Head and Heart | The Acoustic John Martyn

28 Apr 2017
Written by: 
Mick Houghton
Head and Heart
The Acoustic
John Martyn

john and bev

IT's fair to say that by 1968 the notion of what British folk music represented had changed radically. Only three years earlier it was still frowned upon in some circles to be playing an acoustic guitar in the strictest of the more traditional clubs. God forbid that anybody would use a pick-up wired to an amplifier and then trigger a series of tape loop delays to create the sound that would effectively define John Martyn's music in the 70s. He would later explain that it only came about because he couldn't afford a £300 Gibson, only a £15 pick-up.1 Such is the glorious happenstance of history.

In 1968, when I was still grappling with whatever folk music was at the time, I was fortunate enough that year to see the three great and most influential British folk groups of the day (and since) in the space of six months, all in the comfort of the Royal Festival Hall. The Incredible String Band played there at the end of March where they unveiled the songs from The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, and Tim Buckley, no less, opened for them. Here was an album that confounded everybody by scaling the Top Five of the mainstream album charts. At the end of June, Pentangle played their first official show, although they had come together almost 18 months earlier, performing a hitherto unimagined blend of amplified folk and jazz that hinged musically around guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourn and acoustic bass player Danny Thompson. Once a member of Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and a sideman in Ronnie Scott's house band, Thompson would become John Martyn's key collaborator during his creative peak of the 70s. Then, on 28th September, Fairport Convention closed The Festival of Contemporary Song, with Joni Mitchell on the same bill. For me it was the first time I had seen the group with Sandy Denny and they were already shifting their repertoire towards a more predominant folk rock sound. They had always covered contemporary songs by the likes of Mitchell, Richard Farina and Leonard Cohen but now their set list included songs familiar to folk club attendees in Nottamun Town and She Moved Through The Fair.

john soloAt the other end of the scale I'd been going to Soho folk clubs since 1967, mostly to Bunjies and Les Cousins. That first wave of cool guitarists, Jansch, Renbourn and Davy Graham, had all played Cousins regularly since it had re-opened as a folk club in March 1965 but they had moved on by the time I was old enough and brave enough to go along to the Greek Street basement club's seedy Saturday all-nighters. Now it was home to a new generation of guitarists; these included Al Stewart, Ralph McTell, Michael Chapman, Mike Cooper and John Martyn who seemed to be playing every time I checked the listings in Melody Maker where he was usually billed as a 'contemporary songwriter'. I saw him there three or four times.

Martyn had arrived in London from Glasgow in the summer of 1967 and, remarkably, had only been playing guitar for three months. The first thing he learnt to play was Joan Baez' Silver Dagger, an unlikely entry point before coming under the spell of Davy Graham and Bert Jansch. He was almost immediately brought to the attention of Chris Blackwell who signed him to Island Records for whom he recorded his debut album London Conversation in August. His repertoire at the time was broadly conventional including the traditional She Moved Through The Fair and Dylan's Don't Think Twice, It's Alright, a showcase for his already impressive finger picking style. But there was something edgier about John Martyn on stage although he still looked positively boyish and fresh faced under a mop of tousled, curly hair. Was he wearing socks? I really couldn't say; it was always dark and dingy in Cousins.

In those early days his set was always bolstered by blues standards - Winding Boy and Cocain both turning up on his first two albums and I remember John Renbourn telling me how good a blues player he was but his own songs also stood out, particularly, the charming Fairy Tale Lullaby which appropriately opens this collection, by far the most fully accomplished of his early songs. The voice is lighter than we soon became accustomed to; he wouldn't develop his trademark blend of growls and slurs for several years. But even in his first year on the scene what was already extraordinary about Martyn on stage was a physical presence coupled with the sheer physicality of his guitar playing, rocking to and fro, hammering the guitar strings with his fist or tugging furiously on the bass strings. Cousins may only have been a smoky, dank basement with a very informal vibe but John Martyn, even then, was so vibrant that he commanded attention. Nobody dozed off in the small hours of the morning when John Martyn took to the tiny stage.

At the end of 1968 I left London to go to Leicester University where one of the few sustaining pleasures was the roll call of the good and the great British bands and solo performers on the circuit who'd play at the University's Queen's Hall; having not seen John Martyn in the intervening years, it was probably my final year before I saw John Martyn play there and he had changed dramatically since Cousins. I can't put an exact date on it but it was a solo show and he'd already released the first -at least- of the two albums with his wife Beverley. What he played that night is also lost in the mists of time but what was unforgettable was how stunning a performance he gave. His singing and manner were more assured and easy going, plenty of chat between songs, and he was already evolving that scat-style, jazz inflected delivery that would eventually become an additional instrument in itself. But what left the audience agog was the spiralling electronic onslaught during the second half of the show. Looking back, I didn't know what was coming and it was impossible to believe that one man made such a dynamic, fluid racket with one mic linked to a reel to reel tape machine,2 an amplifier and various foot pedals. It reverberated almost hallucinogenically around the whole hall. He was no longer a folkie, that's for sure. John Martyn was demolishing the folk rule book single handedly as surely as Pentangle or Fairport Convention had before him and unlike any of his folk peers, Martyn had found a way to fashion and embrace an electric sound which would come to overshadow the 'acoustic' John Martyn, the sensitive, meditative songwriter, for much of the 70s. This collection, true to its title, sets out to redress the balance of John Martyn's all round virtuosity, so there's no blistering Outside In or shimmering Glistening Glyndebourne nor the full band arrangements of songs like One Day Without You; from Sunday's Child, here stripped bare for a 1975 John Peel session.

Once Martyn discovered the echoplex device that enabled him to unleash swirling loops of sound out of his guitar, it soon became the lifeblood of his act, and a no-holds-barred crowd-pleaser. Martyn's two albums with Beverley had edged him towards a new direction, playing with a distinguished folk rock band in Woodstock on Stormbringer!, where he introduced the echoplex effect on Would You Believe Me?, stretching further out stylistically on The Road to Ruin; New Day, included here, marks his first session with Danny Thompson. Martyn's vocal style had been gradually intensifying and growing huskier and all the hallmarks of John Martyn's new jazz folk hybrid were falling into place. Convinced by Island Records he'd be better off as a solo artist -more than likely without too much argument on his part- it was November 1971's Bless The Weather which set a new benchmark (exemplified here by its title track, Head And Heart, as unqualified a declaration of love as anybody has ever penned, and the languid Go Easy) only for him to raise the bar almost out of reach with the cool, melancholy Solid Air barely a year later. Most artists have one album which popularly and critically they never bettered and Solid Air was a tough act to follow in the short term. 1975's Sunday's Child, Martyn's most joyful, deeply personal and romantic collection of songs, is certainly underrated as a result.3

Martyn was brilliantly accompanied by Danny Thompson throughout the decade, the unimpeachable double bass man was now available after the demise of Pentangle to share seven years of musical adventures and outrageous times both on the road and in the studio. The two were so in sync, Thompson's bass punctuating Martyn's increasingly innovative guitar work to perfection, his trademark long sliding notes jelling mellifluously with his smoky voice. Disc two of this collection finds Martyn more often than not in the company of Thompson, the pair's fiery and enduring relationship enabling them to improvise freely and instinctively, nowhere better than the alternate take of Go Down Easy included here.

Head And Heart: The Acoustic John Martyn has been carefully and expertly put together by Joe Black and not only does it adhere to its brief -without the distraction of any electronic wizardry- but it's also a perfect cross section of John Martyn's work in his first ten years at Island Records. There are highlight a plenty among its 35 selections, not least three previously unreleased demos for The Tumbler which were found in a store room at Kassner Associated Publishing that was being cleared out; the demos were recorded at Regent Sound on Denmark Street where the Rolling Stones cut their recording teeth. Going Down To Memphis features some fine slide guitar while A Day At The Sea and Seven Black Roses suggest a strong debt to Bert Jansch, even a hint of John Fahey although such influences should in no way detract from Martyn's stunning technique particularly on Seven Black Roses. Hard to believe he had only recently taken the L-plates off his guitar.

Another previously unreleased recent find dates from an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, transmitted on 22nd January, playing one of the songs for which he will always be remembered, Bless The Weather; here it's given an almost bluesy intent and is enriched by yet more exquisite guitar during a long outro. Bob Harris' radio show from October 1973 offers up a personal favourite; Beverley/ Make No Mistake, originally from the stormy, experimental Inside Out but here without the underpinning, growling electric guitar of the LP version, the opening instrumental now underlined by Danny Thompson's unfettered bowed bass while Make No Mistake is delivered with almost overbearing vocal intensity. It all makes for what is a tastefully, contextualised, fresh look at John Martyn's first recorded decade.

john soloThe Acoustic John Martyn closes (bar one final track) in 1977 at a time when punk was raging; yet the man who was not without his own tempestuous side that would scare off any punk, was tenderly crafting the captivatingly personal One World album during the small hours of the night at a Berkshire house set in the middle of a lake; the selection here provides two fine outtakes and another Peel session variant, this time of Certain Surprise/ Couldn't Love You More; Martyn's soul is in every note he plays and phrase he sings.

The 80s proved to be a graveyard for the generation of folkies who had first graced the scene during the sixties; unlike many of his contemporaries, John Martyn could still command major record deals but his work doesn't consistently hold up to the remarkable outpouring of talent of the previous decade. Nonetheless, it's a pleasant surprise that this set closes with a lone track from 1987, Patterns In The Rain, his voice deeper still and even more raucous, but sung with great passion to a simple piano accompaniment. It was recorded at the Island Records birthday party, the song taken from The Apprentice, unreleased at the time and recorded some 20 years after Chris Blackwell first plucked John Martyn from the obscurity of the Kingston Folk Barge. Back then few would have believed he was capable of such uniquely sustained magic, creating songs and sounds that were sometimes tender and meditative, at other times courageously uninhibited and experimental; all in all a remarkable symmetry of head and heart.

Mick Houghton

1 This was Johnny Black's Grace & Danger story in Rock 'n' Reel of November 2008.
2 An echoplex machine would be a more accurate description.
3 Inside Out is being subtly ignored here but the man is right about Sunday's Child.