The Pilgrim's Progress Has Been Hard

1 Dec 1993
Written by: 
Colin Escott

A hard bloody slog, John Martyn would be the first to tell you. It has been real progress, though. No ruts. No comfortable niches. No standing still. Just look at the album jackets. There's the cherubic eighteen year-old folkie picking away on a London rooftop in 1967, the bearded seer with electrical storms raging inside in his head a few years later, and, later still, the suited man who would be an '80s rock star like his friends Eric and Phil.

John Martyn never really caught on in North America. Touring the stadiums as a supporting act with Yes in 1973 and with Eric Clapton five years later was about as close as he got. Guitarists latched onto him. Folkniks didn't know what to make of him; one minute he was Spencer the Rover - the next, he was Robert Fripp with tape loops and gizmos. At no point did he record anything Top 40 learned to love. An undercurrent of peculiarly Celtic despair running through his work didn't help.

John was brought up in Glasgow, although he was born in the London stockbroker belt. He was an only child, and his parents divorced when he was five. His mother returned to England, and he shuttled between southern England and Glasgow. He heard an odd mix of music; Scottish Presbyterian Sunday afternoon music, British music hall and variety. His mother was a trained soprano, and his father a tenor. They had worked as an act for a while. John was hipped to folk music by Joan Baez's recording of 'Silver Dagger'. In 1964, he joined up with Hamish Imlach, a traditional Scottish singer who tutored him, and introduced him as a guest on his shows. Imlach was content to stand pat ('Finger in the earhole and 'Shoals of Herring' eighteen times a night,' was how John characterized it later); John wanted to move on. By the time he was seventeen, he was working solo in Scotland. At eighteen, he went south.

He was working at a folk club on a barge moored on the Thames near London, when someone who knew someone at Island Records got him a contract in 1967. Island was a true island label then, specializing in Jamaican music. John's first album, London Conversation, was an innocent affair. His hero was Davy Graham, a British guitarist who mixed folk, jazz, blues with anything else that caught his fancy. Graham's music was an adventure conducted with taste, and John borrowed a lot of his broad strokes. Then he started listening to modal music - Irish, late period Coltrane, and Indian music. The Band turned him on to the potential of the electric guitar.

Memory, John once said, distills all the sounds ever heard, and, by the late '60s, some of those sounds were starting to percolate into his music. The songs were becoming obscure and personalized; the vocals a little more slurred. If John found a note he liked, he hung onto it and fooled around with it. Traditional folk forms went out the window. People drew comparisons to Tim Buckley, but John insisted he had never even heard Buckley, much less been influenced by him.

In 1969, John met Beverley Kutner. She was a singer too. She had sung in a jug band, even played at the Monterey Pop Festival. They married, moved into a basement apartment in London, had a son, and went to Woodstock, New York, where they cut their first album together, Stormbringer. Then they cut another, but it became clear soon enough that they had different musical goals. John wasn't happy as half of the Sonny and Cher of the British folk scene; he wanted music freer of discipline and convenient pigeonholes.

Alone again on record, John planned an acoustic and electric album. The acoustic set, Bless The Weather, was cut in three days and released in November 1971. It's the place we come in. Most of the songs were written in the studio and improvised by the group John assembled. The dialogue between the acoustic bass and guitar - the core relationship in John's music, is here. So is 'Head And Heart', the balance he said he tried to achieve in his music and in his life. America (remember them?) later covered the song. 'Glistening Glyndebourne' became his instrumental setpiece on shows. The modal structure, jungly percussion, and introduction of tape loops showed where his thoughts were heading. The title came from a town near John's new home in Sussex that hosts an opera festival. 'There was this small country station, and hundreds of people in evening gowns and dinner jackets poured onto the train,' John told Melody Maker. 'It was so formal and I think music should be informal. I wanted something very loose that could change every time I played it.'

Solid Air, released in February 1973, confirmed the new course. It was a darker, eerier work, still generally reckoned to be John's masterpiece. The texture of the title song was dictated by Danny Thompson's bass, mixed way up. Inasmuch as the lyrics offered themselves up to interpretation, they were for or about John's Island labelmate, Nick Drake. Nick lived near John for a while, and died mysteriously, if not altogether unexpectedly, the following year. The album's lightest moment, 'May You Never,' was picked up and covered by Eric Clapton on Slowhand.

Inside Out came later in 1973. 'My insides coming out,' was the way John explained the title. His vocals, coarse and throaty as a three pack-a-day man, were now often strangled to the point of effacement, and mixed down to blend almost seamlessly with Danny Thompson's bass. Angriness was starting to bubble up. 'When I started,' John said later to Q magazine, 'it was the era of the singer-songwriter when people would say, 'Oh what a lovely line.' I still appreciate that in others, but for myself I prefer the noise... I was actually very shy and retiring and ever so sweet and gentle until I was 20, then I just got the heave with Donovan and Cat Stevens and all that terribly nice rolling up joints, sitting on toadstools, watching the sunlight dapple through the dingly dell of life's rich pattern stuff... I'm not really that nice, and I very consciously turned away from all that.'

The impetus to experiment with technology came from Terry Riley's A Rainbow In Curved Air. John brought the fuzz box, the phase-shifter, and Echoplex into his arsenal, using them to explore tone, texture and volume. The gizmos had a side benefit in that he could become a true one-man-band. With a flick of a switch, he could call up the glottal shrieks of Pharoah Sanders as easily as a gentle recurring rhythmic pattern. The phase-shifter was used to haunting effect on 'Eibhli Gheal Chiuin Ni Chearbhaill' ('The Fair And Charming Eileen O'Carroll'), an air collected from a blind Irish harpist in the early 1800s.

Sometimes John played alone on-stage with his paraphernalia; sometimes Danny Thompson, who had now quit Pentangle, went out with him ('We keep each insane,' was the standing joke). In England, he still worked universities and clubs where he was known, and sometimes people sang along to the hummable songs. In 1973, Traffic and Free took him on their U.S. tour. Then, eight days later, Yes brought him back to the States and John found himself facing 50,000 people in football stadiums who had no idea who he was. He did some shows from an airchair, fueled by a beer at his side. Later, Yes's superstar trappings gave John and Danny something to laugh about as they made their way around the British Isles on British Rail. 'If the Dom Perignon isn't '65 then '66 just won't do. Haw, haw, haw.'

Sunday's Child, recorded in November 1974 and released two months later, was a more sanguine John Martyn than we'd heard in a while. John shared a laugh with his daughter, Mhairi, on the back jacket. Happy in Hastings - for now at least. The title song, as John explained it to Melody Maker, was 'about a greasy night in [London's] West End. It was the end of Saturday night, and it was written about that point of the evening when you know you're not going to have a good time so you've got to get drunk. The only good thing about it is that you can get up the next day, and it's Sunday.' As with most of John's songs, the lyrics were sufficiently oblique to invite different meanings on different days.

And that was the last we heard from John for three years. He took a live album to Island, but the company didn't think the time was right, so he sold it himself from his home, which led to another set of problems. 'You can't be answering your door to Spaniards every day,' he said, shortly before he moved. 'Total freaks turning up at your door with their sleeping bags. "Hi man, always dug your music. Any chance of a crash?" '

John took a sabbatical in 1976 to wean himself off life-sweeteners and break the record/tour, record/tour cycle. He spent four months in Jamaica, played on Burning Spear's Man In The Hills album, made a few sessions for other artists, but otherwise stayed clear of the studio. When he came back, it was with One World.

The album was previewed in November 1977 at a concert at London's Rainbow Theater when John was backed by Steve Winwood, and the rhythm section from Gong. Produced by Island Records president Chris Blackwell, One World was understated, jazzy, almost minimalist. The voice was further upfront in the mix, but the essential character of John's music in which voice, words, instruments and arrangement blend and cross-fade was still intact. The ebb and flow of 'Small Hours' was a lesson in how to sustain and stage subtle alterations in a mood piece without once letting the tension slip. There were more overdubs than usual on John Martyn sessions. Many were called to play; few were chosen. It takes a special kind of musician to work with John. 'I had veto power,' he said at the time, 'but it came out a good bit sweeter and gentler than I expected, so the next one will probably be very electric.' And it was.

Grace And Danger, released in October 1980, was an album that swung precipitously between anger and remorse. It was, as John told Q magazine years later, a commentary on the breakup of his marriage. 'I believe you do your best work when you're the most screwed up,' he said. 'Grace And Danger is "Oh dear, my baby done left me. Come back please, baby, baby..." ' It was also the beginning of John's partnership with Phil Collins. 'We were both going through the same emotional trauma,' he told Q. "There was vast amounts of going down the potting shed together and weeping. I'd phone Beverley and it would be 'Aaargh', then it would be Phil's turn. We were both making ourselves terribly miserable, and then playing and singing about it.' Even so, Sweet Little Mystery, as catchy as the common cold, might have stood a chance at Top 40 if Disco hadn't ruled.

Phil Collins produced John after he quit Island for Warner Brothers in 1981. By the time John returned to Island four years later, he had remarried and had moved as far from Sussex as he could without leaving the British Isles. He was back in Scotland in a small village in Lanarkshire. Sapphire, released in 1985, was produced in the Bahamas with the involvement of Robert Palmer. 'It started with another producer,' John told Barney Hoskyns, 'and he made me nervous and I made him nervous, so after we'd done about ten tracks I went over to Robert who lived across the road, and said, 'Look, I'm not getting on very well here. Would you fancy lending me a hand?' There wasn't much John Martyn guitar on the record, and some of the improvisational looseness that had made his music so special had been lost somewhere along the way.

Sometimes, though, the multi-layered productions worked in John's favor. The haunting 'Angeline,' from Piece By Piece, is a case in point. It headlined the first generally available CD single, a five-song sampler CD from John's back catalog released in March 1986.

Now it's twenty-five years and counting since London Conversation. For that long, John Martyn has stared down the obvious. He says his sense of adventure came from the need to avoid boredom rather a need to constantly experiment and evolve - and perhaps that's true. One result is that there aren't many John Martyn songs you can sing in the shower, but there are other rewards. All kinds of sounds and furies meet here, brought together by a keen, intuitive musical intelligence. The words are introspective without ever lapsing into compulsive self-psychoanalysis, although they really need to be beard in John's voice to give them meaning.

Every John Martyn record has been an adventure of some kind, and it's the sense of adventure, underpinned by a surefooted knowledge of what works-and what doesn't, that makes this music survive as well as it has. The albums are the work of a true eccentric. 'Every record,' John once said, 'is totally autobiographical. That's the only way I can write. Some people keep diaries. I make records.' Still, for all that, the sweet little mysteries rarely lend themselves to easy interpretation.

Colin Escott
Toronto, December 1993