John Martyn Keeping Everything A Lot Less Rigid

Richard Howell
Time Out
..... and talking to Richard Howell

Unless you happen to frequent folk clubs, there are only two reasons for your having heard of John Martyn: Stormbringer and Road To Ruin. Both albums were made in conjunction with his wife Beverley. They were produced by Joe Boyd, arranged by Paul Harris and engineered by John Wood, which does little to explain their importance.


Without Stormbringer, neither Fotheringay nor James Taylor -certainly on his second album- nor their many imitators would have sounded quite the same. It was the first of what John describes as "the funky folk albums".
"In my own egotistic way I think that Stormbringer was responsible for a lot of other sounds. People got ideas from it. Certainly many musicians heard it. When we were in America recording, Peter Asher was given a copy of the tapes, and was really impressed by them. It was Joe Boyd who told me that that in fact had happened, because l didn't think it could be coincidence."

Unquestionably, there is a similarity between the drum/bass sound on John The Baptist from Stormbringer and Country Road -a cut on Sweet Baby James.
"Initially I was meant to be Beverley's guitar player. She was the star of the Joe Boyd organisation. Joe had heard my earlier solo albums a long time before and hadn't particularly liked them. I can understand why. As far as Stormbringer is concerned, he decided that the best way to do it was to go to America and meet some musicians, because he didn't think there were the people available in Britain to really work with us. He had the idea of putting us together with Paul Harris, who really turned me on as a geezer and was the first musician I'd ever worked with to show, as closely as I could understand at the time, a complete sensitivity to what l was doing. That was very important. I enjoyed doing everything that went down on that record from start to finish. Harvey Brooks is a very good bass player. There have been many times since when I've wished I could have got him together to do a session. Levon Helm is an amazing drummer, as good as I naturally expected him to be. And John Simon played harpsichord on Tomorrow Time. We simply got on with everybody we met -we were very lucky."

scanThere is only one track -Give Us A Ring-on Road To Ruin- that could have been part of Stormbringer. In every other respect, the temptation to repeat a previously successful formula has been avoided. The arrangements are much freer and more open, ranging from the honk-rock of Sorry To Be So Long to the very jazzy feel of the title track, which features some tasty sax from Dudu Pukwana. The introduction of new instruments and different musicians creates fresh sound textures and rhythms. It is an album from a man who though normally regarded as a folk singer, cannot be placed in any such facile category.

In so far as records are concerned, this is John Martyn's peculiar talent. He has never been afraid to experiment, or allowed himself to be musically restricted to working within an expected format. Unfortunately, in doing so, his abilities as a guitarist have often been sublimated beneath the arrangements. To hear him playing on a live gig is to realise that there is more to what he is doing than has so far been communicated on record.
"A record is something that should be completely satisfactory on an aural level. A live gig is something to get you across as a human being. Obviously you have to deliver the music to the best of your ability, which I always try to do, but you should also get enough of yourself across to make it real for an audience. Both gigs and records are equally important, although I think people should get more out of a live gig than they do out of a record. The one thing I really worry about is being abstracted from my music. I want people to know that I'm just exactly the same as them. I mean, I've had people phone me up and say "Listen, I've taken my fifteenth acid trip, what does the second track on your last album mean?" The idea of having to take that kind of responsibility is freaky to me. It's that attitude to music, as much as anything else, that drove me out of London. It frightens the shit out of me."

scanIt is only when you hear John Martyn live that you become aware of his considerable ability as a guitarist. Any earlier comparison with Bert Jansch is now superfluous. He has evolved an individual technique involving original methods of bridging and playing both ascending and descending scales simultaneously. He also augments electrically, putting an acoustic guitar through a wah-wah pedal and echo chamber. His material is not restricted to playing note-perfect versions of his greatest hits. He both develops and improvises on his earlier songs, often completely altering their structure, and almost inevitably enhancing their impact. At one point he appears to bridge across with his little finger and then pluck the notes above with the same hand. He explained:
"It's a harmonic. You don't actually bridge across. You bridge without pulling the strings down-you play the harmonic and bang and natter behind it."
"Playing electric is more sophisticated in some ways, but there are songs that really need to be either electric or acoustic. I try to keep them like that. Occasionally I've written an acoustic song and really fancied doing it electrically -Would You Believe Me is a case in point. I started using an amplifier because I wanted an instrument that I could use a lot of sustain on. I really like long notes, and on an acoustic you can't hold them unless you have a 9000 watt p.a. to get it over. Also, the electric guitar is a completely different instrument."

"I try to keep everything a lot less rigid when I play and sing these days -Beverley really turned me on to the whole idea of improvising. I just didn't understand it in any way -mentally or emotionally. She made me aware of the idea of laying myself a bit naked and looking for what's happening. She just loosened something in my head."

John uses the amplifier and echo chamber to build up layers of sound, creating aural pictures which remain complementary to his lyrics. When he plays Stormbringer the constant echo creates a hypnotic effect, like waves breaking over shingle. Through living in Hastings, he feels that the sea has been a conscious influence in this respect. He left London because, as he said, "if there's one thing that makes me sad it's to see someone beaten senseless by the negative parts of their own sensitivity. London could have done that to me. It was the constant reminder of being involved within an industrial age. I don't get on well with the business side of music, although I have to do it -because I've got a living to make."

"I left Glasgow for the same reason that makes anybody leave a place they don't like. I object to the influence that the town has had on me, which has been all too strong. It still comes into my life and therefore it must come out in my work. I've still got a lot of the ideas that I formed there. Ideas about what people should be like. I was brought up with working class people and it was a very hairy kind of existence -a lot of violence, but I was always a very clever coward. It definitely does affect you. I don't know how much of that is due to my temperament and how much to my environment. Maybe the only reason that Glasgow was a bad thing is that I can blame some of my temperament on it. I tend to blame it for the violence in me, but I really try to keep it to a minimum. I don't like it. I tend to get very hard into the electric thing but, really, I've played such gentle music for such a long time. I think if you're a guy you have to play with a certain amount of force. If people don't, then I'm very suspicious of what they're doing."

"I'm influenced by the emotions of my particular environment rather than by the physical attributes of the situation. I consciously try to keep it there. I don't really want to get into writing about things on the mantlepiece. It's alright -I've gone through a stage of doing that on the first two records, but I don't want to do it anymore. I'd like to keep it down to what's real to me, which is the conflict between people."

"I would like to convey a love of life, that's all. That's just about everything I feel strongly about. It just comes down to those two words -love and life, all the time. You can't hold it there, because hate, death and all those other things are all too close. And sadness, for instance, is very powerful. Obviously I haven't got my eyes closed, otherwise l would be writing fairytales. l see my music as a very real reflection of my life."

scan"Singing In The Rain" conveys such a love of life. I always do it after the electric part just to show that both of them are coming from the same person. It's again that point of trying to break down people's rigid ideas about what you are. I mean, I'm about five million different people, and so are you. We are the people we've met, and that's what doing that song is about. It's supposed to he making that point -it's an intellectual song in a way."

"My writing has got less simple because I keep finding more colours. I never sit down with the intention of writing a song. Occasionally I write words, but usually only for the last verse or the last line. I never re-work lyrics."

John has completed a new album, this time a solo -without Beverley. The musicians include Danny Thompson on string bass, who also played on Road To Ruin, and Richard Thompson. The album, called Bless The Weather, is released this week.
"I'm happier with it than anything else I've ever done. I didn't have to make any compromises at all. I produced it with John Wood and did exactly what I wanted all the way through. I don't want people to be put off by the cover, because that looks very violent, and the music itself is mostly very gentle."

"I don't write a lot of songs. I've written no more than I've recorded, except for those from a long time ago. On some, the words and music came simultaneously, but those are usually very sad. They're things that have to come out somewhere -either I'm going to cry or play."

"Words are only words. They are so often taken as a concrete indication of where you are at that moment, yet your state is ever[] changing. I dig music -in the sense of sounds, the progression of notes one after the other going through the brain. It has an emotional effect. Ultimately I think the melody, the way the sounds go together, is a bit more important than whatever you might be saying, because when I talk about gentleness I think it should come out of the notes and the choice of harmonies. That's where your true sensitivity lies as far as I'm concerned."

One of John's new songs, tentatively entitled Close Brother, which was written after he had completed his new album, perhaps expresses his needs and fears as well as anything he has ever done. Surprisingly, for a person who places greater emphasis on the musical rather than the lyrical content of his writing, it is a very powerful verbal statement. The last chorus probably contains the essence of the song:

May you never lay your head down
Without a hand to hold,
May you never lay your bed out
In the cold.
May you never lose your temper
When you get in a bar-room fight.
And may you never lose your woman

"I'm very paranoid about women. I'm not if I don't know them too well, but once I've let them in I'm very uptight about getting betrayed. It was like saying that I wish you all the best, and the best is that you don't lose your temper in a pub, you don't lose your woman, you've always got someone there when you need them, and that you never have to sleep in the cold. That comes from me as well. Those are the things that I don't want to happen to me, so they're the best I could wish for any friend of mine. I know no other criteria, therefore I've no idea how to put any others across."

And finally:
"What it all comes down to, is that either you dig the music when you hear it or you don't. The circuitous processes which I go through to bring out whatever it is I'm trying to put across, are quite incidental. It's the music -that's what I'm into, and that's what should be judged."

Scans kindly provided by Herman Gilligan