John Martyn: So Far So Good

Geoff Brown
Melody Maker
John Martyn: so far so good


by Geoff Brown
JOHN MARTYN was explaining Sunday's Child, the title track of his last new studio album recorded in 1974 and released in the first month of '75. He said he was a Saturday's Child really, but would've liked to have been a Sunday's.

Then, frowning, he added "Also, I think, the religious connotations of Sunday was something that appealed to me at the time." He suddenly stopped and, after the briefest of pauses, broke into a cackling, manic laugh and shouted "Lying f---! That's total bulls---!"

No, he continues, this in a stream of verbiage, the song was about "a particularly greasy evening in the 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 gotta get drunk. It's about half-past three in the morning and you suddenly realise that that's it and you have to get drunk. And the only good thing about it is that you can get up next day and it's Sunday."

That precipitate change of heart in the burden of his conversation seems typical of Martyn, being at pains to be both honest, serious and yet not to reveal his whole self because, as they say, all that one needs to know about him is his music.

It's a music charted on a ten-album course (including one compilation, the recent So Far So Good, two albums recorded with his wife Beverley and a live album which he distributed himself from home), developing from straight folk singer/ guitarist/ writer to a composer and musician of far wider appeal.

He's broadened his audience by natural evolution, experimenting with electric guitar and adding gadgetry to give him a greater scope with sound textures.

Concurrent with that came an alteration in his singing style. What diction and clarity he had was softened; he slurred his words and used his voice more as an improvisational instrument for its colours of tone rather than the normal usage of vocal as a straightforward device.

To his folk and blues beginnings he was adding jazz accents and changes, a move which had begun in 1968 when he used flautist/ saxophonist Harold McNair on his The Tumbler album.

Recently Martyn has toured Britain, climaxing with a sold-out concert at the New Victoria Theatre,1 which was not the artistic success it should have been. However, the box-office business was evidence enough that Martyn had lost none of his drawing power; despite the fact that he stopped working for the whole of 1976, taking a year's sabbatical to travel and think and reassess his career.

John says that the year's rethink has been fruitful. "It hasn't changed my attitude. It's strengthened it. I was getting a bit weak; dissipated, doing a bit too much, and I thought it was best to lay off. I feel much better for it.2"

When he decided to return he went out solo whereas just prior to his sabbatical he'd been working with bassist Danny Thompson, drummer John Stevens and, occasionally, with the late Paul Kossoff on second guitar.

"I didn't honestly know whether I'd like to be back on stage. I thought I'd better make the break on my own because if I discovered four or five gigs later that I wasn't having a good time…" He leaves the phrase to finish itself.

As it was, he says, he had a fine time of it. Except, perhaps, at the London show? Yes, he agrees, mentioning problems common to many solo artists, like the space between audience and performer.
"I like to see the punters right in front of me. They were just a bit too distant. It was a bit nerve-racking. I'm used to seeing the audience and feeling them out there."

Importantly, his ice-breaking, audience-involving chat was not at its eloquent best. In a rough, enthusiastic Cockney accent he will joke, badger and cajole an audience into response of some sort, but that night "I couldn't think of anything to say half the time. It was like talking to a brick wall."

"I played a very short set, an hour and ten minutes, which is weird for me. It was a bit like doing a television gig, it was cold. Every attempt I made to inject some life into the proceedings seemed to fall flat. And it was all very polite as well."

The halt in his live work and the release of a compilation album (put together by Island boss Chris Blackwell) suggested that Martyn had reached some sort of turning-point in his life and career.

Fortunately, he says, he's never been under any record company pressure for continuity or regularity in the flow of his recordings. "Two years ago I had some problems but that was a managerial thing which culminated in my temporary cessation.'

Frankly, he says of the album, he'd have made a completely different choice but his selection quite possibly wouldn't have been as representative. "The only difficulty I had was getting involved at all. I just could not be bothered. I honestly took no interest."

Martyn is a forward-looking artist, more concerned with his next studio album which, he says, so far comprises demos cut at Island and at Ron Geesin's Sussex studios which he's "digesting" before deciding how they can be further developed.

John was born in Glasgow [sic] in 1949 [sic]. He was an only child and both his parents were singers. They lived on the top floor of a large tenement. "My mother was a soprano, my father was a tenor. They worked as a duo briefly and then were swiftly divorced, which accounts for the fact that I was an only child!"

His mother, he adds, played piano too. "She used to play Debussy when I was a kid. I used to really get into that."

They took him on the road. "I remember being in a caravan in Largs, being completely entranced by it when they took me to see the show. They did the Skater's Waltz or something like that. And ... oh yeah! Roy Rogers and Trigger! They did a show once with Roy Rogers and Trigger and I was introduced to Trigger and I remember I much preferred Trigger to Roy Rogers. That was at the Alhambra in Glasgow."

As such, then, he was a child of the boards, born to perform? He doesn't think so. "I didn't want to be anything at all. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. If I'd had the money to travel I suppose I'd have been an archaeologist, I've always been interested in that."

Life in Glasgow is, by reputation, tough. You grow up fast. He was, he says, as much of a lad "as a born coward could be. No more than anybody else." (this line of inquiry had been prompted by his well-known outbursts of temper and violence, a trait which he puts down to drink rather than heredity or early environment. He's drinking less now, he adds).

Nevertheless, he was raised in "one of those places where you went out and kicked a few heads or else you were looked on as a pansy."

He was a happy kid mainly because, as an only child with divorced parents, he received a lot of sympathy from other parents. "I mean, bollocks, I was having a great time. All me mates, their sisters were always getting in the f----- way. It (being an only child) can also make you very self-sufficient."

At school he was "very intelligent, so they used to tell me. But I was always the one who 'should work harder' and 'must apply himself more '."

Had that been a fair criticism of him through his life and career so far?
"Ah ha!" he laughs, and pauses and ponders. "No. I don't honestly know but I can see exactly what people mean. I think I'd be a lot unhappier if I worked harder. I don't like work, and I think anybody who likes work is a fool."

"Anyone who can actually stand up and say 'I enjoy working' is obviously a f----- maniac and a man to be greatly distrusted (he warms to the subject). I do NOT like work, I do NOT like anything to do with it, and f--- me if I'll EVER work again!"

MARTYN became genuinely interested in guitar and singing in his mid-teens when he heard Joan Baez's Silver Dagger, the only thing by that lady he's ever liked.

Hamish Imlach, the Scots folk artist, took the young Martyn under his tutelage and introduced him as a guest on his folk club dates until, at the age of 17, Martyn was working the Scottish clubs solo.

After a year he felt he'd covered the area exhaustively and so moved South and, at 18, was signed by Island, becoming the first white artist on the then reggae-based label.

His first album, London Conversation, was a basic solo artist set, mostly original songs with a couple of well-known works like Dylan's Don't Think Twice and the traditional blues Cocaine.

Then came The Tumbler and the first suggestions that, in Martyn, Island had found an artist with much more potential than the normal singer/ songwriter, but one whose particular skills and vision had to be nurtured slowly.

After The Tumbler, John met and married Beverley, a folk singer from Coventry. Honeymooning in the States, they took the opportunity to cut a duo album, Stormbringer, using American musicians like Herbie Lovell, Harvey Brooks, Paul Harris, Billy Mundi and the Band's Levon Helm (Music From Big Pink was partially responsible for John's move from acoustic to electric guitar).

The couple recorded a second album, Road To Ruin, before the imminent birth of Wesley, their first son,3 brought the working relationship to an end (they've now two more children, Mhairi and Spencer - but Beverley continues to write, and is recording a new solo album before relaunching her career).

John went solo again, and now began a flow of albums featuring his newly devised style - the fiery electric guitar bolstered by tape machines and foot-pedals, which technique he worked on to duplicate the emotional range of the saxophone, and the blurred, warm edges of his singing.

Through Bless The Weather, Solid Air, Inside Out and Sunday's Child, he's determinedly pursued his music's course until now he is as much a jazz artist as any other (listen to Glistening Glyndebourne on Bless The Weather).

Of those old records, he says he's uncomfortable listening to them. "You start hearing mistakes. You hear what you could've done better. You hear a line that you should've sung but didn't. It's that, actually, that makes live gigging much more acceptable than recording."

And that, partly, was why he cut a live album. He recorded shows in Leeds and London4 and took the tapes to Island. "But they didn't think it was time for a live album." However, he got the album pressed and packaged, and distributed it from his home in Hastings.

That led to problems he hadn't thought about. For example, he had to make his address public knowledge. "With the best will in the world, you can't be answering your door to Spaniards every day. It began to get silly. Total freaks turning up at the door with their sleeping bags. 'Hi, man, always dug your music. Any chance of a crash?' You can't say no, can you?" He has subsequently moved house.

On his most recent shows he's been using a quad system to good effect. "The whole difficulty about doing acoustic and electric in the same set is volume disparity." Quad gives him the "ability to surround people with sound. Makes them less likely to nod off in the quiet bits!"

Of his guitar prowess he's modest. "I'm very good at doing what comes naturally. I'm very bad at practising. I just play when I feel like it, as much as I feel like. I shoot ahead, make a bit of ground, find a couple of new things."

Four years ago he started using an echoplex. "That's the only thing I've had to practise. There's a definite knack. You have to play the rhythm as dictated by the box, basically (you lay down a riff or chord pattern which is taped and played back and you can then overlay more riffs or patterns over the echo). If you miss it you come a dreadful cropper. You're f-----."
"It used to happen quite a lot. You're rocking along in the groove, and suddenly your nail catches or your cuff-link gets tangled. Doesn't happen much now."

Of the influence of the saxophone on his guitar playing and singing he says "the human voice is probably the most expressive instrument. I think the saxophone's power lies in its 'almost human' quality. I like to get away from all common guitar phrasing as much as possible, otherwise you don't express your uniqueness."

"In anybody's vocabulary there are similar phrases because everyone listens to the blues at the start. Then they start playing their own. It's a matter of developing your own accent, your own method of speaking."
"It's exactly the same with speech. Clichés become common in everyday speech."

'I'd rather not tell stories'

"There's a mainstream of people who really share a catchphrase. People say (he does good impersonations of Michael Crawford, Mike Reid and Bruce Forsythe) 'Go Betty' or 'give it all that' or 'good game.'"

"In about three or four months they flash through the collective consciousness and I'm sure it's the same in music. Like the wah-wah, that 'Shaft' riff is a catchphrase. It takes slightly longer in music for the phrase to work its way out."

During his 12-month vacation (much of it spent in Jamaica) John wrote nothing. Now he's refound his enthusiasm for composing as well as performing.
"I think it's actually the catalyst of going back on the road. You get blasted one night, you don't want to stop playing, so as soon as you get back to the hotel you get the guitar out and have a little play. The adrenalin buzz you get from actually playing on the stage is quite amazing. I didn't realise how much I'd missed it."

WHAT he most certainly did not miss was the travelling, which he loathes, and "all that f---ing ritual. It's just gone beyond a joke. I've just done so much of that. I fantasise about a custom-built Greyhound bus as much as you like, but in the end there's nothing like the good old Holiday Inn, sanitised for your own protection."

Happily, Martyn has never succumbed to the temptation to write about the woes of the travelling musician. "Yeah, I don't like being too specific in any lyrical sense. I don't really feel a part of that. But I have written the odd song that's been inspired by that situation. I just don't happen to start with 'I was down in Birmingham the other night'."

He writes about emotions rather than situations. "Right. I'd rather not tell stories. I think, basically, that is a waste of time. It's the emotional situation, that's the aspect that's the most wide-reaching, because you can have the same emotional response in two entirely physically different situations. You can feel disgusted or guilty in different places. It's the emotion that's the constant."


Still, he says, returning to the nomadic life his career has often forced him to lead, "if you dive off around the world you do appreciate the comforts of home a bit more than if you were there nine-tenths of your life. I think I'm probably, er, mellowing out, man." He laughs.

"I don't think I'd leave home for quite such drastic lengths of time as I did before. I used to go away for eight weeks at a time. Used to be like a merchant seaman. Quite amazing. Three weeks is ideal, the perfect time."

No, he says, this wouldn't rule out working in the States. He'd take his family out there and "park them somewhere." He was making a certain amount of headway in America, had toured there quite frequently with Traffic and Free,5 when he decided to lay low.

He hasn't been there for two years now, but then, he adds, he's never been too bothered about the pursuit of career. "There's not a great deal of point chasing yourself about too much."

His last visit was as the unlikely opening act for Yes.6 In the vast auditoriums that group plays he felt like "an ant under the microscope. I wasn't in the least bit nervous. There was something very impersonal about that sort of thing. It's very unreal dealing with this roar, this great BLOB of sensitivity. No personality involved at all."

"The weirdest gig I ever played was in a football stadium in Tampa, Florida.7 61,000, and it was so cold, so f---ing cold. I played for 40 minutes and I had to stop because I couldn't move me fingers. Just seized up. People were so cold they couldn't take their hands out of their sleeping bags, and you'd just hear this 'OOOOray!' at the end of every song. No applause. Weird."

The '77 tour apart, Martyn's recent British outings had been in the company of Thompson and Stevens. But Martyn has reservations about working with others.
"I find I give a more consistent performance on my own, simply because you've only got one thing to worry about. All the mistakes that are going to be made are going to be made entirely by yourself. The risk factor of having more people on stage isn't there."

"With three people it's obviously multiplied and compounded because you foul each other up. If one thing starts to go wrong, it just takes one man to start the panic! (laughter) and there you are, a quivering jelly on the stage with no idea what's going on!"

Also, he brought Paul Kossoff out of retirement. Well, says John, there was nothing heroic involved. "He just wanted to play. It wasn't the most compatible (musically) duo ever known, except in places - some places we played really well together. Ideally I should've had an electric bass player, that would've made it more comfortable. But, anyway, it achieved its objective. It cheered him up."

No, he reiterates, there was nothing courageous about taking Kossoff on the road. "The simplest relationships between people are often misconstrued simply because of the position they might be occupying in society. There was no statement intended by it. I didn't see it as courageous or cowardly."

"People tend to put those kind of connotations on what you do when you put yourself in the public eye. It's one of the drawbacks. People tend to overestimate the importance of your smallest action."

And, he says, in both sadness and anger, people are much ruder to him, as an artist, than they would be to an ordinary person. He instances an interviewer he met in York. John had just done a gig there, "a terrific gig, really good one." The interviewer asked him two questions and then said, 'Have you ever thought of slowing your music down and sounding more like Eric Clapton?' 8


He raises his eyes to the heavens. "I couldn't say anything. I was completely stunned. What can you say? You've just finished gigging, you're covered in sweat and s---... I can't say anything now without it getting printed. And people love the spicy bits. Know what I mean? I really don't like that."

He's hoping, he says, to get another band together with his wife for an album, to help her finish off her half-completed album, to write and record. He once said, I remarked, that he'd like to stop working at 35. His wishes in that direction haven't altered.

"That gives me about another eight years. I don't know. I don't see myself sustaining any interest for that length of time. I'm still very keen. Still love playing, but somehow, beyond 35, I can see that it'll be time for a change. I don't see myself staggering about until I drop."

1 Sunday 20 February 1977. Box-office record, 500 standing.
2 Lee Barry claims that it wasn't John who came up with the idea. "In the autumn of 1975 manager Rob Wynn issued a statement announcing John would be taking a year off. John knew nothing of this until the statement was issued, but having chewed it over decided it wasn't such a bad idea."
3 Not quite. Wesley was from a previous relationship but John adopted him.
4 This is interesting. John is open here about the provenance of the material. Extensive tape research for Live At Leeds Deluxe in 2010 led to the conclusion in the sleevenotes "that the original Live At Leeds was half Leeds and half London"…
5 January and February 1973.
6 February and early March 1974.
7 9th February 1974. This was the coldest night of the year.
8 There's a fair chance John is referring to John Hamblett of the NME, who reviewed the York University show of 4th February 1977. Favourably by the way.
This story was published in Melody Maker of 9th April, 1977 on page 18 and 49. The issue had Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris on the front page and cost 15p.

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