London Conversation (remastered & expanded)

7 Nov 2005
Written by: 
John Hillarby

John's debut album, London Conversation, was recorded in mono at Pye Studios in Marble Arch for the princely some of £ 158 and released in October 1967. An album of innocent songs that won praise from the music press and launched a career that has spanned five decades!

Music is a constantly evolving language, a shifting landscape of creativity where artists emerge, gain recognition and often subside into obscurity. Few artists successfully transverse this creative landscape and receive the recognition for innovation that they deserve.

Remarkably talented, compassionate and often forthright, John Martyn is one such artist who has influenced and inspired whole generations of new musicians. Just when you feel that you've heard all he has to offer, when you've finally pinned down and categorised his music, he undergoes yet another metamorphosis. Folk? Blues? Reggae? Jazz? Rock? Trip Hop? Funk? John refuses to conform to any particular music genre whilst simultaneously embracing them all. His guitar playing has evolved over the years - acoustic guitar in the 60s, to electro-acoustic in the 70s with a wah wah pedal, fuzz box and echoplex, to the 80s which saw him playing electric guitar almost exclusively in a full band setting and the 90s which saw trip hop and funk enter his music.

There was no Hogwarts for John his guitar wizardry is self-taught; a truly progressive artist who has never been one to stay with a tried and trusted sound, preferring to explore, experiment and break new ground bringing new ideas, colours and textures to his music. His live performances are legendary and many of the songs on John's studio albums have evolved from exploring and pushing back accepted musical boundaries during these free and less structured live performances.

John is an incurable romantic who sings from his heart; no other artist sings with such commitment and emotion. People fall in and out of love listening to his magical songs of deep sensitivity. John's music is a barometer of our emotional state, our well being can be measured by the songs we listen to; passion and spirituality are at the heart of them all and in the heart of the man himself.

John Martyn was born Ian David McGeachy on 11th September 1948 in Beechcroft Avenue, New Malden, Surrey, the only son of two light opera singers Thomas Paterson McGeachy and Beatrice Jewitt. John's parents separated when he was very young and his early childhood was spent being brought up by his father and grandmother in Glasgow. His grandmother instilled traditional Scottish values, "I was brought up with my grandmother and my father, I thought it was wonderful, I had a great time. The school was in walking distance and my grandmother being the old school kind of Victorian, she just treated me wonderfully." His father taught him "how to fish and fuck and ride a bike!"

Glasgow was renowned for its shipbuilding and engineering industries but by the 1950s the demand for merchant and navy ships had dwindled. The declining city was a far from attractive place, and on many winter nights a thick smog enveloped the city so tightly that you could often see little more than a few yards in front of you. The old stone tenements of the Gorbals that Oscar Marzaroli had captured in his evocative photographs were being demolished and replaced with high rise blocks. John recalls it was a tough environment where "you went out and kicked a few heads or you were looked on as a pansy."

John walked to school at the Shawlands Academy in Moss Side Road and later attended the Glasgow School of Art but was asked to leave after a couple of months! "I was thinking it was all going to be bohemian, listening to Rolling Stones records all day and smoke dope and drink coffee. That was going to be my life style and it didn't work out that way." His interest in music came from his parents but not just as a result of their profession, "my father was a bit of a raver… he had a Davey Graham record!" Davey Graham was to become one of the major influences on John's music. I asked John about his childhood, "I was a cub scout!" He enthused. During the school holidays John stayed with his mother, "we had a houseboat on The Thames at Thames Ditton and then later opposite the Ship Hotel at Shepperton. The pub would be full of actors from the nearby film studios... a very strange bunch," he added chuckling to himself. John saved up money from a paper round to buy his first guitar and learnt to play at fifteen years old. Aged seventeen, he left school and started to play in some of the local folk clubs under the wing of Hamish Imlach, who encouraged him to play and introduced him to many different music genres. Imlach, who could see the ability and promise in John, was born in Calcutta. He was a warm, generous man and a singer and blues guitarist with a considerable reputation.

Davey Graham, a groundbreaking musician credited with blurring the boundaries of folk, blues and jazz, was one of John's first heroes, "he was the man who impressed me so much with his playing that I decided to go out and play myself. I had in fact heard him by 1965, and I was so impressed that I wanted to be Davey Graham or if I couldn't be Davey Graham, I wasn't going to be too far away from him. So I went out and bought a guitar."

John's first gig was somewhat unexpected; "Josh McCrae got drunk in the pub and could not appear. So I was given the gig, because I was the only one in the audience who could play the guitar and sing. And about four months after that I played in a place called The Black Bull in Dollar, which is outside Stirling. I got eleven quid for it, that was wonderful." Clive Palmer, who owned Clive's Incredible Folk Club in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, founded the Incredible String Band with Robin Williamson in the mid 1960s and became a good friend of John's, "the best banjo player I ever heard and a lovely man." John and Clive shared a flat and frequented the music pubs and clubs, "Those were wild times, and Clive was a remarkable man, a great musician and down to earth, absolutely no bullshit, taught me lots of things to play." They subsequently lived in a dilapidated cottage in Cumbria, John recalls, "there was no electricity, no running water, but we played all day. You walked out the front and there was nothing. Just the moor. And a spring for your water. Fine days."

With a growing reputation on the club circuit in the North, John decided it was time to move on and travelled to London. There was a booming and vibrant music scene with new clubs opening all the time, "I was dossing in London, sleeping in Trafalgar Square and getting moved on by the fuzz." He took the name John Martyn at the suggestion of his first agent Sandy Glennon. His new surname came from the makers of his favourite acoustic guitars; substituting the letter "i" for a "y" and the first name John for no other reason than it seemed plain and simple. John started playing in the clubs around London such as Les Cousins in Greek Street, Bunjie's and the Kingston Folk Barge. "I was playing a club called Folk Barge in Kingston, and a fat man called Theo Johnson came up to me and said, ‘I will make you a star.' Literally, quite literally! Verbatim! And I said, ‘Go ahead then,' and he took the record to Chris Blackwell, he made a demo disc of two songs, and introduced me, and there you are!" Les Cousins, John recalls, was "a real buzz, a wonderful place." Chris Blackwell, the son of a plantation owner, founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1959. The label took its name from the Alec Waugh novel Island In The Sun and early releases were by West Indian musicians, John reputably being the first white artist to sign to the label. Blackwell recalls, "I liked him and loved his voice so I signed him."

London Conversation was released when John was just nineteen years old the album being produced by Theo Johnson under the supervision of Chris Blackwell. The album is in the folk tradition with some excellent lyrics and jazzy instrumentation such as the sitar and flute in Rolling Home. It was this instrumentation that set John apart from his fellow musicians on the folk circuit at the time.

Back To Stay is a beautiful love song with a wistful melody and an indication of what was to come on John's later albums.

Although I've been away so many lonely nights
You know I'm back today
I'm back to stay in your arms
And though I've been around and lived the life I said I loved
You know without you
Honey, all I do is worth nothing
And girlie, don't cry for me...

Although there might be other people in my life
Honey, on my mind
You will always find there's only you
And though you say you'll journey to some foreign land
I'll remember you
Yes, and I'll be true to your memory
And girlie, don't cry for me...

And when, at last, you do come wandering home to me
I might look at you
But it will be through the weeks between
And when I hold you, it might not be you I have
In the passing days
We might both have changed to something new
And girlie, don't cry for me...

And though I've been away so many lonely nights
You know I'm back today
I'm back to stay in your arms
And though I've been around and lived the life I said I loved
You know without you
Honey, all I do is worth nothing
And girlie, don't cry for me...

John recorded Sandy Grey, a song about Nick Drake, written by the American singer-songwriter Robin Frederick. She was living in Aix-en-Provence, France singing folk songs and some of her own work with Jon Sundell who was later to co write the title track London Conversation with John. Nick Drake met her at the Club De La Tartane and the two became very close. Nick and Robin were to meet at a café but Nick never showed. As a result the furious and hurt Robin wrote Sandy Grey. In the summer of 1967 she hitchhiked to London where she met John and spent time, "listening to Sgt. Pepper and the Incredible String Band, watching John learn to play sitar in about ten minutes, living on toast and tea while he recorded his first album, London Conversation." At the time John didn't know that Sandy Grey was about Nick as the two had not yet met. In the years to come John and Nick were to become good friends and John wrote Solid Air about him, the song being released on the album of the same name (Solid Air IMCD274) in 1973.

I know that John doesn't like to talk about Nick but he's in a buoyant mood, so I ask him how they came to meet. "Nick was a friend of Paul Wheeler and we met at a Folk Club in Cambridge a few months before Bryter Layter (IMCD71) came out. I'd seen him before but not really paid him much attention. He was a lovely, charming man and stayed with Bev and me at our place in Hampstead. A great friend…" John then retreats with his very personal memories of Nick and the reluctance to talk about him any further is written across his face.

John sings of catching stars, rainbows and pixies all the things that children dream of in the beautifully enchanting Fairy Tale Lullaby

If you want to ride a rainbow, come with me
I will take you to the magic purple sea
Maybe we will find a thousand sugar fish
When you eat them they will grant your every wish
And if you want your friends to come
Then bring them all along…

She Moved Through the Fair was found on the original mono studio master tape and is released for the first time here as a bonus track. The song dates from medieval times and although there are many versions, Irish poet Padraic Colum is widely credited with the lyrics. The words were published in his poetry collection Wild Earth and Other Poems in 1916. John sings;

My young love said to me
"My mother won't mind
And my father won't slight you
For your lack of kind."

And she laid her hand on me
And this she did say
"It will not be long, love
Till our wedding day."

She stepped away from me
And she went through the fair
And fondly I watched her
Move here and move there

And then she went homeward
With one star awake
As the swan in the evening
Moves over the lake.

Last night she came to me
My true love came in
And softly she came
That her feet made no din

And she laid her hand on me
And this she did say
"It will not be long, love
Till our wedding day."

In the first verse the word "kind" was originally "kine" an ancient word for cattle being symbolic of a persons wealth in medieval times. Davey Graham recorded the song for his 1963 EP The Thamesiders and Davey Graham, as did Sandy Denny in 1967 as a home demo. Like John, her version was not released until many years later when it appeared on A Boxful of Treasures (Fledg'ling Records NEST 5002) in 2004. Although she did release a different version with Fairport Convention on What We Did On Our Holidays (IMCD294) in January 1969.

Cocaine is a traditional song arranged by John and remains a favourite with him, the only song from the album that he still performs today. John's cover of Bob Dylan's Don't Think Twice demonstrates his sensitive nature. His young fresh voice gives the song a simple almost innocent air and this same innocence is evident throughout the whole album.

A little over a year later in December 1968 John was to release his second album The Tumbler (IMCD320) a very different album to London Conversation…

John Hillarby, September 2005