Making Tracks to the Top

Mick Brown
The Guardian
John Martyn, in concert in London tonight, has been a cult figure for far too long. Now he plans to change all that, as Mick Brown reports
Making tracks to the top

SOME MUSIC clamours for attention, but John Martyn's music takes audiences by stealth. Martyn's concerts have always been imbued with the quiet intimacy of an exchange of confidences; his records have seemed like correspondence personally addressed to the faithful.

Martyn himself would doubtless resent the description. Being a cult figure -much loved, a jealously guarded secret even, among a small number of people- may, he agrees, be a great thing for one's ego, but it is somewhat limiting when talking to music business accountants about keeping body, soul and career together.

Which is why this month John Martyn has left Island Records, the independent label with which he has spent his entire recording career, and signed with the mammoth WEA organisation. The analogy of son waving goodbye to father is irresistible.

Martyn joined Island when he was 19 [sic] years old, the first white musician to record for the label, which until his signing had been devoted entirely to Jamaican music. Thirteen years in all. Much longer, he jokes, and he would have qualified for a gold watch, to match the three-piece suits he habitually wears.

In that time he has recorded 10 albums for the label. But while sales have steadily increased -One World, released in 1978, [sic] has actually been the biggest seller of his career- Martyn himself clearly feels his full potential has still to be realised.

"Island were committed to my career, yes. But they see me in a particular way - as a Zoot Sims1 or someone who just has his own little following and there he'll be for ever and ever. I don't see myself in that way, and I never have done. There are no limits to what I can do if I really put my mind to it, and this year I've decided to do just that."

Martyn had been a professional musician for less than a year when he made his first record, London Conversation, in 1968. [sic] He had arrived in London from Glasgow in search of work on a folk circuit at that time crowded with young hopefuls. Martyn, however, was quick to establish credentials outside the genre, initially by recording in America with members of the Band and later by developing a highly distinctive guitar style based around the use of distortion and echo which was to take his music beyond the fairly simple disciplines of folk into the more rarefied atmosphere of virtuoso improvisation.

But if the high regard in which Martyn has always been held by the critics and his fans has not been altogether matched by wider commercial success, it is perhaps as much to do with Martyn's own attitude as to any innate factor in his music. Martyn admits that he has always assumed a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to work, touring and recording at a more leisurely pace than he might have done, generally shying away from conventional career-building stunts.

"Some people would say that I gave too much time to my family and to having a good time. That's possibly a valid criticism. But while it may have looked as if I've just been staggering around, bouncing off walls, there has always been a directing force. I'm a fairly accurate judge of human greed, so I know how to survive. I'm not going to get nailed to the wall. There are still really good musicians who are given one room in Notting Hill Gate, put on a £50-a-week retainer and told, 'Right, we want three albums in two years - get on with it.' That has never happened to me, and it never will."

"But in some ways I am annoyed with myself, because I see people who I don't think are worthy of much respect gaining a great deal, and that really does annoy me. It also gives me an incentive to do more myself."

Martyn admits that the break-up of his marriage to the singer Beverley Martyn last year has also had a very direct bearing on his attitude. On reflection, he says, it was a matter of conscience that he was never away from home touring for more than three weeks at a time.

Now that he no longer feels morally bound to be at home in the way he once did, Martyn says he has upped his work-rate by about 40 per cent. He has just completed a series of sell-out concerts in Canada.2 And his current mini-tour, taking in dates in Brighton, Birmingham, London (at the Dominion tonight and tomorrow night) and in the Irish Republic, will be the second set of performances in Britain within six months. And Martyn expects to be touring yet again later in the year to promote a new album.3

The album is to be produced by Phil Collins, drummer with Genesis and recently a chart-topping artist in his own right, a fact which should further serve to bring the record to wider public attention. Collins actually played drums behind Martyn on the singer's last British appearances - the first time Martyn has performed on stage with a group after 13 years of performing either solo or with only double-bass accompaniment.

Although Collins himself will not be performing on the current tour, Martyn will again be playing with a group, a move which reflects his desire to make his music more simple harmonically, and at the same time achieve as big a sound as possible.
"I'm having to learn how to play in a band. Most people start at 18, so I am at a serious disadvantage in that respect. But I like the idea of cooperation and collaboration which I never did before; and I like to be able to take my hands off the guitar and still feel something going on."

Certainly working with a group on stage gives Martyn a solid rhythmic foundation to complement the air of space and freedom which has always characterised his guitar improvisations. His music is now as far from orthodox folk music as it has ever been. Like Joni Mitchell, who also started as a conventional folk singer, Martyn has evolved a singular and highly distinctive fingerprint by feeling free to draw upon and adapt musical ideas from any source.

Reggae has been a particularly noticeable influence over the last few years. Martyn actually spent much of 1976 in Jamaica working with musical figures such as Lee Perry, but found the experience disillusioning. "To find people hustling like crazy for their $4 session fees and producers talking about 'owning' performers... the mystique didn't quite evaporate, but it definitely frayed somewhat."

None the less, reggae remains foremost among Martyn's own musical tastes, along with jazz and ethnic music. "Any good music excites me, but you hear all too few good musicians. The obligation of any musician is to try to move the state of the art forward. Exploitation is where people fall down they don't realise that by exploiting the status quo they are just maintaining it. They're holding up not only themselves and other musicians but, God help us all, the poor people who actually buy the stuff, and that is a bad thing to do. You really have to go forward. And anything else is just a means to that end, not the end in itself."

1 Zoot Sims (1925-1985), jazz saxophone player who featured in a lot of big bands but from the fifties on worked mainly as a freelancer.
2 Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, early April.
3 Glorious Fool.
This interview was published in The Guardian of Saturday 23 May 1981. It featured a portrait picture by Garry Weaser. The band concert took place in the London Dominion Theatre and sold out quickly so they added another gig on Sunday.

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