Author and journalist Chris Nickson takes a look back at the career of singer and guitarist John Martyn, on the third anniversary of his death.
Time flies. It’s hard to believe that it’s three full years since the news came that John Martyn had died of pneumonia and British music had lost one of its most colourful and adventurous characters at the horribly young age of 60.
He packed some sublime songs into the six decades, as well as two lifetimes’ worth of living. There’s a sad irony that in the 12 months before his death, John, always the consummate outsider, was finally feted by the mainstream, with a Lifetime Achievement gong at the BBC 2 Folk Awards, a box set that trawled through his 40 year recording career, and finally, just days before the end, the ultimate – an OBE. It was a good end to a long and winding road.
It had taken the establishment a long time to realise what musicians already knew: John was a brilliant, if erratic, talent. Back in the 1970s, Martin Carthy had kissed his television when Martyn appeared on screen, declaring, “It’s so good to see our John again”. Indeed it was; the whole decade was a golden time for John, when every album he released had the Midas touch of creativity.
But long before that point, long before John Martyn even began making music, there was a young man named Iain David McGeachy. His parents divorced when he was five and the boy found his time split; he’d spend the school year in Glasgow, living with a dreamer father and a hard-drinking grandmother, and summers in the more rarefied air of the Home Counties with his mother. He quickly learned to switch accents, to blend in like a native wherever he was.
The folk bug hit him as a teen and he began attending Clive’s Incredible Folk Club (run by Clive Palmer, soon to become a founder of the Incredible String Band), then learning guitar from Hamish Imlach, a stalwart of the Glasgow scene. He soon became a fixture on the small Scottish folk circuit. But Iain had greater ambitions; he wanted to conquer London. And with that in mind, Iain David McGeachy became John Martyn.
John was lucky: he could stay with his mother close to the capital, paying his dues playing floor spots and all-nighters wherever he could. That was where he met Theo Johnson in the summer of ‘66. “Johnson asked if I’d like to make a record,” John recalled. “I thought he was joking, but I gave him my mother’s phone number, because I was living in a place without a phone.”
But it was no joke. The phone did ring, and John was heading into town to meet Johnson’s acquaintance, Chris Blackwell of Island Records, becoming the first white artist signed to Blackwell’s Island label.
The result was London Conversation, just John and his guitar, recorded in a single day at the heady cost of £158. It was a document of a young man with promise, still the sum of his influences, including a de rigueur Dylan cover and Bert Jansch-style picking. But it was enough to encourage John to move south and for the label to return him to the studio in 1968 for The Tumbler, where Al Stewart’s production gave him more room to spread his wings. John had yet to find his true voice, but he was definitely on the road to somewhere. And that path took a strange turn when he met Beverley Kutner.
Compared to John she’d already enjoyed a very worldly career. As Paul Simon’s girlfriend she’d been to America and performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival. She’d had records produced by Denny Cordell, and now she was under the wing of Joe Boyd, an American who’d started Witchseason, the agency that managed only the top folk-rock artists. She was on the road to stardom.
Beverley asked John if he’d be interested in playing some sessions for her. He agreed, and the small professional relationship quickly blossomed into a powerful romance. In the summer of ’69 they became John and Beverley Martyn, signing as a duo with Boyd.
His vision for their music was a kind of Anglicised roots rock, and so he shipped the pair to Woodstock, New York (where The Band had made the classic Music From Big Pink) where, over the course of three months, Stormbringer took shape, backed by some big league American talent, and John grew in the new surroundings. There was the first hint of the jazzy vocal slur that would become his trademark, but also a different tack to his composing, the new songs more direct and decidedly less folky.
Back in London, refreshed and rejuvenated, the couple met a young singer-songwriter named Nick Drake, the start of a friendship with the painfully shy young man that would last for the rest of Drake’s brief life, one that would give John the sad inspiration for his greatest song. Drake soon became a fixture at John and Beverley’s Hampstead flat. Journalist Brian Cullman noted that “whenever there was any kind of social gathering… Nick was always there, but was always in the background”.
John was coming into his own, sensing his musical future, and realising that Beverley wasn’t part of it. The couple made two albums together, neither of which sold well, and John claimed the label wasn’t interested in them any more. Beverley, however, believed that John had become more intent on a solo career. Whatever the real reason, the result was the same – she was gone from the stage. As the family moved down to new surroundings in Hastings, John Martyn was back to being a solo artist.
The new surroundings brought a blistering spark to his creative juices. Everything changed: John’s guitar playing developed the distinctive slap, effectively becoming his own rhythm section, while his voice started to take on the tenor saxophone slur that would become one of his trademarks. He’d also bought an Echoplex unit that allowed him to set different delays to the sound and overlay them on each other, creating a psychedelic soundscape and effectively making him into a one-man band.
His music became more spontaneous, relying less on the traditional song structure and giving more room for improvisation on his next album, Bless The Weather. It was a new John, as he himself admitted: “The ones that came before were folky albums. I think it was ahead of its time. I think Bless The Weather, despite being basically acoustic, was nowhere near as folky.”
But the greatest stroke of luck was choosing Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson to play the double bass on the sessions. From the very beginning he proved the perfect foil – in every way – for John.
Bless The Weather was the first album of John’s maturity, a disc that set him apart from the growing pack of singer-songwriters. The title track set out the stall, a song with a muddied melodic pattern that blossomed into a dialogue between the guitar and bass. And then there was the electricity of Glistening Glyndebourne, where John’s Echoplex created a swirl of sound that dragged the other instruments in its wake.
These were just the first tentative steps down a new path, but, he said, “People kind of sat up and took notice of me after that album”. It elevated him out of the folk clubs and onto the far more lucrative college circuit. It offered something new and different. But, good as it was, it would pale in comparison to its successor.
Solid Air has rightly been called a classic, the high point of John’s career. It’s been named as one of the great chill-out albums of all time. But at the time it was simply the next stage of the journey, a refinement and expansion of the sound he’d begun on Bless The Weather. It was funkier, with a deeper groove, and the wild electric ride of I’d Rather Be The Devil showed how far John had come with his unique electric technique.
Old Grey Whistle Test, 1973
May You Never, composed for Beverley’s son, Wesley, became a widely-covered jewel of an acoustic song, but the title track was the centrepiece. Written for friend Nick Drake, it was a floating cloud of sound, the lyrics enigmatic, the music faintly jazzy and utterly unique.
Solid Air possessed depth, beauty and consistency. The uniformly excellent reviews ensured it became his best-selling album. He and Danny Thompson, now an established live duo, sped up and down the motorways of Britain to promote it. On stage, they created magic. Once the gig was over, mayhem reigned. There were copious amounts of alcohol and whatever other substances were available, and madness on a Keith Moon scale.
On one occasion, John recalled, “I got really drunk one night and woke up and [Danny] had nailed me under the carpet. I couldn’t move my hands or feet. I was very dry and had a hangover and I said, ‘Danny, please… get me, get me a drink’. So he stepped over my helpless body, went to the phone, and in a very loud voice said, ‘Can I have a glass of orange juice for one, please; breakfast for one, please’.”
John Martyn & Danny Thompson at The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin 1987
He was poised on the edge of success. Solid Air had given him an enviable reputation and the constant touring had gained him a fan base. He’d proved himself, and Island, gave him a completely free hand for his next album. That proved to be a big commercial mistake.
“It was more adventurous,” John said of Inside Out, “not as poppy. I think I was expected to make another Solid Air, and it came as a bit of a shock to the record company that I didn’t. But it didn’t bother me. And it got the Golden Rose of Montreux, so I wasn’t worried.”
It might have won a big prize, but it dumbfounded many fans. Quickly recorded and mixed, it was a disc that revelled in spontaneity, a product of the heart rather than the head. It was, John admitted later, “a vision into my own half-finished self,” a work in progress where ambition outreached technique. But he was happy with the sonic experiments it contained – and the songs, even as they moved further from conventional structures.
It could have been a deliberate step back from the spotlight. Or it could just have been John’s perversity. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. The momentum ended – and he was sent back into the studio to deliver something that would start it up again.
Sunday’s Child was about as far from Inside Out as John could go. It was certainly his most personal creation, a road record that ached for home and hearth and filled with confessions of his touring sins. There was sweet, there was sour, but it was far more accessible than its predecessor. But, for all its charms, it’s an album that remains curiously lost, more a footnote in his career, and certainly eclipsed by the disc that followed it. Live At Leeds, apart from stealing its title from The Who, was notable for two things – it was the first of several live albums that speckled John’s career, and his first attempt at being a record company.
Recorded on the penultimate date of his tour in support of Sunday’s Child, accompanied by Danny Thompson and jazz drummer Jon Stevens in tow (with guitarist Paul Kossoff as a special guest on the encores), it was Martyn at his stage-hardened finest. Yet Island refused to release it, although they gave John permission to do it himself and even assigned it an Island serial number. It cost, according to the music paper ad, £3 for a signed copy, postal orders and cheques to John’s house in Hastings. Pressing problems delayed the release date by two months, coming when John was back on the road and approaching the end of his tether. His marriage had grown rocky and he was exhausted from too many gigs, “too much cocaine, heroin…” He needed time away.
A long break in Jamaica helped (courtesy of Chris Blackwell) followed by a move to the village of Heathfield, but more than anything, the couple were papering over cracks. As usual, John’s solution was to throw himself back into work, making a new album.
This time Blackwell took charge of the production himself, noting judiciously that “it may have been that I thought I could bring something out in him”. Recorded in the Berkshire countryside, the vision for One World was more considered and arranged than John’s previous work, the ethereal guitar work of Small Hours recorded in the open air, with John on the far side of the lake from the mobile recording unit, making what Blackwell termed “one of my favourite tracks, not of John’s, but ever. We recorded at about four in the morning, and I love that.”
It marked a slight shift in direction for the music, smoother, more electric, a more complete sound than John had achieved before, and it was rewarded by going to 54 in the charts, the best chart placing he’d ever achieved. But even the small smell of success didn’t help at home. The marriage of John and Beverley Martyn imploded acrimoniously, among accusations of mental and physical cruelty.
Without a home any longer, John stayed with Genesis drummer Phil Collins, also going through a messy, painful divorce, and the two became good friends, with John setting out on a new record, “probably the most specific piece of autobiography I’ve written. Some people keep diaries, I make records.”
Grace And Danger was very much a document of a man in pain, careering between anger and pleading, a heartfelt piece of work that eviscerated both himself and his relationship. He gave it to the label in 1979, but they hesitated over its release for almost 18 months, something that angered John, who thought they were holding back because it wasn’t a commercial record. According to Chris Blackwell, the reason was far more prosaic: “I wasn’t keen on it. It was ‘I love you’ on one track, ‘I hate you’ on the next. I was disappointed with it, I suppose.”
Meanwhile John was on the road, desperate to earn money, and backed by a full band for the first time. His relationship with Island was in tatters, so he was relieved to sign to Warner Brothers.
The fruits of that, both on Glorious Fool and its follow-up, the aptly titled Well-Kept Secret, marked another distinct musical change. John pulled back from experimentation, aiming straight for the mainstream. His songs became simpler, vamps and grooves rather than melodies, and he subsumed himself in the band. The artistic edge was blunted, the sound given a strong buff and polish – and it worked commercially. Both albums cracked the Top Thirty.
Yet for all that, John didn’t renew his Warner’s contract after the two discs. Instead, after putting out the live Philentropy – a holding action – he returned to Island Records for Sapphire, which included a strange cover of Over The Rainbow – his only hit single (in Sweden).
“We were running short of things to do one night and I put a drum loop down,” John would recall. “It went dee-dee-dee-deep. I just started wandering around the studio singing the melody. It was a happy accident.”
It was also the only impact Sapphire made; it’s telling that only Mad Dog Days from this album remained in his set list. But John was back and firing on all cylinders for 1986’s Piece By Piece, a darker, grittier disc that Island promoted hard, and which seemed to show that John had his mojo back.
Yet it was as if John was determined to sabotage every chance of real success. If smooth was good, smoother had to be even better; at least, that was the way it seemed from the new tapes he turned in to Island. Blackwell rejected them: “I remember thinking that it didn’t have much life to it,” he said. And that signalled the end of the road for John and Island.
John had started back in music’s age of innocence, when anything was possible. Now he’d been cast into the outer darkness. For the next two years he made money the only way he could, by touring relentlessly – before signing with a small independent label which issued The Apprentice, a heavily re-jigged version of the album Island had turned down. It appeared with great fanfare, along with the longest UK tour John had ever undertaken; the man could still put bums on seats. But it didn’t sell, and neither did the 1991 follow-up, Cooltide. On disc, at least, fans wanted the Big Man to have an edge. It was time for a rethink.
John’s most popular material had always been the songs he’d released in the 1970s, and he came up with the idea of revisiting them. Not only did it seem like a commercial proposition, but, John said, they’d “changed so much from their original form. I like closing patterns in my life and starting again.”
It looked as if it could be a winner, but the initial sessions didn’t go well. So John decamped to America to work with producer Jim Tullio, spending three months refining the tracks and adding new ones. But even before they’d finished mixing, the UK label released what they had under the title Couldn’t Love You More – without permission. John was furious. “We were in the control room working on mixes and John was screaming in the phone to the label,” Tullio said.
In the US the album – as John had envisaged it – appeared as No Little Boy. Then, in a bizarre twist, that was also released in the UK, but with three additional tracks, just to absolutely confuse matters.
The real album offers a strong mix of songs, thoughtfully and intelligently arranged, with a few big name special guests (David Gilmour, Phil Collins, Levon Helm), and it received glowing reviews. It provided enough traction for John to undertake a couple of solo US tours.
He seemed to be on a roll, revitalised and eager. He was writing again, embracing the trip-hop style that wasn’t a million miles from his 70s’ explorations, releasing And., his best album in far too long. He even gave up drinking for a short while, and became a practising Buddhist. That, along with age – he was fast approaching 50 – seemed to clear many of the demons from his head.
But for too many years John had been abusing his body, and it was time to pay the piper. Just as John and the band were gearing up to tour, his pancreas burst. That meant an operation and a lengthy recuperation. By the time he was fit to return to the road, the moment had passed.
There was something else he could do, though; his label suggested an album of covers. John agreed, on the condition they bought him the empty church next to his house in Roberton. The deal was done, and John became the owner of The Church With One Bell, and working on what would be his darkest, bluesiest set ever, produced by Norman Dayron, a veteran who’d first made his mark in the studio behind the boards with Howlin’ Wolf.
John Leventhal, Danny Thompson, Tommy Hayes
It was cohesive and focused, pulling from sources as varied as Ben Harper, Elmore James, Dead Can Dance and Portishead, with melody, not groove, placed front and centre. The critics loved it; The Church With One Bell racked up universal raves and everything was looking rosy. But whatever fortune gave with one hand, it prepared to take away with the other. When John unexpectedly fell over when performing at Cambridge, while still sober, it was a harbinger of bad things to come. The low years were just beginning.
His next release, 2001’s Glasgow Walker, passed almost unnoticed. The bank repossessed the church and John’s house, leaving him no alternative but to move to his girlfriend’s house in Ireland. Most worrying of all, following an electric shock from an amplifier that caused his knee joint to swell to twice its normal size, he discovered the reason behind his fall: he’d developed a baker’s cyst behind the knee. He had no choice but to rest and cancel a planned tour. With no income, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. Finally, on a trip to Scotland, a car crash with a cow brought more pain and a foot injury. Before long, his leg growing worse, John was almost bedridden and the diagnosis was dire – his right leg needed to be amputated below the knee.
He accepted it all with remarkable grace and continued working on a new album with the band, adding his parts at home. Then, in April 2003, he entered Waterford Hospital for the operation that would change his life.
By summer, when old friend Bridget St. John visited, he was recuperating and “in good spirits. He was getting about in his wheelchair, zipping around and cooking for us in the kitchen. He certainly wasn’t drinking too much, he never seemed drunk.”
He was close to completing a new record and was even planning a low-key return to the stage with a pair of small gigs at a nearby pub in Ireland. Fans flew in from around the globe to see his first performances in more than two years.
A British tour was arranged to coincide with the new album, On The Cobbles, just as the BBC was airing a documentary about John. Like the proverbial bad penny, John simply wouldn’t go away.
On The Cobbles was a decided return to form, even if producer Jim Tullio said it was hard to make, with “a lot of editing, and some of the songs weren’t properly realised”. But with the beauty of My Creator (the spiritual heir to Solid Air) and tracks like Back To Marseilles and One For The Road, it was as close as John had ever come to recapturing his 70s’ spirit. There was a freshness and joy to it.
One For The Road, Later with Jools… (2004)
Being out on the road was like coming home. Yes, it was John’s main source of income, but more than that, it gave him validation to look out from the stage and see an auditorium full of eager faces; like any performer, he’d missed the pull of the crowd, and his yearly UK jaunts became anticipated events.
After so many tough times, 2008 proved to be an annus mirabilis for John. First there was the Lifetime Achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, then an expansive eight-CD box set. John had come in from the cold and earned his stature as an emeritus figure. John was happy at the acceptance, but there wasn’t time to enjoy it. His health worsened as the year passed. “When he got double pneumonia, he couldn’t fight it,” Jim Tullio recalled. “By then he hadn’t had a drink in five weeks, and I think his body broke down. He was under a doctor’s care for stopping, the doctor visited every other day.”
On the 29th of January 2009, just after his partner Theresa had been to Buckingham Palace to accept an OBE on his behalf, John Martyn died at the age of 60.
It wasn’t the end of the story; death never is. The obituaries and the praise flowed in, the sorrow and sadness, before memories began to fade. But John’s last music would be heard: Heaven And Earth, drawn together from the tracks John worked on in his final years, saw the light of day in 2011. They weren’t his finest songs, perhaps, but there was a poignancy in hearing him once more. And there was the inevitable tribute album, of course, a surprisingly good one, with people as varied as The Cure’s Robert Smith, Snow Patrol and old friend Phil Collins interpreting his songs.
And now three years have passed since John died, gone in the blink of an eye. The man may no longer be around with his charm and the mercurial humour and shift of accents. But the magic of the music will always remain.