through the socialist aspect John was introduced to many great black musicians. "We used to pool our money and bring over these great guys like Gary Davis to play at clubs in Glasgow." Clive Palmer who ran Clive's lncredible Folk Club in Sauchiehall Street and formed The lncredible String band with Robin Williamson and Mike Heron was another formative influence. He and John once lived in a shed in Alston, Cumbria for a period playing music and selling things from foreign parts for a living.
With this experience behind him John Martyn headed for London where he played the folk club circuit. His first gigs were on 'The Folk Barge', a folk club held on board a barge on the river Thames run by Theo Johnson. Through various connections he was signed to Island records and recorded his first album 'London Conversation' in 1967. Island was then concentrating on reggae, ska and blue beat with the odd album of risqué rugby songs but soon threw itself into the growing progressive music bandwagon signing acts like Free, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Spooky Tooth and Nirvana.
John Martyn's first recording was a simple vocal and guitar effort of mostly self penned songs with Dylan's 'Don't think twice it's alright', the traditional 'Cocaine' and Robin Frederick's 'Sandy Grey'. The signature complex guitar rhythms were in evidence and his link up with flautist Harold McNair for his second album 'The Tumbler' reflected his jazz learnings. In 1969 he had met Coventry born singer Beverley Kutner who became his wife. They recorded 'Stormbringer!' in Woodstock, New York with musicians drawn from The Band/ Blues Project, and 'The Road To Ruin' in London. 'Stormbringer!' was sterling folk/ blues/ acoustic rocks mix with romantic overtones with John and Beverley sharing vocal and writing duties. The title track of 'Stormbringer!' used the echoplex for the first time and also some subtle strings. 'The Road to Ruin' was a more rhythmic jazz tinged affair yet keeping the acoustic folk/ rock crossover intact. While both these records are essentially romantic in outlook and reflect their state of mind and relationship at the time there is a darker undercurrent floating through reflected in the bluesy 'Sweet Honesty' and the lyrics to 'Would You Believe Me?' on 'Stormbringer' and 'Say what you can' and the title track of 'The Road to Ruin' with its jazz-rock fadeout.
On John Martyn's return to solo work with 'Bless The Weather' in 1971 his most experimental phase began. He started to use echoplex and electronic effects with his acoustic guitar and his vocals became slurred with the phrasing of a jazz singer. The echoplex was purchased on his hearing of Terry Rileys 'A Rainbow in Curved Air'. John bought the fuzz box, the phase shifter and Echoplex and he explored texture, tone and volume, and this considerably altered his live and recorded sound. Now he was no longer another acoustic guitarist and singer/ songwriter but a potent musician working within a fusion field. He could explore a wider canvas of musical possibilities and create a dense complex mesh of electronic and acoustic styles. A sound that was to become his trademark, the quintessential John Martyn sound.
Both 'Bless The Weather' and 'Solid Air' outlined his pitch with music evoking a jazz/ blues/ folk mix and lyrics that blended romantic optimism with social concern. 'Solid Air' with its dark eerie passages equally laced with evocations of love and home life is considered a classic. The title track of 'Solid Air' was written for his neighbour Nick Drake and it retains a poignant compassion. John Martyn was now touring with ex Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson and was also devouring serious amounts of alcohol and hard drugs, cocaine, acid and heroin especially.
His next albums the Montreux Gold Disc winning 'Inside Out' and 'Sunday's Child' were equal opposites: the schizoid nature of 'Inside Out' blended romanticism and drug-fuelled hyperactivity in an acoustic/ electric jazz/ rock fusion format. Here he further explored the possibility of using his voice as another instrument and 'Inside Out' was in his own words 'Everything I ever wanted to do in music, it's my inside coming out it allowed me a vision into my half finished self. It was all heartfelt creative stuff.' 'Sunday's Child' celebrated family domesticity yet with a restless undercurrent.
The self-released 'Live at Leeds' album saw his improvisational mode with a band including jazz drummer Jon Stevens and guest guitarist Paul Kossoff. Defying a record company decision not to release a live album, John Martyn chose to sell 'Live at Leeds' from his home in Hastings personally signing each copy on despatch. He and Beverley lived in Hastings with their two children Spencer and Mhairy and Wesley, Beverley's son from a previous relationship.
However, the twin addictions to hard drugs and alcohol were causing friction and emotional strain within the home environment. In order to get himself off the treadmill, Martyn took a sabbatical in 1976 and went to Jamaica where he stayed on Strawberry Hill. John's visit to Jamaica had him working with Lee Scratch Perry and playing with Max Romeo and Burning Spear's 'Man in the Hills' album. 'One World' revealed a dense atmospheric music yet understated and jazzy and almost minimalist, lyrically dealing with separation, addiction and sentiment.
By 1980's 'Grace and Danger' he was with producer Phil Collins1 in braving divorce and producing music both overwhelmingly beautiful and emotionally wrought swinging between anger and remorse. In 1980 he also produced 'Balance and Control' for Irish acoustic folk-rock band Scullion who had covered 'John the Baptist' on their previous album. 'Glorious Fool', and 'Well Kept Secret' saw him touring with a band. The image of the smart suited John Martyn playing electric guitar fronting a six piece band including Max Middleton, Alan Thomson, Jeff Allan, Danny Cummings and saxist Colin Tully was strange to some but audiences took to their fluid improvisations and Martyn's cool lyricism delivered in his gravelly emotional vocals. 'Philentropy' was a self-released live set from this period while 'Sapphire' returned to the quieter musings and 'Piece by Piece' highlighted his vocal expertise with the future classic 'John Wayne'.
There have been several more recordings since then, the live collections 'Foundations', Bristol Live '91', 'John Martyn Live', and the first official release of 'Live at Leeds '75', the studio albums 'Cooltide', 'The Apprentice', 'Snoo', 'The Best of' and 'Rest of the Best' both compilations taken from 'Couldn't Love You More' and 'No Little Boy', 'The New York Session' and his most recent recordings, 'The Church with One Bell' and 'Glasgow Walker'. With these his music has grown and developed with hints of reggae, electronics, samples, dance beats, and ambient strains.
He revisited a selection of his 'Greatest Hits' on 'Couldn't Love You More' and 'No Little Boy' with a full all-star band delivering smooth radio friendly versions of Martyn classics like 'Bless The Weather', 'Sweet Little Mystery' and 'May You Never'. Fighting boredom has him trying new styles, new idioms, exploring new avenues his curiosity pushing the envelope further on each time, constantly hitting new heights of creativity. This resistance to boredom and a reluctance to stand still gives his music whether electric or acoustic an edge that keeps his audience entranced ready for his next move.
John Martyn has toured with bands and as a solo act and in duos with Spencer Cozens, his son Spencer Martyn, fretless bassist Alan Thomson and other combinations. His life path has continued onwards through remarriage to studio engineer Annie Furlong and their subsequent divorce, further relationships, health scares, and doctor's ultimatums, middle age, and other experiences, giving inspirations for songs listened to and loved the world over.
People have called John Martyn a maverick talent. He is a loose canon in the popular music industry where category rules and everything has to be boxed in to neat tidy compartments labelled 'folk' or 'blues' of 'jazz' or whatever. John Martyn's music doesn't fit into any of these categories, certainly there are roots of folk, blues and jazz there but there are stabs of electricity, ambient beats, experimental tape loops, traditional Celtic airs, reggae rhythms and unusual time signatures. He borrows from them all but the end result is neither one nor the other. The final outcome of his chemistry experiment is a unique personal distillation of thoughts, emotions and musical idioms all combined into one singular entity. It is John Martyn's music and nobody else's. In his lyrical scope there's romantic hopefulness, pure sex, raw emotion, revenge, protest and social concern all communicated in a recognisably distinctive fashion.
John Martyn has become a success story on his own terms with sold out concerts, a loyal following and respect from within the business. Although John Martyn has never had a top 20 hit he has written his share of classic songs. He has proved that it is possible to retain one's individuality and cultivate a successful long lasting career in the music business. After all what other artist whose performing life began in a barge off the Thames over 25 years ago can still plough new territories and retain his following and curiosity level from both fans and fellow musicians?
John Martyn once said *'Every record is totally autobiographical. That's the only way I can write. Some people keep diaries. I make records.'* For him both music and life are intertwined, one feeding directly from the other. Here is a selection from those aural diaries, pages directly taken from John Martyn's life, his experiences, thoughts, emotions, hopes, dreams, demons, they are gathered here ripe for your listening pleasure.
*Brendan Quayle for an Island Records biography to accompany his then new album 'Piece By Piece' in 1986.*
1 muffnote: 'Drummer' Phil Collins would have been more accurate. Phil produced Glorious Fool.