Live In Milan 1979

27 May 2002
Written by: 
John Hillarby

With an established reputation as a singer-songwriter on the folk circuit in the late 1960s and early 1970s, John Martyn fans could be excused for wondering if they had arrived at the right venue and were listening to the same artiste by the mid 1970s! John was now experimenting with a fuzz box, a volume/ wah wah pedal and the echoplex. He was creating an astonishing wall of vibrantly textured sound that filled theatres to the delight and wonder of music fans. The sound was more akin to that of an orchestra than to one man with an acoustic guitar. This new, rougher, tougher experimental sound saw John steamrollering his way from folk to progressive rock, with a sound that was simply all his own.

What happened to the folky John Martyn? "I'd fallen in with a bunch of Chicanos, they introduced me to Pharoah Sanders' records. I'd been listening to all this 'fol de rol lah di dah' and suddenly there's this guy roaring and wailing away and that opened my mind like you wouldn't believe. Fuck me, it was gorgeous! I wanted that roar and sustain, like you got with Pharoah's saxophone. But I was too old to learn the sax, which is why I got the fuzz pedal and echoplex." A true innovator, John's fascination with electric sound and effects soon distanced him entirely from the folk scene, as he continued to break all the rules using the echoplex to build layers of rhythmic sound. "The echoplex I'm in love with, it's a wonderful machine!"

Perhaps the earliest indication of John's interest in electronics can be heard on the songs 'Would You Believe Me' and 'The Ocean' from the album Stormbringer released in February 1970. These two songs gave the listener a taste of things to come with the boundless possibilities of electric music. By 1971 John was well and truly plugged in and 'Glistening Glyndebourne' on the album Bless The Weather, showcased John's developing technique of playing acoustic guitar through the echoplex to stunning effect. Not everyone was impressed by this change in direction and, unbelievably, Rolling Stone magazine dismissed the track describing it as "rambling", perhaps unable to appreciate John pioneering this extraordinary technique let alone understand it! Fortunately John explained, "With my electric music, what happens is that the note comes out of the pick-up on the guitar and goes into the fuzz box which I use now and again, and then it goes into a combination of volume and wah-wah pedal which I use a fair bit. It comes out of that and goes into an echoplex, which repeats the note so you chop in between rhythms, and you can choose your own timings because it's completely elastic. And you can set the number of repeats."

Thanks John, that's cleared that up nicely! Despite the concerns of Rolling Stone, other music papers embraced John's experimental electric adventure, "A masterpiece, John continues to stay several steps in front of his contemporaries with tracks like 'Glistening Glyndebourne'!" Wrote Sounds.

John moved from London to Hastings in 1971, a move that influenced his writing greatly. Hastings is a fishing town on the south coast of England, and that great natural phenomenon the British weather rules the town and its economy unpredictably. John and his family lived in Cobourg Place, Old Town and he wrote many songs including 'Bless The Weather' and 'Over The Hill' whilst living there, an environment wholly different from that of Hampstead in London. By the middle of the 1970s John had fully embraced electronics and continued to amaze and astound audiences across the world with a string of successful studio albums and tours.

John toured Europe in 1979 having successfully toured both America and Australia the previous year. We join John on 14th May 1979 for a solo gig at Teatro Di Porta Romana in Milan. This restored recording contains something for everybody from the full-blooded electric 'Big Muff', which is named after the Big Muff Fuzz Box John used at the time, to the heartwarming 'Couldn't Love You More'.

Unfortunately, the performance of 'I'd Rather be the Devil' was beyond restoration and so has had to be cut short, however, there are two bonus songs on this release. The first is a tremendously fast and furious 1977 version of this song, a real mix of venom and adrenalin, the second is a unique medley of 'Stay'/ 'Anna'/ 'Small Hours', recorded on the same tour three days later on 17th May 1979 in Turin. 'Stay' was originally recorded by Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs in 1960 and has subsequently been covered by many artistes but none in such a radical 'makethesongallmyown' way as John does here. Although the quality leaves something to be desired I'm sure you will agree that it is a worthwhile addition to this release.

It's 23 years since this recording was made however, John Martyn's music somehow defies the ravages of time. Is it the beguiling, warm, touchy-feely songs? The mind blowing atmospheric echoplex creations? Or John's bittersweet languourous voice? Every one of John's fans would have a different answer, but one thing is for sure, his music gets deep inside you and once there that's where it stays.

For those of you who didn't see John playing live in the 1970s here's a taster of what you missed and for the lucky ones who did, here is a reminder of the John Martyn one-man-orchestra, spliff-filled auditoriums and a great vibe!

John Hillarby

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