PRETTY IN AN UGLY SORT OF WAY
GRACE & DANGER BY JOHN MARTYN
"Grace & Danger was very cathartic, and really hurt, I was really in love with that woman."
"There was no point in to go and make a jolly, fairground album."
THE currency of popular music is frequently that of love and despair. However, these emotions are often in the abstract and, although prurience may dictate otherwise, the listener is frequently reminded to keep the public utterances of an artist and their private lives strictly compartmentalised. With John Martyn's Grace And Danger, this it is absolutely impossible.
It is a bleak, candid listen, which still has the ability to wrongfoot a casual listener, as it comes lusciously wrapped in polished, mellow veneers. As an album that chronicles the breakdown of a relationship, it's up there with Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, Peter Hammill's Over and Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear in that slender canon of painful greats. It was also the last of John Martyn's classic albums for Island Records. It sounds different to his previous work. It is angry, fussy, mellow. When it was released in October 1980, it had been finished for over a year.
After the peaceful, eco-cosmic vibe of One World, Martyn went out on the road and stayed there seemingly for a rather long time. After a UK tour, he supported Eric Clapton -who'd provided him with a huge financial fillip by covering May You Never on Slowhand- on his tour throughout the States in May 1978. Martyn had also journeyed to Australia in the summer, where he'd contributed to the soundtrack of Esben Storm's film, In Search Of Anna.
It was during this period that his relationship with Beverley, whom he'd married at the end of the 60s and cut two classic albums with, began to fall to pieces. After four children together, the former Beverley Kutner filed for divorce, citing Martyn's unreasonable behaviour. "When he was sober, he'd be wanting to get drunk," she stated in the 2004 documentary Johnny Too Bad. "He was like Jekyll and Hyde. He could turn on a sixpence, until there was no nice little boy left, smiling."
And Grace And Danger is a difficult listen because Martyn is still clearly head over heels in love with her. John Martyn had left the marital home in Sussex where he'd lived since 1971 and moved into Island Records boss Chris Blackwell's flat above his studios in West London. "I lived at Basing Street," Martyn recalls. "I didn't have much to do apart from getting laid and flying about the pubs. It was nice to have a studio downstairs, because I could pop down there almost at a moment's notice and get ideas down. I demoed there. I was working with Chris Glen on bass." It was here that the album took shape. Did Blood On The Tracks or any other break up album influence the writing of the album? "No, I wasn't listening to anything like that," says Martyn. "I was listening to a lot of reggae as I was staying over at Blackwell's pad - there was always a lot of reggae going around, you know?"
After the demos were completed, Martyn met a likeminded soul in Genesis and Brand X drummer Phil Collins and the two hit it off. "I was looking for a drummer and somebody suggested Phil. That was it, done," exclaims Martyn. "I started to play with him and it soon became apparent he was a really cool geezer." And, at this time, Collins was a very cool geezer indeed. He was beginning to expand his multi-talented role within Genesis and had begun to commercialise the group's sound.
They also shared something else in common: Collins' marriage, too, was falling apart. "We were both going through the same emotional trauma," Martyn later told Q magazine. "There was vast amounts of going down the potting shed together and weeping. I'd phone Beverley and it would be 'aaargh', then it would be Phil's turn. We were both making ourselves terribly miserable, and then playing and singing about it." He was to lodge at Collins' house for additional writing for the album. He adds in 2006, that "I lived for a while with Phil. It was funny, really. There was great use of the long distance telephone, I remember. It was true - it was his turn, then my turn, his turn then any turn."
"We got very close," Collins said in Johnny Too Bad. "I'd turned my master bedroom into a studio, and there was a phone on the floor and we both took it in turns to call our relative partners. There'd be all kind of shouting matches going on. It was very creative, because Face Value came out of that." "Vast amounts of cheap wine was drunk," Martyn added. "It was cathartic and cleansing."
With a new partner-in-crime and a body of work assembled, it was time to capture this material on tape. It was also, through Martyn's then-manager, Bruce May, that the project gained a producer. May -the brother of folk legend Ralph McTell- was also managing an up-and-coming studio technician, Martin Levan. "I'd recently done an album with Jim Rafferty, Gerry's brother, called Solid Logic - it wasn't a massive success," Levan recalls. "Bruce had played that to Chris Blackwell, and Chris bought the idea. Chris chatted with John and we went from there."
Levan, who had cut his teeth as a tape op in the early 70s, had worked with a variety of artists such as Colosseum II and Neil Skidmore and had gained something of a reputation as a jazz-rock specialist. Working with a tight band of Collins' Brand X cohort (and future Simple Mind) John Giblin on fretless bass and Tommy Eyre, most recently Hugh McKenna's replacement in the Sensational Alex Harvey Band on keyboards, they set about recording a stunningly bleak record. "Tommy -God rest his soul- was a prickly character, a bit paranoid," Martyn laughs. "But John was a beautiful player - one of my great favourites."
The album sessions took place in summer 1979. The approach was pretty different to the open-air freewheeling that signified One World. For one, normal hours were kept, and secondly, there was no revolving-door line-up of special guest players. Everything was played by the four piece. "The recording process went well," recalls Levan. "We cut the tracks at DIM Studios in Holborn. They had a recently-built room we used. It had a fantastic drum booth for Phil with big glass doors, with mirrored walls and marble floors which gave a nice bright drum sound. That was one of the main reasons we chose it."
Given the subject matter it would be romantic to think of long, late night brandy-fuelled sessions of debauchery, despair and decay, all being played out in front of Levan's eyes: "Unfortunately that wasn't what it was like," he laughs. "We recorded mainly in the daytime. There were no really late sessions. John was in a difficult place in his life. He'd come to the studio to do his work and then go away. There wasn't a lot of hanging round and there certainly weren't a lot of visitors. It was pretty workmanlike. We were able to focus really well."
"The sessions weren't too bad," Martyn remembers. "I was quite jolly when I was doing my thing. I'd got all the miserable bit over with during the writing, and then I began to move on." The only moment that broke the calm was a visit from Eric Clapton, who came along to record, but nothing was captured. "It was rather like a steam train out of control that day," Levan recalls. Clapton, of course, would finally be captured on tape with Martyn on his 1981 Warners debut, Glorious Fool.
"The only time we ever went really late was when I mixed it," Levan continues. "I used to go in at 11 at night for about 10 days. We went to Morgan to do the overdubs for a week or so - vocals and harmonies, and then about a week of mixing. It was a fairly quick album to make. The way I work is all about allowing the artist to express what is deep inside them, getting it to the surface and getting it out to the microphone. John, of course, is a perfect candidate for that, because it's in his nature to do that anyway. The subject matter was raw. I just saw it as where John was in life - we had to maximize that and get the most out of that. There was no point in trying to go somewhere else and make a jolly fairground album. We wanted to make it as strong as we could. I think we got close."
Although jazz had always been part of Martyn's make-up, the arrangements and settings of Grace And Danger seemed to be a little more explicit. "Tommy and John both touched that area, as did Phil," Levan recalled. "Phil's drumming was not straight-ahead pop drumming." Martyn himself played mostly electric guitar throughout. To wrap such raw emotion in jazzy veneers found new listeners, but the album leaves a tricky and complex aftertaste.
What makes Grace And Danger so tricky is that where other albums are dedicated to mysterious suitors and strangers, virtually every track here is about the state of Martyn's relationship with Beverley. It's like eavesdropping on very close friends whose relationship is irrevocably imploding. The album starts in that same smoke-fuddled haze that One World ended on. A tinkle of electric piano ushers in Some People Are Crazy. But there, similarities end. The track, one of Martyn's favourites, doesn't directly refer to the relationship, more a case of how he forever splits a crowd. Was there anyone in particular he had in mind who 'drew their conclusions like curtains'? "It was a general comment on human nature," Martyn sighs. "I do the same. I really don't want to, but I do."
The title track was Martyn's rockiest to this point. The phrase came from manager May, who'd opined that his turn was a mixture of both attributes in equal measure. Martyn's echo-drenched fuzz, last heard so peacefully on Small Hours, squalls away in the background, while he wishes his estranged wife "sweet grace and little danger," as she goes away. And with lines like "makes me feel good that you've found somebody else," it's not without self-remorse and self-preservation, either.
It is with the third track, Lookin' On that the album really starts on its inexorable downward spiral. 'Stealin' In with an innocent grin' - sings Martyn, looking on at his life unravelling - 'between loving and being too cruel to be kind... leave you staring with your empty ceiling, feeling nothing.' A brief respite is offered by what was to become his signature tune of sorts, Johnny Too Bad, which closes the first side. A cover of the Slickers' original, written by Hylton Beckford, Winston "Shadow" Bailey, Sydney Crooks and Terence Wilson (with additional lyrics by Martyn) provides the only unashamedly upbeat track on the collection and was a product of the time he spent in Jamaica in 1976. Building on the locked-in groove of Big Muff, it swaggers along with great braggadocio. "I can't remember exactly where I first heard it," Martyn laughs. "But I'm sure it was over there. It was my theme tune for a while." It was to become the album's only single, released in March 1981.
If the first side prepared the listener for a bleak ride, the second collapses into barely dignified pathos. It is like a journey from sundown to daybreak in the company of a distraught friend, buoyed up by memories, false hopes and artificial stimulants. Sweet Little Mystery is one of Martyn's touchstone tunes. Phil Collins' sympathetic backing vocals compliment the deep sadness of the lyric, while Eyre's electric piano bathes the song in an ineluctable sweetness. It's touching and has a radio-friendliness that was perfectly illustrated by the Old Grey Whistle Test performance of it that Martyn performed in early 81.
The poignant Hurt In Your Heart follows Martyn on his long night's journey into despair. Here, he begs for reconciliation - a call from Beverley once the matter has died down, 'just say my name, I'll still feel the same.' The message clearly does not register and so, the following track, Baby Please Come Home reeks of quiet desperation. The song, which is arguably, one of Late Night John's sweetest grooves, contains his mantra-like repetition of its title to the point of collapse. Bordering on the pathetic, this bear of a man is cowed, broken even. How on earth can this malaise be escaped? ('I just can't stand to see you go and I swear that I don't know, just what made me hurt you so, what made you want to go.') It's very... "Miserable I think is the word you're looking for," Martyn laughs in 2006. Was there self-pity in there? "No more than in any of the blues. The blues is miserable. The blues is the blues."
Save Some For Me delves further into a catalogue of approaches to win back his former wife, masked in a carapace of self-preservation - 'I talk with friends about us, and the way you feel about me. I feel your teeth with every second word.' Yet the loss is profound and absolute; evoking Shakespeare, he comes up with one of his greatest couplets: 'I felt you like Ophelia in a repertory failure, demented in a theatre absurd.' This is where Collins' sweet voice is really heard complimenting Martyn's in the chorus. A clubby keyboard underpins the ostensibly jaunty tune, suggesting that Martyn hasn't been left totally bereft.
The album closes with Our Love. The love that 'made a man from a boy, a woman from a little girl' is irrevocably in tatters. The love that 'once was sweeter than an April rain', has left Martyn having to 'beg before you even say my name.' It was ironic that this song, the last piece of the break-up album's jigsaw was written with... Beverley. "It wasn't really a co-write," Martyn says. "I gave her half of it, because it seemed a nice thing to do. It was a gesture." The final words Martyn utters are 'Ah baby, please baby...'. Pleading is Martyn's speciality on the record.
And there we leave him, still clearly disbelieving that their love has slipped from the rails. Grace And Danger is an album without a happy ending. There is no hero racing in to save the day, no Deus Ex Machina. It leaves the listener disquieted.
"It was a great album to do and I was very pleased to do it," Levan says. "I'm sure Chris Blackwell thought with Phil Collins involved, that this was going to be a much more commercial record". But the album remained gathering dust on Island's shelves for nearly a year. "One of the reasons was probably when he finally heard it, it may have shocked him that it wasn't the big commercial album he thought it was going to be."
The other factor was that Blackwell, a friend to both John and Beverley, found the record simply too painful to release. "The messages I was getting back were that Chris felt it was too sad and he didn't want to put it out," Levan continues. "He felt it too depressing and didn't want it released." It was finally issued at the desperate plea of Martyn. He said in 1981, "I freaked: 'Please get it out! I don't give a damn about how sad it makes you feel - It's what I'm about: direct communication of emotion." "Chris was the one in business," he says today. "He didn't want it to go out - for whatever reason, I don't know. But, it was harmful not to have any product out at all. I wanted to maintain some sort of interest so that people don't forget your name entirely. He finally did it." "It needed to be out and it was good that it was," Levan states. "It would have been a great shame if it hadn't have been."
The album, clad in Bruno Cartier-Tilney sleeve, looked very much like an ECM-style jazz album. Released in October 1980 (Island ILPS 9560), New Musical Express called it 'an open-wound account of his break-up.' Melody Maker listened to the settings rather than the substance: 'At times the blending of Martyn's voice and guitar, John Giblin's beautiful bass and Phil Collins immaculate drumming is simply breathtaking.' The album entered the chart at the start of November 1980. As Barbara Streisand's Guilty topped the UK album chart, Grace And Danger reached No. 54 - exactly the same position One World had done in February 1978. However, it could be said that it doubled its success, staying on the charts for twice the amount of its predecessor - precisely two weeks.
Soon after the album was completed, Martyn moved back to the tiny village of Moscow, 17 miles south west of Glasgow in Scotland; his father suffered a serious illness, which coincided with all of his current turmoil. Martyn at least took solace from returning to his old stamping ground: "Before I was living in Heathfield in Sussex, where my ex-wife still lives - a sensible girl, so I don't know how she can stand it... I suppose she's learnt to live with middle-class ponces," Martyn said in 1981. "Glasgow's wonderful - if they're going to rip you off, they do it neat, sweet and petite, it's very straight like that." "I was very happy to be out of Hastings," he adds in 2006. "It was an incestuous sort of place. Same old faces every night in the same old pubs."
John and Beverley Martyn were divorced in the early 1980s. Martyn was no longer financially independent, having to earn the-then sizeable sum of £ 280 a week to settle alimony payments. All of which did not sit well with Martyn. "I have four children in wedlock all of whom I maintain," Martyn told Chris Salewicz in October 1981. "But, in fact, the children have little to do with this settlement: it's all for Beverley, whom I still like. I don't see why it should have to be so acrimonious. I didn't even want the fucking divorce in the first place: unreasonable behaviour on my part, apparently. Basically, what is being said is that not only have I got to support my former wife, but they're also going to cut off my fucking nuts!"
The delay in releasing Grace And Danger contributed towards Martyn leaving Island for a two-album spell at Warner Brothers in the early 1980s. It was also that Blackwell seemingly wished Martyn to be marketed solely as a jazz artist. "Chris Blackwell said to me at our last meeting that he considered I had a jazz niche which I had succeeded in manufacturing for myself, and that that was where my career lay," Martyn said in 1981. "I don't see it that way, and I never did. When his minion made me an offer of money with which to make my next record, the amount was so paltry and made in such a bad way that I put the phone down on him."
The album marked something of a watershed: as Martyn left Island for Warner Brothers, Levan, after working with Iron Maiden, set up as a theatre sound engineer, working with Andrew Lloyd Webber and revolutionising theatre audio-fidelity. Within six months of the release, its sister album, Face Value by Phil Collins was released, setting Collins on his way to being a global superstar. Lots of people assume that Collins produced Grace And Danger. Does that rankle with Levan? "It does a bit, I suppose, if I'm completely honest. Phil had an undeniable influence on the album - he was John's friend, and they discussed the songs between themselves and had their social time together. He certainly didn't produce. I think it irks my wife more than it does me. It would be nice to be corrected on all the websites round the world!"
As years have passed, you forget quite how painful Grace And Danger is. "I was in a dreadful emotional state over that record," Martyn said in 1981. "I was hardly in control of my own actions." And how does Martyn feel about it a quarter of a century later? "It doesn't bother me at all, now," he laughs down the line from his home in Ireland. "I quite like it. I think it's cool. I might even tour it. It's got a lot of tempi - it was very soulful. I liked it from that point of view. I don't have a lot left to say about it, as it speaks for itself really: it's a divorce album. It did quite well. People still buy it and they like it."
"Pretty in an ugly sort of way" (a line from the title track) sums it up perfectly. I had the blues. Go forth and be miserable!"
Daryl Easlea Autumn 2006