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John Martyn


Few could say that JOHN MARTYN didn’t live his life to the full; over 40 years a singer and musician, he played hard and drank hard, an uncompromising figure you either loved or misguidedly loathed.
Born Iain David McGeachy, 11th September 1948, New Malden, Surrey (born of opera-singer parents), he was partly brought up on a houseboat by his divorcee English mother, while the other six months of the year, from the age of 5, he lived with his father and grandmother in Shawlands, Glasgow. Influenced by everything from blues (ROBERT JOHNSON) and folk (DAVY GRAHAM) and having learned guitar techniques from Scottish singer HAMISH IMLACH, 18-year-old “John” moved to London in 1967 after becoming the first white solo artist to secure a deal with Chris Blackwell’s Island label.
On a relatively small budget, LONDON CONVERSATION (1967) {*4} was MARTYN’s first solo LP, solo in respect that it was basically just him and his acoustic guitar. A nice and easy blend of folk and blues, the set opened with the ISB-like `Fairytale Lullaby’, while the rougher-edged `Ballad Of An Elder Woman’ was an insight into his future sound; the set closed with a fine version of DYLAN’s `Don’t Think Twice’.
Produced by AL STEWART, THE TUMBLER (1968) {*5} was a competent folk-orientated record, revealing the first glimmers of MARTYN’s nascent jazz/blues leanings, while employing the services of DONOVAN’s respected flautist Harold McNair. The latter guy was effective on the dark and brooding `The Gardeners’, while blues ran the game by way of `Goin’ Down To Memphis’ and a reading of Jelly Roll Morton’s `Winding Boy’.
Following John’s marriage to Coventry girl, Beverley Kutner, the pair began recording together in 1969, releasing two albums, STORMBRINGER! {*6} and The Road To Ruin the following year. Recorded in Woodstock and augmented by Paul Harris (keyboard player of Stephen Stills’ Manassas) and drummers Levon Helm (of The BAND) and Billy Mundi (of RHINOCEROS), JOHN AND BEVERLEY MARTYN’s inaugural effort swung between the funky-folk of 8-minute `Sweet Honesty’ and one of John’s best so far, `John The Baptist’ (very FAIRPORT) and Bev’s `The Ocean’; note the `Woodstock’ song is not the JONI MITCHELL-penned classic.
Also produced by Joe Boyd, THE ROAD TO RUIN {*5}. was the first of many JM albums to feature the guest double bass work of friend (and then PENTANGLE member) Danny Thompson, the only musical collaborator who would become a fairly permanent fixture and drinking buddy in the singer’s career. Taking a leaf from the singing pages of GRACE SLICK or even SANDY DENNY (at a push!), Beverley’s voice is quite effective on Paul Harris’s piano-led `Auntie Aviator’, `Primrose’ and `Say What You Can’, although it’s John’s gravel-tinged vox that steals the show, namely on the title track and the song penned for friend NICK DRAKE, `Give Us A Ring’.
Following the birth of the MARTYNs’ second child, John resumed his solo career with the transitional BLESS THE WEATHER (1971) {*7}. His most heavily jazz-influenced set to date, the record was a blueprint for much of John’s subsequent work; here were the first signs of the singer’s trademark lounge-lizard slur (a defiantly unique hybrid of ERIC CLAPTON, LOWELL GEORGE and the then undiscovered TOM WAITS), with which he’d dextrously negotiate the grey area where jazz, blues, folk and rock meet. Like sunshine through a cloudy day, this breakthrough album (at least critically) found MARTYN in a relaxed mood, high spots hailing from `Head And Heart’, jazz instrumental `Glistening Glyndebourne’ (complete with Echoplex sound system), the NICK DRAKE-like `Just Now’ and the title track. A happy time for John, there was also room at the end for his rendition of `Singin’ In The Rain’, while wife Beverley still provided harmony vox for the likes of `Let The Good Things Come’.
With RICHARD THOMPSON on additional guitar (he also played on “Bless…”) and a rhythm section courtesy of FAIRPORT CONVENTION (bassist Dave Pegg and drummer Dave Mattacks), SOLID AIR (1973) {*9} was the pivotal early MARTYN album. Pioneering use of the aforementioned Echoplex-sound acoustic guitar lent the album a uniquely haunting quality, the set featuring some of MARTYN’s most affecting material. The title track was a drifting, twilight tribute to NICK DRAKE, while among the more conventional, folk-ish numbers, `Over The Hill’ and lovely `May You Never’ (later covered by CLAPTON) were soul- stirring highlights. On that smooth soulful side, MARTYN excelled via `Don’t Want To Know’ and his funky-blues take on SKIP JAMES’ `I’d Rather Be The Devil’, but it was top marks to sideman Danny Thompson for his upstanding work on `Go Down Easy’ and `The Man In The Station’. The album considerably widened his large cult following, which numbered musicians like STEVE WINWOOD, a collaborator on the follow-up, INSIDE OUT (1973) {*5}.
This record traced the same nebulous path as its predecessor, MARTYN now adopting his trademark jazz-cool slur basically full-time (example `Fine Lines’, `Make No Mistake’ and `Ways To Cry’). Never short on empiric try-outs, JM even allowed himself a go at Celtic traditional tune `Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail’, Billy Hill’s `Glory Of Love’ gospel number, and the 8-minute freak-out excursion of `Outside In’.
Less experimental and thankfully more song-driven, SUNDAY’S CHILD (1975) {*6} employed the services of John “Rabbit” Bundrick (ex-FREE) on piano (alongside Danny), its bare-boned tracks, such as the intimate `Lay It All Down’, the upbeat `Root Love’ and the soothing `Call Me Crazy’, all contrasting without being too non-cohesive. MARTYN’ stab at Brit-trad ballad `Spencer The Rover’, alongside country staple `Satisfied Mind’, made for interesting listening.
In the two-year gap prior to his next studio project, MARTYN released a limited (10,000) mail-order-only live album (mastered from his Sussex home), the acclaimed LIVE AT LEEDS (1975) {*7}. Recorded that February at Leeds University, and augmented by DANNY THOMPSON and drummer John Stevens, the set was highlighted by the 19-minute version of `Outside In`, while later CD bonuses feature ex-FREE axeman PAUL KOSSOFF.
With yet another overt attempt to turn his standing into commercial success, ONE WORLD (1977) {*7}, was as esoteric as ever. Extending his range of influences to include dub and oblique ambience, the record was another key release in MARTYN’s career, featuring both the gorgeous ‘Couldn’t Love You More’ and the sly, insidious skank of `Big Muff’, a collaboration with Jamaican legend LEE PERRY (JM returned the favour by sitting-in on a session by reggae stars BURNING SPEAR). Overseen by producer Blackwell, the set took MARTYN to another level of creativity (check out the hypnotic `Small Hours’), while overall musicians such as WINWOOD, Pegg, Andy Newmark, Bruce Rowland, Rico, etc., brought a bit of tight-knit adhesion to the mix.
The ensuing three years saw John split with wife Beverley, this harrowing period providing much of the impetus for 1980’s GRACE & DANGER {*7}. While the album was a relatively sombre affair, the inspired inclusion of friend PHIL COLLINS (here contributing percussion, vocals and production alongside bassist John Giblin and synth/keys man Tommy Eyre) signalled a move towards a more mainstream sound. From its unsettling but poignant opener, `Some People Are Crazy’, to the terse and jazz-rock-infused `Lookin On’, it was clear that Johnboy was discharging his demons. Somewhat less destructive was the demanding `Baby, Please Come Home’, heartbreaker `Our Love’, the seductive `Sweet Little Mystery’ and a rendition of the Slickers’ roots reggae jewel, `Johnny Too Bad’ (later covered by UB40).
With newfound credibility, inevitably, then, his 1981 album GLORIOUS FOOL {*6} (a political assault on newly elected US president Ronald Reagan) reached the UK Top 30.
With the unassuming rock-turned-pop-star producer PHIL COLLINS taking control of the desk, the sound was slick, as the cheesy “Float On” version of `Couldn’t Love You More’ (with the GENESIS man on backing vox) would testify. A new deal had been struck with Warner Brothers, and it seemed all indications of his folk-rock background had been wiped clean. Maybe it was a sign of the synth-pop times, but the in-depth character of our “Glorious Fool”/JM had been superseded by a mere shadow of himself, although that shadow was getting larger by the day.
WELL KEPT SECRET (1982) {*5} reached No.20 in the charts, an album produced by FM-fave Sandy Roberton and an album that made MARTYN sound like a cross between MICHAEL McDONALD and the undiscovered MICHAEL BOLTON – enough said!
Recorded between autumn ’82 and spring ’83, JOHN MARTYN (and band: Alan Thomson, Jeff Allen, Jim Prime and Danny Cummings) self-released the passionate and proud concert set PHILENTROPY (sic) (1983) {*6}, a fanclub favourite that featured revamped versions of some of his lesser-known numbers such as `Sunday’s Child’, `Make No Mistake’ and `Smiling Stranger’.
Just when things looked brighter for John (he re-signed to Island), John was dragged into singing `Over The Rainbow’, a clumsy JOE COCKER-like single attempt to wiz his way to the top, so to speak. Taken from his following set, the dull SAPPHIRE (1984) {*4} – recorded in the Bahamas (and it shows!) – MARTYN and his lame electro-tub-thumpers alienated all but the brain-dead with songs like `Acid Rain’ and the appropriately-titled `Climb The Walls’. One piece of history was made when his record company was first to get on the bandwagon of releasing a CD single: `Angeline’ (from his next set) was backed by a version of DYLAN’s `Tight Connection To My Heart’.
Though the rest of the 80s were a fairly fallow period for the singer (1986’s PIECE BY PIECE {*4} and ‘87’s live set, FOUNDATIONS {*3}, proving the point), he returned in easy-going style at the turn of the decade with THE APPRENTICE (1990) {*5}. Rejected by Island a few years previously and eventually surfacing on Permanent Records (recent keys-man Foster Patterson was still at his side), John was earnestly still trying his hand at West Coast/AOR/dance-friendly dirges, although to be fair, `The River’, `Deny This Love’ and the Patterson-penned `Patterns In The Rain’ all have a certain quality of smooth sophistication about them.
Getting back to that whisky-dipped, gravel-throated vox that one loved him for before his 80s pop-shite transition, MARTYN delivered his best set for years, COOLTIDE (1991) {*6}. All right, there was the RANDY NEWMAN-ish `Annie Says’, but the sophisti-jazz of the majority of the songs here was markedly better in quality and delivery – `Jack The Lad’ even hinted of a return to some semblance of folk-rock. `Call Me’ was as brittle and emotional as he’s ever been, while the 12-minute title track oozes from the speaker like some RY COODER soundtrack outtake.
Released without his consent, his label delivered a revisited batch of old material on two studio sets, the awful COULDN’T LOVE YOU MORE (1992) {*4} and an all-improved, all-star re-package, NO LITTLE BOY (1993) {*6} – the latter featuring LEVON HELM, PHIL COLLINS and DAVID GILMOUR.
A surprise move to the Go Discs! imprint resulted in his first Top 40 entry of the decade with AND. (1996) {*6}, a bawdy, trip-hop, funk-friendly work that was far removed from his halcyon folk days. With his old mucker COLLINS on the guest list once again, the best songs came by way of `Sunshine’s Better’ and `Suzanne’.
Upon his previous label’s demise, MARTYN joined the new Independiente stable (alongside fellow Scots Travis) and cut a low-key covers set, THE CHURCH WITH ONE BELL (1998) {*5}; he subsequently used the profits generated to help him acquire the church pictured on the album sleeve(!). Recorded in one week and augmented by Spencer Cozens (keyboards; of JACQUI McSHEE’s trio), John Giblin (bass) and Arran Ahmun (drums), it marked a return to a more blues-jazz-folk orientation – the list of covers comprises: `He’s Got All The Whiskey’ (Bobby Charles), `God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)’ (RANDY NEWMAN), `How Fortunate The Man With None’ (DEAD CAN DANCE; words Bertolt Brecht), `Small Town Talk’ (Bobby Charles & Rick Danko), `Excuse Me Mister’ (BEN HARPER), `Strange Fruit’ (Abel Meeropol), `The Sky Is Crying’ (ELMORE JAMES), `Glory Box’ (PORTISHEAD), `Feel So Bad’ (LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS) and `Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ (REV. GARY DAVIS).
The millennial GLASGOW WALKER (2000) {*5} wasn’t much of a departure from the kind of vaporous, jazz-inflected atmospherics with which he’s constructed much of his latter-day output (test out the trip-hop `Cool In This Life’), although that wasn’t such a bad thing, especially bearing in mind the oblique allure which MARTYN’s vocal still holds, even on material like Arthur Hamilton’s `Cry Me A River’ and Gene DePaul/Don Raye’s `You Don’t Know What Love Is’. The following year, his voice was credited on the Sister Bliss (of FAITHLESS) Top 40 entry, `Deliver Me’, evidence, surely, that with the right dance track he could’ve had that elusive solo single hit.
The hard-living legend was subsequently to undergo a partial amputation (below the knee) of his right leg after a cyst burst and became infected. Laid up after the operation, financial necessity became the driving force behind some new recordings.
ON THE COBBLES (2004) {*7} was as enthusiastically received as anything he’d done in the past decade, conclusive evidence that his health problems hadn’t adversely affected his art. At least two of the tracks were familiar – `Baby Come Home’, from a FRANKIE MILLER tribute, and “Solid Air” classic `Go Down Easy’, here rendered as percolating ambience. Also familiar, bringing back wispy visions of the aforementioned Solid Air, was DANNY THOMPSON’s bass playing on the illuminative `My Creator’. Paying their respects to a man who’s still perhaps the most criminally unsung legend in the history of British popular music were long-time admirer PAUL WELLER (on `Under My Wing’), ex-VERVE man Nick McCabe (on `Walking Home’) and even MAVIS STAPLES, who took centre stage on a cover of the LEADBELLY nugget `Goodnight Irene’.
While MARTYN’s work remained unique, a rich seam of inspiration for the uninitiated, it was just a pity his talents weren’t more widely acknowledged. Sadly, aged 60, he died at his home in Kilkenny, Ireland on the 29th of January, 2009.
Maybe left in the vaults for a little longer to ferment would’ve been a better action for MARTYN’s last-known recorded works, HEAVEN AND EARTH (2011) {*5}. The age-old prerequisite of not talking ill of the dead has to take a backseat for this patchy blues-cum-reggae work-in-progress. Understandably, his last days on Earth before his flight to Heaven (one hopes), and many disciples might disagree, but his gruff genius was a tad overbearing; only `Stand Amazed’, `Could’ve Told You Before I Met You’ and the title track shine out with MARTYN’s unmistakable inner sanctity.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2012

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Comments

  1. Sandy Robertson

    Roberton not Robertson. I’m Sandy Robertson and I wrote about music rather than producing it. This is my personal equivalent of constantly seeing Edgar Allan Poe misspelled as Allen.

    1. Martin Strong

      Apologies again. Forget to say… are they tickets to USA still going? I’d produce a rabbit out of a hat for that! A big thanks for your input, Sandy. I’ll have to see Sandy Roberton’s production CV for further mistakes elsewhere.

    2. Martin Strong

      Just to add that I found five other Sandy Robertson’s that should’ve been Roberton. Thanks to yourself I sorted Steeleye Span, Keith Christmas, Shelagh McDonald, and Decameron. Once again, my sincere apologies and I wish you well. If you need any publicity for your work feel free to get in touch; it’s on the house.

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