IF there is such a thing as a cult figure in popular music, John Martyn is probably it. He has all the required credentials. Twenty-five years in the business, a catalogue of critically acclaimed albums and a small coterie of dedicated fans.
But then those fans include Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Robert Plant and Dave Gilmour. In addition, U2's The Edge and countless young guitarists have adopted his style, so Martyn can justifiably claim cult status. The other requisite is to embark on low-key tours of the United States, playing with only a bassist at small clubs. And, of course, the real cult figure has to be an iconoclast. "I don't think of myself as anything, I just lurch along from one thing to another," says the Scottish singer-songwriter.
"Oh, I just play," Martyn says when asked to assess his record company Mesa's definition of him as a 'song poet'. "Self-expression is the name of the game – records, live performances, whatever... it doesn't matter," he says matter-of-factly.
But there's little matter-of-fact about his new album, No Little Boy - a reworking of some of Martyn's music described by Billboard magazine as 'an estimable songbook of jazz-influenced folk-pop' and 'greatest non-hits,' like the haunting Solid Air.
What adds to Martyn's cult status is that Collins sings on two of the tracks and Gilmour gives a Pink Floydian guitar sound to One World, one of Martyn's better-known songs.
"Phil Collins? Oh, he's an absolute diamond; one of the sweetest men alive, a great drummer, he plays piano, he sang harmonies. I hope we can work together more," says Martyn, whose brooding baritone recalls Richie Havens and Joe Cocker. "Gilmour, well he doesn't play much anymore anyway, but I called him and asked him to play on this record and he did."
And Clapton, who wouldn't want the so-called guitar god to listen to your work? In fact, Clapton recorded Martyn's May You Never on his Slowhand album.
The Glasgow-born Martyn started his career in the Sixties on the British folk scene, recording and touring with his then-wife Beverley. Then he turned 'electric', pioneering the use of a new echo-effects pedal named the 'echo-plex', which has been developed and taken up by countless guitar players, including The Edge. "It's oddly flattering, teenagers and young guitarists are coming to check me out now," he says.
On folk music, he has mixed feelings now. "The folk scene is all right, but you end up running out of steam. There's an obsession with British music, just like one time Irish music was really big and no one could see past the Chieftains. It ceases to interest me now, but that's just a question of personal taste. I've moved on now."
Martyn, befitting his cult figure status has eclectic musical tastes. "From Debussy to John Coltrane, I'm obsessed by music, I live for it," he says. "I don't like Madonna, but I like Michael Jackson, I guess what I mean is I don't like bad music," he says, launching into an attack on the commercialism of record companies - his latest, of course, excluded.
"I'm not really a record company man, they move you around like a piece of equipment, and I'm not like that. Maybe they have good ears, but their greed outweighs their taste and then bad music ensues," says Martyn. "I don't want to put anyone down, but the British charts are a total mess, they suck. The only good music is coming from the United States," he adds. – Reuter
This story was published by The New Straits Times on Monday 20 September 1993, on page 28 of the Arts section. Established in 1845, The New Straits Times Press is Malaysia's oldest and largest newspaper publisher.