29 Jan 2009
Singer-songwriter who played with and influenced a generation of musicians
John Martyn, who died on January 29 aged 60, may never have achieved household name status but he was one of the most revered and innovative singer-songwriters of his generation; his music – a mix of blues, folk and funk – influenced artists as varied as U2, Portishead and Eric Clapton.
Many of his albums, especially Solid Air (1973), are regarded as classics. But Martyn spent most of his career hooked on drugs and alcohol, and in 2003 he had his right leg amputated below the knee because of a burst cyst.
John Martyn was born Ian David McGeachy on September 11 1948 at New Malden, Surrey. His parents, both singers of light opera, divorced when he was five and he spent much of his childhood in Glasgow, where he lived with his grandmother and attended Shawlands Academy.
Having taught himself the guitar at the age of 15, he returned to London on leaving school and appeared regularly at Les Cousins, the Soho folk club which also launched Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch and Al Stewart. He became the first white act to be signed to Chris Blackwell's Island record label, and recorded his debut album, London Conversation, for £158 in 1968.
He began to experiment with electronic effects, notably a tape device known as the Echoplex, which provided his signature sound, and which he introduced on his second album Stormbringer! in 1970.
Martyn sealed his reputation with his album, Solid Air, described as the "musical equivalent of a reassuring hug" by Q Magazine, which named it the 67th best British album of all time in 2000. Martyn dedicated the haunting title track to his friend Nick Drake, another singer-songwriter, who died of an overdose at the age of 26 shortly after it was finished.
At this point Martyn seemed on the brink of major international success, but he was derailed by his passion for musical exploration and by an appetite for excess that bordered on self-destruction. Solid Air included his most celebrated song, the beautiful May You Never (subsequently covered by Eric Clapton and many others), and his record company anticipated a big commercial breakthrough. Yet the follow-up LP in 1973, Inside Out, was wilfully inaccessible as his interest in experimental electronics increased, and the jazz-rock fusions gave the album only limited cult appeal.
Over the next few years Martyn slid into alcoholism, his live performances punctuated by moments of incoherent drunkenness. The singer later recalled an occasion in Spain where he had been so drunk that he fell off the stage – "I still got three encores," he noted. Drugs took a toll on his personal life, and his first marriage broke up in the late 1970s.
This darkest period in his life found artistic expression in the despairing, autobiographical Grace and Danger, which was finally released in 1980 after Chris Blackwell had initially blocked it because he thought it was too upsetting and personal. Martyn himself described the record as "cathartic". Yet it yielded a restoration in his fortunes, and subsequent albums – Glorious Fool (1981), produced by Phil Collins, and Well Kept Secret (1982) – were the highest-charting records of his career.
In the late 1990s Martyn began to experiment with electronic dance sounds, and in 2001 he had a top 40 hit as a featured vocalist on Deliver Me, a dance record by Sister Bliss, keyboard player with the group Faithless.
Since losing a leg, Martyn had performed from a wheelchair but did not repine. "If I could control myself more, I think the music would be much less interesting," he told Q Magazine. "I'd probably be a great deal richer, but I'd have had far less fun and I'd be making really dull music."
His cantankerous behaviour was famous, and age did not appear to mellow him or diminish his interest in expanding the horizons of music and making musical boundaries redundant. Early on in his career he proved himself one of the most brilliant acoustic guitarists of his generation, but he was never content to rest on his laurels, taking his guitar-playing into constantly new directions, even at the cost of his commercial appeal.
Martyn hated being pigeonholed by any one musical genre and as a result remained essentially a cult hero. He never became rich, but he was hugely influential and was idolised by his peers.
He was presented with a lifetime achievement award by Phil Collins at last year's BBC Folk Awards, when he sang May You Never, backed by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. Eric Clapton sent a message saying he was "so far ahead of everything else it was inconceivable". Martyn joked: "At last I'm a celebrity."
He was appointed OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours.
John Martyn's marriage to the blues singer Beverley Kutner in 1969 ended in divorce after 10 years, and his second wife, Annie, predeceased him. He is survived by his companion, Theresa, and by the daughter of his first marriage.