Listening to John Martyn…..

To say that John Martyn was a complex character is to state the overwhelmingly obvious.  I had a number of encounters with John over the years and all shed a slightly different light on said character.  The first John Martyn that most of us encounter is via his records – the soulful, poetic singer-songwriter with the slurred vocals and fluid guitar style.  That’s what initially sucked me in; I’d originally heard John on the 1968 Island sampler, ‘You can all join in’, to which he contributed the wonderful ‘Dusty‘, which, if anything,  evoked another Scottish folkie, Donovan .  Later, in the early 70’s,  I bought a copy of ‘Solid Air’ and was immediately hooked. 

John came to play at the folk club at my college around this time and we were all entranced by his onstage banter and the way he was clearly able to lose himself in singing and playing.  We were also probably further influenced by the fact that he came on stage carrying his guitar in one hand and a half-pint beer-mug stuffed with small spliffs in the other.  His idea of between-song banter was to finish one song, light up a spliff whilst he talked about the next one, then pass the spliff down to a member of the audience once he was ready to play.  This was John the stoned, genial hippy – a reputation he was to retain throughout his career.

By the time I encountered John Martyn again, he had reinvented himself as a rock star. One balmy summer’s evening in 1978, I saw him playing solo in Regent’s Park.  He played a tremendous set, featuring a lot of the songs from his recently issued ‘One World’ album and making  frequent use of the echoplexed electro-acoustic style that had by now become his trademark.  Some of this show subsequently appeared as part of the bonus disc in the expanded re-release of ‘One World’ that appeared a few years back.  What was clear was that John Martyn had largely left the folk idiom behind.  Of the newer songs, only the marvellous ‘Couldn’t love you more’ from ‘One World’ seemed to be in that tradition.

John Martyn in action during the late 70’s

The cast-list from the studio version of ‘One World’ revealed the impact of John’s 1976 sabbatical in Jamaica and his move towards a rock sound.  Lee Perry and Rico Rodriguez contributed to the album and the likes of jazz drummer John Stevens, Jade Warrior flautist Jon Field and Steve Winwood were also on board.  ‘One World’ also featured the marvellous ‘Small Hours’, John’s echoplex epic recorded on a lake in the middle of the night, with grumbling geese and lapping water in the background.

I was selling records in Manchester by the time ‘One World’ appeared and I recall we had tremendous problems with UK pressings of the album.  ‘Small Hours’ was so quiet at some points that any slight ‘surface noise’ seemed horribly magnified.  We ended up importing American pressings of the album, which were infinitely superior.  I seem to recall that we also contacted John direct and bought in 50 copies of the ‘Live at Leeds’ live album that he was selling out of his front room in Hastings.

Having become very friendly with the local Island Records promo rep, Terry, I was by 1980 well-placed for my first actual meeting with John Martyn.  He was touring around his new album, ‘Grace & Danger’, which largely chronicled the breakdown of his marriage to Beverley.  He had found common cause with Genesis drummer Phil Collins, who was going through a similar divorce and the two of them formed a mutual support group whilst working on the new album. 

Terry and I travelled down to see John play at Loughborough University.  With him on stage were Phil Collins on drums & vocals, Alan Thomson on fretless bass and Danny Cummings on percussion.  Times had changed; John looked fit and well and wore a dark suit.  There was also a  notable absence of between-song ramblings and absolutely no boozing or spliffing onstage.  Backstage afterwards was a different story, however, with Messrs Martyn & Collins like a Cockney wide-boy double act; very friendly and keen to discuss the gig.

What I didn’t tell either of them was that ‘Grace & Danger’ had come as a bit of a disappointment to me after ‘One World’.  There was a certain blandness about the production (by Collins) and the playing.  Even a raucous version of The Slickers’ ‘Johnny too bad’ somehow seemed a little contrived.  This was definitely John Martyn’s most ‘mainstream’ album to date.

John Martyn in the 1980’s

The following year, John was back on the road on his own for what was to be his final tour as an Island artist for a while.  Terry and I travelled over to see him play a solo gig at what used to be Huddersfield Polytechnic.  The person I met backstage couldn’t have been more different from the genial geezer I’d encountered in Loughborough.  For one thing, he spoke throughout in a heavy Scottish accent, seemed morose and ill-at-ease and fairly battered Terry with a host of teething troubles about the tour – the hotel was crap, he didn’t want to do an interview with local radio in Leeds the next day, he didn’t like the venue he was booked into in Liverpool etc etc.  The gig was similarly downbeat; an unduly respectful crowd failed to bring John out of his shell.  He played an abbreviated set with no encore and left for his hotel immediately after coming off stage.

John departed to Warners shortly afterwards, having been offered more money and the opportunity to continue his working relationship with Phil Collins, who was signed to Warners in the USA.  He made two fairly wretched albums for them, trampling on his legacy by re-recording some of his earlier songs, but didn’t really make it in America and was without a major label contract by 1983.

It would have been around this time that I had my third and final encounter with John Martyn.  By this point, I’d moved to Newcastle and one Sunday afternoon, I wandered up the hill to the local shop to get a paper and some milk.  Two blokes were standing outside; one of them was clearly John Martyn.  I greeted him and asked what on earth brought him to the depths of Sandyford on a Sunday afternoon.  Simply put, he blanked me, saying (in his Cockney persona this time) “You’ve got the wrong bloke, mate.”  I was quite astonished; it’s not that I expected him to remember me, but I couldn’t see why he wished to remain incognito.  I must have looked a right eejit, standing there in front of him with my jaw flapping.  Before I could say anything else, his companion (no idea who he was) asked me if I knew anywhere in Newcastle where there was an open off-licence at this time of a Sunday.  These, of course, were days when you couldn’t buy booze ‘out of hours’ and before supermarkets opened on Sundays.  I said that I couldn’t help them with that and they promptly walked off.

By the following year, Warners had passed on any more John Martyn albums. Chris Blackwell had been keeping an eye on John’s lack of progress  so he welcomed him back into the fold at Island for his last hurrah, 1984’s ‘Sapphire’.   Not too many John Martyn fans know this album and not many of those that do rate it particularly highly, perhaps because Robert Palmer’s production favours lots of layered synths rather than fingerpicked acoustic guitar.  Even so,  the title track is a genuine 24 carat JM classic and there are other excellent tracks like ‘Mad Dog Days’, Fisherman’s Dream’ and a wonderful, heartfelt rendition of ‘Over the rainbow’.    Unfortunately, ‘Sapphire’ turned out to be a false dawn.  1985 saw the release of John’s final album for Island; the anodyne ‘Piece by Piece’.  After that, he never recorded for a major label again.

Details thereafter are sketchy.  John made a series of albums for small labels and moved to Kilkenny in the west of Ireland, where the BBC made an excellent documentary about him a while back.  Years of sex and drugs and rock and roll began to catch up with him quite quickly as he hit his fifties and his health declined.  A cyst on his right leg burst and poisoned the limb, resulting in a partial amputation, but he continued to tour, playing from his wheelchair and, of course,  joking about not getting legless on stage.  This ‘gallows humour’ was typical of the man but his insistence that only he was to blame for his predicament (probably true) and that he regretted nothing  – well, I wonder. He died, aged 60,  last year.

This year has been a good year for the re-issue of some ‘classic’ albums in expanded 2-disc (or more) formats.   John Martyn’s ‘Live at Leeds’ is one of these and contains a few surprises; notably that two-thirds of the original release wasn’t even recorded at Leeds University at all.  The story of this album is that after ‘Inside Out’, John wanted to put out a live album.  Island didn’t agree, but were happy to let John sell the album by mail order and even organised EMI to press up a limited run (with an Island catalogue number) of 10,000.  This run rapidly sold out but has been re-released subsequently, though with no great concern for quality control.   Recorded shortly before his Jamaican break, ‘Live at Leeds’ almost represented the end of the beginning as far as the itinerant folky John Martyn was concerned.

The new deluxe edition does ‘Live at Leeds’ justice with  excellent reproduction, extra tracks and rehearsal takes, but it’s some way from being the original album.  Of that release, only ‘Bless the weather’ and ‘Make no mistake’ are from the 13/2/75 Leeds University gig.  The remaining tracks were recorded at a gig in London around the same time and do not appear here.  Joining John on stage for this gig were two musicians  who were regular compañeros at this time; free jazz drummer John Stevens and long-time drinking and sparring partner Danny Thompson from Pentangle and elsewhere.  There is a great story about ‘Danny Tomkins’ (as JM banteringly refers to Thompson throughout) nailing  a rug to the floor one night (after a particularly heavy session)  with JM trapped & paralytic underneath it – and that’s where he awoke the following morning, pinned to the floor with a horrible hangover.

The ‘Cinderella’ of this album is undoubtedly former Free guitar god Paul Kossoff, who appears only at the end of the gig and on one of the rehearsal takes.  Like Martyn himself, Kossoff suffered with addiction problems that ultimately killed him.  At the time of this gig, he had hardly played at all for 18 months  Here we yet see another John Martyn – the compassionate friend who wanted to help Koss back on his feet.  However, there are problems on a couple of fronts.  Firstly, Kossoff is clearly in too fragile a state to play the whole gig and what we do hear of him reveals him as a shadow of his former self.  Secondly, from a musical perspective, Kossoff’s blues-infected Les Paul is simply too powerful to play comfortably alongside Thompson’s upright bass and John Stevens’ delicate polyrhythmic style.  Whilst JM’s echoplexed acoustic seems to fit in quite well with the jazzy rhythm section, Kossoff’s electric wailing unfortunately doesn’t.

Thompson and Martyn’s offstage antics were matched only by their onstage banter and if there is a problem with the Deluxe ‘Live at Leeds’, this would be it.  It’s shocking, I know, but both Danny and Johnny would seem to have taken some refreshment before coming on stage and more (champagne, for an unspecified birthday) arrives in mid-set.  This makes them even more garrulous  – and profane – than normal and whilst the naughty-boy swearing and politically incorrect banter doesn’t actually bother me, it just makes me think that here is another John Martyn – the dickhead who just doesn’t know when to shut up and play.  The cover of this expanded version of ‘Live at Leeds’ even features a ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker about the profanity!  Whatever the case, some of the ‘bantering interludes’ between songs  and between Martyn and Thompson (in particular) stretch towards the 10-minute mark and though there might be some amusement first time around, I doubt if anyone could bear listening to all this ‘Jack the Lad’ prattishness on a regular basis.

Johnny & Danny looking well-refreshed…..

Still that’s what you have to accept with John Martyn;  on one hand, the brilliant songwriter, the great guitarist, the innovative user of effects, the iconoclast and the Samaritan/ suspected ‘softy’, but on the other, the bipolar bad boy with a taste for all manner of restricted substances and a tendency to ‘go on a bit’ at times.  I think it’s probably fair to assume that the one side of the coin couldn’t have prospered without the other side, so in the end, we just had to accept JM as he was, warts and all.

What is a pity was that his appetites got the better of his talent in the last 20 years of his life.  If you compare his output from the mid-1980’s with his near-contemporary and Island stablemate, Richard Thompson, it doesn’t really bear too close an examination.  In the final analysis, though, he was an extraordinary talent whose early career (at least) produced some unforgettable gems.

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6 responses to “Listening to John Martyn…..

  1. Richard Strelitz

    Once again you’ve selected a long time favorite. Is it fair to call a musician who is primarily instrumental “unsung”? I thought not. I was surprised that you did not mention his 2 albums with his wife-Stormbringer and Road to Ruin, the latter especially. I had always considered that album’s jazz inflections as the link between Davy Graham’s melange of folk and jazz and Nick Drake’s. I gather from some of your other blogs that you too appreciate the effect that a few horns can have, as in Keef Hartley. Well done, keep up the good work. Might I expect a little AUDIENCE appreciation some time soon?

  2. Thanks Richard. To answer your question, I suppose this was written more as a ‘personal history’ than a comprehensive JM career overview. Having bought ‘Solid Air’ when it came out, I did actually backtrack and discover albums like ‘Road to Ruin’ and ‘Stormbringer’ and, going forward, also bought a copy of ‘Inside Out’ as well. The only 70’s JM album that I failed to connect with was ‘Sunday’s Child’ – it’s one I’ve never taken to for some reason, though there are good songs on there.

    Anyway, thanks for your comments and your support – both most welcome. As for an Audience ‘appreciation’, I’m hoping you can make some recommendations here as they were one of those bands I just never got round to. I almost certainly saw them live at some festival or other and I recall that one of them fetched up in Stackridge later in the 70’s, but that’s about it. Sorry; despite noble efforts, there were some bands that I just never got round to….where should I start with any Audience catch-up?

  3. Excellent, thoroughly enjoyable read, I hitched to that Loughborough gig and had a chat with JM in the bar he reported that Island were threatening to release Live At Leeds (I wore my copy out).
    One of the best gigs I ever attended, Phil Collins was brilliant (I was not much of a fan but the audience were wild for him compared to their reaction to JM).
    Saw him many times before and after, always different! thats the joy of artists like that.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Bill. Loughborough was indeed a good gig, I recall but I have to say that John’s re-invention of himself as an electric guitar ‘hero’ wore thin fairly quickly for me. I think I preferred the between-genres echoplexed JM of the late 1970’s. Still, as you rightly remark, you never knew what you were going to get with Johnny Boy….genial geezer, Caledonian grouch…all part of the same complex character. In the end, I guess we just have to be grateful for the work and for at least 10 years from the end of the 60’s there is clearly much to admire there.

      • agentcoop? you’re not a solicitor from Manchester, Ken who used to do Victoria Record Fair in London for a good few years? If so, I’m a clairvoyant or Bill Franklin from Leicestershire, enjoyed working next to you
        if it is you! If not all the best anyway lol

  4. Bill: Not a solicitor from anywhere, not called Ken and never went to the Victoria Record Fair. Other than that, you’re close……

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