'I have never been pigeonholed in my life.
I mean, have you seen the size of a pigeon's hole?'
(John live on WFUV radio, New York, 15 June 1998)
The music of John Martyn is highly appreciated by too few people. He had an immense influence on popular music but never got the acclaim he deserved. John had a unique talent and since his passing, no-one has been able to fill the gap. His melodies and harmonies are haunting, his playing of the guitar is catchy, and the atmosphere on his records is unique. In the course of more than forty years he has gathered a loyal cult following who used to want to know only two things: when is the new record due, and: when is John touring again in our country.
John Martyn played mainly acoustic guitar and also electric guitar. The way he combined the two was highly original. Bob Dylan got stick for turning electric, but what John did was above the imagination of the public.
On rare occasions John also dabbled with the piano, the Moog synthesiser, guitar synthesisers, clavinet and drums. For the other half his fame is built on him being a remarkable singer, who seems to use his voice in the same way as he treats his intrument. Distortion has always been a normal thing for guitars in rock music, but John also applies it to his vocals. On the newer records, John tends to focus more on singing, unfortunately forcing his guitar to the background.
By coincidence he stumbled upon his famous echoplex-technique, whereby he uses a repeating echo sound as background and counterpoint, both anticipating the decaying sounds and letting himself be surprised by the unexpected. (The multilayer technique was even applied to his singing on Carmine, And. track #8.)
Don't be mistaken by the beauty of his chords. Even on acoustic tracks like Head and Heart, or The Easy Blues, there is a remarkable force present once you hear him treating his strings. The 'backslap' (hitting the strings in order to emphasize rhythm) was discovered by him and is now rather common among guitarists. John himself says: 'Don't call it folk', and: 'I'm a funkie, not a folkie.' So listening to John Martyn means disclosing 'sweet little mysteries', but also letting him get angry at 'Amsterdam'. It is this emotional intensity and moody pureness that gave him nicknames like 'bad boy of folk' or 'Jack the lad' (Cooltide).
'There's a place between words and music,
and my voice lives right there.'
John recording career can roughly be divided into five phases.
- 1968-1970 Boy with guitar and talent (guitar era, London Conversation - The Road To Ruin)
- 1971-1975 Creative explosion (echoplex era, Bless The Weather - Live At Leeds)
- 1977-1986 Musical and commercial expansion (band era, One World - Cooltide)
- 1987-1995 Reworking and sampling (midlife crisis, Couldn't Love You More - Live)
- 1996-2009 Mature integration of new and old styles (eclecticism, And - Heaven On Earth)
The overall picture is a tendency from romance to blues, from sweetness to rawer singing, and from guitar picking to exploration of styles and sounds.
'Where are the arts? Where are the arts?
(John entering the Colchester Arts Centre, 23 October 1997)
If you have never seen a John Martyn live concert, you never saw John Martyn. His performances mostly sold out and were always attended by a loyal following of very mixed people who knew what to expect. That is: you never knew what was going to happen. John might perform solo and acoustically, or only with a percussionist, or in a trio, or with a four-piece rock line-up or a five-piece jazz ensemble. The audience didn't care: they came for John. Each new performance was a surprise, each version of a classic song unique. It might even take you rather long to discover which intro you have been listening to; the recognition of lyrics being rather difficult due to Johns slurry way of phrasing.