07 Aug 1994
Don't call it folk! John Martyn is 46, but he's not too old to kick up a stink if you dare lump him in with the finger-in-ear brigade. Paul Tingen dons his profanity-proof sou'ester to meet Britain's most eccentric and unique guitar stylist.
Second impressions can he deceptive. Like many people I had been familiar with the work of John Martyn for years. A serious and respected musician, a good songwriter, and a fine guitarist, he was best known for the laid back jazz-folk excursions of his fifth album Solid Air (1973). Although Solid Air didn't exactly propel Martyn toward the big time, the Scottish singer/ songwriter continued to turn out solid albums up until 1980's sombre Grace & Danger. Come 1992, and Martyn himself seemed to be reappraising his career, putting out Couldn't Love You More, a collection of re-recorded old favourites, such as Solid Air, Sweet Little Mystery and One World, and featuring such luminaries as Phil Collins, David Gilmour and Andy Sheppard. Only one problem - the album was atrocious. Full of sleepy muzak, the 15 tracks were dominated by smooth keyboard pads and endless saxophone solos, with hardly a guitar to be heard. Almost affronted, I shelved the idea for a TGM interview with Martyn. Why talk to a guy who's capable of making such toothless trash?
A few months on and Island Records have released a retrospective two CD set called Sweet Little Mysteries with highlights from the albums Martyn recorded for them between 1968 and 1987. I took another look at Martyn, and was virtually flattened by his concert on June 2nd at The Grand in South London. It was a knockout. Driven by his band's seriously funky groove, Martyn -handling a Les Paul Gold Top- played stirring, almost heavy metal-like guitar solos, enhanced by strange succulent, inimitable rhythm figures which fused fingerstyle and what might be mistaken for slap-bass techniques. The CD set, containing songs from classic Martyn albums like Bless The Weather (1971), Solid Air, One World (1977) and Grace & Danger (1980), made for another pleasant surprise. Good songs, interesting guitar playing. The signature of a musician of real depth, integrity and stature was written all over the music. This is the same guy who'd made Couldn't Love You More? Unbelievable.
Martyn is half English, half Scottish, having grown up in Glasgow and Kingston-upon-Thames after his parents' divorce. The mid-'60s saw his introduction to the boards as a Glaswegian folk revivalist, and he was signed soon after his move down to London by Island Records. His first releases were London Conversation ('68), and The Tumbler ('69). Both were strongly influenced by the folk guitar playing of Davey Graham, though the tug of jazz and Indian music are already evident. Martyn married Beverley Kutner in 1969 and together they made two somewhat directionless albums, Stormbringer and Road To Ruin, both in 1970.
Martyn's solo career began in earnest in 1971, with Bless The Weather, on which he first manifested his unique hybrid of folk, jazz, rock and any other influence that took his fancy, including reggae, Latin or free jazz. It's here that we begin to hear that typical, slurred vocal style, and the guitar-bass relationship that became the foundation for much of his music. His initial 'angelic hippy' image soon gave way to a rougher, tougher, more moody look and he gradually drifted out of the folk scene, not least because of his psychedelic experiments with effect pedals like the Echoplex and the phase shifter. He sang songs that were very personal and ambiguous, culminating in the heartrending Grace & Danger, the result of trying to come to terms with his wife leaving him. Our man apparently spent much of his time crying in the garden shed, together with a similarly heartbroken Phil Collins. The two later worked together on several of Martyn's albums. But personal and alcohol problems, an explosive temperament and several shifts of record companies in the '80s threatened to derail his career.
Even as Martyn was suffering personally and commercially, his records remained of a consistently high quality. Albums like Glorious Fool (1981, the title track referring to Ronald Reagan), Sapphire (1984) and his most recent set of new material, Cooltide (1991), were gradually getting more rocky, with Martyn playing more and more electric guitar. Only his occasional flirtations with drum machines, sequencers and synths failed to convince. So, given his productive past, why have we seen only retrospective material over the last three years? Has Martyn become another middle-aged has-been cashing in on old fame? Or were these compilations legitimate attempts to jog the memories of a public who've been slow to acknowledge his talents? More pointedly, who on earth thought that Couldn't Love You More would do the job?
A few weeks following his Grand gig, we're tucked away in a little south London garden and Martyn's ready to talk. He isn't quite as you'd expect. Rather than justifying his image as a withdrawn, moody and impatient man, I'm confronted with someone who is ebullient and extrovert, and laughs a lot.
The only problem is that he's continuously distracted, greeting or pointing at other people in the garden, and several times he interrupts his answers -with more enthusiasm than he shows for talking about music- to study the thrushes that are picking berries from the grass. At one stage a leaf falls into his lap. Unbelievably, he kisses it before he puts it aside. Add to that his Aladdin-like beard, and you'd be forgiven for stereotyping him as the original ageing hippy. The only signs that he's not quite what he seems are his protruding beer-belly, the twinkle in his eyes and the things he says.
Today Martyn is clearly not interested in diplomacy or subtleness. The merest mention of folk music and the man reacts as if he'd heard a four letter word: 'Honestly, I've completely lost my appetite for the folky stuff. I like playing the odd folk tune, but the whole attitude of the folk market and folk groups really pisses me off. They sell nationalism, and I find that regressive. If you like the music, well, all right, but I don't like all the twiddlydee-twiddlydum stuff. It sounds like typewriting. There's no heart in it and I don't find it expressive. It's dull, really stultifyingly dull. The only reason I was ever categorised as folk was because I played the acoustic guitar and played in folk clubs. But they were the only places where you could learn to play the acoustic in public.'
But is this not a bit rich coming from a man who's covered several folk tunes on his albums (like Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhaill on Inside out (1973) and Spencer The Rover on Sunday's Child (1974) and who's worked extensively with bassists Danny Thompson and Dave Pegg, and drummers Gerry Conway and Dave Mattacks, all of whom axe deeply steeped in British folk music? Martyn is not impressed. 'I know, I know,' he grins, 'but I'm really not into it at all, and try to disassociate myself as much as possible. Politically speaking it's a bad move, because folk music is huge at the moment, especially in America. They just love it, but I don't I think folk music is pretentious, it's fatuous, period!' He laughs again and adds self-mockingly: 'Naughty Johnny...'
Despite his current state of mind Martyn stresses that one particular folk musician remains his biggest influence - namely Davey Graham, founding father of the folk-baroque style and (in effect) of the whole British acoustic guitar movement of the '60s and '70s.
'He was my big guitar hero and he's still the best of all. I hear that his gigs are very erratic and strange these days, but he had a record out in 1965 -Folk, Blues And Beyond, I think-1 and I never heard anything as good from anybody. Unbelievable. He was well ahead of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. They wouldn't have been there without him, and neither would I. He's the unsung hero, but nobody ever mentions him.'
Continuing his folk demolition job, Martyn adds that he sees the latter two guitarists as being in the offensive twiddlydee category. A more enduring influence on him is a player who, in the UK at least, remains a very well-kept secret: Snooks Eaglin. 'He's a great player in the style of Charlie Christian and Charlie Byrd. He was out there, a beautiful player, well ahead of his time.' (Eaglin was born in 1963 and came to prominence as a 'modern street minstrel' and R&B player in the late '50s and early '60s. He was known for his 'strange, orchestral style of guitar accompaniment'.)
Other influences on Martyn are not so straightforward: jazz musicians like Charles Mingus and Joe Zawinul; reggae producer Lee Scratch Perry who got him into reggae in 1976 when recording Inside Out [sic HB]; even country players like Chet Atkins and Hank Williams. 'If something sounds nice to me, then I'll use it,' he explains simply. 'I think that I've become more refined as I get older. The folkies would disagree and say that I've become coarser, but I think the opposite is true, even as my music has become more ballsy. If things don't swing I get pissed off. It has to have some energy.' The Grand concert proved that, but the spectre of Couldn't Love You More hangs over Martyn's manifesto like a question mark.
The mere mention of the album and Martyn reacts as if stung by a bee. 'That was jive that had nothing to do with me. That album should never have been released, it was a record company scam. I hate it. It sucks. It's horrible. It's really smooth and shitty and doesn't work. Its production is like getting gently rubbed with cotton wool until you're bored stiff. It's so dull, I hate it. I had no idea they were going to release that - they had the tapes and I was in America and when I came back the next thing I knew it was out.'
Another recent album of re-recorded songs -No Little Boy- isn't quite so likely to make Martyn's blood boil but, perhaps like too many of Martyn's albums, it's another collection where he plays down his guitar prowess in favour of huge keyboard washes and sax solos. The latter is not a problem specific to No Little Boy. For some reason Martyn has tended to underplay himself as a guitarist. On the older albums there's a lot of acoustic rhythm guitar, and on later albums he plays the occasional electric guitar solo, but the sheer biting ferocity and glorious swing of John Martyn onstage has rarely been captured on disc. On that evidence, he's up there in the league of Richard Thompson or jazzer Martin Taylor, the incredible dexterity, feel and swing of his fingerstyle playing being as individual as a signature.
'What I do is very simple,' he reckons. 'I write songs and I play them and that's it. I'm not into this whole guitar hero thing and don't want people to see me like that. My approach to playing the electric guitar is based on the way I play the acoustic - I hardly lever use a pick, even though I know how to use it. I don't play like Van Halen or people like that. I don't have the chops for it anyway, but I've got the brain, I know about harmony, and jazz players like what I do, which is great. But it's not necessary to be the fastest man in the world. You can say as much with a few notes as with a whole stream.'
It's a familiar argument, and one that appears to separate two kinds of musicians: the players and the writers. In classical music these two breeds are formally separated, in rock and jazz and blues it's more a matter of balance: some musicians gravitate one way, some the other. Writers usually tend to revel in their non-virtuosity just as much as players relish in their chops. Martyn belongs in the writers' camp, something that's also evident from the fact that on record his vocals appear to get more emphasis than his guitar playing. For many years he was known for the improvisational, slurred delivery that made it very hard to understand his lyrics. In recent years his singing has been clearer and cleaner.
'If I've been working on anything over the last six years it's becoming a better singer, and I think I'm getting there. I love to be able to sing; it's a real pleasure for me to sing.'
He obviously feels strongly about singing, because off he goes on another diatribe: 'I don't like singers who abuse the privilege to sing. Nine out of ten singers today appear to do that. People like Morrissey just piss me off. I find what they do so unmusical. It's simply not happening. I like notes that go up and down, melody and harmony. What happened to that stuff? It's like they're trying to wean us off it at the moment. Having said that, I'm very interested in hip-hop. I love all that sub-bass shit and kick drum shit. My next album will have a lot of hip-hop on it.2 People seem to think that hip-hop means rap or something, but it doesn't have to be like that at all. There's no reason why you can't have a really kicking track and a really sweet vocal on top. That's what I'm looking for.'
Over the years Martyn has become known as an exponent of the bare-your-soul-life-is-hard school of songwriting and it's not surprising that Nick Drake was once a close friend, to whom he dedicated Solid Air. Though he's covered more political topics, expressing his socialist and pacifist beliefs, he's on record as saying 'other people keep diaries, I write songs',3 and most of his songs appear autobiographical. Does he feel that angst and pain are the best breeding grounds for good songs?
'Well, I do have to admit that I still think that Grace & Danger is my best album, purely in terms of the quality of the songs. All my life I've only written about things that happen to me or about my political beliefs. But my frame of reference has changed. Years ago I was inspired by Terry Riley's Rainbow In Curved Air: very meditational, kind of like early new age, and I suppose that mood transferred to my records. The same things still happen to me, and my political beliefs haven't changed either, but today I'm more into swinging, funky stuff. I'm also more open to write about anything that comes out of the mental woodwork, but I try to stay out of trouble these days. I'm trying to get out of public angst. It gets a fucking bore after a while.'
The brief mention of new age was probably a mistake, because Martyn appears to have found another red rag: 'I just... fucking can't... oooh... sensitive new age guuuys... I can't handle it at all. I swear to God, with a minimum of talent you could make five of those albums a day. No question! Put a drone in, give somebody a synth, tell him to play in C all the way through and stop when the tape is finished. Utterly disposable. But the wonderful thing is that it is so utterly disposable that it will be utterly disposed of. In ten years time it will all be forgotten.'
Martyn might be at the sort of age where contemporaries are thinking of hanging up their microphones and settling into middle-aged hippiedom but he's still aggressively searching to finally take control of his own life. He's planning to keep the rights to his future albums himself and release them through individual licensing deals, he also has vague plans to start his own label. He says he's 'completely fed up with retrospective albums - I'm not even dead yet!' and eager to 'get down to writing new songs as soon as possible'. Whether anything will really change for Martyn is another question. Does he feel that there's an injustice in his situation? That if he were more commercially successful, he probably wouldn't have these problems?
But Martyn vehemently shakes his head: 'I don't feel unrecognised or underrated or unsuccessful at all. I've been lucky. I'm not suffering from malnutrition, my children are almost all grown up and happy and had or are having a good education. I have no complaints.' So how many children does he have then? There's a long silence before Martyn shyly whispers something barely audible: '...11...'. And from four women it seems. Here's hoping his career remains as fertile.
1 Actually it was 1964.
2 John is referring here to And. (1996)
3 The actual quote is 'Some people keep diaries, I make records.' (Chas Keep).
'Zen guitarist' Paul Tingen has a website of his own.
ullo john, got an old martin?
John Martyn has few guitars, but the few he has are outstanding. For starters, there are his two Goldtop Les Pauls, a '54 and a '55. Martyn has no idea of their value, because both guitars were given to him - one by Joe Walsh, the other by Paul Kossoff. His acoustic workhorse is a '68 D28 Martin. He also plays a '65 Guild F118 - 'a very heavy, big guitar which was also given to me.'
Martyn's favourite amp is a Roland JCI20 - 'I love those. I'm thinking of going up to a 180, just to get a bit more of a heavy sound, something with a bit more balls.'
Effects-wise, he favours an Alesis GT4 delay for live work, plus 'any other pedal that I happen to like at a certain moment. I like to vary my setup.'
These days, his use of effects is rather modest, though Martyn was well known in the early '70's for applying efects to his acoustic guitar, particularly tape loops, phase shifters and the Echoplex. 'I still love all that stuff,' he admits. 'The Echoplex was a very early delay that worked with a two minute tape that went round and round. It's incredibly noisy but the thing about it is that it's incredibly quick and easy to work with. You can go from one groove to another in a fraction of a second, using just one hand. I still have two at home but they're too unreliable to use live. I also like the Rat fuzzbox and every single pedal made by Electro-Harmonix is fantastic - I was really annoyed when they went out of business. They were noisy, too, but they were good, man! - just twist them any way you want and you get a good sound. Great stuff and very cheap - a fuzzbox would cost you about $29 and it did everything. I still go to second-hand shops to search them out.'
beat little mysteries
John Martyn's guitar style is characterised by three things: the percussive slap effect, his elaborate hammer-on and pull-off technique and the unusual tuning he uses. His gutsy slap technique consists of hitting the guitar strings on every 2nd and 4th beat of the bar with his right hand, causing a clicking sound, and sometimes he will pull up the bass strings with his thumb and let them pop. Despite his tendency to play down his skill on the guitar, he's aware of his value here.
'I invented that 2 and 4 stuff!' he laughs. 'Well, at least I think I did because I can't remember anyone playing like that before me. But now you hear it all over the place. Once you get into it, it's really a natural thing. And it helps you keep time.' The '2 and 4' technique has, of course, the disadvantage that you can't pluck notes on beats 2 and 4, so some players have developed a way of kicking the bridge with the little or ring finger, thus keeping the other fingers free to play.
Martyn has found another solution, developed from his Davey Graham-inspired fingerstyle. He lets the left hand do all the work, continuously pulling off and hammering on, right across the 2nd and 4th beats. The amazing thing is how tight and aggressive he can make this sound. Acoustic players generally like to use the 2 and 4 technique to beef up their sound and tighten their rhythm, something that's much more easily controlled with the right hand than the left (as pick players will readily acknowledge - it's part of the point of using a pick!). In Martyn's case, both hands control the rhythm in equal measure. He's transposed this technique to the electric guitar, on which he plays slap rhythm guitar, and where his solos are played with repeated hammering-on and pulling-off. The only problem comes when he presses the distortion pedal.
'My electric playing is mostly left-hand stuff, and it can result in a very confusing sound because it's not very clean. But I don't like it clean. I like to make it as rich as harmonically possible, creating lots of overtones and undertones. You do have to be really careful, though, because it's so easy to get fucked up with feedback and all that! But I'm really pleased with my electric style - I don't know anybody else who plays this shit.'
Quite. And finally, there's the tuning that John uses most of the time, both on electric and acoustic: CFCCGD (bottom to top). This is a very unusual tuning for 'rock' - perhaps Robert Fripp's CGDAEG is the closest relation as it's also in fifths. Martyn smiles: 'Fripp's tuning is a new one but mine is really traditional. Many people think it's strange but every time I play with blacks in the States they go, "Hey! you play cello tuning!" They just take it for granted. I write virtually all my songs in this tuning and on the electric guitar I play it exclusively. Only on the acoustic do I sometimes use standard tuning.'