At first glance, it would appear that John Martyn has been lying dormant over the past couple of years, considering that his last studio work was back in 1975 (in those glorious times when we had free festivals and punks were peculiarities who got sand kicked in their faces!). First glances, though, are invariably deceptive and you can rest assured that the dependable Martyn has been his usual busy and creative self. Granted, he disappeared to Jamaica for the best part of 1976 but, far from being a holiday, this venture can best be described as a 'sabbatical period' during which he spent some time playing with Burning Spear and was introduced to the legendary Reggae producer Lee Perry, with whom he worked for a while.
Anyway, now Martyn is back in England and preparing to embark on a major tour of the Universities, colleges and clubs, a tour that will coincide with [the] release of his forthcoming and long-awaited new album1. The album is scheduled to come out in the late autumn2 so by the time you read this article you'll probably already be raving over it, but what the hell...
Back in February John undertook quite a sizeable tour of the provinces which culminated in a sell-out gig at the now defunct New Victoria Theatre in London3. The tour was arranged to help promote his compilation album, 'So Far So Good', which contains the best of his work from previous albums and an otherwise unavailable live recording of 'I'd Rather Be The Devil', Martyn's updated version of the Skip James number (I still haven't heard the original cut - can you help?).
John has since played a few 'one off' gigs, including one at the Half Moon, Putney4, as a benefit for Scottish folk hero Hamish Imlach (who has possibly influenced Martyn's career more than anybody), one at the Battersea Arts Centre5, again a benefit gig, but this time for his long time friend and bassist Danny Thompson (once with Pentangle) who has been in and out of hospital suffering from a heart complaint. I'm sure that we all join John in wishing Danny a speedy and complete recovery and a return to his music.
John has a new tour manager now, Bruce May6, the Australian guy who also manages Bert Jansch (another ex-Pentangler) and Ralph McTell. John completed a very successful two-week tour of Australia a few months back7 and immediately followed that up by playing two consecutive nights at the Marquee on the 7th and 8th of September.
I went to see John on the first of those two nights. Now whilst he played as well as I've seen him do, and notwithstanding the excellent quad system, there still appeared to be something missing. My objectivity is modified by the Marquee itself, which in my opinion, is a poor venue for any musician not actively engaged in the advance of heavy metal aspirations. Consequently, the point I'm making is that if you really want to get full value from a John Martyn concert then get to see him at the smallest and most intimate venue you can. The essence of an ace Martyn gig is to be able to come away afterwards thinking "God, man I was really part of all that" (straight up guv) and it's for this reason I believe that the Marquee and New Vic gigs were never anything more than just good gigs.
I think that my point is emphasised by the Battersea Arts Centre event back in August5. Battersea was not a widely publicised gig for the place itself only holds a couple of hundred people, but the general atmosphere was enhanced by the added attraction of the Stan Tracey Quartet who played a well received set which finished about 9pm. It was about this time when Martyn strolled into the lobby with Bruce May, leaving the crowd upstairs unaware of his whereabouts and, as time elapsed, kinda wondering when he was going to appear on stage!
Your genial reporter utilised this sojourn to advantageous effect by joining John and Bruce downstairs for the purpose of lapping up information about the new album. Right, now there are about 16 cuts available for consideration from which, by means of a slow and deliberate process of elimination, 10 will be included on the album. I understand from John that most of the tracks will be electric, which to my mind is rather a shame for it undervalues his undoubted accoustic qualities, but the intrigue, as they say, comes from the listening and Martyn's music, in all it's forms, demands just that.
Anyway, upstairs we eventually went and in no time we found John leaping, or to be more accurate, stumbling on stage in an idiosyncratic manner that suggested that milk and barley water had not formed the basis of his earlier liquid consumption. He opened his set with 'May You Never', a number from the album 'Solid Air', and one so admirably covered by Linda Lewis8. The crowd, recognising the strong melodious opening, received the song with rapturous applause and ended with same. Audience reaction was of a similar ecstatic nature to John's follow up, 'One Day Without You' (from 'Sunday's Child'). John then proceeded to play three of his new songs and the first of these featured beautifully haunting echoplex guitar work - unlike he has ever played before.
One song had not been given a title at the time of the gig, but it's one that really must be included on the new album9. Martyn then changed the mood completely with a harsh electric number that he called (provisionally?) 'Big Muff' which he fondly dedicated to his fuzz box (???)10. No milk and Barley Water. It's truly a very fine song but it bears such a striking resemblance to another of his newies called 'The Dealer' (played earlier at the Marquee) that I just can't see the inclusion of both on the new album. In retrospect, it's conceivable that 'Big Muff' is indeed 'The Dealer' revisited, but with a few subtle changes thrown in - don't put nothing past John Martyn!
The third of these new selections was an accoustic and evocative love song, again untitled which Martyn had used as his encore at the Marquee11. The song held the crowd literally spellbound influenced, I suspect, by John's magnanimously long cigarette which itself expired without announcement.
The time was thus ripe to include some 'old goodies' into the set and these included 'Bless The Weather' and 'Make No mistake', two songs that Martyn invariably blends into one another live, a simple but effective trick. These were followed by 'Over The Hill' and then 'Solid Air', during which our hero was joined on drums by Spontaneous Music Ensembleite and Away-man, John Stevens to produce a wonderful finale.
So ended John Martyn's set and he made way for John Stevens himself and his band Away. True to form, Martyn reciprocated Stevens' earlier compliment and joined the band onstage with his guitar and an arsenal of truly superb scat vocals jamming the night 'Away' (geddit?) to way past 1 am. It's merely academic for me to report that the evening's proceedings left the exhausted crowd pretty well pleased with life and eager in their expectation of more gigs and... THE ALBUM!
So there we are - John Martyn's back in town and playing. It's like you never left mate. But do take my earlier advice and sniff him out in somewhere smaller than the Marquee, if you can. You'll be absolutely knocked out (touch wood).
|John Martyn Things|
|London Conversation||Island ILP 952||May. '6812|
|The Tumbler||Island ILPS 9091||Dec. '68|
|Stormbringer||Island ILPS 9113||Feb. '70|
|Road to Ruin||Island ILPS 9133||Nov. '70|
|Bless the Weather||Island ILPS 9167||Nov. '71|
|Solid Air||Island ILPS 9226||Feb. '73|
|Inside Out||Island ILPS 9253||Oct. '73|
|Sunday's Child||Island ILPS 9296||Jan. '75|
|So Far So Good||Island ILPS 9484||Feb. '77|
|Live At Leeds||Island ILPS 9343||Sometime in '7313|
1 One World.
2 One World indeed surfaced 4 Nov 1977.
3 The gig took place 20 February 1977.
4 Date unknown, but Hamish Imlach claims JM did organise a benefit concert in London. This was later than the first Imlach benefit on Sunday 3rd April 1977 in Glasgow, Citizens' Theatre.
5 Fond Memories Of Battersea, 30 July 1977.
6 Brother of Ralph McTell (who was born Ralph May).
7 August 1977.
8 On the album 'Not A Little Girl Anymore' (1975, Arista AL 4047). Gerry Conway plays drums, Lowell George slide guitar on this one.
9 My guess is the man is referring to Small Hours.
10 The Big Muff was a fuzz pedal produced in the seventies by Electro-Harmonics.
11 Probably Couldn't Love You More.
12 No. October 1967.
13 No. September 1975.
The issue of Déjà Vu also featured an extensive article on Nick Drake, whose picture is on the cover. It originally cost 25p.