John Martyn At The BBC

28 Aug 2006
Written by: 
John Hillarby

If the The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) scheduled all its footage of John Martyn, his fans could be forgiven for thinking that their Christmases had all come at once! Classic 1970s programmes such as The Onedin Line, Multi-coloured Swap Shop, Animal Magic with Johnny Morris, The Generation Game, Morecambe and Wise, Blue Peter with John Noakes, It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Mastermind punctuated by rock, folk, blues, reggae and jazz from John, now there’s a thought! Luckily you don’t have to wait that long, Christmas is here thanks to Universal Music. John Martyn at the BBC; we have even removed the other programmes! There are three concerts and bonus material abounds in Extra Features.

The BBC has been instrumental in bringing music to a wider audience through its television and radio programmes. Radio shows such as Country Meets Folk in the 1960s, John Peel’s Night Ride, and Sounds of the Seventies were essential listening for music fans. John Martyn recorded performances for all these shows, making his first recording for radio in July 1968 a few months after the release of his debut album London Conversation (IMCD319) in October 1967. John became a regular, recording many sessions for radio shows of the late great John Peel and, when music came to our television screens, he made numerous appearances on programmes such as Sight and Sound In Concert, Rock Goes to College and The Old Grey Whistle Test (OGWT).

The BBC has recorded and broadcast the development of modern music over the years and in doing so it has documented the progression of John Martyn’s music. John’s guitar playing has evolved over the years; acoustic guitar in the 1960s, electro-acoustic with a wah wah pedal, fuzz box and echoplex in the 1970s, and almost exclusively playing electric guitar with his band in the 1980s. Now in his fifth decade of recording and touring John continues to explore and redefine musical boundaries.

Perhaps the most famous music television programme, and without doubt the most significant, is the OGWT that ran from 1971 until 1987. Richard Harris, Editor of Melody Maker, was the programmes first presenter who then left and was replaced by "Whispering” Bob Harris so called due to his quiet voice and laid back style. The programme's focus on serious music rather than chart hits was emphasised by the lack of showbiz glitter; artists would often perform their songs in bland studios with no set to speak of. Although the budget was tight and the programme was broadcast late at night, it hosted many seminal rock acts of the era, including Eric Clapton, Yes, The Eagles, Joni Mitchell and the first British TV performance of Bob Marley and the Wailers. The programme got its unusual name, according to Bob Harris, from an old Tin Pan Alley phrase. When record company executives got the first pressing of a record they would play it to people they called the "old greys". An "Old Grey" was the collective nickname for the office cleaners who would typically start work at 5pm as office staff were leaving. The tunes they could remember and could whistle having heard it just once or twice had passed “the old grey whistle test".

John is greeted by rapturous applause as Bob Harris introduces our first concert at the Collegiate Theatre, University College London transmitted on The Old Grey Whistle Test on 10th January 1978. John performs May You Never, and four songs from his latest album at the time One World (Deluxe Version 981 922-2), Small Hours, Certain Surprise, Couldn’t Love You More and Big Muff. John had spent most of 1976 in Jamaica and this clearly influenced his work. One World sold well charting at number 54 and it remains a true favourite with music critics and fans alike nearly thirty years later. One World was recorded in the summer of 1977 over a three week period in the courtyard of a house in Theale, Berkshire. The house was in the middle of a lake and equipment was set up so that it picked up the sound of water lapping, and a distant 'strangled' sound on the guitar which was perfect for lead solos. Most of the recording was carried out between 3 and 6 in the morning, and these quiet hours before dawn created the most magical atmosphere, resulting in two of John's most popular songs One World and Small Hours. One World is an album of contrasting music from the hostility of The Dealer and reggae influenced Big Muff, which was co-written by dubmaster Lee 'Scratch' Perry, to the enchanting Couldn't Love You More, tidal One World and the delightfully atmospheric Small Hours. Although not included here, after the credits rolled, the concert continued with Bless The Weather, Inside Out and Spencer The Rover.

Next up Pete Drummond introduces Rock Goes To College originally broadcast on 20th October 1978. “Anyone fancy a few overs in the slips, what?” Quips John wearing a cricket pullover and Dunlop Green Flash Plimsolls (remember those?) as he performs to a full house with standing room only at Reading University. John sings May You Never, One World, One Day Without You, The Dealer, Certain Surprise and Big Muff where he uses the echoplex to build layers of rhythmic sound, “The echoplex I’m in love with, it’s a wonderful machine!”

John finishes this performance with Anna (which is loosely based on Small Hours) a song he wrote for the 1978 film In Search of Anna. Produced by Esben Storm, the film tells the story of a newly released convict, Tony, trying to pull his life together. He returns home to find that his girlfriend, Anna, has vanished and members of his former gang are pursuing him for money that they think he has stashed away. Tony is obsessed with finding Anna and begins his search travelling North across Australia. John wrote the theme tune and some of the incidental music, Dealer and Certain Surprise also featured along with other music by AC/DC.

Renowned as a solo performer in the 1970s, the 1980s saw John take a new direction and start to concentrate on electric guitar and a full band setting for his music. Despite his ability to create astonishing waves of vibrantly textured sound and fill venues with a sound that was more akin to an orchestra than to one man with an acoustic guitar, John had become bored with the limitations of playing solo, “I decided I was bored with playing solo and I wanted to put a band together. They [Island Records] saw me very much as a solo artist and they felt that my career lay in that direction. And I was at the point where I really just did not want to play solo any more. You know, I was interested in playing with other guys full time."

For our third concert we are at Stirling University for Rock Goes To College broadcast on 2nd March 1981. John and his all new band of Alan Thomson on bass (as sponsored by Easyjet?), Jeff Allen on drums, Tommy Eyre on keyboards and Danny Cummings on percussion perform Big Muff, Some People Are Crazy, Grace and Danger, Save Some (For Me), Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail, Couldn't Love You More, Amsterdam and Johnny Too Bad. Four of the songs are from his album Grace and Danger (IMCD67), an intensely personal album that documents his failing marriage to Beverley. Drummer Jeff Allen was formerly in East of Eden and went on to play with Bonnie Tyler, Barbara Dickson and B.A. Robertson. Bassist Alan Thomson was plucked from his college group The Arthur Trout Band by John in September 1980, John’s cousin, David Ray, played sax in the band and introduced them. Alan still plays in John’s band today and has also worked with Robert Palmer, Manfred Man, Andy Summers, The Mighty Wah, Chris Rea, Gerry Donahue, Eric Clapton and Julia Fordham. Danny Cummings has played with Linx, Level 42, and Central Line, and was introduced to John by Tommy Eyre of the Grease Band. At the age of 19 it was Tommy's inspired arrangement and brilliant playing on the Hammond Organ that illuminated Joe Cocker's version of With A Little Help From My Friends. He made an extensive contribution to music and his distinctive work can also be heard on the song Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty. He went on to play with Gary Moore, Ian Gillan, Mick Jagger, Charles Mingus and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band before becoming Musical Director and playing keyboards for Wham! Sadly the incredibly talented and prolific Eyre died of cancer in 2001.

The Extra Features are indeed extra, extraordinary that is! Bob Harris presents The Old Grey Whistle Test originally broadcast on 13th March 1973. A magical performance of I’d Rather Be The Devil and May You Never both songs taken from John’s album Solid Air (IMCD274). Recorded in 1972, Solid Air was released in February 1973 and was regarded by many as John's best album to date. The programme also featured Derek and the Dominoes, Roger Daltrey, The Beatles, Yoko Ono, The Edgar Winter Band and Little Feat.

On the eve of a UK tour to promote his new album Sunday’s Child (IMCD323), John recorded The Old Grey Whistle Test along with Little Feat. The programme also featured Bachman Turner Overdrive, Ike and Tina Turner on film and an interview with Robert Plant. Broadcast on 17th January 1975, John performs One Day Without You and You Can Discover live in the studio. John toured extensively to promote Sunday's Child and was accompanied by Danny Thompson and John Stevens on drums, with Paul Kossoff making a guest appearance for the last few songs of some gigs. The gig at Leeds University, on 13th February 1975 was recorded with a view to releasing a live album, but Island Records weren't keen and so John produced, designed and marketed his own live album Live At Leeds (One World Records OW107CD) with their blessing and Island even arranged for EMI to press the records. John sold the limited edition of 10,000 by mail order and from his own front door in Hastings for the princely sum of £2.50p plus 50p postage and packing. Even John doesn't have a copy of the original. 'I sold them all... I was the first of the record independents.' The album epitomises a typical concert charged with atmosphere, incredible music and of course, banter!

With his bent for spontaneity and innovation John now had an enviable reputation and his partnership with Danny Thompson on double bass is legendary and remains one of the greatest of all time. The Old Grey Whistle Test of 1st March 1977 sees John perform Couldn’t Love You More and One World, accompanied Danny Thompson and percussionist Gasper Lawal. Danny had played with the leading jazzers of the day such as Tubby Hayes and Alexis Korner, and then became a founder member of Pentangle in 1967. The two became inseparable and there is a magical understanding between them for all to see. John said, " I think I'll always use Danny Thompson because he's got real feel for my music and I've got real feel for his." Nigerian-born percussionist Gasper Lawal was an ever present on the psychedelic rock scene having played with Ginger Baker, Cream, Camel and The Rolling Stones before going on to form his own band the Africa Aura Band. Jan Akkerman and Kaz Lux also performed and the programme featured Ted Nugent and an interview with Barclay James Harvest.

Our next clip is from the Old Grey Whistle Test broadcast on 15th October 1982. David Hepworth and Mark Ellen presented the programme featuring studio performances from John and Carmel. John and his band of Alan Thomson on bass, Jeff Allen on drums, Danny Cummings on percussion, and Ron Leahy on keyboards perform Hiss On The Tape, the painfully delicate Hung Up and downright nasty Gun Money, all from his recently released album Well Kept Secret.

John Martyn has proved to be a truly eclectic innovator and visionary. His unbelievable talent, infectious sense of humour and energetic lust for life shine through his performances. His breathtaking and poignant music continues to inspire musicians across continents, oceans and generations. Many years since this footage was filmed John’s music still continues to refresh the parts that other music doesn’t reach; the heart and soul.

Genius is an overused word. Exceptional ability and originality? Dazzlingly skilled? Finesse and natural talent? Outstandingly creative? See it, hear it and almost touch it. You decide.

It’s as if you were there…

John Hillarby, May 2006