THE EIGHTEEN LP's that comprise the complete published works of John Martyn defy easy summary. From folk to funk, via jazz, blues, Hollywood, pop and reggae points between, Martyn's music is distinguished by a variety of atmospheres filtered through his own thoroughly unique perspectives.
He started out in Glasgow folk clubs over 20 years ago, and his contemporary fans include Everything But The Girl and Sade. The tough 'n' tender cliché hardly does him justice, but it's certainly more applicable to him than most. Touching tenderness, rave ups, weirdness, beasts and beauties and absolutely no bullshit guaranteed in his music. Well, not much, anyway.
MAY YOU NEVER (from the LP SOLID AIR, Island, 1973).
An acoustic guitar-accompanied ballad, expressive of male friendship and solidarity; a hard act to pull off, and an enduring and much-requested concert favourite.
"Yes, I know exactly what you mean. It can be cloying and sickly, and really piss you off. I got that way about that tune. I must have played it 200 times in a year and it got very difficult I can tell you, although I don't mind playing it now. It always goes down sickeningly well."
I'D RATHER BE THE DEVIL (also from SOLID AIR).
"That's a Skip James song. My favourite blues player. The original is so delicate. You get this contrast between these wicked lyrics – vicious things to say, like 'I'd rather be the devil than be my woman's man,' and this almost classical, minuettish guitar style."
COULDN'T LOVE YOU MORE and CERTAIN SURPRISE (from the LP ONE WORLD, Island, 1977).
"You can't do sessions with guys like Lee Perry and Max Romeo and walk away untouched by the experience. I like being exceptionally mean when I'm mean, and exceptionally gentle when I'm gentle. I've said that before, but it's one of the maxims I adhere to. I think you should have a purpose and a drive behind everything you do in music."
THE MESSAGE (from the LP SUNDAY'S CHILD, Island, 1975).
"This uses the chorus from a song called Mairy's Wedding, which happens to be the name of my daughter. It was a note of censure to my father for being such an alcoholic, because I knew if he continued he'd be in no condition to attend my daughter's wedding…"
WOODSTOCK (from the LP STORMBRINGER, Island, 1970).1
"Because, I suppose, of albums like BLESS THE WEATHER (Island, 1971) and all the gentleness there is on that sort of stuff, people have expected me to spend my whole life being beautiful. And it's just not the truth. I'm a Glasgow working-class chap thank you very much, and easily offended at that, at times…"
Martyn's reputation for riotous, alcohol-fuelled behaviour grew to legendary proportions. As the slippy funk of DANCING (from ONE WORLD) observes, 'If you're leading the life of a music man you got to walk around and reel around and rock around all round town...'
HURT IN YOUR HEART, SWEET LITTLE MYSTERY and BABY PLEASE COME HOME (from the LP GRACE AND DANGER, Island, 1980).
Martyn, by this stage, was going through a painful divorce. Are these songs too difficult to bear?
"No, not at all. I'm not interested in covering anything up, artistically. I'll duck conversations if I have to, but nothing is censored. In fact, things may come out in a song that may not have been voiced in conversation. I know my ex-wife used to be upset by a few things like that. But that's an indication of how seriously I take it. It's my most important means of communication. Which is not to decry conversation, and wit and eloquence and all the rest of it, but as I've progressed the responsibility to be honest in the music has become greater rather than lesser."
JOHNNY TOO BAD (from the LP GRACE AND DANGER, Island, 1980).
"I can reject criticism through that song. Y'know, f*** you, I'm just too bad. You don't know who I am, I'm just too bad for you. You think you know me but you don't, and you don't know what you're missing! One day you'll be as hip as me, if you're lucky. Blind arrogance and total conceit. A lot of music comes from that. That's the blues again, I'm the greatest f*** in the world and you better believe it. I love all that. It's funny. Well, it may not be funny, but it's amusing, put it that way."
OVER THE RAINBOW (from the LP SAPPHIRE, Island, 1984).
"An accident, I wasn't a great Judy Garland fan, in fact I never really liked her. I do now. We'd stuck down four more-or-less random drum tracks and thought we'd dub things onto them. Bangs, clatters, bonks, twiddles… notes. And in the course of all this I started humming Over The Rainbow, and it fitted. It's since become something that I'm quite fond of."
ROPE SOUL'D (from the LP SAPPHIRE, Island, 1984).
"I improvised the lyric. In fact I improvised the whole thing. The producer was going, 'It'll be great when you get the whole lyric on it'. I said, 'I'm sorry, that's it. You don't really want any more do you?' He said 'Yes'. I fired him. He was insisting on having more lyric, and me singing it differently. I thought, 'Whose record is this?' You might not be able to live it, but I certainly can. That's when Robert Palmer entered the picture."
(Palmer, Batley, Yorkshire's most internationally successful soul boy, Nassau resident and long-time friend, is 'specially thanked' on the album).
"A courageous boy, y'know. There's a lot more to him than meets the eye. He's one of the people I can enjoy a conversation with any time of the day or night, he'll always come up with something interesting. He's never boring. Nice man, and a great, great worker. F***ing dedicated. He's got a lot of things that I haven't got, like a sense of discipline."
"Yeah, when I was out in Nassau I became a complete waster. With rum at five dollars a litre, and everything laid on for you… It's astonishing that anything ever gets done over there."
"My equivalent to that would be a smokey club atmosphere, and things like…"
NEVER LET ME GO (from the LP WELL KEPT SECRET, WEA, 1982).
"That's a Johnny Ace tune. Johnny Ace, the first million-selling black artist. Shot by his manager at the tender age of 23, in a dispute over four dollars. Funny the things people do, isn't it?"
LONELY LOVE (from the LP PIECE BY PIECE, Island, 1986).
"It's very poppy isn't it?"
SERENDIPITY (also from PIECE BY PIECE).
"A gambler's song. I'm a great believer in it. No matter how long you go, there's always something that'll turn up. I'm a fairly good card player, I love playing cards, although I don't bet on the horses or anything like that. I suppose it comes from being an optimist. I've noticed that no matter how low I've sunk at any given point in time, something has always popped up. I bet you it gets better – and it always does."
1 Actually they printed 1973 but that was a typo.
This interview was published in Beat Magazine of 1 March 1986 on page 30.
The photo was cropped from a 1986 promo photograph by Mike Owen.