Live At Leeds And More

30 Jan 2006
Written by: 
Drew Heatley

John Martyn combines musical longevity with a perverse and pigheaded streak. Constant changes in musical direction over his 37-year recording career have meant his flirtations with charts and playlists have been few and far between, but fans will affirm his music is both addictive and intoxicating -a heady brew.

No matter what his current direction, plugged or unplugged, folk, roots, rock or reggae, Martyn has always produced honest and reflective music that has earned him a dedicated following. Born in 1948 near London but raised in Scotland, he grew up playing the guitar, and was writing his own songs as early as 14. In 1967 he decided to pursue his dream by returning to the capital and was signed by Chris Blackwell's Island record label. He says "I had a song called Fairy Tale Lullaby, Blackwell fell in love with it, and he gave me a deal."

Martyn's first LP was released the following year. London Conversation took just two days to make and cost under £ 200. Its acoustic, Dylanesque folk music was a steady start, and a second album was released before the year was out. With just one recording under his belt, The Tumbler saw an immediate change in direction for Martyn, with jazz and blues dominating an album which sounded more rounded with the addition of sessionmen backing his guitar and vocals.

It was at this time Martyn met his first wife, singer Beverley Kutner. He was originally assigned to play backing guitar on her US recording session, but the two ended up travelling to New York together, the end product of their blossoming romance being Stormbringer in 1970. Martyn later rated this, recorded in Woodstock with help from members of Bob Dylan's Band, as "definitely a step forward".

The second of only two albums to be made with Beverley was named The Road To Ruin, and represented the first recorded fruits of his friendship with double bassist Danny Thompson, who made his name with the pioneering folk-rock ensemble Pentangle. "Danny and I were like brothers for a long time. You couldn't have asked for better."

No matther what his current direction, plugged or
unplugged, folk, roots, rock or reggae, Martyn has
always produced honest and reflective music...

Martyn's next release was on his own, and was a personal and professional landmark. He described it [Bless The Weather, ed] as a "pleasure to make", and it was the first real occasion fans heard the guitar sound that was soon to become a trademark. "The Echoplex definitely changed my career because people hadn't heard it before."

1973's Solid Air is described by many John Martyn enthusiasts as his best work. It sold pretty well, but the focus was on the title track, written for friend and fellow singer-songwriter Nick Drake, who died a year later, aged just 26. "I loved Nick and hated the fact that no-one had ever heard him."

Subsequent releases Inside Out, also in 1973, and Sunday's Child two years later reflected Martyn's gradual journey away from jazz and blues and towards more of a rock audience, and he enlisted the help of former Free guitarist Paul Kossoff, who was battling drug abuse problems, on the latter release. Martyn embarked on a tour in 1975, with Kossoff, Thompson and drummer John Stevens, with the aim of promoting Sunday's Child.

A highly collectable LP Live At Leeds was released as a result, distributed by Martyn himself from his home in Hastings after a falling-out with Island Records. This comprises the first disc of our set here, and has rightly been acclaimed by critics as a classic live album. A year after its release Paul Kossoff was dead, and Martyn went on a year-long sabbatical, spending much of his time in Jamaica. He took in musical influences along with the sunshine, and the result of the break was One World, released in '77, which broke into the UK charts at Number 54.

Martyn's personal life was less than sunny, however, and this was reflected in 1980 with the Phil Collins-produced Grace & Danger which reflected Martyn's marriage breakdown. John later described it as "probably the most specific piece of autobiography I've ever written." It would also be his last release on the Island label for a while.

"The Echoplex definitely
changed my career because
people hadn't heard it before."

Snapped up by Warner Brothers, Martyn kept Collins as producer of his next two albums, Glorious Fool in 1981 -its title track being a satirical tribute to then-US president Ronald Reagan- and Well Kept Secret which followed the next year. Both albums hit the Top 30, a first for Martyn. The last two studio albums of the 80s, again on Island, were slightly contrasting. Sapphire while a solid album, felt as though John was treading water in musical terms, whereas Piece By Piece would put him back in the Top 30 once again. With Martyn also celebrating a new marriage, it seems things had come full circle from Grace & Danger six years earlier.

The 90s brought few new albums, but the concert stage remained, as ever, his favoured arena. Our second CD goes back in time and cherrypicks some of the best of the concert cuts recorded over the years and released on his One World label. Perennial favourite Big Muff (named after an effects pedal he favours) was recorded live in Milan in 1979, while his unique reading of the celluloid standard Over The Rainbow was cut seven years later at London's Town and Country Club.

A tour to promote the 1996 album And yields a cover of Allen Toussaint's Yes We Can and the impassioned, self-penned Step It Up -while Dealer and Beverley find him once again in the company of Danny Thompson (and drummer Arran Ahmun) at Kendal in 1986. Lookin' On and The River came from a show at the Shaw Theatre in London in 1990, while Root Love and the never-released Anna have been plucked from a performance at New York's famed Bottom Line club in 1983.

John Martyn has shown that a
fearless disregard for conformity
and commercial success can fuel
a long and fruitful career

A new millennium brought a new album in 2000's Glasgow Walker. It was a controversial release among fans, being the first for which Martyn largely forsook his guitar in favour of a keyboard. "Phil Collins suggested I should buy this certain type of keyboard which he uses," he explained, "and that's why it took me three years to make the album. I had to spend eighteen months learning how to get a reasonable sound out of it."

With a career spanning four decades, John Martyn has shown that a fearless disregard for conformity and commercial success can fuel a long and fruitful career, even if mainstream recognition has been fitful. Having overcome major health problems including the loss of a leg, he is still going strong and shows no sign of letting up. Long may his music echo...

Drew Heatley

Various mistakes have been corrected.