Mad Dog Days

7 Jun 2004
Written by: 
'Jet' Martin Celmins

This 3-CD boxed-set features John Martyn live performance's and studio sessions from the '70s, '80s and '90s. The songs included make Mad Dog Days a mini-retrospective of Martyn's prolific career -a career that began with traditional folk (captured here on Spencer The Rover CD2 track 11) but soon ventured into freeform jazz-blues (Outside In CD2 track 2).

What's more, the musicians accompanying him here (Dave Gilmour, Phil Collins, Gerry Conway and Danny Thompson are among them) create the different atmospheres and variety of textures for which John Martyn bands and concerts are renowned. Variety ranging from a duo (with Thompson on upright bass) on a 1986 recording of One Day Without You CD2 - track 1... to a three guitars-keyboard-bass-drums-percussion-backing vocals lineup on a 1993 live performance of Head And Heart CD1 track 5... to a two guitars-two pianos-synth-viola-bass-drums ensemble on Bless The Weather CD1 track 8.


The above description of John Martyn as the day-in day-out singer came from a child living in the tiny Scottish village where the guitarist and songwriter stayed and still owns a converted church. As John himself puts it, whereas some people keep diaries... he writes songs. During some forty years in the business he's also been described as folk-hippie, carouser, troubadour, and even curmudgeonly (or ornapcious, as the Scottish would say). Martyn is a man prone to speak his mind, regardless, and a man seemingly driven by his fear of boredom and predictability. For instance, by his mid-twenties (he was born in 1948) he'd made several acclaimed albums -notably Solid Air- for Chris Blackwell's Island label, and was living the rock'n'roll life full-tilt. Enough so, to believe that he would quit the business by the time he was 35: "I don't see myself staggering about till I drop," he pointed out. Another 'near-miss' retirement came in 1976 when -exhausted by constant gigging- he took a sabbatical in Jamaica and was intent on giving up music in order to concentrate on another passion -gambling. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't long before Jamaica's musical main men (eg Burning Spear, Max Romeo, and Lee Perry) drew Martyn into their fold. A quarter of a century on, early retirement from music remains a mirage: since the millennium not only has he made two albums (Glasgow Walker and his new one) but a collaboration with Sister Bliss put Martyn's unmistakeable voice on Radio 1 and in the singles charts.
And only a year or so after illness sadly put him in a wheelchair, spring 2004 sees the man heading off on a UK concert-hall tour. A music critic for The Guardian hit the spot when he once wrote: "John Martyn strikes the perfect balance between virtuosity and simplicity, romance and realism, nostalgia and modernism. Put simply he's in a league of his own."


A typically eccentric episode in the John Martyn Story goes back to the early-1980s. Suddenly this reluctant rock star just took off to Moscow. [Nb: it transpires that this was Moscow near Kilmarnock, and not the Soviet capital as misunderstood by the interviewer in the DVD.] Here he spent some time basking in the anonymity of being a streetcorner busker and earning his daily bread by singing busking classics such as Donovan's Catch The Wind. (This, from a man who still regards that whole 1960s pop folksinger scene as a bit too 'Val Doonican-esque'...)

"John Martyn strikes the
perfect balance between
virtuosity and simplicity,
romance and realism,
nostalgia and modernism.
Put simply he's in a
league of his own."

Maybe this busking escapade partly was fuelled by boredom, but also by John's lifelong love of blues-lore and that whole bygone era of black bluesmen singing for their next meal in places like Chicago's Maxwell Street. Mad Dog Days features blues man John's interpretation of Skip James' I'd Rather Be The Devil (CD2 track 3). 1950s blues man and street minstrel Snooks Eaglin and Robert Johnson were also big influences on Martyn. But right from early childhood he was exposed to a wide range of music. Although he grew up in Glasgow, school-holidays were spent in south-London's Kingston with his mum, after his parents (both opera singers) split up when he was five. So, by the time that he first took up guitar, aged 17, he'd heard a lot of Debussy, jazz and traditional Scottish folk music. And as an aspiring and soon-to-be-noticed guitarist, young John's key influences included Davey Graham's East-meets-West approach, and also the clean fingerstyle playing of Joan Baez.

Scottish traditional folkie Hamish Imlach encouraged Martyn to experiment with melding modern and trad music; another influence was Incredible String Band founder, Clive Palmer (who shared a house with John in Cumbria's Alston in the mid-1960s). Palmer was a student of traditional banjo folk music.

And so when he first ventured clown to London, teenager John already was clued-up with rare hand-me-down musical knowledge and soon became a welcome new face on the acoustic scene. Its focus was Les Cousins coffee-bar which was home from home for guitarist-songwriters such as Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham and Al Stewart (who in late-1968 produced John's second album The Tumbler).

More than anything else, though -as John mentions in the DVD interview- the move to London meant the discovery of black ska music for this Vespa-scooting mod. In fact, Martyn was the first white solo artist on the reggae-focused Island label when Chris Blackwell signed him in late-1967. Of course, just a couple of years later Island was the home of white-boy folk-rock and blues-rock with a roster ranging from Fairport Convention to Jethro Tull and Free.

Martyn's 1967 debut album and 1968 follow-up are now curios from another era of studio recording: London Conversation came out in mono only and The Tumbler was reportedly recorded in an afternoon for under £ 200. With the second album John had already moved on from the one-man-and-guitar-versus-the world groove, and was happily mapping out a blueprint for the kind of jazz-blues he has since made his own. Jazz flautist Harold McNair, plus drums and bass completed the instrumentation for The Tumbler. This jazz connection marked John out in an era of greased-lightning guitar heroes. Instead, John Martyn was from the speed-kills school where less is more, or as your man himself once put it, "one right note saying more than a fretful of wrongs".

The musical mentor who fired John's imagination to go for sustained single notes on guitar was saxophonist Pharoah Sanders: listening to his Karma album eventually led Martyn to the Echoplex effect, which became his trademark. Later cuts such as Glistening Glyndebourne, Inside Out and Sunday's Child feature fine Echoplex texturing (the Echoplex sound also became a big influence on U2's guitarist, the Edge).
Mad Dog Days includes many fine Echoplex moments, but a live performance of Outside In (CD2 - track 3) captures John -the soundscapist- at his spaciest and smokiest.

1969 and the Stormbringer album was a turning point for John in all sorts of ways. Musically, the turning point was a move away from acoustic guitar and its accepted phrasing and sound. Romantically, he met and soon married Coventry singer Beverley Kutner. Initially, John was booked as her back-up guitarist but then the pair landed a deal with Warner Brothers who financed their Woodstock experience. It was whilst living in Woodstock Village that John met Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, and it was there that he and Beverley rehearsed material for Stormbringer which was then recorded in New York with Paul Harris, producer for the Doors and John Sebastian.

Also at Woodstock, The Band were staying down the road from Martyn in a communal home called Big Pink. Their ground-breaking debut album Music From Big Pink inspired him to search for new guitar sounds. The improvising of Stormbringer was seen as definite step forward when it came out in February 1970. John made a second album with Beverley: The Road To Ruin also saw the beginning of a lasting and crucial musical partnership with Pentangle's bass player Danny Thompson. As Beverley then concentrated on being a mum to their two very young children, John went into the studio to record Bless The Weather and was accompanied by folk guitar-hero Richard Thompson (ex-Fairport Convention) and jazz-rock musicians such as Tony Reeves (Colosseum) and Roger Powell (Mighty Baby). This collection features a 1993 live version of the title track (CD1 track 8) - Head And Heart (CD1 track 5) also began its enduring life on this 1971 album.

John brought in most of Fairport Convention for 1973's critically-acclaimed Solid Air. May You Never failed as a single release for the songwriter but Eric Clapton's cover of the song remains a highpoint of his 1977 Slowhand album.
The title track Solid Air Martyn wrote for Nick Drake who was in a personal abyss at the time. (As John recalls on the DVD interview, neither Drake nor another friend, ex-Free guitarist Paul Kossoff, were to last much longer -both in their own way ending up as victims of the music business.)

The follow-up to Solid Air was an experiment: Inside Out consisted of spontaneous and often late-night jamming sessions in the studio with big names such as Stevie Winwood and Bobby Keyes taking part. Some twenty years on, this collection features a live version of that album's opening track Fine Lines (CD1 track 3) this time with keyboardist Spencer Cozens, Bobby Lewis on flugelhorn and Fairport's Gerry Conway on drums. The album received an award from the Montreux Jazz Festival.

The subsequent 1970s studio albums Sunday's Child (with Paul Kossoff guesting)1 and One World returned to a more conventional approach to songwriting: much of the latter project was borne of the Jamaica experience. This collection features live versions of two One World songs -Big Muff (CD1 track 1) and Dealer performed in 1986 as a duo with Danny Thompson.

1980's Grace And Danger album saw John collaborating with Phil Collins when both musicians were going through marriage break-ups. Bassist on this project was Brand X's John Giblin who was much influenced by the harmonic bass playing style of Weather Report's Jaco Pastorius.
Despite its musical excellence, Island Records' Chris Blackwell then postponed release of this album because he found it emotionally too disturbing. Only after much cajoling from John did it come out in October 1980.

In the early-1980s Martyn moved to WEA and worked with Collins on what were his two most commercially successful albums -Glorious Fool and Well Kept Secret. Returning to Island for his next album, 1984's Sapphire, John worked closely with Robert Palmer. Sapphire includes the track Mad Dog Days, a 1986 live performance of which is the title track for this collection (CD1 track 9).

1986's Piece By Piece would be his last new release for Island. They parted company in the late-1980s when he had already written most of his next album The Apprentice. Eventually released on Permanent in 1990, John once more took his acoustic guitar to those sessions after a decade of playing electric only. In the early 1990s John toured and travelled -with frequent lengthy stays in Chicago. 1996's And album came out on Go! discs and charted at 32.

He brought out a collection of his interpretations of classic songs from all eras called The Church With One Bell -with royalties from this he bought a converted church up in Scotland. He has kept this on even though nowadays his base is in Ireland, which is where he recorded his latest album.

In 2004 John Martyn's journey continues despite those health problems during the past couple of years (a cyst in his leg caused circulation problems which eventually necessitated part of the limb to be amputated). As well as the 2-month UK tour, the BBC has made a documentary about the man, his music and attitude. John Martyn clearly is unstoppable.

'Jet' Martin Celmins

1 No idea where he got this idea, probably confused with the longer version of Live At Leeds.