JOHN MARTYN GETS FILED UNDER M for Miscellaneous when it comes to the mainstream categories of popular music. His eclectic style has taken in traditional Scottish folk, picked up on blues, jazz and dub on the way, all the while retaining a distinctive personal feel. He must rank among the most unique guitar stylists this country has produced.
There have been changes recently: he left Island Records, a surprise as he was so closely associated with that label's identity alongside Steve Winwood and Bob Marley, and he has assembled a permanent band to replace the old freewheeling association with Danny Thompson. Anyone who has heard the last two albums1 will have noticed the shift from the distinctive acoustic and Echoplex sets he pioneered to a fuller all-electric band sound. But certain things remain the same - the intensely personal bitter-sweet nature of his songs and his seeming indifference to chasing the market.
The Town House Studios was the location for our meeting,2 where John is at the mixing stage of his first set for WEA, with Phil Collins at the controls.3 John is in ebullient mood - the album going well, a thriving baby son and a lot of live work lined up abroad. We were soon installed in a Shepherd's Bush local, our conversation competing for my tape's attention with Stars on 45 and a fruit machine that kept losing...
PETER MURPHY: I want to talk about what you're doing now, but first I'd like to ask about how it got to here. What are the roots of your music?
JOHN MARTYN: I'm from Glasgow and I started in folk clubs with Scottish traditional music. The folk scene was very much associated with the left wing and a lot of American stuff, the Ballad of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan all filtered through. After a while I took more interest in that than in Scottish traditional music.
P.M.: There's an obvious blues element: were you aware of the John Mayall blues thing in the early sixties?
J.M.: No, before my time, but the first music to actually get me right off was the blues. I think the first record I ever owned was by John Lee Hooker.
P.M.: From the folk/ blues origins to what you're doing today, have you been influenced by the changing music scene around you or are you following an internal development?
J.M.: That's right. I don't like the idea of waves for instance, new, old or permanent. I think it's a false idea, it's like fashion. I'm fascinated by style but I hate fashion. The music industry is a very fashionable industry, there are very clear parallels between that and the film industry and haute couture, three very similar worlds.
Discovering John Martyn's music for the first time was a joy. Bless The Weather still stands as a milestone album of the early seventies, the contrast of simple sweet melodies with the equally soulful rhythmic multi-layered sounds built up with the Echoplex. Glistening Glyndebourne in particular was a revelation. British roots meets Miles Davis!
J.M.: Yeh, that's what was happening to me, that was about the time I first listened to Miles.
P.M.: It was exciting to find the same kind of feeling, the freedom of jazz but tied into a funky rhythmic structure, although you were coming from such different directions.
J.M.: Yeah, I was quite proud of it myself!
P.M.: And then being even more amazed seeing you live, just you and Danny Thompson on string bass getting that sound to fill a hall, how did you do it?
J.M.: It's very easy: you just set the Echoplex at a fairly wide setting and you play chops between the repeats, and that's all you do. The Echoplex music doesn't actually start until the second beat, the first beat is naked, on the second it starts to happen.
P.M.: I saw you doing some gigs solo with a drum machine: I felt it was a bit mechanical for your style.
J.M.: I always try to use the very simplest settings on the bass drum, like a heart beat, and I'd try to EQ all the top off. I might not have succeeded in getting it all off, so you might have heard the very suspicion of a snare, which is the only thing that would make it mechanical. I quite like an electrical bass drum sound, it doesn't really sound like a bass drum, so as long as you divorce yourself from that idea and just think of it as a rhythmic pattern it's ok.
P.M.: Was there any precedent for what you were doing with the Echoplex?
J.M.: I had heard someone play with the echo, yes, I cannot tell a lie, but not on guitar. Terry Riley, he used to give like five hour concerts on Hammond organ and electric piano.
P.M.: Was the Echoplex sound something you set out to achieve?
J.M.: No, I bought the Echoplex actually to look for more sustain, I bought it and the fuzz box at the same time. I had the idea of playing one chord and letting it hang a very long time and improvising over it vocally, and I really discovered the rhythmic possibilities by accident, just stumbled across it.4 It's been done a lot since. I heard a side of a Pink Floyd album; it sounds very like Glistening Glyndebourne to me. Echoplex and guitar have been used by a lot of people since, that's another reason for stopping actually.
P.M.: You have always had a different attitude to recording and live work: you've never just recorded that simple bass and Echoplex sound.
J.M.: I think live gigs should be different. In this case (the new album) there are a few things that I would definitely like to keep the feel that's on the record. But then again, I can see the music changing quite radically when it's performed.
P.M.: Why was the live album you recorded5 never released by Island?
J.M.: They just didn't think the time was right.
P.M.: So you distributed it yourself?
J.M.: That's right, it was very good too, I did really well out of it.
P.M.: Did that tempt you ever to set up an indie label?
J.M.: I don't have the kind of head for that. I suppose if I was driven to it I would develop a business head but it's not the sort of thing that interests me, I'm not interested in percentages. I'm no good at it and some people are genuinely talented in that direction.
P.M.: How do you see yourself in relation to the music business - as an outsider?
J.M.: No, I don't see myself as much of an outsider now, because I made the conscious decision a year ago to get involved a bit more. I went out and got myself a manager and the rest of it, and I'm signed to a major record company and all that. You have to consider it, and I work a bit harder at it than I used to. Well, I was a hippy for years! (laughs) So it wasn't cool to have managers, and bread wasn't cool, nothing but smoking dope was cool. And another thing I inherited from the folk scene was an in-built distrust of the industry. I always equated the industry almost with the establishment.
P.M.: So what's brought the change of attitude? Do you feel you can handle it now, rather than it handling you?
J.M.: I see the whole thing in a different light. I certainly feel I can handle it now; it just takes a certain amount of grit and grinning and bearing it. What I don't like about the industry is any kind of deceit, and you see so much of it, people actually openly boast about the lies they tell, and I think that's really fuckin' stupid. I mean, I've told a few whoppers in my time, but not in business, only in my love life! (laughs) A lot of it's down to personalities and who you surround yourself with and who you trust and who you don't.
P.M.: Do you feel as much part of what's happening now as in the late sixties?
P.M.: Do you have any particular affection for the late sixties?
J.M.: No, the late sixties was too silly for me. I always thought it was silly at the time, although I was right into it. It was just too silly: hee, hee, hee and let's blow up another balloon. I prefer the early seventies, '74, '75, for me was a very expansive time; I got into a lot more music and I got into a lot more travelling about, I enjoyed that.
P.M.: It must be nice to have a loyal cult following, but does it pay the bills?
J.M.: There have been times when I've been absolutely skint, but I've always been able to hold body and soul together. I've never found any real difficulty in making my living out of music. The first time I went bust was because of the stupidity and ineptitude of someone else. I just entirely trusted a manager who appeared and said "I'm sorry but from tomorrow there's no more rent being I paid, you're not on a salary, and by the way I'm going to America".6 That was my first major upset and I vowed then it would never happen again and it never has.
P.M.: Do you consciously stick to what you feel you've got to do, rather than trying to make hit singles? Presumably you would be delighted to have a hit single?
J.M.: I would be overjoyed, I'd giggle all the way to Lloyds and back!
P.M.: Do you keep an eye on the market?
J.M.: No, I don't adjust my music to suit any particular vagary. I'm just not into wavering with the breeze, I mean there's no point in going along for eleven years and then suddenly turning round and selling out, because that's what you'd be doing. It would be stupid wouldn't it?
P.M.: And you would lose that loyal cult following.
J.M.: I don't think there's a chance of that with this album. (laughs)
P.M.: Are you recording with the same line up as for the Dominion gigs?7
J.M.: With the exception that Phil Collins is playing drums on the album as well as producing.
P.M.: What can he do for you as a producer? Your material and your interpretation of it is so personal that I would have thought it difficult for anyone to get in there and tell you anything!
J.M.: Well, he can say, "you can sing that better, would you sing that with a little less anger, this word deserves a bit more attention, how does this drum sound to you" ... basically sounds and performance. I'm my own worst critic. I find it's impossible to be objective about my own music. I become either hypercritical and will sit there for hours tearing it to pieces, or I take the opposite tack entirely, like it doesn't matter a fuck, and really you want someone who lies right in the middle.
P.M.: It must take a lot of trust to accept someone else's judgment.
J.M.: If you can trust them musically, and I trust Phil absolutely. But not a lot of people, there are a lot of so-called producers around that I don't think actually are worth their salt.
P.M.: Is your band now a permanent working unit?
J.M.: Well, as permanent as any band can be, that's the intention.
P.M.: In the past it's always been John Martyn with Danny Thompson, or a backing band or a drum machine, but you're always very much the front man. Do you ever see yourself sinking your identity into a band, or is the music too personal?
J.M.: I think it's too personal for that. My idea was originally to integrate myself more into a band thing, to play a supportive role myself rather than being supported, whereas we play like a band, but I'm undoubtedly the band leader.
P.M.: Was it a difficult decision, something you've avoided in the past, getting a band together?
J.M.: I never could get the money together, or the support. Since my divorce I've had a little more freedom. When you're not on the road with a band you've got to be rehearsing with them or breaking the new material, so there's not much time off now. I used to take about three months off a year, just not working at all, and whereas it was very comfortable, and good for my songwriting, there's no need to do that now, I find it more absorbing to work.
P.M.: It must have been a big decision financially.
J.M.: It's actually taken about five-sixths of my earnings away. What it does is mean you've got to live off your PRS8 and the publishing, I mean I don't make, I lose money on all the gigs now. I think all bands do though. It took me ages to accept that, I still do that with a grudge. The idea of going on and sweating and coming back poorer. It's not much poorer, like at some of the London gigs, it's ridiculous: you sell out big theatres and you come out losing £70. But eventually the idea is you sell enough records to recoup etc. etc.
P.M.: It sounds as though he's still trying to convince himself. But why this change? Reports from those Dominion gigs tell of John Martyn STANDING UP to play, and hardly an acoustic guitar in sight, what is going on?
J.M.: I'm stepping about, I only played one acoustic song, yeh it's all electric, much different.
P.M.: Getting into guitar heroics?
J.M.: No, no, I take a couple of solos, but I don't jump off speaker cabinets or leap up and down the gangway, no it's not like that! No, I don't think it is a change radically. We use lights now which I could never get into before, that and a more powerful PA, the sound is bigger that's the only difference really. Well I'd gone as far as I could with the one-man band effort, I thought, without taking almost a year off and rethinking and investigating all the gadgets that were available. And you hear so many bad one-man bands, well I do anyway, and I just don't like them. Nice to quit while you're ahead. I've said all that one-man band stuff, I've done it and I don't think anyone else can do it, so why not move on and try to do something else? I'm interested in trying to become a lead guitar player, that's another nice gig to do, it's another thing that the band allows me to do which I was never allowed to do before. I can just play lead guitar and think of solo lines rather than chordal lines, that kind of thing.
P.M.: You were very closely identified with Island Records and it came as something of a surprise to hear you had split. It must have been quite a special place to be once, with Traffic and Free and [Bob] Marley and [Burning] Spear.
J.M.: Beautiful. Well the first tour I ever did was with Traffic and Free and it was wonderful, I really loved it.9 I think it was the best of the independents, whether it still is I don't really know. The reason that I split from Island was purely financial, they didn't offer me what I considered to be enough money and I just got a far, far better offer.
P.M.: Was that label's reggae connection important for you?
J.M.: It was important for me to meet Scratch Perry. (With whom he co-wrote Big Muff on the One World album.) He used the Echoplex in a different context, he used it on people's voices and for me he invented dub. We use the same tools, the same love of the Echoplex and what it could do. He came and lived in my house for a while and I went by him, and that was important for me.
P.M.: I've always felt that your music is the closest thing to European dub music, without trying to consciously copy as some hands have done, just being into pure sound, like Scratch is.
J.M.: That's right, I can't tell you how highly I rate Scratch, a very talented man.
P.M.: Your vocal style also interests me in relation to dub, using your voice not just to put across the lyrics but as an integral part of the sound, the slurring and sliding.
J.M.: There's a lot of weird stuff on this album. I did a vocal on a track called Never Say Never last night and I radically altered the tone between one word and the next and it was like a badly executed drop-in, but it wasn't - I just did it straight.
P.M.: How important is it if people can't understand your lyrics?
J.M.: They should certainly understand the basis of them, and I think if they're interested enough they'll certainly work them out. I'm trying, I've had so many negative comments about diction. When I feel it's important to hear the words I think they come across, when I think it's not so important I have to struggle a little. But on one song there's a verse that unless you know the words you're going to have to really fight for it, yet there's another song where every single word is very carefully and properly enunciated.
P.M.: A lot of your material is very personal, and I find that often a feeling gets across if not specific meanings.
J.M.: Well, it's the emotional value of notes that really interests me about music. There are certain tunes that played on any instrument would make the hair on the back of your arms stand up and that to me is the power of music. I think we've suffered from the poetic fantasy, ever since Dylan, that combines poetry and music. That has been emulated and imitated by a lot of people and I think to a certain extent is a blind alley. In that it can blind people to either poetry or music, one at the expense of the other, I think it's very difficult to combine the two.
P.M.: An interesting quote of Dylan's recently was that at least with his latest album he felt he had really said it all, and now he could just go and record instrumentals. Have you ever felt that, that you've said something so personal and really got across what you want to and you don't have to say anything more? Or are words part of the necessary structure of your songs?
J.M.: This album I think is going to be very hard to follow for me, I'm very proud of this one. There's one song on it called Don't You Go. I've always wanted to write a song which is indistinguishable from the tradition. This is a purely personal thing and I think I've done it. I think if you heard this song in 20 years time and you didn't know I'd written it, you would probably think it was written about 1900 by some obscure Scotsman or Irishman and that it was part of the tradition. It's very simple melodically and lyrically, but I think it's very beautiful. It might be the best song I've ever written, and it's definitely the simplest.
P.M.: Would you release it as a single?
J.M.: I don't think so, I would love to think it was single material, in another day, another age it would be.10
P.M.: Do you ever think of potential singles when you're recording?
P.M.: What about Johnny Too Bad?
J.M.: I didn't even want that on the album! I didn't think Johnny Too Bad swung.
P.M.: That's funny because I thought it was a bit obvious, in terms of a kind of British dub music, it was a bit obvious.
J.M.: I always liked the song, but it was clumsy. It was very personal as well. You see I was getting divorced on the grounds of unreasonable conduct and all that kind of shit and it was just a great song to sing to get out of your system... It was actually only when I split from my wife and started to move around that I realised that I did have an odd reputation. People thought I was a bit loony.
P.M.: What a reputation as a hard boozer and one of the lads?
J.M.: Well, I think it was a bit worse than that! The reputation was a bit meaner than that, as a bit of a violent lunatic, which is not true. I mean I detest violence. I've had to use it on occasions but I hate it, I absolutely loathe and detest it. If I never saw another punch thrown or heard another angry voice I'd be very very pleased. And Johnny Too Bad was a way of getting out of the way, and still is.
P.M.: I was surprised that you had trouble and delays with Island putting Grace & Danger out: was it artistic problems or financial?
J.M.: Both. The new wave panic was on you see, and if you didn't swear and gob on the audience, and weren't prepared to be gobbed on, and if you were older than 18, you were really in trouble. I think there was a certain amount of personal stuff in it because I really love Chris Blackwell and we have a real nice friendship. He knew my wife and my children very very well and...
P.M.: Sounds complicated.
J.M.: Yes exactly, and he was distressed to see us break up and he didn't want the album going out because it seemed like the end of something, which it was. That's why: it distressed him on a personal level as well as a business level.
P.M.: There was an obvious sense of freedom getting out of the divorce; do you feel the same about leaving Island, because it seems that it was all very bound up, business and private life?
J.M.: Yeh, well, in fact it's all very released at the moment, very free.
P.M.: Is that good for the music?
J.M.: Yes, I think so, time will tell. At the moment I feel very good about everything I'm doing, everything feels very positive. I'm learning my own limitations, I'm annoyed by them no less than I ever have been, but you learn and go on.
P.M.: So how do you feel about the whole artistic anguish trip?
J.M.: Oh, I think that 'Domesticity is the death of the artist' - Baudelaire, not me. That I would endorse. But a happy medium would be fine for me. You have to go through a bit of shit before you can feel anything.
And so he was called back to the mixing desk. Just as he's never been out of time, by never being too much part of the passing vagaries of the music business, avoiding the faded sixties image which has attached itself to certain other fine musicians of that era, it is just possible that he might find himself right in time as his music and a wider popularity converge.
1 One World and Grace & Danger.
2 15 Goldhawk Road, Shepherd's Bush, London.
3 Glorious Fool, released in that same month (September 1981).
4 More precisely one day John put his guitar down rather clumsily on the mantelpiece with the echoplex still on. "I built part of my career on that dum, dum, dum, dum..." he told Radio 1 FM producer Jeff Griffin.
5 Live At Leeds of course.
6 Must have been Joe Boyd.
7 The Dominion concerts were 23 and 24 May 1981. The line-up must have been the Glorious Fool tour: Max Middleton (keyboards), Alan Thomson (bass), Jeff Allen (drums) and Danny Cummings (percussion).
8 PRS: PRS for Music, originally the Performing Right Society.
9 John had toured the UK before but is referring to the big American stadium tour with Traffic and Free, January and February 1973. He was not too happy in this setting, though.
10 Funnily, Don't You Go was released on a single, as flip side of Please Fall In Love With Me. The only single that was taken from Glorious Fool.
The interview was published in International Musician & Recording World of September 1981 (Vol 7, #9) and featured several pictures by Peter Murphy. The issue had Stevie Wonder on the cover and originally cost 80p. The American edition had streetdate October 1981.