The Gentlest Circus - One World By John Martyn

1 Nov 2004
Written by: 
Daryl Easlea

"Here We All Are, Rumours and Old Toffee Abound"
John Martyn, 1977

You would think one of the last
characters to survive the supposed
punk rock cull of 1976/77 would be John Martyn

To outsiders, he was the back of fag-packet epitome of a wandering hippie minstrel, his work a key example of the music slow drugs promote. Called "a vocalist of astonishing gifts", by Rolling Stone, his music was often wistful, introspective, gentle, loving and quiet. And all of this at a time when angry young (?!) men were storming the speed-fuelled, spittle-strewn stages strumming psychotic slices of sound. Unlike many of his peers, Martyn escaped relatively unscathed from the Stalinist revisionism of the movement due in part to his seemingly bottomless capacity for hell-raising and the fact that many of the new movement's players and commentators had, but a handful of months previously, been skinning up and noodling out to his sound. But he didn't just survive; he created an album that many believe to be his masterpiece. Whereas 1971's Bless The Weather struck his template, and Solid Air from 1973 is his first classic, One World, as a full-on sensory experience is, for many, John Martyn's definitive statement.

The road leading to One World is somewhat winding. After the release of his eighth album for Island, Sunday's Child, in January 1975, Martyn toured with a band that comprised his old sparring partner, ex-Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson, drummer Jon Stevens and former Free guitar god, Paul Kossoff, who was now in a very serious way with his drink and drug addictions. There were frequently volatile relationships on the tour, which was to see routine outbursts of violence between performers. The music however, remained as bittersweet as a berry. The tour spawned the album, Live At Leeds, which John and his then-wife, Beverley, sold through mail order.

The Martyns were also to care for Kossoff, looking after him at their home in Hastings as an attempt to keep him on the straight and narrow. By March 1976, Kossoff was dead. The effect on Martyn was great. He had lost another close friend in Nick Drake less than two years previously. Given Martyn's lifestyle at time, it's wholly possible that he could have made it a trio. 28 years later, Martyn still bristles at the memory. "The pressure of the music industry, the greed, exerted on special people has an enormous effect," he sighs. "Good musicians are special. Anyone can thrash out a C and a G and wank away -any fool can play at a party. But good musicians are very special. And they should be treated as such. I've often found they've been exploited, much like battery hens. I would never allow the industry to kill me. Other people might, but I can see right through it." These losses, combined with a general weariness meant Martyn knew that he needed to take a break from the hectic schedule he'd been pursuing since 1967. Martyn remembers the whole period as a blur, until he stopped and went on extended holiday. "I went to Jamaica -now I remember that!" he laughs.

Island Records founder, Chris Blackwell, who signed Martyn as the first white artist to his label in 1967, plays an enormous part in the One World story. Firstly, he was aware that Martyn was nearing the end of his tether. "I told Chris that I wasn't feeling very good," Martyn rernemhers. "He asked me to come over to Jamaica and relax with him. I went and crashed at his gaff in the Strawberry Hills by Spanish Town. It was cool. I just sat there. During that time, I recovered my enthusiasm for music in general. I managed to negate, at least to some extent, my hatred of the music industry."

This hatred had been cultivating for a considerable time. Aside from the recent deaths of his friends, Martyn had been growing weary of the sharp practices of the business. "I'd been in rooms where I'd seen bands literally bought and sold," Martyn sighs. "With agents acting like car dealers over percentage points. When I saw that it took away the romance in my life for music."

The exact length of time Martyn spent in Jamaica is hazy ("I may have been there for seven weeks; it may have been seven months. I stayed rather longer than my visa extended"), but it introduced him to the cultural hotbed of the Kingston music scene, and one of its most flamboyant characters, producer and writer Rainford Hugh 'Lee' Perry aka The Upsetter aka Pipecock Jackson aka Scratch.

"Yes - John Martyn!," Perry crackled
"Anything he'd request of me would
be OK. John is full of fun, a simple guy;
he's somebody very special'

"Chris took me down to Scratch's house, the Black Ark," Martyn laughs. "Chris had said that Scratch and I were using essentially the same recording techniques and we should meet. I was using rhythm boxes and Echoplex, and my man Scratch was into the same effect, a dub thing, man. It was the echo thing that invented dub for Scratch -and I just came across my version of it by accident. Mine was faster, mine was Bo Diddley. I loved working with Scratch and will do in the future, please God. I love him. There was always a naughty, rosy little twinkle in his eye."

This meeting led to Martyn recording at the legendary Black Ark studios, hanging out with fabled characters such as Max Romeo and Burning Spear. Martyn appeared on Spear's Man In The Hills album, as well as on several other sessions of the day.
"I did sessions with every motherfucker and nobody told me that I'd done them," Martyn chortles. "I would hear records later and then all of a sudden a fuzz solo with a touch of phased echo would come and I would think, fuck me, that's me! It was very cool -I didn't mind it at all."
Lee Perry was similarly enriched by the experience: "Yes -John Martyn!," Perry crackled when I spoke with him in 2003. "Anything he'd request of me would be OK. John is full of fun, a simple guy; he's somebody very special".
"People would steal from Perry because he's too cool," says Martyn of the chaos at Black Ark that was to lead to Perry burning it to the ground a handful of years later. "He's wild, very street-wise, but doesn't care much. I used to make him soup and watch his back." Within a year, the two mavericks would renew their acquaintance.

After Jamaica, Martyn began to demo the songs that would make up One World back at his home near Hastings: "I built myself a little thing in the conservatory at the back of my house," Martyn recalls. "I stole a load of black curtains from some Civic Hall somewhere and whacked 'em in the back of a motor -that made the best possible sound insulation. I had two rhythm boxes and just did that. I made the demos and sent them to Chris Blackwell." Martyn's public profile began to rise with the release on Island of a compilation of his early work to coincide with his tenth anniversary as a recorded performer in February 1977. So Far, So Good served as a reminder, if it were needed, of his talents. He was also interviewed by Andy Childs in ZigZag magazine to coincide with the release in March 1977, and gave a taster of what to expect with his next work: "I feel wonderful now... in top form. I've just about got a new album ready, I start recording it in March and some of the material on it is a bit more angry now. I'm a bit pissed off by a couple of things that have been going on, and I've stuck a few nasty-edged things in there. But I mean, it's about time I did that anyway, I think, I was getting a bit cheered off with the 'Prince Charming' image, for want of a better phrase. It was becoming a little bit fey at the edges -people were beginning to think I was a little bit too nice, and it was confusing".

Chris Blackwell was to make Martyn's demos into a cohesive reality. His artistic benevolence was the epitome of the days before the music business became the music industry. He was out to make the best possible album with the best possible people. "Island Records was a family at this point," Martyn recalls. "Everyone took it for granted that they'd love to work together, because we were all of decent quality. Some of us didn't rub together too cool -I remember falling out with a couple, but, in general, the faces were sweet and the music was good -and the quality was chosen by Blackwell. He signed everybody for One World from the keyboard player to the aqua bearer." And the final roll-call of players on the album shaped up like an underground supergroup; members and ex-members of Traffic, Gong, Gilgamesh, Brand X, Jon Stevens' Away, Fairport Convention and Pentangle all supported Martyn in his endeavours.

For the new album sessions, Chris Blackwell was keen to assemble a crack studio team around Martyn, and decided to record at his country house, Woolwich Green Farm in Theale in Berkshire. The location was to prove magical, it being an old farm house that ended up in the middle of a flooded gravel pit, crossed by a small driveway, surrounded by water. Blackwell called engineer Phill Brown, who had recently quit his job as an Island Studios staffer and become a respected freelance engineer, to work on the project. Brown's career had started at Olympic Studios in 1967, where, as assistant to Keith Grant, Glyn Johns and Eddie Kramer, he had worked with artists such as Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Steve Miller Band and The Small Faces. Moving to Island, he had encountered Martyn before in passing, but had never worked closely with him. "I knew John, but it wasn't until that album that we became better friends," Brown recalls. "He lived fairly near me -his two kids were friends with my daughter, we did hang out for a period there."

Brown was something of a pioneer in the field of outdoor recording, a technique that he had developed when working with underrated singer-songwriter and Island recording artist, Murray Head. This technique was something that Blackwell, as producer, was keen to incorporate into Martyn's new material, after he had seen Brown work in a similar fashion with Robert Palmer's vocals and percussion on his 1975 album, Pressure Drop. "That was possibly the seed of recording One World that way," Brown recalls. "I don't think at this point there was any great plan about using the water. That just kind of evolved once we got set up and realised the possibility of the place."

'The possibility of the place' meant that an intricate system was set up with a live feed across the lake, where the sessions could be recorded in the open air, picking up the full ambience of the surroundings. "The 10 days we spent at Chris' recording it," Brown recalls. "We were recording outdoors, pumping whatever John was playing through a PA system and across the lake and miking it up, because of that aspect, it rather made the thing magical." Recording began when the Island Records mobile studio was set up in the courtyard allowing easy access to the barn and converted stable block, on the 16th of July, just as Donna Summer's I Feel Love was about to ascend to the UK's No. 1. However there were to be sonic developments on One World that would, in time, quietly rival Giorgio Moroder's groundbreaking production.

Martyn, his family, Brown, Island mobile driver Ray Doyle and his assistant, Barry Sage, all lived in the stable block. The 15 x 12 ft self-contained flat at the far end of the stables was used as the main studio. There was also a practical reason for living and recording in the same place. "Doing it out at Chris' house made it easy and he also knew where John would be as it were," Brown laughs. "He didn't have to go into a London studio -John has his wayward ways and likes disappearing off at certain opportunities, where there, he couldn't do very much, he couldn't escape!"
The atmosphere was charged, yet mellow: "It became, in Chris's own words, something of a circus," Martyn laughs. "He had lots of his relatives and friends from Jamaica over, and I had my entire family there. There were people all over the shop. There being children everywhere put me slightly off course. But it had very good results."

"Oh yes, there were certainly plenty of children around," Brown agrees. "Who they belonged to, I had no idea. My daughter was there. It was chilled out, in the summer -the good weather, living in the converted stables -it was a pretty pleasant experience."
"I often used to start work at half past twelve in the evening," Martyn recalls, "And then go on 'til about six, crash out and then go down the pub and come back and do some more."
This also suited the recording process. "Although Chris' place was pretty remote," Brown remembers, "Because of working outdoors, there were interruptions with planes and traffic; all of the stuff we did with outside mics was done at night, that's where it kind of came into its own."
And, Martyn's late hours meant that Blackwell and Brown could check what had been recorded. "Back then, John wasn't functioning that early in the day, so we would check through things from the day before, get set up and then a lot of things were done in the evening," Brown continues. "It was just a very calm week, with Blackwell, myself and Ray, the guy with the truck, and John. John was running off various different versions of these songs in a fairly chilled out environment -John was very relaxed at this time."

People would come down and see Chris Blackwell, to do business with him while he was in England, and then hang around the recording sessions. "Rico, Reebop Kwaku Baah," Brown laughs. "I remember them floating about the place because they were visiting Blackwell. One drummer came out -Andy Newmark- he overdubbed drums in the barn over there."

The songs on the album were split into those that were recorded relatively quickly and were presented almost fully-formed, such as Certain Surprise and Dealer; and those, such as One World and Small Hours, which were based on endless takes of loose improvisation. Steve Winwood, whose career had recently been kick-started by Blackwell with his 1977 eponymous solo album, was to pop down to the house and work with Martyn. Album opener, Dealer, struck a sonic template that Winwood would later fully utilise on his Arc Of A Diver album. Pared down and machine-driven, this dub-soaked uptempo number staked out the darker territory of the album, fully demonstrating the 'nasty edge' that Martyn had referred to at the ZigZag interview back in March.

"One World has now become a phrase used
all over the television," Martyn sighs.
"Took 'em a long time to fucking realise."

The title track, which drifts in, adds a stately calm to the proceedings. A routine entry into a search engine today finds over a million entries for the phrase, 'One World'. " 'One World' has now become a phrase used all over the television," Martyn sighs. "Took 'em a long time to fucking realise. I don't think many people knew the expression before then." The tune is little short of a marvel, with Martyn conflating the personal with the universal, placing himself in the centre of a world he is not totally sure he is comfortable with. Partially using the outside recording techniques, the song features one of Martyn's most euphoric vocal performances, against his echo-saturated guitar.

Smiling Stranger was recently selected by ex-PiL/ world music pioneer Jah Wobble as one of the great moments in dub. It's an intense, claustrophobic listen and has quite rightly been compared to the later work of Massive Attack. Here, Harry Robinson overdubbed strings emulate the rich sounds of Norman Whitfield's string arrangements for The Temptations. Kesh Sathie, who played tabla on Martyn's 1973 album, Inside Out, returned to lock down the groove, and Ghanaian saxophonist George Lee sees the track off to its premature close with the kind of solo with which he had so enlivened the work of Hugh Masekela and Johnny Nash.

Lee Perry -who was in the UK to record Punky Reggae Party with Bob Marley- was to appear again for one of the album's standout tracks and a cornerstone of Martyn's future live sets, Big Muff. "Lee came out to see Chris, found that John and I were working out the back on Big Muff," Brown recalls. "He got himself involved as it were and kind of co-produced this track with Blackwell. He thought the title was hilarious, so he got into crazy lyric writing with John. I remember him dancing around, hitting bits of equipment. It was very spontaneous."
The title indeed appealed to Perry, it being firmly in the mode of his Doctor Dick and Puss Sea Hole. Perry laughed uproariously when I questioned him on it and simply replied, with a very cheeky twinkle, "For sure, yes!" The song also introduced the word 'caterempously' to the language. What on earth did it mean? "That's Lee!" Martyn laughs. "It's a Jamaican word where the person is not as literate as they think they are, so people have conversations like 'Good Morning Mr Thompson, How you gasiating this morning?' 'Yes, Mr Collins, most caterempously, thank you'. It's a put down. I love it. That's what I find intriguing about that whole caper. I love any form of language whatsoever, especially when it takes the piss out of itself." Hearing the track remastered, it reminds you just how hard it swings. Gong bass player Hanny Rowe locks tight into the pocket with drummer Jon Stevens allowing Martyn's Echoplex-rich grandstanding full rein.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Couldn't Love You More is one of Martyn's greatest and most intense vocal performances. Tracked with Steve Winwood and Danny Thompson playing bowed bass, it is Martyn at his most intimate.
"It's straight from the heart and something of a confession," Martyn sighs. It's certainly his tenderest work, and one he has revisited in the recording studio on several occasions. The lyrics seem so precise, so beautiful, that you can only ask the question, exactly how long did he spend agonizing over them? "I didn't. I don't agonise over anything except when the pub's open," says Martyn, roaring with laughter. "If it's quarter to eleven, then I know I've just got a quarter of an hour to go, or when I'm seventeen points behind and there's only four balls on the table. Or if I'm sitting on a pair of aces or an eight and there's only three cards to go. Those are things I agonise over -I do not agonise over lyrics. Although I do have my moments."

The mellow mood is continued by Certain Surprise; it's almost straight easy listening, a tinkling bossa-nova, with Harry Robinson's lush orchestration and one of the melee of visitors to Woolwich Hall Farm, Rico Rodriguez, playing an incredibly sweet trombone solo. Martyn was delighted with his ability: "Rico walked in, played the one solo and walked out," he recalls. "I couldn't believe it. It was a difficult tune -semitones all over the place, a tricky little number- and then he walked in and did it in one. I love Rico. One of my favourite people in the world. A gentle man. He reminds me of Scratch. Same build, same vibe."

Dancing was ostensibly upbeat, yet the lyrics are actually bleak. Martyn is trying to get his partner, whether writing directly to Beverley or to an imagined lover, to comprehend his lifestyle, "Oh darling I want you to try and understand, if you're leading the life of a music man, you got to walk around and reel around", while keeping a protective eye on their whereabouts and activities. Wrapped in an airy groove, framed by Martyn's hi-life influenced spiralling electric; it's the album's lightest moment.

However, it is the closing track, Small Hours, that is universally seen as the great moment on the album. It was the clearest example of the recording technique that Blackwell and Brown had crafted. "We were all firmly out of it," Martyn recalls. "I don't know who came up with it -I remember thinking this is fucking wonderful, recording from a speaker a half a mile away across a load of water. It was just a cool thing to do. That was ambience. They talk about ambient music now -that was real ambience".
"It was recorded at 3 a.m. in the morning on the lake," Chris Blackwell said in the BBC documentary Johnny Too Bad. "The main railway line from London to Bristol goes across the land, and there were all these geese on the lake, which you hear at night. John played these slow chords which hung there for ages."
To hear the sound of the geese and the water lapping and, well, atmosphere throughout the recording, punctuated by Martyn's whispered vocals and waves of Echoplexed electric is mesmerising. Steve Winvood's discreet moog, Morris Pert's (from Brand X) simple percussion and Tristan Fry's unfussy vibes, all underscored by the gentle purr of the rhythm box, gives the record a remarkable, lambent quality. By the time of the seventh minute when Winwood's moog takes an understated lead, it becomes an almost rapturous, blissful fusion of ambient soul that effortlessly crosses the eight seemingly endless minute-mark before finally slipping away into the ether. But, somehow, you feel it will never really end, looping away somewhere in space until you play it again. "If that doesn't move you, there's something wrong with you," Martyn's friend and contemporary, Ralph McTell told the BBC. "It's absolutely exquisite. It's a hymn to the night: reflective, dark, experimental; absolutely beautiful."

After the sessions at Theale, Chris Blackwell took the tapes back to Island's Studios in Basing Street. Here various overdubs were added, including the sprightly backing to the album's only single, Dancing, (released in February 1978, backed with Dealer) provided by the then-Fairport Convention rhythm section of Dave Pegg and Bruce Rowlands. For Martyn, this ever changing personnel was often a blur. "Do they play on Dancing? You are joking," he laughs. "I would never have thought that." Also Harry Robinson added his subtle yet effective strings to Smiling Stranger and Certain Surprise. Engineering was overseen by Frank Owen and Robert Ash, with Phill Brown -who had gone to America to record again with Robert Palmer- returning for the final mix.

On hearing again the incredible ice-water veneers and late night smoking of the tunes, it perfectly reflected the mood of the participants. Phill Brown casually mentions a secret ingredient of the sessions: "We'd got hold of some opium and all the basic recordings out at Theale were done in this slightly opium state -if you take the way the album feels- it really did feel easy and beautiful -all the rough edges had been knocked off by this opium. It's probably not politically correct to say this anymore, but that was relevant to how everyone was feeling and the way the music came out."

Chris Blackwell's presence was felt throughout. "He drove me on," Martyn recalls. "I would always ask him if the take was good enough and he would always know and push harder." Phill Brown agrees. "Chris is not your hands-on producer in terms of being technical or running a desk, but he's a fantastic producer in terms of getting the right kind of people together in the right locations. He had good plots for who would be good for whom on particular styles of music. On One World, he was very much in the driving seat." Although Blackwell produced several key records, most notably Bob Marley's first Island albums, Martyn always feels it's one of his most under-appreciated facets. "Chris has always underestimated himself as a producer," he says. "He should have done a lot more producing." As a result, it's a very black sounding album. "The production was a black thing," Martyn continues. "It was looking at it slightly differently. But then, the blues were always where I was coming from, the Chess singles."

The album was released in November 1977 (Island ILPS 9492), at the end of a year that had seen such cultural milestones as David Bowie's Low and Heroes, I Feel Love, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols, and The Muppet Show. Housed in a soft, uncertain blue Tony Wright-designed sleeve with a mermaid emerging from the sea in a perfect arc, fish trailing in her wake, the artwork is packed full of symbols of many cultures. Wright was a favourite of Island artists, having designed The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys for Traffic (causing Winwood to comment "It looks how our music sounds") and Natty Dread for Bob Marley and The Wailers. Nestling amid the Mermaid's arms is a swastika, reclaiming the Nazi symbol in the year of punk, coming from the Sanskrit suastika, which had been used by many cultures throughout the past 3,000 years to represent life, power, sun, strength, and good luck.

The sleeve of One World was completed before the album was delivered, hence the odd running order on the back of the sleeve, with the sides in reverse order. For years, many loved the album beginning with Couldn't Love You More and ending with Big Muff. The press, contemporaneously and retrospectively has been very kind to the album: Monty Smith wrote in the NME in December 1977 that it was "Mean, moogy and magnificent, One World is the most mesmerising album I've heard this year. More complete, even, than Bowie's. Just plain better than everything else." It made No. 21 in the paper's fabled poll that year, behind Steely Dan's Aja and just ahead of Burning Spear's Live!. Melody Maker suggested that the album was "Guaranteed to chill your spine." The Wire said in 1998 that "One World is an Indian summer before the monsoon struck: divorce, alcoholism and worse. His voice contains a new huskiness; a weary grinding of words in the throat's mill."

What was out of step in the cosmic melee was the marketing of the album. Caught in a punk slipstream, the advertising attempted to portray Martyn as some cheeky chappie, with an album of under-the-counter grooves ("It'll wow ya!", indeed), but it all added to the overall commercial success of the work. One World became Martyn's first album to break into the UK Top 100 albums -albeit for one brief week in February 1978.

One World can be viewed as a pivotal point in his career, the bridge between the two parts of the simpler, folk-based material and the strutting, jazz-inflected rock that came to dominate his work in the 80s and 90s. It is not without its detractors, but then, all the greatest work rarely is. "I know what you're saying," Martyn agrees. "I can definitely see it is as that. It was the last production for me. I then thought I wanted to do jazz. I really enjoy fucking things around. As long as it's musical and everyone plays in time and their soul is in the right place and it makes people cry or dance -or both- then that's for me".

Phill Brown has worked on sonic landmarks such as Sly and The Family Stone's There's A Riot Going On and Talk Talk's groundbreaking Spirit Of Eden. Would he rank Martyn up there with Stone and Hollis? "John is a complete lost genius. He could have been a lot more successful -I think he's brilliant. On a good day, when he is fired up and it's all happening, he is just the best. It's what makes John so brilliant. Consistency is not his strongest suit. You may see him at a gig and he'll blow you away; you'll see him a few weeks later and he's simply not functioning. He's a bit like James Jamerson, the old Motown bass player, exactly the same thing -one day he would turn your head around and you wouldn't believe what was going on, the next day he could hardly stand up. John is definitely up there with them all and far more together than Sly. Hollis is certainly aware of One World. John played guitar, drank and smoked. He was completely wrapped up in that. It was always music with him and a bit of partying."

It's certainly an album that needs to be taken as a whole. One track leads to another and 40 minutes have quickly drifted away. "That's the idea," Martyn chortles. "They fall into the honeytrap." Would there be anything he would alter, from a 2004 perspective? "I wouldn't change a fucking thing. That was there and then. You've just got to listen to it." This Deluxe Edition enhances the listening experience and offers you the opportunity to hear some of the many alternate versions that were recorded during the sessions, as well as live versions of the tracks from Martyn's Regent's Park gig, while leaving the original album on its own. Martyn is pleased with the results: "I think these mixes are great. I'm proud of them."

To return to my original point, John Martyn knows exactly why he survived punk. "It's because I'm funky," he guffaws. "I didn't like The Pistols, but I liked the politics. I'm pretty good at what I do. I swing. I don't like thrashers, or geezers that play with plectrums -I love love songs, I love jazz, I love good music." And One World, simply, is an album of very good music. It's arguably John Martyn's greatest achievement. It is one of the best albums of the 70s. It's a beautiful piece of work.

The last word, of course, can only be Martyn's. It's around 3.30 a.m. at Woolwich Green Farm in July 1977. "Chris had been doing business all day, all the kids had been running around," Martyn recalls. "He said to me -'This really is becoming a circus'. I replied, 'Oh yes, but who's going to buy the tickets?' We both burst out laughing, because it did get really silly -there were all these wonderful kids from Jamaica, kids from here, kids from there, all aged between five and ten, and all these adults and extremely serious musicians imported from different parts of the globe. It was a very gentle circus. In fact, it was the gentlest circus I've ever been involved in. People think I was dark at the time, but I wasn't. Even at my darkest I was being really gentle. I love that album, I still do."

Daryl Easlea, London, August 2004