Stormbringer! (remastered & expanded)

Date: 
3 Oct 2005
Written by: 
Mark Powell

Of all the musicians to emerge in the British folk boom of the mid-1960’s, John Martyn is surely the most progressive and one of the most influential. His music has explored folk, jazz, blues and rock styles and continues to inspire successive generations of musicians. Martyn was born Iain David McGeachy in September 1948 in New Malden in Surrey, although he grew up in Glasgow when his parents separated. At the age of fifteen he taught himself to play the guitar and by the time he left school at the age of 17 he was a regular feature in local Glasgow folk clubs, coming under the wing of local folk musician Hamish Imlach, who encouraged his musical development and understood his young protégé, who at this stage was finding his own style, influenced by such diverse spheres as classical music and baroque folk guitarist Davey Graham.

The young McGeachy also befriended Clive Palmer, founder of the highly influential Incredible String Band. Encouraged by the response to his music in Northern folk clubs he made his way to London, attracting attention through initial performances at London clubs such as Bunjies and Les Cousins. At the suggestion of his first agent he soon changed his name to John Martyn, taking his new surname from the makers of his favourite acoustic guitars, substituting the letter “i” for a “y”.

Through his appearances on the Soho folk scene he came to the notice of Chris Blackwell, who had recently moved the focus of his label, Island records, from West Indian music to British rock and folk music. In 1967 John Martyn became one of the first British signings to Island Records, recording the embryonic “London Conversation” album for a budget of £158. An album of simple, beautifully played music, upon its release in October 1967, it received critical acclaim and sold sufficiently well for Martyn’s contract to be extended by Island. His follow up album, “The Tumbler”, released in December 1968 was a massive leap forward creatively and was the first of Martyn’s records to demonstrate a jazz influence. Produced by fellow folk musician Al Stewart and featuring the talented jazz flautist Harold McNair, the album featured fine material such as “Dusty”, “Flying on Home” and “Hello Train”. In January 1969 Martyn met singer Beverley Kutner at a concert supporting US singer Jackson Frank at Chelsea College of Art. Beverley was also a figure on the London folk scene and had been a friend of Paul Simon when the American singer-songwriter had lived in London. After Simon found success with Art Garfunkel, he secured her appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. When she met John she was in the process of working on solo material for producer Joe Boyd’s Witchseason Productions and was looking for musician’s to work with. She later recounted “He was individual, rakish, all curly hair and smiles. He seemed like the ideal guy to help me out, plus of course it helped that I fancied him like mad”. John and Beverley soon became romantically involved and married in 1969. Joe Boyd had secured interest from Warner Brothers records in America in releasing an album by Beverley and it soon became apparent to Boyd that the potential of the husband and wife recording as a duo could be creatively fruitful.

On April 16th 1969, John and Beverley Martyn entered Sound Techniques studio in Chelsea to commit four songs to tape. “Traffic Light Lady”, “I Don’t Know”, “John the Baptist” and “It’s One of Those Days” were all wonderful compositions, revealing that Boyd’s instincts in paring the duo were correct. Suitably encouraged, negotiations with Warner’s were completed and in the early Summer of 1969 he and Beverley travelled to the USA, basing themselves in the musician’s haven of Woodstock in upstate New York. The area was soon to become internationally famous thanks to the celebrated rock festival that took place later that year and also due to Bob Dylan and The Band becoming residents, recording their infamous “basement tapes” sessions there and setting the scene for The Band’s masterpiece “Music from Big Pink” (a big influence on John at that time). John and Beverley soon integrated themselves into the local musical social scene, befriending drummer Levon Helm of The Band and their near weekend neighbour, Jimi Hendrix. John would later recount “Hendrix lived virtually next door to us. He used to arrive every Thursday in a purple helicopter, stay the weekend and would leave on Monday”.

In Woodstock, the duo formulated their musical ideas, writing new material and reworking songs written in England earlier that year. Within weeks John and Beverley Martyn were ensconced at A&R studios in New York City with producer Joe Boyd to record their first album together. The majority of the songs recorded were John Martyn compositions, perhaps revealing his musically dominant influence within the duo and in just six days ten songs were laid down, featuring various guest musicians. Levon Helm appeared on “Sweet Honesty” and the wonderful “John the Baptist”, whilst Mother’s of Invention drummer Billy Mundi contributed his skills to “Go Out and Get It”. Herbie Lovell’s highly inventive percussion graced the majestic “Stormbringer” and “Would You Believe in Me”. “Tomorrow Time” featured John Simon on Harpsichord whilst bass guitarist Harvey Brooks and keyboard player Paul Harris (also known for his work with The Doors and John B. Sebastian) featured on most of the material recorded. Indeed, Paul Harris’ highly original arrangements and musical direction would become a defining feature of the album.

John Martyn would later remark “A lot of things came from those sessions. Nobody had really thought of combining acoustic instruments with drums before then. It sounds a little conceited to say that, but I think that the album was rather ahead of its time”. The recordings would also feature the debut of Martyn’s use of the Echoplex tape loop delay unit (on “Would You Believe in Me”) which would define his guitar sound and his music over the ensuing few years. A fan of the work of saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, John would later admit that his initial exploration of the use of the Echoplex unit would be as a result of attempting to imitate Sander’s unique sustain technique on his guitar. A further two days were spent mixing the recording sessions, the fruits of which were released in February 1970 on both sides of the Atlantic as “Stormbringer”, housed in a striking sleeve designed by Nigel Waymouth of Hapshash and the Coloured Coat fame. Although critically well received, the album failed to make an impression on the album charts in both Britain and America. With much of the critical praise for the album focussing on his guitar playing and vocal delivery, Island records were enthused enough to continue to support the duo’s music, although John resisted pressure to perform and record as a solo artist again. Instead, both musicians concentrated on writing new material for their next album. In the late Spring of 1970 work began at Sound Techniques studio with Joe Boyd assuming production duties once more on the record that was to become known as “The Road to Ruin”.

Mark Powell

NB. Whilst researching this expanded reissue of “Stormbringer”, the original four-track master tape of the Sound Techniques session of 16th April 1969 was located. “It’s One of Those Days”, “I Don’t Know”, “John the Baptist” and “Traffic Light Lady” have been mixed from the original tape and are presented here as bonus material.